BRIDGING PAST AND FUTURE
By Dong Tran
This interview with Chinen Sensei took place at the Jundo-Kan International's Spring Gasshuku on Sunday, May 31, 1997, in Montclair, New Jersey.
Sensei, thank you for granting me this interview. As your student, I see you as a living bridge between the past, from the roots of Gojuryu in Okinawa, and the future, when the traditions will have been firmly transplanted to American soil.
Sensei, [if] I understand correctly, you were born in 1941, in Kobe, Japan, and moved to Okinawa at a young age. There you lived three doors down from Miyagi Sensei's house and were formally introduced to him by your uncle to begin your training in Gojuryu. Your main instructor was Miyazato Sensei, who taught you under Miyagi Sensei's watchful eye. After Miyagi Sensei passed away in 1953, you helped Miyazato Sensei move the training equipment to the new dojo, which was the Jundo-Kan.
Q: Sensei, when did you come to the USA?
A: I came to this country in 1969. Between 1958 and 1969, I was in Tokyo at the Yoyogi dojo, helping Mr. Higaonna Morio teach gaijin (foreigners).
There had been an outpouring of demand for Gojuryu teachers in Europe, South Africa, and South America, and I was supposed to go to Brazil, but because the situation there was unstable at the time, I went to the U.S. instead.
Q: What was your original intention?
A: I only expected to be in this country for three months; however, when I came to Spokane and saw the deplorable level of Gojuryu there, I took time and great pains to correct it. After six months--twice the length of time I had planned to stay--I realized that it would be easier to start from scratch than to fix the problems. It's usually better to rebuild a house than to remodel it!
Q: Why did you stay permanently?
A: Finally, I figured that since things were still chaotic in Brazil, I might as well stay in the U.S. I supplemented my meager dojo income by teaching karate at universities and colleges; I also taught at the YMCA, YWCA and at the Lions Club. I decided to stay because I felt I was a good ambassador for Gojuryu.
Q: [I] Remember first meeting you in 1984. You were like a missionary among savages! What did you think of the level of Gojuryu practitioners back then? What did you think your role was in correcting the situation?
A: Even though I was in the U.S. from 1969 on, I did not focus right away on American karate. Between 1973 and 1979, I was busy traveling to Europe and South Africa, laying the foundation for the IOGKF (International Okinawan Gojuryu Karatedo Federation, chaired by Higaonna Morio Sensei) which I co-chaired. Mr. James Rousseau, myself, and a few other Europeans built a strong international organization.
I did not start concentrating on American Karatedo until 1979. At that time, the people who accepted me and recognized me were Shotokan people--the JKA. I went to their tournaments, and they put me in charge of the Gojuryu division in AAKF. It was the Shotokan people, mainly on the west coast, who gave me recognition.
Then somebody wrote an article about me in a magazine and, gradually, I was introduced to mainstream American practitioners. The Gojuryu that I saw when I finally visited dojos across the country was very poor, but I knew it wasn't anybody's fault. I understood there had been many teachers before, many bridges, and the messages often got crossed. There was such a gap between those practitioners and me! I didn't want to make any instructor uncomfortable. My job first was to encourage people, not discourage them. I started correcting the basics and built the katas on them. Once we had some common ground, I could build on it. It was harder working with the instructors than with the beginners, because they had high rank and their pride prevented them from training with me in front of their students. And sometimes their students were better than they! But I understood the situation. So I gave them private instruction whenever I could, usually during breaks.
Q: Throughout the years, have you noticed any change in the level of training in this country?
Yes, there has been a definite improvement. The instructors' teaching skills have gotten better, too. People are more open-minded, and they are in better condition to absorb more techniques.
Q: Do you think there is a greater awareness of authentic, traditional karate in the U.S. now?
A: I think the public's awareness of traditional Karatedo has increased. I also hope that with my greater contact with practitioners around the country, the situation will be even better.
Q: Sensei, what countries around the world have you visited? Do you think there is also a greater awareness of traditional Karatedo there as well?
A: Over the past twenty-eight years, I have visited about fifty countries--too many to mention, and some of them are no longer on the map due to political events!
People's awareness depends on the countries. Some countries, unfortunately, are still struggling with very basic issues of survival. Others, such as South Africa, have a very high awareness of good karate. South Africa is JKA Shotokan country!
Q: To what do you attribute such awareness? Do you feel you have contributed to that awareness?
A: The level of awareness of the public is due to the efforts of the Senseis, instructors, and the practitioners, who react to low quality karate. But it's the public that ultimately makes the decision. We cannot make the decision for them. They will choose based on what we make available to them. I feel I have definitely contributed to that awareness. People come first.
Q: What are your hopes for the future of Karatedo in this country?
A: I have often thought about this question. Especially two years ago, when I was very ill (of undiagnosed diabetes), I thought to myself, "I can't die yet! Let me finish my work. My people are not ready yet!" But thanks to modern medicine, I have recovered, my health is under control now, and the future seems brighter.
I hope that the next generations will not only improve technically but also know how to share their knowledge. People must pass on the traditions and not lose them. In the old days in China and Okinawa, the teaching was done behind closed doors. Now, thanks to the media, Karatedo is no longer a secret. There's more sharing now.
Q: Do you think there should be a unifying federation for all Okinawan martial arts in the U.S.? If so, would you consider playing a major role in establishing it?
A: No, my personal opinion is that martial arts are very individual. An organization overseeing distinct and separate martial arts such as the Okinawan systems would eventually hurt the quality of those arts. Culturally and traditionally, the Okinawan martial arts are too individual and distinct to be grouped together arbitrarily.
Q: What do you see as the future of Jundo-Kan International?
A: I see the horizontal relationship between instructors growing in a positive direction. I am concerned about passing on the flavor of Gojuryu to your brothers and sisters in Jundo-Kan International.
Q: Sensei, what is your relationship with Chinen Masami Sensei of Yamanni-ryu?
Yamanni-Chinen-ryu has always carried two arts: one is the weapons system and the other is Shorin-ryu karate. Masami Chinen was my grand-uncle. He lived in Shuri, Okinawa, and worked at the Shuri City Hall, as did my brother. I used to call him grand-uncle Shobi. The kanji for Masa was alternately pronounced "Sho" or "Sei" in Chinese. That was my family line.
My family practiced both Shorin-ryu and Yamanni-ryu weaponry. According to my brother, my father taught weaponry in Kobe, Japan, as an amateur stylist. But because he was a Japanese naval officer, he adopted the Japanese ways and did not use the Masa name for his children. Consequently, my brothers and I all received Japanese names-Akira, Hirokazu, Teruo, and Toshio. No more Chinese names, no more Masa line!
Q: In closing, Sensei, do you think weapons training is a good complement for karate?
A: Absolutely. Even Kendo training, for suburi (cutting practice). The Okinawan weapons system (such as the kon/bo, sai, tunfa, nunchaku) provide a form of kigu-undo (supplemental training) that is invaluable for wrist work, arms, body coordination, and kime (focus). Also, weapons students must have good Karatedo basics, good foundation.
DT: Thank you very much, Sensei, for this interview. You have given us much food for thought, and I hope that students and readers will have gained a better sense of perspective and responsibility as they stand at the threshold of history.
Kumite, as long as it follows tournament [Shiai] rules, it is good practice. I encourage people to compete. You pay an entrance fee and spar with total strangers. This gives you an approximation of a street fight. As you do it over and over, you get used to the situation and it toughens you. I used to compete, not just in karate, but also in judo and kendo. I was an excellent loser!
But tournament [Shiai] is okay for kyu-grade holders and young black belts. Too much of it makes you lose the classical flavor, because tournament [Shiai] rules force uniformity on people, and styles and individuality is gone.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sensei Dong Tran is a 4th dan Jundo-Kan International instructor who has been training under Chinen Sensei since 1984.
He has also achieved the rank of Nidan in Yamanni-ryu under Toshihiro Oshiro Sensei.
His dojo, the Asian Arts Center, is located in West Caldwell, NJ.
Its Web Site is: