A Remarkable Exponent of the
Uechi Ryu form of Karate
A special Dragon Times ONLINE interview conducted in November 1996, at the studio of Tsunami Productions in Oxnard, California.
Handing me his card rather formally, he said that he practised Ryokokaku karate and also taught kobudo. After a brief conversation in which we exchanged references, I realized that he had trained with many of the top Uechi Ryu teachers in Okinawa, and therefore was in all probability a very talented karate instructor. His appearance was, however, puzzling to me. His hands and feet were so very small, and his body so slim and apparently delicate, one had to wonder just what his karate was like.
I asked, "Would you please give me a small demonstration of Uechi Ryu?"
He replied, "We don't call it Uechi Ryu anymore because it displeases one particular member of the Uechi family, but yes, I will show you what I do. I will perform Sanchin."
Removing his jacket, shirt and tie, he tied up his long grey hair more tightly with the hair pin worn by all men in Okinawa at one time, and stood motionless for a moment or two. "Sanchin," he growled, then suddenly, hunching forward slightly and thrusting his arms violently down at his sides, he began a transformation that would rival in dramatic effect the metamorphosis of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.
His body became instantly hard with a tension that defies description; sinews grew from nowhere and became steel cords; muscles swelled from the torso and solidified under my gaze; the eyes were transformed into ferocious slits from which shone malevolence, and from within nature's most dangerous creation--the creature that walks upright--came the primordial sound of the beast mustering its physical and mental power in preparation for a fight to the death. I felt the hair on the back of my neck rising, as my primordial instincts reacted to the sight before me.
I felt as one does when the beloved family pet, who will willingly endure mashed potatoes in both ears providing the kids will let him eat it afterwards, becomes a wolf in defence of his pack; a snarling mass of tensed muscle and bared fangs to whom no reason will appeal.
This was not the pasteurized, shrink-wrapped and sanitized kata of the ladies synchronized demonstration team, complete with squeaky kiai. This was the way things were in a previous time when diplomacy and reason failed; when the court of justice was ruled by the logic that sprang from the hands and feet of the strongest fighter.
Almost as soon as it had begun, it was over. My visitor changed back into the uniform of today's corporate warrior--on this occasion pinstriped grey flannel--and, as if nothing had transpired, bid me good-bye, and left. The impression he made on me was a lasting one which is why I followed up with a request for an interview.
Dragon Times Interviewer: When and where were you born, Gushi sensei?
Shinyu Gushi: I was born in Okinawa just before World War II. My father was killed in the fighting in 1945, and I was brought up by my mother who is still alive.
Dragon Times: How did your interest in karate begin.
Shinyu Gushi: I was always small so the other boys at school would give me a hard time. I was not strong, but resolved to do something about that. When I was fifteen I started training at the dojo of Saburo Uehara in Oroko City who was Uechi Kanbun sensei's top student.
Dragon Times: How was training at that time?
Shinyu Gushi: Very different from now. It was very severe. I did Sanchin and almost nothing else for the first six months. The only other thing we practised was some basics and some of the more difficult sequences of techniques in Sesan. It's difficult for students these days to understand that what we practised was real karate. It had no sporting elements, we learned to fight that's all.
Dragon Times: Your Sanchin kata is tremendous, is this part of the fighting strategy of your style.
Shinyu Gushi: Of course! The reason that we practised Sanchin for at least six months was to make our bodies strong and capable of taking punishment. If your Sanchin is good, you can protect your whole body with the exception of the face. If your opponent cannot hurt you enough to stop you fighting he will loose. See (tensing the muscles around the neck so they looked like a thick strand of rope wound around beneath his chin) even if I am hit here (indicating his vulnerable throat by hitting it with his fist) I can protect myself with Sanchin.
Dragon Times: Would you say that Sanchin is the most important kata.
Shinyu Gushi: Yes! If you only studied Sanchin kata that would be enough for any karate man. It has everything.
Dragon Times: I saw your high school photo and your muscle development was really splendid, and still is. Is this due to Sanchin?
Shinyu Gushi: Fundamentally yes, although you must study basics and exercise your body as well. Sanshin is important because it allows you to build a shield of muscle that you can use at will, and that will both protect your body and give you a lot of power to attack with. I am ashamed for you to see me now, I do not have the physique I once had. (unnecessary but nonetheless very welcome modesty from a man whose body would be the envy of men thirty years younger, and that appears to be machined from steel).
Dragon Times: When you started training did you have to pay a dojo fee?
Shinyu Gushi: I wouldn't call it as fee as such, rather a very small contribution towards expenses. We trained at Uehara Sensei's house, which was common at the time, people didn't really have dojos as such. When we became more skillful we would help teach the juniors, and take classes when the sensei couldn't, and that became our contribution rather than money. Real martial arts is not a business, it's usually practised in small groups as we still do today.
Dragon Times: How often did you train?
Shinyu Gushi: I would train for several hours at school, originally I did Shorin Ryu, then I would go straight to the dojo after school to continue my training. I trained about four hours each day, six days a week.
Dragon Times: I understand that you studied with Seiyu Shinjo as well.
Shinyu Gushi: That's right I did. I studied kata with him a lot. Then he moved to Kadena which was too far for me to travel so I started training with Seiko Itokazu Sensei who was the head of the Pangai Noon, (the original name of the style that Kanbun Uechi brought back from China). I was an instructor by this time, and was aware therefore that karate was already changing.
Dragon Times: What do you mean by changing?
Shinyu Gushi: Well, in 1958 our first dan grade examinations in Okinawa were held. We were told to attend by our respective instructors and were examined by a large number of seniors for basics and kata performance. Then we were told to fight each other.
Dragon Times: What form did the examination take?
Shinyu Gushi: We did Sanchin while seniors instructor tested us (shime) by hitting and punching us as we performed the Kata. Then we did Sanseru in front of the seniors, then they told us to fight.
Dragon Times: What do you mean by "fight?"
Shinyu Gushi: It was nothing like now. We were always taught in the dojo just to attack the enemy and beat him. We didn't assume a stance and then circle warily. We went straight at each other, and using Sanchin, tried to avoid injury while beating up the opponent. Only direct strikes to the face were forbidden, everything else was allowed, so we attacked with everything we had and a lot of students were injured. The problem was that the instructors who were supposed to be conducting the grading became so enthralled with the fighting that they would forget to stop us. Only when one of the pair of combatants started to take a real beating would they remember to intervene, and by that time ten minutes of no holds barred fighting had taken their toll.
Dragon Times: I'm not clear about the rules for the sparring.
Shinyu Gushi: We were allowed to hit full power to any target with any technique except the face. We could attack the opponent's face, but not make contact.
Dragon Times: What techniques were used most often?
Shinyu Gushi: Well we used everything. Sokuto kicks were used, hand techniques like the dragon strike to the throat, it was a fight rather than sparring.
Dragon Times: How did you do at the grading?
Shinyu Gushi: All right! I survived the battles and was graded second dan but when I look back I have to view this as the beginning of the change in Karate. Until this point we practised in the dojo individually under the supervision of a senior--there were no organized classes as such, or grades. We practised techniques that the first grading in 1958 showed all too clearly were far too dangerous to use in competition. I feel that from this point on "modern" karate started to develop along sporting lines while the old, "real" karate stayed in the background, and backyards of Okinawan teachers where it had always been.
I still believe firmly that if you want sport, you don't need karate. If you want to be strong and be able to defend yourself, you do.
Dragon Times: Do you have strong opinions about sport karate?
Shinyu Gushi: Not really. It's good for small children and because it's much less demanding than budo karate, you can train from childhood to your later years. But many people who practice sport karate don't understand about budo karate, and that's a pity. Actually you should do both, and I want to teach sport karate people real karate techniques so that they understand sport karate better by understanding its roots.
Dragon Times: Would you view karate's acceptance as an Olympic sport as a positive development.
Shinyu Gushi: I think so. Sport karate is designed for competition so naturally it would be appropriate, but not real karate. Budo karate is dangerous and can result in severe injury unless rules are made and strictly adhered to. But as soon as you make rules, it's not budo karate any more because real fights can't have rules as they are about survival and not point scoring.
Dragon Times: What are your opinions on girls training.
Shinyu Gushi: Well that's fine, but I believe the female body needs a completely different type of training than the male body does, and I'm not sure that it gets it from karate. If a girl is really serious she can train with us, and a number have. However, I only really teach black belts students who mainly come from the so called "traditional" karate styles and they usually leave after only a few weeks of personal training with our group. This makes me think that it would be difficult for a girl to accept this intensity of training, when her male counterparts can't.
When you are marching up and down a dojo it's easy to be anonymous--there's a certain feeling of belonging to a group that is reassuring. But when you fight, you fight alone, so we train alone, student with instructor. In this way you can't hide anything as you can with group training. I see the student's flaws and I correct them so that the student can improve. I offer individual training of an intense nature so people who really want to improve their karate skills can. That's not to say that what other people are doing is no good--just that what we do is different.
Dragon Times: How does training differ from when you were beginning karate and now.
Shinyu Gushi: If I think about the past I remember that I trained hard every day. I never took it easy, never. That's why I don't recommend real karate for everyone. It's so hard, you're always tired and often in pain from training. If you really want to become an instructor, however, this is the only way, and personally I enjoy it very much.
Dragon Times: When you started training were the seniors in the dojo very hard on you.
Shinyu Gushi: Of course. That was a different age completely so it's really not possible to compare it with now. Because it was often too tough, most people didn't last long in the dojo. Sport karate was invented as an alternative to that sort of brutally hard training; it satisfies the needs of modern students, in the modern times in which we live now.
Dragon Times: Did training then emphasize the use of the Makiwara?
Shinyu Gushi: Yes, of course! We used it to develop our techniques; boshi ken, seken, like that. We nearly all had makiwara, my karate friends and I, and we used to try and break makiwaras to see how strong we were. In Pangai Noon style karate we don't use the normal (seken) fist so much. We prefer soken, hira ken, boshi ken, shukoken, nukite, and shuto. Seken we don't use so much. We also used the makiwara to develop our kicking techniques: front kick, side kick, roundhouse kick, like that.
Dragon Times: Why is test breaking do important in your style of karate?
Shinyu Gushi: That's a difficult question (laughter). I suppose that it basically to make sure that what you are doing is correct. How much power you are developing. A test to see if you really have power or not--a very personal test.
Dragon Times: When you were learning karate as a young student, did the seniors teach you kyusho (nerve points)?
Shinyu Gushi: Yes. We learned from our seniors and teachers but not to use in the dojo of course, it's too dangerous. Also we were not allowed to use them from the time of the first dan grading I told you about because they are so dangerous.
Dragon Times: When you tense your body, does it protect you from attacks to your nerve points?
Shinyu Gushi: Of course! That's why we practice Sanchin to learn how to do this--to protect ourselves in a fight.
Dragon Times: So if you had to protect yourself the first thing you would do would be to tense your body.
Shinyu Gushi: Yes!
Dragon Times: What is the biggest difference between karate now and when you started training?
Shinyu Gushi: Time changes things you know, so does transmission from one instructor to another. Everyone has their own interpretation of things that varies by a tiny amount from everyone else, and as these are passed on things change. We are all human and this is natural. I try very hard to pass on only what I learned. I make a conscious effort to do only this.
Dragon Times: What are your hopes for the future?
Shinyu Gushi: There are many karate men these days and dojos everywhere, and that's fine. I hope to do many demonstrations of karate for everyone to see. So that they can say, this is how karate was a long time ago in Okinawa. This is Okinawan karate!
We are joined by Tsukasa Gushi, son of Shinyu and an instructor specializing in Ryukyu Kobudo.
Dragon Times: When did you start training?
Tsukasa Gushi: I can't remember, I was so small. All I remember as a child is following my father around--following him to the dojo and watching him train. He never pushed me to do karate, it was just a natural sort of thing with us. In 1975 they held the Okinawan Expo and my father would go everyday to demonstrate karate to the Japanese (mainland) people, and I would go with him to watch. I think my commitment to karate started at that time.
Dragon Times: When did your interest in the weapon arts begin?
Tsukasa Gushi: At that time, the same as karate. I remember having a kid's bo, you know a small one, and I would practice. My dad would teach me techniques then I would practice on my own. When I was about twelve he opened a dojo in Oroku City and I helped as much as I could. When he was too busy to teach, I would help. We had students, so the dojo had to be kept open at all times.
Dragon Times: Why did you come to this country?
Tsukasa Gushi: We both decided to come at the same time. There are Uechi Ryu groups here who wanted to study with a high level teacher, and they also wanted to study the traditional weapon arts that I teach. I think when students reaches a certain level they realize how important these arts are and want high level tuition. Previously they had to go back to Okinawa which is not always possible, so many groups invited us to come here to demonstrate karate and the weapons arts.
Dragon Times: Since you came here in 1988 what sort of instruction have you been offering.
Tsukasa Gushi: My father doesn't have a dojo, he trains people in his back yard like we do at home. Senior students come from other styles and often they continue practising their original style but come to my father for training in real karate. It's very hard and the students have to be determined, but those who are serious improve a lot.
Dragon Times: What do you feel is your main goal in America?
Tsukasa Gushi: To spread real karate of course, that is my father's dream, but also to make people appreciate the culture and history of our homeland and the fighting arts that developed as a result. We are the only Okinawan teachers of Uechi Ryu who are easily available to students in America, and we will both work with anyone who wants to study serious, real, karate and kobudo.