Kenko (Noritaka) Nakaima

Although his name is not immediately recognizable as some other Okinawan masters, Kenko Nakaima is responsible for making the family Karate style of Ryūei-ryū open to the wider public. It is this style that introduced the kata Anan to the Karate tournament world.

Kenko Nakaima was born on 23 December 1911, in Naha, Okinawa. His father Kenchu (1856-1953) was the second Grandmaster of the family-style, created by Kenri Nakaima (1819-1879), his grandfather. It is believed that Kenri spent around six years training with the Chinese master Rū-rū Kō, in the Fuzhou province of China. Before returning to Okinawa he also spent time travelling around other parts of  China, learning other fighting systems.

Ryūei-ryū is a very traditional form of Karate, focusing on repetition of basics and traditional conditioning exercises. Mental training also forms a part of this style. The style places emphasis on the practitioner being highly manoeuvrable. In defence, positioning is key, combining footwork and evasion. In attack, combinations are used to overwhelm an opponent, preventing them from time to react. Sparring tends to be more realistic and rough. Competition sparring is considered unrealistic.

Kenko Nakaima began his training in Ryūei-ryū as a young boy. Like his father before him, he was the only student of his father and swore an oath not to divulge the secrets of the family system to outsiders. The family tradition was to teach the style to only one son in each generation. The training was in secret, often conducted in the courtyard of the family home, using only the moon’s light. Kenko remained Kenchu’s student for thirty-seven years until he learnt all there was to know about the family-style.

Kyūei-ryū was not the only form of martial arts practised by Kenko Nakaima. He cross-trained with some of the top masters in Okinawa. He learnt Kendo from Seibu Tomigawa, Hiroshi Ishihara and Shochoku Ishiihara, eventually reaching the rank of Kyoshi(5th Dan). From Chojo Oshiro he studied Kobudo and Karate. From Kentsu Yabu he studied Shōrin-ryu Karate. Within martial arts circles in Okinawa, Nakaima became a well respected martial artist. He helped found and organise a number of associations promoting Okinawan martial arts. This included the Ryūei-ryū Karate and Kobudo Preservation Society.

Nakaima had a long career as a school teacher in Okinawa. He eventually became the headmaster of a junior school. He taught Karate to his students, incorporating modern sparring techniques. He however reserved Ryūei-ryū only for family members. As a professional educator, he held strong convictions on the responsibilities of teachers and martial artists. For instance, he believed martial arts should not be taught for profit. In fact, he never owned a dojo and never taught much Ryūei-ryū to children, apart from his three sons.

In 1971, aged sixty, Nakaima broke the oath made to his father and began teaching outsiders, the family-style. This made Ryūei-ryū one of the last family styles to do this. No one is entirely sure why he decided to do this. He had a son, Kenji, who was also learning the style. Maybe he didn’t want the style to disappear as other secret family styles had.

Nakaima initially taught twenty students, consisting mainly of school teachers. He believed they had the necessary good character and education to transmit the style in the right manner. Tsuguo Sakumoto, who began training with Nakaima in 1970, recalled that Nakaima would only agree to teach him once he found out he was a teacher. Even then, Sakumoto still had to undergo a long probationary period to test his character before he was taught more advanced Ryūei-ryū techniques.

Nakaima did not believe in the sport aspects of modern Karate. This was a contentious point between him and Sakumoto. Like many of the Okinawan masters of his generation, he believed in the Budo and character-building aspects of Karate. However, Sakumoto and many younger masters believed the sport aspects were a way of attracting more interest in Karate.

It could be argued that Sakumoto had a point. His tournament success (he is multiple world champion) introduced the world to the previously unknown style of Ryūei-ryū. However, It could also be argued that Nakaima had a valid point. Sakumoto performed the kata Anan in winning his world titles. In its original form, it is a kata that best demonstrates the principles found in Okinawan Karate. It utilises body-shifting (tai sabaki) and strong palm strikes and blocks. Unfortunately due to its popularity in competition, the kata has been modified by some competitors to appear flashier. The kata thus loses some of its key budo aspects.

In 1979 two of Nakaima’s top students, Tomohiro Arashiro (who had trained with him since the age of 13) and Tsutomo Kuniyoshi were selected to spread Ryūei-ryū in the United States. Tomohiro Arashiro became the Pan-American Chief instructor. This led to dojos being opened in Argentina and Venezuela.

Kenko Nakaima died in Okinawa in 1989. His son Kenji became the next Grandmaster of Ryūei-ryū.

Author: Patrick Donkor

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