On the Persistence of Historical Distortions

Back in 2004 or so an old picture found its way onto the cover of a newly published Karate book. The seemingly irresistible narrative spun around it claimed that it showed Matsumura Sōkon and Itosu Ankō, as body guards of the king. We already had internet in those days and there was a lot of excitement in the discussion rooms. However, back then, it was just the same as today: People believe what they want to believe and there is nothing one can do about it, except simply staying away from the drama. Accordingly, the invented tradition surrounding that specific picture still lives on today in 2018.

The picture in question appeared in the “Narrative of the Expedition etc.” under the command of Commodore M. C. Perry, United States Navy. The picture is a lithography made from a daguerreotype from 1853 and made by Eliphalet M. Brown, Jr., daguerreotypist, lithographer and artist for the Perry Expedition to Japan. The picture is titled “Regent of Lew Chew”.

“Regent of Lew Chew”. From: Hawks 1857, vis-à-vis page 215.

“Regent of Lew Chew”. From: Hawks 1857, vis-à-vis page 215.

Well, it is said that Matsumura Sōkon served three kings in a row as a royal bodyguard. Therefore, since the picture showed the “Regent of Lew Chew”, and it was the year 1853, the person behind that regent was said to be Matsumura, and for whatever reason the other person was said to have been Itosu Ankō.

The narrative describes the first meeting:

About one o’clock, a very ordinary native barge, containing the Lew Chew dignitaries, came alongside. The [U.S.] marines were in uniform, and every preparation had been made on board to show them respect and produce impressive effect. One of the inferior [Ryūkyūan] officers came first up the gangway with the card of his superior, which Mr. Williams, the interpreter, received and read; the officer then returned, and the regent of the kingdom of Lew Chew [=Ryūkyū], a venerable old man, in a few minutes appeared, supported by two of his officers. Captains Buchanan and Adams received him at the gangway, and were saluted by the regent after the fashion of his country. His hands were joined upon his breast, while his body and knees were bent very profoundly, and his head was slightly turned away from the person he addressed. The prince, it was said, was a lad of eleven years old, and was represented to be ill. The old gentleman acted as regent for him. Six or eight other officers and some dozen subordinates followed the regent to the deck. A salute of three guns was then fired, which so startled some of the Lew Chew officers that they dropped upon their knees.

Hawks 1857: 155

From the text we can see that the regent was supported by two of his officers. This fits the picture, isn’t it? It also becomes clear that the regent was not the king or prince of Ryūkyū, but acted as regent for him.

As regards the regent, I admit it is a bit confusing:

“The Ryukyuan term sessei is written with the same characters [as the Japanese sessho], and in Okinawan would actually have been pronounced more like shisshi.“

Smits 1999: 9-10

This Okinawan term sessei 摂政 is in fact translated as “regent” and in fact served as the political regent for the king. But the term “regent” in the Perry narrative refers even to a different kind of officer, namely a sōrinkan 総理官 or prime minister. So the term regent in the Perry narrative neither refers to the king or prince nor to the actual sessei, but to an official called sōrinkan (prime minister).

Then, who was this person on the picture anyway?

According to the narrative (Hawks 1857: 159), this “regent of Lew Chew” was named Shang Ta-mu. This refers to Shō Taimo 尚大模 (Mabuni Aji 摩文仁按司). At that time, Perry had informed the Ryūkyū government of his wish for an amity treaty and to use Ryūkyū as a base to survey Japan. The task of Shō Taimo (Mabuni Aji) here was to keep Perry and his people in check, which failed miserably and Perry even invited himself to the royal castle in Shuri to see the King himself. Because Shō Taimo (Mabuni Aji) failed in his task he was replaced as a ‘regent’: After having signed the Japan-U.S. Peace Treaty in Japan, Perry returned to Ryūkyū:

“When the squadron returned to Napha [Naha], on the 23d of June, it was found that a new regent had been installed. The old occupant, who had so pertinaciously striven to prevent the Commodore’s visit to Shui [Shuri], and who had also so bountifully entertained our countrymen at his own habitation, had, it was said, been deposed.”

Hawks 1857: 215

The new regent, referred to as Shang Hung Hiun in the narrative, was in fact Shō Kōkun 尚宏勲 (Nakazato Aji Chōki 仲里按司朝紀).

According to the above, our picture in question either shows Shō Taimo (Mabuni Aji) or Shō Kōkun (Nakazato Aji Chōki). Because the picture in question appears 50+ pages after the part on Shō Taimo (Mabuni Aji), and because it appears right at the beginning of the chapter on the first page of which Shō Kōkun (Nakazato Aji Chōki) is introduced as the new regent, there can be little doubt that the picture shows Nakazato Aji Chōki.

The picture shows Shō Kōkun (Nakazato Aji Chōki) and two unknown attendants.

Later, on July 11, 1854 the Ryūkyū-U.S. Treaty was signed. On the Ryūkyū-side, above-mentioned Shō Kōkun (Nakazato Aji Chōki) was one of two officials who signed the treaty on behalf of the Royal Government of Ryūkyū. As a side note, Shō Kōkun (Nakazato Aji Chōki) became the seventh head of Yonagusuku Udun 与那城御殿, a branch family of the royal family of Ryūkyū. Later he was promoted to become Yonagusuku Ōji Chōki 与那城王子朝紀 and served as actual sessei (regent on behalf of the king) from 1861 to 1872.

A little earlier, at the time of the Makishi Onga Incident 牧志恩河事件, in 1859 Shō Kōkun (Nakazato Aji Chōki) was appointed one of the judges to interrogate Makishi Chōchō 牧志朝忠 (1818–62) and other culprits. Makishi originally went by the name of Itarashiki Chōchū 板良敷朝忠 and this person actually worked as a translator for both Shō Taimo (Mabuni Aji) and Shō Kōkun (Nakazato Aji Chōki), the above-mentioned ‘regents’.

The narrative describes him as a young native, named Ichirazichi (=Itarashiki=Makishi Chōchō), a genius, or, rather, roguish Mercury who had been educated at Beijing, where he remained three years and who could speak Chinese, the language of communication, as well as a little English (Hawks 1857: 192, 281). During one meeting with Perry, Itarashiki (Makishi Chōchō) stood right behind Shō Kōkun (Nakazato Aji Chōki) (Hawks 1857: 216). So, was Itarashiki (Makishi Chōchō) one of the two attendants standing behind Shō Kōkun (Nakazato Aji Chōki) in the picture?

Maybe, but rather not. This is because the picture is a lithography made from a daguerreotype from 1853. It should therefore resemble the face of the persons at least in part. And the same narrative also contains a lithography made from a daguerreotype of Itarashiki (Makishi Chōchō). So if Itarashiki (Makishi Chōchō) has not cut his beard, he is not one of the persons in our first photo.

However that may be, together with Asato Ankō, it is said that Itarashiki (Makishi Chōchō) was a student of Matsumura Sōkon (OKKJ 2008: 107; various 1, 2, etc.). I really don’t know whether this is backed up by primary sources or is just oral tradition. In any case, facts are no less strange than fiction.

Itarashiki (Makishi Chōchō). From: Hawks 1857, vis-à-vis page 192

Itarashiki (Makishi Chōchō). From: Hawks 1857, vis-à-vis page 192


  • Clayton, Bruce D.; Raymond Horwitz; Edward Pollard: Shotokan’s Secret: the hidden truth behind karate’s fighting origins. Black Belt Books, 2004.
  • Hawks, Francis L.: Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan, performed in the years 1852, 1853, and 1854, under the command of Commodore M. C. Perry, United States Navy, by Order of the Government of the United States.Compiled from the Original Notes and Journals of Commodore Perry and his Officers, at his Request and under his Supervision, By Francis L. Hawks, D. D. LL. D. With numerous Illustrations. D. Appleton and Company, New York; Trübner & Co. London 1857.
  • Makishi Chōchō on Wikipedia Japan
  • Makishi Chōchō 牧志朝忠 (1818–62)on Ryukyu Bugei
  • On the Ryūkyū-U.S. Treaty
  • Smits, Gregory: Visions of Ryukyu: Identity and Ideology in Early-Modern Thought and Politics. 1999.

© 2018, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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