There’s a Beginning Somewhere

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.