Sakugawa Ryu tradition

Father and son: Headeachers Simon and David Keegan

Father and son: Headeachers Simon and David Keegan

Bushinkai headteacher Simon Keegan is the inheritor of a family tradition of martial arts, called Sakugawa Ryu. This page is an introduction to the traditions.

Sakugawa Ryu: Eight generations of the Nilsson family

Sakugawa Ryu: Eight generations of the Nilsson family 1778-2014

Sakugawa Ryu background

In 1609, around the time the Dutch East India Trading Company opened up a factory in Japan, the Swedish Anders Nilsson Laso arrived in Okinawa. Over one hundred years later another expedition to Japan took place, now using the tiny island of Dejima as a base. Among this voyage were the disciples of Carl Nilsson (later Carl Linnaeus) who studied the botany of the Japanese islands.

In around 1778, the year Carl Nilsson died, another Swede arrived in Okinawa. His name was Nils Bengtsson and his sons included Johann Nilsson and Olof Nilsson. By this time there was a new Swedish East India Trading Company enjoying exports from Canton and Nagasaki with Okinawa and Dejima as stepping stones. Karate master Sakugawa was also working for a shipping company at this time.

The Nilssons lived in Okinawa during the formative years of Karate under Sakugawa. Nils returned to Kalmar, Sweden and the rest of his children were born in around 1800. Two generations later in that very county of Kalmar, August Nilsson was born.

August’s grandson was Bill Nelson (born 1924) a Jujutsu expert, and August’s great great grandson is Simon Keegan, present head of Sakugawa Ryu.

Carl Nilsson, a pioneer in the field of oriental study

Carl Nilsson, a pioneer in the field of oriental study


16th and 17th century
1504: Svante Nilsson becomes king of Sweden
1543: Portuguese become the first westerners to reach Japan.
1585: Anders Nilsson Laso is born in Sweden.
1600: William Nealson and William Adams, the first English Samurai, arrive in Japan
1609: Nilsson Laso travels to Okinawa around this time (Source) perhaps coinciding with the Dutch ‘East India Trading Company’ opening a factory in Japan

Swedis ships arriving in Canton harbour

Swedis ships arriving in Canton harbour

1609: The Japanese Satsuma clan invade Okinawa.
1616: Japan bans trade with foreigners except China confined to Nagasaki.
1634: An artificial island near Okinawa called Dejima is created for trading
1667: The first Swedish book about Japan and China is written by two Swedish sailors who had been there on Dutch ships. Source.
1683: A Chinese envoy named Wang Ji (Wansu) arrives in Okinawa.
1680s: Okinawans Hama Higa and Takahara learn the Wansu method of boxing.

Map of Canton that is held in Stockholm

Map of Canton that is held in Stockholm

18th century
1707: Carl Linnaeus Nilsson is born in Sweden. He pioneers oriental studies.
1731: The Swedish East India Trading Company is created, inspired by the likes of the Dutch East India Company to trade with the Far East as far as Japan and Guangzhou.
1733: Tode Sakugawa is born in Shuri, Okinawa, he studies under Takahara.

Tode Sakugawa

Tode Sakugawa

1745: The Swedish Ship Gotheborg is sunk on the way back from China.
1753: The art of China becomes the height of fashion in Sweden. A small Chinese palace is even built in Sweden. Count Carl Fredrik Scheffer, who was the governor to the young crown prince Gustaf (Later King Gustaf III) who was well informed about the Confucian ideas. He had as a six years old boy acted at the inauguration of a small Chinese pavilion presented to his mother Queen Louise Ulrica of Prussia on her birthday the 25th of July 1753. The small palace was built secretly at Drottningholm, the royal summer palace, in Chinese taste.
1759: Anders Ljungstedt is born in Sweden, he later works for the Swedish East India and in 1820 is appointed Sweden’s first consul in China. He was well loved in Macao where he was called Long Sital 龍思泰.
1762: Nils Bengtsson is born in Jonkoping, southern Sweden.
1774: 90% of tea in Sweden is imported from China.
1775: Swedish physician Carl Thunberg moves to Dejima near Okinawa. Did the Nils family come with him? Source. In 1776 he met the Shogun in Edo, and in 1779 he returned to Sweden. Thunberg was a student of the earlier Swedish physician Carl Nilsson Linnaeus.
1785: Nils is in Okinawa and marries Torborg Jonsdotter. Source. This year the Swedish East India Company have four ships in China and the following year was the the second charter of the company – Source. The arrival of Nils predates the first whaling ship in the Pacific (the British ship Amelia in 1788) and the first to reach Okinawa was in 1822.

1788: The Nilsson family are born in Okinawa to Nils and Torborg.
Nils and Torborg’s children are:

– Ingeborg Nilsdotter (born August 3 1785, Okinawa)
– Johann Nilsson (born June 26 1788, Okinawa)
– Bengt Nilsson (born December 9 1790, Okinawa)
– Olof Nilsson (born April 13, 1794, Okinawa) Source

Sokon Matsumura was born in Okinawa in 1798. The Nilssons therefore were the same generation as the great Karate master.

1794: Nils moves back to Sweden around this time. He likely left Okinawa to get away from his first wife who evidently stayed there with her children, since she died in Okinawa in 1826. Nils remarried twice to Marit Jonsdotter (source) in 1794 and Sarah Helena Jonsdotter (source) in 1799. His daughters Anna (born 1795) and Maria (born 1797) were born in Sweden. Nils‘ third wife Sarah was from Kalmar, southern Sweden. He died in 1830 and she moved back to Kalmar, where she died in on May 5 1842.

Nils‘ grandchildren (the second generation of Nilssons) would have also been born in around 1830 in the Kalmar area.

1797: The HMS Providence arrives in Naha.

19th century
1830: My great great great grandfather Nils Johann Nilsson is born in Kalmar.

1867: Itoman Bunkichi is born in Okinawa, the son of a Skandinavian immigrant and an Okinawan woman. The “Danish Kiss” is recorded in Okinawa as a fighting technique (headbutt). Source.

Matsu Kinjo, the Okinawan Karate master with a Swedish father

Matsu Kinjo, the Okinawan Karate master with a Swedish father

1867: My great great grandfather August Nilsson is born in Koping (now Monsteras) in Kalmar, Southern Sweden. He has brothers called Johann and Carl Johann and sisters called Anna and Marie, which following family naming traditions suggests he may be a grandson of the Okinawa Nilssons.

Simon's great great grandfather August Nilsson, son of Nils Johann

Simon’s great great grandfather August Nilsson, son of Nils Johann

1868: The Meiji Restoration. The end of the Samurai class in Japan and Okinawa

1880s: August serves in the Swedish Navy and would have been taught hand to hand combat and single stick, a type of stickfighting designed to replicate the cutlass.

1890s: August and his brother Carl Johann move to Liverpool and change their name to Nelson. They marry two sisters, Bessie and Alice Wood.1893: August and Bessie’s eldest sons are born, Charles John (1893) and William Henry Nelson (1895)

Simon's great grandfather William Henry, who fought in WWI

Simon’s great grandfather William Henry, who fought in WWI and was a keen boxer

Early 20th Century
1906: Jujutsu is introduced to Liverpool by Gunji Koizumi.
1914: The Nilssons pay a visit to their hometown in Kalmar.
1914: The First World War begins. William Henry Nelson serves with the King’s (Liverpool) regiment and is awarded four medals. He is taught unarmed combat and rifle marksmanship. The war ends in 1918
1920s: William Henry becomes a docker and is considered the toughest man on the docks. His nickname is The Mighty Elmo, from the 1919 action film of that name. He marries Violet Stephens, a Cornish girl descended from the Welsh (Celtic) Royal family.
1923: Charles James Nelson (Jim) is born on June 6.
1924: William Henry Nelson (Billy) is born on Christmas Day
1920s-1930s: Jim and Billy are taught ‘boxing’ by their father and grandfather

Bill Nelson's Navy pass

Bill Nelson’s Navy pass

1939: The Second World War begins. Jim serves in the East Yorkshire Regiment and Billy in the Merchant Navy, following in the sea-faring tradition of his ancestors.
1945: The war ends, Bill Nelson begins studying Jujutsu with Gerald Skyner at Cathrine Street Liverpool, a student of Mikonosuke Kawaishi who as well as Judo, studied Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu under Yoshida Kotaro (student of Sokaku Takeda). Bill achieves black belt.
1950s: Bill leaves the Kawaishi Ryu and joins another Jujutsu club at Arnott St School, Walton.

Skyner's Jujutsu: Established in 1928

Skyner’s Jujutsu: Established in 1928

Bill's Jujutsu instructor Professor Skyner

Bill’s Jujutsu instructor Professor Skyner

Sakugawa Ryu: The quest for knowledge

If our research proves correct we will prove that our family tradition in the Okinawan martial arts is the oldest outside of Okinawa itself with a tradition from 1778 to 2012, that is 234 years.

From Nils arriving in Okinawa in 1778 to Simon Keegan teaching Okinawan martial arts today this is potentially 234 years within one family, this is if our research can be proven.

Here are the key facts:

  • In 1778, Nils Bengsson arrived in Okinawa where he settled, married and raised a family.
  • Nils was employed by a shipping company – so was Tode Sakugawa
  • In the 1790s, Nils had the first of his children, called Nilsson, in Okinawa, but then divorced and returned to Sweden where he remarried twice, finally in Kalmar. His children included Johann, Anna and Marie. The next generation were born in Kalmar in circa 1830.
  • In 1867 August Nilsson was born in Kalmar with siblings including Johann, Anna and Marie (perhaps recalling a family naming tradition). August, a sailor with the Navy in Karlskrona was known for his toughness.
  • In the 1890s, August changed his name to Nelson and came to live in England. His son William Henry taught ‘boxing’ classes to local children.
  • In the 1930s, William Henry’s sons Jim and Bill were taught ‘boxing’ by their dad and grandad, before both serving in WWII. In 1945 Bill commenced study of Jujutsu
  • Skandinavians were known to have engaged in combat (friendly or otherwise) with Okinawans (according to Richard Kim)
  • Okinawan Karate master Itoman Bunkichi was the son of a European man and Okinawan woman
Simon's great uncle Ted a master at arms who served in Japan and China

Simon’s great uncle Ted a master at arms who served in Japan and China

Here are the key questions:

  • What was the extent of Nils Bengtsson and the Nilsson family’s exposure to Okinawan martial and cultural arts?
  • Was August Nilsson of Kalmar (b1867) a grandson of the Nillsons of Kalmar who went to Okinawa in 1778?
  • Were August Nilsson and his son William Henry’s boxing skills in part derived from their ancestors’ Okinawan adventures?
  • Did Nils befriend and train with Sakugawa as they were both working for shipping companies in Okinawa?
  • Were one of the Nilssons (such as Johann) the father of Itoman Bunkichi?

If we can prove Nils studied any kind of pugilism of Okinawan origin and taught this to his sons, who in turn taught it to their sons and grandson (August Nilsson), even in basic form, then we will have proven that Karate reached the west 160 years earlier than previous thought and even earlier than Jujutsu.

Further key facts:

  • In 1731 the Swedish East India Trading Company was created to trade with the Far East
  • In 1775 Swedish physician Carl Thunberg (a student of the earlier Carl Nilsson) moves to Dejima near Okinawa. Did the Nilsson family come with him?
  • in 1785 Nils married Torborg Jonsdotter. This year the Swedish East India Company had four ships in China.
Simon's grandad Jim Nelson

Simon’s grandad Jim Nelson


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