Interview with Sihan Shirai Hiroshi

30.03.2003 in Müllheim / Germany (c) Pascal Petrella

Shihan Hiroshi Sirai is without any doubt one of the living legends in the world of Shotokan-Karate. At present Shihan Shirai is head of World Shotokan Institut. He lives in Milan and conducts seminars in different countries on a regular basis. Shihan Shirai is reknown as one of the best instructors of the JKA. In the last few years he developed a new standard of bunkai for all shotokan-kata. Shihan Shirai is not only a very good karateka, he is a very good karate-instructor as well. Just to mention a few students of him: Carlo Fugazza, Dario Marccini, Alexandro Cardinale, DeMichelis, Capuana,...

1. Sensei Shirai, when and where were you born?

I was born on 31st July 1937. I will be 66 years of age this year.

2. Did anyone else in your family do any kind of martial arts?

Yes, one of my uncles was a master of kendo.

3. Sensei Shirai, where did you first got in touch with Karate?

I saw an infofilm of the JKA at the university. The film was from 1953. Sensei Nakayama, Nishiyama, Kase and others were demonstrating kata in that film. I started then karate at Komazawa Univerity in 1956.

4. Who were you teachers at Komazawa University at that time?

Sensei Nishiyama, sensei Tsujima, he is now president of Aomori-prefecture.

5. When did you receive your Shodan?

I passed Shodan in 1957 together with Yamamoto, Kano, Tozawa und Soejima. We were that time the first batch who took the grading after only one year of training. Normal you have to practice karate for two to three years until your were able to go for Shodan-Grading.

6. Sensei when did you do the JKA instructor course who were your training-mates and your teachers?

I did the instructor from 1960 to 1962. We were four people at the course, Watanabe, Nakajama, Kano and me. The seniors I trained with at that time were Okazaki, Shoji. Kanazawa and Mikami were from the first instructor course, Yaguchi from the second, Sato, Asai, Enoeda from the fourth course, then our course (se above). After came Takahashi, Ueki, Miazaki, Kisaka (6th course), Ochi, Takahashi Anki and Itaja (7th course). Sensei Nakayama, Nishijama, Kase and Sugiura were our teachers in my course. Sensei Nishijama left in 1961 Japan and went to Los Angeles, USA. After that, sensei Kase had a great influence on me.

7. Many good instructors came from that time. Sensei do you think it is possible to apply the training style from that time to present time?

I think yes. But in the past we made a lot of mistakes. I think with different training methods we could reach the same result as well. I think hard training is good, but too much contact is not so good for the body. The energy, the shock has to go somewhere. But I think if somebody has a good technique, than he is able to control his technique.

8. Sensei Shirai, nowadays a lot of karateka do only practice kata or kumite for competition. What do you think about this development?

Actually I think it is not a mistake to do competition. I think competition and competition training should be a part of the karate training, because I think the level of karate is better when they did competition. But I think the way should be first basics, second competition, third traditional training, like kata and kata-bunkai, and the different tactical kumite training methods. But I think it is also very important to do both, kumite and kata. In my time only Kanazawa, Mikami, Asai, Ueki, Ochi and me were able to win in both, kumite and kata.

9. Sensei, what is your recommendation for kata training ? How should we practice kata?

You have Tai and you have Yo. Tai means form. Yo means use or application of the technique. Sure, competition is only Tai, form. Yo is bunkai, tai-no-sen, go-no-sen, executed with full kime and speed, good balance for body and spirit. After you mastered Tai (form) then you should do bunkai-omote first, until you are really sure of your technique and your balance. After you should do kata bunkai ura, because it is important that you do both sides.

10. Sensei Shirai, you are now 66 years old and you practise karate for 47 years. What makes you still going?

I like to develop our karate techniques further. To develop and find new way of practise and teaching karate. Mr. Mabuni Kenei Kenei (Soke of Shito-Ryu), he is now 85 years old, told me that he sometimes dreams about some karate techniques. The next day he goes and tries it out at the dojo. Sensei Kase told me the same thing. During my competition time I had this experience as well. In May I lost a match at a competition against Enoeda. After I was dreaming that I was winning against Enoeda with a mae-geri. The very next day I started to practice long distance mae-geri and at the next competition in November I beat him with a ippon for mae-geri.

11. How important is breathing in karate and how can we how can we practise it.

Breathing is very important in karate. You should first start with breathingexercise very slowly. Inhale 30 seconds exhale 30 seconds. After you inhale slowly and exhale fast, inhale fast, exhale slowly, and the opposite way around. You also can go to the forest, to a quiet place, close your eyes, and just breath slowly in and out, than you got a better feeling for contraction and your body.

12. Sensei, how do you interpret the saying from Sensei Gichin Funakoshi : "Karate-Ni-Sente-Nashi"?

Karate-ni-sente-nashi for me means: If somebody does a mistake, I don't attack him, I give him a chance, an advice. If he does the mistake again, I attack him. Anyway I think, if you have a strong technique, than you are getting very peaceful inside. You have self-confidence and your body and mind is balanced.

13. Through karate training men are able to improve their character. What is your opinion and experience about this?

I think people who practise karate change through the training itself, but the teacher and reading about budo and martial arts has an influence on this as well. You have to understand the positive points in and from the training.

Carlo Fugazza for e.g. has a good character, respect for other people, the spirit of never loose, nerver loose, constant effort and good self control. This is Toku, the moral point.

14. Sensei Shirai, was it difficult for you to transfer 1965 from Japan to Europe, to Italy?

Sensei Kase, Enoeda and I came 1965 to Europe, and I had actually not much cultural problems, because I had interest in the european cultur. But I think in that time I got many enemies, because my behaviour towards students was not very good. But I think today it is much better. You see I was only 28 years of age, coming from Japan where we had a very hirachical system. I think I had not enough experience to deal with the new situation. But as I said, now I think I am better.

15. Which target do you have personally for your future ?

I want to get my body better. The last two years were not easy because of some injuries. I want to build up my body again, so I am able to kick again, because I like to kick. Right now I am still striking the makiwara with my fists, but I can not with my feed legs . I have to try to get better, every month, every week, every day, constant effort. Experience plays a big role in this process. For e.g. Sensei Kase started 20 years ago with open hand techniques, shuto, haito, ko-waza, o-waza etc. That time I didn't understand why he was using it, but now I can understand.

Sensei Shirai, thank you very much for the interview, and all the best for your future.