Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Chibana Chosin Sensei: An Interview With Pat Nakata Sensei In March 2010

Below is an interview I conducted about Shorin Ryu founder Chibana Chosin Sensei with my instructor Pat Nakata Sensei, who was his direct student. This took place in March of 2010.

John Oberle (JO): Let us begin by discussing a little about the life of Chibana Chosin Sensei. I have seen many variations of the name of his birthplace, such as Torihori, Tottori-cho, toribora, etc. What can you tell us about his hometown?

Pat Nakata Sensei (PN): Chibana Chosin was born in Torihori village, which is located in the Shuri area of Okinawa. In Okinawa, I heard only Torihori and those that pronounce it as Tori-bori were usually Naichi (mainland Japanese). It is humorous when so-called Chibana Shorin-ryu practitioners say that Sensei was born in Tottori-cho, which is in mainland Japan.

PN: Before I go any further on this particular subject, I would like to say that much of my information is from Masahiro Nakamoto and his book, "Okinawa Traditional Old Martial Arts". I consider Nakamoto Sensei the foremost authority on teachers from the Shuri area, especially the ones from Torihori. Nakamoto Sensei writes that originally Torihori was called Tunjumui. Torihori was a residential area where many of the nobility lived.

PN: Around 1868, during the Meiji Restoration, the king was deposed and the nobility, which included most of the Torihori residents, were without a job or support. At the time, the neighboring Sakiyama Village was the most prosperous since they previously enjoyed exclusive rights under the King to brew awamori (Okinawan Sake). The Torihori families decided to become sake brewers. Torihori then became known for its sake brewing.

JO: That is an area known for many martial artists. What can you tell us about Chibana Sensei's family?

PN: The foremost authority on teachers from Torihori is Nakamoto Masahiro Sensei. According to Nakamoto Sensei, Chibana Chosin Sensei's family lineage was called the family of Sho Ko Toku, the fifth son of King Sho Shitsu. Chibana Sensei's father was one of the most successful sake brewers. Chibana Sensei's uncle, Chibana Choso, was a student of Matsumura Sokon and was a well-known Karate teacher.

PN: During the Second World War at the time of the American invasion, Chibana Sensei lost his wife and son. Chibana Sensei later took a second wife, but this tragedy had a lasting impact and Chibana Sensei rarely spoke of the war.

JO: How did Chibana Sensei begin his training?

PN: Chibana Sensei told me that he started training when he was thirteen years old, but I am not sure who his teachers were. As he has stated in most of his interviews, at fifteen years old, he dropped out of school and went to request tutelage from Itosu Anko Sensei.

JO: What can you tell us of his training with Itosu Sensei?

PN: I will touch on it. Talking about his training with Itosu Anko Sensei would fill a book. When Chibana Sensei started training with Itosu Sensei, he was first taught the Naihanchi no Kata Shodan. This was the only Kata that he was taught for 6 months. He was required to practice this Kata for 6 months and perform it 200 times a day. This was Itosu Sensei's way of testing his will and commitment.

JO: It is often noted that Chibana Sensei ended his formal education early. Have you heard of him receiving any other kind of education after this?

PN: Yes. Itosu Anko Sensei was a very educated man, having formerly been the king's scribe. Since Chibana Sensei was with him every day, he taught Chibana Sensei reading, writing (including calligraphy), and arithmetic in addition to Karate.

JO: How did Chibana Sensei run his classes? I heard towards the end of his life, he only taught Naihanchi Sandan and Pinan Godan. Is this true?

PN: I am not sure how Chibana Sensei ran his classes in the early days. When I trained with him at the dojo, we as a group would do the Kihon no Kata Shodan, Nidan, and Sandan, followed by Naihanchi no Kata Shodan, Nidan, and Sandan. I use the "no Kata" in Kihon "no" Kata, but Chibana Sensei would just say the Kata name such as Kihon Shodan. If it were your first night, Chibana Sensei would have you follow him as he performed Kihon Shodan, immediately after the class performed the opening series. If it was your second night, you would do the Kihon Shodan with the class, then Chibana Sensei would have you follow him on Kihon Nidan. Kihon Sandan would be the same. On the fourth night, you would start the Naihanchi Shodan and move on to the Naihanchi Nidan after a month. There was a 1 month interval for each Naihanchi Kata and Pinan Kata. For the Patsai Kata, Kusanku Kata, and Chinto, there were 2 month intervals.

PN: After the opening series with the whole class, Chibana Sensei would work with everyone individually, except for those that had completed all of the Kata. After you finished the Kihon Kata, Chibana Sensei would not correct you individually. It would be same with Naihanchi. After you completed the Pinan series, Chibana Sensei did not call on you to perform the Pinan Kata. If you wanted to review the Pinan Kata, you would join in with the student(s) at that level as Chibana Sensei called them up.

PN: After you have completed all of the Kata, you would be called to perform with the group, which would be 2 Kata selected from Patsai, Kusanku, and Chinto. On the Naihanchi and Pinan, Chibana Sensei would have you perform 3 of these Kata. If you were learning the Kata, Chibana Sensei would perform it himself and have you follow him. So, after the opening series, Chibana Sensei would work with the beginners to the advanced. Completing the round would be the group that had learned all of the Kata. Normally, there were 2 rotations, but on a smaller class attendance night, he would do 3 rotations. To complete our evening practice we would do the Kihon and Naihanchi as we did in the opening series.

PN: That I know of, Chibana Sensei taught all 16 Kata until his last class. I had never heard of him doing otherwise.

JO: Was there any difference between the way Chibana Sensei taught his classes and the way he taught privately?

PN: I am not sure what you mean by differently. There was a big difference in intensity. At the dojo, the corrections were spread among 10 to 30 people, but during the day, I was alone and each move was scrutinized by Chibana Sensei. One-on-one Chibana Sensei could really explain the application and meaning of the moves. Because of my limited Japanese, Chibana Sensei did a lot of demonstrating so I could understand. On many of the Kata moves, he taught me to perform it differently from everyone else, including himself. At the same time he would explain the reason for the different methodology. In most cases it was much more effective. I must admit though, that it took me many (10 to 20) years to understand much of the explanations.

JO: What kind of advice did Chibana Sensei have for his karate students?

PN: Chibana Sensei gave much advice, but I would like to stress that Chibana Sensei was not a philosopher. He did not go around philosophizing. Chibana Sensei was a Confucianist. He was a "middle of the roader", a moderate. He normally "preached" moderation. Like: "Train hard, but do not over do it", "You can consume alchohol, but know your limits, and stop before you reach that limit". In other word do not go to extremes.

JO: What was Chibana Sensei's attitude towards kata as a teaching tool?

PN: When I asked Sensei on how to improve my fighting skills? He said to practice my Kata. To Sensei, Karate without Kata is not true Karate. Within the Kata are the fighting techniques of the the past teachers. Through the Kata practice one discovers the true meaning of combat.

JO: To what extent did Chibana Sensei explain the meanings behind movements in the kata? Were these the meanings he learned from Itosu Sensei?

PN: Sensei always said that if the basic movement was a punch, then do it strong. If the movement is a block, then do a strong block and likewise for kicks and strikes. Normally, he taught that most movements had 3 meanings. First, there was the basic movements, followed by the grappling type techniques, and ultimately vicious use of nerve points and/or joint breaking techniques. Most of what Chibana Sensei taught came from Itosu Sensei.

JO: How did Chibana Sensei feel about making modifications to kata?

PN: Chibana Sensei often said, "Kata was created and refined by the great past masters. Who am I to change such a great tradition?" As mentioned in Shuguro Nakazato's book, Chibana Sensei tried to teach the Kata exactly how he learned it from Itosu Sensei. Chibana Sensei repeated this to most of his direct students.

JO: What was your impression of the way Chibana Sensei performed his kata?

PN: Chibana Sensei's performance of Kata was very precise and refined. There were no extras, no frills, and no unnecessary movements. His Kata was very "clean".

JO: Did Chibana Sensei ever explain things in terms of “hard and soft” or “circular and linear”?

PN: Chibana Sensei never explained techniques in the context of "hard and soft " nor "circular and linear". In fact this type of discussion are more common with modern day Karateka. In the old school, especially in Shorin-ryu, more time was spent training than intellectualizing.

JO: Did Chibana Sensei ever explain how he came up with the name "Shorin Ryu" for his style of karate?

PN: The Ti that was practiced in Shuri (Shuri-te ([ti]) was often referred to as Shorin, which in Mandarin was Shaolin. These characters were sukunai (少 "small in number") and hayashi (林 "forest"). This read as sukunai hayashi or shorin.

PN: Chibana Sensei did not use the sukunai character, but instead he changed it to ko (小 "small or young"), when he named his style. Chibana Sensei felt that the ti practiced and taught in Shuri, were techniques that had become indigenous to Okinawa or Shuri and no longer resembled the Chinese methods. The Chibana Chosin Karate can be considered as orthodox Shuri-te.

JO: How did Chibana Sensei determine his kata curriculum?

PN: When Chibana Sensei contemplated teaching Karate, he approached his teacher, Itosu Anko Sensei to discuss his Kata curriculum that he want were he to teach. He apparently told Itosu Sensei that Itosu Sensei had far too many Kata. Itosu Sensei must have agreed with Chibana Sensei and told him to teach the core Kata, which came up to 12 Kata. He instructed Chibana Sensei to retain the Matsumura Patsai and call it Patsai Dai and his (Itosu) Patsai would be Patsai Sho, which brought the total to 13 Kata. Chibana Sensei considered only these 13 Kata as "pure" Shuri-te.

PN: Chibana Sensei felt that he needed some introductory Kata, other than Naihanchi. He developed 3 Kihon Kata which brought his curriculum to 16 Kata.

JO: I notice Gojushiho was not considered a pure Shuri-te kata so it was not part of his curriculum, yet many of Chibana Sensei’s students teach different versions of this kata. What can you tell us of Chibana Sensei’s knowledge of Gojushiho?

PN: Gojushiho was not considered to be a core Itosu Kata, so it was not included into Chibana Sensei's curriculum. Yes, Chibana Sensei considered it as Naha-te (Number Kata and taught in China, then brought to Okinawa). Most of the senior Chibana students trained with other instructors and learned their Gojushiho from their respective teachers. I don't think that they teach different versions, but rather do it with slight differences in interpretations. They all do their interpretation of the Matsumura Gojushiho. Chibana Sensei taught me the Itosu no Gojushiho. He showed me the difference between the Itosu Gojushiho and the Matsumura Gojushiho.

JO: There are two versions of the Patsai and Kusanku kata in the Shorin Ryu curriculum. Where did the different versions come from?

PN: Chibana Sensei said that originally there was only one Patsai. The original Patsai was the Matsumura Patsai. How Matsumura Sensei came upon this Kata is unknown. The Tomari (Matsumora / Oyadomori) version is a takeoff of the Matsumura Patsai. Itosu Sensei's Patsai is a takeoff of the Tomari and Matsumura Patsai.

PN: Before Itosu Sensei created the Pinan Kata, the Naihanchi Kata was taught and immediately followed by the Kusanku Kata. Both of the Kusanku Kata were too long and too difficult for the younger students. This is the reason for the creation of the Pinan Kata.

PN: Chibana Sensei did not make any distinction between the Kusanku Sho and Kusanku Dai. It is believe by most historians that the Kusanku Sho was created by Itosu Sensei and the Kusanku Dai is originally from Tudi Sakugawa, with the other being the Yara Kusanku. Both Sakugawa and Yara were brother students of Kusanku.

JO: So Chibana Sensei learned both Kusanku Sho and Kusanku Dai from Itosu Sensei?

PN: Of course, Kusanku Sho and Kusanku Dai were considered 2 of Itosu Sensei's 12 core Kata.

JO: I have heard varying theories on the origins of the Pinan kata. Did Chibana Sensei ever explain how they originated?

PN: Chibana Sensei said that the Pinan Kata was created, because when Itosu Anko Sensei introduced Karate into the school system, he found that the Kusanku Kata was too long and too difficult for the younger students. After introducing the Pinan Kata, on the second year Itosu Sensei realized that another Kata (Pinan) was needed for the students who had already learned the Pinan (Shodan). Thus, the second (Nidan), third (Sandan), fourth (Yondan), and fifth (Godan) were added. This may explain the reason that the Pinan Shodan is about the most difficult of the 5 Pinan Kata.

JO: There is much talk about "traditional karate" versus the "modern karate" that was first introduced into the Okinawan public school system. During his lifetime, some would note differences between "Okinawan karate" and "Japanese karate". Did Chibana Sensei ever discuss or remark upon these differences?

PN: Chibana Sensei never discussed or made a distinction between modern and traditional Karate. Contrary to what has been written, he never made a distinction between sports Karate and traditional Karate. He strongly believed that all Karate is Okinawan.

JO: Did Chibana Sensei ever use the makiwara post as a teaching tool?

PN: Chibana Sensei encouraged hitting the makiwara to develop power and timing. For Chibana Sensei the makiwara was more of a training tool, rather than a teaching tool.

JO: Did Chibana Sensei practice any weaponry?

PN: Chibana Sensei did learn weaponry, but we don't know from who (possibly from Tawata Shinjo)? When I mentioned to Chibana Sensei that I was learning Kobudo from Nagaishi Sensei, he told me to bring my weapons so he could show me the basics. I bought a set for Chibana Sensei, since he did not have any weapons. (set: Bo, Sai, Nunchaku and Tonfa) After about 2 weeks, I suggested to Chibana Sensei that we concentrate on just Karate. Sensei agreed and he returned the weapons. I told him that the set was for him. He insisted that he had no use for the weapons and that I should keep it for my own use.

JO: What were Chibana Sensei's thoughts on sparring?

PN: Chibana Sensei cautioned that sparring may be detrimental to actual combat. For safety, in sparring we need to pull our punches, strikes and kicks, which will handicap you in actual combat. Sensei never discouraged sparring, as long as we understood that sparring and actual combat were two different things.

JO: Did Chibana Sensei ever express his wishes regarding his organization after he passed away?

PN: Chibana Sensei in 1965, told me that upon his passing that his number 2 grandson, Akira would head Chibana Sensei's Okinawa Shorin-ryu Karatedo Association and take the Chibana name (I believe that Akira's name was Nakazato [not related to Shugoro]).

JO: What kind of person was Chibana Sensei outside of his karate training?

PN: Chibana Sensei was very kindly and approachable. Whether it was at the dojo, at home, or in public, Chibana Sensei was always the same.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Thank you so very much for sharing this wonderful interview you had with Nakata Sensei!

The historical information contained in it is priceless!

In Friendship,

Danny Emerick
Tallahassee, Florida