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Kozo Kuniba: A Living Link to Budo History

James Herndon

In busy, modern times we often do not pause to ponder the importance of the events and people that have shaped our lives. This is true in all walks of life; it certainly has no exception in the case of the martial arts of Japan (Budo). All too often, we forget just how we got where we are, who went before us, and who made it all possible. History is a reflective activity; we look back when necessity demands or luxury allows. What we see is usually a story soon forgotten unless kept alive by those who cherish its value. In this article, we will consider the life and lineage of a person who embodies the bloodline and holds the repository of knowledge unique to one style of martial arts Motobu-ha Shito-ryu Karate-do. That person is Kozo Kuniba.

(Photo on web site

The Beginnings Lets begin this story with a couple of legendary figures. In the early part of the 19th Century (using the Western calendar), there was a famed Tode (Karate) teacher in Okinawa named Anko Itosu (1831-1915). Some historians actually consider him the true father of Karate, as opposed to Gichin Funakoshi, because it was Itosu who introduced Kata into Okinawan schools long before Funakoshi did likewise in the Japanese school system. Be that as it may, Itosu taught many individuals who would go on to become teachers of other great teachers. One of Itosus most renowned students was Choki Motobu (1870-1944). Motobu developed a reputation (justified or not) as a street fighter, someone who never walked away from a challenge. During his day, it was not uncommon for someone to enter a Dojo and challenge the teacher. Thats how styles were tested. Over time, Motobu refined his fighting (Kumite) style based upon what worked and what didnt. It was to be known in years to come as Ryukyu Karate Motobuha.

MOTOBU Choki Sensei

(Photo hanging in Seishin-Kai Dojo, Osaka)

A junior student of Itosu (for only a year or less) who went on to follow Motobu was Kosei Kokuba (1900-1959). Kokuba began training at age 14; but, Itosu died a year later at the advanced age of 84. It is fair to say then, by that time, Motobu was more a teacher of Kokuba than was Itosu. Nevertheless, it was Itosus influence being passed along.

KOKUBA Kosei Sensei

(Photo hanging in Seishin-Kai Dojo, Osaka)

History has done a number on Kosei Kokubas name, literally. The Okinawan family name KOKU BA can be read in Japanese as KUNI BA (Country Place). But, for most of his life, Kosei went by the older pronunciation. However, when he moved to Japan during the mid 1920s, people there would see and say his name as Kuniba. So, Kosei Kokuba and Kosei Kuniba were one and the same. But, it gets even more

confusing from an historical perspective. Kosei can also be translated as Yukimori. Thus, Kosei Kokuba can be read as Yukimori Kuniba. Because of this confusion, one source erroneously lists Kosei Kokuba as the father of Yukimori Kuniba! And, one more

wrinkle that has confounded some researchers: Kosei took a nickname Shogo that meant brave warrior. But, as well see, he wasnt the only Shogo Kuniba. Kosei Kuniba was married to a woman who could not bear children. However, he had an older brother who was blessed with many children. One of those children was Kosho Kuniba, born in 1935 in Fujiyoshida-shi, Yamanashi Prefecture, Japan.. As was not uncommon in those days, children of large families were sent to live with relatives who had smaller and/or no families. Kosho Kuniba was sent to Osaka from his birthplace near Tokyo to live with his uncle Kosei. In time, Kosei was considered his father (his real/biological father died shortly after WW II). So, from 1940 onward, young Kosho grew up and trained under the tutelage of his uncle/adoptive father as the only son of a noted Osaka Karate teacher. Now, the teachings of Itosu Motobu Kokuba had an heir. By 1946, Kosei Kuniba had firmly established the Seishin-kan Dojo in Nishinari-ku; in time this single Dojo grew into Seishin-kai, with 57 Dojo in Japan and dozens more around the world. When Kosei Kuniba died in 1959, young Kosho was recognized as the next (actually, third or San-dai) family head (Soke) of Ryukyu Karate Motobu-ha.

Kosho Kuniba & Kosei Kokuba (photo from Kuniba archives) 4

Formative Years Kosho Kuniba was a rare individual, in the martial arts sense. Being brought up by a noted Karate instructor who had taken the mantle of Motobu-ha from Motobu himself, the life of young Kosho was carefully choreographed so as to expose him to a variety of masters and prepare him to become the next Soke in line. Thus, he learned not only from Kokuba (his uncle/adoptive father), he also learned from other visiting instructors who passed through the Seishin-kan Dojo. Chief among them was Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952), a peer and friend of Kosei Kokuba. While young Kosho received some instruction from Mabuni, most of his Shito-Ryu techniques came from Ryusei Tomoyori (1909-1977), a direct follower of Mabuni and founder of Kenyu-ryu. By the mid 1950s, Kosho Kuniba had also traveled to Okinawa to learn Shorin-ryu from Shoshin Nagamine (1907-1997) and had acquired Kobudo skills from Shinken Taira (1897-1970), Mugai-ryu Iaido technique from Ishii Gogetsu (dates unknown), and Aikido knowledge from Gozo Shioda (1915-1994). Other influences included Kenko Nakaima (1911-1989) of Ryuei-ryu and Judo acquired from Asakichi Ito (dates unknown). Truly, Kosho Kuniba was a well-rounded martial artist. Based upon

information gained from several interviews, it can be firmly stated that Kosho Kuniba founded Motobu-ha Shito-ryu Karate-do by blending the teachings of his father (the Motobu legacy) with the teachings of the Mabuni line of Shito-ryu. In so doing, he became the first (Sho-dai) Soke of that new style. In the early 1960s, Kosho Kuniba (who had by then become known as the second Shogo Kuniba) was teaching at the old Hombu Dojo in Osaka, and had tentacle classes on nearby military bases (e.g., Camp Zama) and at Osaka Prefectural University. Many of the Seishin-kai future leaders were being groomed during that time; among the names -

Hashimoto, Hayashi, Yamanaka, Yamada, Yoneda, Kotaka, Kobayashi, Tatsuno, Minamide and others. With young Kosho as Soke, most of these soon-to-be famous Shihan were his direct students, though some went on to claim that they were students of Kosei Kokuba and even the notable founder of Shito Ryu, Kenwa Mabuni. History has a way of reshaping itself over time to suit the teller.

Shogo Kuniba (1969)

(photo from Kuniba archives)

Teruo Hayashi (1920-2004), who began Karate at around age 30, studied at the Seishin-kan Dojo. His primary teacher was the younger Shogo Kuniba; yet, Hayashi always cited the senior Kosho Kokuba as his teacher and even pointed to Kenwa Mabuni (who died in 1952) as a major influence. Because Hayashi was older than Kuniba when Kokuba died in 1959, he was appointed Kaicho of Seishin-kai and served until 1968, when he left to form his own organization, Hayashi-ha Shito-ryu Kai. Throughout the years, Hayashi and Kuniba maintained a friendly rivalry, appearing together in Encyclopedia Japonica in 1964 and in documentary videos such as Eien Naru Budo (1978).

Kuniba and Hayashi

(Scene from Eien Naru Budo)

The influence of Kenwa Mabuni on Kosho (Shogo the 2nd) Kuniba and others (e.g., Hayashi) cannot be underestimated; but, it shouldnt be exaggerated, either. Kosei Kokuba and Kenwa Mabuni were friends. Shogo Kuniba was quite adamant in stating that his father was not a student of Kenwa Mabuni. Yet, historical accounts persist in claiming that Kokuba was one of Mabunis followers. Perhaps the problem was that there were two Shogo Kuniba. While the first (Kosei Kokuba/Kuniba) was a friend of Mabuni; the second (Kosho Kuniba) was a student briefly of Mabuni and a follower of Mabunis student Ryusei Tomoyori. Remember, Mabuni died in 1952 and Kokuba died in 1959. Shogo Kunibas last promotion in Shito-ryu came in 1955, three years after Mabuni died. Hayashi began training around 1950, only two years before Mabuni died. Dates tell it all, despite tales to the contrary. Stories abound about how Kosei Kokuba hosted itinerant masters to teach in his Seishin-kan Dojo in Osaka during the pre- and post- World War II years. This he did as a service in the name of Budo. His home was open to them. That should not be taken to

mean he was their student; he was friend and host. His home served as a place where noted instructors passing through Osaka could exchange teaching for a few nights room and board. This was done in the spirit of Budo brotherhood and Okinawan friendship.

Friends- Kosei Kokuba and Kenwa Mabuni

(photo from Kuniba archives)

Gathering at the Kokuba House Kokuba, far left; Ryusho Sakagami, center
(photo from Kuniba archives)

The Next Generation Kosho Kuniba had two sons, Kosuke (b. 1958) and Kozo (b. 1960). The family lineage is shown below. Note that the real father of Kosei Kokuba, Koyou Kokuba (not shown below) was not a martial artist, as some have speculated.

Descendants of Kosei Kokuba

Kosei Kok ub a 1 9 00 - 19 59 Tsuruk o Fu rug en

Kayo Terad a 1 9 35 -

Kosh o Kun ib a 19 35 - 19 92

Ju dy Fu ller Mo lin ary 1 9 47 -

Kosu ke Kun ib a 1 9 58 -

Ko zo Ku niba 19 6 0 -

Mid ori Asai 1 96 2 -

Tosh io Ku niba 1 99 4 -

Setsuk i Ku niba 1 99 6 -

Parents of Kozo Kuniba (Photo: Kuniba Archives) 9

Although both sons had an early immersion in the arts of their father, it was the younger Kozo who showed the most technical promise. Kozo began his Karate training in 1965 under Masao Tateishi in Motobu-ha Shito-ryu at the Seishin-kai Hombu Dojo.

Young Kozo (brown belt) Leads Tomari Bassai Kata

(Photo: Kuniba Archives)

A Shodan (1st degree black belt) by age 12, he was already a champion in Japan. He was so good, that by age 14 he had retired from competition. He received his Nidan (2nd degree black belt) in 1974, and Sandan (3rd degree black belt) in 1978. Then, as is true of many teenagers in modern Japan, Kozo pursued other interests. He discovered American rock & roll, dressed in all black clothing, and became a charmer with the girls. When the author trained at the Hombu Dojo in Japan in 1980, Kozo was only seen coming and going in the wee hours of the night. At that time, he became a stranger to the Dojo floor. His father was chagrined. There was, however, no shortage of other skilled black belts in Seishin-kan Dojo who were eager and ready to take over the reigns someday from Shogo Kuniba. Competition was fierce and, if Kozo was not to be next in line, many others were willing to take his place.


Transitions Shogo Kuniba had begun making frequent extended visits to the USA as early as 1971. Then, in 1974, 1978, 1979, 1980, and 1982 he made return visits. By 1983, Shogo Kuniba had become a permanent Resident Alien, obtaining his green card, social security number and driver license. He even divorced his longtime Japanese wife (Kayo) and married an American girl!

Shogo Kunibas First USA Visit Mobile. AL 1971 [The author is directly behind Kuniba]

Kozo Kuniba became familiar with America when he visited his father in the late 1980s. During several years, Kozo stayed in the USA for months at a time in order to resume training with his father at the Portsmouth Hombu Dojo. It was during those visits that Shogo Kuniba began to realize that Kozo may become his successor. As Shogo Kunibas health began to fail, his attention to Kozos development intensified. The intense scrutiny caused Shogo Kuniba to actually demote his son from Sandan (3rd degree black belt), a rank earned in 1978 and verified by the Japan Karate-do Federation (JKF),


to white belt as a way of making him work harder and be more self-critical. This strategy apparently worked well, because Kozo literally knuckled down and took his fathers instruction to heart. Training along side Mike Doyle and Mark Boyette (both former students of the author at Old Dominion University Karate Club and Kensei Kan Dojo), Darren Myers (who was introduced to Shogo Kuniba by the author in 1980 during a tournament at the Chesapeake Recreation Center) and Lewis Estes (who began his training in 1982 at the authors Dojo), Kozo was in good company. Mike and Mark helped Shogo Kuniba develop the first Goshin Do kata in 1988-89. Darren and Lewis took on leadership roles in Seishin-kai in years to come.

Kozo with Shogo at Hombu (VA) [Author standing center between the two]

Training at the Portsmouth Hombu Dojo was always rigorous. Students there got the best of Shogo Kuniba from 1983 until 1992. Regular classes were interspersed with special clinics and guest instructors. Combined workouts with other Dojo were common. Truly, Motobu-ha Shito-ryu Karate-do was evolving to suit the American physique and


Kuniba-ha Karate-do was differentiating itself from Motobu-ha. Kozo Kuniba was a part of this evolutionary phase. Attending the World Karate Championships in Paris, France in 1988, Kozo Kuniba took first place in black belt Kata competition by performing 12 different forms for judging. Clearly, this accomplishment demonstrated his superb skill. It was

reminiscent of a feat his father had accomplished at the same event held in Paris in 1972. Like father, like son!

Kozo, Shogo & Kosuke Kuniba in France

(Photo from Kuniba Archives)

Not until 1989 was Kozo promoted to Yondan (4th degree black belt) by his father, who himself had been promoted to Kudan (9th degree black belt) by the JKF in 1984. After more grooming, Kozo was promoted to Godan (5th degree black belt) in 1991 and awarded the title Shihan (Teacher). From an early beginning, through years of youthful excellence, followed by adolescent diversions, then a serious return to his fathers way, Kozo Kuniba had been honed to assume the mantle of leadership. Future challenges and


obstacles would put him to the test. If not altogether ready to assume the role of Soke, the next few years would present him with opportunities to fulfill his destiny.

Emergence of Kuniba Kai It is a sad fact and a huge loss to the martial arts world that Shogo Kuniba died in 1992, due to complications of stomach cancer. And, indeed, it was ironic because he always believed that he would live longer in the U.S. than he would in Japan. But, when he died, he was only 57 years old. Seishin-kai had seen its ups and downs over the years since Shogo Kuniba began preferring the U.S. lifestyle to the stress of living in Japan. When Seishin-kai was up for grabs, several people emerged as heirs-in-waiting. Stateside, William (Bill) Price

produced a document purported to be a deathbed declaration from Shogo Kuniba that recognized Price as the next Soke of Kuniba-ha Karate-do and Kuniba-ryu Goshin Do. Granted, Price had recently been promoted to Hachidan (8th degree black belt) by Kuniba-Soke in these arts and given the title Soke Daiko. Trouble was, the document was written by Prices lawyer (Jay Steele a real estate attorney!) as allegedly dictated by Shogo Kuniba (while on serious pain medication) and only witnessed by Price and the attorney. The widow of Shogo Kuniba, Judy Fuller Kuniba (his second wife) and his two sons by his first marriage (see chart) had doubts about the validity of the documents intent. Reportedly, there were at least two other draft versions of the declaration Moreover, the next-in-line in Japan, Soke Daiko Kunio Tatsuno, had


altogether different plans. Meetings were held and turf issues were discussed. Tatsuno ultimately claimed Kaicho and Soke titles, agreeing to relinquish control after a five year transition period and turn over the Kai and the style to Kozo Kuniba. Tatsuno offered to


help the then existing Seishin Kai Martial Arts (SKMA) organization in America, headed by Price. But, Tatsuno and Price did not see eye to eye. While Kozo Kuniba was eventually promoted to Rokudan (6th degree black belt) by Kunio Tatsuno in 1996, Bill Price resigned from Seishi-kai to form his own Chikubu-kai (with Goichi Kobayashi as Kaicho) and fulfill the mission he believed had been bequeathed to him. Five years turned to seven, and there was no sign that Kunio Tatsuno was going to relinquish control of Seishin-kai and Motobu-ha Shito-ryu. Even though Kozo Kuniba was given responsibility for the newly established International Division of Seishin-kai in late 1992, he still was kept in a subservient position by Tatsuno for the next several years. Then, fate stepped in. On May 1, 1999 Kunio Tatsuno was killed in Osaka under circumstances that surprised everyone. That tragedy sent shock waves through an

already disrupted Seishin-kai. Just a few months before in 1998, Tatsuno had formed the International Seishin-kai Karate Union (ISKU), appointing Robert Burgermeister international director. [ISKU continues today; but, there is no active Seishin-kai in Japan. Sadatomu Harada, who briefly succeeded Tatsuno, resigned from Seishin-kai and agreed not to use the title Soke in relation to Motobu-ha.] Upon the death of Tatsuno, and following the observation of an appropriate period of respect for his demise, the brothers Kuniba decided to let Seishin-kai go and form a new organization known as the Nihon Karate-do Kuniba-kai. With the support and backing of Teruo Hayashi (a founding member of the Japan Karate-do Rengo-kai, a regional federation) and a big name in martial arts, Kuniba-kai not only gained Rengo-kai approval, but also JKF recognition. The JKF pronounced that, although Seishin-kai may have ended its nearly 60 year tenure in Japan, Kuniba-kai was the rightful home of


Motobu-ha Shito-ryu Karate-do, now and forever.

Upon the establishment and

recognition of Kuniba-kai, Kozo Kuniba was promoted to Nanadan (7th degree black belt). Ten years into Kuniba-kai, and with JKF concurrence, Kozo Kuniba was elevated to Hachidan (8th degree black belt) in 2008. During the initial years, the brothers Kuniba organized and divided roles, agreeing that the older one, Kosuke, would be referred to as Japan Soke and the younger, Kozo, would hold the title Kaicho. In time, because of his desire to continue the spread of Motobu-ha Shito-ryu around the world, Kozo Kuniba took on the titles International Soke and International Kaicho. Now in more than 20 countries, Kuniba-kai is growing everyday, and former Seishin-kai members are returning to the fold, for they realize there is only one home for the Kuniba tradition. There will be an international summit in Osaka in June 2009, during which Kuniba Kai leaders from around the world will gather to discuss the past and plan for the future. . Visit the Kuniba-kai website to learn more:

Kozo Kuniba at Shurei-no-Mon

Okinawa 2008


Kozo Kuniba has made many attempts to bring the followers of his father back together under one organization. He believes that his father would want nothing less; the sons of Shogo Kuniba, biological and martial, should work together to carry on the legacy of Motobu-ha Shito-ryu and related Kuniba-ryu arts. Making that happen is Kozo Kunibas dream.

Epilogue History must be recorded and preserved. People and events shape the written record. As has been shown in this article, the long line from Anko Itosu to Kozo Kuniba is unbroken, even though it may have been twisted by unforeseen and unexpected forces. In a world filled with more than 50 million Karate practitioners, it is remarkable that one individual, Kozo Kuniba, can trace his martial arts lineage so closely (by virtue of family connections and blood lineage) to the masters of the past. He is a contemporary link to old traditions. When we look back over the past two hundred years of development of Tode/Karate, from Okinawa to Japan to America, and back to Japan, we see an unbroken chain of people whose lives and deeds shape our practice today. Our gratitude is owed, and we must remember them.

Sources The Roots of Karate (Undated). Framingham, MA: Bushido-kai Budoya Karate-do Directory (1977). Tokyo: Sozo Co., Ltd. Personal Interviews with Shuho Yamanaka (1980). Osaka, Japan. Personal Interviews with Shogo Kuniba (1980; 1982). Osaka, Japan. Personal Interviews with Goichi Kobayashi (1980), Osaka, Japan


Personal Interview with Shogo Kuniba (1983-1989), VA, USA Personal Interviews with Judy Kuniba (1986-1992), VA, USA Personal Interviews with Kunio Tatsuno (1996). Osaka, Japan. Personal Interviews with Kozo Kuniba (2007). Chesapeake, VA


About the Author James Herndon was a student, follower and friend of Shogo Kuniba from 1971 until 1992, when Shogo Kuniba passed away. Herndon served as the Seishin-kai USA Honbucho from 1980-1982 and his Chesapeake, VA dojo, Kensei-Kan, became the Hombu Bunkan when a new hombu dojo was opened in Portsmouth, VA. Today, Herndon serves as the Information Director for Kuniba Kai International.

James Herndon & Kozo Kuniba

Virginia, 2007

Contents of this article Copyright 2009 JSH

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