Kume Island, birthplace of Taira sensei

By Miguel Da Luz

(This article, written late March 2014, is a cooperation project between Okinawa Karate News and the OTKLB. It was published in Okinawa Karate News Issue 94, April 2014)

While most historical karate sites and masters graves are located on Okinawa’s main island, Kume, an island 20 minutes away from Naha is the birthplace of Taira sensei. With a monument erected by the Ryukyu Kobujutsu Hozon Shinkokai of Inoue Kisho kaicho in December 2013, it was time to pay a new visit to Kume-jima to walk in the master’s path.


If he was still alive, Taira Shinken sensei would be 117 years old this year. Born in 1897 in Kume, the original family name of Shinken sensei is Maezato. In the 1920ies, a young Shinken moved to Mainland Japan where he trained in karate with Funakoshi Gichin sensei and in Ryukyu Kobudo with Yabiku Modem sensei to later become a renowned kobudo expert. Until his death in 1970, he taught in Mainland Japan and in Okinawa and deeply leaved his mark on the Ryukyu weaponry martial arts. Crossing over to Kume for a two day expedition, we went looking for some new facts in order to better understand the man behind the master.

Gravesite and monument 

Last year, prior to the monument’s erection, the Maezato family decided to build a new family clan grave for Taira sensei in the Tounnaha Park located behind Nakazato Village City Office. After the laying of ashes to rest held in January 2014, both Taira sensei and his son now rest in peace together. Behind the grave, a granite honoring stele and a stone epitaph introducing briefly the master’s personal record stand splendidly. A new famous spot for Kume Island and for the karate world was born.

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The master’s old school

According to documentary records, Taira sensei graduated from Nakazato Jinjo Elementary School. Close-by the Nakazato Village City Hall stands the “Kume Island Nakazato Elementary School”. While we met the principal of the school, Mr. Hirai Masayoshi, no new information on the master was found and we were let continuing the exploration of the island.

The master’s family home

Taira sensei spent his childhood in the Maja district of Nakazato Village. In the district can be found the Maja-no-Churafukugi (beautiful Fukugi trees of Maja), the old Magiri-era Nakazato government ground, the Tenkougu Shrine, and the birthplace of the famous Okinawa folklore researcher Nakahara Zenchu (1890-1964). Walking through the hamlet, we were lucky to meet a relative to Taira sensei who was nice enough to lead us to the house where the master was born. It still stands today in between Road 242 and Misaki Elementary School. According to our guide, Taira sensei taught kobudo in the front yard of the house, today uninhabited.


Continuing our excursion, we met with Yamazato Harumi, the granddaughter of the elder brother of Shinken sensei, Maezato Shinkichi. According to her, “the yago – trade name - of the Maezato family was ‘Yamatai-yaagwa’.” It is supposed to mean the one in charge of the mountain. The energy overflowing Harumi san continued mentioning that “Grandpa Shinken was an acclaimed sanshin lute player and a pioneer electrician who officiated quite a lot on the island.” Opening the family lineage records, she then explained that “prior to departing from Kume, Shinken sensei had a son named Kamezo and a daughter named Wakako with his first wife, Uehara Kamado. Later, he met a women in Osaka and a boy by the name of Isamu was conceived”. As we depicted the martial arts achievements of the master, Harumi san candidly admitted that “everyone in the family was surprised to hear about his fame.” After 2.5 hours of discussion, we concluded the investigation by asking the location of the mortuary tablet of Shinken sensei, a matter important to the master’s students. “It is located at the Honganji Temple of Kumejima”. Without resting, we rushed to the temple located in Nakadomari, but no able to meet someone, we rescheduled the visit for the following day and ended this first day of the tour.

The 2nd residence 

On the 2nd day, aiming at finding more documents, we visited the Kumejima Museum. Meeting the curator Hirata Koichi, also a native from the Maja district, we were taught the location of the 2nd house of Taira sensei. While located close by the birthplace, it is today inhabited by a different family thus no new information was gathered. However, imagining that the master lived and most likely trained in such a huge residence, it was like discovering a new holy ground. Furthermore walking through the streets of Maja and meeting with the locals, we were able to encounter a 98 years old cousin of Shinken sensei, who according to locals was honorifically nicknamed “Uufuchisuu” which could be translated in the “honourable elder bushi”.

The mortuary tablet

Finally, the moment of the most important purpose of this trip was approaching: the discovery of the mortuary tablet of Shinken sensei. With the understanding of relatives, we visited once again the Honganji Temple. Meeting a Buddhist priest who specially travelled from mainland Okinawa, we were guided to face the tablet. Joining our hands in prayer in front of the Maezato family tablets, we savored a moment of beatitude that marked the end of this meaningful trip to Kumejima, another historical site of karate and kobudo.


We would like to thank the following persons for their support: Yamazato Harumi, Inoue Kisho, Taira Masaji, Taira Chiyoko, Kyan Morikazu and the people of Kume Island (no particular order, titles omitted)