An Ancient Man

By Robert Hunt


    Teruo Chinen died today.

    Our martial world is a little poorer.

    Chinen Sensei was a controversial person,but he was my friend for 30 years and a consummate martial artist.“Old school” hardly covers it. He was a throwback. Few people practice karate as hard as he did and few are as demanding on their students.

    Chinen was an ancient man trying to find a place in a modern world.That’s probably part of his problem. He didn’t fit well into our age of counterfeit  smiles and paper masters.

    I wrote the following article eight years ago when he visited Tucson, Arizona. Please remember him fondly. I can be as critical as the next person, but “when God lays his hand on a person’s shoulder, I take mine off.”

    This is how I will remember Teruo Chinen.


As the Arizona night descended around us in a blanket of warm desert hues, the pale light from a kerosene yard lantern danced across the soft eyes of Teruo Chinen, reflecting the Chinese blood line of his Okinawan lineage,of which he proudly spoke. He chatted about his life in Okinawa, Japan and the United States, karate, Goju Ryu, Miyagi, China, Kung Fu, ancient Chinese Generals and an evening full of other trivia related to his lifetime of training in and teaching his Okinawan martial art to any aspiring soul who showed up.

A cluster of mostly adult students sat quietly listening, absorbing the thoughts and feelings of this man who, because of his nationality and heritage, embodied, for them, the history and spirit of the art they pursued. As the evening passed, the students randomly rose to leave and were handed a certificate to commemorate the weekend. As the twenty or so people bowed goodbye and accepted the parchment, Chinen mentioned each one’s name and acknowledged something unique to their weekend’s training. They smiled and bowed again, appreciating the fact that this teacher, whom most had only met for the first time two days before, made the effort to learn their names and take interest in a brief moment of their particular time on earth.    The spectrum of karate teachers in the world today spans a wide arc that includes, on one end, a vast array of politicians- men and women who shake hands, pass out certificates,claim rank and sometimes make money. On the other end, reside a few who actually practice – that is, punch and kick and repeat endless kata. The far political side is often inhabited by pretenders who strut, pat each other on the back, make speeches and disparage others. The other end is inhabited by a handful of teacher-students, who spend most of their time sweating on a dojo floor, actually working at the mastery that politicians would claim. Out on the far reaches of that latter rarified end stands Teruo Chinen, to many, the embodiment of what karate might have represented during its four centuries of Okinawan life – a hard-muscled, quiet teacher who still practices his art daily, even after more than 50 years.

As you listen, you notice that Chinen, unless prodded, doesn’t mention politics or position, his rank or that of anyone else. He talks only about the history of karate or how to become better and continually admonishes the ones who listen to practice harder. If the term “master” refers to a person who practices an art until they have completely absorbed it, then Teruo Chinen probably deserves the accolade, although he would never claim it.

In the political sphere, there are those who wouldn’t agree. Mr. Chinen is not a very good politician and has his share of detractors. That doesn’t seem to matter to him and he is a man dedicated to his life’s pursuit more than most people, especially among his contemporaries.

At 64, most teachers rely on their reputation, warranted or not. Chinen still works out regularly and, when he takes off his jacket to demonstrate Sanshin for a writer, the density of his muscles and the flow of his movement prove the fact.

Chinen was born in Kobe Japan, in June of 1941, seven months before Pearl Harbor. His father, a seaman in the Imperial army, died on a suicide ship in 1944. Somewhere between Guam and Tokyo, the boat’s captain decided that he and his men should go down together in glorious ritual mass death. An American gunboat dragged two sailors from the murky waters to tell the story.    At war’s end, Chinen returned to Shuri, Okinawa with his widowed mother and a half dozen siblings to a ruined country and his uncle’s two-room house, with a canvas roof. His mother found work at an American airbase. Because his uncle was a policeman, this meager residence, more than most Okinawans had at the time, sat in the middle of a police residential area and, as destiny would have it, three doors away from Chojun Miyagi, a Hancho in the police department.

Chinen, as a wide-eyed boy of 7 or 8, remembers seeing Miyagi in his garden dojo, with Miyagi, fatally ill and overweight, directing class from a chair. He also remembers standing in the street in 1953,watching Miyagi’s coffin carried through the neighborhood on an American army truck, the Okinawan policemen snapping salute as the body passed.

He remembers helping carry the makiwari, chiishi, kongo ken and other training implements from Miyagi’s house to the new dojo that Miyagi’s student Miyazato Ei’ichi started and named the Jundokan. And he remembers studying there with a dozen or so other adults and children, trying to piece together the incomplete style that Miyagi taught.

There were other Miyagi students senior to Miyazato. Chinen believes that Miyagi appreciated the fact and planned for it. To Yagi, the most senior, he bequeathed his robe and sash, the “flowers” of his training, commemorating the years the man had dedicated to learning the art. To Miyazato,the karate “soldier”, he bequeathed the training implements, the “seeds” of the art, knowing that Miyazato would carry on the training and pass on the art.

This idea of “flowers” and “seeds” has been disputed. It seems Miyagi’s family gave Yagi the robe and sash years after Miyagi’s death. But it doesn’t matter. Chinen crafted the thought in those terms and it shows his respectful words for both men. In fact, I have never heard him be disrespectful of anyone, no matter what they have said about him.

Chinen continued to study, off and on, in Miyazato’s dojo for another 6 years, earning a black belt (with no certificate) and learning the kata that tied together the bunkai  he had been practicing, since childhood. The bunkai, is the meaning of the kata moves. Chinen says that he learned that first, and, only after he had learned the basics, was he shown the kata that embodied them.

In other words, the meaning of the moves and their application – the ability to fight – was the primary pursuit, in those days, in that dojo, and the kata were more or less a way to remember them. Consequently the individual kata have much less importance for him than form any karate students and teachers who often judge their own prestige and positionby the number and rarity of the kata they have dug up. Chinen relates the kata to the tip of the iceberg, and the bunkai-oyo to what lies underneath. Most of us spend our time polishing the tip, for tournaments and tests, and never plumb the depth of the art.    At 19, Chinen decided to pursue an education in Japan proper and, with his Okinawan passport in hand, traveled to Naha to board a passenger-cargo ship with pounding piston sand piles of boxes. He sailed 18 hours to picturesque Kagoshima on the southern tip of Japan. There he found a train to Osaka, where he stayed with an aunt for a couple of months and then on to Tokyo and a Shotokan dojo in a section of the city called Yoyogi, where his sempai, Morio Higaonna, already taught Goju Ryu on odd nights. Chinen remembers learning to spar Japanese style and “the little Goju boy from Okinawa”, as he referred to himself, getting the snot knocked out of him by the Japanese tournament competitors. Unlike many Okinawans, however, he sees sparring as an aid to training rather than a hindrance.

Chinen stayed in Yoyogi for a couple of years trying to work at a college degree and then made a trip visiting various Goju dojo throughout Europe and Asia. He finally ending up once again in Okinawa at the Jundokan in 1972, sleeping in a dinky room above the dojo and training with Miyazato. This time he only stayed 3 days and, when it was time for him to leave, Miyazato called upstairs. 

“Chinen!” he said.

“Hai, Sensei.” Chinen answered.“Stop down before you leave.” “Hai, Sensei.”

Chinen gathered up his few belongings and went downstairs. “You’re teaching in Tokyo, right?” Miyazato asked.

“Hai, sensei”

“Here, take this.” And Miyazato handed him a black belt. “Fourth degree.”

His only other promotion came during Miyazato’s visit to the United States in the late 1980’s,shortly before the teacher’s death.

“How old are you, Chinen?” he asked. “Fifty, sensei.”

“You’re teaching, right?”“Hai, sensei.”

“Here.” And  he handed Chinen a certificate for 7th degree. “Thank you, sensei.” Chinen said.

That was how Chinen described his promotions and that’s as far as it went -no tenth Dan

for the one among us who actually practiced karate all of his life.

It is a bit ironic that Chinen even pursued a career in Goju at all. His family,his uncles and cousins, are well known for their dedication to ShorinRyu. One ancestor was Masami Chinen, the famed originator of Yamani Ryu Kobudo.

Chinen moved to Spokane, Washington in 1969 to take over a dojo. The deal fell through, but he found work teaching at Gonzaga University and several community colleges around the area. He teaches there still.

It is obvious, when you watch him, that Chinen is a professional teacher. He keeps the class both motivated and interesting. He teaches the technique, the philosophy and the history of karate, as well as the history of Okinawa and China that engendered the art.

One thing that strikes an observer is how well Chinen speaks English. He explains, in detailed proper grammar, the depth of the art he is presenting, even using slang and argot correctly.

Now days Chinen spends most weekends traveling

around the United States and the world giving seminars to Goju Ryu schools as well as a variety of others. This interview took place in a Wado Ryu dojo in Tucson, Arizona.

Chinen doesn’t care about the politics of styles and organizations. It’s all karate to him. In fact, he has taken to referring his art as Kung Fu, rather than “karate”or “Goju”, believing that Okinawan karate is simply he flow-through of the Chinese art, and, since the words “Kung Fu” more properly refer to someone who is working to master an art, (any art, from wood working to computer programming – the words literally mean “workmaster”) it reflects his belief in the benefits of perspiration over politics.

Chinen represents a philosophy.

That philosophy is that the art of karate is to be practiced diligently, and if so practiced, will offer an understanding that only comes from such dedication, an understanding of technique and application – of life and death. It’s the rare individual who continues to practice karate throughout a lifetime. For many it’s simply too much work. Most become content with the trappings of rank and position, thinking that somehow a black belt or a title is a goal, forgetting that anything doled out, by humans, for money, is suspect. In the end, the only truth one can hold to is the truth of work, and the master. The only real path to enlightenment comes from within.

With the kerosene lantern consuming its last drops of fuel and the quiet Arizona night completing its warm decent and with most of the students departed, the evening’s discussion faded into quiet reflection. Chinen peered off into the darkness for a long second, as if waiting for some motivation to speak.The silence grew in the soft evening and, then, as the fingers of light danced across his Chinese eyes, he turned with a quiet smile and summed it all up.    “I’m a very happy man.”