In search of Kiyuna Tanmei

Published: December 14, 2019

In a rare interview with Choshin Chibana Sensei, I red about a certain Pechin Kiyuna, also known as Kiyuna Tanmei or ‘honorable old man’ Kiyuna. Chibana Sensei says:
“An important figure at the turn of the century was an individual named Kiyuna. It was said at that time that Kiyuna had the strength and power of Ankoh Itosu plus he was also a true expert in atemi (methods of striking the vital points). In describing Kiyuna, I will quote Yukoku Sanjin, whose real name was Taro Shimabukuro, since he was a direct student of Kiyuna:
“I received instruction from Kiyuna, who was at that time the grave keeper of the Sho family (the Okinawan royal family), from the second quarter which began in September of my first year until the mid-first quarter of my second year at the Commerce High School. Kiyuna, as I recall, would train in atemi by using old slippers made of straw and tied to trees call fukuchi-boku with the diameter of these trees ranging from 7 or 8 inches to one foot, which abundantly grew throughout Okinawa. Kiyuna often changed the punching trees since hitting only one tree would cause the tree to lose its leaves and damage the roots and also eventually kill the tree.”
Kiyuna was a gigantic figure and one could not see a person standing behind him. Kiyuna Tanmei continuously trained in the Patsai form and the Kusanku form of which he was considered an expert. He was extremely strong in all methods of atemi and fumikomi (stomp kicks with the foot sword). He was also an expert in oi-tsuki (a lunging punch), using his right side forward when the enemy used their left side forward but also changing to his left side forward when the enemy used their right side forward. Such a skill as his was far from being mastered by a small person like myself.” 
(For the whole interview:
I was so triggered by the person of Kiyuna Tanmei, that I decided to write an article about him.

Tamaudun Royal Tombs - Shuri (Photo taken by the author on January 22, 2020)

When did Kiyuna Tanmei live?

According to Patrick McCarthey in his translation of the ‘Bubishi’, Kiyuna Tanmei was born in 1845 and passed away in 1920. He is mentioned in several Okinawan newspaper articles. 
On January 25, 1911 (Meiji 44), the sole daily newspaper within Okinawa prefecture at the time published the following article:

The Karate Convention of the Normal School

“Yesterday from 2 p.m. in the school’s courtyard the karate convention of the pupils of the just mentioned school commenced. Yabu Kentsū was named the instructor. First, up to 80 sets of karate were performed by the pupils. Furthermore about 4 sets of kumite were also performed. Afterwards, 5 sets of karate were demonstrated by middle school pupils as distinguished guests. Finally, [the following was demonstrated] by masters in this field of study kindly present on this day:
• Sēsan by Funakoshi Gichin
• Passai by Mr. Kiyuna
• Gojūshiho (a.k.a. Ūsēshi) by Yabu Kentsū
• Naihanchi by Mr. Itokazu”

(Source: 'Tokuda Antei’s Memorandum' by Andreas Quast -

Kyuna Tanmei is mentioned again in a newspaper when he performed Passai again in 1918:
“The annual martial arts event was held at the Okinawa Teachers College hall yesterday at 9 o’clock in the morning. This seminar included a student demonstration of Sumo and the kata of Karate in front of guests, including renowned masters Mr. Choyū Motobu, old Kiyuna, old Chinen, alias Yama-no-mē no Usumē...
… Next, were demonstrations of Mr. Choyu Motobu’s Shochin kata, old Mr. Kiyuna’s Passai, old Mr. Chinen’s bo (staff) and Yabu’s Gojūshiho kata. The seminar ended at about eleven thirty.”

(Source: 'Masters of karate', Translation by Naoki Motobu and Peter M. Kobos-

He was also described in the following eye-witness account written by journalist Yokoyama Kendo (1872 – 1943):

“By the way, when I visited the royal mausoleum of Ryūkyū, I saw the tomb’s guardsman, an old gentleman of noble height. At that time fellow travelers told me that during his prime this seasoned gentleman had been an unequaled expert of Tōdi (Karate). Having this man serving as a guardian of the royal mausoleum follows the same logic as if employing guards armed with swords. This gentleman had his right fist hardened hundreds of times. In other words, Tōdi (Karate) is the martial arts of the Ryūkyū’s elite troops.”

(Source: Andreas Quast -


Also, Shoshin Nagamine wrote about Kiyuna Tanmei in his book 'Tales of Okinawan Great Masters':
"Having studied directly under the personal guidance of Bushi Matsumura, Itosu and his Dohai (classmate) Kiyuna Pechin were regarded as two of the master's most unique bujin. Well known among Matsumura's many students, both Itosu and Kiyuna possessed enormous ateifuwa or punching power. To better illustrate this point, there is an interesting story told by Nagamine Shoshu (a former committee member of Shuri's Protection of Cultural Assets Department) from Kinjo-cho. It goes something like this:
"In 1907, when Nagamine was about ten years old, the neighborhood of Tamaudon (the official burial place of the royal family) was the perfect spot for children to play because there were so many trees there. At that time Kiyuna Peichin was a guard at Tamaudon and meticulously patrolled the grounds with a wooden staff that had a bell attached to its end. In between his rounds he usually took a brief rest at the guardhouse where Nagamine often saw Itosu visit and enjoy a friendly chat over a cup of tea. With a passion for karate since childhood, Nagamine Shoshu first learned karate under Kiyuna. As a curious child he marvelled over watching his teacher and Itosu practice kata together. Kiyuna was taller than Itosu but not nearly as broad in the shoulders. Kiyuna and Itosu both had muscular arms and enormous tako (callouses) on their fists from relentless makiwara training.
As a lad, Nagamine Shoshu often heard tales about those two heroes. Such tales of heroism, exaggerated or not, have become an important part of Okinawa folklore and serve to teach valuable lessons about training and life in general. One such story surrounding the enormous punching power of Kiyuna was his problem with breaking the makiwara at his residence. It seemed that he could not keep a makiwara for more than a month, because as his intensity increased he would strike too hard, thus breaking the post. Finally, he tried to tying a leather zori (Japanese sandal) to a tree near the Tamaudon. However, after being struck for ten days the tree died!"

So according to Shoshu Nagamine, Kiyuna Pechin and Anko Itosu were friends and practiced kata together.

Students of Kiyuna Tanmei

Taro Shimabukuro
According to Choshin Chibana, Taro Shimabukuro was one of Kiyuna Tanmei’s students. Interesting fact is that Taro Shimabukuro was one of the teachers of Joki Uema, the founder of the Shubukan dojo. (Joki Uema was also a student of Choshin Chibana.) Part of the large kata curriculum of the Shubukan dojo is a version of Passai called Kiyuna no Passai.

Other students of Taro Shimabukuro were, amongst others, China Teikichi (1924 – 2003) and Seitoku Ishikawa (1925 – 2013). Teikichi and Ishikawa were teachers of Yasuhiro Uema, Joki Uema’s son.

Shimabukuro Taro, photograph by Andreas Quast, shot at Matsubayashi Kodokan Honbu Dojo in Naha, 2009.

Seiyei Miyahira
Another student of Kiyuna Tanmei was Seiyei Miyahira (1894 – 1958*), who was a teacher of Yuchoku Higa, the founder of Shorin-Ryu Kyudokan, as you can read in Mark Bishop’s book ‘Okinawan Karate – Teachers, styles and secret techniques’:

“At the same time (Yuchoku) Higa trained under Seiyei Miyahira, who, besides being well know for his powerful punch, was a calligrapher and noted musician, being well versed in several classical Okinawan instruments. Miyahira, who died in 1958 aged 64, had learned karate from Kiyuna Pechin (also Chunna Tanmei or Tiji-kun Bushi, i.e. Closed-fist Knight), who was a master of Shuri-te. Kiyuna had been a student of Sokon Matsumura and at one time had been a guard at the Tama Uden royal tombs near Shuri castle. From Seiyei Miyahira, Higa learned the Shuri-te version of the katas Seisan and Sanchin.”

* According to Tetsuhiro Hokama, Seiyei Miyahira was born on April 15, 1895 and passed away on September 12, 1958.

Gichin Funakoshi
Another student of Kiyuna Tanmei was Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan, as you can read in his book ‘Karate-Do, My way of life’ (Chapter: The teacher): “Meanwhile, I continued assiduously with my karate, under a number of teachers: Master Kiyuna, who with his bare hands could strip the bark from a living tree in a matter of moments; Master Tōono of Naha, one of the island’s best-known Confucian scholars; Master Niigaki, whose great common sense impressed me most deeply; and Master Matsumura, one of the greatest karateka, about whom I will have more to say later.”
Interesting thing is that Shotokan’s Hangetsu, as Seisan is called in Shotokan, is very close to Kyudokan’s Seisan. More than to any other version of Seisan. Yuchoku Higa learned Seisan from Seiyei Miyahira. If we assume that Seiyei Miyahira learned Seisan from Kiyuna Tanmei, Kiyuna Tanmei taught Seisan. Therefore I think that it's possible that also Gichin Funakoshi learned Seisan from Kiyuna Tanmei.

Shoshu Nagamine

According to Shoshin Nagamine, Shoshu Nagamine started his karate training under Kiyuna Tanmei. Shoshu Nagamine was about 10 years old in 1907. So that makes his year of birth around 1897.

Which kata did Kiyuna Tanmei probably teach?

According to Choshin Chibana, Kiyuna Tanmei was an expert in Kusanku and Patsai (Passai).

That he taught Kusanku is confirmed by one of Taro Shimabukuro’s students, Murakami Katsumi, as you can read in the article ‘Shimabukuro Tarō and his Teachers’ from Andreas Quast: “From venerable elder Kiyuna, he learned Passai and Kūsankū.”
For the whole article:

According to Choshin Chibana Kiyuna Tanmei was an expert in Patsai (Passai) and Kusanku.

That he knew Passai is confirmed in the newspaper article of January 25, 1911.
As I mentioned above, it is confirmed by Murakami Katsumi, that he also taught it.
And a kata called Kiyuna no Passai is part of the large kata curriculum of the Shubukan dojo, and as I mentioned above, Taro Shimabukuro was one of the teachers of Joki Uema, the founder of the Shubukan dojo.
There's a video of Kiyuna no Passai performed by Shubukan member Masahiro Teruya Sensei:

Yuchoku Higa (Shorin-Ryu Kyudokan) learned Sanchin from Seiyei Miyahira. If we assume that Seiyei Miyahira learned Sanchin from Kiyuna Tanmei, Kiyuna Tanmei taught Sanchin.

Yuchoku Higa learned Seisan from Seiyei Miyahira. If we assume that Seiyei Miyahira learned Seisan from Kiyuna Tanmei, Kiyuna Tanmei taught Seisan.
 As Shotokan’s Hangetsu, as Seisan is called in Shotokan, is very close to Kyudokan’s Seisan, more than to any other version of Seisan, and the fact that Funakoshi wrote that Kiyuna Tanmei was one of his teachers, I think that also Gichin Funakoshi learned Seisan from Kiyuna Tanmei. (NB. There is no written evidence that he learned Seisan from Peichin Kiyuna, my thoughts are based on the statements in his book ‘Karate-Do, My way of life’.)

The Shorin-Ryu Kyudokan version of Seisan by Koyu Higa Sensei

Shotokan Hangetsu by Hirokazu Kanazawa Sensei

Influences on current schools
Based on the facts and assumptions above, Kiyuna Tanmei influenced Kyudokan Shorin-Ryu, Shotokan (Hangetsu/Seisan) and Wado-Ryu (Seisan). Seisan is a very important kata in Wado-Ryu, as it is one of the 9 ‘core kata’. There are 15 kata in Wado-Ryu, however only 9 were defined as ‘true Wado-kata’ by Hironori Otsuka, the founder of Wado-Ryu. Hironori Otsuka learned Seisan from Gichin Funakoshi.

Author: Olaf Steinbrecher