An Interview with Sensei Toshihiro Oshiro:
Yamanni Ryu - Bo-Jutsu of Okinawa
All of the martial arts are rooted in the human experience, the human body. As one master said, "all martial arts comes from two arms, two legs, one head, one heart." But much of the history and background of martial arts today is shrouded in mystery. Because the training methods, techniques, and katas were passed down through verbal instruction and the old, almost secretive, face to face teaching methods, it is very hard for contemporary practitioners to know what is traditional, what has been changed, and what has been lost in the mists of time.
Yamanni-Chinen Ryu bojutsu provides modern martial artists a glimpse of an art that remains relatively unchanged by the passage of time and also a mirror or tool by which they can examine their own movement and their own style. Sensei Toshihiro Oshiro has brought this weapons style from Okinawa to the United States and wants to promote it throughout the martial arts community. This flowing and immensely powerful weapons style is a wonderful example of a traditional, sophisticated Okinawan martial art and can help show modern martial artists both how things were and how they are supposed to be.
Sensei Oshiro holds the rank of 6th degree black belt in Shorin-Ryu karate and 7th dan in Yamanni-Chinen Ryu bojutsu. He first experienced the martial arts during grade school in Okinawa. At the age of sixteen Mr. Oshiro started his formal training in Matsu-bayashi Shorin-Ryu karate under the tutelage of Senseis Masao Shima and Chokei Kishaba at their dojo in Naha City. He also spent a number of years practicing at the Matsubayashi headquarters dojo of Sensei Nagamine. During that time Mr. Oshiro's training was directly influenced by several Okinawan instructors: Seigi Nakamura, Junko Yamaguchi, and Jokei Kushi.
Although Sensei Oshiro was introduced to the bo staff in grade school along with karate, it wasn't until he had been training for several years with Sensei Kishaba that he began to practice Yamanni style bo. When Kishaba Sensei realized his pupil's keen interest and aptitude for the weapon, he introduced him to his brother, Chogi Kishaba, who was a direct student of Masami Chinen and is the only active instructor for Yamanni-Chinen Ryu bojutsu still teaching in Okinawa. Sensei Oshiro has studied under Master Kishaba for many years, and now has become the driving force for publishing this weapons style in the martial arts world outside of Okinawa.
Sensei Oshiro is the Chief Instructor for the Ryukyu Bujutsu Kenkyu Doyukai in the United States. This is an association open to all serious martial artists who are interested in developing and promoting traditional Okinawan budo. He currently teaches karate and weapons at his two dojos in Redwood City and Chico California. He also conducts seminars and demonstrations throughout the United States and in other countries like Panama, Jordan, Jamaica, and Bermuda. In this interview Sensei Oshiro talks about old vs. modern martial arts and how Yamanni-Chinen Ryu has deepened his understanding of the martial arts in general.
William Haff: Sensei, you are well known for both your karate and your bo. Have you always practiced both arts?
Toshihiro Oshiro: To use the analogy of a bicycle, bo and karate are like "two wheels" of the Okinawan martial arts, the history and culture of both is very deep. I trained in both karate and bo as a grade school boy, both for our physical education program and to take part in our village festivals. But the karate and bo that we practiced during my grade school years was like folk art it wasn't deep or sophisticated in a true martial arts sense. I didn't start my formal training in Shorin-ryu karate until high school and in Yamanni-Chinen Ryu bo for a couple years after that.
WH: Have you practiced other martial arts besides karate and weapons?
TO: I have trained in judo and kendo as well, but karate and kobjutsu have always been my central focus, my root.
WH: How is it that you came to study karate first before weapons?
TO: In Okinawa, even though bo is important in our history, there are not so many instructors teaching bo. Bojutsu is not as popular as karate, and the teachers didn't make a lot of effort to make their art known to the public. When I joined Mr. Shima's and Mr. Kishaba's dojo and during my time at Nagamine Sensei's dojo I mainly practiced Shorin-ryu karate but also some bo. As a beginner I had my hands full with learning karate, and the bo that I practiced with the other students wasn't very sophisticated One day at a martial arts demonstration there was a bo routine performed similar to what I was practicing. I overheard some kendo students critiquing that bo style, saying that it was too stiff, too ineffective, and I agreed with them Considering how wide-spread bo is in our culture I figured that there must be some other, deeper style. But I didn't know where to look. It wasn't until I went to Kishaba sensei's house and saw him practicing a different style of bo. When he understood my interest he introduced me to his brother and that's how I found Yamanni-Ryu.
WH: Your teachers didn't show you how they practiced as part of your curriculum at the dojo?
TO: (laughing) No way! That is not the Okinawan, the Japanese teaching way. My teachers would show a little bit, sometimes, but I always had to research for myself. And before I began to practice bo under Master Chogi Kishaba, he was essentially retired and Yamanni-Chinen Ryu was going to die out with him. That's how serious and private they are about their art-especially bo-and when Sensei gave me some information, like a specific technique or kata, I wasn't allowed to come back to his house until I had practiced that material enough
WH: Between karate and weapons, do you have a favorite?
TO: No. I enjoy both (laughing) actually I am should say that I hate both because the training never stops and it's never enough.
WH: Why do you practice both weapons and karate?
TO: Ever since I began to study deeply in the martial arts, in how to move and how to control one's body effectively, I realized that both empty hand and weapons training are appropriate for this, but from different angles historically the teachers in Okinawa practiced both arts. My bo teacher was a direct student of Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju-Ryu. And his teacher, Masami Chinen, studied Shuri style karate, I believe, and also some under Sensei Miyagito understand stances, maybe footwork
WH: What do you mean when you say "from different angles" ?
TO: My point is both historical and technical. Historically, karate has changed and bo has not Yamanni-Ryu has not Technically, in terms of stances, footwork, and how you make power with bo provides a different vantage point from karate.
WH: In what way has karate changed? Can you explain further?
TO: Of course, I can only speak of my style of karate, Shuri style, but I believe this is true for all karate in general. The karate that I study, and the karate that is taught in most dojos today is modern karate. Long ago, karate was taught very individually, face to face, and training and knowledge was passed directly, personally from teacher to student like a private lesson. But when Itosu Anko was commissioned around 100 years ago to design a physical education program for the public school system in Okinawa, he and his student, Yabe Kentsu, changed karate a lot. Please do not misunderstand. I am not being critical. Okinawa and Japan were just opening up to the modern world at that time, and they wanted to make a modern teaching system. Itosu and Kentsu had to create a standard, build a step by step method for teaching many people at once a class structure. To do that, and to make it safe for children, they made the Pinan katas and changed techniques and timing to make it easier to follow and technicall, they wanted to make karate safer to study.
For example, I heard that in ancient karate they used open hand techniques very much. I think Itosu emphasized the fist, one because he liked that technique and two because a fist protects the fingers-especially for children. Also, they took out a lot of the more dangerous techniques like strikes to the eyes and joints that were prevalent in old karate not just the jodan and chudan targets that we mostly see now. And since they were interested in physical conditioning kicks were raised to stomach or even head level it used to be that they never kicked higher than the groin. But there is also a deeper reason that they changed karate.
WH: What do you mean?
TO: In ancient karate, I heard, there was a lot of "doseki-sayo" or isometric type training for developing power. While this type of training was good, it was also very easy for practitioners to over- emphasize "doseki-sayo" and injure their bodies and physical condition. So Itosu and other instructors took this type of training out of their program, and we don't have doseki-sayo in modern karate kata. Bo never had any doseki-sayo, any isometric technique, it makes no sense for bo, so the old ways of practicing bo were never changed or influenced with the coming of modern karate.
I learned Yamanni-Chinen Ryu directly, individually from Kishaba Sensei. There was never a class structure.
WH: So you use bo training to help you understand karate?
TO: Yes, but this is common sense for any serious martial artist. I study to deepen my art, both weapons and karate. The old teachers used to do that too, I think. They would watch other styles or talk and practice with other instructors to add some new technique or maybe to just check their own practice But by comparing the two arts, it is possible to see how karate used to be or is supposed to bethere is a lot of karate lost in history, and I am very interested in that Early in my karate training Nagamine Sensei talked about the difference between koshi and gamaku, your sides vs. your lower back, in making power and focus. It wasn't until I had studied bo deeply that I found what he was talking about.
WH: You recommend, encourage, bo training, weapons training, for any karate practitioner from any style?
TO: If they are interested about this, about weapons, absolutely. It depends on how deeply they want to study. My teacher and the old bo teachers came from many different karate styles. And although we say Yamanni style, we are referring to a technical way, but not like the technical, political, and organizational ways we think of with karate styles. There is no Shorin-ryu bo or Goju bo-nothing like that.
WH: And now you want to publish Yamanni-Chinen Ryu?
TO: That is Sensei Kishaba's order for me Yamanni-ryu is a very old and established bo style in Okinawa, but it is not widely recognized in the modern martial arts community-both in Okinawa and the world at large. We hope to change that as this style holds a lot of benefits for serious martial artists from almost any background.
WH: How do you plan to accomplish that goal?
TO: There are two things that we have to do. The first is to develop a more formalized training system with a clearly defined path starting with basic techniques and training katas for each of the weapons (bo, sai, tonfa, kama, nunchaku) to the advanced forms and traditional katas of Yamanni-Chinen Ryu. The second thing we need to do show this style more widely throughout the martial arts community with more demonstrations, seminars, and tournaments, as well as with other media like this article and videos. In the last few years I have seen an increasing interest in weapons training in general, and I am getting a lot of people showing interest in what we are doing with Yamanni-ryu. Our style is very different from other weapons styles-how we move and how we swing-that I think many people are really surprised. One of the new things that we are doing is developing a bo free sparring event, similar to naginata or kendo competitions, for tournaments. Where we have demonstrated this at my seminars people seemed to be excited by it a lot.
WH: In building your new system, can you avoid the kind of changes that hapened when Sensei Itosu created modern karate?
TO: That is a very serious concern. We are trying to organize the best teaching way for this style. I don't want my students to have a hard time just trying to find the way, how they are supposed to move. When I started with Kishaba Sensei there was only individual training, no set curriculum. Right away we started from the kata Suuji-no-kun, many times, and I just had to copy and figure things out on my own. What I want is to build a guide, a road map, which will help the students get from point to point without losing the fundamental dynamic of our style. I need to build a system that will appeal to western people, fit with their educational and cultural background. I am thinking and planning very carefully for this.
WH: In closing, from your experience, do you have any personal comments for martial artists today?
TO: Follow what your teacher says, exactly. But you have to understand your body, your strong point and weak point. Kata, in any style really, gives you a guide, a mirror, to examine your own practice. From a certain level you must open your mind, talk to other martial artists, and try to figure out for yourself why and how your movement is supposed to be. And don't be blind about styles or different arts. There is some reason why their training developed that way. Try to see that reason. Train hard, push your limits, and never give up. And good luck....
by William H. Haff