OKINAWAN KARATE-DO ACADEMY MEIBUKAN GOJU-RYU TM
Interview with Anthony Mirakian Sensei
Part 1 of 3
Karate pioneer Anthony Mirakian introduced Okinawan Goju-ryu karate-do to the United States in 1960. A passionate and energetic exponent of traditional karate, Mirakian has taught what he calls "the true art" at his Okinawan Karate-do Academy in Watertown, Massachusetts for the past thirty years. He offers his students a mirror image of the training he received in Okinawa decades ago.
Mirakian began his karate training when the U.S. Air Force stationed him in Okinawa in the early 1950's. He first studied under Okinawan Goju-ryu karate master, Seikichi Toguchi at the Shoreikan dojo in Nakanomachi, Okinawa. He also trained there with Okinawan karate master, Ryuritsu Arakaki. When Sensei Arakaki noticed Mirakian's passion and commitment to the art, he advised him to train under the foremost Goju-ryu karate master on Okinawa, Grand- master Meitoku Yagi, the top student and successor of the late founder of Goju-ryu karate, Grandmaster Chojun Miyagi.
Mirakian was the first Westerner taught by Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi and the first to receive a black belt from him. The traditional karate training at Yagi's Meibukan dojo was challenging and arduous, with four hour work outs five nights a week. Mirakian was promoted to 3rd degree Black Belt before returning to the United States in 1960. He is the senior active student of Grandmaster Yagi, who promoted him to 8th degree Black Belt in Okinawa in 1985.
Sensei Mirakian's academy in Watertown, Massachusetts is the North American headquarters of the Meibukan Goju-ryu Karate-do Association based in Kume, Naha City, Okinawa. In 1972. Grandmaster Yagi appointed Mirakian the Overseas General Manager of the Meibukan Association. His dojo offers Okinawan Goju-ryu karate-do training in its purest form. Mirakian is an excellent example of the benefits of life-long karate training. He has beautiful katas, finely-honed techniques, and devastating power. This interview took place in Mirakian's tranquil Watertown dojo after his regular three-hour Saturday evening workout.
Qn: You arrived in Okinawa in the early 1950's. How would you characterize Okinawan karate in that era?
Ans: This was "The Golden Age" of Okinawan karate. It was during this time that karate training first became available to Westerners, which caused a great impetus in the propagation of Okinawan Karate to the western world. During these years, Okinawan karate was taught in a traditional way as an art form of self-defence. The karate masters upheld the old karate values and standards and placed great emphasis on dojo kun (etiquette). They took pride in patiently teaching their national art to Westerners as well as Okinawans. Karate was presented in a dignified, strict manner. To a Westerner it appeared fascinating, challenging, and mysterious.
Qn: Do you think something has been lost as karate has been modernized?
Ans: Yes. Unfortunately much of the essence and spirit of traditional karate has been lost. Since the advent of karate championships, many practitioners are competing to win at any cost. This approach is not the traditional aim of Okinawan Goju-ryu karate-do.
Qn: Why Okinawa? How could an island so small and remote have produced the world's best known martial art.
Ans: That's a very interesting question. Okinawa had the perfect chemistry to develop the art of karate. The Okinawans had the time to devote to the martial arts. Theirs was a quiet and simple agrarian and fishing society, without distractions. Because Okinawa was alternatively dominated by China and Japan, Okinawans were forced to develop unarmed martial-art techniques to defend themselves against larger, stronger, armed foes. Also, they were forced to look inward, and develop an inner strength that characterizes the art. Okinawans are a civilized and peace- loving people, and these traits are reflected in the unique moral foundation of their art.
Qn: How long has karate been practiced in Okinawa?
Ans: For well over a thousand years. Certainly Chinese martial arts were practiced in Okinawa during the Tang Dynasty, from 618 to 906 AD. By the fourteenth century, oral traditions say that a karate-like art was being practiced there.
Qn: When you first arrived in Okinawa, how did you find a karate school?
Ans: Accidentally. A friend and I hired a taxi and asked the driver to take us to a karate school. He took us to a judo dojo. One of the students there directed the taxi driver to take us to the district of Nakanomachi. When we arrived, the school turned out to be the Shoreikan Goju-ryu karate dojo of Grandmaster Seikichi Toguchi.
Qn: What was Grandmaster Toguchi's school like in those days?
Ans: The training at Grandmaster Toguchi's school was intensive. We trained six days a week. The only day off was Monday. The training started at six o'clock in the evening and lasted until ten-thirty at night. The calisthenics alone lasted an hour and a half. Hard demanding calisthenics, performed in 85 to 100 degree heat and extremely high humidity. We would do all sorts of stretching, loosening-up exercises, and strength training. The assistants to Sensei Toguchi were very demanding. They expected 100 per cent effort from us. There were about forty students in the dojo. The school was perhaps twenty- five feet wide and forty-five feet long, and it had a patio where we could work out. The makiwara (striking posts) were all outside. All the workouts were supervised by Sensei Toguchi. He was the only black belt in the dojo, but he was assisted by some of his advanced brown-belt students. They led the calisthenics and the basic drills.
Qn: I take It that a brown belt in those days was the equivalent of a higher rank today?
Ans: Yes. At that time, in the 1950's, brown belt was a highly respected rank. Some of the Okinawan brown belts were powerful and very skilled. I would Say that many of the brown belts that I saw then would have to be considered the equivalent of fourth or fifth degree black belts today.
Qn: In what physical condition were the Okinawan students?
Ans: Most of the Okinawans, even the beginners, were in excellent physical shape. They didn't begin karate training in order to lose weight or to get in shape; they were physically fit to begin with.
Qn: What was the training for beginners at Grandmaster Toguchi's dojo?
Ans: The beginners were trained at a very slow pace. Black foot prints extending fifteen or twenty feet were painted on the dojo floor There were two sets, one for Okinawans, and one for the larger American servicemen. For three or four months, we trained by walking on the footprints back and forth, trying to learn Sanchin stepping. We also learned basic techniques, like punching, blocking, kicking, and striking. The training was very repetitious. The kata we practiced were basic gekisai ichi and gekisai ni. We practiced these for a long time. The pace was slow, but also physically intense. No idle talk was allowed, no socializing, no taking it easy.
Qn: Did the seniors 'lean' on the junior students and push them around, as one often sees in dojo outside Okinawa today?
Ans: That wasn't allowed. Advanced students weren't allowed to take advantage of a lesser student. They were there to help the junior students in a strict but friendly environment.There was a feeling of mutual respect and brotherhood in the dojo. In later years I noticed that this was part of Okinawan culture. They take great pride in the teaching of karate. Karate is their national art and heritage, their cultural contribution to the world.They take pride in presenting it in a civilized and dignified manner. There was no reason or excuse for needless injuries, brutality, or reckless wild actions.
Qn: What kind of kumite did you practice?
Ans: We practiced prearranged sparring (yakusoku kumite). We practiced one, three, and five-step sparring as well as . kata bunkai (application) kumite. There was no free fighting. When you practiced with the advanced Okinawans, you had to remain alert,because they were fast, strong, and skilled; they also had control. The attitude was very serious. The students practiced kumite as if their lives depended on it, as if a mistake could be fatal.
Qn: Was makiwara training part of the regular workout?
Ans: It was optional, but most students did a lot of it. It was common for Okinawans to have a makiwara in their back yards. The makiwara were very abrasive. The hitting surface was made of rice straw ropes and it frequently would cut the knuckles. One of the most advanced students of Grandmaster Toguchi was an Okinawan named Sakai. He wasn't large, but he was extremely powerful. He used to work out seven days a week. He would get up at six o'clock every morning and punch the makiwara hundreds of times One day he cut his knuckles and bled so profusely during practice that he fainted. His wife had to come and throw a bucket of cold water over his head to revive him. He developed thick callouses on his hands, and had devastating punches and strikes.
Qn: Were you given tests for promotions?
Ans: Yes. From time to time we were asked to perform kata and kumite in front of Sensei Toguchi. No compliments were ever given. If we didn't meet his high standards, we would simply fail the test. I remember once a serviceman didnÕt get promoted, and went to Sensei Toguchi and asked him what part of his kata was wrong. Sensei Toguchi said to him in a very abrupt manner: "Everything was wrong."
Qn: Was there a moral code you were supposed to abide by?
Ans: Yes. Sensei Toguchi was very strict in not allowing his students to misuse the art. There was an American student there who got into a fight with three other servicemen in a bar. He beat them up badly. Later he bragged to one of the Okinawan brown-belt students that the techniques of Goju-ryu karate were very effective in actual combat. When Sensei Toguchi heard of the incident he became very upset. The serviceman was told to never show up in the dojo again. Also there were a couple of skillful Okinawan karate students who fought with some Okinawans in the villages and were expelled by Sensei Toguchi for misusing the art of karate.
Qn: Did Sensei Toguchi ever perform kata for the students?
Ans: Yes. On the eighth day of every month, Sensei Toguchi would have a ritual commemoration in memory of the founder of Goju-ryu karate, Grandmaster Chojun Miyagi, who passed away on October 8, 1953. He would have all of us, from white belt to brown belt get up on the floor one by one and go through one kata. At the end, he would get up and demonstrate an advanced kata. We were amazed at the beauty of his movements, the precision, power, fluidity, and control.
Qn: Are any of your fellow students at Grandmaster Toguchi's dojo still practicing karate?
Ans: Yes. Today several are masters in their own right. Sensei Masanobu Shinjo and Sensei Zenshu Toyama were both green belts at that time. Today both are highly ranked, highly respected masters. And Sensei Katsuyoshi Kanei, president of the Jinbukan Goju-ryu Karate-do Association, was also a student there. He is a very strong Goju- ryu karate and kobudo (traditional weaponry) master and a fine gentleman.
Qn: Who was your second karate master?
Ans: Sensei Ryuritsu Arakaki. We met for the first time in Sensei Toguchi's dojo. He was an architect, a man in his mid forties. He was a seventh degree black belt master who had studied with Chojun Miyagi and Seiko Higa. I was fortunate that he befriended me, and treated me as a protege. I would visit his house on Sundays and eat dinner with his family. It was a great privilege to be invited into an Okinawan home. We would talk about the history of Okinawan karate. Chojun Miyagi and his training in China. and the old masters. He took me around to various dojo and introduced me to many great masters I would never have had the opportunity to meet on my own. One day he took me aside and said: "I can see that you have a great passion and desire to train in Goju-ryu karate. You should train with the foremost authority on Goju-ryu in Okinawa, Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi, the top, senior student of Chojun Miyagi." I was reluctant to do this as it was at least an hour's bus ride from my base to the Yagi dojo. But Sensei Arakaki was insistent. He said: "You must train under him."
Qn: How were you introduced to Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi?
Ans: Sensei Arakaki approached Grandmaster Yagi and recommended me to him. We visited him on a Sunday afternoon. I remember that day vividly. When we arrived, Grandmaster Yagi was in his dojo drilling holes in the wooden name tags which he hung on the rank-tag rack. His dojo was next to his house, with a small fenced patio for outdoor workouts. He offered us tea. My first impression was that he was a very serene master. I said to myself immediately, "Here is a man of great physical, mental, and spiritual powers." I sensed that I had met a great master. After asking me questions for an hour, with Sensei Arakaki interpreting, Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi asked me to demonstrate a kata. When I finished, Grandmaster Yagi turned to Sensei Arakaki and said that I had a build like the great Chinese Kempo masters, like a spider. At that time I had a very sinewy body and weighed about l50 lbs. My height was 5 ft 11 inches. He said: "I will accept Mr. Mirakian as a student, and all I expect in return is a few words of gratitude." I was immensely happy. It was a great honour to have been accepted by Grandmaster Yagi, because Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi was highly respected among the inner karate circles in Okinawa.
Qn: Did Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi have other Western students at his Meibukan dojo?
Ans: No. I was the only one, the first Western student that he taught. There were about fifteen or twenty Okinawans. As soon as I started training in his dojo, I could sense that the karate techniques and kata were practiced in a very natural way. Each student did kata according to his own physique and abilities. It wasn't as if someone handed you a suit and said "Wear it, even if it doesn't fit you." Although the karate students were not allowed to change the basic techniques, there was more flexibility than in other dojo. A tall student, for instance, wouldn't be required to go so deep into kiba dachi (horse-riding stance) or zenkutsu dachi (forward stance) that he lost mobility.
Qn: What was the training schedule at the Meibukan dojo?
Ans: Grandmaster Yagi held 4-hour karate training sessions five days a week, Monday through Friday. Although the formal workout started at 7pm, the students would arrive earlier than that to work out on their own. I would arrive two hours before the workout, stretch, do calisthenics, hit the makiwara, and work with traditional Okinawan training equipment. Grandmaster Yagi was the superintendent of the Customs House. He would come home from work in a suit. If you saw him in the street, you would take him for a university professor He was a man of about 5'8", weighed a solid 180 pounds, with broad shoulders and very powerful hands and arms. He would come home at seven, and without eating supper, put on his gi, and the formal training would begin.
Qn: What kind of training equipment was used at the Meibukan dojo?
Ans: There was a makiwara, chishi (strength stones) of about five to ten pounds, stone jugs for developing a strong grip, free weights, and a heavy punching bag. There was a homemade barbell of perhaps a hundred pounds that had been made from two railroad wheels. These wheels had probably been used years before on the small railroad cars that ran through the sugar cane fields. But in the honbu (headquarters) dojo, there wasn't an emphasis on lifting heavy weights. My impression was that Grand master Yagi felt that excessive weight lifting would cause a loss of flexibility and speed. He stressed that punching against the makiwara was the best way to develop devastating power.
Qn: What was the atmosphere at the Meibukan dojo?
Ans: A very subtle spirit pervaded the dojo. When you stepped inside, it was as if you stepped into another era, another time, as if you were going back to the Shaolin monastery a thousand or fifteen hundred years ago. There was something mystical there, very difficult to express in words. A person had to be attuned to perceive this mood. There was very little speaking allowed. There was no socializing, no idle talk, no ego, no flexing of muscles or physical vanity. That would have been contradictory to the concept of the dojo, and was not allowed. The karate training consisted of a blending of physical, mental, and spiritual elements harmonized in a very smooth way. There was no harshness. The grandmaster led the class in a strict and disciplined way, but with a friendly attitude. The karate students felt very comfortable being taught by Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi.
Qn: How was the formal workout structured?
Ans: The formal training started at 7pm and ran to 11pm. Grandmaster Yagi would lead the workout personally, with the assistance of his senior student, Sensei Yushun Tamaki, one of the finest karate instructors I have ever met. All of the students would line up. There was a complete silence. We would begin by going through all the Goju-ryu kata to Suparinpe, one after the other. This practice was done very seriously, with tremendous concentration; the mind wasn't wandering, there was no wavering of the eyes. Once the student was training in the dojo, he had to be in command of his mind and in complete control of himself. Everybody responded to the commands at once. Everything was a drill in unison. There were no stragglers. We would always end the training with Sanchin kata and Tensho kata. Sometimes we would begin with Sanchin as well.
Qn: Would the junior belts step aside for the advanced kata?
Ans: No. Everyone, even white belts, did all the kata. But you must remember that the beginning Okinawan students had some awareness and appreciation of karate before they began training, since it was their national art. The beginners knew that just because they were allowed to go through the advanced kata didn't mean that they had mastered them. They were only familiarizing themselves with some of the movements. I was told by masters in Okinawa that to begin to perfect a single kata would take two to three hours a day for three to five years, and sometimes as long as ten years. The Okinawan students understood this.
Qn: How were you taught the kata at the Meibukan dojo?
Ans: Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi would usually take me aside and teach me the movements of the kata once. While he was performing the kata I would follow him. It was a great honour to be taught by the Grandmaster, and it was taken as a sign of respect that you would give absolute concentration, and learn the basic movements on the first try. I watched like a hawk. There's a saying in Okinawa that the master speaks only once. The kata were taught in a systematic and logical way in the Meibukan dojo. Sensei Yushun Tamaki led the karate class in the practice of the kata, and the students followed him. When we went through the kata for the first time each evening no corrections were made. But as we kept practicing the kata over and over, Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi and Sensei Yushum Tamaki would make the necessary corrections to each karate student. The kata were taught slowly and patiently step by step to the karate class. Generally, once a student was shown the kata, he was expected to correct the movements himself. When I was learning the Tensho kata I had a wrong move for one to two months. Finally after paying closer attention to some of the advanced students practicing the Tensho kata during one of the workouts, I noticed the right movement of the hand and corrected it myself. This was a very difficult technique to learn, because it was performed fast. Leaving a person to discover and refine techniques by himself has a great built-in value. A student who has to do this becomes highly observant, one of the most important factors in mastering karate. You must remember that there is a Buddhist tradition in Okinawa: To make spiritual progress, you must search for yourself.
Qn: Where the students ever asked to perform kata in front of the class?
Ans: Twice a week or so, Grandmaster Meitoku Yagi would have us sit down quietly on the sides of the dojo, and one by one we would perform kata. The atmosphere in the dojo was so calm that you could hear a pin drop. We would get a chance to see the kata of every student, their strengths and flaws. We benefitted from the relaxed contemplation of each other's kata. There was never any praise given.
Qn: Did Grandmaster Yagi perform kata in his dojo?
Ans: On occasion. They were the finest kata I have ever seen in Goju- ryu karate. It was beauty in motion. The perfect balance of hard and soft. He had tremendous power, control, and speed. I remember his Sanchin in particular. It didn't have the extreme tension you see in some practitioners. But when he tensed his body, it was impressive and deceptive; like tempered steel covered by velvet.
Qn: What followed the kata in the workout?
Ans: After we finished going through the kata we would practice many different types of kumite that had been adapted from the breakdown of the kata. We would also practice combinations of striking, punching, kicking, blocking, and counterpunching. We would practice many patterns, jo-chu-gae, chu-gae-jo, gae-jo-chu, many different techniques done in a very fast, sequential manner back and forth across the dojo floor. Then we would practice ippon kumite (one-attack sparring) at close range, with one arm length between attacker and defender. At this range, given the skill and speed of the students, there was no margin for error. We paid close attention. We had to develop lightning-fast reflexes or we would get hit. The emphasis was on watching the pupils of the opponent's eyes. We watched closely enough so we could always see the punch telegraphed by the eyes. This was a form of active meditation, and much better than sitting meditation. The outside world did not exist, we couldn't worry about the past or future. Only the split-second counted. This made the mind very strong, it developed tremendous power of concentration. We practiced against various students, so we constantly had to adjust and readjust according to the makeup of the opponent. I was a weapons technician in the U-S- Air Force, and every day I had to move 3 to 5 tons of heavy equipment by myself. And then I trained in karate 4 to 6 hours per night five nights a week. This schedule made me very strong. But even with my strength and good training I had difficulty in blocking the punches of some of the Okinawan students. In three-step sparring against Mr. Tamaki, I was able to block his first punch, and then his second, but on his third punch he had so much momentum and power that most of the time I had to just get out of the way or get hit. There would be many repetitions of techniques, hundreds of punches, strikes, blocks, kicks. The workouts varied from day to day, but we always did the basics, covering the same techniques again and again and again. There was a heavy emphasis on fundamentals, kata, and Sanchin. We practiced kake-uke most evenings to develop good stance, strength, and balance. (This is the middle blocking exercise where the students link wrists, a relative of pushing hands done in a sanchin stance). This was not practiced as a full strength tug of war, as seen in some dojo today, but done in a softer, systematic, balanced way. I believe this to be one of the best Goju-ryu karate exercises. I remember many times practicing against Mr. Tamaki. When I tried to exert too much strength on the palm of his hand, he would sense that I was rigid and off-balance, and sweep me to the floor. I had apprehension at first, and my mind wasn't as calm as it should have been. Eventually I learned that if I remained calm, without any preconceived ideas, I could sense when he was going to try to sweep me, and just lift my foot up. This taught me a fundamental principle that you have to relax both your body and mind to detect changes in your opponent. Kake-uke was originally used to pair up highly skilled practitioners for kumite. If one student could not move the arm of another student in kake-uke, or could not hold his stance, he would not be allowed to engage in kumite with that student. The feeling was, if he couldn't handle the other student in kake-uke, he would not be able to block his punches either and could be seriously injured.
Qn: Your students practice the arm toughening drill called "kotekitai". Was that practiced at the Meibukan hombu dojo?
Ans: No. That has been introduced in the Meibukan dojo in the past twenty years. This arm-pounding exercise originated in Taiwan, from Taiwanese Kempo. Before that, the students would toughen their arms by practicing forearm strikes on the makiwara, by hitting their forearms against the trunks of the banyan tree, and by blocking each other's punches.
Qn: How did the workouts end?
Ans: Every workout ended with Sanchin. Before Sanchin, however we practiced the exercise that I call the flexible horse. Each of us would count one hundred times. Usually there were twenty or more students, so we did at least two thousand flexible horses. It was hot and humid there, especially in the summer, so by the time we finished, we were soaking wet. Sweat would run down our faces, into our eyes, and cover the floor. I wouldn't dare wipe the sweat from my eyes because if I did, all of the Okinawan students would give me dagger-looks as if to say "You are doing something that is improper. Can't you take a little physical punishment? Don't you have the mental fortitude to ignore discomfort?" After Zazen (sitting meditation) and bowing to the master we would take off our uniforms and go outside to dry off. The China Sea was only a half a mile from the dojo, and sometimes there would be a cooling breeze. In about ten minutes it would dry up our shorts and we would be able to put on our clothes. Then I would walk three miles to the bus terminal and ride the bus home.
Qn: Could you describe the flexible-horse exercise?
Ans: Yes. We started in an upright position with the feet twice shoulder width apart. Both arms were outstretched touching each other in front of the chest with the palms up. Then we dropped into a horse-riding stance (Kiba-dachi) while bringing the palms of both hands to the outside of the knees. Next, we thrust up into an upright standing position, bringing the hands to the sides of the upper body in closed fists, while momentarily tensing all the muscles of the body.
Qn: You are reknowned for conducting hard, demanding workouts in your dojo lasting many hours. Were the workouts in Okinawa harder when you trained there?
Ans: Although the karate workouts at my dojo are very intensive, the training in Okinawa was even more rigorous. They were continuous workouts. There was rarely a break. When karate practitioners talk about the training in Okinawa in that era, they always talk about how hard it was physically. They talk about the many hours of daily training, the relentlessness of the workouts, the endless repetition of techniques. But many students never grasped that it wasn't the physical element that was most important. It was the way the training was conducted, it was the mental intensity that counted. When you trained in the dojo, nothing else mattered. The emphasis in the dojo was in developing tremendous powers of concentration in a relaxed environment. The goal was to develop the mental concentration and physical power to be able to move in and stop an opponent with a single technique; one punch, one kick.
End of part 1