An interview with Mario McKenna Sensei
by Juan Luis Cadenas de Llano Bajo (2012)

Juan Luis Cadenas: May you tell us about your background in the martial arts?

Mario McKenna: I began practicing Goju-ryu and Tomarite (Gohakukai) with Yoshitaka Kinjo sensei when I was 15 years old in my hometown of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada in 1983. I studied with him until 1994 when I moved to Japan that summer. In Japan I lived on the island of Amami Oshima and there I began to study Ryukyu Kobudo from Katsuhiko Minowa and his student Hiroshi Yoshimura. I studied at the dojo until 1998 when I moved to Nagasaki prefecture. It was there that I sought out instruction in Tou'on-ryu which ultimately brought me into contact with Shigekazu Kanzaki and his student Shigehide Ikeda. I studied with them until I returned to Canada in 2002.

I consider myself very lucky and privileged to have met and trained with such generous and gifted instructors. I'm still amazed at their patience, kindness, and tolerance. In the case of Minowa sensei and Kanzaki sensei, these were older men who were students of teachers during Karatedo's and Kobudo's "golden era". There was a huge cultural, linguistic, generational and social gap between them and I. Why would they even bother taking me on as a student? There was nothing "in it for them" so to speak. And yet they did take me on as a student and for that I am sincerely grateful.

JL: You spent many years training in Gohakukai, a little known style of Karate which is influenced by the Goju and Tomari traditions. Was studying that school an intended decision? Why?

MM: LOL. No it was never a conscious decision. When I started Karatedo, I actually started training at a Shotokan club that was recommended to me by a friend. The club was run by an Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer who was transferred to a different area about three months after I joined! The club was relatively new and there wasn't anyone senior enough to continue it. So it closed. From my sempai I heard about a sensei in town who was teaching Okinawa Karatedo, but to my surprise they said that we shouldn't bother with Okinawa Karate because it was "very primitive" and not as developed as Shotokan. I even remember one senior calling it "village Karate". LOL. I still don't know what exactly he was referring to. Despite my sempai's warnings, I did eventually go to this sensei's dojo - who as it turned out - was Kinjo sensei and he taught Gohakukai. Contrary to my sempais' warnings, I found the Okinawa Karatedo extremely encompassing, sophisticated, and challenging. And unlike the very regimented approach of the Shotokan Karatedo that I had briefly practiced, Kinjo sensei's approach and Okinawa Karatedo were much more relaxed, but equally challenging. To this day, I consider Kinjo sensei one of, if not the strongest, Karate sensei I have ever encountered not only physically, but emotionally and mentally.

As for Gohakukai, this is an acronym for the "Goju-ryu Tomarite Kyokai". It was founded by Iken Tokashiki who brought together the two traditions he had studied from his teachers. The first was Tomarite which he had studied from Seiyu Nakasone (1890-1980), and the other was Goju-ryu from Seiko Fukuchi (1919-1975). Gohakukai students study Goju-ryu first until ikkyu or shodan level and then start learning Tomarite [kata]. Within the past 20 years, mostly due to Tokashiki sensei's research in mainland China, some Chinese methods and kata [forms] have been added into the curriculum. On Okinawa and Japan there are about 15 dojo, in Canada there are about five dojo, mostly in western Canada, and there is one dojo in Seattle in the USA.

JL: May you point us the stronger points of Gohakukai? Is this as if studying two different arts or can we speak of a deep unique art?

MM: I am not an expert in Gohakukai and can only make some general observations. Although the technical and kata base of the Goju-ryu that is taught in Gohakukai is virtually the same as most other Okinawa Goju-ryu schools, the body mechanics are quite different and largely derived from Tomarite. That is they emphasize and focus on using the hips, waist and lower back (sometimes referred to as "koshi" in Japanese or "gamaku" in Okinawa dialect) to generate speed and power, much like Shorin-based systems such as Kyudokan, Kishaba Juku, and the like. This gives their Goju-ryu a very distinct "flavor" compared to other lines of Goju-ryu such as Jundokan, Meibukan, Shodokan, etc. Although, interestingly enough, some of these same schools and teachers within these Goju-ryu schools have begun experimenting using hipfocused mechanics. It just goes to show you that Karatedo is always evolving, its not a static thing.

Another strong point I think is that contained within its practice are two unique and distinct systems of Karatedo. This affords the student the opportunity for comparative study that can increase knowledge and hopefully understanding. Kinjo sensei would often say that the Goju-ryu and Tomarite were like a lock and key, in that they compliment each other. A technique that was not so obvious in Goju-ryu kata might be presented more clearly in Tomarite kata and vice versa.

Perhaps Gohakukai will evolve into a distinct "style" in the future, but at present I would say that it is two distinct systems of Karatedo.

JL: You are known in the West for being the only person teaching outside Japan an Okinawan tradition which is virtually unknown. We are talking about the Tou'on ryu school of Karate. How did you come to know the existence of this group?

MM: While still a student of Kinjo sensei in Canada I would read English language Karatedo books by different authors. In the 1980s there wasn't much information on Okinawa Karatedo in books, video, or magazines, but occasionally you would come across some. Most of the time it would give some background about the major teachers and styles of Okinawa Karatedo, and without fail you would always hear about Goju-ryu and its founder Chojun Miyagi, maybe a little bit about his teacher Kanryo Higaonna, and then a few of the names of the other students he taught. This is where I first heard of Tou'on-ryu and Juhatsu Kyoda. But that was it. There was no other information.

It wasn't until a few years after I had moved to Japan that I began to think about Tou'on-ryu and Juhatsu Kyoda again. By then I could speak and understand some Japanese and thought it was worth a try. Still no luck. Eventually I found myself visiting the dojo of Katsumi Murakami through the introduction from my friend Joe Swift. I was stunned when I saw the front door to Murakami sensei's dojo which had a sign that read "Shorin-ryu and Tou'on-ryu Karatedo, Ryukyu Kobujutsu". I had accidentally stumbled across the dojo of a student of Juhatsu Kyoda. The irony was a bit much. It was through Murakami sensei's introduction that I was able to meet and eventually start training with Shigekazu Kanzaki.

Kyoda Juhatsu
Kyoda Juhatsu

JL: Why did you decide to study Tou'on ryu? What made the difference from other styles you had or could have studied?

MM: My initial intention was never to study Tou'on-ryu. I simply wanted to see what the "sister style" of Goju-ryu was like. And what I saw shocked me. The kata that were common between the two styles (Sanchin, Sesan, Sanseru, Pechurin) clearly used the same framework, but the manner and execution of technique was drastically different; almost unrecognizable at times. But it was so dynamic and powerful that I thought that this is something that I would like to know more about. After several visits I asked Kanzaki sensei if he would consider teaching me, and he agreed. I've continued to study Tou'on-ryu ever since.

Kanzaki Sensei - Mario McKenna
Kanzaki Sensei and Mario McKenna

Tou'on-ryu is different, but so is any other kind of Karatedo compared to another, it doesn't make it better, unique, or have more value. Some of these characteristics are shared with other Karatedo "styles" but Tou'on-ryu emphasizes closing quickly with an opponent and fighting at close range. There is a fair amount of body conditioning required, and it also uses a very rough-house form of kakie (push hands) for developing close-quarter skill and sensitivity. It is simpler in some respects because it does not have as many kata as its "sister" style Goju-ryu and therefore does not have as wide a variety of techniques. Most of its techniques are very simple and direct, but I would like to point out that simple does not mean simplistic. Tou'on-ryu is brutally efficient.

JL: Was an easy task to become a student of this school? How was the process to become a student?

MM: I think becoming a student and being accepted as a part of any traditional dojo should not be easy. I'm not saying that you should have to do some sort of endurance test, write an exam, or fight a hundred people. I mean, it has to be a personal process. Think about it for a moment. What does the dojo, and by extension, the teacher get from you becoming a student? If the dojo includes fees, then it will receive a little money. But what else? Nothing really, at least not for many, many years. From the dojo's perspective it has to teach you from scratch, not just the physical aspects of Karatedo, but also its ideas about manners, focus, discipline, and propriety. In other words, its taking on a much larger responsibility than you perhaps imagined. Therefore the process of becoming a student should be done in steps. Its better in the long run for both the student and the dojo.

To give you an idea about this process. Kanzaki sensei told me that after he was introduced to Juhatsu Kyoda he did not automatically become his student. He went to his teacher's home everyday and asked to become his student and each day he was told "no". This went on for well over a month until finally he was told "yes". I doubt many of us would be willing to humble ourselves or could place ourselves in such a position today.

Kyoda Juhatsu - Kanzaki Shigekazu
Kyoda Juhatsu and Kanzaki Shigekazu

I did not undergo this kind of ordeal like Kanzaki sensei. After several meetings with Kanzaki sensei I asked if he would teach me Tou'on-ryu and he agreed, however he taught me one on one for many months before I was ever allowed to meet and train with the other Tou'on-ryu teachers and seniors. My feeling is that this was a very wise approach. It allowed me to learn Tou'on-ryu at a basic level and at the same time provided him an opportunity to observe my behavior over several months and if need be "pull the plug" on instruction. It also made practicing with the other teachers and seniors much easier when it did happen as I had a foundation.

McKenna - Kanzaki - Yamashita - Inomoto
Mario McKenna, Kanzaki Sensei, Yamashita and Inomoto.

JL: Can you share with us your experience training under the guidance of Kanzaki sensei?

MM: It may sound a bit trite, but it was "old school". I don't mean it was overly harsh or severe, but practice was much more about self-training. We would warm-up and do some basic strikes, blocks, and kicks, followed by Sanchin kata. After that the student was left on his own to practice whatever he felt like. It may have been conditioning, impact training, partner work, kakie, kata, footwork, etc. Seniors would give advice to juniors, and Kanzaki sensei would call students over one by one and correct technique, kata, etc. At the end of class we would perform Sanchin kata. That was generally how classes would run. Since Kanzaki sensei has retired and Ikeda sensei has taken over, there is a little more of a structured approach to teaching, but at its core it is the same.

Although it is gradually changing, this is how many Okinawa dojo teach still. It requires a certain level of maturity and motivation on the students' part to practice this way and is a good means of weeding students out. Students who lack motivation or are easily bored often quit.

Fujishima - McKenna - Kanzaki
Front row: Fujishima sensei, Mario McKenna, y Kanzaki Sensei.

JL: Tou'on ryu and Goju ryu share the core of teachings received from Higaonna Kanryo sensei. Would you tell we are in front of similar styles? Which do you consider to be the main differences between them?

MM: Goju-ryu and Tou'on-ryu are shimai ryuha or sister-styles and there is quite a bit of common ground between the two as they are both derived from Higaonna Kanryo. Their respective founders, Miyagi Chojun and Kyoda Juhatsu, were like brothers in the dojo and like any family there would be strong similarities between the two but also differences in terms of character, personality, etc. Therefore it should not come as a surprise or be viewed as strange that the systems of Karatedo that they founded have common points, and points of divergence.

If I was to generalize between the two systems, Tou'on-ryu is much more focused on impact techniques (punches, kicks, strikes, etc) with locking and grappling being a smaller component to training. In contrast Goju-ryu, along with its use of impact techniques, has a wider variety of locking and grappling techniques. Consequently, the footwork in the two systems differs somewhat in that Tou'on-ryu tends to have "lighter" and "springier" footwork compared to Goju-ryu.

JL: Can you tell us about the syllabus or curriculum of Tou'on ryu? Do you think that the addition of Nepai and Jion kata marks the difference of approach of Tou'on ryu with respect to Goju ryu or would you add more reasons?

MM:

  1. Junbi undo: Preparatory exercises

  2. Sonoba & Ido waza: Stationary and moving techniques

  3. Ten-I-Happo: Basic footwork drill

  4. Kigu undo:

    • Kakiya: Single arm wooden man

    • Makiwara: Striking board

    • Chiisi: Uneven dumbbell

    • Nigiri-gamae: Gripping jars

    • Tetsu-geta: Iron clogs

  5. Kata (empty-hand):

    • Kiso I & II

    • Sanchin

    • Sesan

    • Sanseru

    • Pechurin

    • Jion

    • Nepai

  6. Kata (weapons):

    • Soeishi no kon

    • Tsukenshitahaku no sai

    • Chatanyara no sai

    • Nunchaku (technique only)

  7. Kitae (conditioning):

    • Kakie: Push hands

    • Ude Kitae: Forearm conditioning

    • Ashi Kitae: Leg conditioning

The addition of Jion and Nepai are interesting choices on the part of Kyoda Juhatsu. As most people know Jion was learned from Yabu Kentsu while Kyoda attended the Prefectural Teachers' College, and Nepai was learned from the Chinese tea merchant Go Kenki while Kyoda was a part of the Toudi Research Club. I asked Kanzaki sensei some years ago about this and he said that Jion was consistent with the other kata Kyoda had learned from Higaonna because it was classified as a Shorei-ryu lineage kata. However, I do not agree with the Shorin and Shorei classification of kata.

In terms of execution, the Tou'on-ryu Jion is about 95% similar to the Hanashiro version published in the book, Karatedo Taikan (1938). This shouldn't be too surprising since both Yabu and Hanashiro were students of Itosu. I find it somewhat surprising that Jion is looked down upon as a simplistic form, but it is exactly this characteristic that makes it such an interesting catalog of effective techniques. Unlike other kata, especially those found in modern Goju-ryu, Jion does not incorporate a lot of locking or throwing techniques, but instead relies heavily on striking techniques. This is old style Karate/Ti. Punches are directed to the face along the angle of the jaw with the intent of a knockout. Emphasis is on footwork (tenshin), proper timing and distancing (maai), with a minimum of kicks. Jion reflects the way fighting can occur on the street.

As for Neipai, Kanzaki sensei said that Kyoda added it because it was similar to the system that Higaonna studied in China, and also that it may have been a means of introducing the concepts of relaxation and yielding into Higaonna's Karate.

This is only my personal opinion and I feel very inadequate trying to explain Tou'on-ryu compared to my teacher and my seniors, but the addition of Jion and Nepai are not what differentiates Goju-ryu from Tou'on-ryu. Instead, I think it is more about how the training is done, what techniques are used and how they are executed. Compared to Goju-ryu, Tou'on-ryu is very lean. Its stripped down to a series of very simple, direct, and brutal techniques. It definitely works on a "less is more" idea.

JL: One hojo undo tool you mention is a very rare one in these days, the kakiya. May you explain something about its use? Is it known where its origins are and if it is used in other styles of Okinawan Karate?

MM: Some students are familiar with the makiwara (striking board), but it is even rarer for Karate students to train using a kakiya (wooden man). My own feeling is that the kakiya was used in 19th century Okinawa, but eventually fell into disuse. There maybe a few Karate teachers who still use it, but it I don't know of them. In Tou'on-ryu, they use a version which is identical to the one originally illustrated in Nakasone Genwa's 1938 publication "Karate-do Taikan". The same illustration can also be seen in Nagamine Shoshin's "Tales of Okinawan Karate and Sumo Masters", translated by Patrick McCarthy.

Kakiya
Kakiya

It is basically a wooden post with a weighted "arm" mounted in the center on a hinge. The kakiya is an excellent training tool for strengthening the body and polishing technique. If a student ever has the chance to train on one I would strongly encourage it. After a few weeks you will see a noticeable improvement in your strength and technique.

I'm not sure where the kakiya originated other than in Kyoda Juhatsu's case it was a training tool and method passed down from Higaonna Kanryo when Kyoda was a student. At its most basic, the kakiya was a stand-in for a human partner that allowed you to practice all manner of techniques at full speed and strength. With Kanzaki sensei he would have us drill a section(s) of a kata on the kakiya over and over again. Your own imagination is the only obstacle for training on the kakiya.

JL: Kyoda sensei was a fundamental figure for Karate to be recognized by the Butokukai as a Japanese martial art and was the director of the Naha branch of this organization. Why do you think he was interested in this kind of recognition?

MM: I don't think he sought recognition directly. Everything in his life points to a man who deliberately stayed out of the Karate limelight. He never owned or opened a formal dojo; never advertised for students and when students came knocking at his door, refused most of them; and he refused to take over as head of Goju-ryu when Miyagi Chojun passed away. That said, Kyoda was also a product of his time. He was an educator who grew-up in the early days of Japan and Okinawa's modernization. Recognition from the pre-WWII Butokukai, an organization patroned by the imperial family, would have been a great honor not only for himself, but also for Karate and for Okinawa.

JL: Tou'on ryu has always kept a low profile and the information about it is scarce. Is this something deliberate? Why?

MM: It is true that Tou'on-ryu has a kept a low profile, but I think this is not deliberate. For many years they simply never advertised their existence, but they were always open to take-in prospective students if you knocked on their door. More recently since Ikeda sensei has taken over as head instructor, things have become more open. There is now a website (www.touonryu.com) and Ikeda sensei has begun to teach a few seminars domestically and abroad. Since I left Japan, there have also been other non-Japanese that have visited the dojo for instruction.

McKenna - Kanzaki - Tankosich
Mario McKenna, Kanzaki Sensei and Mark Tankosich.

JL: What are your feelings about being the only person out of Japan teaching the Tou'on ryu tradition? Are your teachings available to everyone who may want to train Tou'on ryu? What is the reason for that approach?

MM: Well, that is no longer true. Lyn Jehu studied a number of years with Yoshino sensei (one of Kanzaki sensei's students and one of the few Shihan in Tou'on-ryu) in Kita Kyushu. He returned to Wales last year. Although I don't think he's formally teaching yet. I teach Tou'on-ryu, but only on a one on one basis, and only to dan ranked students. My own students study Goju-ryu first until shodan. After that, if the student is interested and motivated, I start teaching them Tou'on-ryu. I do this for a couple of reasons. Tou'on-ryu is a unique and rare system of Okinawa Karatedo, almost a family system in some respects. Teaching it one on one to students with a good foundation in its sister style helps them absorb it easier and maintain its integrity. The other reason is that there are no other Tou'on-ryu dojo in North America. Should a student leave before they have some minimum skill set, then he can't continue his studies. And if he did try to continue it would soon morph into something unrecognizable. The integrity of the style would be lost.

Jehu - Yoshino - McKenna
Lyn Jehu, Yoshino Sensei and Mario McKenna.

JL: You are a practitioner and instructor of Okinawa Kobudo too. Why did you decide to study this art? Do you consider Kobudo to be an obligate study for karateka? Why?

MM: Yes I practice Taira lineage Kobudo as taught to me by my teachers Minowa Katsuhiko and Yoshimura Hiroshi. I had studied a little Kobudo when I was studying Gohakukai, but like most Kobudo taught in Karate dojo, it lacked depth and was treated mostly as an adjunct to training. When I first moved to Japan on the Island of Amami, I was introduced to Minowa sensei and Yoshimura sensei and started training in 1994 and I have continued practicing to this day. I consider myself extremely lucky to have trained with Minowa sensei and Yoshimura sensei.

I personally do not consider Kobudo practice a requirement for karateka. I do wish more karateka were interested in this wonderful tradition, but these days it is hard enough for people to commit to training in Karate let alone Kobudo as well. That said, I do think that some Kobudo training can provide real insight into a student's Karatedo. On a practical level it teaches moving the body as a coordinated whole to maximize power, provides a vivid understanding of distance and timing, how small changes in structure and angle translate into better technique, etc.

As I get older I find that I am gravitating more and more to Kobudo practice compared to my Karatedo. It is something that I can see myself practicing well into my advanced years.

JL: You have focused your translation work of Karate texts on those written by Mabuni Kenwa sensei. Is there any particular reason to focus in this figure? Are you working on any new translation or book to be released in a near future?

MM: Yes, I have translated two works by Mabuni Kenwa, Kobo Jizai Goshin Jutsu Karate Kempo and Seipai no Kenkyu. I have tremendous respect for Mabuni Kenwa, the Shito-ryu he founded, and his collective writings. One reason why I choose to translate Mabuni's works is that he was an excellent writer who wrote in a clear, concise, and practical manner about Karatedo. Other writers, around the same time as Mabuni and later on, were not nearly as organized or coherent as he was in explaining things. Second, Mabuni was unique in that his background embraced three traditions, Shurite (Shorin-ryu), Nahate (Goju-ryu) and Kobudo. Because of this he was the only person to ever illustrate and write in detail about Nahate kata prior to WWII. Goju-ryu's founder Miyagi Chojun never did this, nor did Tou'on-ryu's founder Kyoda Juhatsu.

I hope someday to translate Mabuni's book Karatedo Nyumon. It is a fantastic book that is much better in my opinion to the Funakoshi Gichin book of the same title. I've talked about this on and off for several years with my friend Joe Swift, doing it as a joint effort, but we haven't decided anything yet. I know Joe is still working on Mutsu Mizuho's Karate Kempo. That is a massive undertaking, so I think its best to wait until he's done that first. I'm currently translating Itoman Seijin (Morinobu)'s Toudi no Kenkyu and have finished about 75% of a rough draft. My goal is to have it finished for publication by the end of this year.

JL: Is there anything else you would like to add?

MM: True Karatedo holds in its core the goals of long life, health, and self-protection. It should never be as source of belligerence.

Yoshino - Fujishima
Yoshino Shihan and Fujishima Shihan

“No matter how you may excel in the art of Karate, and in your scholastic endeavors,
nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”