14. Menkyo (and other) Secrecy

Matt Nilsen asks the following questions:

“On a shugyo level – were all of the previous instructors you had Menkyo instructors. Were the 4 instructors who went to Japan all menkyo instructors?”

First, let’s take the second question: “Were the 4 instructors who went to Japan all menkyo instructors?” You may remember, Matt, that Menkyo means license. As such all of the four instructors that you wonder about were licensed to teach karate as Sensei. Kenwa Mabuni was licensed by both Itosu and Higashionna before their deaths in 1915. Gichen Funakoshi was licensed by Itosu and perhaps Azato (prior to 1905). Chojun Miyagi was licensed by Kanryo Higashionna. Ohstuka was licensed as a Sensei in juijutsu (Shinto-yoshi-ryu) before he began karate. He held a high rank and ran a dojo in Japan before beginning karate. He was later (I think) licensed as a Sensei in karate by Gichin Funakoshi. Each of these received a wooden plaque indicating they were licensed (menkyo) as Sensei.

When we discuss severe training (shugyo) there is really no record of who has served as shugyo. Severe training is not celebrated. No documents are issued. The name is written in WATER. (To understand why the name is written in water see my discussion in an earlier essay; Shugyo = water phase.) How long does the record remain in the water? only the instant of writing then it is gone forever. Severe training is a state of the mind more than an issued license. When your Sensei says you are accepted, in any one of many ways which this may be done, no further celebration or recognition occurs; Only work remains. There is no celebration because the acceptance into shugyo is not an accomplishment; it is a beginning. There is no written license. The license is an understanding between you and your Sensei, nothing more.

As for Matt’s first question about my instructors in martial arts I answer the following. Some of them were gyo-instructors, that is, they taught under the auspices of another licensed instructor. Al Owen, my first judo instructor was a brown belt when I started training with him in Judo. I really doubt that he was a licensed Sensei, although at the time I had no idea even what it meant. As I continued to train in San Bernardino, Riverside and even as far away as Oceanside I ran across a lot of high ranking judoka. Some of them may have been menkyo Sensei, and perhaps had trained severely in the years before judo entered the Olympics. I was 12 to 19 years old. I had only just heard of words like samurai, bushi, shugyo but had no idea what they meant by the time I started training in karate.

Then as judo entered the Olympics a concerted effort was made to get good competitors to represent the United States. Judo schools (hardly true dojo) sprouted up everywhere, many run by green and brown belts. Promotions were held at tournaments where the emphasis was on winning bouts. The more bouts you won in your division the greater your chance of being promoted. No questions were asked. No recommendations about attitude were required. If you won enough you got promoted. Judo gave up its old standard to become the Olympic sport that it now is. Where is the menkyo in judo now? The standard is Olympic not menkyo.

Mr. Michael Gneck was a third degree black belt in shorin-ryu karate when I began training with him in 1964. I know he was licensed by Shimabuku as Sensei as was his fifth degree brother, Tony Gneck. He mentioned words like sensei and samurai when he taught but I was only a beginner when he closed his dojo at the YMCA. In the year or more that I trained I really wasn’t privileged to learn very much beyond the fighting techniques and a few foreign named forms.

From 1965-1969 was my age of trying to find a good school. I went to nearly every karate dojo in Southern California. I trained in shotokan (Ohshima), Kung-fu (Bok), Wado-ryu (Tanaka), Shorin-ryu (Gneck) and others. This was also a time when I was in the first two years of medical school (1967-1969) and I had little free time. When I did get a chance I went where ever a claim was made that martial arts were practiced. I wasn’t much impressed in a lot of cases. One discovery I made, however, was that there was more to martial arts than beating an opponent. I learned that there was a strategy to winning and a process to develop strategy that only the masters taught to their most trustworthy students. When I asked how I could get into this inner circle I was told that I couldn’t for I wasn’t Japanese or Okinawan and that I didn’t even speak the language needed.

From 1969-71 I was in the midst of the busy years in medical school. Back in those days medical students were expected to be on call every third night. That left a night to recover the sleep needed and one night to study. Then the cycle was repeated. I did not attend martial arts schools and, in fact, was quite disenchanted with the secrecy and the rejection for a position in the secrecy-training which I had received. I graduated from medical school in June 1971 and three weeks later began my internship. This internship had on-call schedules of every fourth night. I rested and enjoyed the increase in free-time, but soon got restless to tackle the challenge of how to get what I wanted in martial arts.

I had heard of a young Sensei who trained at Norton Air Force Base named Del Saito. He was American born and spoke English. When he opened a small dojo on Baseline Street in San Bernardino I made an appointment to talk with him. I will never ever forget the conversation. After the appropriate introductions and small talk, I broached the subject of secret-trainings where advanced students got more than how to block and kick. Silence….

Del Saito is a master of expressionless faces, and of silence. After a few moments, long enough for my undisciplined attitude to think he didn’t know a “damn thing about what I was talking about,” he said to me, “I can give you more than you’ll ever want.”

I asked him “what?” He answered he couldn’t say. Then he added he had a profound source in his Sensei, a man I later found out was named Mr. Al Kahalekulu. I asked him about me being a “hagujin” (white person). He said it made no difference. I asked him what all the secrecy was about. He said that I would have to find out for myself.

That afternoon I took a private lesson. Within a month I was in Hawaii training with Sensei Al Kahalekulu, and a great bunch of well-trained martial artists including John Isabello, George Versola, John Widmer, Ben Ballesteros and others.

At Mr. Saito’s school the training consisted of phases. The first phase was easy to get. When you stepped into the dojo it began. The second phase I was to learn, involved an invitation and much greater discipline with harder training. It was a training in which your spirit was touched and your source of personal strength was exercised. At first, I didn’t know how it would start or when. Then one day I knew it had started. That day was when I was invited to a special black-belt “academy” but I wasn’t a black belt. My life hasn’t been the same since that day.

At Del Saito’s school the word menkyo was never used. I never heard it. The word shugyo was used, but as I look back at it I don’t remember how often or in what context. The term samurai spirit was used frequently. The term sensei was commonplace. The term sozosha was generally said as shugyosha, and so for years with Mr. Kim I was confused. The terms meijin, shihan, renshi, kyoshi, hanshi were used frequently. The reference to severe training was in phases.

In 1973 Del Saito joined Chuzo Kotaka. I was forced out of the organization within a year. I was told by long-term student of Chuzo Kotaka, Dave Krieger, that I didn’t stand a chance of acceptance by Sensei Kotaka for he only wanted to teach Nihonjin (Japanese) and I was Hagujin (white person).

Deflated and ronin (wandering, Sensei-less person) I went to Hawaii to try to straighten things out with Mr. Kotaka. I couldn’t even get an audience. I contacted (for the last time) Mr. Kahalekulu (Del Saito’s original instructor). He advised me to talk to Mr. John Isabello. I went to John Isabello’s house and asked him what he thought I should do. He recommended that I go to Mr. Miyaji’s dojo in Waipahu and ask him about my situation.

I went to Waipahu and trained with Sensei James Miyaji for two weeks. I asked him about severe training. He said, “train hard, not so much talk.” Over the next four years I was introduced to a slightly different type of menkyo system than Mr. Saito’s. It was much more formalized with stricter rules and standards than what I had previously learned.

It is now about 27 years that I have been searching for the way (do) in the menkyo system of martial arts. I don’t know how much about it I have learned but I do know that under whatever guise it hides, the menkyo and secrecy has always been a part of the martial arts tradition. This secrecy, however, is not present in the same way in every school. At Aoinagi Karate the “secrecy” is based on the student’s desire and dedication. The “secrets” are learned by those who want to learn them. There is no “initiation;” There is no exclusion by gender, race, religion, political party. It is based only on the person’s desire to learn something more than what they are getting in regular classes. In other schools, well, I really don’t know what it may be based on. But here at Aoinagi Karate, it really isn’t a secret at all. Those who want it only need to ask.

To show the depth of secrecy in martial arts I would like to give the example of Ryuei-ryu. Prior to 1971 Ryuei-ryu was totally unknown in Okinawa or any place else although it had existed for nearly 100 years. In the 1880’s Norisato Nakaima brought it to Okinawa from China, where he had learned from Woo Lu Chin (Ru Ru Ko). Norisato taught Kenchu Nakaima, who taught Kenko Nakaima. In 1971 no one knew Ryuei-ryu existed in Okinawa except the Nakaima family. Then at age 60 Kenko Nakaima released the secret to Okinawa for the first time. The date was 1971! Here was a secret martial art with a long history of deep traditions which had been hidden under a cloak of secrecy for nearly 100 years. Even after acceptance as a legitimate karate style in Okinawa Kenko Nakaima felt much guilt for having broken his oath of secrecy (heppan) to his father.

Why all the secrecy? We of the Occident associate secrecy with “cults” and “secret societies” which are usually anti-government. So when we hear of a “secret” in an art or organization we often get wary of the art or organization. In Okinawa the need for secrecy should not be judged by Occidental standards. It is always best to judge a custom by the society that holds the customs. To impose western standards on eastern customs will gain nothing, and only confuse the real issues. Here the issue is secrecy; secrecy which the west abhors but the east accepts. The master of a ryu did not want his “secrets” revealed because he had worked a long time to develop these techniques which were meant to protect his life and the lives of his family during dangerous periods in Okinawan history. If his potential opponents learned his techniques he could more easily be defeated. It was just simply better to keep things secret, or to share the secrets with only the most trusted few of his students. Then those secret techniques would work against those who had never seen them rather than be commonplace.

In addition, there was need for secrecy from the police. Martial arts practice outside of the recognized institutions was forbidden. Secrecy was the only way to prevent raids on the dojo or the members of the dojos by those police who stood to gain from the raids (raids were not always performed civilly). The police would raid to increase their recognition in the society, to gather plunder and even to rape. These were dangerous times. Secrecy was necessary.

So we find that the oriental people, at least the Okinawan and Japanese, have lived with a need for secrecy for a very long time. It is a part of their culture. To them it is not just a standard but reflects a pride of their personal, family or community culture. They know how to keep a secret (unlike western people) and they accept this responsibility to their families and communities. Many times they WILL DIE before divulging the secret. Hence Kenko Nakaima suffered great guilt at divulging the family secret of their sacred family art even after karate had been widely publicized.

The western intellectual tradition is one based on openness of information. Our science depends on open communication and the withholding of no evidence. Criticism and varying viewpoints is inherent in the system. The eastern tradition is based on honor, internal strength and secrecy is not feared at all.

So, the martial arts have a long tradition of secrecy. I have struggled thru this cloak of secrecy the best that I can in order to learn what exists. Luckily I found Mr. Kim. He is a walking encyclopedia of information, but the drops of real blood must be squeezed from him by patient learning, humble honesty, and total acceptance. With those who are willing to learn he teaches more than what any of us want to know (even me!). (I can tell you lessons that he has taught me that I would never, ever teach to anyone except by talking about them!)

So I have learned over the last 27 years what the “secrets” of martial arts are from the greats such as Mr. Saito, Mr. Kahalekulu, Mr. Kim, Mrs. Kim, Mr. Asari, Mr. Nakamara, Mrs. Nakano. It has been worth a lifetime.

And for you, well, there are no secrets anymore. What I have learned I will teach to those who want to learn. They need only be quite sure they want to learn more than what they have been learning in the dojo. Then they can take it at their own rates from snail-speed to light-speed.


What do you desire?