Two weeks ago Anthony Mirakian sensei passed away. After he died it occurred to me that he has been a near-constant presence in my practice almost from the beginning, and I have been at a loss for what to say. For those of you that read this blog you will know that the relationships that develop through our practice are more important to me than who is tougher or who is higher rank. We are people first, martial artists second. But one of the good things about our practice is that it can bring people together. For me, Mirakian sensei was one of those people. The details of his personal history I’ll leave to others, his direct students perhaps. For me, this is not hagiography but a way to say good bye.
I first met Mirakian sensei in 1987. I went to his dojo in Watertown with Kimo Wall sensei. They had known each other since the 1960s. That visit was the start of a relationship that lasted until Mirakian sensei passed away. While he was never my teacher, over the time I knew him he taught me a great deal about our Goju Ryu, how to train, and how to comport myself as a martial artist. He had been in Watertown since 1960, like the rock of Gibraltar as he put it. I passed in and out of the area over the next 5 years or so, and for some reason he kept intersecting with my training.
I visited his dojo in the spring of 1990. A few months later, in August, I was in Okinawa, down from my new home in Amami Oshima visiting Matayoshi sensei for the weekend. While walking down Kokusai Dori I looked across the street and to my surprise I saw faces I recognized- Mirakian sensei and a few of his students. We talked and had lunch and I got to hear a few more of his wonderful stories from training in the 50s. His happiness at being back in Okinawa, deep respect for his teacher, and the attitude of the group of students he brought all made an impression on me; it was one of those moments when you learn something that might not sink in for a while.
It turns out though that it is a small big world. A few weeks later I went to Sakai Ryugo sensei’s dojo in Kagoshima for the first time. While being shown around the dojo I saw a photo from 1958 or so. In it Sakai sensei was standing next to someone I thought I recognized. Sakai said, “that is Anthony Mirakian, an American. We trained with Toguchi sensei together.” “I know him,” I replied. “I was in his dojo a few months ago, and just saw him in Okinawa.” There was shocked silence. Sakai had fond memories of him, but had not seen him in over 30 years. Eventually I put the two in contact and they exchanged greetings. They were both happy about it after so long.
But that is part of the practice. You develop relationships that have strength because you share something- effort, sweat, blood, time, all these, and more. They stay with you. When I got back to the states a few years later I saw Mirakian sensei again. I assisted Kimo sensei in a kobudo seminar at his dojo and afterwards we had a meal. I updated him on Sakai sensei and his family and he shared some great stories of Sakai in the 50s, when they both were young. It was a fun day, and I was glad for the break in what was at the time a grueling grad school schedule. But to my surprise it was not to be a one-off. After I left Mirakian sensei and Kimo sensei arranged for me to come to Mirakian’s dojo regularly and teach kobudo to any of his students that were interested.
To say I was nervous is an understatement. Mirakian sensei’s dojo had been there since before I was born. Kimo sensei referred to him as his sempai, and I got a careful lecture about how to comport myself in his dojo. I also got a lecture from Mirakian sensei about how he had never allowed anyone not from Meibukan to teach anything other than a seminar in his dojo. So yes, I was nervous. For the first few months Mirakian sensei sat there and watched every training. We would share some stories afterwards, which was always interesting, and he was very complimentary of my teaching. But a few months in we started pair work. That night he started telling me some stories of Taira Shinken- how he had trained with him a little but passed on the opportunity to learn kobudo from him because he wanted to focus on his Meibukan Goju Ryu. (Years later my friend Mario would be horrified by this story!) But then he turned to me and asked if he could join us for paired work. I was shocked, and my nervousness hit new heights. But what sunk in that night, and the nights following, was that he was serious. In his dojo, well and truly my senior, he asked and would have accepted a well-reasoned no as an answer. He had made his decision about me teaching after watching a while and part of his ethos was trust- the teacher is in charge of his class. That was just how it was. A lesson in both humility and martial ethics that again took me a while to grasp. But the next part was the best. He got out on the floor and spent most of the time we were doing paired work asking for corrections and smiling. He was just enjoying the act of training. Forty years in and it was fun for him. That lesson sank in immediately, and it is one I keep with me.
Over the next few years we occasionally spent time outside the dojo together. In some ways I think he saw a kindred spirit in me- someone working to walk a path he was much further down. I remember his wife telling my wife that she was also a “karate widow” and them both laughing at our incessant karate talk. He shared some things he had picked up along the way- options for movements in sepai he learned from Yagi sensei, a version of sanseru he learned from Kyoda Juhatsu- and in return listened to my stories and enjoyed a little kobudo practice. I also remember a long terrible evening that was supposed to include old video of Higa Seiko he thought he had but instead devolved into a 3 hour diatribe about Peter Urban. We are all human… But through it all his passion for his art remained obvious, and infectious. A lesson in constancy, and in joy.
I didn’t talk to Mirakian sensei for a while after the kobudo sessions stopped, but it seems inevitable we would spend some more time in the dojo together. In 2007 Liu sifu started coming back to the states and he wanted to see Mirakian sensei again (he had visited the dojo with us in 1997). I helped set up a seminar at the Meibukan dojo in 2009. The next year after the seminar Mirakian sensei asked me if I would be willing to teach in his dojo again, to work with his students on the Feeding Crane. I said yes, and that has turned into a relationship I continue to value.
Over the years Mirakian sensei shared many stories of training in Okinawa. He also shared photos, and one thing I kept noticing in them was who was sitting or training together. Yagi, Toguchi, Higa, and their students, sharing sweat and beer, travel and training. And more, photos of him with Uechi, Shorin, and kobudo masters, all hanging out together and sharing. That spirit seems to be mostly lost on Okinawa today, and certainly seems rare here. The different groups tend to stick to themselves, and sometimes even put each other down. I feel perhaps their founders would be disappointed. Of course karate is about the training, but we are people first. What type of karate-ka treats another human being with disdain? That is not karate, karate begins and ends with courtesy.
That was another lesson Mirakian sensei helped teach me. By sharing his space, inviting me to run classes and train together with his students, he was demonstrating that open spirit. He saw benefit in our groups training together, and in learning something new. To be honest I am honored he saw something in me he was willing to trust his students to. He could just as easily have sat back and said “hey, I have been here since 1960. I know what I am teaching and I don’t need to disrupt the Meibukan I have dedicated my life to with a young teacher of a different art.” And he would have been right, he didn’t need to. But he saw a benefit in opening up his dojo to us. I know I have benefited greatly from the time there and from training with his students, a dedicated and generous group and a credit to their teacher. People that I am proud to call friends, students, and training partners. I would like to hope everyone else who shares our training has gained from it as well.
And that is the most important lesson Mirakian sensei shared with me. Community. A few years ago his dojo celebrated his 50th anniversary of teaching in Watertown. Fifty years. Looking around the room I saw faces I was familiar with, some from as far back as 1987. Mirakain sensei had active students who started training in the 60s. Highly skilled students who display an unusual level of loyalty and friendship along with their skill. I don’t know how one would measure a teacher, but someone that can bring together a community like that and have it last that long has done something right. To add to that a continued openness, even after five decades, is even more impressive.
This post is a little long, but for those of you who knew Mirakian sensei you will understand why I think that is fitting. It is sad to see him go. I will miss Mirakian sensei, his stories, and his willingness to share what he knew. I considered him a friend, and I will simply miss that friendship. But I also hope to keep the spirit he showed in asking us to train together alive. Our shared practice is important to me, for a host of reasons. It is part of an older approach to the Okinawan martial arts, and while not everything older is better this part certainly is. Meibukan, Kodokan, Goju Ryu, Kobudo, Feeding Crane, it does not really matter, as my friend showed me. Training and helping each other improve does. The martial arts are for self-preservation, for keeping one alive. And when is a human being more alive than when growing and sharing with friends?