Hanshi 10th dan master interviews
Getting close to the heart of the master, Walter E. Mattson sensei
Born in 1939, Walter E. Mattson discovered Shorin-ryū in his 20’s, while being in the Marine Corps stationed in the US mainland. In 1960, searching for a dōjō in his hometown of Boston, he joined the club of George Mattson and began Uechi-ryū. After his first visit to Okinawa in 1970, he developed a direct training relationship with Uechi Kanei sensei and many of his senior students.
Mattson sensei believes that the foundation of martial art is the junior senior relationship. Visiting Okinawa almost every year, he has two main purposes. “Physically, I come to ask Takara Shintoku sensei to please rid my kata performance of bad habits. Spiritually, it’s an opportunity to maintain and appreciate established friendships and to reflect upon how fortunate I am to live this life”.
As in any art, the teacher can only teach the student how to practice. If the student practices, he produces his art. “Masters Uechi and Takara taught me how to practice, so that is what I can teach others. However, just as there are several roads to get to Naha, there are several methods to learn karate. There is a right way for every student but it doesn’t have to be the same way. But Sanshin and kotekitae are two of the most important elements in our training. As late Inada Hiroshi sensei told me once, ‘The way of karate is like making mochi*: We all aspire to reach our full potential and like the rice, we have to work our bodies every day!” Mattson sensei believes that the atmosphere of a dōjō should not be overly competitive but more about cooperating together in order for each one to exceed yesterday’s limits. For him, karate training is like peeling the onion to eventually find out what is really at the core.
“During my 2nd trip to Okinawa to train with late Uechi sensei in 1973, I truly felt as if I was going to visit my grandfather. Like Uechi sensei, all the masters I met were so comfortable and so confident that there was no need for them to do anything more in order to be impressive.” While many instructors are technically proficient martial artists, he feels that the priority of his master Takara sensei, counselor Nakahodo Tsutomu sensei and close friend and spiritual mentor Nakamatsu Ken sensei is helping people to develop good moral character and good hearts. “Even now, while researching the techniques of masters Uechi and Takara, it’s not enough to learn their punch or their block. We need to study the human nature of these masters in the hope of becoming the kind of men they are”.
* Traditionally, rice cake is prepared through an intensive process where cooked rice is pounded with a pestle in a wooden mortar.
(Interview done on June 3rd, 2015 in Okinawa City)
Remembering one’s original purpose, Uehara Takenobu sensei
In 1948, Uehara Takenobu sensei started to learn karate from his father, Uechi-ryu great master Uehara Saburo. In 2013, he was designated as an intangible cultural asset holder for ‘Karate and Kobujutsu’ by the Okinawa Prefecture. Although having reached 84 years old this year, he has always tried to keep his mind as open as when he begun, earnestly speaking about karate.
Uehara sensei explains that “In the past, some intellectuals considered karate as a fighting tool. However today, it has changed and karate is now widely recognized as a martial art that emphasizes the fusion of Shin (spirit), Gi (technique) and Tai (physical strength), principles that exist in karate’s inner part. In Uechi-ryu, this can be observed in Sanchin, a kata considered the basis of basis. In karate, a martial art in which spiritual training is the foremost intention, all people are equals regardless of ideology and beliefs.”
Joining the hands to demonstrate his words, Uehara sensei goes on elaborating. “In each and every styles, traditional kata have been nurtured based on individual and specific history. In each style, there exists some small differences in the same traditional kata depending of the peculiar individualities of the respective branches. But this is approved within acceptable limits as far as it doesn't deviate from the foundation. While it might not have the showiness of competitive karate, traditional karate has its own profound beauty. I firmly believe that we have the responsibility to seriously preserve and convey traditional karate.”
When asked about his future activities, the master calmly details his thoughts. “The recognition as a cultural asset holder brings an important responsibility. I will of course keep on teaching the next generations, but would also like to support the entire karate world from the point of view of a cultural asset holder. Learning from my senior Tomoyose Ryuko sensei, who is also a cultural asset holder, I would like to support the further development of the karate circles. For example, I believe that there is a need for a structure in which operate per style liaison committees. By doing so, I think that people will once again see true karate. There are many different issues, but remembering one’s original purpose, I would like to do what I am capable of.”
During the conversation, the saying “remembering one’s original purpose” came out often. Not only preaching logic but teaching by example, Uehara sensei has been continuously hand-copying the 268 characters of the Heart Sutra every day for more than 30 years. He is close to achieving his goal of 3000 volumes. “For me, the copying of sutra and karate are identical as they both teach Mu no kokoro, or emptiness of mind. It is a discipline aiming at preserving the peace of heart. ” No doubt Uehara sensei is carrying out his own original intention.
(Interview done on March 20, 2014 at Uehara sensei dojo in Oroku, Naha City)
Preserving the Okinawans' intrinsic motions, Iha Seikichi sensei
“With the motto “Not winning, not losing”, karate is all about exchanging more than just strength and power”. The one who speaks is the direct student of Gusukuma (Shiroma) Shinpan sensei, Iha Seikichi sensei. At 82 years old, this Shorin-ryu Hanshi 10th dan still today exerts himself in passing on and promoting the technique and spirit of karate in Lansing, his city of adoption in Michigan US and around the world.
“Through cooperation, what is important is the mutual elevation of karate level.” It shouldn’t be about bringing up people with much strength but rather, to realize that the purpose of karate is to choose the way of long-life budo, capitalizing on individual’s distinctive characteristic and treasuring friendship. “If you want to make friends, you have no time to make enemies!” Certainly, a way of martial art that leads to world peace.
Iha sensei has leaved more than 40 years overseas. When asked about karate popularization he answers, “Instructors should attach much importance in deepening their relationship of mutual trust with others. Having created such an environment, it is essential to acknowledge movements and actions that are reasonable.” So to speak, instruction from instructor to the group as well as from the group to the instructor.
When asked his opinion on the situation of karate in Okinawa, Iha sensei says, “Recently, it seems that sport karate is becoming more and more important. The movements of karate kata are punches, kicks, blocks, taisabaki, etc. There is no wabadi*. It is important to practice each and all moves as accurately as possible devoting mind and soul to the practice. Also, the eyes, the making of a fist, the martial attitude, kukuchi within karate; all these aspects must be preserved. Kukuchi implies an action that is executed synthetically in a proper way. Timing, impact and balance are what determine a movement done with kukuchi. Also, in original karate the way to move koshi (waist/hips) as if it is the axis is an essential aspect. Practitioners should strive to produce natural movements through much research and thinking."
Ready to face anyone in order to explain his technique, Iha sensei has inherited the teachings of his predecessors with “harmony” as a keynote. To the famous saying of Miyahira Katsuya sensei “Coexistence and co-prosperity”, he has added the word “Research” and thus keeps guiding and teaching, pursuing the way of fundamental Okinawa karate. In a time of much confusion, Iha sensei stands for many karate people like a lighthouse in the dark sea.
* Over motion in Uchinaguchi, Okinawan language.
(Interview done on October 29, 2013 at Iha sensei's house in Nishihara Town)
Living with the spirit of "Today is the last day", Yasuda Tetsunosuke sensei
If you happen to meet him at the corner of a street, Mr. Yasuda Tetsunosuke will remind you of a gentleman of old time Okinawa. In the post war Okinawa, he worked on US military facilities before opening his own real estate company named Yasuda Jutaku Co., Ltd that he still runs today. While at a first sight you might not notice it, the life of CEO Yasuda was supported by karate and yoga.
Born in 1926, Yasuda sensei became a student of Miyazato Eichi sensei, a direct student of the founder of Goju-ryu, Miyagi Chojun sensei. As he explains, "The reason why I chose Goju-ryu is because this school had the breathing kata Sanchin and Tensho. This is because I studied the way of breathing through Yoga."
Having encountered psychology at university, Yasuda sensei has always lived a life where severe karate training and Bushido way of thinking are like the two wheels of a bicycle.
Yasuda sensei truly believes that "It is important to face oneself in an honest way. Unfortunately, in the case of many karate people, they are focusing on the outside aspects of karate. That is why when I look at martial arts today, I can not stop thinking that it has gotten out the way of Budo. Ideally, if one practices karate thinking of it as a way to build himself, he will find his Ikigai, his purpose in life". He goes on saying that "Human beings should follow the principles of the Kamikaze units, living as if today was the last day of their life. This concept should prevail for life but also in karate and never be forgotten."
To the question what is the most important thing in karate, Yasuda sensei answers frankly, "Tanden no kyoka and Kiso tanren, respectively the strengthening of the tanden and basic training. I can't conceive that an animal could do something but a man could not!" And at 87, Yasuda sensei, the Saiko Komon or supreme advisor of the Jundokan Sohombu, doesn't only speak about theory but also applies it. Grabbing a 20 kg weight and holding it behind his head, he executes easily some 30 sit-ups. And when finished, he goes back to instructing with a healthy smile on his face...
(Interview done on October 22, 2012 in Urasoe City)
True karate is about respecting seniors, Miyagi Minoru sensei
"When I was 19, I had no interest in karate. However, Irei Seiki, a classmate from Yomitan Senior High School took me to the Kadena Dojo located not far from my parents' home. This is how I became a student of Shinjo Seiyu sensei." Telling the story is Miyagi Minoru sensei, 70 years old. Minoru sensei was promoted 10th dan in December 2010 by the Okinawa Uechi ryu Karatedo Hozonkai.
"Karate then and karate today has changed quite a lot." In the past, as recall Miyagi sensei, students repeat endlessly kata with full power, with the instructor correcting the performance according to bunkai-applications. Today, it seems that speed and beauty are the main factors prevailing. "I am deeply saddened by the fact that the meaning of karate has changed and that kata are being destroyed."
When asked if shiai (sparring) was practiced, sensei answers "Of course, but by correctly practicing kata, fighting is not needed." In karate, especially in Uechi ryu, the importance is placed on body forging and character building more than beautification. By knowing pain, you understand people's pain. This way, it becomes impossible to use karate in a harmful way. By building a strong spirit and body, in case of an assault, the idea is to damage naturally the other party by defending only. This is what Miyagi sensei means by "Karate that does not need fighting"! Shinjo Seiyu sensei used to repeat "Shobu ha, Issho Ichido" (A fight occurs only once in a lifetime). By this, he meant the importance of building a spirit that does not use karate. This is the difference between "Bu - martial art" and "Sport".
Finally asking Miyagi sensei about the tradition, he replies "Kata should be passed on without a single change; meanwhile, a karateka should develop his own techniques. If the master teaches you one, you should research 9!" Also, Miyagi sensei believes that in karate, intelligence and academic studies are not what matter; what matters is the technical research. On top of this, if karate people are to preserve the principles of "Respecting one's superiors" and "Refraining from haughtiness," he believes that true traditional karate will be passed on to posterity.
(Interview done on May 14, 2011 at the Takashiho Dojo in in Yomitan Village)
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