Spotlight: Hiroshi Shirai – The Italian Job

When we talk of the JKA masters’ influence on European Karate, the first names that come to mind are Kase, Kanazawa, Enoeda and Ochi. Because he rarely gives interviews in English, the name Hiroshi Shirai is sometimes overlooked in the conversation. A former JKA Grand Champion, he was one of the first generation of JKA instructors to teach outside of Japan. He has had a massive influence on the development of Karate in Italy.

Shirai was born on 31 July 1937 in Nagasaki, Japan. He was the youngest of four children, having an older brother and two older sisters.

As a child Shirai had enjoyed running and playing in open fields and picking fresh fruit from trees. This idyllic life was shattered on 9 August 1945 when America dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. He had just turned eight years old.

By the time Shirai graduated from High School in 1955, he had become a robust young man. At high school he  participated in Judo and Kendo. He was a keen athlete, participating in track and field.

In 1955 Shirai enrolled at Komazawa University, a Buddhist university located in Tokyo, to study geology. The following year he joined the university’s Karate club.

Shirai had seen a JKA film featuring Masatoshi Nakayama, Hidetaka Nishiyama, Teruyuki Okazaki and Taiji Kase, performing various kata and kihon. Initially he was interested in learning the self-defence aspects of Karate. The club’s Chief Instructor was Nishiyama. As was typical of the time, training sessions were tough. Training sessions tended to comprise of one hour kihon; one hour kumite; and one hour kata.

In 1957 Shirai was promoted to 1st Dan. Two years later he was promoted to 2nd Dan. He started focusing on the competitive aspects of Karate.

At the 1959 National University Championships he won the team kumite title as part of the Komazawa University team. That same year, while still a student he competed at the 3rd JKA All Japan Championships. In his first JKA Championships, he finished joint third in the kumite event. The event was won by Takayuki Mikami, with Hirokazu Kanazawa the runner up.

By 1960 Shirai had graduated from Komazawa University with a degree in Geology. He was invited to enrol on the JKA Instructors Course. In a class of only four students his main instructors were Nakayama, Nishiyama, Motokuni Sugiura, Okazaki and Kase.

Kase and Shirai formed a bond that would last until Kase’s death forty-five years later. Kase provided Shirai with a link to his teachers, Yoshitaka Funakoshi, Shigeru Egami and Genshin Hironishi.

In 1960 Shirai was promoted to 3rd Dan. In the same year he reached the kumite final at the 5th JKA All Japan Championships, finishing runner-up to Testsuhiko Asai. He also finished third behind Mikami and Asai in the kata event.

1962 saw Shirai graduate from the Instructors Course. He began teaching Karate at Toritsu University and to personnel of the US Air Force. His long-time instructor, Hidetaka Nishiyama relocated to Los Angeles.

At the 6th All Japan Championships, Shirai joined Kanazawa and Mikami in becoming the third JKA Grand Champion. He won the kata event defeating Mikami in the final. In the kumite event he defeated Keinosuke Enoeda in the final. In 1963 at the 7th JKA All Japan Championships, Shirai was involved with Enoeda in a rematch of the previous year’s final. In what is considered one of the greatest finals, Enoeda was victorious over Shirai.

In 1964 Shirai was promoted to 5th Dan. The following year he embarked on what was to be a momentous event for the promotion of JKA Karate.

Although some people had heard of Karate, it was still widely unknown internationally. The aim of the JKA Tour was to introduce the world to the JKA’s brand of Shotokan Karate. Taiji Kase, Hirokazu Kanazawa, Keinosuke Enoeda were selected to be the JKA’s ambassadors to the World.

The touring party departed Haneda Airport, Tokyo, on 29 March 1965. Their first stop was in Hawaii, where there were guests of Masataka Mori, the resident JKA Chief Instructor to Hawaii. They then visited several cities in the United States. The first city they visited was Los Angeles, where there were guests of Nishiyama. This was followed by visits to Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and North Carolina, where they were presented with a ceremonial sword by Brigadier General J. W. Stilwell.

On the European leg of their tour, the touring party visited Bad Godesberg, West Germany. In Belgium they visited the cities of Brussels and Antwerp. This was followed by visits to Holland and France. In England, the last leg of their European tour, the party were the guests of Vernon Bell and the British Karate Federation (BKF). They visited the cities of London, Liverpool, Blackpool and Manchester.

The final leg of the tour was to South Africa. The party spent six months in the country, with each instructor teaching in a different city. Kase taught in Durban; Kanazawa taught in Pretoria (he had joined the touring party later, as he had teaching engagements in the UK); Enoeda taught in Johannesburg; and Shirai taught in Cape Town.

The tour was a massive success. The kata, kumite, kihon and board breaking demonstrations were well received. The seminars and courses were a big hit. The tour led to many requests for JKA instructors to teach around the world.

Following the tour and after a short stay with Kanazawa in England, Shirai continued on to Milan, Italy, in November 1965. He had arrived at the invitation of Roberto Fassi, a pioneer of Italian Karate.

In 1966 Shirai founded the Italian Karate Association (AIK). Using what he had learnt from his various teachers, he helped make AIK into a strong Shotokan Karate association.

In 1968 Masatoshi Nakayama visited Italy for the first time.

Shirai was promoted to 6th Dan in 1969. The following year he founded the Italian Federation of Sports Karate (FESIKA). This was followed in 1971 with the opening of the Studio Shirai-Accademia del Karate dojo.

In 1974 Shirai was promoted to 7th Dan. At the invitation of Hideo Ochi he taught at his first German Gasshuku in Kiel, Germany.

Shirai first met Luigi Zoia in October 1965 following a Karate event at Palalido in Milan. Zoia started training with Shirai and over time they became friends. Zoia eventually opened a club in the Via Piacenza area of Milan. In time Shirai met Luigi Zoia’s sister, Adelangela Zoia, who would become his wife. Adelangela Zoia trained in Karate and eventually graded to black belt under Kase. On 22 September 1974 their daughter Yuri was born. Two years later their second daughter, Yumi, was born. Several years later they had a son, Yoshihiro. All three Shirai children would start training with their father from a young age.

1976 saw the publication of Shirai’s first book “Manual of Karate“.

In 1978 the foundation the Shirai founded, FESIKA, amalgamated with FIK to form a super federation. The following year Shirai founded the Instituto Shotokan Italia  (ISI).

In 1979 Nakayama’s eleven book series, “Best Karate” was published. Shirai featured in book 6 demonstrating the kata Bassai-Dai.

In 1985 Shirai started delving into Goshindo. Meaning “The Self-Defence Path“, Goshindo enabled Shirai to go beyond the traditional bunkai and oyo taught for kata. He wanted a form of self-defence that was practical and realistic

Shirai was promoted to 8th Dan in 1986. This was followed by a promotion in 1999 to 9th Dan.

Masatoshi Nakayama died in 1987. Under his tenure the JKA had been unified. However, following his death political infighting among various factions lead to splits within the Association. In 1989 Shirai, alongside his mentor Kase, founded the World Karate-Do Shotokan Academy (WKSA). The aim of the association was to be free of the politics that plagued Shotokan Karate. The WKSA also taught Kase’s version of Shotokan Karate, which followed the teachings of Yoshitaka Funakoshi, which had been largely forgotten by the JKA. The WSKA eventually broke away from the JKA.

On 24 November 2004, Shirai’s teacher, mentor and friend, Taiji Kase died. This was followed by the death of another of Shirai’s great teachers, Hidetaka Nishiyama, on 7 November 2008.

In 2011 Shirai was awarded his 10th Dan. At a special event he received his award from the Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs, in Italy.

Shirai suffered a serious accident during a fishing trip. He fell four feet from a large rock and broke his back when you landed. During recovery, when he was practising a kick, he tore deep internal ligaments. Although he has fully recovered, he has lost some of his kicking prowess. This has not hampered his Karate practice, particularly his practice of Goshindo.

Hiroshi Shirai has been a leading light in the development of Shotokan Karate in his adopted home of Italy. As one of the first generations of JKA instructors to teach outside of Japan he has shared his immense knowledge with students across Europe in various seminars and courses. Not content, he has striven to push the boundaries of Karate through his study of Goshindo. He is the epitome of a true master of Karate.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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