The early years of Karate

In England, Chinese martial arts was first practised in what we know as “China Towns” in the main cities. In Okinawa, the same was true and the Okinawan China Town was Kumemura.

One of these Chinese families living in Okinawa was the Cai family, known in Okinawa as the Kojo. Within Kume, the resident families studied and taught Chinese Quan Fa which the local Okinawans called Toshu Jutsu or Tote Jutsu – Chinese hand techniques – which can also be pronounced in a third way as Karate Jutsu. It is Kume that led to Okinawa’s famous relationship with Fuzhou in China.

The people of Kumemura, traditionally believed to all be descendants of the Chinese immigrants who first settled there in 1393, came to form an important and aristocratic class of scholar-bureaucrats, the yukatchu, who dominated the royal bureaucracy, and served as government officials at home, and as diplomats in relations with China, Japan, and others.

Children in Kumemura began their formal studies at the age of five, and would travel to the palace at Shuri for a formal audience at the age of fifteen. At this point they would be formally added to the register of yukatchu scholar-bureaucrats and could begin their government careers. Students and scholars of Kumemura spent periods in Fuzhou, both as students and as members of tributary missions.

Most if not all students and scholar-bureaucrats spent at least a few years of their lives studying in Fuzhou; a few traveled to Beijing, and beginning in the 17th century, some studied in Japan. Chinese envoy Wang Ji visited Okinawa in the late 1600s and the Ryukyu native Hama Higa visited Japan around the same time. Both Wang Ji and Hama Higa were thought to be early Karate pioneers. Hama Higa Pechin (1663 – 1738) was a famous Go (a boardgame) player and also accompanied Nago Ôji Chôgen on his visit to Shôgun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi in 1681.

It is possible that Wang-Ji was a practitioner of Chinese boxing and taught Hama Higa who in turn taught Takahara Peichin, who was a renowened map-maker and astrologer. Looking at the dates, this is a likely early “lineage” for Karate.

In the mid 1700s, we meet another two Karate pioneers from the Shuri-Tomari area, “Tode” Sakugawa and Chatan Yara. As well as studying under Okinawans such as Takahara Peichin and Japanese Jigen Ryu instructors, they also made the trip to China where they trained under Wang Zong Yue.

You’ll note I have made not mention of kata thus far.

Firstly, the reason for this is that Kata is a Japanese concept. Kata relates to the Japanese notion of correctness. The Samurai drank tea according to a kata, wrote their name according to a kata, kneeled down according to a kata, pruned their bonsai trees according to a kata and performed theatre (kabuki) with set kata. This kata concept is fairly new to Karate.

What Karate did have his Hsing (forms) and Quan (boxing art).

Perhaps the earliest Quan in Okinawa was Wansu, an interpretation of Hsing-I Swallow Boxing introduced to Okinawa by Wang Ji (hence the name Wansu) and passed to Hama Higa and then to Takahara and then to Sakugawa.

The next quan that truly made its mark in Okinawa was Kushanku that was introduced in around the 1750s.

Kushanku: The White Crane and Snake Form

Although a man named ‘Kushanku’ is cited as a teacher of Tode Sakugawa, this does not place us any closer to the origins of the style we taught. So perhaps we should look to a more documented teacher who also taught Sakugawa and Yara – that man was Wang Zong Yue, who is famous for being the man who taught the man who introduced Taiji Quan to the Chen Village.

In other words it is fair to say Wang Zong Yue was the grandfather of Taiji (Tai Chi).

The phrase “Taiji Quan” had not yet been coined however and it is likely that Wang taught one or both of the following arts:

1) Hsing-I Quan or Baji-Quan
2) Chang Quan

We should note that a list of movements in General Qiji Guang’s Chang Quan syllabus is almost exactly the same as the movements in Chen style Tai Chi.

Tai Chi clearly includes crane and snake movements – consider for example “white crane cools its wings”, “snake creeps down” and “snake spits out tongue.” There is also a legend of a figure of martial folklore watching a snake and crane fight.

In the Kushanku kata (Kanku Dai and Kanku Sho) we find these very same movement principles under different names.

Along the same lineage as Kushanku a form called Channan (thought to be some sort of a mixture of Heian Shodan, Nidan and Yondan) which may simply be a mistranslation of Chang Chuan (Channan).

In the Bushinkai Academy we study both Kushanku (Kanku Dai and Kanku Sho) and Yang style Tai Chi and so we can see the similarities. We also study the “Kushanku and Channan” kata using weapons such as twin swords, sai and bo. Which is exactly the approach that was taken by masters like Sakugawa, Yara and Matsumura.

Kushanku from the very start teaches us to be expansive and “open the gates”, it teaches movements in all directions, it uses the white crane movements (such as in the opening move and in the Manji Gamae) but also the snake.

Kushanku and Channan (Kanku and Heian) were the cornerstone of Shuri Te, the Karate of the castle guards.

Tode Sakugawa made his name defending cargo against pirates but the generations that followed made their names in the castle grounds.

When Sakugawa probably thought his martial career had ended (aged 78 he had already retired and passed his school onto Bushi Matsumoto) he began to teach his most notable ever student, Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura, born 1797, and the single greatest Karate man of all time.

The young Matsumura’s first teachers were Sakugawa and Yara, two old men who taught him the old Toshu Jutsu arts of Shuri and Tomari. From these men, he learnt the Tomari method of Wansu and the Shuri method of Kushanku and Channan/

And as a young man he entered service at Shuri castle, a bodyguarding role that saw him make trips to Satsuma (Japan) and Fujian (China).

Sanchin and Seishan: The Buddhist Shaolin Tradition

In 1828, aged about 30, Bushi Matsumura and his colleague Bushi Kojo made their first trip to China. Taking a Kojo to China was the key to the door. The Kojo family of Kume were already Chinese boxing experts, and with Matsumura’s diplomatic role and knowledge of Toshu Jutsu, they were able to find tuition there.

This date is significant because it meant breathing new life into both Shuri Te and Naha Te. Whereas the old Shuri forms were largely based around Kushanku, and the old Naha Te (the forms practiced in Kume) were very old style Chinese boxing, this 1828 visit led to the introduction of the so-called “Shaolin” forms.

This visit debunks another myth. Most will say that Goju Ryu came from Naha Te which was only developed when Higaonna Kanryu went to China in the 1860s, but Goju Ryu founder Chojun Miyagi himself denied this and cited the 1828 visit as the true origin of Naha Te.

Miyagi wrote: “In 1828, our ancestors inherited a kung fu style of Fujian province in China. They continued their studies and formed Goju-ryu Karate. Even today, there still exists an orthodox group which inherited genuine and authentic Goju-Ryu karate.”

The “orthodox” Goju Ryu that Miyagi referred to is the similar sounding “Kojo Ryu”.

This led to new forms for both schools:

Matsumura Shuri Te:

– Original Kushanku and Channan forms (Kanku Dai and Heian katas)
– Seishan, a Fujian form meaning 13 steps (Hangetsu)
– Useishi, a Fujian form meaning 54 steps (Gojushiho)
– Jutte, a Fujian form meaning 10 hands (Jutte, Jin, Jion)

Kojo Naha Te

– Sanchin – 3 Battles
– Seishan – 13 Steps
– Suparimpei – 108 Hands

The name of the man who taught them was Iwah who taught a cross between Southern Shaolin (Tiger Boxing, Lion Boxing, Monk Fist) and the Taoist art later known as Pakua.

I have theorised that Iwah’s art was referred to as Bazi Quan – translated as White Lion Boxing.

Matsumura created new forms called Bazi Da and Bazi Xiao (known in Okinawa as Matsumura Passai and Passai Gwa) which we know today as Bassai Dai and Bassai Sho.

Following his excursion to China, Matsumura made another trip, this time to Japan. There, he trained in Satsuma with the Jigen Ryu school where he mastered the art and received Menkyo Kaiden.

In the 1840s and 1850s, Shuri Te and Tomari Te took another notable turn as another two Chinese masters visited Okinawa.


Naihanchi: The core form of Shuri

The first was Ason, who taught a highly unusual form known as Naifanchin (later Naihanchi and Tekki). This form was adopted into Shuri Te and became a key form of Toshu Jutsu in the capital. Just like Sanchin was the cornerstone of Naha Te, Naihanchi was an important fundamental form in Shuri.

Ason taught his Naihanchi form to: Bushi Matsumura, Kitoku Sakayama, Gushi and Tomoyori.

The second was Anan (also called Chinto) in 1854 who may have been Vietnamese of Southern Chinese descent and a practitioner of an old White Crane style. Matsumura met Anan in Tomari and this gave rise to a new Tomari Te. Anan’s students included Kosaku Matsumora and Oyadomari who were also disciples of two Shuri Te masters, Kishin Teruya (1804-1864) and Giko Uku (1800-1850).

Sifu Steve Rowe told me: “Sanchin is not ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ it’s ‘optimum’ or ‘correct’. The battle of 3 can only be resolved (mind, body, breath) by opening the joints and myofascia, softening and connecting the internal system so it will open, close, compress, stretch and release and by making the 2 bows of the spine into one creating with the 4 limbs 5 bows. the mind through correct posture and breathing becomes aware, focused, sensitive and intense. Sanchin teaches the internal system if taught correctly, Tensho then adds the 5 animal hands with the accompanying shen fa (deep waist) skills and Naihanchi the body vibrating fa geng (fa jin) skills – they’re deliberate layers that should feed all the other kata. Seishan is derivative of Sanchin utilising the sideways (east west) and forward (north south) lines with the Sanchin circle still around the weighted leg. It also uses many of the kung fu footwork timing and powering skills. If you looked at Wado as a training system, Pinan Shodan, Nidan and Yondan are derivative of Kushanku and Sandan and Godan of Chinto, Seishan is from Sanchin and is ‘Wadofied” for internal training and Naihanchi the same for vibratory power.”

The Shuri style and the Tomari style were very closely linked and included some of the same forms. Headed by the likes of Matsumura (Shuri) and Matsumora (Tomari), these forms included, in approximate order of study:

1) Naihanchi (Tekki 1-3)
2) Channan (Pinan/Heian 1-2)
3) Passai and Passai Gwa (Bassai Dai and Sho)
4) Jutte and Jion
5) Chinto (Gankaku)
6) Seishan (Hangetsu)
7) Kushanku (Kanku Dai)
8) Useishi (Gojushiho)

Matsumura’s students included Kosaku Matsumora, Yasutsune Itosu, Yasutsune Azato, Chotoku Kyan, Choki Motobu, Seisho Aragaki, and later Kentsu Yabu, Gichin Funakoshi and apparently Matsumura’s grandson Nabe Matsumura.

Of these, one of the shining lights was Aragaki Seisho, who had journeyed to China himself and trained at the same place at Matsumura and Kojo (which historians sometimes call the Kojo Dojo). Aragaki’s coach was Wai Shin Xian, a Hsing-I and White Crane stylist who taught him a number of forms.

Aragaki’s repertoire included:

1) Seishan
2) Sanchin
3) Niseishi (24 steps) related to the Shotokan form Nijushiho and the Goju form Sanseiru
4) Sochin
5) Wankan (Matsukaze) – possibly a corruption of the name Wai Shin Xian
6) Unsu related to the Goju form Shisochin

In 1867, Aragaki led a public demonstration of Karate and Kobudo. This was the first public demo of Karate in the world, in which Kata, Kumite and Kobudo were demonstrated as an artform and a way of life.

The running order of the event was: 

– Tinbei and Rochin (shield and straight sword) by Maesato Peichin
– Tesshaku (iron ruler or Sai) and Bo by Maesato and Aragaki
– Seisan by Aragaki
– Bojutsu and Toshu Jutsu by Maesato and Aragaki (unarmed vs staff)
– Chishaukiun (Shisochin? or perhaps Preying Mantis) kata by Aragaki
– Tinbei and Bojutsu (shield vs staff) by Tomimura Pechin and Aragaki
– Tesshaku (Sai) by Maesato
– Kou Shu (Kou as in Ku in Kumite, Shu as in Toshu) Maesato and Aragaki in two man sets
– Shabo (wheel staff) by Shusai Ikemi Yagusuku (maybe Nunchaku?)
– Suparinmpei by Tomimura
– Kogusuku Peichin reading poetry and playing the Biwa lute

After this event, Karate came to be seen not as something private, not any more as just a way to protect oneself, but as a way of improving oneself.

Bushi Matsumura himself wrote: “Maturity promotes harmony and that a master of the martial arts should stay away from violence, deal well with people, be self-confident, keep peace with people and become financially stable.”

Conventional history states that Shuri Te came into being when it was inherited from Matsumura by Itosu, and Naha Te came into being when Kanryo Higaonna went to China in the 1870s. As we have seen, this isn’t the case.

The true fathers of Naha Te were the Kojo family and Aragaki, and Itosu was far from being only a disciple of Matsumura.

Anko Itosu (born 1831) began to study the martial arts in Tomari Te with Nagahama Chikudon Peichin. After taking and passing civil services exams he became a clerk for the Ryukyu government. Itosu continued his training in the martial arts, again in Tomari Te with Matsumora Kosaku and Anan in 1873 (Sakagami). He may, in fact, have begun training with the legendary Sokon “Bushi”Matsumura when in his late thirties.

According to Choki Motobu, Matsumura did not originally think very highly of Itosu.

He wrote: “Sensei Itosu was a pupil of Sensei Matsumura, but he was disliked by his teacher for he was very slow. For although Itosu sensei was diligent in his practice his teacher did not care about him so he (Itosu) left and went to sensei Nagahama.”

According Motobu, while Sensei Nagahama was quite well known and very diligent, his method or idea of teaching was entirely different from master Matsumura. Nagahama stressed just building of the body. Apparently Itosu adjusted well and trained hard for Motobu reports that Nagahama referred to Itosu as his disciple and “right hand man.” It must have been a shock when Nagahama told Itosu on his deathbed (as reported by Motobu), that he had actually only taught him (Itosu) strength building and had never once given thought to actual combat. In other words his method lacked the idea of liberty in motion and alertness in action, and therefore he wanted him to go back to master Matsumura.

Chosin Chibana recalled a similar exchange between the two men. Matsumura had once said to Itosu: “With your strong punch you can knock anything down, but you can’t so much as touch me.”


The birth of Shorin Ryu

By the 1870s, Shuri Te and Tomari Te were more or less combined into one school with a repertoire of forms very much resembling modern day Shotokan.

Itosu himself set about creating new forms. He increased the number of Pinan forms to five, added Kanku Sho to go with Kanku Dai, and created Chinte to go with Chinto.

The Itosu school of Shuri/Tomari Te included around 20 kata including:

Pinan 1-5 (Heian)
Naihanchi 1-3 (Tekki)
Bassai Dai and Sho
Kanku Dai and Sho
Jutte, Jin, Jion
Wansu (Empi)
Chinto (Gankaku)

Meanwhile in Naha, a student of Seisho Aragaki named Higaonna Kanryo decided to follow in the footsteps of Aragaki, Matsumura and Kojo and go to train in Fujian.

We should note here that Higaonna was already studying in Naha with Aragaki. His repertoire was already quite vast. Therefore when he met the aquaintance of his teacher Ryuru Ko, he did not do so as a beginner.

Another man from Naha named Nakaima Norisato (later of Ryuei Ryu) made a similar training trip and he too trained with Ryuru Ko. Patrick McCarthy has identified Ryuku Ko with the Whooping Crane master Xie Zhongxiang but this is by no means definite. Now there were four distinct traditions in Naha – those of the Kojo family, those of Aragaki, those of Higaonna and those of Norisato.

Meanwhile in Shuri and Tomari, those traditions too were developing distinct schools, including Orthodox Matsumura style (Matsumura, Azato and Nabe), Itosu style, Matsumura/Matsumora style (Matsumora, Motobu, Kyan), Oyadomari style (original Tomari Te).

Itosu made a massive leap for Karate when he began teaching it in schools, in structured classes.

The lineages of Karate however are anything but linear. Patrick McCarthy has put forward the “Matsuyama Koen” theory where he speculated that Karate was practiced in the park of that name rather like Tai Chi is practiced in parks in China. He suggests that Matsuyama park was an open plan Dojo for sharing knowledge and kata and retaining links to China after the Ryukyu kingdom was abolished.

In this spirit, the repertoire of Aragaki for instance came to be a part of both the Shuri/Tomari and Naha lineages, with versions of Seishan, Niseishi and Unsu occurring in both camps.

It is perhaps at this point that the phrases “Shorin Ryu” (usually referring to the Shuri/Tomari forms) began to be used along with Shorei Ryu for the Naha Te forms. The cataloguing of various kata as Shorin or Shorei is worthy of an article in itself, and is something the masters could never agree on. From here on I will refer to the Shuri/Tomari schools of Matsumura and Itosu as “Shorin Ryu” to encapsulate them as one tradition.

Shorin Ryu Karateka to have trained with Itosu include: Kentsu Yabu, Chomo Hanashiro, Jiro Shiroma, Chojo Oshiro, Shigeru Nakamura, Anbun Tokuda, Moden Yabiku, Kenwa Mabuni, Gichin Funakoshi, Chosin Chibana, Moden Yabiku, and Choki Motobu – each of these men left a lasting legacy on Karate.

Over in Naha, the list is less extensive and other than Higaonna and Norisato usually only consists of one man – Chojun Miyagi.

The Goju Ryu tatemae (official “truth”) is that Miyagi was taught by Higaonna and he by Ryuryuko, but actually Aragaki was a main influence on Higaonna, and a man named Gokenki was a major influence on Miyagi.

Wu Xiangi or Wu Hsien Kuei, best known as Gokenki was a Chinese tea merchant and White Crane practitioner. Gokenki worked for the Eiko Chako Tea Company and taught White Crane in Okinawa between 1912 and his death in 1940.

Gokenki was an enormous influence on many Karateka, and like the Bubishi he was a tangible link to the art of White Crane Quan Fa. Among his students were Chojun Miyagi (later founder of Goju Ryu), Kenwa Mabuni (later founder of Shito Ryu) and Hohan Soken (student of Nabe Matsumura).

A colleague of Gokenki who also taught in Okinawa was Tang Daiji.

Tang Daiji or To Daiki (1887-1937) was from Fuzhou. In 1915 he came to Naha and opened a tea shop (Showacha-ten) with his cousin To Daisho (Japanese reading of his name).

The Tang family whose name was also spelled “To” included various Tiger style boxers across Fujian and Guangzhou.

In a previous blog I have presented various theories on how the Bubishi (an anthology of Fujian boxing techniques) arrived in Okinawa and Tang and Gokenki are among the outside candidates for its introduction.


Shoto Ryu and Wado Ryu

In 1922 the Japanese Ministry of Education invited a small, quiet school teacher to Tokyo to give a karate demonstration. That teacher was a student of Itosu, Azato and Matsumura.

Funakoshi Gichin was an educated man and a modernist. He embraced the modern age, did not cling to the old Samurai days but did embrace the idea of Okinawans becoming Japanese.

He admired Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo for the way Kano had taken a bunch of haphardly taught Jujutsu schools and distilled them into a modern, standardised, international Budo form.

Funakoshi wanted to do the same for Karate. He wanted to take “Rentan Goshin Tode Jutsu” or “Toshu Jutsu” and make it into “Karatedo” a single, entity like Judo, with rules, a uniform and a Japanese sense of etiquette.

But Funakoshi couldn’t do it alone. And the first person who helped him was a fellow student of Itosu named Makoto Gima who also knew his way around Tokyo.

Makoto Gima was born on September 28, 1896 in Okinawa. After graduating from Okinawa Shihan Gakko (Higher Normal Scool), Mr. Gima studied in Tokyo at Shoka Daigaku (presently Hitotsubashi University). In 1912, under the guidance of both Masters Itosu and Kentsu Yabe he began to pursue Karate.

Jigoro Kano requested a karate demonstration at the Kodokan (Judo headquarters). As Master Funakoski’s assistant, Gima demonstrated the kata Tekki Shodan, while Master Funakoshi demonstrated Kanku Dai.

for the purpose of karate expansion in Japan, Mr. Gima participated as a partner with Master Funakoshi. In March 1923, Master Funakoshi promoted Makoto Gima to the rank of first degree black belt. Funakoshi himself had received a “Renshi” grade from the Dai Nippon Butokukai which implied he was at least 4th-6th Dan.

The second man we should mention is Hironori Ohtsuka.

In 1921, Ohtsuka had received the menkyo kaiden (certificate of mastery and license to teach) in Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu and in 1922, began training in Shotokan karate under Funakoshi.

By 1928, Ohtsuka was an assistant instructor in Funakoshi’s school. He also trained under Choki Motobu – a decision which didn’t go down well with Funakoshi.

Upon hearing that Funakoshi had received a Renshi grade, Motobu remarked, “what does that make me then? a 10th Dan?”

In 1930, Funakoshi established an association named Dai-Nihon Karate-do Kenkyukai to promote communication and information exchange among people who study karate-do.

The Kenkyukai eventually became Shotokai, and in 1939, Funakoshi built the first Shotokan dojo (training hall) in Tokyo. Makoto Gima also began to refer to his art as Shoto Ryu.


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