Out From Darkness – Itosu and Higaonna

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.