Okinawa Karate, not to be defeated by discrimination
A strong-muscled man receives a thrust from a big man wearing a haramaki (bellyband). The photo is considered to have been taken around 1933 at the Ōsaka City Sports Ground (the current Yahataya Park in Minato-ku, Ōsaka).
On the back of the photo are pencil writings of “Kenjinkai” (Association of People from the Prefecture) and “Karate Kenpō Meet.” It seems that it was taken at Ōsaka City Sports Ground (currently Minato-ku, Ōsaka) around 1933. Reporters of the Asahi Shinbun and the Okinawa Times verified the persons by interviewing people involved in Okinawa Karate. Two names were identified from their faces and bodies: The young man who receives the thrust is Kanei Uechi (1911-1991), the second generation of the Uechi-ryū of Okinawa Karate, and the strongly-built person who shoots the thrust is Akamine Ka’ei (1908-1977), a businessman and also the chairman of the Okinawa Prefectural Sumo Federation.
As a technical note, relatives testified that Uechi Kanei had the habit of arching his big toe, as can be seen in the basic stance called “Sanchin” of the Uechi-ryū in the photo. Akamine had the same hair growth on his arm.
Uechi recalled meeting with Akamine in Ōsaka in an interview article with the Okinawa Times (October 9, 1960). While it is not confirmed that this article refers to this photo, Uechi said in it, “I decided to try out the real power of karate.” It is said that when the pit of the stomach was struck by Akamine, who could break seven wooden planks with his fist, the skin of the abdomen broke and bled, causing a hemorrhage. In the article, Uechi also talked about the joy of being praised for his training by officials. .
Karate is said to have its roots in the Ryūkyū Kingdom era. The two persons mentioned above were born in Okinawa and trained at a dōjō opened in Wakayama City by Uechi’s father, Kanbun (1877-1948). Kanbun is the founder of the Uechi-ryū, who had travelled to the Qing dynasty where he studied martial arts.
The time when the photo was taken was an era when the number of migrant workers from Okinawa to the Ōsaka and Kyōto regions increased. In the 1920s, Okinawa suffered a recession called “cycad hell” when people where so poor they had no choice but to eat poisonous sago palm cycads. Many people from Okinawa went to the Ōsaka and Kyōto regions, but the phrase “Ryūkyūans and Koreans refused!” spread and they faced discrimination when trying to find a job or a house.
According to Kaneshiro Kaoru (67) of the Kansai Okinawa Library, who collects materials related to Okinawa in Ōsaka City, there was a strong tendency until the 1970s to avoid performing Okinawan songs and dances in public. “As a self-defense from discrimination, I feel that Okinawan culture has been protected within circles of friends and family since before the war, and this photo is a vital outwardly expression of this.”
Kanei returned to Okinawa and opened a dōjō. He survived the Battle of Okinawa and afterwards developed and popularized Uechi-ryū. According to research by Okinawa Prefecture, there are 300 Uechi-ryū dōjōs in the prefecture, as well as in the north-eastern and south-western regions of Japan, the United States, France, and Argentina, but there are also dōjō in many other countries.
Source: Ryūkyū traditional kumi-odori, karate … 165 prewar Okinawan photographs discovered (Ryūkyū dentō no kumiodori, karate… Senzen no Okinawa utsushi shita 165-mai o hakken). Asahi Shimbun, in collaboration with the Okinawa Times: Shiroma Tamotsu, Mano Keita, Shimazaki Mawaru, March 29, 2021.
© 2021, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.