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.