Après la Guerre
The Karate Tapestry – Part 11
Après la Guerre
By Robert Hunt
Over 107,000 Japanese soldiers died in the Battle of Okinawa at the end of the Second World War and 100,000 Okinawan civilians, one fifth of the population. Women committed suicide, some taking their children with them, because the Japanese said Americans would rape and torture them.
The island was obliterated, Shuri Castle reduced to rubble, almost all written archives destroyed, including, of course, karate.
The Americans needed the island as a base for its final attack on the Japan. Tojo wanted a buffer to hold them at bay until he could negotiate a treaty that wouldn’t force a complete surrender. He planned to fortify southern Japan with every person who could carry a gun to slow the American invasion.
The atomic bomb ended the war.
The melancholy rebirth of a nation has a peculiar feel to it, at the same time in shock but hopeful of the future. The French gave a name to the confusing period – après la guerre, after the war.
With nothing left but rubble, the Okinawans began to rebuild their country and their martial art. Many had nowhere to live. Chinen Teruo tells of his family moving back to Okinawa from Japan after the war, now sans father, and living under a makeshift canvas by an uncle’s house (in Miyagi’s neighborhood). When there was some semblance of habitat, the karate world began to piece itself together again.
The Ryu Kyu islands came under U.S control and remained so until “reversion” in 1972. The Okinawans realized that American soldiers weren’t going to hurt them and life went on. The Okinawans had little to sell, but the one treasure they did have was their ancient art and it was American soldiers who found it…and bought it.
Karate’s heart had been devastated. Mabuni, Funakoshi, and Motobu had moved to Japan. Most of the early research society members were dead. Chibani and Miyagi were the only seniors left. Chibana was over 60 and Miyagi had lost children, all of his archived writings and studies, Shinzato, his karate heir killed in the final years of the war, his health – and his home.
Chibana was the first to teach again – in a field – and a few old students returned. Miyagi started his open air school in the ruins of his house, his “Garden Dojo” and students filtered back.
But the years après la guerre were crushingly difficult. People were too busy rebuilding lives to devote time to karate.
It wasn’t until the fifties, when life began to recover and American soldiers discovered karate, that it began to live again. The Americans had money and the Okinawan instructors found willing disciples among them.
Uechi Kanbun was Okinawan but didn’t start teaching there. He started teaching his Pangainoon style in Japan. He moved back to Okinawa after the war and opened shop in Itoman. He died in 1948 of kidney failure and his son Kanei took up the task. Uechi Ryu was born. Soldiers like George Mattson found Uechi Kanei and Ueichi Ryu. Sensei Mattson received his black belt in 1958 and still runs his organization and provides instruction from his home in Florida.
The fifties were a time of both tradition and innovation. This dichotomy can be seen with the Shimabuku brothers, Eizo and Tatsuo.
Shimabuku Shinkichi took the name “Tatsuo” (Dragon Boy) after creating and naming his own style. His patch came from a vision he had of a sea dragon goddess (or a picture on someone’s wall). He called his style Isshin (One Heart).
He had studied with Miyagi, Kyan and others and synthesized his own version based around Shorin-Ryu and Gojuryu, along with innovations, one of which was the vertical fist punch, the signature move of his style. Because of his unorthodox karate, he was sort of an outcast among other Okinawan teachers, but popular among Americans.
During WWII, Japanese soldiers found out that Tatsuo knew karate and shielded him from the draft in return for instruction. Ironically, it was American Marines who found his dojo in the 50’s and became some of the first Americans trained in Okinawan karate.
His brother, Shimabuku Eizo, 20 years younger, studied with Tatsuo as a child. Tatsuo introduced him to Miyagi, Kyan and Motobu Choki for further training. Eizo, a bit of a character, practiced at night in the graveyard to “purify his spirit”. He dabbled with his brother’s innovations but returned to the more traditional, forming Shobayashi Shorin Ryu with the intent of preserving the Kyan lineage.
In order to assure authenticity, he put on a white belt and performed his katas for Chibana and Chibana’s student, Nakazato Shuguro, to make sure they were correct in the classical way (Kyan’s way). Eizo trained numerous Americans, among them the late Joe Lewis, of tournament fame in the 70’s and 80’s. Eizo’s American students introduced the lead leg side kick and the spin back kick to tournament karate.
Another post war figure was Nagamine Shoshin, recognized in both Okinawa and Japan for his prowess and knowledge. He was a student of Kyan and, like Shimabuku, preserved Kyan’s version, but along with some Shuri katas – a combination of Tomari and Shuri techniques. He combined Matsumora’s (Tomari) and Matsumura’s (Shuri) names to create his Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu system. Japanese karate teachers Kuniba, Hayashi and Oshima all traveled to Okinawa to study with him.
Shimabuku Zenryo, no relation to the Shimabuku’s mentioned above, began training with Hanashiro and Yabu as a child and later became a student of Kyan before the war. After the war he taught in an open field until 1962 when he built a dojo and started the Seibukan (the Holy Art School), based on Kyan’s instruction.
It is interesting that most of the post war Okinawan Shorin Ryu karate that eventually found it’s way to the west came from students of Kyan and reflect his mix of Tomari and Shuri styles, rather than pure Itosu Shorin-Ryu, the back bone of the Japanese styles – Shito Ryu, Shotokan and Wado Ryu. This explains why the embusen, the pattern of the katas, is somewhat different.
Miyagi died in 1953. His Goju Ryu spawned several teachers, none inclined to acknowledge another as senior. Higa Seiko had been a Miyagi student 30 years earlier and started his own Goju-Ryu dojo, but, although he was the only one that Miyagi had ever awarded a certificate to teach, others didn’t follow him. Yagi Meitoku was given Miyagi’s belt and gi by Miyagi’s family but other instructors didn’t follow him either. Toguchi Seikichi studied a little from Miyagi, then studied from Higa and his son Higa Seikichi. He also started his own style claiming authenticity, but moved to Japan and his impact ebbed. Miyazato Eizo was a young Miyagi student and judo player and cobbled together a following in his own dojo, the Jundokan. Some see him as Miyagi’s protégé but there is little agreement in the Goju world.
Okinawan karate quickly became overshadowed internationally by the Japanese styles that came to dominate. Japan had power, influence, people and money, all things Okinawa lacked. That being said, the difference in technique can sometimes be striking. Okinawan karate maintains a strong, solid base and allegiance to bunkai, less affected by tournament competition than Japanese styles.
I saw this difference first hand on more than one occasion. As regards Goju Ryu, I had been exposed to Yamaguchi’s “soft” form. At a Dan Ivan tournament in Santa Ana, California, about 1975, I watched a young Marine named Lee Gray stomp through a kata (Sanseiryu) that was more powerful than I had seen in any style. With a flash of perspicacity rare to my young, clouded brain, I introduced myself and, over the next 40 years, occasionally absorbed some of that Okinawan based power. Sensei Gray still teaches in Amarillo, Texas.
I also had the opportunity to practice with a Shorin Ryu teacher, the late Dan Carrington, in the lineage of Okuhara Buni, Nakama Chozo and Kyan. He practiced a typical Okinawan no-nonsense style of karate kata that maintains the original bunkai, something that is often lost, or egregiously misinterpreted, in modern Japanese karate.
There were other notable Okinawans in the post war years.
Soken Hohan returned to Okinawa from Argentina in 1952 after 30 years there and taught what he said he had learned from Bushi Matsumura’s son, Nabe. Soken preferred to speak old Okinawan (or Spanish) instead of Japanese. Nakazato Joen, a friend of Shimabuku Zenryo and student of Kyan, started a style he called Shorinji-Ryu which has a strong following today.
Oyata Seiyu said he learned functional weapons and striking techniques from an old palace guard named “Ugushiku no Tanme” (Ugushiku the Old Man). Oyata eventually became famous in the United States for his tuite manipulation techniques and kyusho jutsu strikes which are purported to easily render a person unconscious.
Okinawa gave up the vanguard of karate to Japan after the war. I’m not all that sure they ever wanted it. Okinawans aren’t inclined to large organizations, power struggles and politics. They seem to be more interested in understanding and developing the martial art that is their heritage.
Each of the teachers mentioned here really deserves an entire chapter, but space does not allow it here, maybe later.
Much has changed in the ensuing years, but Okinawans guard their precious treasure like gold and the heart of karate still resides in the Ryu Kyu islands.
This article was gleaned from my personal research as well as the work of John Sells (Unante) and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).