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Musings of a Seeker

By Tom Spellman

 Sensei’s admonitions resounded in my head in the still of the night as I followed the path to his home, “Expand your senses, feel the ground beneath your feet. Use you nose to seek out human and animal scents and knell down occasionally to look up and check for silhouettes against the stars. Make the night your friend as you come to your nightly lesson with me.” Stories such as these abound in America and around the world that share tales of ancient Okinawan students secretly training in TI( Karate) by night due to prohibitions perpetrated by the invading Japanese Satsuma samurai which forced empty handed self-defense arts secretly underground while also confiscating all weapons of war from the population.

In Part one of this series I wrote about a portion of Okinawa’s history, and culture, that will prove relevant to our study of Okinawan Karate, while touching on the political, economic, and philosophic contributions that helped form the martial Masters themselves.

In Part two we shall explore the control of weapons in Okinawan society and the development of Karate and by whom.

Welcome back to
The House of Okinawa

 Origins of the Ryukyu Way: Part Two

The issue of the ownership of personal weapons in Okinawa during the Satsuma occupation and the consequent ban of their possession by the Japanese has long been a source of debate amongst Okinawan Karate practitioners, their instructors, and assorted historians, both native and foreign. Interwoven within the narrative has been the subsequent forcing of karate practice underground due to karate, itself, being banned as well. In addition to this is the repeated supposition that the common folk practiced the art in secret in order to protect themselves from their Japanese oppressors using their bare hands as their sole defense and had eventually developed simple weapons from common tools to add to their defensive arsenal. In this second House of Okinawa offering I will delve into these two subjects so you can be better informed about them.

As to the issue of a ban and confiscation of weapons. Andeas Quast, in his book, A Stroll Along Ryukyu Martial Arts History, writes on page 30, “In 1509, celebrating the expansion and beautification of Shuri Castle’s main palace, the ELEVEN ACHIEVEMENTS OF THE AGE eulogizing the achievements of King Sho Shin’s reign (1477-1526)  were inscribed in Chinese characters on the balustrade situated in front of the main palace. This is called the Momourasoe Rankan no Mei, or the Inscription on the Balustrade of the Momourasoe Hall.

Quast further notes that Article 3 describes the expedition of one hundred warships to the Yaeyama islands to chastise them for not bringing tribute. This took place in the year 1500 and proofs the increasing military strength of the country.

Article 4 of the list reads All cut and thrust weapons, bows and arrows, etc., were accumulated as sharp weapons for the purpose of national defense. Additionally, Article 5 describes the completion of a royal government organization.

Quast go on to write, “From an early misinterpretation of article 4 by Iha Fuyu (considered to be the father of Okinawan study) one main theory on the origin and development of unarmed combat arts(karate) was deduced.” In 1955 it was also reinterpreted by Nakahara Zenchu thus, “Fourth, brocade and embroidered silk are used for garments, gold and silver are used for utensils. Swords, bows, and arrows are exclusively accumulated as weapons in the protection of the country. In matters of finance and armament, this country excels other countries.”

However, these three articles clearly describe the military expansion of the kingdom under Sho Shin (article 3), the accumulation and consolidation of arms and armor under royal management, i.e. the completion of the national defense organization of the Hiki [the Military Defensive Organization of Shuri and Naha] (article 4), and the completion of the government organization to establish law and order throughout the country (article 5).

George Kerr further explains in Okinawa The History of An Island People, “First of all, Ryukyu did not produce iron, and second, Sho Shin’s fifty-year reign minimized chances for their use. However, it was the nature of the ruling class that was of particular significance. Ryukyu’s ruling class was a hereditary gentry not dependent upon armed might for their status unlike the contemporary samurai rulers of Japan. (Page 544)

Furthermore, Kerr went on to state, “No evidence can be found to suggest that the Okinawans at any time contemplated an attempt to throw off Japanese controls; nevertheless, in1669 Satsuma saw to it that the Shuri government’s swordsmithy was abolished, putting an end to the manufacture of swords for ceremonial use, and in 1699 forbade the report of weapons of any kind. A new police inspectorate was created, and a new Japanese garrison post was established in the eastern quarter of Naha. (page 178-9)

In addition Quast states (A Stroll Along Ryukyu Martial Arts History) “ Due to the fact that military protection was provided by the Satsuma domain since 1609, Ryukyu’s former military was transformed into a system of security functions consisting of various levels of policemen, guards , and feudal inspectors in royal government service, as well as a local grassroots security organization based on semiofficial groups of local authority extending over the whole geographical area of the kingdom. The catchphrase here is domestic security, which must be seen as another reason for the unmilitary form of classical Ryukyuan combats arts.”

A Quast concludes:

 The described accumulation of weapons under government administration and the establishment of law and order throughout the country strongly suggest that the military equipment and personnel were placed under the administrative and operative responsibilities of the royal government organization of the Hiki. In other words, the actual meaning of the said disarmament was that the Anji were indeed stripped of the military jurisdiction over their individual troops and military equipment, but these were transferred and centralized under the jurisdiction of Shō Shin’s newly organized military government structure.

From the above we can see that all claims of a primordial form of unarmed Karate as having developed as a result of King Shō Shin’s alleged weapons ban is a completely untenable historical fallacy. Even worse: It appears to be fictitious, artificial and wishful thinking.”

Consequently, these facts point to the reality that the Okinawan monarchy and government, themselves, had first confiscated the weapons of the Okinawan people at least 100 years before the invasion of Okinawa by the Satsuma Clan of Japan to put these weapons under the control of the Hiki, as stated by Quast.

Now let us explore the questions concerning the commoners secretly practicing Karate underground to protect themselves against their cruel Japanese oppressors.

To begin with, the popular German author, Shotokan practitioner and Japanese translator Henning Wittwer endeavored to address the questions of accurate Japanese translation of various historical martial arts text such as Master Gichin Funakoshi’s autobiography. The 1956, 1976, and 2004 English version Karate-Do My Way of Life by Master Funakoshi inconsistencies were found. Mr. Wittwer writes in his article published in Classical Fighting Arts Vol 3, #4 “An especially widespread and popular concept that Karate must have been a forbidden fighting art at one time. Found in the chapter “Losing the Topknot”, traces of the are to be found. The current English translation reads,” At that time the practice of karate was banned by the government, so sessions had to take place in secret and pupils were strictly forbidden by the teachers to discuss with anyone the fact that they were learning the art.” He goes on to write in his translation,” At that time one could not learn karate in public.” (oyoke) He goes on to say, Seemingly the Japanese word oyake (‘public”) became “government” in the English edition. So, the source text no more and no less states that one “could” not learn karate publicly. Prohibitions or even prohibitions ordered by the government are not mentioned at all. On the contrary, and in reality, the Royal Government encouraged the practice of karate at the end of the Edo period (1867). In this case we have to clearly differentiate the two aspects “secret practice” (fact) and “karate was forbidden” (historical nonsense).”

The fact that the Okinawan Government encouraged Karate practice, in modern times (1904) is born out in author and historian Andreas Quast’s article in his Ryukyu Bugei Article, The Invention of Karate :

The last and probably most important book by Kinjō Hiroshi (2011) has the clear tenor of an “Invention of Karate”. Yes, I just said that. It is about as follows:

In 1904, Itosu Ankō (1831–1915), commissioned by and under the guidance and supervision of the Okinawa Prefecture Department of School Affairs and by its designated purpose as a school education, selected and modified a  number of kata from Suidī (Shuri-te), and in addition invented a number of kata of his own, and in this way determined a framework of kata for physical education. In 1904/1905, karate was taught for the first time as a compulsory subject of physical education at the Okinawa Prefectural Middle School. It should be borne in mind that this was not unaltered Suidī (Shuri-te) in its original state. This is expressed in Article I of Itosu’s Ten Maxims, “The quintessence should be, by word of honor, to never injure human beings by means of one’s fists and feet.”This was a turning point for Karate in being made available to the masses in Okinawa and beyond.

Prior to this time Karate, and its various earlier incarnations, had a different story.

First off, let us review the Okinawan Social hierarchy according to Kerr: briefly, in three parts, they are first, the Royal Family of Sho, secondly, the privileged class (shizoku), third, the common men (heimin).  After the royal family were the hereditary ranks of the shizoku which were the anji descended from territorial lords who moved to Shuri during and after the reign of Sho Shin. A lesser degree of nobility bore the titles uekata or oyakata.

These families were founded by men who had earned permanent rank and distinction through meritorious service to the state, or by men who were younger sons of the hereditary anji and royal princes.

 Below the nobles stood a gentry class divided by a system of titles into three principal grades, each with a junior and senior rating. These were the pechin, satonushi, chikudun, descendants of the king’s soldiers and retainers, the soldiers and retainers of the anji, and scholars, priests, and commoners who earned the gentry status through meritorious service.

Upon examination of many of the historical characters in Okinawan history we see a pattern of the haves and have nots. The commoners had a dawn to dust lifestyle of farming and/or fishing. Kerr, on page 106 masterpiece recorded, “Each maintained his (anji) men-at-arms, officers, and servants. And drew his economic support from the labor of hard-working serfs who cultivated his lands or fished in nearby waters. The common people were not free to move about but were expected to remain on the land unless summoned to work at Naha or Shuri in their Lord’s interest.” So, basically, they had not the money, the energy, the freedom, nor the time to spare on the pursuit martial arts interests. That about covers the third portion of the Okinawan Social Hierarchy, the Heimin or Common men.

We are left with the first and second parts of the three-tier listing, the Royal Sho family and the shizoku, or privileged class.

Who, then might some of these upper-class persons be?

Soken Bushi Matsumura (1809-1899) Pechin Class Great-grandfather of Karate lineages, Matsumura Seito Karate-Do named after him
“Tode” Sakugawa (1786-1867) “Te” master
Choki Motobu (1885-1944) Aji class  Goju-Ryu Karate
Choshin Chibana (188-1969) Aiji Class  Kobayashi-ryu (Kobayashi Shorin-ryu) style of Karate
Chogi Yoshimura (1866-1945) Royal lineage Studied various Karate systems but taught no one. Beginners mind.
Kentsu Yabu (1866-1937) Shizoku Class Shorin-Ryu master
Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952) Aji Class Founder of Shito-Ryu Karate
Kanken Toyama (1888-1966) A noble or descended from one Shudokan Karate
Shinken Taira (1897-1970) A noble or descended from one Kobudo Master (Ancient Weapons)
Shinpan Shiroma (1890-1954) A noble or descended from one Shorin-Ryu/ Naha-Te master
Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) Shizoku Class Founder of Shotokan Karate

This is a short list just to demonstrate that Karate, Ti/Te, Toudi/Tode was the property of the haves in society prior to the fall of the Okinawan Kingdom with the Annexation of Okinawa by Japan in 1879. Later this would include those successful individuals in commerce who had the money and time to pursue their interests and travel to other lands such as China, Thailand, and elsewhere to broaden their experience. Even to migrate to the West, as we shall see next in Part Three of this series.

Welcome to the House of Okinawa in America


Musings of a Seeker

By Tom Spellman


Origins of the Ryukyu Way:

When numerous elements of human creativity, varying cultures and philosophies mingle with the ancient Jomon hunting rituals acted out at the campfires in the mists of time, a spirit was created that was to mature into the art the world knows today as Karate. In this, and future articles we will explore the rich elements of the circumstances, actions, and contributions made by various players that shaped karate’s formation into a fighting art that sought to balance the body, mind, and spirit of its practitioner. To borrow a thought from Joseph Campbell, an American professor of literature, in his grand work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell described the basic narrative pattern as follows:

‘A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

To grow and transform one-self through trial. To transcend what he or she thought they could do or be in this life has been the dream of many aspiring karate-ka in their pursuit of mastery of the art we love. Welcome to the House of Okinawa.

Contributing Elements of the Karate-Ka (part one)

 Okinawa is the largest of the 150 Ryukyu islands that comprise the Japanese prefecture in the East China Sea half-way between Taiwan and Japan's mainland. Evidence of human existence on Okinawa has been discovered as far back as 32,000 years although their ultimate origins are still contested, and the research is ongoing.

After many prior years of strife, rivalries, and amalgamations in the 12th century the Hokuzan, Chuzan, and Nanzan Okinawan kingdoms located in the North, Central, and Southern regions of the Island became firmly established. Beginning in 1372 Chinese Ming court representatives began to apply refined pressure to King Satto of Chuzan to establish a tributary relationship with China thus following in the footsteps of many other East Asia countries.

The three kingdoms eventually became one under the leadership of Chuzan’s King Sho Hashi and sustained the tributary arrangement with China which continued to prove both culturally and economically enriching and non-intimidating. Thus, began the “Golden Age of Trading” of Okinawa in 1429 expanding its role as a centrally located hub of trade in the Pacific region. Keep in mind that Ryukyu’s tributary relationship with China was primarily of a diplomatic and commercial nature as opposed to a political one. However, this exchange of cultural and economic influence ushered in Chinese and some Korean migration in maritime expertise, ship building and, cultural practices.

As to the nature of Okinawan religious and spiritual practices George Kerr wrote in his Okinawa- The History of An Island People – “The Okinawans had only a mild interest in religious forms and virtually none at all in religious and philosophic speculation. The majority were content to support the noro (community priestess): they treated the spirits of the groves and hills, sea, and sky, wells, and springs with suitable respect, but they did not enquire deeply into these mysteries. They were much more exacting in their treatment of the dead, and in respectful display of concern for the welfare of departed parents.” In contrast to the rest of Japan, Buddhism and Shintoism did not have a great influence in Okinawa. (However, there are some temples and shrines.) As mentioned previously there is, however, a strong influence of the native belief in ancestor worship. The interactions between China and Okinawa had significant and enduring effects. The introduction of Confucianism became extremally influential in Ryukyu, especially when traditional Okinawan ancestor worship made it conveniently adaptable. The diverse requirements of ritual correctness acted as a powerful incentive for the Ryukyu rulers to conform to Confucian doctrine and thus earn the respect and favor of the Chinese officials. Furthermore, this conversion was facilitated over the many months the highly educated civil officials occasionally spent in Ryukyu interacting with court officials and scholars while awaiting favorable seas for their return home.

The Ryukyu Kingdom educational mainstay of the Pechin were the Chinese Classics, which included the writings of Confucius. The Pechin were an upper rank in Ryukyuan society who were thought of as scholar-officials- warriors serving in administrative positions in the Okinawan government.  As scholar-officials, they often served in administrative positions in the Ryukyuan government. This class had many of its fraternity amongst the lists of great Karate masters, the warrior/ scholars recorded in the future annuals of their history.

The feudal system of mainland Japan and its feudal domain system (Han) of the samurai and its committed loyalty, to the death, to their Lord was the domain of the Japanese warrior, the samurai. In essence, a Feudal society is a military hierarchy in which a ruler or lord, offers a unit of land to work or control in exchange for a military service.

Okinawa’s government, following the Japanese Satsuma clan’s invasion and conquering in 1609, was transformed into a han (a feudal domain) of the Japanese Tokugawa Era’s reign under Satsuma control which lasted until 1879. Concerning this period George Kerr penned:

“The government’s primary functions at this time were reduced to the collections of taxes and supervision of the public peace. The Okinawans had little to do with the conduct of foreign affairs. The nature of some of the office solemnly established and staffed at Shuri suggests that a secondary function of the government was to find ways and means to provide offices, titles, and income for relatives of the royal family, for descendants of the anji (Okinawan Lords), and for the gentry. All government organization was held together by an elaborate network of ceremonial relationships prescribed by Confucian standards. As new economic activities developed new importance, new offices were created to supervise them.” (Note the mention of, “all government organization was held together… by Confucian standards”)

To Confucius, the main objective of his teachings was to educate the people to live with integrity. Through his teachings, he strove to instill the traditional values of benevolence, propriety, and ritual in (Chinese) society.

The Main Beliefs of Confucianism

Chung - Loyalty to the state, etc. Li - includes ritual, propriety, etiquette, etc. Hsiao - love within the family, love of parents for their children, and love of children for their parents. Jen - benevolence, humanness towards one another (the most important Confucianism virtue.

 Confucianism, the teachings of Confucius during 500 BC, has played an important role in forming Chinese character, behavior, and way of living. (Eliot 2001; Guo 1995) Its primary purpose is to achieve harmony, the most important social value. Confucianism is often characterized as a system of social and ethical philosophy rather than a religion. In fact, Confucianism built on an ancient religious foundation to establish the social values, institutions, and transcendent ideals of traditional Chinese society.

A valuable example of Confucian significance can be found in Patrick McCarthy’s masterful translation of The Seven Precepts of Bu written by Matsumura Soken on page 20 of his stellar work, Legend of the Fist vol #1:

The preface to the seven Precepts:

“Through resolve and relentless training, one will grasp the true essence of the fighting traditions. No less interesting is the fundamental similarity between the fighting traditions and that of the literary study. By examining the literary phenomenon, we discover three separate elements: 1. The study of Shiso 2. The study of Kunko and 3. The study of Jukyo.”

“The study of Shiso refers to commanding words, communitive skills and seeking position for wages.”

“The study of Kunko refers to a comparative study of documents and teaching a sense of duty by example.”

“The third study of Jukyo is significant in content and message,

 “It is in the study of Jukyo (Confucianism) that we can find the “Way”. In finding the way we can gain a deeper understanding of things, build strength from weakness, and make our feeling more sincere. Become virtuous and even administer our own affairs more effectively, and in doing so make our home a more peaceful place. A precept which can also apply to our country or the entire world. This then is a complete study and it is called Jukyo.”

The article continues on page 21 with the translation of the Seven Precepts of Bu:

“Budo no Bugei (the genuine method) are never practiced without conviction and participants cultivate a serene wisdom which knows not contention or vice. Fostering loyalty among family, friends and county, a natural decorum encourages a dauntless character.”

“With the fierceness of a tiger and the swiftness of a bird, an indomitable calmness makes subjugating any adversary effortless. Yet, Budo no Bugei 1) forbids wilful violence, 2) governs the warrior, 3) fortifies people, 4) fosters virtue, 5) appeases the community, 6) brings about a general harmony and 7) prosperity.”

Matsumura Soken concludes by writing, “Hence, the way of Bun Bu (literally philosophy study and the fighting traditions often described as the pen and the sword) has mutual features. A scholar needs not Gakushi (a psychological game of strategy, not suitable for fighting) or Meimoku no Buge ( purely physical in form, aiming only at winning) ; This is where you will find the way. This indomitable fortitude will profoundly affect your judgement in recognizing opportunity and reacting accordingly, as the circumstances always dictate the means.”

Matsumura Sokon (1809-1889 Yamagawa Village, Shuri, Okinawa) Matsumura was born Kiyo Sokon and was of noble birth and, as was traditional, was skilled at literature and the Chinese classics as well as military arts.  The name Kiyo changed to Matsumura when he entered the service of the 17th King of the Ryukyu Sho dynasty, King Sho Ko followed 18th and 19th Kings of Ryukyu, King Sho Iku and King Sho Tai, respectively. In 1826 and received the title Chikudon Peichin, a gentry rank and later became the bodyguard to the Okinawan King Sho Iku himself.

 During his life, Matsumura continued to expand his skill sets with trips to China and two trips to Japan. In 1832, upon Matsumura’s return from a China journey King Sho Iku stated he desired a bodyguard with sword skills, so Matsumura was sent to Satsuma, Japan and stayed there for five years.  Matsumura returned to Okinawa from Japan in 1837 bearing a menkyo kaiden (certificate of full proficiency also known as Unki, light among clouds) in the Jigen Ryu style of swordsmanship, the vary art that made the Satsuma swordsman so invincible!

If we were looking for a prototype model for the quintessential Okinawan Karate master certainly Matsumura Sokon could be at the top historically. Masterful karate and sword warrior, versed in the Chinese Classics, especially Confucius’s benevolent guidelines for individual persons and nations and do not forget long lived, loyal service to his monarchs and country.  Is this not a worthy example of unifying the body, mind, and spirit?

End of Part one, See you soon in Part two.

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