Robert Hunt

This blog takes a stab at the history, the characters, little known facts and general development of the Okinawan and related martial arts over the past 1,500 years with the intent of better understanding what it is we are really doing.

Sensei Robert Hunt’s Website:

  • Out From Darkness – Itosu and Higaonna

    June 29, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 7

    Out From Darkness

    Itosu and Higaonna

    By Robert Hunt


    There are times when the course of history bends like bamboo in the storm and shoots off in unsuspected directions, like a shooting star unhappy to be contained in such a confined space as the Milky Way.

    Sometimes we can pinpoint the bend. Columbus stepped onto the beach of Santo Domingo and the world was never the same. A group of revolutionaries threw tea bags into Boston harbor and freedom arose.

    The day in history when the karate world was ignited by a spark that would eventually become a meteor can similarly be defined. Itosu Ankoh stepped onto the floor of a middle school in Okinawa in 1904 and told a bunch of kids to line up. The ancient, disciplined, battle art of ti, theretofore reserved for a selection of worthy and dedicated disciples in midnight graveyards or secluded courtyards, became the property of mankind and wound its way to the gymnasium where I studied in 1964 and the shiny dojo where I teach now in 2014 and to millions of others.

    Who knows if Itosu did the right thing? There are those who say that karate would be better off not popularized and still “deadly”. But, if Ogawa Shintaro, the commissioner of schools for Kagoshima prefect, had not been impressed by a demonstration of Itosu’s karate and, if Itosu had not made public a letter extolling karate virtues as a way to build better citizens, neither you nor I would know anything about it. Karate would have faded into the maelstrom of the modern world, like buggy whips and train robberies, no longer relevant.

    But it didn’t. It survived, and two who can be credited with it’s continued existence are Itosu and Higaonna.

    There are others who passed on karate. Uechi Kambun left an enduring mark as did Nakaima Kenko, for two. But what guaranteed karate’s survival was its introduction to the commoner. Itosu did that. Once average people began to learn it and talk about it and pass it on, it’s existence was assured and you and I have the opportunity to learn an art all but dead in 1899.

    Kyan Chotoku passed on karate about the same time, as did Matsumora Kosaku.Does anyone reading this article study from that lineage? Probably not. Those men reserved their teaching for a select few. Itosu and Higaonna did not and their teachings account for ninety percent of what we practice today. Shorin, Goju, Shi-to, Shotokan, Wado, Ishin, Kyokushin, and a host of others all claim one or both of those men as an ancestor. Even if you don’t, if you study from another lineage, karate would probably not have been passed down to you either if not for them.

    An analogy exists for this in religion. Before Christ introduced the equality of religion to the masses, it was more or less reserved, at least the deeper aspects of it, for a select few – Pharisees, Sadducees and the like. Once Christ came along, however, and told thieves and harlots that heaven waited for them, too, other religions arose and religion became a possession of the downtrodden and the masses.

    Similarly once republican democracy – the idea that kings weren’t descended from gods and people should govern themselves – saw light in America, the world would never be the same.

    The crossroads of history have always been interesting – the points in time where life spins off in a fresh direction and the old world fades into the new.

    The Okinawan kingdom became part of Japan in 1879. Bushi Matsumura died in 1889. Pat Garret killed Billy the Kind in 1881.

    There was a general feeling in the world in those years, at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th (1900), that the known world was truly undergoing a transformation. It was even given a cool French name – Fin de Siecle (End of the Century). The modern world out of the ancient one. New times – cars, planes, trains, industry, oil, indoor toilets – all the trappings of modern society.

    In tiny Okinawa our art truly looked on those new times. A secret, deadly, mystical fighting art morphed out from darkness into a fun past time for you and me. It was the popularization of karate that assured its survival. If it had remained a secret art, offered to only the “worthy” who could withstand the rigors of training, you and I may never have heard about it.

    Itosu and Higaonna did that.

    Anko ItosuAnko Itosu

    Itsosu Ankoh (Yatsusune) was the man. If you are looking for someone who launched modern karate, Itosu was he.

    Itosu straddled the two worlds of karate. His was the end of the real warrior era and the beginning of the pretend warrior one. His life bridged the years from the last Okinawa King to Okinawa as part of Japan and defined the transformation from the art to the way.

    Unlike most, he was an educated warrior. He could read and write Chinese, no easy quest. Because of that, he was a scribe to the last king and hence a statured person in Okinawa. Matsumura, his one time teacher, was the body guard to the king, a warrior in the classic sense. Itosu wrote things down.

    Itosu studied from Matsumura but also from others, one named Gusukuma and another named Nagahama. They may have had more influence on Itosu than Matsumura himself. Whatever the case, it gave Itosu a broad understanding of Okinawan karate.

    It was this eclectic perspective that made him so influential, as was the fact that he taught groups. In the 1800’s and before, karate had been taught only to a select few. One had to be referred by a person of importance in the community to even begin and had to endure considerable severe training to continue.

    Itosu, on thee other hand, taught kids. Kids who got to study just because they showed up for school in the morning. That was the sea change. Karate was suddenly available to everyone.

    Higaonna KanryoHigaonna Kanryo

    Higaonna had much the same influence just not as sophisticated. Higaonna was not educated. He was, in fact, illiterate. His entry into the pages of history began when he traveled to China, probably dodging the draft, and studied with Lu Lu Ko, the enigmatic Chinese master.

    The cosmic bend took place, as with Itosu, when he started teaching in schools. His teaching became public knowledge and was picked up by the likes of Miyagi and Mabuni, to ultimately become Goju Ryu and half of Shito Ryu, major influences on our martial world.

    Once the genie escaped the bottle there was no turning back and karate is on a larger path now than it ever was. International tournaments. Real Olympic pretensions. A household name as common as popcorn. Millions of followers.

    There is a lesson to be learned from this. In the early days of karate its secrets were guarded, only taught to the few who could endure classes and “prove” themselves through years of training, and never shared with someone outside the inner circle.

    Today katas from all styles are performed by anyone who wants to learn them and we are all better for it.

    When I studied from Sensei Shintani he put white belts and black belts on the floor together and taught them the same thing. I asked him why once. He said that if someone in his dojo were going to excel and rise to the top, it would be because of how hard they worked not the politics of rank. I have grown to understand what he meant.

    I often wonder what Itosu or Higaonna would think if they saw the karate of today. Would they lament the commercialism? Would they lampoon the lack of martial application? Would they care that students in a Wado dojo practice Goju kata?

    I believe they would marvel that their tiny art, from their tiny homeland, is practiced the world over and legions of students around the globe incant their names like martial demigods.

    Whatever they might think, we sincerely owe them a debt of gratitude for bringing their martial art out from darkness and bequeathing it to the ages.


  • Draft Dodgers

    June 22, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 6

    Draft Dodgers

    By Robert Hunt


    The world evolves in mysterious ways.

    How did three wise men from the east ever stumble on a dumpy little stable in Bethlehem? A star? There are stars above my house. No one stops. At least no one wise. Thomas Jefferson, who wrote “All men are created equal”, owned slaves. I ended up married to a beautiful woman. Who would have guessed? Ideas held sacred for decades are smashed to the profane by calloused historians (like me). I was sitting in Teruo Chinen’s living room – hardwood floors with a huge stone fireplace and not much else. We were simultaneously chatting about nothing and everything, passing the conversation back and forth like a talky football. I proposed that a lot of Okinawan karate teachers seem to have traveled to China to study. He tossed back a surprising response. “I think it’s something like ‘urban myth’,” he said. “I think some were just dodging the draft.”

    Urban myth? Draft dodgers? These were ideas that had never crossed my mind as regards Okinawan karate. But should have. Things are seldom what they seem. (Did I say “seldom.” I meant “never.”) I always assumed that Okinawan karate masters made pilgrimages to China much like Muslims to Mecca. You could hardly find one that hadn’t – from Sakugawa to Nakaima to Matsumura to Higaonna to Miyagi to you-name-him.

    Chinen Sensei continued.

    After the Meiji Restoration in 1868 and the Boshin Civil War, Japan annexed Okinawa. Until that time, Okinawa had been considered, erroneously, an independent kingdom, allegiant to China. Not since 1609, however, when the Satsuma invaded, had anything been remotely independent about Okinawa. The myth of Okinawan independence was devised by the Satsuma so they and the Chinese could trade without actually having to endure each other’s presence. Shortly after said Meiji Restoration, the new government terminated the Samurai class. The Samurai had been Japan’s warriors. With no Samurai, Japan needed warriors to sacrifice in epic battles (like Guadalcanal and Iwo Jima) so they began to conscript young men. (They fired them up with pseudo Budo, but that’s another story.)

    About the last thing Okinawans wanted to do was fight for the occupying Japanese. Therefore, a gaggle of them headed, like buffalo before the chase, to China. The Chinese government promptly rounded most of them up and sent them back, where they had to sink into the shadows, or join the army, or go to jail, or somehow get back to China. The story they often told was that they had gone to China to study martial arts. The fact that Japan was conscripting soldiers – mere coincidence. A lot of Okinawans did go to China in the years after the annexation. Two of the major karate figures were Higaonna in 1874 and Uechi in 1897. This may explain why Uechi was so secretive when he returned to Okinawa and faded into the woodwork for a few years before later teaching Pang Gai Noon karate.

    This is conjecture. I know of no written evidence that they were dodging the draft, and I am pretty sure they would never admit it and heaven will attest that none of their martial progeny would ever entertain such a thought. But it is an interesting coincidence and illustrates a key drawback of oral tradition.

    People lie.

    Even if they don’t overtly lie, they often (always) embellish the story in the retelling so it fits their narrative. Or they just confuse the details, our memories being notoriously unreliable. What we remember is more often what we want to remember rather than actual annoying facts. In 1968 a black belt used to show up at Shintani Sensei’s tournaments in Canada. He quit for a few years and when he showed up again, said he had been studying in Japan. It was a great story. He wore a hakama and all the gear. We were mesmerized. We hovered around this young “master” who had actually dwelt among the enlightened. The truth is he had dwelt among enlightened convicts in some prison on a drug charge, far from the mystical Orient we so naively worshipped. The Japan story, of course, was a lie, not an embellishment nor a lapse of memory. So many people recite their karate fantasy as fact, that finding karate truth is as hard as finding a real cowboy. Look at the adulation and endless fantasies surrounding Bruce Lee. The facts are: he was a good actor, he was a physically talented, he charismatic, he became a big star, he made a lot of money. Isn’t that enough? Do we have to resurrect him as a Kung Fu god?

    By the way, a guy the other day told me, in some detail, about fighting Bruce at a tournament in Dallas. I listened politely, but, I assure you, it never happened. Bruce Lee’s handsome nose was way to valuable to risk getting bent back at the whim of some doofus glory seeker at a Texas karate tournament. The problem with karate history is that, mostly, all we have is oral tradition. There is very little written record. There never was – most people couldn’t write. And what survived the Tokugawa Shogunate didn’t survive the American bombing of Okinawa at the end of WWII. So we mostly sift through the tattered verbal remnants of 300 years of chaos for clues – bits and pieces of our never ending tapestry. Example. Higaonna, (who, by the way, was also illiterate) said he studied with a guy named Lu Lu Ko. And that’s about all he said. He didn’t embellish much about his teacher (or his reason for visiting China.) His student Miyagi even went to China to see if he could find Lu Lu, with no luck. But mountains are made of Lu Lu Ko’s mole hill among the Goju community, as if he descended from heaven with a menjo clutched in his sand-hardened fingers. Goju legacy exudes from him.

    But nobody really knows much. They just hope.

    And talk.

    And embellish.

    The more we research, the less we know for sure.

    Nakaima was supposed to have studied from Lu Lu Ko, too, in 1838. Then Higaonna in 1874. Then someone came up with a 1921 photo of him. He must have been something like a Chinese Lazarus to make it from the war of 1812 to the roaring twenties. History is written by the winners. That’s what they say. And it is ever so true in the often make-believe world of karate. Our knowledge of the art stems from the likes of Higaonna, Funakoshi, Miyagi, Mabuni, Ohtsuka, Uechi, Itosu, Nakaima and maybe a few others. They were the winners. They were the ones whose “styles” survived time. And they or their students were the ones who told the stories. Who can say what they really did? What motivates anyone to do anything? Often nothing like noble intentions. Survivors like Higaonna and Itosu are virtual karate deities. We believe their motivations were dedicated. Their hearts pure. We emulate them.

    But who were they really?

    Per Chinen (and logic), Higaonna could have been a draft dodger. Who knows?

    Who cares? (Apparently I do).

    We build a narrative and we pass it on. We repeat our karate gospel and we mimic movement like robots. And we think this is karate.

    This is not karate.

    This is a caricature of karate.

    This is politics.

    This is playing at karate for fun and profit.

    And this is OK.

    OK because we all become, however artificially, part of a heritage that spans a millennium. And we taste a bit of it. And we feel it. And we learn to love it. And we meld into it. And we pass it on. Who cares if they were draft dodgers? Who cares if they didn’t want to be part of the Japanese army? Would you want to be part of the Japanese army? The salient point here is that the forces behind history are often more coincidental than intentional and rarely as portrayed. The revolutionary war burst out on Lexington Green in Concord Massachusetts when a few militia men stood eyeball to eyeball with 300 British soldiers. Then someone, somewhere fired a shot. No one knows who or why. With that shot, the story of humanity spun off like an Oklahoma tornado and the idea of free people governing themselves materialized on earth.

    History may not be what we think. Our teachers may be less worthy than we would like. I have had four less-than-perfect ones, but I have learned a pile of karate. Our heroes may be draft dodgers and story tellers, but they are still our heroes. These flawed humans, these seekers, passed karate down to you and me. Through them we piece together our karate tapestry.

  • The Meiji Restoration

    June 18, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 5

    The Meiji Restoration 

    By Robert Hunt


    Tokugawa Ieyasu was a great man. In the 15th century, Japan was a divided island, ruled, in name, by an Emperor, but buffeted by a mélange of major and minor warlords all vying for power and always at war. The Samurai, who fought the battles, thrived. In 1600, it all changed with a battle at a place called Sekigahara. After much death, trickery and treachery, Tokugawa Ieyasu emerged victor, dubbed himself Shogun and initiated a dynasty, a Shogunate, that lasted 268 years. Power now lay in the hands of the Shogun, not the Emperor.

    So what? Why do you and I care?

    Here’s why.

    Tokugawa was wise in the ways of the human spirit and the Japanese heart. The Satsuma clan was part of the losing side and Tokugawa knew that nothing is ever forgotten or forgiven in Japan. The Satsuma, headed by a warlord named Shimazu, controlled the southern section of Japan and Tokugawa knew they would inevitably be back for vengeance (see below.) In order to keep Shimazu occupied, Tokugawa allowed him to conquer whatever stood in his way this side of China. A doomed Okinawa lay 90 miles off the southern coast.

    In 1609, Shimazu sent his seasoned, vengeful army to “conquer” Okinawa, which, since Okinawa had no army, took something like a long weekend. The Satsuma were as brutal as Genghis Khan and the Okinawans suffered for most of those 268 years. It can be argued that the Satsuma occupation of the Okinawan Kingdom gave birth to the karate we know. Shimazu outlawed bladed weapons and subjugated Okinawa to a host of indignities. Death awaited anyone caught practicing a martial art and death at the hands of the Japanese could take a lifetime. Karate went underground and, as many underground activities often do, it flourished.

    The Okinawans hid their art from the Satsuma, but there was never any threat to the Japanese occupation from a handful of karate masters. No one thought a country the size of Rhode Island could ever drive out the Japanese Empire and I don’t believe the Japanese were ever worried about it either. But the Japanese of the day were not nice people and enforced the subjugation with alacrity. I think that the larger reason the Okinawans hid their art was that they just didn’t want foreigners, especially the occupiers, to learn it. There are still Okinawans who don’t think karate should be taught to outsiders and that the karate practiced in Japan is only a shadow of the real thing. There are a lot of Japanese who believe that last part, too and travel to Okinawa to drink from the source. Tokugawa and his descendents ruled Japan for almost three hundred years. Ironically it was the United States military that planted the seeds of its demise.

    When Tokugawa took over in 1600, he sealed Japan’s borders to outsiders. In 1853 Commodore Perry lead an expedition to “open up” Japan to trade. Five years later he came away with a treaty and the course of Japanese history veered off like a gazelle with a famished lion on its tail. After seeing Commodore Perry’s gun boats and modern weaponry, some in Japan realized how far behind their isolationism had left them. After a civil war, Japan was eventually reborn into the modern world and it wasn’t long before businessmen were wearing western suits and ties and speaking English, French and German. It wasn’t an easy birth however, more like a caesarian, the new world ripped from the womb of the old with guns and swords. If you have seen the movie “The Last Samurai”, and I will be very surprised if you haven’t, you will have seen a fairly entertaining dramatization of the period. Although a fiction based on real characters, the movie touched on the major players of the era; 1) business interests looking to move Japan to parity with the western world; 2) a weak and feckless emperor Meiji, controlled, as most Japanese emperors have been, by powerful men with agendas and; 3) a gaggle of Samurai lead forces that didn’t want to jeopardize their demi-god status as arrogant, worshipped executioners.

    The stalwart Samurai leader in the film (who miraculously spoke English better than my uncle Fred) was based on a real life character named Takamori Saigo, a throwback nationalist who wanted to maintain Samurai privileges. But Takamori wasn’t just trying to beat back the modern world’s relentless tide. Takamori was Satsuma, (see above), and saw an opportunity for revenge. (Nothing is ever forgotten or forgiven in Japan.) It would be like the Daughters of the American Revolution taking vengeance on the descendents of crazy King George. By that time, the Tokugawa were already gone and Takamori (called Katsumoto in the film) realized, too late, that he was the last dinosaur. Hence the fuss. He did lead a bunch of Samurai into battle, by the way and committed suicide on the battlefield. The Japanese civil war that ended the Tokugawa Shogunate was called the Boshin war. The forces who pursued the war insisted they were wresting power for the Meiji (Enlightened) emperor from the dastardly Tokugawa. They even had the marketing epiphany to call it the “Meiji Restoration“, as if they were actually doing something noble. But poor emperor Meiji never had a chance and never called the shots. Money called the shots.

    Here is what the Restoration did, however, for you and me.

    With no more sword fights around, the Japanese turned their blades into cash and began to teach sword fighting (Kendo) for the ostensible sake of learning a new “way”. Other Japanese martial arts, Jiujutsu for example, followed and in the 1880’s, Jigoro Kano turned Jiujutsu into Judo (the “soft art” into the “soft way”.) The idea wasn’t lost on Okinawan karate masters. Not long after, Itosu Ankoh decided that “karate” could become “karate-do” and be taught to kids in school to build better citizens. The Meiji Restoration wasn’t really the catalyst for martial arts becoming martial ways. The entire western and much of the eastern world was enjoying a rebirth. By 1900, karate as a fighting art was mostly over and karate as physical training, philosophical pursuit, and arcane hobby well on its way. But fin de siècle students had the opportunity to study it with real karate warriors. Imagine if you had the chance to study gun fighting with Wyatt Earp. That’s what was going on in Okinawa after 1900.

    Japan has been ruled by warlords guiding emperors to doom for centuries. As recently as 1936, Tojo lead Japan and emperor Hirohito into the Second World War and ultimate disgrace.

    Tokugawa didn’t. He ushered Japan into a new and better era. The 268 years of the Tokugawa Shogunate was a time of peace (although full of much intrigue and fodder for endless chambata films.) The Samurai who so depended on serving warring warlords for their sustenance, found themselves out of work. Many took to wondering the countryside as ronin or masterless Samurai. Now for one more movie plug. There is a Japanese film about the era and the time leading up to the Boshin War, when the various elements were scheming. It is called “Twilight Samurai” and stars Hiroyuki Sanada, the tough, long haired warrior, Ujio, who beat Tom Cruise’s butt in “The Last Samurai.” This movie, based on a short story written by Shuhei Fujisawa called “The Bamboo Sword”, does a better job of depicting the era – Samurai accountants surprised when someone in their midst can actually handle a sword.

    Not long after the Meiji Restoration, down in Okinawa, karate began its journey to international household word, driven by the likes of Itosu and Higaonna. Like Jiujutsu before it, the “Art of Karate” became the “Way of Karate” and wormed its way into your life and mine. At least one author titled his historical fiction novel “The Art and the Way” because of it. (Ahem.) Okinawa entered a time of national conflict that continues even today. Japan had been the evil demon for so long that much of the country wanted nothing to do with it and rebuked every attempt to Japan-ize Okinawa. Some, however, Itosu and his student Funakoshi for two, craved acceptance by Japan and the Japanese Budo fraternity. They saw their future as Japanese, not as islanders under the domination an empire.

    The story of Okinawa winds its way through the Tokugawa Shogunate, the Satsuma occupation and the Meiji Restoration like the Mississippi river winds through New Orleans and adds another hue to the ever evolving tapestry of karate.

    Meiji era SamuraiMeiji era Samurai

  • Forefathers

    June 15, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 4


    By Robert Hunt


    To grasp what karate is, it is essential to know who went before. We can’t sort through the karate tapestry without knowing people like Bushi Matsumura and the time they inhabited. When people speak of karate “masters”, these forefathers are the people to whom they refer, not the diploma-mill goof balls we endure today.

    For convenience, we can divide the originators into the years before and after 1871. In that year Okinawa became an official part of Japan and their universe changed, hence the prior masters had a different world view (and karate view) than those later on. In a time when illiteracy was the rule, it is very difficult to pin down facts. But we deal with the information we have until the time machine gets invented.

      Kushanku – Our first karate ancestor known by written testimony is Kushanku (maybe something like Kung Shang Kung in Chinese, but I have seen so many iterations, the Chinese who read our stuff must laugh out loud). The spelling matters little, anyway, because they were probably wrong in the first place (see the line about literacy above).

    Be that as it may, he appeared on the scene in the 1750’s and passed on his martial art, probably Shaolin, to a few interested students. We have talked about him in previous issues.

      Sakugawa – Sakugawa is important and we know him quite well.  John Sells goes into some detail in his book “Unante”.

    Sakugawa started karate at the age of 17 with a man named Takahara. Six years later (maybe 1756) he met Kushanku. The story is that Sakugawa met Kushanku on a bridge and was going to play a joke on the old man, but Kushanku saw it coming and humiliated Sakugawa so much that the kid asked to become Kushanku’s student.

    Later he traveled with Kushanku to China where he studied – you guessed it – the martial arts. Sells says there is evidence that he traveled for the specific purpose of bringing Chinese martial arts back to Okinawa.

    Sakugawa was instrumental in cobbling together the art that we recognize today as karate, or at least Shorin karate. He referred to it as “Todi” (China Hand), because of his incorporation of the Chinese arts into what he passed on. (The Okinawans had a martial art of their own called Okinawa-te, still around today). Because of his prowess, Sakugawa eventually came to be known as “Todi” Sakugawa. (Could also be pronounced “Karate” Sakugawa.)

    His birth name was actually Teruya, but because of his contributions to Okinawan martial arts he was elevated to a privileged status by the King and given an island.  The name of the island was Sakugawa Island, and Teruya took it as his own.

    In China, Sakugawa perfected the staff or “bo” (called “kun” in Chinese.) Today we study the bo kata he passed on – “Sakugawa no kon.” Sakugawa also incorporated the idea of the pull hand into his training, something he learned from Kushanku. This is prevalent in almost all Okinawan based kata today.

      Chatan Yara (Yara from the town of Chatan) Not much is known about Yara except that he was a contemporary and friend of Sakugawa and the assistant in the famous demonstration Kushanku gave on the boat (which we discussed in a prior article. Go look). His name is tied to numerous weapons and open hand kata.

    The best known is Chatan Yara Kushanku and may be the original that Kushanku actually taught. For some reason the Kushanku kata passed down from Sakugawa to Matsumura to Itosu to Shorin, Shotokan, Shito and Wado is different.

    Yara’s version was passed on to his grandson, Yomitan Yara who taught it to Kyan Chotoku who preserved it, thank the stars, for us.

      Matsu Higa –There is some discussion about who Matsu Higa actually was and when he lived. His name pops up in time frames a hundred years apart. Either those stories about Okinawans living a really long life are true (and then some) or something else is going on.

    The answer is probably that Matsu Higa was actually his nickname, as well as that of someone who went before. Most Okinawan Bushi had one. Matsu Higa about whom we are talking here was a disciple of Sakugawa in the second half of the 1700’s. His family name is Kojo, which has significance and which we talk about later (on the next page, I believe).

    He didn’t have a following and didn’t leave a lineage, except for the several weapons kata which bear his name. I

    particularly like his bo kata which was originally an oar kata and begins by sticking the paddle into the beach and kicking it in order to send sand into an opponent’s face.

    I incorporated the move into the opening scenes of a karate fiction novel I wrote called “The Art and the Way” (which I shamelessly plug here) and use it again in the opening scenes of the screenplay I may be adapting for a Hollywood production company from said book. (Watch for news here. Trust me, I’ll let you know.)

       (Bushi) Matsumura Sokon (roughly 1800-1890) – If we could search the prism of the time machine for the human being most responsible for Okinawan karate, it would be Bushi Matsumura. This is true for what he did, as well as the era in which he lived.

    He was born sometime around 1800 and died at the age of 92. In 1800, Okinawa was still very much a toothless kingdom subjugated by the Japanese Satsuma. Life was difficult and the subjugation hated. By the time Matsumura died, Okinawa had become a part of Japan and half the population wanted to be Japanese. What a difference a century makes.

    He is said to have started karate at the age of 14 with Sakugawa. Sakugawa died in 1815, however, so something is wrong with the timeframe. Either Matsumura was born earlier or he studied with a Sakugawa protégé, or something similar.

    Regardless, he continued with Sakugawa’s karate and became a palace guard at the age of 20, very young indeed. He served three Okinawan kings, the last one up to 1871 when the kingdom was dissolved.

    Matsumura is the one who originated the karate many of us know. Tall, athletic, talented, determined, with a terrifying gaze and completely dedicated to the King, he was a fearless servant. Bruce Clayton postulates that Matsumura may have stood at the King’s side when invaded by the first American army to set foot on Okinawan soil, lead by Commodore Perry on his quest to “open up” Japan.

    Matsumura organized the major kata of Shurite (Shorin) karate – Kushanku, Pasai, Chinto, Useishi, Naifanchi, Seisan, and others. He traveled to China as a delegate for the King, studied martial arts there and may have been the one to coin the name “Shorin” because of the fact that so much of karate originated from the Shaolin Temple.

    He also accompanied the King to Satsuma in Japan and studied martial arts there, including, it is said, the Japanese sword. This would have been in the middle of the 17th century approaching the time that Japan would annex Okinawa and the strictures on martial arts training were beginning to fade, especially for a palace guard.

    If we are looking for the roots of Shorin Ryu, Shotokan, Wado and half of Shito, Matsumura is the man. I would say it is more than that, though.  Matsumura set the stage for modern karate. All Okinawan masters of whatever style were inspired by the man, famous in his time.

    There is one more point to make about Matsumura.  His wife, Yonamine Chiru, was as strong a martial artist as existed. Matsumura had to best her in battle just to marry her and she handled many of the duties of dealing with and subduing brigands of the day. She was the first identifiable classic female Okinawan martial artist.

        Kojo – The Kojo family would probably not be considered forefathers of most of what you and I see and do, but their own family history puts them studying Chinese martial arts and bringing it back to Okinawa as early as the mid 1600’s. The art was passed on within the family and lasted through generation after generation but is not widely practiced today.

    Therein lies the problem with family styles. They peter out. There is a style called Kojo Ryu around, but few know anything about it. Shorin and Goju on the other hand, were widely practiced and have grown and expanded throughout the world and are enjoyed by millions. If your goal is to pass on a couple secret techniques to a few chosen acolytes, well then…OK. Personally, I prefer access.

    Kojo Shinpo was the first of the line and started around 1650. He traveled to China, studied, brought martial arts back and worked in the service of the King. The family is renowned in Okinawan history for this and I hope that someone will open up their shadow style to the world some day (so you and I all can learn more about it.)

    These are a few of our karate forefathers.  We will look at more in upcoming issues.

  • There’s a Beginning Somewhere

    June 8, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 3

    There’s a Beginning Somewhere

    By Robert Hunt

    Being obsessive, I tend to delve into particulars – a never ending quest, like Paul Harvey used to say, for “the rest of the story”.  That notion has fired up my lifelong karate pursuit – never content just accepting Shotokan, or Wado, or Goju or Shito, or for that matter, Shorin and Shorei as they are. There’s a beginning somewhere.

    Of course, there is no real beginning, just the hazy starting place we choose. But, I want to know it all as distant in the past as possible. If we don’t study, if we don’t research, we are at the mercy of whoever came before – karate through our Senseis’ eyes. Did they get it?

    Kenwa Mabuni studied from Higashionna and Itosu.  He even created a style, Shi-To, using the first half of each of their names, Higa and Ito. That’s an impressive chunk of Okinawan karate.

    Did he get it right? Did he pass on to his sons and Hayashi and Sakagami and Kuniba the reality of Okinawan karate, or did he pass on his own prejudice, karate through a filter, picking and choosing what he thought important, or correct or relevant or historically authentic. Or did just try his best, without a lot of thought to any of it.  I don’t know. Hence the pursuit.

    I foraged through the writings of historians like John Sells, Patrick McCarthy and others, and scrounged up a few of the earliest karate happenings to shed some illumination on what we all practice.


    I. The Sappushi Wanshu.

    A Sappushi was a diplomat. This one, Wanshu, was sent by the Qing government of China to Okinawa in 1683.

    It is said that he was “a poet, calligrapher, diplomat and martial artist in the Shaolin tradition of Fujian White Crane.”

    That’s an interesting line. The Qing deposed the Ming. The Shaolin, as we have seen, was aligned with the Ming. Why did the Qing send a diplomat to Okinawa who was associated with the Shaolin? It’s another mystery for you to solve, but it illustrates an early link between karate, China and the Shaolin monastery.

    Wanshu, for some reason, gave lessons to the upper class in the little village of Tomari. There were upper class people in Shuri and Naha practicing martial arts, so it’s curious he chose Tomari. Maybe something about the Shaolin. Another mystery for you.

    A Tomari-line kata called Wanshu takes its name from him. It is the earliest known kata that can be identified in Okinawa.

    Wanshu kata is practiced in most Wado, Shotokan and Shi-To schools and some Shorin.  The Shotokan modified it into the kata that Funakoshi renamed Empi.

    This isn’t much information, but we learn from it that Wanshu existed, we know he went to Okinawa, we know he taught martial arts associated with the Shaolin and we know where one kata got his name.  Bits of information to add texture to the karate tapestry.


      II. The Oshima incident.

    In 1762, an Okinawan tribute ship on its way to Satsuma, Japan was blown off course and drifted to Oshima beach on Shikoku Island. There lived a scholar named Tobe Ryoen. Tobe recorded the story of the shipwreck in a chronicle titled Oshima Hikki,  “The Oshima Incident”.

    An Okinawan person of importance who was present at the event, Shionji Peichin, recounted to Tobe the story of a Chinese man called Kusankun. He described Kusankun as an expert in kempo (fist-method.)  Kusankun apparently travelled to the Ryukyu Kingdom, possibly with a few disciples, around 1756.

    Shionji told Tobe how impressed he was witnessing a person of small stature overcome a larger person.

    “With one hand placed upon his lapel and the other applying his ‘kumiai-jutsu’, he overcame the attacker by scissoring his legs.”

    His description of Kusankun is brief but remains early written proof of the Chinese influence on the Okinawan martial arts and the existence of Kusankun. There are no official records of any such person, by the way, neither in Beijing nor Fuzhou.

    Kushanku, the kata that bears the man’s name, is practiced in all Shorin based systems (called Kanku Dai in Shotokan, Kosokun in some Shi-To and Shorin schools.) Kushanku is also the name of the person that Sakugawa confronted on the bridge and eventually studied from. The kata, dating to before the American revolution, is a principal kata in the evolution of karate.

    Kushanku had some notable students, among them Chatan Yara (Yara from Chatan) and the aforementioned Sakugawa. Yara apparently passed on Kushanku’s kata more or less as Kushanku taught it.  Sakugawa may have altered it. The idea has been put forth that Sakugawa was not as accomplished as Yara and simplified the kata. Who knows? The original still exists under the name Chatan Yara Kushanku and is seen more and more in competition because of its more difficult moves.


    III. The Ochayagoten Celebration.

                 This unique historical record was uncovered by the historian Tokashiki Iken. It is the program for the last celebration of a Chinese envoy (Xhao Xin) to Okinawa in 1867.

    The show had three parts, one of them martial. The martial arts program read:

    1. Timbe & rochin (turtle shell shield and blade) by Maeda Chiku.
    2. Bo-jutsu vs. sai-jutsu (pre-arranged kumite with a wooden staff against iron truncheon) by Maeda Chiku and Aragaki Tsuji.
    3. Kata (empty hand form) seisan by Aragaki Tsuji.
    4. Bo-jutsu vs toudi (toudi is the old name of Karate) by Maeda Chiku and Aragaki Tsuji.
    5. Chishaukiun (Okinawan name for small stick) by Aragaki Tsuji.
    6. Timbe vs. bo-jutsu (shield vs. staff) by Tomura Chikudon and Aragaki Tsuji.
    7. Teshaku (sai kata) by Maeda Chiku.
    8. Kyusho-jutsu (pressure points) by Maeda Chiku and Aragaki Tsuji.
    9. Shabo (bo kata) by Ikemiyagusuku Shusai. Shusai is a title given to aristocratic boys who would later be in service of the King.
    10. Kata (empty hand form) suparinpei by Tomura Chikudon.

    The names of the kata Seisan and Suparimpei are interesting because these two katas are integral to modern Goju Ryu. This exhibition took place, however, before Higashionna even went to China, so katas with those names were obviously a part of Okinawan martial arts prior his trip. Maybe Higashionna learned those katas before going. (Makes you want to say, “Hmmm?” and scratch your head real hard.)

    One more interesting tidbit about this exhibition is that the demonstrators all came from Kume Village, where the scholars sent by the Ming emperor settled in 1368 and which is famous still as a martial arts center.

    There is precious little written information about karate history, so we scrutinize treasures like this to glean clues. From these three:

    • We have proof that Chinese martial arts were in Okinawa at least as early as 1687.
    • We have a written record of an accomplished Chinese martial artist named Kushanku in Okinawa in 1762.
    • We know that karate under the name Toudi Jutsu was demonstrated openly in Okinawa in 1867.
    • We know that katas called Seisan and Suparinpei existed before Higashionna introduced them.
    • We know that Okinawan kata dates back at least 327 years (to Wankan).
    • We know that karate isn’t as secret as we have been led to believe, if Okinawans  demonstrated it at an official ceremony (some Japanese must have been watching).
    • We know that the practice of kata is what brought karate from antiquity to modern times. (We perform Kushanku’s kata, but only guess at the scissors technique).
    • We know that weapons played a much larger part in karate training than it generally does now. Seven of the ten exhibitions were with weapons. Two were empty hand kata and one was about pressure points. None were sparring.

    The karate tapestry begins to develop its hues from the bits and pieces we scavenge in the far off, dusty corners of history.

  • Okinawa

    June 1, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 2

    Okinawa By Robert Hunt

    It is impossible to understand karate without understanding Okinawa.

    The island kingdom is the literal birthplace of karate and the art is imbued with Okinawan history, philosophy, religion, character and society. One of the most misleading periods of my karate training were the beginning years when I thought karate was Japanese and confused it with Japanese culture.

    One transparent example. In Japan, women were second class citizens. In Okinawa, women have, since early times, been a driving force in the society. A Noro, a priestess, was the head of the Okinawan religion and had almost as much power as the king. One of Okinawa’s most ancient beliefs is onarigami, the spiritual superiority of women derived from the Goddess Amamikyo. This differs greatly from Japanese Shinto, where men are seen as the embodiment of purity (oh, come on…!).

    Women abound in Okinawan martial history. A well known karate teacher named Higa admitted that he learned much of his karate from his big sister. Legend has it that Bushi Matsumura first had to defeat his girlfriend, Chiru, before she would agree to become his wife. When we first went to Japan, my own wife served drinks around the table to men years her junior in karate, just to play the game. Today she teaches kobudo to our grandchildren and is a Sensei in the dojo.

    Called Uchinaa in its own language, Okinawa is the largest island in a chain called the Ryu Kyu Islands, strewn, like a handful of rocks from Amamikyo’s divine hand, across the East China Sea from southern Japan toward Fuchow, China.

    Unante, from the same root word , is an early Okinawan name for the art we pursue (and also the name of John Sells’ book, which you should own). It’s location, at a matrix between Japan, China, Korea and Southeast Asia foreshadowed Okinawa’s destiny. That coincidental position gave the island trade and prosperity, but, not siding with Japan against Korea in one of their early wars doomed it.

    From the 13th century, Okinawa was an independent kingdom, a tributary of China. China only traded with tributary countries and the relationship brought great wealth to the tiny island. Okinawa adopted the Chinese written language, governmental structure, cultural relationships and whatever else filtered through (like martial arts).

    Okinawa has its own spoken language, which still exists to some extent today, much like minority languages still exist in the United States, Cajun or Apache, for instance, spoken by a few diehards intent on preserving the heritage.

    The independent Okinawan Kingdom more or less paralleled the Ming Dynasty from the late 14th century until the 1600’s. This is why we believe that modern karate derives so much of its influence from the Ming. Okinawa was, during the karate introduction years, in essence, an extension of the Ming.

    In 1392 the founding Ming emperor sent a contingent of emissaries called the “thirty-six families” to Okinawa to monitor the maritime trade. They also taught language and culture (and martial arts). The group (not really 36, that was just sort of a lucky number) is legendary in karate history. They created a village called Kume Village (Kumemura or Kuninda) from which sprang a wealth of knowledge. Some Okinawan martial artists today speak with pride of their Kumemura Chinese ancestry and the village still exists in a nook of the city of Naha, now just called Kume.

    The Okinawan kingdom flourished for 300 years as a tributary to the Ming, with a strong economy and a fairly sophisticated society. It all came tumbling down in 1609 with the Japanese invasion. The independent kingdom and the flourishing economy disappeared in the face of the Japanese war machine, never to rise again.

    What precipitated this?

    In 1600 the most famous Japanese warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu, succeeded, through stealth, treachery and war, in bringing Japan under his personal banner. On the losing side sat a family clan from southern Japan – the Satsuma.

    Nothing is ever forgotten in Japan, neither then nor now, and Tokugawa knew that the Satsuma would always be a threat. Their revenge, in fact, came 250 years later in the Boshin war (referenced somewhat in the movie Twilight Samurai), but that is jumping ahead.

    In order to keep Shimazu misdirected, Tokugawa allowed him to “conquer” the Ryu Kyu islands. Tokugawa wanted to punish Okinawa, anyway, for not siding with Japan in that war with Korea 200 years before (nothing is ever forgotten in Japan).

    The Satsuma gladly accepted the offer and descended on Okinawa with 3,000 seasoned warriors in 100 ships, defeating the un-defended island in days. The remainder of Okinawan history is framed by its subjugation at the hands of a ruthless, brutal conqueror and attempt to maintain its minuscule culture in the face of a militaristic Japan determined to obliterate it.

    It is during this period, from 1609 to 1900 that karate, more or less as we know it, gradually entered the picture like an embryo slowly emerging into a living being. In the face of a prohibition of bladed weapons, Okinawans nurtured a martial art inherited from China which consisted of empty hand techniques and a few wooden weapons fashioned from non-threatening tools.

    But the Okinawans were not a warlike people. When you live on an island 60 miles long and 20 miles wide, you don’t develop such ambitions. Instead, they became gentle and hospitable.

    This graciousness inherent in the Okinawan culture imbues the Okinawans and their martial art with a gentle, introspective feel. Okinawan dojos are generally quiet places where students practice alone or with a partner under the gaze of a teacher ready to assist. Japanese dojos, in contrast, often feel like military camps with rows of students marching to the commands of a Sempai/ Sergeant.

    Karate was a secret Okinawan art until the turn of the 19th century into the 20th. About that time, Japan discovered that the tiny island they had bullied for 300 years was home to a unique, deadly, fun martial art and Japan coveted it. They adapted various versions and systematically exported them throughout the world. Hence my introduction and early confusion.

    But karate is not Japanese. It’s Okinawan by birth, character and heritage.

    For a time, I spent evenings visiting with an Okinawan karate teacher, deadly and hospitable like the rest. He is Japanese by nationality, but adamant that he is actually Okinawan and that, when the mainland Japanese want to learn “real” karate, they seek out him or other Okinawans like him to teach them (just as I did).

    Japan lost Okinawa at the end of WWII and it became an American protectorate. Okinawa had the option of reverting back to Japan, however, or remaining with the United States. After much heated debate, they chose Japan, but it was far from unanimous. An American friend of mine was studying in Okinawa at the time and remembers a vote to see if they would ever teach karate to the Japanese. They voted yes, but the vote itself tells the story.

    Many Okinawans believed that Japan had sacrificed the island in a last ditch attempt to keep the Americans away from the Japanese homeland. Okinawa was obliterated in the final days of World War II and Japan surrendered just before the mainland attack materialized. It was primarily because of the atomic bomb that Japan surrendered, but it was also because Japan did not want an invasion of their own island and sacrificing Okinawa had bought them some time.

    Today Okinawa is officially part of Japan but with a distinct and very proud identity of its own. The world has finally realized that Okinawa is the well spring of karate and every year foreign students visit there to study at the source. Tournament competitors scan videos of early Okinawan katas to come up with “new” competitive forms.

    This meandering island history, from multicultural, independent, China leaning kingdom, to occupied island, to war time sacrifice, to martial arts font, is what forged our martial art out of one country’s very human story of survival and endurance.

    My wife teaches karate and kobudo in the Okinawan way like Chiru Matsumura and Higa’s big sister. Okinawa lives on in the Scottsdale Martial Arts Center alongside the karate that we have learned from our Japanese instructors.

    Come work out with us some time, the latch key always hangs out.

  • The Ming Dynasty

    May 26, 2015

    The Karate Tapestry – Part 1

    The Ming Dynasty By Robert Hunt

    There is no beginning and no end.  Becoming increasingly aware of the significance of that statement, some years ago I adopted the Japanese “Enso” symbol, because it illustrated so well my despair at trying to contain and comprehend the relentless, diabolical passage of time.

    In the middle ages, Japanese Buddhist monks meditated over a sheet of rice paper, and, when they felt the moment right, drew a circle – the “Enso”. It represented a precise moment and the futility of ever preserving that moment.

    A circle never ends.

    So is karate like the Enso. No beginning. The end is now…for now. The best we can do is jump in somewhere and ride the story until we arrive at today…which immediately fades into tomorrow and into the Enso.

    Some see a beginning of the karate story with the journey of the Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidarma (called Tamo by the Chinese) who traveled to China in 527 AD to introduce a new kind of Buddhism – Chan, also known as Zen. They choose that point on the great mandala because persistent legend has it that Tamo settled in the recently formed Shaolin temple and taught exercises to the out-of-shape monks which evolved into Shaolin martial arts and ultimately Okinawan karate.

    Tamo was real, but did he start the Shaolin martial arts? Maybe. That was 1500 years ago and although legends are persistent, records are scarce. Martial arts were part of Chinese culture for centuries before Tamo.

    If you seek the origins of Okinawan karate, however, it might be well to begin in 1368 with the dawn of the Ming Dynasty in China and the House of Zhu, the family name of the Ming Emperors. The history of the Ming is more intertwined with Okinawan martial arts than almost any other aspect of Chinese history. Tamo may have engendered a philosophical martial practice in the misty shadows of Chinese history, but the Ming played a pivotal role in what you and I do on the dojo floor today.

    The Ming dynasty was described as “one of the greatest eras of orderly government and social stability in human history”. The word Ming, which means “brilliant” and is written with the Chinese characters “sun-moon”, was a dynasty of Han Chinese, the ethnic inhabitants of China. The prior dynasty, the Yuan, was Mongol, (Kublai Khan) and the one that followed the Ming, the Qing, was Manchurian.

    The connection to karate still lies with the Shaolin temple. The temple had grown over 800 years into an enclave of warrior Monks, allegiant to the Ming who, in gratitude, supported the Shaolin. The Shaolin warriors even marched into battle for the Ming emperors.

    Benny Meng and Matthew Kwan tell the story in an article about the Chinese martial art Wing Chung. You can find it on the internet under Ving Chun Museum. I drew from their work for this article. I incorporate the story here into three pages so that you can read it on your break, Roger.

    When the Manchu conquered China in 1644 and drove out the Ming, they forced a cruel government onto the Han. They imposed a long hair braid, called a cue, for example, that was supposed to humiliate the Han by representing a horses tail but which eventually became a Chinese tradition that persisted until 1922.

    Out of the subjugation, there emerged a centuries long drive to return a Ming to power. Since the Shaolin was a warrior temple and allegiant to the Ming, it was a prime target of the Manchu. Legend has it that they burned the southern Shaolin temple and forced the Monks into hiding. Many fled China (to Okinawa?). Others went underground and quietly tried to foment a revolution. Secret societies grew out of the revolutionary movement, societies like the Triad’s and the Tongs (the Boxers) that still exist within the foreign Chinese underground.

    There are plentiful stories of Chinese emissaries (for example Kushanku) visiting Okinawa and Okinawans, in turn, traveling to China to study the martial arts (Matsumura, Nakaima, Higaonna, Uechi). They inevitably seem to have studied with someone associated with the Shaolin.

    There are lots of hints about Shaolin/Ming influence within our karate. Okinawans took the name Shaolin (Shorin) for their art, for instance. They also used the Ming loyalist secret greeting of right fist in left palm to start their katas.

    During those centuries, the Shaolin priests and their followers were being persecuted and executed by the Manchu. Although there is little direct evidence, (because it was secret) all the circumstantial evidence points to the idea that Okinawan karate was, partially at least, a product of Ming faithful Shaolin Monks and their followers who were either fleeing persecution, training potential rebels, or maybe just passing on the Shaolin arts for fun and self fulfillment.

    The character who springs to mind is Lu Lu Ko, the illusive Chinese master purported to have taught both Nakaima (in the 1830’s) and Higaonna (in the 1870’s). No one really knows who he was or if he even actually existed. But someone taught those two men. Is the secrecy intentional? Was he evading the Manchu?

    Much of this is speculation, but speculation based on facts and verbal family histories, not whimsy. One can see the history of the Shaolin and the Ming in the very kata that make up modern karate. The katas Jitte, Jiin and Jion are often referred to as “temple katas” and begin with the Ming hand signal. What temple?

    We look at the organized styles and systematic teaching methods, the colored belts and the coveted black belt of today and we see a structured art that is more or less quaint. But karate emerged from life and death conflicts, one of which may have been the centuries of Shaolin martial development and then their conquest to place a Ming back onto the throne of China and free the Han Chinese from their Manchurian overlords.

    The art that the ex-Shaolin Monks were teaching Matsumura and Nakaima, Higaonna and Uechi was not just a fun sport. To them, it may have been nothing less than the future of China.

    It all ended with the rise of Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Tse Tung and the advent of modern China. (About 1912 – not that long ago.) The rebuilt Shaolin monastery nowadays is a communist tourist trap complete with pretend monks.

    And the Ming dynasty? Long gone. Alive today in history books and karate katas like Basai, Nipaipo, Jitte, Jiin and Jion – any kata that makes the secret fist-in-palm salute to the ancient ghosts of the Ming warriors and a few that don’t.

    And today? When the Manchu took over, the Ming went into hiding, changing their names from the Zhu family name for safety. After the rise of the modern Republic of China, some changed them back. Zhu Rongji, for example, is an 18th generation descendent of Zhu Bian, the 18th son of the Hongwu Emperor, the founder of the Ming Dynasty. Zhu Rongji served as premier of the People’s Republic of China until 2003.

    Next: Okinawa

  • Ueichi Ryu

    May 18, 2015

    Ueichi Ryu by Sensei Robert Hunt

    A white ceiling of hazy clouds floated across the Cape Cod sky like a friendly wraith holding the sizzling July sun at bay. The breeze off the Atlantic ruffled my hair and dried the salty sweat on my skin like a popsicle on Arizona blacktop.

    I strode across the green grass of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, a couple
    miles from the entry to Cape Cod Bay, and stopped to watch a small legion of diehards in dirty white karate pajamas (rapidly assuming the camouflage colors of earth and grass) kick and punch, jump, run, scramble and shout to the cadence of a Sempai doing what Sempai have felt the urge to do for centuries – conjure diabolical exercises to make students ask themselves the eternal karate question, “What am I doing here?”

    George Mattson strode across the Maritime grass with a lanky, elk-like stride, a
    smile bisecting his face, hand outstretched. I had never met the man, but it took about ten words to make me feel like a long awaited brother.

    It was Sensei Mattson’s annual Summerfest weekend, three days of karate delight
    every summer for 31 years. I was there to ballyhoo my book and teach a pair of seminars.

    George Mattson stumbled on Uechi Ryu as a soldier in Okinawa in 1957 and has been its driving force in the United States ever since. But Uechi Ryu goes back much further – to ancient China, to Ming Warriors and secret societies, to Triads and Shaolin Temples.  It’s a long story, too long to tell here, but this is some of it.

    Uechi Kanbun, an Okinawan farmer, sailed off to China in 1897 at age 19 to dodge the draft. Japan made Okinawa a prefecture in 1879 and was bent on conscripting Okinawans to help fight their battles. Okinawans were suddenly remembering reasons to visit China.

    Uechi starting studying at an Okinawan enclave but had a falling out and later dug up a Chinese teacher whose name is pronounced Shushiwa in Japanese.  You can take your chances on the Chinese pronunciation. These old Chinese teacher stories are lost to the smoky haze of time, not to mention the whiplash whims of the Chinese language, but Shushiwa appears to have been bona fide and to have studied animal styles at the Shaolin.  He eventually synthesized his own system into something called Pan Gai Noon, the modern Chinese/Japanese characters of which translate as “Half Hard Soft”. Uechi is apparently the only one who ever learned it.

    Shushiwa was 26 when Uechi showed up and then stayed 7 years. Shushiwa and
    Uechi hung out together chasing a living peddling medicinal herbs and Shushiwa finally gave Uechi a certificate to teach. Why a certificate? Who cared?

    The answer probably lies in the fact that people didn’t venture far from their
    region and martial artists were well known.  They were also often challenged.  It would be useful to have the imprimatur of a known teacher to avoid a few bruises if you wanted to open up your own school.

    After 7 years with Shushiwa, Uechi did open a school there in China. I see that as
    a pretty big deal for an Okinawan. I speak Spanish but would still be shaky sailing off to Spain or Mexico or Guatemala to open a dojo – cultural acceptance, language facility and all. To add to the struggle, Uechi had a speech impediment.

    Maybe Chinese pronunciation covered it up.

    The legend goes that one of his students (or possibly Uechi, himself) killed
    someone in a fight and Uechi returned to Okinawa…vowing never to teach again.

    But he did. Thankfully.

    He was hesitant to teach karate in Okinawa or even admit that he knew it. There is speculation that the reason was because he was hiding from authorities or revenge seekers or the like. He may not have wanted to reveal himself.

    The synopsis of Uechi Ryu is: Uechi returned to Okinawa, got married, had some kids, moved to Japan, found work as a janitor, was convinced by a coworker named
    Tomoyose to teach again, he did, he developed a large following, turned it over to Tomoyose, returned to Okinawa after the war, died of a kidney infection at 71; his son, Kanei, opened up a dojo in Okinawa, named it Uechi Ryu after his father (and apparently himself); George Mattson joined the armed forces, ended up in Okinawa, ran into Uechi Ryu, returned home, taught a bunch of people for a long time, I went to Cape Cod to give a seminar and the rest is the story you are reading.

    In 1644 the Ming emperor invited the Manchurians to help rid him of a rebel.
    Lesson: be careful for what you ask. The Manchurians – the Manchu – enthusiastically joined in the battle, then took over the whole shebang, ousted the Ming emperor and ruled China until 1912.

    But the Ming was a revered dynasty and warriors remained allegiant. The last
    Ming Emperor hung himself, but his family sought asylum at the Northern Shaolin
    monastery. The Manchu found out and burned that. They fled to the Southern Shaolin and the Manchu burned that. Finally they went into hiding among followers and survived under assumed names and identities.

    The loyal soldiers formed secret societies with the quest of returning a Ming to
    the throne. It never happened. The soldiers, themselves, sought refuge in monasteries and their martial arts became interwoven with such famous styles as the Shaolin.  Much of what we fumble around with today in karate, including Pan Gai Noon, is most likely descended from that mélange of politics, religion and martial arts.

    We relive part of their story each time we mimic the secret Ming hand signal that
    launches katas like Nipaipo, Bassai, Jutte, Jion and Jiin. The latter three are even referred to as “Temple Katas”, and are alleged to have been developed in a monastery somewhere. (Dig that up, if you find time, and send me the link, I have been searching for it for years.)

    The secret societies evolved into the Tong (called the Boxers) and the Triads
    which became the Chinese mafia of today that pops up in every Chinatown everywhere. In 1901, the Tong, manipulated by the Dowager Empress, revolted against the Western Uechi Kanbun powers trying to “open” China to trade and it all coalesced in what came to be called the Boxer Rebellion.  There is a good movie that tells this story called  “55 Days at Peking”.

    Uechi was in China at the time of the Boxer Rebellion and teaching Pan Gai Noon
    with Shushiwa’s certificate nailed to his bamboo wall. It is alleged that Shushiwa was
    wrapped up with those secret societies.  It would be surprising if he weren’t, nationalism being what it is. Uechi may have been fleeing that connection when he returned to Okinawa. It would be interesting to know what part he took in the politics of the day. (Find that out, too, while you’re working on the Temple Kata thing.)

    The pronunciation Pan Gai Noon does not exist in any known modern Chinese
    dialect. This is a typical conundrum of karate.  Many of the teachers and students were illiterate (try learning Chinese characters and you’ll understand) and the names of the kata and styles were transferred phonetically, so the true meanings are often completely lost. It’s possible (and alleged) that Pan Gai Noon indicates some heritage that we don’t know, or contains a secret meaning about Shaolin priests. (That’s another interesting research topic for you – “karate names and why they are so often wrong.”)

    Pan Gai Noon and its offspring, Uechi ryu, is a style based on Sanchin kata
    similar to Goju Ryu, so there may be some connection between Shushiwa and Lu Lu Ko. Uechi taught that “All is in Sanchin.”

    Uechi learned three katas from Shushiwa – Sanchin, Seisan, and Sanseiryu. Those
    names are identical to names of Goju Ryu katas as is the one he didn’t learn completely due to his hasty departure  from China – Suparempei. The movements of all the kata differ but share some similarity, so the roots may intertwine.

    Uechi Kanbun is also alleged to have killed a bandit in China with one lethal strike. The story, true or not, illustrates an important point about karate.  We – you and I – play at it. Uechi and the other people who practiced it, in the days before medicine and organized society, practiced it for survival.  Its a game to us. It was life and death to them. Have you ever killed a bandit?

    If you want to know more, seek out Sensei Mattson, read his books and enjoy his
    Summerfest. You won’t be disappointed. Tell him I said “hello.”

    If you are local, Uechi in our hyphenated town of Phoenix-Scottsdale, Arizona is represented by a nice guy and long time friend named Al Saddler. Sensei Saddler has had some health problems and his protégé, Bobbie Walden (that’s a forty-something guy, by the way, despite the “ie” ending) took up the torch and now leads the
    battle with vigor and honor. Peace and long life be with them both.

    Hang in, Al.  You are always in our hearts and minds

  • Shorin Ryu

    May 11, 2015

    Shorin Ryu by Sensei Robert Hunt

    That was my first reaction to Shorin Ryu kata. It wasn’t snappy like Shi-to Ryu,
    nor smooth and fluid like Goju. It wasn’t athletic like Shotokan. It wasn’t pretty.  It
    was…clunky. Stiff.  Rudimentary. Hard. Basic. Unsophisticated. Slow. Not dynamic.

    That’s all true. And once I began to learn what karate was all about, it began to
    make sense.

    Emperor Hirohito, as a Prince, saw a karate demonstration in Okinawa in 1922.
    He asked that someone come to Japan to teach karate and Funakoshi, and later Mabuni, stepped up. What Funakoshi took to Japan at the bequest of the Prince
    was Shorin Ryu karate, which eventually morphed into Shotokan and Wado Ryu. When I first started learning karate as a young man, what I studied was a version of karate somewhere in between Funakoshi’s Shorin Ryu and modern Shotokan.

    In 1930, one of the early Okinawan teachers of the modern era, Chibana Chosin, was the first to officially name his style Shorin Ryu, following the lead of his teacher, Itosu, who had openly used the term around 1905.  Shorin is the Okinawan pronunciation of the Chinese word “Shaolin” and Itosu used it because he believed Okinawan karate traced part of its origin to the Shaolin monasteries in China.

    Chibana’s style eventually came to be known as “Kobayashi” Shorin Ryu to differentiate it from other styles that also began using the Shorin Ryu designation, like “Shobayashi” Shorin Ryu.

    Ironically, the words “kobayashi” and “shobayashi” both mean “small forest” in
    Japanese, as does “shorin”.  Both style names, then, are really repetitive syllables that read “small forest small forest style”.  Another style, Matsumura Seito Shorin Ryu, translates as Matsumura Orthodox Shorin Ryu, leading one to assume that someone thinks the style is more faithful to Matsumura’s instruction. I don’t know if that’s true or not;  everyone in the martial arts world claims that their stuff is the real thing – like religion. Be that as it may, a large part of modern Okinawan karate is referred to as Shorin Ryu by a lot of people.

    Old Okinawan Shorin Ryu katas do look “clunky”, not as “slick” and refined as
    many of the later Japanese versions.  Much of that is because the Japanese spruced them up for tournaments, intentionally making them less clunky – sleek – in the hope that a panel of judges might give them a higher score.  The early Okinawans had no interest in tournaments and stressed “martial”.  Shorin Ryu was never supposed to be sleek, or dynamic, or pretty.  It was supposed to kill people. It wasn’t intended to win tournaments.  It was intended to hurt.

    In about 1756, a man named Kung Shang K’ung emigrated from China to
    Okinawa as a government emissary.  He knew some kind of Chinese martial art, no one seems to be sure what. An Okinawan named Sakugawa, a seeker of martial knowledge like you and me, became his student. That may have been the pivotal point of the karate that came to be called Shorin Ryu.

    The story goes that Sakugawa’s father was killed by bandits and, because of that,
    he dedicated himself to the martial arts.  He studied from K’ung and then traveled to
    China, himself, to bring more knowledge of Chinese martial arts back to Okinawa. He became renowned throughout the island for his karate knowledge and received the title of Peichin from the King, as well as an island – Sakugawa Island. Sakugawa became famous for his martial prowess, so much that he came to be referred to as “Tode” Sakugawa. “Tode” means “China Hand”, one of the terms Okinawans used to refer to their early martial art. Tode is also pronounced “Karate” so Sakugawa can also be called Karate Sakugawa.

    Sakugawa had a student named Matsumura, the later famous Bushi Matsumura.
    Sakugawa apparently passed on a kata to him based on K’ung’s teaching and Matsumura referred to it as Kushanku, the Okinawan pronunciation of Kung Shang K’ung. Matsumura’s student, Itosu, and his followers all maintained the name Kushanku for that kata, except for Funakoshi, who renamed it Kanku Dai for the Japanese. Almost everyone who claims Shorin based karate as their martial art learns a version of it eventually.

    Itosu reinvented the kata for middle school kids, and that is the version most of us
    know, but the original is still around after 260 years, under the name Chatanyara
    Kushanku. Yara was also a Kushanku student who came from a village called Chatan
    (hence Chatan Yara) and the kata seems to have passed down through his family to Kian Chotoku, who was kind enough to take the trouble to preserve it for you and me. I learned Chatanyara Kushanku from my late friend, Dan Carrington, whose karate lineage extends back to Kian.

    Whether K’ung was affiliated with the Shaolin monastery, no one knows for sure.
    Possibly, otherwise why call it Shorin Ryu later on? Matsumura used the term Shorin, so it is likely that there was a history.  Maybe not.  Maybe Kushanku was just pretending to be a student of a Shaolin priest for reality TV. Who knows? Whatever the case, during the period when Emperor Hirohito and I discovered karate, there were a lot of people referring to Kushanku’s legacy as Shorin, and the more of it I learned, the more I appreciated the martial effectiveness of its clunky moves.

    Some of this information can be found in “Unante”,  John Sells’ encyclopedic
    karate tome, which I recommend if you want to know more about the history of karate.

  • The Great Double-Entendre

    May 4, 2015

    Wado Ryu
    Robert Hunt

    The world of karate is a strange and wonderful place, filled with a kaleidoscope of
    colorful characters on uncountable odyssey’s. The roller coaster never seems to end, it just bangs and rattles, climbs and falls until we pull into the exit somewhere down the line and step away exhilarated from the ride.

    Ohtsuka Hironori was a 29 year old budding jiujutsu student from a prominent
    Japanese family, when Prince (later Emperor) Hirohito “discovered” karate on his trip to Okinawa in 1921 and asked that some Okinawan visit mainland Japan to teach.  Funakoshi, then Mabuni, then Motobu answered Hirohito’s plea and karate appeared in Japan.

    Ohtsuka, being a young martial artist already, became interested and sought instruction first from Funakoshi, then later from Mabuni and Motobu. It is said that Hirohito, himself, ultimately asked Ohtsuka, who was of somewhat noble or “Samurai” birth, to create a “Japanese” version of karate.  This is a window into early twentieth century Asian politics.  Although coming out of Okinawa, karate was still considered a Chinese art. (The kanji then meant “Chinese Hand”.) Japan wanted it incorporated into the Japanese martial system but not as something Chinese. The Japanese had a love-hate relationship with China dating back a couple thousand years.

    So Ohtsuka, either from the Emperor or of his own motivation, acquired the
    mission of developing a Japanese karate style. He hung out with the Okinawans –
    Funakoshi, Mabuni, and Motobu, adjusted their kata with his ideas, added his jiujutsu, included a couple of hundred techniques he created with the goal of making it more sophisticated, came up with Wado Ryu and gave the world a premier double-entendre.

    When I studied Wado in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Shintani Sensei told us that it
    meant “Way of Harmony” –  very noble and poetic and in sync with Sensei’s harmonious nature. But I also studied the Japanese language at Thunderbird, an international business graduate school in the Phoenix area. One day I took my uniform to class and tossed it on my desk, Wado patch exposed.

    My Japanese language teacher, Mr. Kumayama, in passing said “Oh, you do

    I proudly nodded  – “yep!”

    “I see you do the Japanese Way,” he continued.

    “Huh?” I mumbled.

    “Your patch. It say Japanese Way,” he clarified.

    “It d…does?” I stuttered.

    He was the teacher and Japanese to boot. What could I say?

    “Doesn’t it say the Way of Harmony?” I asked. “Sensei says it means Way of  Harmony or Peace.”

    He studied it a bit. “Ahhhh, yes. That too.”

    Turns out “wa” does mean “harmony” and “peace”.  But, in an interesting twist of
    the tongue, it also carries, to the Japanese ear, the idea of “things Japanese”. “Wa-fuku” are Japanese clothes. A “wa-ka” is a type of Japanese poem. “wa-shoku” is Japanese food. To the medieval Japanese mind, harmony “wa” was “Japan”. The rest of the world was strange and crazy – inharmonious. Japanese friends have told me that they hear Wado first as the “Japanese Way”, and only after prompting, as “Way of Harmony” (Ahhhh, yes. That, too.) I changed styles not long after that but have remained close to Wado through friends like Marlon Moore and Ray Hughes. What constitutes a “Japanese” style is a source of much reflection. Since karate came from Okinawa in the first place (1600-1900) and is almost as new to Japan (1922) as to the rest of the world (1948), an argument could be made that a “Mexican” style or a “Dutch” style is as logical as a Japanese one. History seems to be a moving target.

    Be that as it may, Ohtsuka created Wado and injected his double-entendre into the
    eager world of karate. Was the double-entendre intentional, or just convenient? Or both? Probably only he knew, and he’s gone.

    Whatever the case, he was a successful guy.  He built and managed an
    international organization with thousands of members and inspired them on. He is, of course, afforded a position in karate mythology that is oversized, but you can’t take anything away from someone who could do what he did politically.

    Politics, in fact, (as in many karate systems), is probably Wado’s organizational
    “Achilles Heel”. The Wado related organizations are so rife with it that it has become
    somewhat difficult to swim in those waters, especially for a non-Japanese.

    Masaru Shintani, my early Sensei mentioned above, became so mired in Wado
    politics that he just gave up.  He was Canadian by birth, Samurai by ancestry and was
    awarded a 7th degree black belt by Ohtsuka, who apparently saw in Shintani the same thing I did, the embodiment of the harmony that Ohtsuka meant his style name to reflect. But, as an outsider, a Canadian with no connections to any Japanese dojo other than through Ohtsuka, Shintani was never accepted by the entrenched politicos.

    The Wado system is essentially Mabuni Shi-To Ryu or possibly Funakoshi
    Shotokan, adjusted to fit the form that Ohtsuka envisioned. Being inheritor of a jiujutsu system, Ohtsuka tried to incorporate jiujutsu techniques into Wado to create a hybrid martial art reflective of the Japanese spirit.  It was a commendable idea, because jiujutsu compliments karate. But I don’t believe a jiujutsu-karate art is what Ohtsuka achieved.  I believe that Ohtsuka came up with a way of movement, whether inadvertent of intentional, that embodies the idea of the harmony he chose for its name. It flows and moves in unison with the attacker – much like aikido – and ultimately overwhelms by not opposing. Wado can be a great art in the hands of a dedicated student, soft and flowing, hard and powerful. It can also be a great philosophy of life – to live in harmony. And it can be achieved, if you can find the essence of his Japanese Way.

    Other karate styles are defined by the kata that embody their system.  Wado is
    not.  Wado kata do not reflect what Ohtsuka was offering, at all. They are just standard Okinawan Shorin kata with a twist.  Wado is a way of looking at movement – soft, gentle, harmonious, powerful, dynamic, not the analysis of an ancient martial art by means of kata.

    For example, Tai Sabaki, “Body Shifting” is a central theme of Wado movement.
    But, to my knowledge, Ohtsuka made no modifications in any of the katas to reflect that concept. What his goal was in changing the katas the way he did is anyone’s guess, but it does not seem to be to pass on his Wado principles.

    The story of Ohtsuka and Wado karate is an interesting one.  I have a folder of
    letters that Ohtsuka wrote to Shintani over the years translated into English. It is a
    window into a karate point of view.

    There is enormous reward for those who can acquire and assimilate the ideals of a
    martial way and Ohtsuka’s are no different – flow and attack, twist and turn, free the
    binding chains of conformity. Live in peace and harmony in the world.

    If we can steer clear of politicians.