Human Tornado

Written by Ben Stone & Bryson Keenan

An interview with Masaji Taira Sensei, 8th Dan Goju-ryu

In recent years, the name Taira Sensei has become known in many parts of the martial arts world as being synonymous with the increasing movement of Western karateka back to the roots of their art. Those roots are found in Okinawa and, more importantly, in the combative principles and techniques that kata were originally designed to teach and preserve. Taira is considered a master of these and is unusually open in teaching them, hence his growing popularity among Western sensei seeking more from their art. On a recent visit to Australia, Taira also opened up to Blitz about his karate method. interview by ben stone & bryson keenan images by charlie suriano


Sensei, what brings you to Australia, and where else have you travelled outside Okinawa to teach karate?

I have come to Australia at the invitation of my friend and colleague Bryson Keenan Sensei, who travels regularly to Okinawa to train in my application practices. Keenan Sensei brought a group of 15 senior Australian Black-belt practitioners on his last trip to Okinawa. After training with me for two weeks, they were all very insistent that I visit Australia this year for a seminar tour, so here I am! I have travelled regularly overseas to Europe, the United States, and last year to New Zealand. This is my first visit to Australia, but certainly not my last!

What drives you to do this?
Goju-ryu has given me so much since I was very young, I feel obliged to ‘give back’. I also wish to continue the legacy left to me by Miyazato Sensei and Miyagi Chojun Sensei before him. My main efforts are currently overseas, as there is much interest in authentic Goju-ryu karate outside of Okinawa. With the support of my overseas colleagues, I will continue to tour as long as I am able.

Are there any particular things that your teacher Miyazato Eiichi Sensei did that you now seek to emulate in your own teaching and karate practice?
Like many instructors of his era, Miyazato Sensei taught by example. Rather than giving a long and detailed technical explanation, he would demonstrate a waza (technique) or kata and expect the student to emulate his example. Should a student ask a technical question, Miyazato Sensei would often answer, “What do YOU think…?” He was like a guide, allowing the students to reach their own understanding through trial and error. I also try to guide my students to use their own creativity, but I am also much more technical in my instruction.

In what ways is your karate and teaching method different from Miyazato Sensei’s?
Training under Miyazato Sensei was a wonderful and enriching experience, but I understand that his method of teaching is difficult for students in the modern era. Accordingly, I have developed my own teaching methodology, which includes an emphasis on practical application. Miyazato Sensei insisted that, while he encouraged me to be creative in my training, I should not make changes to the kata, as these were passed to him from Miyagi Sensei and are the common point of reference for all Goju-ryu practitioners. This was a guide for my own application practices, which follow the sequence of the kata as closely as possible. I also teach advanced versions of the kata, while keeping the kihon (basic/fundamental) versions unchanged.

Should a karateka understand from the beginning that their karate will ultimately differ from their teacher’s, or should they seek merely to emulate the teacher and let the blending of their ‘self’ and karate happen on its own?
The level of similarity to, or difference from, the karate of a student to his or her teacher’s will depend on many factors. Often, if a teacher has only reached a basic level of understanding, the student has no choice but to reach the same basic level, unless that student seeks other influences. In my opinion, practitioners should seek to progress as high as their ability will take them. Similarly, teachers should seek to continually improve their own understanding in order to give as much to their students as possible.

Many Westerners who have been teaching karate for many years and practising Goju kata are only now discovering the bunkai (combat applications), with your help. Do you answer their questions wholly (i.e. teach every application) or simply give them the tools to discover kata for themselves and make the applications their own?
I have specific drills that I use to impart an understanding of the applications contained in the kata. I am not sure that anyone is able to teach every application; no one has all of the answers! I do, however, try to give as complete an understanding as I am able to, based on a number of fundamental principles. Before a student can begin to gain an understanding of the application principles, they must first understand the related underlying fundamental principles, such as those contained in Sanchin (stable stance; connection between lower and upper body; integrity of shoulder girdle; alignment of head, shoulders, hips and point-of-balance; etc.). Only then can they apply those principles to their practice and perhaps discover further applications. But, yes, I do answer questions to the best of my own understanding. Particularly because most of my students are overseas, we don’t get nearly enough time together; it is only right that I should give as much of myself as possible!

I would like to make one point in relation to bunkai practice, as you have mentioned that many instructors are “only now discovering bunkai”. I know of a number of experienced overseas instructors who have said that bunkai was not ever practised in Okinawan dojo when they were there. They should be careful how they word those statements, as this might well simply reveal the level of karate that was entrusted to them by their instructor! Bunkai has indeed been an essential practice in Okinawan karate from its inception.

Seiyunchin Kata Bunkai

As a policeman, did you ever have to apply your karate in the course of your job?
I have had to use my skills on occasion — but only in the context of the use-of-force continuum, of course!

Can you give us an example of a time when you discovered a technique’s effectiveness (or lack thereof) through its application in police work?
Goju-ryu is a close-quarter system well suited not only for police work but for security work as well. There are many pressing and redirecting applications that allow us to control our opponents without resorting to strikes (striking being a last resort in the policing environment).

How important is it that a person tests their karate in such situations (i.e. real combat) as you have done, if they are passing it on as a ‘self-defence’ skill?
If one is specifically teaching self-defence, it is very important that one understands the actual conflict environment. I wouldn’t condone students seeking confrontation for confrontation’s sake, of course. We must always remember that karate is a defensive art.

Did karate assist you in developing and applying the other attributes that a policeman requires on the job, such as strategic thinking, mental toughness, patience, etc? (Or perhaps the police work influenced your approach to karate also?)
My police career certainly influenced my karate career, and vice versa. Miyazato Sensei [the Jundokan dojo’s late chief instructor] was an instructor at the Police Academy, and a number of my seniors at the Jundokan were also my seniors in the police force. Certainly the self-discipline that I had learned in the dojo held me in good stead in my police training. In turn, my police work influenced my drive to seek practical application practices and not be content with simplistic explanations that might not survive the rigor of an actual confrontation.

You’ve said in the past that the way you train is to never move backwards, but to stand and block and strike back from where you are. Is this a central tactic of Goju, to apply its circular movement and close-range power, or is this just your personal approach to combat?
My drills are certainly based on pressing the engagement; not allowing the adversary to retaliate or regain their composure. There are, however, many off-line and withdrawing movements both in my drills and in Goju-ryu in general. So, while the mental attitude is not to take a backward step, please don’t confuse that with a stubborn ‘standing in place’ (and perhaps getting hit yourself!).

Many people practising so-called Goju in the West, especially at clubs with a tournament focus, fight mostly in a straight line, moving back and forth, as in point-sparring. Is this very different from the budo Goju you teach on Okinawa?
Tournament fighting is very different to an actual confrontation, which often happens without warning and at close range. We do not practise ‘sparring’ in this fashion. After practising kihon and applications, we test ourselves at close range, often as part of a kakie drill [a sensitivity drill that commences with the lead arms of the protagonists engaged with each other].

Hojo-undo (traditional Okinawan strength and conditioning) is not popular in the West. How important is this training to making traditional Goju karate work in combat?
Traditional hojo-undo training is simply another form of resistance training, so there is a correlation to Western weight training. The specificity of hojo-undo training is what makes it crucial to Goju-ryu training. The chi’ishi (a weight, usually stone, on the end of a wooden handle) is the best example of this. Chi’ishi exercises are designed to develop the fingers, the wrists, the arms and the integrity of the shoulder girdle; this relates directly to the use of attacking and defensive hand techniques. I would recommend that all serious dojos invest in a number of chi’ishi!

In most Australian karate schools, students learn kata as a set of solo movements, then later learn the applications (if they are lucky) — is the process different in Okinawa?
In Okinawa, the initial training is in kihon. Often this is translated in the West as ‘basics’; consequently, people think of kihon as being basic punches, blocks and kicks. If one thinks of kihon as being ‘fundamentals’, the meaning is clearer, I think. So, kihon is not only the basic attacking and defensive movements, but also the underlying fundamental principles of balance, muscular contraction and release, breathing, etc. After the kihon is sound, we move on to kata, in order to put the basic movements into logical combinations. Then, study of the application practices brings the previous training together. Often, the training paradigm is seen as a linear progression from one belt level to the next. The way we look at training is that there is a spiral progression, rather than linear. Goju-ryu is quite a simple system, with very few kata and not a lot of individual waza. One can learn all of this at the basic level in a fairly short time. If we think of this process as a circle, we go around and around that circle until we consolidate at that level. Then, we move it up a level, and go through the process all over again. We consolidate, then move it up yet another level; hence, the ‘spiral’.

Do you plan on returning to Australia soon?
I am keen to come to Australia as soon as you will have me here again! Initial plans will have me back at least once a year for a seminar tour. [In 2012, Taira Sensei hopes to run seminars in Melbourne, Newcastle and either Brisbane or the Gold Coast.]