first Nisei Karate Sensei
Charles C. Goodin
author is writing a book on the roots of Karate in Hawaii.)
Born on April
25, 1915, in xWaimanalo, Hawaii, to parents xKana Miyashiro, of Aragusuku,
Ginowan, Okinawa, and Uto (Shinshiro) Miyashiro, Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro
was an active member of Hawaii's Okinawan community. He was a member of the
Ginowan Shijun Kai and the Wahiawa Hongwanji, where he often performed volunteer
work. Married at a young age, he and wife had four daughters and a son. For
most of his adult life he worked for the City and County of Honolulu, first
at Ala Moana Park, next at Foster Botanical Garden, and later as superintendent
of Wahiawa Botanical Garden, where he eventually retired. His specialty was
orchids. He was remembered as a Good Samaritan, a friend to those in need.
Few people are
aware, however, that Miyashiro was Hawaii's first nisei Karate sensei. He
certainly was the first local sensei to make the Okinawan art of self-defense
available to the public. His tireless efforts to preserve and promote the
art continued until his passing on March 22, 1977.
First Teacher: Mr. Kuniyoshi
Like many well-known
Karate sensei in Okinawa, Miyashiro began his training for health reasons.
As a child, he had very poor posture. He was sent to Mr. Kuniyoshi (first
name unknown), an Okinawan immigrant, for training in Karate to treat this
problem. In the photo they are shown in Kapiolani Park on Oahu, with Diamond
Head in the background. This is the earliest known photograph of Miyashiro
practicing Karate and it may be the earliest such photograph ever taken in
From the arrival
of the first Okinawan immigrants in 1900 through the mid-1920's, Karate in
Hawaii was practiced secretly or in private. There were no public classes
or dojo (training halls) per se. Instead, immigrants who had learned Karate
in Okinawa continued to practice alone or in very small groups, usually consisting
of immigrants from the same village or town in Okinawa. The sensei's backyard
or a secluded area typically served as the dojo.
There were no
highways or inter-island airlines during that time period. Karate teachers
in remote areas such as Kekaha on Kauai or Kohala on the Big Island could
rarely meet to train with each other. Training was generally conducted in
the various Okinawan plantation camps. Some of the early Karate sensei, such
as Kizo Teruya and Seiichi Urasaki had jobs which required them to travel
to several camps. They may have had the opportunity to train with other karate
practitioners. For the most part, however, students and teachers were geographically
there were cultural, language, economic and other differences between the
early Okinawan immigrants and the Japanese contract workers who had arrived
about 15 years earlier. Prejudice against the Uchinachu by their Naichi (mainland
Japan) counterparts was common. This served to further isolate the Okinawan
camps, and explains why Karate was not initially taught outside of the immediate
Even among Okinawans,
Karate was taught only to people of a high moral character. A prospective
student had to sincerely ask the sensei to teach him, and most were refused
several times. The sensei might swear at, spit upon, or slap a student just
to see if he was hot tempered.
Even the character
of the student's relatives would be considered by the sensei. Once accepted,
the student would not pay for his lessons. Most early Okinawan sensei refused
to accept any money from their students. Instead, the student would do chores
around the sensei's house. Such a student is referred to as a deshi.
There was one
exception to the strict rules of accepting students. One sensei might be more
willing to accept the son of another sensei as a student. This was one way
sensei assisted and showed respect to each other. Most sensei were reluctant
to teach their own children because of the severity involved in rigorous training.
I know of a case where a sensei had agreed to teach his own son when he reached
a certain age. Unfortunately, the sensei died before that date. Another sensei
who was a friend of the deceased, agreed to teach the son in his place.
With Visiting Sensei from Okinawa & Japan
It is not known
how Miyashiro became the student of Kuniyoshi. What is known is that Miyashiro
went on to study with each of the five prominent sensei who visited Hawaii
between 1927 and 1935. I am confident that he did so with the blessing and
encouragement of Kuniyoshi. These sensei would not have taught Miyashiro if
his own sensei had not consented to and requested their assistance.
with Kentsu ("Gunso") Yabu during his visit to Hawaii in 1927. When I first
heard about this I wondered if it could be correct since Miyashiro would have
only been 12 at the time. On Friday, July 8, 1927, Yabu gave a demonstration
at the Nuuanu Y.M.C.A. which was attended by a large audience. A newspaper
account of the demonstration stated that "Five little boys opened the program
with demonstrations of the 'Karate.' " Yabu obviously taught children as well
The next visitor
to Hawaii was the famed fighting expert, Choki Motobu, popularly know as Motobu
No Saru, who arrived in late March of 1932. Due to legal problems, the nature
of which I am still investigating, Motobu was detained at the Ala Moana immigration
station for one month before being returned to Japan. He gave no public demonstrations,
but did teach the young Miyashiro, who was now 17. Miyashiro attempted to
assist Motobu and is thought to be the only person in Hawaii to have learned
Karate from him during the visit.
Motobu was known
for his expertise of the Naihanchi kata. I met with one of Miyashiro's students
who confirmed that Miyashiro learned the Naihanchi kata from Motobu. Among
other techniques, Naihanchi features the use of uraken, or backhand strikes.
Some Karate practitioners make a large movement when executing an uraken.
Motobu taught that maximum power must be generated in an extremely short distance.
The student stated that he used to practice breaking bricks with an uraken
delivered in just one or two inches, barely room to turn over the fist. To
do this, ki or spiritual energy, had to be focused in the strike.
Zuiho Mutsu (or
Mizuho Mutsu, formerly known as Mizuho Takada) and Kamesuke Higaonna of Tokyo.
Toyo Universities, respectively, followed Motobu the next year. Fortunately,
they had no problems with the immigration department and taught many classes
and gave several demonstrations in Honolulu. The largest demonstration was
given on Saturday, September 9, 1933, at the old Honolulu Civic Auditorium.
The demonstration included "Breaking of boards with knuckles, elbows, feet;
methods of attack and defense from attack; defense against short sword; defense
against spear; demonstration of disabling methods to use against footpads
or rowdies." Very little has been known about Mutsu, who was said to be a
physical education instructor at Tokyo Imperial University and Vice President
of the Toyo University Karate Club. It
appears that Higaonna, whose mother resided in Olaa on the Big Island, was
his student or junior at the karate club.
Along with Miki
Nisaburo, Mutsu co-authored one of the early books on Karate entitled Kenpo
Gaisetsu, published in 1930. Prior to the publication of that book, the pair
had traveled to Okinawa to learn from several of the top Karate sensei. In
1933, just before coming to Hawaii, Mutsu published another book entitled
Karate (China Hand) Kenpo. This book was about 500 pages long and was definitely
the most complete and advanced book to that date. It provided drawings of
many kata and detailed applications of techniques, including defenses against
punches, grabs, knife, staff and sword. It also showed many joint locking
and throwing techniques.
Karate Do Kyohan did not come out until two years later and Genwa Nakasone's
landmark Karate-Do Taikan was not released until three years later. Mutsu's
book definitely established him as one of the leading experts of the day.
If there was
a problem with Karate Kenpo it was that it was extremely scarce. It was a
great book that almost no one could find and read-that was until 1999, when
the book was finally reprinted in Japan. Miyashiro, however, definitely had
an original copy of the brown, hardcover book. Many years after Mutsu's visit,
he gave the book to his student, who has it to this day. Mutsu remains a rather
mysterious character and at this point of my research, I cannot state very
much about who his teachers where or what became of him after returned to
Japan in the later part of 1933.
and Miyashiro as an assistant, taught Karate classes in and around Honolulu,
which are thought to be the first classes opened to students outside of the
Okinawan, and for that matter the Japanese, community. After Mutsu and Higaonna
returned the Japan in the later months of 1933, Miyashiro continued to teach
at least some of the classes.
Challenger From Hilo
married on September 29, 1933. He was only 18 and his bride was just 17. During
their honeymoon, the groom received a visit from a Karate sensei who lived
in Hilo (a town on the Big Island, which is also called Hawaii). The visitor
was many years senior to Miyashiro. He demanded a match and refused to leave
the yard of Miyashiro's Ft. Street house until his challenge was accepted.
Miyashiro refused many times but finally relented.
A relative of
Miyashiro described the match to me, which took place without a word being
spoken. Initially, neither of the two men could gain an advantage. When the
challenger attacked, Miyashiro was able to immediately counter. The challenger
handled the counters and resumed pressing the attack. This went on for some
time. Finally, Miyashiro decided to switch over to "Kung Fu!" He had apparently
learned the Chinese art from immigrants in Hawaii. This unsettled the challenger
who was unable to defend against the unorthodox (from a Karate perspective)
techniques. The challenger suffered an injury and was forced to withdraw.
returned to the house to get a white shirt for the challenger. I have heard
that the challenger may have suffered a broken arm. Miyashiro was uninjured.
were not uncommon in Okinawa, but appear to have been rare in Hawaii. In this
case, I understand that the challenger may have been a former training partner
of Choki Motobu in Okinawa. If so, he may have wanted to test Miyashiro, who
had learned from Motobu the year before. I have heard that former senior students
often tested their juniors in this manner.
The last major
sensei to visit Hawaii before World War II was Chojun Miyagi, who arrived
in May of 1934. Miyashiro's name can also be pronounced Miyagi, although I
do not believe that the two were related. I have heard that Miyagi visited
the Honolulu Ju Jitsu dojo of Professor Henry Seishiro Okazaki and that a
photograph of Miyagi was hung in the dojo to commemorate his visit. I have
been unable to obtain any further information or the photo. It is also reported
that Miyashiro conducted Karate classes in Okazaki's dojo. Miyashiro's relative
indicated to me that Miyashiro had learned Ju Jitsu, presumably from Okazaki
I have a photograph
of Taru Azama (who is also shown in the photo that follows with Miyashiro,
Higaonna and Uehara) with Okazaki Sensei and several well-built students in
swimming suits. The photograph was taken at Okazaki Sensei's house. It appears
that Karate training in the early days in Honolulu was not limited. Students,
such as Miyashiro and Azama, freely practiced Karate, Ju Jitsu (or later Judo)
and the Chinese arts. This is understandable given the close contact and interaction
of many different immigrant groups in Hawaii. It is for this reason that Hawaii
is often described as a "melting pot."
At the early
age of 23 (around 1938), Miyashiro discovered that he suffered from a serious
heart ailment. Karate training is physically demanding and requires speed,
strength and stamina. Nevertheless, Miyashiro did not let his heart condition
stop his training in and teaching of the art. His determination is truly admirable.
With the commencement
of World War Two, however, any remaining Karate classes in Hawaii promptly
ceased. Anyone found practicing a Japanese art risked arrest and internment.
During this time, many valuable Karate books and materials were burned, buried
the old way of Karate did not die with the war. Miyashiro, among others, continued
to practice and eventually to teach. It has been reported that Miyashiro resigned
from teaching Karate in the 1930s. This in incorrect, although he did teach
in a more private manner. As the superintendent of Wahiawa Botanical Garden,
Miyashiro and his family resided at a home there. Among his later students
who trained at the Botanical Gardens during the 1960s were one of his nephews
(the son of a Karate/Sumo man), and two students who had practiced Kenpo Karate
under the well-known instructors Masaichi Oshiro and Takamasa Bingo. One of
these students went on to train in Okinawa in the dojo of Hohan Soken. Bingo
Sensei, who had started training earlier with Miyashiro, later moved to the
Many Kenpo students
and teachers in Hawaii eventually studied traditional Okinawan forms of Karate
in an effort to learn the classical kata. Kenpo practice largely focused on
defensive drills, pairing-off patterns and various forms of kumite (sparring).
Some Kenpo dojo practiced the Naihanchi kata but few, if any, practiced the
complete curriculum of the Shuri or Naha systems. Miyashiro, himself, practiced
the Shuri-Te kata. While he was familiar with the five Pinan kata developed
by Itosu, he concentrated on such kata as Naihanchi Shodan, Wanshu, Passai
and Kusanku. He even contemplated writing a book on Karate and took several
dozen photographs of one of his students performing the various movements
of his kata. Sadly for us, the book was not written.
From time to
time, Miyashiro gave Karate demonstrations to help promote the art and old
ways. On February 27, 1965, at the Kyo Yu Kai New Year's party at Dot's Restaurant
in Wahiawa, he demonstrated defenses against a punch, knife and sword attack,
among other techniques. His attacker at that demonstration was Mr. Kato.
In 1967, Miyashiro
teamed up with none other than Kamesuke Higaonna, who had returned to Hawaii
some time earlier (probably 1950), to offer a Karate class on the second floor
of Agena's Store in Liliha, Honolulu. Even as late as the early 1970s, Miyashiro,
with Kato, started a public class at a Japanese school on Young Street in
Honolulu. This class was initially attended by about 30 students but was eventually
The demands of
teaching must have been difficult for Miyashiro. Commuting from Wahiawa to
Honolulu was time consuming (this was before the freeway). His heart condition
also worsened with age. Even in the 1960s, one of his students told me that
Miyashiro was often out of breath. He did not let this stop him, however,
and often taught and trained despite his wife's frequent admonitions to rest.
One of Miyashiro's
students from the 1960s, who was already a black belt in Kenpo Karate when
he started training, told me the following story. During their first meeting
at the Botanical Gardens, Miyashiro gestured to an empty Coke bottle standing
on the ground and directed the prospective student to kick it. You must keep
in mind that this was when Coke bottles were very thick. The student obeyed
and the bottle went flying. Miyashiro
retrieved the bottle and stood it up. "No, like this," he said with a lightning
fast kick of the tip of his big toe.
The student thought
that Miyashiro must have missed because the bottle remained standing in the
same place. "Pick it up," instructed Miyashiro. The student again obeyed.
When he reached for the bottle the neck broke off cleanly. Miyashiro's kick
had cracked the bottle without tipping it over. He later explained to the
student that this was only possible through the use of "ki." Another student
described his private training sessions with Miyashiro. Besides kata, Miyashiro
often practiced various forms of kumite. The student told me that he always
was thrown around by Miyashiro. Throwing, sweeps, joint lock and pressure
point striking appears to have been an integral aspect of Miyashiro's form
of "old style" Karate. By today's standards, many of the techniques utilized
by Miyashiro may seem quite brutal. Actually, they are very similar to those
taught by Motobu Sensei.
I started practicing
Karate in Hawaii just a few years before Miyashiro Sensei passed away. Bruce
Lee and "Kung Fu" movies were the rage at the time. Children in Hawaii watched
Japanese television shows like Kikaida, Ultra Man, and Rainbow Man. Tournaments
were popular and many schools offered Karate classes catering to the modern
needs and desires of students excited by the media. Eight and nine year old
(or younger) black belts were common, as were trophies, awards and certificates.
It was a time when many of the old timers simply shook their heads and said
"not that, not that."
I often ask myself
how Miyashiro, who had learned from some of Okinawa's and Hawaii's finest
sensei, could have kept teaching traditional Karate through such times. During
my research, I have discovered and met many sensei who also learned from great
teachers, only to discontinue teaching in Hawaii after just a few years. "Real
Karate is no longer taught in Hawaii," one of these sensei once told me. "How
can we learn if sensei such as yourself do not teach?" I replied.
gave up. Despite his physical hardships and the changing times, he continued
to teach the "old ways" of Karate. In his later years, he also pursued a greater
understanding of the mind and spirit through Zen. In The Life of Thomas S.
Miyashiro and Zen Buddhism (The Hawaii Hochi, July 6, 1969), he shared his
observation that peace of mind in today's hurried world, comes from being
in tune with nature. Perhaps his lifetime of work at parks and botanical gardens
gave him a better appreciation of nature than those of us confined all day
Although I never
met Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro-Hawaii's first Nisei Karate sensei-l feel very
fortunate to have learned by his life and example. I am especially grateful
to his wife who faithfully preserved so many of his historic Karate photographs
and graciously shared her memories with me.
you have any information about or photographs of the early days of Karate
in Hawaii, please contact the author.
C. Goodin is an instructor of Matsubayashi- Ryu at the non-profit Hikari Dojo
in Honolulu, Hawaii.
His sensei is Rodney Shimabukuro.
The Hikari Dojo (www.tanega.com/dojo/) is under Master Takayoshi Nagamine
of Naha, Okinawa (www.matsubayashiryu.com).
Mr. Goodin can be reached at
98-211 Pali Momi Street, Suite 640C, Aiea, Hawaii 96701. Telephone: (808)