Seikichi Iha, Hanshi 10 Dan
A "teacher of teachers," Sensei Seikichi Iha began his karate training in Okinawa more than 60 years ago, studying under the renowned masters, Sensei Shinpan Gusukuma, and Sensei Katsuya Miyahira.
Before coming to Michigan, Iha Sensei trained students in Okinawa, Japan, the Philippines, Guam, and Los Angeles, California. His Lansing dojo is now the headquarters for more than 30 North American schools and is frequently visited by karate practitioners from around the globe.
He is the most senior practitioner of Shorin-ryu Karate in North America and is the North American Director for Shorin-ryu Shidokan. On May, 19, 2020, Denny Tamaki, Governor of Okinawa, awarded Iha Sensei the title of Intangible Cultural Asset, designating Iha Sensei a national treasure. This is the first time the award has been given to an individual living outside of Okinawa.
Iha Sensei is respected worldwide for his tremendous practical knowledge of karate technique as well as for his warm, engaging and expert teaching style. As he explains it, for Iha Sensei, teaching karate-do is much more than teaching self-defense. It is a way to learn about people through mutual cooperation and a way to form lifelong friendships. Iha Sensei believes that encouraging the development of cooperation, respect, friendship and healthy living through karate is of great importance. This philosophy is at the core of his instruction and daily interactions with his students.
It is Iha Sensei's hope that with the help of their training in karate-do, his students can learn to cope with any situation, be persistent, face problems with courage, take care of themselves, to realize their optimum potential and to feel good about themselves. He frequently tells his students that "Friendship and cooperation are the most important part of karate."
The Iha Dojo
Sensei Iha's dojo is located at 2018 East Michigan Ave., in Lansing, Michigan USA. Sensei has taught at the Lansing location since 1975.
Sensei Iha is the senior most practitioner of Okinawa Shorin-ryu residing in the United States and is ranked a Hanshi 10th Dan by the Okinawa Shorin-ryu Karate-do Association of Naha, Okinawa. He teaches Chibana-style shorin-ryu and refers to his method as Okinawa Shorin-ryu Shidokan Karate-do.
Iha Seikichi was born in Nishihara City, Okinawa Prefecture on July 9, 1932. He presently runs his own dojo, the Original Okinawa Karate Dojo, in Lansing, Michigan. He was promoted to Hanshi 10th Dan by his teacher, Miyahira Katsuya on March 25, 2001. He is the U.S. Branch Chief for the Okinawa Shorin-ryu Karate-do Association.
Iha began his karate training under his uncle but in 1950 he was accepted as a formal student of Gusukuma Shinpan. Gusukuma was a student of the famous Itosu Ankoh and was a well respected authority of Shuri-te. Since Gusukuma was an educator and a noted acupuncturist, he was very particular as to who he would take as a student. He was also very strict and scientific in his training and application of karate-do.
Although Gusukuma was physically small in size, he was very powerful in his techniques believing that a karate-man worth his salt could hit with force equal to three times his own body weight. Gusukuma was a stickler on conditioning the body through body contact and through the practice of the makiwara punching board. This concept is passed on to all of Iha's students.
Iha trained with Gusukuma for four years. After Gusukuma's death in 1954, Iha was introduced to his next teacher by his good friend, Miyazato Shoei. Iha met Miyahira Katsuya in 1954 and was accepted as a student shortly thereafter. Miyahira was very much like Gusukuma in that he was a school teacher with a very strict and scientific method of teaching karate-do.
Iha progressed in karate-do at a steady pace so that by 1963 he had been promoted to the rank of 5-Dan Shihan in Okinawa Shorin-ryu. At that time, Miyahira Katsuya received a request from the Philippine Islands asking for a Shorin-ryu instructor. Iha was chosen and spent approximately 11 months teaching Shorin-ryu at the dojo of Latino Gonzales in Manila.
Iha returned to Okinawa during the latter part of 1964 and began teaching the U.S. Marines stationed at Futenma, Okinawa. At that time he was promoted to 6-Dan and opened up his own dojo in his home town of Nishihara.
In 1967 Iha was promoted to the rank of Kyoshi 7-Dan and sent to teach in Los Angeles, CA. Iha initially began his karate teaching at the American-Okinawan Club located in Los Angeles. He is recognized as the first Okinawan Master Instructor of Shorin-ryu to teach in Southern California since 1927 when Yabu Kentsu taught for the same club.
After teaching shorin-ryu at the American-Okinawan Club for five months, he and two other 7-Dans opened up the Shureikan Dojo on Olympic Blvd. A year later, Iha went off on his own and opened his Shidokan Karate Dojo on West Pico Blvd.
Iha moved to the Lansing area in April of 1975 and began teaching at the Original Okinawa Karate Dojo. In September of 1978 he was promoted to Kyoshi 8-Dan. On March 12, 1989 he received his Hanshi 9th-Dan certification. And on March 25, 2001, Iha was promoted to Hanshi 10-Dan by Miyahira Katsuya, making him the highest ranking Okinawan residing in the United States. His rank is certified by the Okinawa Shorin-ryu Karate-do Association.
Interviewer: Sensei, it appears that you favor using the makiwara punching post. Can you tell me a little about its use?
Iha: There are two kinds of makiwara. One is called a Shuri-makiwara and it stands to the height of the instructor's breast bone. The other is called a Naha-makiwara. The Naha-makiwara was mainly used by goju-ryu practitioners. It stood as high as the instructor's solar plexus (the bottom of the breast bone).
The shorin-ryu practitioner would stand up in the kihon dachi (basic short stance) and throw the punch at the board. The goju-ryu practitioner would punch from a shikko dachi (square stance).
The dojo usually had two kinds of makiwara. One was a soft/pliant makiwara and the other one was usually a stiff/hard makiwara. The soft one was used to develop speed and form while the stiff one was used to develop power. Both had to be used. If they were not, then you would develop problems with the shoulder. Nowadays, most Okinawan practitioners use only the Shuri-style makiwara because the Naha-makiwara is too difficult and hard to use.
The soft makiwara is off center about five inches. The measurement is from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the forefinger. By punching the soft makiwara, you end up with the board in an upright position -- this way you make sure that you are using the correct knuckles.
Interviewer: Can you give me some training pointers in the practice of shorin-ryu?
Iha: There are many. Those that come to mind are... well, the punching fist must be horizontal to the ground. The elbow strike is also horizontal to the ground. The knife hand block begins like a windshield wiper and does NOT come back to the shoulder. All shorin-ryu kicks are done with the toes. Sometimes the second toe wraps itself around the big toe to reinforce it for kicking.
The nukite (spear hand) can be done to any part of the body but preferably to a soft section. It is a quick motion and you can hit from different directions. The idea is that you strike with the fingertips. In the knife hand block the hand is not bent but kept straight. Some other styles like to bend the block at the wrist. This is much too weak and can damage your hand if you really block hard.
Okinawan karate must have focus in order to be called Okinawan karate. Without focus you are doing nothing but sport.
Interviewer: Sensei, can you say something about your gojushiho kata?
Iha: Nakama's gojushiho and Nakazato's gojushiho are the same. They both use the wedge type block. The Tokuda gojushiho is a block punch - this is the style that Miyahira-sensei teaches. This makes much more sense.
Interviewer: Are there "secrets" in the teachings of shorin-ryu?
Iha: One of the secrets of shorin-ryu is called the "tan gokui." This means the "secret of the lower abdomen." Shorin-ryu focuses on natural breathing and not forced or fast breathing. The inhalation is slow so as not to show your opponent the rhythm of your breathing. You never fully exhale your breath but hold a reserve of air in the lower part of your abdomen. Shorin-ryu teaches one to focus on one's breathing and to learn to control it.
Interviewer: Sensei, can you tell me about Chibana-sensei. I see that you received your Shihan Menkyo (Teaching License) from Chibana-sensei.
Iha: Yes, Chibana-sensei. Well, Chibana-sensei always trained hard. Even when he reached eighty years of age he like to do things strongly. Only after the cancer began eating him away did he slow down. He was strong as an old man and could still kick and do things with power. He was amazing.
One of Chibana-sensei's favorite sayings was that a "martial artist must also be a man of letters." This means that a martial artist must also study the writing arts. An example would be calligraphy, writing books, the fine arts, painting, etc. Chibana-sensei would always stress the body and the mind. The martial artist must also exercise the mind through education, research and writing.
You celebrate the death of Chibana-sensei through a "Taisai" every year. You have a party. The master's picture is placed on a table and you burn incense. You have a party with food and drink. The master's spirit comes to each remembrance wherever it may be held. The most important Taisais are the 1st, 2nd and 3rd year. Then the 10th, 13th, 20th, 23rd, 30th and 33rd. If the individual is remembered on the 33rd anniversary then the spirit can enter the "gate." The spirit can then rest from its wanderings.
Interviewer: Your first teacher was Gusukuma Shinpan. Not much has been said about him in books. Can you tell me something about Gusukuma-sensei?
Iha: Gusukuma Shinpan-sensei was known for his great speed in foot movements. He took short steps with great speed -- very much like a kendo practitioner. Gusukuma-sensei was known to have run side-ways on a wall for five meters without falling. He practiced this technique in order to force the feet to move faster. It worked.
Even though Gusukuma-sensei died in 1954, all the old people of Shuri and Nishihara remember him well. He had three sons and one daughter and had his original dojo in Shuri City. He later moved to Naha in 1953 - the year before he died. He had a three tatami dojo (sanjo) and did acupuncture on the side to make ends meet.
You could go to his dojo at any time of the day or night. If he was there, he would give you instruction. If he was not there then you were expected to train by yourself. He taught the old style of shorin-ryu -- sui-te in the Shuri hogen language. He never corrected your kata until after you had done it. He had a very good memory and would point out all of your mistakes. He always had you do the kata by the "no count method." In this way you were made aware of the "rhythm" of each kata.
Interviewer: Please tell me something about your present teacher, Miyahira Katsuya-sensei.
Iha: The Shorin-ryu Shidokan Miyahira Dojo was founded by Miyahira Katsuya-sensei in 1951. The fortieth year anniversary was held in Naha, Okinawa, in March of 1990. Miyahira-sensei started with Chibana-sensei in 1933. He was originally a school teacher and was sent to Manchuko (Manchuria) during World War 2.
Upon the death of Chibana, Miyahira-sensei received the hanko (seals) and presidency of the Okinawa Shorin-ryu Karate-do Kyokai. He is still the president and holds annual Taisai celebrations (at the time of Chibana's death).
Miyahira Katsuya-sensei taught differently but just as strictly. Miyahira corrected each movement just like Chibana. He was always very scientific and always had you do the kata "by the count."
Interviewer: I understand that Gusukuma-sensei taught the pinan kata first as oppose to Chibana-sensei who taught the naihanchin kata first.
Iha: It is always a lot easier to teach the pinan kata before the naihanchi kata. The naihanchi forms need dedication and students find them hard to do initially. Under Gusukuma-sensei the kata order was as follows: the kihon 1 & 2; pinan 1-2-3-4-5; pasai-sho and kusanku-sho; patsai-dai and kusanku-dai; chinto; gojushiho; followed by the naihanchi series.
Interviewer: Sensei, I see that you really stress kicking as part of your training. Can you explain some of your ideas about kicking? Also, I see that your round house kick is done with the toes as oppose to the ball of the foot. Which way is better?
Iha: Kicking is very interesting to me. Americans like to kick and Gusukuma-sensei had a fondness for kicking. That is who I picked the ideas of kicking from. Now the round house kick, this is also done with the toes. The foot is in a straight line with the bones of the feet and it is not bent. It is not at a 90 degree angle like a heel kick and it is not fully extended as a front toe kick. It is in the middle.
The front kick is an excellent kick but it must hinge out to the target. The kick is always chambered next to the supporting leg before it snaps out. The kick is then retracted to the knee area of the supporting leg before it is brought back to the ground.
In the "old days," the kick was never extended past the extended punch. You always kicked within the extended fist. It is too difficult to do nowadays and students just ignore this concept.
Nowadays, the students often seek the easier way and extend their kicks way past their fist. This is a sport kick but it is okay for those that do not really understand kicking.
Remember that in kicking, the foot itself must be tight with the leg loose. You then "hinged" the kick out. The kick must be chambered -- then kick -- and then re-chambered before the foot is set down. All the kicks in shorin-ryu are done with the toes. I think that 85% of all the kicks are done mid-body. We then do have a thrusting front kick made to the head but only about 15% of the time.
Interviewer: Can you explain something about punching and the back fist techniques?
Iha: The punching is done straight forward with the arm being horizontal to the ground. The hand is held "softly" at the side -- that is, without tension. The hand goes out with speed and only focuses at the end of the punch. Shorin-ryu punching is based on speed first and power second. The elbow is at the side and it rests on the soft portion of the body between the hip bone and the floating ribs. The shoulder is down. The hand fully rotates at the end of the punch.
Remember, it is important, that the fist is tight but the shoulder is loose. This is very important.
The backfist is only found in the naihanchi forms. All the rest that look like backfist are different. They are extended and you have a tendency to hit with the forearm before you go into the face.
Interviewer: Can you explain something about blocking?
Iha: Yes, the shoulder. First, the wrist is even with the shoulder at the middle block level. In naihanchi shodan, Chibana-sensei initially had the back knuckle strike come from the inside. In 1964-65 he changed it to the outside. This was because of the bunkai. If you practice the bunkai with the kata you must do the technique to the outside. If you don't practice the bunkai then there is no need to do it to the outside.
Blocking takes skill. Initially, while you are young, you concentrate on developing the power of the block. As you become older and more mature in your technique, you develop soft power. This soft power may be a mixture of timing and knowing when and where to block.
Chibana-sensei was an expert in soft blocking. He would always want you to strike at him strongly but his blocking was so smooth and correct that you would often lose your balance when he blocked. He often stated that breaking the attacker's balance is often more important than just merely blocking.
Interviewer: Can you tell me something about these training devices you have here in your dojo? I saw them everywhere in Okinawa but very few Americans know anything about them.
Iha: The most common training device in Okinawa is the chi-ishi. Everyone just "knows" how to use it. There are about eight different exercises that were taught in the Chibana dojo. They were specifically used to develop wrist and arm strength. You would do one exercise until you got tired and then switch hands. You would continue with the chi-ishi exercises for about 15 to 20 minutes.
The Japanese were always amazed at how well muscled the Okinawans were. They did not know about the chi-ishi and the nigiri-game training devices. They quickly adopted these methods.
The chi-ishi comes from China but is practiced by all Okinawan styles. It is not practiced in the United States because there are not that many who actually trained in Okinawa. The chi-ishi and the nigiri-game develop real karate-spirit. It is hard training.
The nigiri-game is also a strength building tool and it is used to develop the grip. There are about three or four exercises and it is also an ancient training device used by all Okinawan practitioners. Look at the old karate pictures and you'll see them in the dojo.
One of the chi-ishi exercises that is not used in shorin-ryu is the double arm movement that looks like you're punching with a bo. This exercises forces a student to stutter when he moves and this type of movement develops bad habits. The goju-ryu practitioners use this movement a lot but it is not done by shorin-ryu practitioners.
The common weight is about 3-5 pounds for a beginner and 7-10 pounds for an advanced student. If you want to develop more power then you can use 22-25 pounds. You must always remember that it is never the weight but it is always the quality of the movement. Learn to do it correctly and learn to concentrate (focus) on what you do.
Background and Interview by Ernest Estrada, Okinawa Shorin-ryu Kyoshi
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