History of Toshu Jutsu (Karate) part 1: 1600-1800

In Japan and Okinawa there is a concept called Tatemae and Honne, which loosely translated means “official truth” and “actual truth”. Another way of looking at it would be “propaganda” and “truth.”

Sometimes Tatemae is used for political or marketing purposes and other times to enhance a legend.

To use a western comparison, telling your children that Santa brings their presents is like Tatemae. It is an unspoken rule that almost everybody abides by, but obviously nobody actually really believes apart from little ones.

Each martial art has a Tatemae and a Honne.

For example the Tatemae of Shotokan Karate is something like: “Karate is an ancient Okinawan martial arts developed by peasants who were not allowed weapons. They were able to use their bare hands and farmyard implements to defend against the ruling Samurai. The three ancient schools were Shuri Te, Naha Te and Tomari Te. From Shuri Te and Tomari Te the Shorin Ryu school developed and from Naha Te the Shorei Ryu school developed. Gichin Funakoshi mastered the Shorin and Shorei schools and combined them to form Shotokan.”

Remember this is Tatemae. This is the kind of thing Funakoshi’s assistant instructors would pass on as “history”.

But if we examine it, Karate was not ancient, it was not developed by peasants, Shuri Te, Naha Te and Tomari Te were not ancient either, Funakoshi never mastered Shorin and Shorei and he never created Shotokan! And Okinawans didn’t knock Samurai off horseback using rakes.

So what is the true history of Karate?

Well firstly cast aside any ideas of Karate as a peasant art. Peasants or plebians did not practice Karate. They had some fighting based games that resembled Sumo and arm wrestling, but these did not much resemble Karate. Patrick McCarthy has conjectured that Siamese Boxing (Muay Boran) may have been a percussive art that Okinawan peasants adopted and referred to as Ti’Gwa, but for the origins of Karate as we know it we should look at two main sources:

1) Priviliged classes among Chinese communities (Yukatchu)
2) Okinawan privileged classes (Peichin)

1) Chinese Communities
The Chinese communities were largely based in Kumemura (Kume village). Imagine Manchester, Liverpool or London’s China Towns and how they are Anglicised communities of second and third generation Chinese. How they have some modern English customs, some old Chinese customs and some Chinese novelties to sell to tourists. There are restaurants, shops and behind closed doors, martial arts are taught. This is exactly what Kume was in Okinawa – a China Town. One of these Chinese families living in Okinawa was the Cai family, known locally as the Kojo. Within Kume, the resident families studied and taught Chinese Quan Fa which the local Okinawans called Toshu Jutsu (or Tode) – Chinese hand techniques.

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. By the middle of the fifteenth century, the community was enclosed within earthen walls, and consisted of over one hundred home. 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. One of the defining features of the scholar community at Kumemura, and its relationship with China was the system by which 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, in Kagoshima. Only a few hundred Ryukyuans were ever resident in Fuzhou at a time, and only eight at the imperial university in Beijing, where they were allowed to stay for three years, or up to eight in exceptional circumstances.

2) Okinawan privileged classes
Okinawa, the central Ryukyu kingdom is part of a chain of islands that has affinity with both China and Japan, in the way Jersey and Guernsey are half way between England and France. The nobility in Okinawa regularly visited both on diplomatic exchanges. Two early examples of this are the Chinese envoy Wang Ji visiting Okinawa in the late 1600s and the Ryukyu native Hama Higa visiting Japan around the same time. Hama Higa was known to be a weapons expert. In other articles I have hypothesised that Wang Ji was a student of Hsing-I Quan founder Ji Ji Ke and in turn taught Hama Higa, along with members of the Okinawan nobility such as the Motobu family. Around 1801, young men from Shuri began to be sent abroad to study in Fuzhou and Beijing, breaking the monopoly on Chinese scholarship held by Kumemura for roughly four centuries. This was the start of the original “Shuri Te”.

Hama Higa Pechin (1663 – 1738) was a famous Go player and also accompanied Nago Ôji Chôgen on his visit to Shôgun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi in 1681.

Hama Higa may have been the teacher of Takahara Pechin who lived in Shuri’s Akata; and became known as a talented Mathematician and cartographer (map maker).

So in these early pioneers we seen a Chinese envoy – Wang Ji, two Okinawan dignitaries Hama Higa and Takahara Peichin, and the privileged Motobu family. Not peasants.

Many early Okinawan pioneers studied Emono Jutsu (weapons) which included Japanese sword, Bo, Chinese sword (Dao) and various flails.

Training in Japan with the Jigen Ryu school, both the Okinawan Emono Jutsu practitioners and the Japanese Bushi developed fighting methods using cheap and improvised weapons, including those imported from China, including the Tuifa and Nishaku (Tonfa and Nunchaku).

By the mid 1700s the Okinawan and Japanese weapons arts (Emono Jutsu), and the fighting arts of the privileged classes (Udundi) came to be practiced alongside the Chinese Quan Fa arts (Toshu Jutsu) and the result was a new more Okinawan method referred to as Uchinadi and also still called Toshu Jutsu or Tode Jutsu.

We may say that the arts of the privileged Okinawans (Udundi and Emono Jutsu) were the original Shuri Te and Tomari Te, and that the Quan Fa practiced in Kume (Toshu Jutsu) was the original Naha Te – but these terms were not used at the time.

In the mid 1700s, we meet another two Karate pioneers from the Shuri-Tomari area, “Tode” Sakugawa (pictured) 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. They are said to have trained with a man called Kushanku too, but I’ll save my theories on that for another article.

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).

As I have explained in previous articles, in old Chinese martial arts the idea of a “kata” and a “style” are alien. The kata and the style were the same. For example in Yang style Tai Chi there were not 27 katas there was one form (now called the 108 step). Within the Yang style form, was the essence of the style. The style was the form and the form was the style. Fighting was fighting but the Hsing (form) was the idea of the Quan.

It is likely that Wang Ji (who probably taught Hama Higa) and Wang Zong Yue (who taught Chatan Yara and Sakugawa) were practitioners of Taoist styles originating with an art called Bazi Quan.

The mainline of Bazi Quan is now called Baji Quan, and among its derivatives are Hsing-I Quan and the art now called Taiji Quan.

Along the Wang Ji to Hama Higa to Takahara to Sakugawa line was passed an idea from Hsing-I Quan called Swallow Boxing. Nowadays the essence of this art is contained in the 12 Animals form of Hsing-I and the kata Wansu, which is called Empi in Shotokan.

Along the Wang Zong Yue to Sakugawa and Yara line, were passed the art which came to be called Taiji Quan.

Old Taiji Quan (that’s Tai Chi for those of you not paying attention) was originally a fighting art based on the movements of the Snake and the Crane and of 13 principles.

From these principles, Chatan Yara and Sakugawa created a form which we now call Kushanku (or Kosokun or Kanku Dai or Kwanku etc).

This form could be practiced wielding twin swords, or as was the wont of the Okinawans, twin hairpins.

Kushanku came to be the main form of Shuri and Wansu came to be the main form of Tomari, thanks in part to three of Sakugawa’s students, Makabe (nicknamed the birdman), Matsumoto (the senior student) and Okuda (the one punch knockout man).

By the end of the 1700s, the fighting arts of the Ryukyu were still dispersed geographically in the sense that Bojutsu was prevalent in the Yaeyama islands, Tonfa was most popular in Hamahiga island, old Chinese Quanfa (Toshu Jutsu) were most frequent in Kume, the old methods of Udun and the Kushanku kata were most common in Shuri and Wansu and the Swallow boxing was restricted to Tomari.

However in Tode Sakugawa these arts began to be brought together as a single art. Devising his own weapons forms (including Sakugawa no Kon Sho) and passing on the Toshu Jutsu forms of Kushanku and Wansu, Sakugawa was now passing on a system that was now Okinawan.

But just when Sakugawa thought his legacy 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.


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