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 www.kunibakai.org)


Some historians actually consider him the true father of Karate. Over time. someone who never walked away from a challenge. It was to be known in years to come as Ryukyu Karate Motobuha. Be that as it may. Motobu developed a reputation (justified or not) as a street fighter. MOTOBU Choki Sensei (Photo hanging in Seishin-Kai Dojo. Itosu taught many individuals who would go on to become teachers of other great teachers. there was a famed Tode (Karate) teacher in Okinawa named Anko Itosu (1831-1915). One of Itosu’s most renowned students was Choki Motobu (1870-1944). it was not uncommon for someone to enter a Dojo and challenge the teacher. In the early part of the 19th Century (using the Western calendar). During his day. as opposed to Gichin Funakoshi. Motobu refined his fighting (Kumite) style based upon what worked and what didn’t. That’s how styles were tested.The Beginnings Let’s begin this story with a couple of legendary figures. Osaka) 2 . because it was Itosu who introduced Kata into Okinawan schools long before Funakoshi did likewise in the Japanese school system.

KOKUBA Kosei Sensei (Photo hanging in Seishin-Kai Dojo. The Okinawan family name KOKU BA can be read in Japanese as KUNI BA (Country Place). But. Kosei Kokuba and Kosei Kuniba were one and the same. So. it gets even more confusing from an historical perspective. one source erroneously lists Kosei Kokuba as the father of Yukimori Kuniba! And. for most of his life. Itosu died a year later at the advanced age of 84. but. Kosei Kokuba can be read as Yukimori Kuniba. one more 3 . people there would see and say his name as Kuniba. However. by that time. Kosei can also be translated as Yukimori. Kokuba began training at age 14. Kosei went by the older pronunciation. literally. Osaka) History has done a number on Kosei Kokuba’s name.A junior student of Itosu (for only a year or less) who went on to follow Motobu was Kosei Kokuba (1900-1959). Nevertheless. it was Itosu’s influence being passed along. Motobu was more a teacher of Kokuba than was Itosu. It is fair to say then. Because of this confusion. But. Thus. when he moved to Japan during the mid 1920s.

children of large families were sent to live with relatives who had smaller and/or no families.. third or San-dai) family head (Soke) of Ryukyu Karate Motobu-ha. As was not uncommon in those days. he had an older brother who was blessed with many children. Now. born in 1935 in Fujiyoshida-shi. By 1946. as we’ll see. he wasn’t the only Shogo Kuniba. When Kosei Kuniba died in 1959. Kosei Kuniba had firmly established the Seishin-kan Dojo in Nishinari-ku.wrinkle that has confounded some researchers: Kosei took a nickname – “Shogo” – that meant brave warrior. Kosei was considered his father (his real/biological father died shortly after WW II). with 57 Dojo in Japan and dozens more around the world. Yamanashi Prefecture. However. the teachings of Itosu – Motobu – Kokuba had an heir. Kosho Kuniba & Kosei Kokuba (photo from Kuniba archives) 4 . Kosho Kuniba was sent to Osaka from his birthplace near Tokyo to live with his uncle Kosei. So. young Kosho grew up and trained under the tutelage of his uncle/adoptive father as the only son of a noted Osaka Karate teacher. Japan. One of those children was Kosho Kuniba. from 1940 onward. In time. young Kosho was recognized as the next (actually. Kosei Kuniba was married to a woman who could not bear children. in time this single Dojo grew into Seishin-kai. But.

Kosho Kuniba was a well-rounded martial artist. in the martial arts sense. Truly. Camp Zama) and at Osaka Prefectural University. he learned not only from Kokuba (his uncle/adoptive father).g. While young Kosho received some instruction from Mabuni. he became the first (Sho-dai) Soke of that new style. Based upon information gained from several interviews.Formative Years Kosho Kuniba was a rare individual. 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. Many of the Seishin-kai future leaders were being groomed during that time. 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. he also learned from other visiting instructors who passed through the Seishin-kan Dojo. among the names - 5 . Chief among them was Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952). Thus. a peer and friend of Kosei Kokuba. By the mid 1950s. Mugai-ryu Iaido technique from Ishii Gogetsu (dates unknown). Kosho Kuniba (who had by then become known as the second “Shogo” Kuniba) was teaching at the old Hombu Dojo in Osaka. Being brought up by a noted Karate instructor who had taken the mantle of Motobu-ha from Motobu himself. and had tentacle classes on nearby military bases (e. Other influences included Kenko Nakaima (1911-1989) of Ryuei-ryu and Judo acquired from Asakichi Ito (dates unknown). a direct follower of Mabuni and founder of Kenyu-ryu. most of his Shito-Ryu techniques came from Ryusei Tomoyori (1909-1977). and Aikido knowledge from Gozo Shioda (1915-1994). In the early 1960s.. 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). In so doing.

Hayashi always cited the senior Kosho Kokuba as his teacher and even pointed to Kenwa Mabuni (who died in 1952) as a major influence. Kobayashi. Because Hayashi was older than Kuniba when Kokuba died in 1959. History has a way of reshaping itself over time to suit the teller. Shogo Kuniba (1969) (photo from Kuniba archives) Teruo Hayashi (1920-2004). when he left to form his own organization. Kenwa Mabuni. Yamada. who began Karate at around age 30. Kotaka. With young Kosho as Soke. Hayashi. 6 . Throughout the years. Yoneda. yet. though some went on to claim that they were students of Kosei Kokuba and even the notable founder of Shito Ryu. appearing together in Encyclopedia Japonica in 1964 and in documentary videos such as Eien Naru Budo (1978). Minamide and others. Hayashi and Kuniba maintained a friendly rivalry. studied at the Seishin-kan Dojo.Hashimoto. His primary teacher was the younger Shogo Kuniba. Hayashi-ha Shito-ryu Kai. Yamanaka. he was appointed Kaicho of Seishin-kai and served until 1968. Tatsuno. most of these soon-to-be famous Shihan were his direct students.

Kuniba and Hayashi (Scene from Eien Naru Budo) The influence of Kenwa Mabuni on Kosho (“Shogo” the 2nd) Kuniba and others (e. the second (Kosho Kuniba) was a student briefly of Mabuni and a follower of Mabuni’s student Ryusei Tomoyori. three years after Mabuni died. Shogo Kuniba was quite adamant in stating that his father was not a student of Kenwa Mabuni. historical accounts persist in claiming that Kokuba was one of Mabuni’s followers. Yet. Mabuni died in 1952 and Kokuba died in 1959. Kosei Kokuba and Kenwa Mabuni were friends.and post.World War II years. it shouldn’t be exaggerated. His home was open to them. Remember. Hayashi began training around 1950. This he did as a service in the name of Budo. That should not be taken to 7 . While the first (Kosei Kokuba/Kuniba) was a friend of Mabuni.. but. Hayashi) cannot be underestimated. either. Dates tell it all. despite tales to the contrary. Perhaps the problem was that there were two Shogo Kuniba. Stories abound about how Kosei Kokuba hosted itinerant masters to teach in his Seishin-kan Dojo in Osaka during the pre. only two years before Mabuni died.g. Shogo Kuniba’s last promotion in Shito-ryu came in 1955.

Kosei Kokuba and Kenwa Mabuni (photo from Kuniba archives) Gathering at the Kokuba House Kokuba. center (photo from Kuniba archives) 8 . This was done in the spirit of Budo brotherhood and Okinawan friendship. Ryusho Sakagami. Friends. His home served as a place where noted instructors passing through Osaka could exchange teaching for a few nights room and board. he was friend and host.mean he was their student. far left.

Descendants of Kosei Kokuba Kosei Kok ub a 1 9 00 . 1958) and Kozo (b. 1960). The family lineage is shown below.The Next Generation Kosho Kuniba had two sons. Kosuke (b. Note that the real father of Kosei Kokuba.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 . as some have speculated.19 59 Tsuruk o Fu rug en Kayo Terad a 1 9 35 - Kosh o Kun ib a 19 35 . Koyou Kokuba (not shown below) was not a martial artist.

He received his Nidan (2nd degree black belt) in 1974. and became a charmer with the girls. There was. When the author trained at the Hombu Dojo in Japan in 1980. he was already a champion in Japan. as is true of many teenagers in modern Japan. 10 . At that time. many others were willing to take his place. Kozo was only seen coming and going in the wee hours of the night. he became a stranger to the Dojo floor.Although both sons had an early immersion in the arts of their father. 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. His father was chagrined. Then. it was the younger Kozo who showed the most technical promise. dressed in all black clothing. Young Kozo (brown belt) Leads Tomari Bassai Kata (Photo: Kuniba Archives) A Shodan (1st degree black belt) by age 12. that by age 14 he had retired from competition. He discovered American rock & roll. if Kozo was not to be next in line. Kozo pursued other interests. and Sandan (3rd degree black belt) in 1978. He was so good. Competition was fierce and. Kozo began his Karate training in 1965 under Masao Tateishi in Motobu-ha Shito-ryu at the Seishin-kai Hombu Dojo. however.

his attention to Kozo’s development intensified. By 1983. 11 . 1979. 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). obtaining his green card. and 1982 he made return visits. Then. During several years. He even divorced his longtime Japanese wife (Kayo) and married an American girl! Shogo Kuniba’s First USA Visit Mobile. 1980. social security number and driver license. in 1974. 1978. Shogo Kuniba had become a permanent Resident Alien. AL 1971 [The author is directly behind Kuniba] Kozo Kuniba became familiar with America when he visited his father in the late 1980s. Kozo stayed in the USA for months at a time in order to resume training with his father at the Portsmouth Hombu Dojo.Transitions Shogo Kuniba had begun making frequent extended visits to the USA as early as 1971. As Shogo Kuniba’s health began to fail. It was during those visits that Shogo Kuniba began to realize that Kozo may become his successor.

Motobu-ha Shito-ryu Karate-do was evolving to suit the American physique and 12 . Kozo was in good company. 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 author’s Dojo). Regular classes were interspersed with special clinics and guest instructors. This strategy apparently worked well. Mike and Mark helped Shogo Kuniba develop the first Goshin Do kata in 1988-89. Combined workouts with other Dojo were common. Truly.to white belt as a way of making him work harder and be more self-critical. because Kozo literally knuckled down and took his father’s instruction to heart. Kozo with Shogo at Hombu (VA) [Author standing center between the two] Training at the Portsmouth Hombu Dojo was always rigorous. 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 and Lewis took on leadership roles in Seishin-kai in years to come. Students there got the best of Shogo Kuniba from 1983 until 1992.

From an early beginning. through years of youthful excellence. Kozo was promoted to Godan (5th degree black belt) in 1991 and awarded the title Shihan (Teacher). Kozo Kuniba took first place in black belt Kata competition by performing 12 different forms for judging. this accomplishment demonstrated his superb skill. Kozo Kuniba had been honed to assume the mantle of leadership. who himself had been promoted to Kudan (9th degree black belt) by the JKF in 1984. Shogo & Kosuke Kuniba in France (Photo from Kuniba Archives) Not until 1989 was Kozo promoted to Yondan (4th degree black belt) by his father. like son! Kozo. Like father. followed by adolescent diversions. Clearly.Kuniba-ha Karate-do was differentiating itself from Motobu-ha. After more grooming. France in 1988. Kozo Kuniba was a part of this evolutionary phase. Attending the World Karate Championships in Paris. It was reminiscent of a feat his father had accomplished at the same event held in Paris in 1972. Future challenges and 13 . then a serious return to his father’s way.

lifestyle to the stress of living in Japan. Granted. than he would in Japan. due to complications of stomach cancer. indeed.S. Price had recently been promoted to Hachidan (8th degree black belt) by Kuniba-Soke in these arts and given the title Soke Daiko. And. Tatsuno ultimately claimed Kaicho and Soke titles. Reportedly. he was only 57 years old. when he died.obstacles would put him to the test. When Seishin-kai was up for grabs.S. altogether different plans. the next few years would present him with opportunities to fulfill his destiny. agreeing to relinquish control after a five year transition period and turn over the Kai and the style to Kozo Kuniba. Stateside. the document was written by Price’s 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. Trouble was. Seishin-kai had seen its ups and downs over the years since Shogo Kuniba began preferring the U. Emergence of Kuniba Kai It is a sad fact and a huge loss to the martial arts world that Shogo Kuniba died in 1992. had produced. If not altogether ready to assume the role of Soke. it was ironic because he always believed that he would live longer in the U. several people emerged as heirs-in-waiting. Judy Fuller Kuniba (his second wife) and his two sons by his first marriage (see chart) had doubts about the validity of the document’s intent. 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. But. the next-in-line in Japan. Tatsuno offered to 14 . The widow of Shogo Kuniba. there were at least two other draft versions of the declaration Moreover. Soke Daiko Kunio Tatsuno. Meetings were held and turf issues were discussed.

and following the observation of an appropriate period of respect for his demise. Five years turned to seven. but also JKF recognition. resigned from Seishin-kai and agreed not to use the title Soke in relation to Motobu-ha. With the support and backing of Teruo Hayashi (a founding member of the Japan Karate-do Rengo-kai. [ISKU continues today. Kuniba-kai not only gained Rengo-kai approval. While Kozo Kuniba was eventually promoted to Rokudan (6th degree black belt) by Kunio Tatsuno in 1996. That tragedy sent shock waves through an already disrupted Seishin-kai. Then. there is no active Seishin-kai in Japan. a regional federation) and a big name in martial arts. Tatsuno and Price did not see eye to eye. The JKF pronounced that. fate stepped in. although Seishin-kai may have ended its nearly 60 year tenure in Japan. Just a few months before in 1998.] Upon the death of Tatsuno. who briefly succeeded Tatsuno. the brothers Kuniba decided to let Seishin-kai go and form a new organization known as the Nihon Karate-do Kuniba-kai. Even though Kozo Kuniba was given responsibility for the newly established International Division of Seishin-kai in late 1992. Kuniba-kai was the rightful home of 15 . On May 1. 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. and there was no sign that Kunio Tatsuno was going to relinquish control of Seishin-kai and Motobu-ha Shito-ryu. but. Sadatomu Harada. headed by Price. But. he still was kept in a subservient position by Tatsuno for the next several years.help the then existing Seishin Kai Martial Arts (SKMA) organization in America. 1999 Kunio Tatsuno was killed in Osaka under circumstances that surprised everyone. appointing Robert Burgermeister international director. Tatsuno had formed the International Seishin-kai Karate Union (ISKU).

Motobu-ha Shito-ryu Karate-do. during which Kuniba Kai leaders from around the world will gather to discuss the past and plan for the future. would hold the title Kaicho. and former Seishin-kai members are returning to the fold. Now in more than 20 countries. Upon the establishment and recognition of Kuniba-kai. for they realize there is only one home for the Kuniba tradition. Kosuke. During the initial years. Kozo. because of his desire to continue the spread of Motobu-ha Shito-ryu around the world. the brothers Kuniba organized and divided roles. There will be an international summit in Osaka in June 2009. Visit the Kuniba-kai website to learn more: http://www.org. Kozo Kuniba at Shurei-no-Mon Okinawa 2008 16 .kunibakai. In time. now and forever. Kozo Kuniba took on the titles International Soke and International Kaicho. and with JKF concurrence. Kozo Kuniba was promoted to Nanadan (7th degree black belt). . Kozo Kuniba was elevated to Hachidan (8th degree black belt) in 2008. would be referred to as Japan Soke and the younger. Ten years into Kuniba-kai. agreeing that the older one. Kuniba-kai is growing everyday.

Japan. and back to Japan. Kozo Kuniba. Epilogue History must be recorded and preserved. Osaka. In a world filled with more than 50 million Karate practitioners. He believes that his father would want nothing less. Our gratitude is owed. He is a contemporary link to old traditions. it is remarkable that one individual. Personal Interviews with Shuho Yamanaka (1980). MA: Bushido-kai Budoya Karate-do Directory (1977). Ltd. and we must remember them.Kozo Kuniba has made many attempts to bring the followers of his father back together under one organization. can trace his martial arts lineage so closely (by virtue of family connections and blood lineage) to the masters of the past. from Okinawa to Japan to America. Making that happen is Kozo Kuniba’s dream. As has been shown in this article. Personal Interviews with Goichi Kobayashi (1980). should work together to carry on the legacy of Motobu-ha Shito-ryu and related Kuniba-ryu arts. When we look back over the past two hundred years of development of Tode/Karate. Framingham. the “sons” of Shogo Kuniba. even though it may have been twisted by unforeseen and unexpected forces. the long line from Anko Itosu to Kozo Kuniba is unbroken. Sources The Roots of Karate (Undated). Japan. Tokyo: Sozo Co. biological and martial. we see an unbroken chain of people whose lives and deeds shape our practice today. Personal Interviews with Shogo Kuniba (1980.. Osaka. Osaka. 1982). People and events shape the written record. Japan 17 .

Personal Interview with Shogo Kuniba (1983-1989). Chesapeake. James Herndon & Kozo Kuniba Virginia. VA dojo. follower and friend of Shogo Kuniba from 1971 until 1992. Herndon served as the Seishin-kai USA Honbucho from 1980-1982 and his Chesapeake. Today. Personal Interviews with Kozo Kuniba (2007). VA. 2007 Contents of this article Copyright © 2009 JSH Author can be reached for comment at johokyokucho@gmail. VA. VA. USA Personal Interviews with Kunio Tatsuno (1996). when Shogo Kuniba passed away. Kensei-Kan. USA Personal Interviews with Judy Kuniba (1986-1992). VA --------------------------------------------------------------------------------- About the Author James Herndon was a student. Herndon serves as the Information Director for Kuniba Kai International. Japan. Osaka. became the Hombu Bunkan when a new hombu dojo was opened in Portsmouth.com 18 .

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