An Interview with Sensei Toshihiro Oshiro:
The Way of Yamanni-Ryu
Dong Tran: When and where were you born?
Toshihiro Oshiro: I was born May 1st, 1949 in Haneji, Okinawa, Japan.
DT: When did you begin training in karate? Did your youth revolve around martial arts?
TO: I started when I was sixteen. But in actuality, when I was eight or nine in elementary school my sempai already taught me karate and bojutsu. So you can say I already began at age eight. But it's not similar to the way you practice in the dojo today; it's more like kids playing baseball or basketball, that kind of thing.
DT: Was it called Shorin-ryu then?
TO: No. I wish I could remember the kata they taught me. It was a mixture of Pinan and Naihanchi katas but I don't know who made that kata. After WWII many Okinawan karate practitioners were prisoners of war and one of the stockades was near Haneji so I guess one of them taught karate to our town people.
DT: Who was your first karate sensei? Did you also train with Nagamine Shoshin sensei? Did you teach at his dojo?
TO: My first and main karate sensei was Shima Masao sensei. One year after I joined his dojo, he recommended that I go train at the hombu (HQ) dojo. When I made shodan I became assistant instructor and then instructor. But leading a class is not the same thing as teaching. They are two entirely different things! Shima sensei taught me from the Fukyu gata to Chinto. At headquarters, Nagamine sensei, Kushi sensei, Yamaguchi sensei, and Nakamura sensei taught me Chinto kata. Nakamura sensei, especially, taught me Chinto kata very deeply..
DT: When did you meet Kishaba Chokei sensei?
TO: I met him when I made brown belt. It's not like the modern ranking system. In those days we trained day and night, seven days a week. I achieved brown belt in one year. Shima sensei's dojo was jointly started by Shima, Taba, and Kishaba senseis. Then Taba and Kishaba senseis went to mainland Japan so only Shima sensei ran the school. When I made brown belt, Kishaba sensei came back; that's how I met him. That's when he started teaching us. But Shima sensei was my main karate sensei. My foundation and technique came from him. From Kishaba sensei I gained a lot of knowledge and polished my technique.
DT: Where did you train?
TO: Training was very personal. If sensei saw that a particular student really wanted to practice, after class he'd bring the student to his house and teach him more.
DT: When did you meet Chokei sensei's brother Chogi, your Yamanni-ryu teacher?
TO: Shima sensei always talked about Chogi Kishaba sensei and Chokei sensei also talked about his brother, how he was a really good bojutsu practitioner. When Kishaba Chokei sensei came back from mainland Japan, he didn't have a place to stay, so he lived at his brother Chogi's house, which was where I used to come to practice karate with him. It took eight years before I finally got to see for myself Chogi sensei's bo technique and how different it was from other people's.
DT: Had you heard of Yamanni-ryu before that?
TO: I had never heard of Yamanni-ryu before. The first time I heard that word, it was from Kishaba sensei himself. But other senseis knew about Yamanni-ryu; I was just a young kid and didn't know about it.
DT: Was Kishaba sensei actively teaching Yamanni-ryu at that time?
TO: I don't know. The only thing I knew was that every time I came to his house for training, I was the only student.
DT: Did Kishaba sensei accept you right away or was there a testing, waiting period?
TO: I was allowed to practice with him because I was recommended by his brother.
DT: Were you also working at the time?
TO: I was working then in the Police department.
DT: Is Kishaba sensei the sole successor to Masami Chinen sensei, the founder of Yamanni-ryu, or are there other teachers?
TO: I believe there were other Yamanni-ryu instructors. They learned from Masami Chinen or his grandfather Sanda but I heard that only Kishaba sensei knows all the Yamanni-ryu katas. Other people may have studied from Masami sensei or Sanda sensei but how many people can really say they learned from them? No one can claim Menkyo Kaiden because there's no such thing. The word doesn't even exist in the Okinawan language.
DT: Can you tell us about a typical training session with the Kishaba brothers?
TO: I never practiced with them on the same night. I would train at the dojo, for instance, from 8:00 to 9:30 p.m. then go to Kishaba Chogi sensei's house for bojutsu. Once in a while I practiced at the hombu dojo then go train with Chokei sensei afterwards. The sessions were separate. I used to train bojutsu with Chogi sensei in his veranda. It was dark but there was some light. I could see what he was showing me but mostly I heard (his bo cut the air). His technique was so swift but he would not break it down for me. He would only do the same technique over the same way. When teaching kata he would break it down but wouldn't explain anything. He would only say, "Do this!" I haven't learned all his techniques yet. I think he has more to teach.
DT: Did you have to do a lot of training and research on your own?
TO: Yes. Of course Kishaba sensei taught me a lot of kata, techniques, and history but technically I had to research for myself and do a lot of self-training. The foundation and 99% of my knowledge and technique came from Kishaba sensei but I had to practice a lot on my own.
DT: Most of us are used to being spoon-fed. Can you tell us how Kishaba sensei taught you Sakugawa-no-kon?
TO: There was light in his veranda but still it was very dark. Now I wish I could see what he did but I'm surprised I could follow the sound of his bo. He just told me what to do. The first time he showed me the kata it was very different. I think he slowed it down for me.
DT: At the time, there were no basic or intermediate katas; you went directly from Suuji-no-kon to Sakugawa-no-kon. Is it why you feel today it is necessary to create more basic katas to introduce the student to Yamanni-ryu slowly?
TO: Right. As far as Ryubi-no-kon is concerned, there was already a basic kata by that name but it didn't work. When I had to teach in the US I had to create a simple kata. You know how hard Suuji-no-kon is, even though it looks simple. I adapted the existing Ryubi-no-kon to Yamanni-ryu and showed it to Kishaba sensei. He approved it because he knew the Okinawan katas were too difficult and we needed introductory ones.
DT: Did Kishaba sensei also teach you the secondary weapons or did you have to research on your own?
TO: He never taught us the small weapons. He said there were only katas for bojutsu and karate in Okinawan martial arts. For everything else (sai, tunfa, etc...) We would have to study ourselves.
DT: Can you tell us how Kishaba sensei taught you saijutsu?
TO: One day I ordered a pair of sai that was very well balanced, with a good shape. I brought them to Sensei's house and asked him to teach me. I knew there must be a way to control the weapon (even if there was no kata). Sensei really liked those sai so he took them and we went upstairs for our regular bojutsu practice. Halfway up the stairs he turned around and swung the sai-just once-in front of my face and said: "This is how you are supposed to swing the sai." That was the only time he showed me. He said that as far as the small weapons were concerned, I had to study on my own. And that's what I did.
DT: When did you come to the United States?
TO: In 1978. I came because one of my karate sempai, who owned a dojo in California, had passed away. They needed a replacement instructor, so I came.
DT: When you came here, did you begin teaching Yamanni-ryu right away?
TO: For five years after I arrived in the US, I taught only karate. Karate was the main curriculum because I felt bojutsu was something I did just for myself. I didn't teach anybody until one day I went to a tournament and saw how people practiced bojutsu. Somebody asked me to do a demonstration and when I did people were really surprised at how different it was from their styles. Interest picked up and that's when I started teaching Yamanni-ryu.
DT: It has taken a while; are you happy with the foundation you have laid so far?
TO: As far as introducing Yamanni-ryu to the public, I hope I did a good thing for Okinawan martial arts. Some people have said that karate has changed into a modern version while ancient kobudo has not. I hope that through Yamanni-ryu they can get a glimpse of the old karate. I don't know if I have done a good job. Maybe if there had been a more capable person (than I) and he could have taught Americans and made Yamanni-ryu more popular and raised people's level of martial art...I only know I did my best. But I'm happy with what I've done and seen. Even though there are people who are just using Yamanni-ryu's name, there are those who sincerely want to learn it, and that makes me very happy.
DT: You have given seminars and clinics abroad as well. Recently you have been to France. Do you feel Yamanni-ryu will grow on the international level?
TO: I think so. In other countries people want to learn Yamanni-ryu but it's difficult for them to get instruction. I was lucky to have been invited to France to teach last month. This was the first time Yamanni-ryu was introduced in public in Europe.
DT: What are your hopes for the future? You have begun using kendo bogu (armor) to practice tournament-style kumibo. Do you want to incorporate this into the Yamanni-ryu syllabus?
TO: The introduction of kumibo and intermediate katas was not my idea but rather Kishaba sensei's express orders. He requested the kumibo practice but the technical implementation was my own. For the future of Yamanni-ryu I believe that the sport/competition aspect of it will make it easier for the public to understand up to a certain level, but at a higher level, people will have to do the martial art, the Way of martial art. However, if we do only the martial art, people might not be able to do Yamanni-ryu and it might disappear.
DT: Thank you, sensei, for granting me this interview and sharing your views with us.
by Dong Tran