The Others

The Karate Tapestry – Part 10

The Others

By Robert Hunt


We understand karate through the prism of a style. That’s how it was handed down from men who tried to preserve and organize it, each to his own vision. We are grateful to them.

But karate styles are a 20th century phenomenon and, for the most part, the second half of the 20th century. From Okinawa, we know of Itosu, Higaonna, Miyagi, Mabuni, Uechi, Funakoshi, Shimabukuro because of the styles they created or fostered and because, for whatever reason, those styles endured, flourished and took root in the east and west.

But there were others who populated the early world of Okinawan karate during its modern infancy whose names we should know and remember, if we are to grasp the entire spectrum of our martial art rather than just the corner of karate on which we first stumbled.

Funakoshi popularized karate in Japan. Mabuni amalgamated it. Miyagi researched and synthesized. But what they were working with was hugely affected by the other karate students/teachers/masters around them, who didn’t form organizations, or send out emissary instructors, or happen to teach entrepreneurial American soldiers.

 Aragaki Seisho, dubbed Maaya (The Cat), bequeathed us the katas Unsu, Niseishi (Nijushiho), Seisan and Seiunchin, plus Aragaki no Sai, and Aragaki no Kon.Aragaki

The kata Unsu, filtered through Mabuni’s style to end up modified by Nakayama for Shotokan competition, is among the most popular tournament katas of our day. Most of Aragaki’s katas have, as their embusen (their structure), a centrally placed protagonist defending attackers from various angles, much like the Taoist Chinese martial art of Bagua (Eight Trigrams) from which it may have evolved.Aragaki

Aragaki was recorded as performing an exhibition of the kata Seisan in 1867 at the festival given for the departure of the last Chinese emissary to Okinawa before the Meiji Restoration. It was the first written recording of karate in Okinawa. Aragaki was also Higaonna’s first teacher.

   Aragaki was recorded as performing an exhibition of the kata Seisan in 1867 at the festival given for the departure of the last Chinese emissary to Okinawa before the Meiji Restoration. It was the first written recording of karate in Okinawa. Aragaki was also Higaonna’s first teacher.
He died in 1918, a couple of years after Higaonna.
 Yabu Kentsu was called “The First Soldier” of karate because he joined the Japanese army in 1890. Fifty Okinawans applied and only three were accepted – Yabu Kentsu, Hanashiro Chomo and Kenyu Kudeken – all Itosu students.

   Ironically, Yabu’s son, Kenden, was a pacifist who moved to America to live his life in a Christian country. Because of this, Yabu was also the first Okinawan karate teacher to visit the United States (in 1921). He came twice and, on his way home after the second visit, spent some time teaching in Hawaii, making him, additionally, the first Okinawan to teach in America.
   Yabu and Hanashiro, Itosu’s young students, did the actual teaching in school in 1901 under Itosu’s direction. They both appear in a classic 1936 photo with Miyagi and others, of an early karate research organization.
   The fact that he joined the Japanese army when many of his countrymen fled to China to escape the draft is significant. His teacher, Itosu, was a firm believer in Okinawa’s place as part of Japan. Many Okinawans weren’t, Yabu’s son apparently among them.
   Yabu died in 1937.
Hanashiro Chomo was also one of the first students of Itosu. A young Hanashiro initially taught gymnastics and was encouraged by Itosu to introduce karate techniques into his instruction. He taught in the first public school karate class in 1901 with Yabu, and was part
of the first research organization, the Kenkyu Kai, along with Mabuni and others, formed in 1918 to preserve Itosu’s teachings.
   In one of the first books on karate, Hanashiro used the translation “Empty Hand” for Tode, the first person to use it publicly.
It was a big step away from Chinese influence and toward Japan. In the 1920’s he was one of the leading teachers for karate instruction.
   Hanashiro died in 1945 in the battle of Okinawa.
   Kyan Chotoku is a favorite character. He has the very notable martial lineage of having actually studied with Bushi Matsumura towards the end of Matsumura’s life. Kyan was born into Okinawan nobility in 1870. He was very small and weak but his father succeeded in getting him on with the old Master. He went on to study and teach karate for the next 65 years.
   The many legends that surround him are colorful to say the least. He was alleged to have punched a stubborn horse on the side of the head, ringing it to its knees and turning it meek. He is also alleged to have killed several men in unarmed combat.
   Kyan studied in both Shuri and Tomari and is responsible for preserving many of the old versions of kata. He is, in fact, the one who passed on Chatanyara Kushanku to us.Kyan died in 1945 in an internment camp after the war. MatsuMatsu
   Matsu Kinjo (also Macha Buntaku among a few other names) went to China with Higaonna but, unlike Higaonna, stayed to study for 18 years. He returned to Okinawa and was deemed a great martial artist but never taught anyone. He considered what he knew too deadly to pass on. This makes one ponder anew what karate once was and how much it changed by the time it got to us. What did he know that he considered too deadly to teach and from whom did he learn it?
Matsu died, like so many others, in 1945.
   Chibana Chosin, like Kyan, was a first person witness to karate well into our modern age. He was born in 1885, began with Itosu in 1900 and died in 1969. He was one of the lucky ones to make it through World War II and worked in a sugar cane field at age 60. He was the first person to start teaching karate in Okinawa after the war (in 1946).
   Chibana organized Kobayashi Shorin Ryu in 1933, an Okinawan style that still exists today. Kobayashi means “Small Forest” as does Shorin, named after the fabled Shaolin Monastery. He believed, as did Itosu, that karate came from the Shaolin. We are not certain why they were so sure.
   He was part of the original 1918 Kenkyu Kai, and is truly a link in the karate chain and a big, colorful stitch in the tapestry. ChibanaChibana
   Speaking of links, Fumio Demura said that he once had the opportunity to study with Chibana. Chibana talked about the move in Pinan Yondan where one turns left and then right with an out stretched fist, a front kick and elbow strike (back hand, side kick and elbow strike in Shotokan). Chibana said that, when he originally learned the move from Itosu, the out stretched fist was an open handed eye jab. Itosu closed the fist to teach kids in middle school a less dangerous art.
   Here’s a karate coincidence to ponder. If Chibana hadn’t mentioned that to Demura and, if Demura hadn’t mentioned it in an off-the-cuff conversation I was part of, I probably would never have heard it and would go on eternally assuming that the strange move was some kind of unorthodox block that never really worked, or (if you practice Shotokan), “Would a back knuckle strike and a side kick at the same time really work?”
   Ohtsuka of Wado Ryu must have felt the same frustration as the rest of us trying to associate some logic with the move. He simply turned it into a down block in his version of the katas.
   The late Dan Ivan, one quiet evening in his desert hideaway, explained that the theory behind a technique like Chibana’s from Pinan Yondan formed a crucial part of his own defense theory, when he was with the American CID in Japan in 1949, studying martial arts and chasing criminals through dark alleys and back streets.
   “Attack the eyes, the knees and the throat,” he said, “remove the vision, mobility and the ability to breathe.”
   It was a perfect, real world example of the use and wisdom of an ancient martial arts technique, almost lost because Itosu changed it, but ultimately preserved, at least for me, because Chibana had the presence of mind to mention it in a seminar with Demura.
   The early karate masters were attempting to learn a song without music and often ended up playing it by ear. Karate became very popular in Okinawa once it was revealed. It still is. But hardly anyone knew what it really was, it had been so secret. These men worked to define the essence of the art and package it into digestible bites so we can learn it. They were the root that showed the way to the teachers who gifted it to us.
   This article was gleaned from my personal research as well as the work of John
Sells (Unante) and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).