The cultural mixing pot of Okinawan martial arts

Over 25 years ago there was an excellent British TV series called Way of the Warrior. Each episode focussed on a different martial art and, accordingly a master from that style.

It was the first time many westerners had seen “Tenshin Shoden Katori Shinto Ryu” and its great master Risuke Otake.

It also featured Goju Ryu Karate and Higaonna Morio:

While it was good to see Higaonna Sensei in the Dojo, it also showed him running (barefoot) through the villages of Okinawa and showed the cultural influences of the island.

Okinawa clearly had Chinese and Japanese influences, but also stylings from Thailand and South East Asia.

In the episode Higaonna Sensei meets a dance instructor and they discuss the similarities between traditional Okinawan dance and Karate kata.

In all the episode illustrated that what we know as Karate emerged from a real mixture of influences.

Simon training with John Dang who brings Muay Thai, Taekwondo and southern Chinese Tiger Boxing (Tang family) to Bushinkai

Simon training with John Dang who brings Muay Thai, Taekwondo and southern Chinese Tiger Boxing (Tang family) to Bushinkai

Okinawan Toshu Jutsu master Choki Motobu showing the same block as above

Okinawan Toshu Jutsu master Choki Motobu showing the same block as above

The Japanese relationship dates back to Minamoto Tametomo (1139–1170) who was exiled from Japan, fled to Okinawa and fathered Shunten who became king and established the Shunten Dynasty.

In 1291 China sent a special envoy to Okinawa to negotiate an alliance that would see the Ryukyu paying tribute to its bigger brother and in 1392 the apocryphal he “36 Families” arrived in Okinawa and established its “Chinatown” Kume village.

The links to Japan and China account for Okinawa’s “warrior” traditions. But what of its peasant fighting traditions?

Karate master and researcher Patrick McCarthy (9th Dan Hanshi) believes that the original “Te” or “Ti” (predating Karate) was termed Ti’gwa and originated in the pugilistic traditions of Thailand – the old kingdom of Siam. One source states that the Okinawan “boxing came from Indo-China or Siam.”

My Nisseikai teacher Reiner Parsons and Tadanori Nobetsu who combined Goju Ryu with Taiwanese Feeding Crane

My Nisseikai teacher Reiner Parsons and Tadanori Nobetsu who combined Goju Ryu with Taiwanese Feeding Crane

It is funny that we often talk about Japanese martial arts, Chinese martial arts or Okinawan martial arts, as if these countries had distinct physical and cultural boundaries.

But we must remember that Japan is a number of islands, the Ryukyu (including Okinawa) are a number of islands and China is, well, huge.

In other words a tradition in western China would likely have nothing to do with a tradition is eastern Japan because they are geographically and culturally so far apart. But if we look at the coasts of China and Japan that face each other, and consider islands like Okinawa and Taiwan in between we come up with a relationship I have termed the “Toshu Triangle” (catchy I know).

When Okinawans went to China to train, they didn’t then walk thousands of miles west to Xinjiang (which borders Russia and India) – they got the boat from Naha (Okinawa) to Fujian (China) the equivalent of going Dover to Calais – much like you would not sail from Lancaster to Calais!

The Fujian area was rich in martial arts like White Crane, Black Tiger, and Lion Boxing – and unsurprisingly it is these arts that influenced Toshu Jutsu or Karate.

Similarly in Japan, we don’t hear of Samurai travelling from Hokkaido in the north to train in China, we hear of Akiyama from Nagasaki going to China to study Hakuda – or Matsumura of Shuri going from Okinawa to Satsuma to train.

Simon training in Escrima with Rene Tongson, Filipino grandmaster of Abaniko Tres Puntas

Simon training in Escrima with Rene Tongson, Filipino grandmaster of Abaniko Tres Puntas

So in researching and developing Hakuda Kempo Toshu Jutsu we must mostly look to these traditions:

1) The Quan Fa schools of Fujian
2) The Toshu Jutsu schools of Shuri, Naha and Tomari
3) The Hakuda schools of Nagasaki
4) The Bujutsu schools of Kagoshima (Satsuma)
5) The percussive arts of Thailand
6) Influences from other neighbouring nations such as Taiwan and Vietnam

Returning to the history for a moment, we have discussed the influences of Japan and China dating back to the 1200s and also the possibility of Ti’Gwa (Siamese boxing) developing.

In the 17th century, surprisingly the first Quan we meet in Okinawa is Wansu, a style that owes its origina to the Hsin-I Quan.

Hsing-I master Wang Ji visited Okinawa in 1685 and taught his skills to Hama Higa who combined these Chinese forms with Okinawan Kobudo weapons (Emono Jutsu) and the art of Toshu Jutsu (Chinese hand skills) emerged. Takahara Peichin was the next notable master and in his lifetime is the first written reference to “Te”.

In the 1800s Toshu Jutsu (or Toshukuken) became influenced by Japanese styles such as Jigen Ryu and Hakuda Kempo (also called Taku or Baida).

Simon teaching traditional Chinese internal martial arts

Simon teaching traditional Chinese internal martial arts

In 1828 Matsumura and Kojo visited Fujian, later followed by Aragaki and Higaonna and studied styles like Lion Boxing and Monk Fist with masters like Iwah.

Other stylists taught the Okinawans, such as Ason who may have been Taiwanese and taught Naihanchi Quan. And Anan who may have been Vietnamese and taught Chinto Quan.

Finally masters Gokenki and Tang Daiji (To Daiki) came to Okinawa to export tea (as in the drink not Kara-tea!) but ended up teaching, respectively White Crane and Tiger Boxing to Chojun Miyagi and Kenwa Mabuni.

The influence of Gokenki and Tang Daiji is an often understated one, but Goju Ryu and Shito Ryu would probably be very different if not for these two masters.

In the 1920s-1950s the old ways of Toshu Jutsu and Karate Jutsu were largely forgotten, as modern arts like Karate-do and Taekwondo became popular throughout the world.

There were of course still surviving masters of the old ways of Toshuken and Hakuda – notably Kanken Toyama who taught the founders of both Keishinkan Karate (parent style of Budokan) and Taekwondo. Toyama was also a senior of Kinjo Hiroshi, Hideo Tsuchiya and Makoto Gima.

Hsing-I and Toshu Jutsu are closely related

Hsing-I and Toshu Jutsu are closely related

In my view Toshu Jutsu, as it was practiced by Matsumura, Azato, Itosu, Motobu and Toyama was an excellent and vibrant fighting arts – not just a watered down sport.

I have developed Hakuda Kempo Toshu Jutsu into its present system over the last 15 years I have been teaching in the Bushinkai school. I have looked into and trained in many arts to arrive at the present system.

Simon in 1996 experimenting with Karate kata by utilising the Japanese longsword and movements from the Chinese Ba Duan Jin

Simon in 1996 experimenting with Karate kata by utilising the Japanese longsword and movements from the Chinese Ba Duan Jin

But after years teaching and developing – and several more years studying – this system, the evolution and learning is far from over.

On a research level, I believe it is important for Toshu Jutsu to acknowledge its relationship with the martial arts of Thailand, Korea, Vietnam and China, but on a practical level, expertise in these arts also gives an edge to our training and I believe makes for a more vibrant system.

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