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Taira, Shinken (1897-??)

Taira Shinken was born as Maezato Shinken on the tiny island of Kumejima in the village of Nakazato, in what is now Okinawa Prefecture, on June 12, 1897. He was the second son of three boys in his family and as a child acquired the nickname "Mosa", meaning rascal, due to his mischievous nature (Nakamoto, 1983).

Although officially recorded in the census records as Maezato Shinken, he often used the name "Taira", his mother's maiden name (Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977). Be that as it may, he graduated from Nakazato Jinjo Elementary school and later began work at a mine in Minami Jima. It was during his days working in the mine that Taira Shinken's life was significantly changed.

During one of his shifts at the mine, he was caught in a cave-in and buried alive! Badly injured and with a broken leg he somehow managed to dig his way to safety. After the accident he returned to Kumejima to rest and recuperate. However, as a result of the accident Taira was left with a limp to his right leg which he carried for the rest of his life (Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977). After he had recovered he travelled to Kita Daito Jima to continue his work as a miner; however, his co-workers were merciless in their taunts toward Taira calling him "useless" or "worthless" because of the limp in his right leg (Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977). At first Taira felt deeply embarrassed and ashamed, but then resolved to make his body stronger and decided that Bujutsu (martial arts) was the best means to reach his goal (Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977).

So at the age of 25 he left his work and travelled to the Japanese mainland intent on studying Judo. In Tokyo, however, he had a chance meeting with Funakoshi Gichin Sensei who was working towards popularizing Karate on the Japanese mainland (Nakamoto, 1983). Taira was deeply impressed with what Funakoshi Sensei said to him and reconsidered his plan of studying Judo. He formally entered Funakoshi Sensei's dojo as an Uchi-deshi (live-in student) in September of 1922 and studied with Funakoshi Sensei for the next eight years, becoming his assistant instructor and one of Funakoshi Sensei's closest students (Nakamoto, 1983). During this time Funakoshi and Taira Sensei travelled extensively in the Kanto area demonstrating and promoting Karate at various Colleges and Universities, including Chuo University, Ritsumei University, Meiji University and Nihon Medical University. During these demonstrations Taira often performed tameshiwari and would break six boards at a time with a shuto (knife hand strike) (Nakamoto, 1983)!

Taira's interest in Budo did not stop at Karate, and in May of 1929, with Funakoshi's recommendation, he entered Yabiku Moden Sensei's Dojo to study Ryukyu Kobudo (Nakamoto, 1983). Mabiku Sensei, like his colleague Funakoshi Sensei, was working for the promotion of Karate-do as well as Ryukyu Kobudo on the Japanese mainland. In fact, both Mabiku Sensei and Funakoshi Sensei were quite well acquainted having both received instruction in Shuri-te from Itosu Sensei on Okinawa (Alexander, 1991). During his study under Mabiku Sensei, Taira Sensei mastered the use of such weapons as the Bo (6' staff), Eku (oar), Sai (metal truncheon), Tonfua (right angled hand truncheon), and Nunchaku (wooden flail) (Nakamoto, 1983).

From the example his two teachers demonstrated, Taira worked hard to master what he had learned from both of them. After his training was completed in 1932, he was granted permission to open a dojo in Ikahononsen city in Gunma prefecture where he taught Karate and Kobudo. In the following year, 1933, Taira received his Menjo (formal teaching license) in Ryukyu Kobudo from Yabiku Sensei (Nakamoto, 1983).

Taira's thirst for knowledge of Kobudo and Karate-do led him to invite Mabuni Kenwa Sensei, an acquaintance of Funakoshi's, from Osaka in 1934 to receive instruction in Kobudo and Karate-do techniques. Mabuni Sensei graciously accepted Taira's invitation and taught him until his return to Okinawa in 1940. During those six years, Taira housed and paid Mabuni Sensei for his instruction and under the close scrutiny of Mabuni Sensei, Taira expanded his knowledge of Kata and techniques of the Bo and Sai (Nakamoto, 1983; Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977).

Early Experimentation in Full Contact Fighting

During his time teaching in Gunma Prefecture, Taira Shinken began to experiment with the idea of full contact weapons sparring. A photo taken of him in 1934 shows him in a patchwork of armour consisting of boxing gloves, rounded metal shoulder pads and chest protector (Bishop, 1996). The armour he was attempting to develop had to be flexible enough so as not to hinder movement, but also strong enough to resist the blow of a staff (Bishop, 1996). He also fashioned Bo and Sai from bamboo, based on the design of the Kendo shinai (Sells, 1994). He also developed an over-sized makiwara (striking post) for the Bo in order to improve accuracy and build power (Nakamura, 1983; Sells, 1994).

Taira's early attempts at developing full contact weapons training were later abandoned possibly due to a shortage of materials and supplies due to Japan's ever growing involvement in World War II. After Taira's death his most senior student Akamine Eisuke continued Taira's early attempts; however, Akamine focused exclusively on developing full contact competition in which both fighters use a staff. By using the breastplate, helmet and gloves of modern Kendo along with carbon-fiber staffs padded at each end and by restricting the areas which were legal to strike for competition, Akamine produced a somewhat realistic and safe means for practicing full contact weapons training in a competitive environment (Bishop, 1996).

Origin of the Manji Sai

It was during his time teaching in Gunma Prefecture that Taira allegedly developed the Manji sai and its accompanying kata. The manji sai is a metal truncheon resembling the shape of a swastika (See Weaponry of Ryukyu Kobudo). Although the manji sai has had a long history in China and Okinawa (where it is commonly employed at the end of a 6' staff and is referred to as a Nunte Bo) Taira's inspiration for the weapon supposedly came after visiting a local Buddhist temple located outside the city to pray for the success of his newly opened dojo. There he saw a large Manji (the ancient Sanskrit symbol of life and rebirth) which resembled in Taira's eyes a Kobudo weapon (Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977). Almost instantly Taira was inspired as to how to create a weapon from its unique shape.

Immediately after he returned to his dojo, he formulated his ideas for both the construction of the Manji sai and the sai kata Jigen no Sai. The kata itself is based upon techniques Taira had learned in other sai kata, with one unique difference. The Jigen no sai kata takes advantage of the Manji sai's unique shape (both sides of the weapon having a sharp point) and employs many double handed thrusting techniques (Minowa Katsuhiko, personal interview, 1996).

It is interesting to note that the kanji that Taira selected for his new kata, Jigen no Sai can be translated as the "foundation of love / compassion". Taira's choice of kanji may be perhaps due to the source of his inspiration: a Buddhist symbol.

Promoting Ryukyu Kobudo

In 1940 Taira returned to Okinawa and shortly after the death of Yabiku Sensei in 1941, established the Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinko-Kai, the association for the preservation and promotion of Ryukyu Kobudo in Naha based on the organization of Yabiku Sensei's Ryukyu Kobujutsu Kenkyu Kai (Nakamoto, 1983; Bishop, 1996).

The curriculum of Taira's Hozon Shinkokai included instruction in the use of nine different weapons and their respective Kata which he had learned throughout his years of instruction or which he had created himself. He also continued to make frequent trips to both the Kanto and Kansai areas to teach and promote Kobudo on the Japanese mainland. His students on the mainland was a veritable "who's who" of Karate greats, such as Sakagami, Ryushou (Shito-ryu), Hayashi, Teruo (Shito-ryu), Kuniba, Shogo (Goju-ryu) and Mabuni, Kenei (son of Shito-ryu founder Mabuni, Kenwa) (Sells, 1994). In addition, in the early 1960's Taira published the first comprehensive book on Ryukyu Kobudo in Japanese entitled, "Ryukyu Kobudo Taiken" which added greatly to popularize the art on Okinawa (Bishop, 1996).

Later in the 1960's Taira formalized and strengthened his association by appointing his students to different positions within the Shinko Kai and established testing and licensing standards for his students. Also in 1963, to further the growth of Karate-do and Kobudo at an international level, the Kokusai Karate-do Kobudo Renmei was formed with Higa Seiko as chairman and Taira Shinken as vice chairman. Later in 1964 Taira Shinken was recognized as a master teacher of Kobudo by the All Japan Kobudo Federation and was awarded his Hanshi certification (Nakamoto, 1983; Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, 1977).

After Taira Shinken's death his favorite and most trusted student, Akamine Eisuke, took over the position as the chairman of the Ryukyu Hozon Shinko Kai, while the rest of the students took over various positions within the organization. In an attempt to expand Ryukyu Kobudo, Akamine Sensei opened his own dojo in Naha in 1971, naming it the Shinbu Kan (Bishop, 1989; 1996). This was followed by other students of Taira Shinken such as Minowa, Nakasone, Inoue and Nakamoto opening their own respective dojos.

Published with permission of Mario McKenna of the Okinawa Shinshu Kai: (Edited for punctuation and clarity)

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Maezato Shinken, Manji Sai,karate, karate do, Maezato Shinken, Mosa, Maezato Shinken,Funakoshi Gichin, Yabiku Moden, full contact, Manji sai, Jigen no Sai, Ryukyu Kobudo Taiken

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