Hawaii Karate Seinenkai

The following article appeared in Dragon Times, Volume 17, 2000. See Dragon Times Online. Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.


Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro:
Hawaii's First Nisei Karate Sensei

By Charles C. Goodin

Born on April 25, 1915, in Waimanalo, Hawaii, to parents Kana 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 superintenent 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.

Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro (1915-1977).
Photo courtesy of the Miyashiro family.

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.

His 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 Hawaii.

Miyashiro (right) practices with his first instructor, Mr. Kuniyoshi (left), in Kapiolani Park. Diamond Head is in the background. Photo courtesy of the Miyashiro family.

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 interisland 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 isolated.

In addition, 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 Okinawan community.

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.

Training 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.

Kentsu Yabu.

Miyashiro trained 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 as adults.

Choki Motobu

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.

Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro, Taru Azama, Kamesuke Higaonna, and Seishin Uehara. Honolulu 1933. Photo courtesy of the families of Seishin Uehara and Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro.

Mutsu & Higaonna

Zuiho Mutsu (or Mizuho Mutsu, formerly known as Mizuho Takada) and Kamesuke Higaonna of Tokyo Imperial and 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. Gichin Funakoshi's 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.

Mutsu, Higaonna, 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.

A Challenger From Hilo

Miyashiro was 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.

Afterwards, Miyashiro 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.

Challenge matches 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.

Chojun Miyagi

The last major sensei to visit Hawaii before WWII 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. Miyoshiro's relative indicated to me that Miyashiro had learned Ju Jitsu, presumably from Okazaki Sensei.

I have a photograph of Taru Azama (who is also shown in the preceding photo with Miyashiro, Higaonna and Uehara) with Okazakai 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 or lost.

After the War

Fortunately, 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 1930's. 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 1960's 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 mainland.

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 1970's, 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 discontinued.

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 1960's, 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 1960's, 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.

Miyashiro never 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 to offices.

Although I never met Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro--Hawaii's first Nisei Karate sensei--I 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.

If you have any information about or photographs of the early days of Karate in Hawaii, please contact the author.


Contact Charles C. Goodin


Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.