Kosei Nishihira June 10, 1942 - May 14, 2007

Kosei Nishihira

Kosei Nishihira

Kosei Nishihira was born June 10, 1942, three years before the Battle of Okinawa as one of the youngest of nine children. At the time, Okinawa was a possession of a Japan at war across Asia. Many in that generation suffered incredibly as the fiercest battle in the Pacific Theater claimed the lives of as many as one third of all Okinawans. Severe poverty and in many, many cases, orphanhood shaped the early part of their lives.

Sensei’s family had roots in a shizoku family living in a tiny village on the hill overlooking Yonabaru. Although many of these former warrior families transformed during the Meiji era Okinawa and became landowners who served in good jobs as local civil administrators, the circumstances of Nishihira Sensei’s family and youth were humble. It was common at that time for rural children to gather for informal school under a gajimaru banyan tree, learning to read by repeating after the teacher and in some cases learning to write in the dirt.

There was a U.S. military camp nearby and Sensei told us that many of the children first encountered Amerikaa by running alongside the trucks as they passed, calling to the G.I.s to toss them Mars bars from their rations. Some of Sensei’s relatives and acquaintances worked as nannies and housekeepers for servicemen’s families and he told us a few times about the otherworldly experience it was for him to go into camp. Once he told us what these relatives would say about the foreign children on base—that they were angels when their parents were present and umakuu (little devils) when mom and dad were not. Sensei had a playful streak and told us that he enjoyed this about the American children. On Okinawa, sometimes the young G.I.s and other grownup foreigners showed similar attitudes in ways that were less innocent. Mixed feelings about Americans are common among this generation from Japan to Korea to the Philippines—fondness for some foreigners and what they brought, and disappointment with other things and people.

It was during middle school that Nishihira Sensei began going to Soken Sensei’s house. Nishihira Sensei said that Soken Sensei had a story and presence unlike anyone in the area. Soken Sensei had left Okinawa in his thirties during one of several waves of emigrants to Hawaii, Latin America and the West Coast. Very few of those who left came back. Soken Sensei came back from Argentina in the 1950s to a rural community with a relative fortune and with karate largely untouched by the years of the Japonization of much of Okinawan karate—a process that accelerated during his absence. “Tanmei” as Sensei sometimes called Soken Sensei was well-connected and sought out the old karate people who had kept to themselves, sometimes sending his students on exchange to other teachers. Soken Sensei became very well-known. He was a tough teacher, training was difficult and the young Nishihira Sensei often faced off with men who were much older and larger than he was. Sensei said he has been told that fighting bigger and stronger opponents influenced his karate.

Sensei used to walk down the hill from his home to middle school and on to Soken Sensei’s house after classes. At the time, there were few paved roads and the best roads in the area were the ones used by the military. Over the last 40 years, however, the ruling party in Japan shored up a bedrock of support among rural voters by subsidizing employment and infrastructure with extensive public works construction. The very low crime, the beautiful roads and a monorail from the airport to locations not far from Sensei’s house in today’s Okinawa don’t give a sense for what it was like when Sensei’s generation was growing up.

Soken Sensei’s house was located in the opposite direction from Sensei’s school, so training after school meant walking home after dark. After dark, it would get pitch black and being out could get dangerous. After getting home, Sensei used to go into the woods near his house to drill the things he was being taught. The rigorous training he imposed on himself helped shape Nishihira Sensei’s character, aggressive fighting style and reputation. If you ever see pictures of Sensei during his twenties, his facial expression and his bearing show this. He had a number of jobs during his twenties. Time spent as a taxi driver put him in frequent contact with G.I.s who sometimes tried to stiff drivers on the fare or rob them for the cashbox. Sensei tapped into his early training experience on a few occasions when faced with guys much larger than him.

Sensei settled down as he got into his late twenties and early thirties. He married the daughter of a kobudo man and they had two sons. Sensei built a home in Nishihara within walking distance from Soken Sensei’s house in Gaja and opened a bentoyasan lunchbox service which his family still runs today. Sensei’s choices of location and job enabled him to train regularly and to help look after Soken Sensei as he got older.

Soken Sensei had several main groups of students who trained together, guest students from other teachers and some students who did not interact much with the main groups. Nishihira Sensei’s preferred teaching style was the style he liked most when working out with Soken Sensei—“man to man.” One-on-one instruction gives a teacher the ability to pass the oral traditions of the style while helping the student to feel the difference.

Sensei preferred to be kakure bushi and was very private about his training. Despite living in the same place for years, many of Sensei’s neighbors did not know he did karate until foreigners began visiting him in the mid-90s. Over the years, Sensei was approached by other teachers and pressured by some of his students to join associations and to open a public dojo, and he chose to avoid this and stick to the old ways. In 2000 there was a large tournament in Okinawa and a dojo directory was published. Sensei chose only to list himself as the “Kaneku Dojo,” named for the small neighborhood in which he lived. To our knowledge none of his students ever paid him anything. Training and teaching were lonely. He would say that “you learn the okugi secrets by yourself.” Students were expected to be self-starting. Sensei suggested changes and showed a student new things when the student showed his training matured to the point that he was ready for them. Sometimes students look different from others—part of the reason is that with this style of teaching, instruction gets shaped by what each brought to the training.

Sensei used to say that Soken Sensei had a nijujinkaku—a split personality. Sensei said that Soken Sensei could be very encouraging to students on one day, but could show a deep mean streak on the next. This was generally a calculated way of pushing them along. Soken Sensei could be very mischievous and sometimes introduced competition between students to motivate them, talking one up like a prize fighter by saying he was better than another while saying the same things to the other student. Nishihira Sensei sometimes enjoyed doing similar things.

One of our games with Sensei was to call him on this, which added to the fun among students and helped build a tighter bond. This method gets misunderstood sometimes and it has been said that Matsumura karate as a style is scattered (“bara bara”) because of it. This is not inconsistent however with what some people call a “village style” of teaching karate, which operates more like meritocracy and cares little for formal hierarchy among students. Sensei appreciated students’ efforts to make good relations and to respect the style and teacher by keeping the peace inside and outside the group. Sensei trained alone for years and his self-motivation was remarkable. He would use phone calls or visits from a student as a way to boost his and the student’s energy. Even into his sixties, he could get very animated when hearing about something a student just discovered. He himself would talk about how we was trying to develop and would often say “I think I just saw where all this goes from here.” (“Kono saki wo mieta kamoshirenai.”) We never heard him say his karate had reached a peak until he said he thought he had “put it together” in the latter part of 2005. To hear this was surprising.

We last saw Sensei a few months later when we went to see him in February 2006. Sensei tired more easily and we asked several times whether he was feeling all right. He insisted he was fine. Although we do not know when Sensei first knew he was sick, we learned later that October that he was in the hospital to have tumors removed from his brain. Despite medical treatments that are hard on the patient, Sensei kept his sense of humor, and his temper. We tried to respect the family’s request that we not disturb Sensei during his recovery. It was very difficult not to get on an airplane. We spoke to Sensei on the phone. Once while he was in the hospital, Sensei’s response was kind but heart wrenching: “I’ve caused you to worry. As long as you are there, I am fine.” (“Shimpai kaketa ne. Anata ha ireba daijoubu.”) It is still very hard to feel like we were there enough without being present.

Sensei had told us about his last words with Soken Sensei. We tried several times to tell Nishihira Sensei how much he meant to us, but he was not having any weepy talk—he’d tease us instead. Sometimes, things are expressed better by not saying them. We hope that he got our message. Now, training well is the best way to show him what we would have liked to say.

Sensei passed away on May 14, 2007. A wake was held at his home shortly after and was well attended by the karate community.