A LEGEND IS MOURNED
It was Friday night, January 15, 1999. I came home late, made a cup of coffee and sipped while I listened to my phone messages. One message from my sempai Shiroma Katsuo informed me that on the 16th, about 2 P. M. I should go to the funeral parlor near the dojo in Tomishiro area near where Akamine sensei’s dojo.
Akamine Eisuke sensei, chairman of Ryu Kyu Kobudo Preservation and Promotion Association, was dead at the age seventy-four. Although he was ill for a long time his immediate family took care of him according to Okinawa’s tradition. Regardless of sensei’s condition students always showed sensei their techniques, spoke with sensei even though he was frail and was very thin. He never turned students away.
I lived, worked and studied on Okinawa for the past fourteen years, and I like to think I was a part of the training culture as much as any of the Okinawans themselves. The story is about Akamine sensei; the late Akamine sensei and I will get to that. But, I cannot talk about Akamine sensei without talking about the people around the master who made it possible for me to train with him and with his students.
Akamine sensei and Katherine (1997)
I came to Okinawa for the first time in December 1982. As a Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu student I studied at the headquarters of the late Nagamine Shoshin sensei in Kumoji, Naha, Okinawa. There I met my sempai Shiroma Katsuo, who was a young and vibrant Okinawa man. He spoke to me and I remember I did not understand a word of what he said other than the customary karate vocabulary. He taught me a tunfa kata, and that required no language. I liked that kata, and I liked Shiroma sensei’s vibrant communication although to this day I have no idea what he had said.
Since that first trip to Okinawa, I returned to Nagamine Shoshin sensei’s dojo many times for continuous training. There I met a true gentleman and awesome technician, a Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu teacher at Nagamine sensei’s dojo, and his name was Nakamura Seigi sensei. He was strong, sharp and very kind. Nakamura sensei spoke some English, and he was the only Okinawa elderly I saw who utilized an English-Japanese dictionary in order to communicate. Nakamura sensei gave me special training for hours at a time, and afterwards he took me and introduced me to teachers who he considered very good and they in turn taught me also. Nakamura sensei knew that besides Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu karate I was very much interested in Goju Ryu Karate and Okinawa weaponry. At that time twenty years ago I practiced very much with the Bo.
Nakamura sensei introduced me to Miyazato Eiichi sensei of JUNDOKAN and he also introduced me to Uehara Ko sensei, a long time student of Miyazato Eiichi sensei and a very strong Okinawa weapons practitioner. One month was not enough to learn all the things that I wanted to study. But since then, I returned to Okinawa again and again, and Nakamura sensei was always there to guide me and to instruct me further. During those years going to Okinawa was not a popular trip among practitioners from the United States. They used to travel to mainland Japan for karate instruction. In fact, I remember members of the United States National Karate Committee made fun by telling me that I studied ‘village karate’.
In a sense, they were correct. Okinawa was a village jumping out of the pages of martial arts history. I was born in a small village myself, located on a mountainside in southern Greece. Going to a village held special feelings for me. Nakamura sensei always took charge of my training, my recreation and me. Uehara Ko sensei’s dojo was walking distance from Nagamine Shoshin sensei’s dojo. My daily training schedule began six to eight o’clock every morning with a class taught personally by Nagamine Shoshin Sensei and followed with one hour of Zazen training. During the day Nakamura sensei would arrange a time and place to meet and to teach me also. In the afternoon I would first study Kobudo with Uehara Ko sensei, and then walk over to Nagamine sensei dojo and take the late class, which would start eight o’clock in the evening. This was the routine, which slowly but surely set my development, and Nakamura Seigi sensei oversaw everything.
On the average I trained six hours each day. It was a difficult schedule living in simple conditions, but I told myself that I was ‘living my dream’, and so, I endured. Since 1982 to 1986 I returned to Okinawa several times. When I concluded my amateur competitive career in August of 1986, I made arrangements to come to Okinawa to study for one year. The one-year extended to fourteen years.
While the world is moving forward at a high pace, karate and kobudo stands still on Okinawa. In fact, culture stands still on Okinawa. People practice and preserve accuracy of techniques with great detail. While the world is dazzled with fancy and colorful uniforms, Las Vegas style acrobatic performances performed to music, where practitioners hire designers to create unique outfits, music engineers mix and create unique melodies, dance choreographers put together difficult to execute moves, all in the name of martial arts performances; here on Okinawa, the simple, the austere, and the old ways prevail. And even though some Okinawa teachers were brave enough to write books they kept quiet about their accomplishments. In fact, it is not until a few years ago I learned that both Miyazato Eiichi sensei and Akamine Eisuke sensei wrote books, and according to Shurei Do martial arts manufacturer and owner Mr. Nakasone, those books were out of print.
I learned to train and to observe in silence. I paid attention to detail and listened. I was able to fill in the gaps, and since I did not know the language I had no idea how huge were those gaps. I loved going to Uehara Ko sensei dojo. I loved his method of explanations and the manner by which he trained us. As a rule, Okinawans are pretty easy going and so was Uehara Ko sensei. But when it came to training he was demanding. He wanted the details just the exact way he was showing us even though we could not always see them. The training on Okinawa for most of the time is individualized to students needs. Students must be motivated on their own because they have to go to the dojo and train by themselves. The teacher always observed and often asked students to demonstrate a particular technique, and afterwards gave corrections. Subsequently students continued to train on their own. That was difficult because in order to be accurate with the techniques we had to practice them endlessly on our own, besides doing all the necessary training to physically and cardiovascularly stay in shape. In the United States everyone strives to be different and unique, on Okinawa everyone studies on how to be exactly alike.
It is from Uehara Ko sensei that I first heard of Akamine Eisuke sensei. Uehara Ko sensei spoke frequently with Akamine sensei, and around 1987 Uehara Ko sensei talked to Akamine sensei about me. Uehara Ko sensei promised to take me and meet Akamine sensei when I was getting close to Shodan Testing for Ryu Kyu Kobudo. I remember we went on a Saturday afternoon. I was fascinated to see the dojo and to meet Akamine sensei. I had heard so much about him. I learned that he was a direct student of Taira Shinken sensei also maintained Gichin Funakoshi’s style of Shorin Ryu. I did not know what to expect. I remember when I went to Akamine sensei dojo with Uehara Ko sensei for the first time we entered a dojo made of wood. The dojo itself was very old. Wooden students’ nametags hung in lines in accordance with their ranks. The dojo’s windowpanes were wooden, the shudders were wooden, the floor bounced and creaked and that was old wood with huge cracks in between the beams. The ceiling was not particularly high and the training area was very small. I wondered how many people could actually train together all at one once. What fascinated me even more was that there were no changing rooms and there were no bathrooms. A little yard surrounded the dojo. Akamine sensei himself was a soft-spoken man. I performed kata and Uehara Ko sensei together with Akamine sensei observed and discussed the plusses and minuses of my performance. Afterwards we drank Japanese tea and left. Uehara Ko sensei and I went back to Akamine sensei many times since then, but the first time meeting has stayed with me.
My Shodan Testing was conducted in this dojo. We went to see Akamine sensei often, and as the years progressed, slowly Akamine sensei started to lose weight, and a few years ago everyone was convinced that sensei was seriously ill. He was loosing weight rapidly. Akamine sensei's son Hiroshi also practiced karate and Ryu Kyu Kobudo. Hiroshi sensei and the rest of the family decided that it would be great and would make Akamine sensei happy to see a new dojo. And so, on the same lot of land, the old dojo and house were taken down and in a short span of time, a new dojo, a modern three story building was erected. Although small, the new dojo was equipped the all the modern facilities. A modern sink and toilet, and bright wooden polished floors, concrete walls and large windows with cross ventilation. The dojo occupied the second floor. Visiting students lived on the third floor. Akamine sensei and his immediate family occupied the ground floor. Although everyone praised the new building and especially the dojo, for me, it was not the same anymore. The old building just like the old castles held a special feeling. It smelled different and somehow I felt different, but maybe that was just I.
Over the years, I became a direct student of Miyazato Eiichi sensei and continued to practice Ryu Kyu Kobudo with my old time sempai Shiroma Katsuo. In August 1997, there was a world Karate Kobudo Championships sponsored by the Okinawa Prefecture government and held in the newly built Budokan. There were two days of seminars prior to the actual tournament. Ryu Kyu Kobudo seminar attracted many students, and Akamine sensei observed our training while he sat in a wheel chair. One young man from South America took a third place in men’s Sai competition, and I won the women’s black belt Bo Kata category. A few weeks after the tournament there was a little party celebration at Akamine sensei’s dojo and students were glad to make Akamine sensei feel happy. That was the year of 1997. We did not see very much of Akamine sensei in 1998.
On January 14, 1999 the curtain fell for this seventy–four year old practitioner. During the years I had known sensei I never heard him raise his voice, he was always soft spoken and he was always kind to those around him. The funeral service held on January 16th, was attended by hundreds of people. Besides relatives, there were hundreds of people who over the years trained with him and those who had worked with him. The students who were really close to Akamine sensei and the students who studied at the Hombu dojo ushered the people and directed traffic. In this manner respects were paid to this great and yet simple man. Exiting the funeral, we gave a slight bow to those who clearly were close to sensei and were ushers for the day. One student asked me: “Katherine, what shall we do?” I could not think of a right answer. Certainly he knew more kata than I did, and he had studied longer than I had. What should I say? I said: “Gambarimasho.”
Bubishi Karate Do Organization