Bunbukan, General Headquarters of the Okinawa Traditional Kobudo Preservation Society, Mr. Masahiro Nakamoto (Holder of Intangible Cultural Asset of Okinawa Prefecture)

Kobudo is my life. I’ve been chasing it my whole life, but there is no end to my study. Nakamoto Masahiro, 79, the only person in Kobudo who has been designated as an intangible cultural asset, wakes up at 3 a.m. every morning and devotes himself to studying and practicing the use of eight different weapons, including the bo and nunchaku. Fifty-five years have passed since he decided to carry on the tradition of Kobudo, which was on the verge of extinction, and at the age of 24, he knocked on the door of master Taira Shinken. He teaches the techniques and spirit he has developed at the Okinawa Traditional Martial Arts Preservation Society’s general headquarters, ‘Bunbukan‘ in Shuri, Torihori-cho, Naha City.

Nakamoto grew up in a motherless family and lived in poverty. While attending high school on a part-time basis, he worked for the U.S. Civilian Government (USCAR). From the age of 20, she studied Kobayashi-ryu Karate under Chibana Choshin, a friend of his father’s , who had no connection with Kobudo.

The turning point in his career came when he was 24 years old. He had worked for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), where he had worked in the cultural heritage department. He was told by his boss at work, Shannon McCune, a civil affairs officer, that he should not only practice Karate but also Kobudo, “Karate will remain, but Kobudo will die out.” It was at this time that “I became aware of my calling“.

Taira repeatedly refused to let him take part in Kobudo classes, but on a cold winter’s night, he begged Taira saying, “I’m not leaving until you let me train” and he was finally allowed to do so. It was his first time seeing the world of Kobudo, “I was very curious to see that many weapons,” he said.

Nakamoto Masahiro at age 42

Although he was troubled by the fact that he was being corrected over and over again, he spent many fulfilling days in the art. By learning Kobudo, “I was able to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the weapons, it gave me a lot of depth to my Karate,” he said. Along with Karate, he also studied Kobudo and was certified as a Kobudo instructor in 1970. He was assigned to run a branch dojo for Taira, and in 1982 he set up his own dojo.

Long ago, he had the opportunity to test a certain Karate master by thrusting at his chest with a bo and he knocked him down easily. “I think it would have been a close call if it had been his solar plexus“. Afterwards, that master told his students, “You should all go learn Kobudo“. He recalls the experience of mutual respect for each other, “There were times when the world of Karate would jeer at Kobudo, but there were also people with real humility“.

In fact, he said, he wouldn’t let his opponent get seriously injured, so he would often aim at the legs with his bo. “That’s why I train my legs, too“. He surprised a foreign student of his by tapping his shin with a sledge hammer in front of the dojo.

When talking about the past, he would often say, “I was lucky”. He studied under Chibana and Taira, as well as several others. He went to China to study at the government’s request to find the origins of Kobudo, and learned ground-fighting techniques, which were in decline in Okinawa, from a living national treasure. He was blessed with many masters, and he is a master of Okinawa Kobudo. He remembers with gratitude, “Meeting big names when I was young changed my life”.

Nakamoto says, “All the masters, including Taira sensei and Chibana sensei, were gentle and kind”. Nakamoto himself treats his students in the same way.

Currently, there are about 60 students in his dojo. Over the past 45 years, there have been about 3,000 students, including those from overseas. Nowadays, Karate instructors have a high awareness of Kobudo. He envisions the ideal form of Karate and Kobudo, “Nowadays, instructors have a high level of awareness of Kobudo, and I hope that Karate and Kobudo will run smoothly together like two wheels together”.

Background: Nakamoto Masahiro was born on January 15, 1938, in Shuri, Naha City, Okinawa. He studied under Chibana Choshin, a master of Shuri-te at the age of 20 and started learning Kobudo from Taira Shinken at the age of 24.

Originally published in the Okinawa Times on April 17, 2017