Master Shigeru Nakamura and 
the History of Okinawa Kenpo Karate

Master Shigeru Nakamura

On January 21, 1969, Mr. Shigeru Nakamura, the Grand Master of the Okinawan Kenpo Karate-Do Association, passed away in his hometown of Nago City, Okinawa. He was a man of extraordinary character and karate talent. His entire life was devoted to the pursuit of the way of Okinawan Karate-Do. His death represented a tremendous loss to all, and particularly to the world of karate. He will always be remembered for his many contributions to the development of Okinawan Karate.

The roots of Okinawan Karate can be traced back to Indian Kenpo, which was the basis of Chinese Kenpo. Buddha established Buddhism around the 5th century B.C. Approximately 1000 years later, the 28th Bodhisattua was born. He would come to be known as Dharma, third child of the king of Southern India. He left home after the king died and studied Buddhism for more than 40 years. At that time, India followed the caste system. Even though Dharma would have been at the top of the caste system, he rejected it and attempted to reform it’s followers. When he realized that such a grand scale reformation was impossible, he left his homeland for the neighboring country, China. He settled at the Shaolin Temple at Mt. Kosan of Honan Province where he began to teach Zen Buddhism. He also taught one of the Indian Yoga Methods as a way for the monks to enhance their physical strength. This method was developed and became the origin of Chinese Kenpo, also known as Shaolin-Ji-Kenpo.

These teachings eventually spread outside the mountain where Chinese Kenpo became more fully developed. Between the 13th and 19th centuries Chinese Kenpo flourished in popularity, and, as a result, many practitioners developed into prominent masters. These masters often used their superior skills to protect government officials. When King Satto of Okinawa opened trade with China, many of these Chinese kenpo masters brought their martial arts expertise to Okinawa. Chinese kenpo was merged with the Okinawan’s native Kenpo to create a unique method of fighting arts.

According to well documented history, an official guard named Kushankun came to Okinawa in 1786. Kushankun’s ability astonished the Okinawan people. Two Okinawans in particular, Sakugawa from Akata Village in Shuri and Yara from Chatan Village, were so impressed with kushankun that they committed, themselves to follow his teachings. Sakugawa would later travel to china to further his martial arts study. After several years of training, he returned to Okinawa where he would come to be known as “Chinese Hands Sakugawa’. He taught his art to many students who would eventually become masters themselves. But it was not until late in Sakugawa’s life when he would accept a young man who would become his most famous student, Sokun Matsumura. 

Sokun Matsumura (1787-1890) of Yamakawa Village in Shuri later became known as the father of modern karate-do. He studied under Sakugawa from the age of 14. To increase his knowledge, he learned from a Chinese guard called “Iwa’ and then traveled to China where he studied for many years. Matsumura passed on his mastery to his finest student, Anko Itosu (1832-1916), and to many others.

Anko Itosu

Kentsu Yabu Chomo Hanishiro

While Matsumura was establishing his name in the Shuri area, another famous karateka was developing. His name was Kitoku Sakiyama, of Wakuda Village in Naha. Sakiyama had studied under one of the guards of the Chinese officials. Because of his tremendous ability, he was given the same respect and admiration for his karate as Matsumura. In 1839, Sakiyama accepted an invitation from one of the guards to travel to Fukien Province in China to further his study in the martial arts. Sakiyama studied in China for over four years under the tutelage of Lau Loon Kon who was the Chief Martial Arts Instructor of the Military Academy. Upon returning to Okinawa, Sakiyama passed on his secret teachings to Shinkichi Kuniyoshi of Kumoji Village, Naha City. Kuniyoshi would eventually further educate Shigeru Nakamura in the martial arts.

Shigeru Nakamura was born on January 20, 1894 in Nago City. His father was a close friend of Anko Itosu’s most senior student, Kentsu Yabu(1866-1937). Nakamura’s father wanted his son to have the finest education possible. He sent Shigeru away to the prestigious First National Okinawan Junior High School in Shuri. For five years Shigeru followed his father’s wishes to become educated and also devote himself to the study of karate. The Karate teacher at First National was Chomo Hanashiro (1869-1945) who was regarded as one of Itosu’s greatest students (Itosus’ other famous pupils consisted of,  Gichin Funakoshi(1863-1957), Chotoku Kyan(1870-1945), Moden Yabiku, Kenwa Mabuni, and many others). In fact, it was none other than Itosu himself who appointed Hanashiro to the prestigious position of teaching the students at First National. In addition to Master Hanashiro, Anko Itosu and Kentsu Yabu came to the school once a week to teach the students karate. Nakamura was indeed very fortunate to be able to study under three of the greatest karateka in history. He took full advantage of this opportunity, using his great ‘nagumasa”, spirit of perseverance, to master karate-do at an extraordinary pace. Upon his graduation and return to Nago, his dedication and aspiration for karate grew even stronger. He learned that Shinkichi Kunioshi, successor to the late Sakiyama, had moved to Nago. He asked Kunioshi to help him further his karate training. Kunioshi was so taken by Nakamura’s determination to learn that he decided to pass on his secrets of Chinese Kenpo to him. Nakamura began a hard, disciplined practice under Kunioshi that would continue for about ten years. Nakamura’s basic skills were firmly ingrained from his First National days. His mental and physical capabilities expanded at an unbelievable rate, enabling him to master Kunioshi’s teachings.

At the age of 75, Kunioshi passed away. Nakamura was deeply saddened by this. He swore to honor his great teacher and made a commitment to follow in Kunioshi’s footsteps and spread the art of karate-do. Thus, Nakamura established the first Okinawa Kenpo Karate dojo in Nago City. By this time, Nakamura had developed the same powerful fist as Kunioshi who had been known as “The Iron Fist Warrior”. This reputation spread throughout many villages, and, consequently many students came to Master Nakamura for lessons.

At that time, all Karate teachers in Okinawa were teaching kata but neglected to teach free style fighting because they felt it was too dangerous. Nakamura valued the importance of jiyu-Kumite (free style fighting) as well as kata. He openly stated to the Okinawan public that jiyu-kumite, was the actual application of kata, therefore, no jiyu-kimite, no karate. He invented protective equipment which consisted of a modified kendo mask, chest protector and gloves. Using this protective equipment, Nakamura was able to teach “bogu-tsuke kumite” (full contact fighting with protective gear). This was the first time in the history of karate that students could practice their fighting techniques at full power and full speed without worry of serious injury. This method of fighting was considered very important to Master Nakamura. He criticized the method of non contact fighting as being impracticable and ineffective. Although he received much criticism from other old fashioned schools, his method became more widely accepted with the passage of time.

By the 1960’s, the merits and values of bogu-tauke kumite were acknowledged by many karate associations and dojos, as well as high school and college karate clubs. Many karate tournaments adopted Master Nakamura’s method. Karate had also become quite popular in Japan at this time. The Japanese criticized the Okinawans for not placing enough emphasis on kumite. These allegations insulted Master Nakamura. He sent his students to compete in major tournaments throughout Japan. His students consistently became top winners, showing their skills and spirit. They showed the Japanese that Okinawan karate was not merely ‘dance karate” as the Japanese described it but was indeed quite formidable.

Having accomplished almost everything he set out to do, Master Nakamura still had one goal left, to unify all styles of karate. It made him very sad to see that karate schools were not in agreement with one another. They were hostile and jealous of each other, not respecting each other's styles. There was constant argument about which style had the best method and skill. Nakamura openly criticized the other senseis for their destructive egos. He held meetings to try to unite and form one powerful organization which would include all the styles in Okinawa. Unfortunately, at the age of 75, he passed away before he could see his dream come true.

Even though Master Nakamura is no longer with us, the memory of his wonderful personality, skills, and accomplishments are carved deeply into the pages of modern Okinawan Karate history. He was a true pioneer who devoted his life to karate in the hope that one day it would be unified into one strong organization.

Unfortunately, like other great masters such as Funakoshi of Shotokan and Ueshiba of Aikido, some of Master Nakamura's students failed to follow his choice of successor. Heeding to their own greedy desires, certain students left to form their own organizations. This is a direct slap in the face to all of Master Nakamura’s goals and ambitions. In spite of this, Master Nakamura’ s organization, the Okinawa Kenpo Karate-Do Association continues to grow and thrive. It is well recognized in Okinawa and headed by Master Nakamura’s son, Taketo Nakamura, and is also established in the United States where this author has acted as U.S. Representative since 1972. As one of Master Nakamura’ s senior students, I believe it is my responsibility to carry on his spirit and goals to further the development of Okinawa Kenpo Karate throughout the United States.

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