Motobu Chōki: “My Art and Skill of Karate” (1932)

The book “My Art and Skill of Karate” presents the technical knowledge and original accounts imparted by famed Okinawa karate master Motobu Chōki (1870-1944). This translation was created in close cooperation with the author’s grandson, Motobu Naoki sensei. It also includes a congratulatory address by the author’s son, Motobu Chōsei sensei, the current head of the school. Moreover, this year marks the 150th anniversary of Motobu Chōki’s birth. In other words, three generations of the Motobu family were involved in this new translation, connecting the history and tradition of karate from the 19th to 21th century.

Print edition:  US | UK | DE | FR | ES | IT | JP | CA

Kindle edition:  US | UK | DE | FR | ES | IT | NL | JP | BR | CA | MX | AU | IN

(Note: The Kindle version does not include the glossary index and only a rudimentary TOC, so navigation is less reader-friendly than in the print version)

In addition to accounts about old-time karate masters in Okinawa, the work features thirty-four photos of Motobu performing Naihanchi Shodan, including written descriptions. Moreover, it includes twenty kumite with pictures and descriptions as well as five pictures of how to use the makiwara.

What makes it even more unique is that the existence of the book was unknown until the 1980s, when the wife of a deceased student sent the book to Motobu Chōki’s son, Chōsei. Until today this edition remains the only known original edition in existence, and it provided the basis for this original translation. This work has to be considered one of the most important sources to assess and interpret karate.

Motobu Chōki: “My Art and Skill of Karate” (2020)

My Art and Skill of Karate (Ryukyu Bugei Book 3), by Choki Motobu (Author), Andreas Quast (Tr./Ed.), Motobu Naoki (Tr.)

  • 5″ x 8″ (12.7 x 20.32 cm)
  • Black & White on white paper
  • 232 pages
  • First Printing: 2020
  • ISBN: 979-8601364751

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Okinawan Samurai — The Instructions of a Royal Official to his Only Son

BookCoverPreviewsmTroubled about the future of his only son and heir, a royal government official of the Ryukyu Kingdom wrote down his ‘Instructions’ as a code of practice for all affairs. Written in flowing, elegant Japanese, he refers to a wide spectrum of artistic accomplishments that the royal government officials were ought to study in those days, such as court etiquette, literature and poetry, music, calligraphy, the tea ceremony and so on.

The author, who achieved a remarkable skill level in wielding both the pen and the sword, also informs us about various martial arts practiced in those days. Translated from Japanese for the first time, from centuries-long puzzling seclusion the state of affairs surrounding an 18th century Okinawan samurai vividly resurrects in what is considered ‘Okinawa’s most distinguished literature.’

Print edition: US | CA | UK | DE | FR | ES | IT | JP

Kindle edition: US | UKDE | FR | ES | IT | NL | JP | BR | CA | MX | AU | IN

Table of Contents

Okinawan Samurai — The Instructions of a Royal Official to his Only Son. By Aka/Ōta Pēchin Chokushiki (auth.), Andreas Quast (ed./transl.), Motobu Naoki (transl.).

  • 5″ x 8″ (12.7 x 20.32 cm)
  • Black & White on Cream paper
  • 218 pages
  • First Printing: 2018
  • ISBN-13: 978-1985331037
  • ISBN-10: 1985331039

Translated from Japanese for the first time!

“I think it is epoch-making that Quast sensei decided to translate the ‘Testament of Aka Pēchin Chokushiki,’ and not one of the famous historical or literary works such as the Chūzan Seikan or the Omoro Sōshi. … I believe this translation has significant implications for the future study of karate history and Ryūkyū history abroad. (Motobu Naoki, Shihan of the Motobu-ryū)

“It is one of THE most important primary sources for truly understanding the unabridged history of our arts first hand by a member of the very class of people who spawned Karate in the first place!” (Joe Swift, Karateologist, Tokyo-based)

“I highly recommend this new work by Andi Quast … as a MUST BUY book …” ( Patrick McCarthy, foremost western authority of Okinawan martial arts, modern and antique, anywhere he roams)

“I’m sure I’m going to learn and enjoy this book.” (Itzik Cohen, karate and kobudo man from Israel)

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Oni Oshiro

BookCoverPreviewIn the era of Old Ryukyu, a legendary warrior of Okinawan martial arts appeared on the center stage of the historical theatre. Due to his unique appearance and powerful physique—reminiscent of a wolf or a tiger—the people of that time called him Oni Ōshiro, or «Ōshiro the Demon.»

Also known as Uni Ufugushiku in the Okinawan pronunciation of his name, he had been variously described as the originator of the original Okinawan martial art «Ti» as well as the actual ancestor of a number of famous Okinawan karate masters, such as Mabuni Kenwa and others.

This is his narrative. Gleaned from the few primary sources available, which for the first time are presented here in the English language, the original heroic flavor of the source texts was kept intact.

«I invoke the Gods, To quake heaven and earth, To let the firmament resound, And to rescue the divine woman—Momoto Fumiagari.»

Get your copy now: US ►CA ►UK ►DE ►FR ►ES ►IT

5″ x 8″ (12.7 x 20.32 cm)
Black & White on Cream paper
94 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1533486219 (CreateSpace-Assigned)
ISBN-10: 1533486212
BISAC: Sports & Recreation / Martial Arts & Self-Defense

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Matsumura Sokon: The Seven Virtues of Martial Arts

by Andreas Quast

This is the true story of the seven virtues of martial arts as described by Matsumura Sokon. Considered the primary source-text of old-style Okinawan martial arts, the “Seven Virtues” are admired for their straightforward advice. Handwritten in the late 19th century by Matsumura, the most celebrated ancestor of karate, they are considered the ethical fountain and technical key to understand what can’t be seen.

This work includes the rare photograph of the original handwritten scroll, approved by the Okinawa Prefectural Museum & Art Museum as well as the owner of the scroll. It also shows the family crest of the Matsumura family, sporting the character of “Bu.”

Get your copy now: USUKDEFRESITJPCA

Matsumura himself pointed out that the “Seven Virtues of Martial Arts” were praised by a wise man in an ancient manuscript, a manuscript that has remained obscure ever since. Now the ultimate source of this wondrous composition has been discovered and verified. Presented and explained here for the first time, it is not only the source of Matsumura’s “Seven Virtues of Martial Arts”… In fact, it is the original meaning of martial arts per se.

  • 5″ x 8″ (12.7 x 20.32 cm)
  • Black & White on Cream paper
  • 80 pages
  • ISBN-13: 979-8605143611
  • BISAC: Sports & Recreation / Martial Arts & Self-Defense

Matsumura Sokon: The Seven Virtues of Martial Arts. By Andreas Quast, 2020.

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A Stroll Along Ryukyu Martial Arts History

A Stroll Along Ryukyu Martial Arts History Paperback – May 15, 2015

by Andreas Quast (Author)

Paperback edition: available at Amazon US ($14.99), Amazon UK (£9.79), Amazon Germany (EUR 14.97), CreateSpace eStore ($14.99), and at online and offline bookstores and retailers, as well as via public libraries and libraries at other academic institutions.

Kindle edition also availableUSUKDEFRESITNLJPBRCAMXAUIN

Based on his acclaimed previous studies, the author here presents a synopsis of the development of Ryukyu martial arts. The events described herein are all real, that is, they are all historical. Strolling along the chronology of martial arts of Ryukyu provenance, a large number of verified events are not only detailed, but also decorated with dozens of precious illustrations. As such “A Stroll Along Ryukyu Martial Arts History” is for martial arts practitioners as much as it is for aficionados of history and Asia. It simply provides a pristine ground to stand on for the practitioner who wishes to understand the primordial origins of Ryukyu martial arts.

  • For those who read “Karate 1.0”: this new book here is a synopsis of Karate 1.0 plus the “chronology (Part VII)” without significant changes. It is an easier read without all the reasoning and footnotes, but instead with nearly 80 illustrations to make it more suitable for the general public, and not only academic people.

Among the unique information that cannot be found anywhere else are also some of the illustrations. For instance, there is only one picture scroll that shows the Chinese investiture envoys (sapposhi) and their military retinue. Here, for the first time you might see how famous Kusanku actually might have looked like.

Product Details (Paperback edition)

  • Paperback: 180 pages
  • Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 1 edition (May 15, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1512229423
  • ISBN-13: 978-1512229424
  • Product Dimensions: 7.4 x 0.4 x 9.7 inches



Available at Amazon US ($19.99), Amazon UK (£12.79), Amazon Germany (EUR 19,25 ), CreateSpace eStore ($19.99)

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Karate 1.0: Parameter of an Ancient Martial Art


The most comprehensive study on the parameters of primordial Karate, this work intrigues readers with rich detail and insights into these ancient combat traditions, the pride of Okinawa.

KARATE 1.0: Parameter of an Ancient Martial Art. Düsseldorf 2013, by Andreas Quast.

cover (4)

Karate 1.0 front cover

  • Pages: xxvii, 502 pp.
  • Language: English.
  • Hardcover binding in green linen material with gold foil stamping, size 8.25″ x 10.75″ (20.95cm x 27.31cm).
  • Full-color dust jacket in matte finish.
  • Inside: black and white printing on cream archival paper (60# weight). White exterior paper (80# weight).
  • Forewords by Patrick McCarthy, Miguel Da Luz, Cezar Borkowski, Jesse Enkamp, Dr. Julian Braun, Soke Leif Hermansson, and Dr. phil. Heiko Bittmann.
  • All copies ship from the United States.
  • Price: $75.00.

Only the highest quality both in content and production: get it now from!

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Urasoe no Kon (Oki.: Urashī nu Kun)

Urasoe no Kon is one of the higher kata in Okinawan Taira-lineage and learned for the 7th or 8th dan or so. It is rarely seen for several reasons, one being that it takes a long time until students get there, so not so many people know it. Another is protectionism.

According to the Okinawa Karate Kobudō Encyclopedia (2008), Urasoe no Kon is also sometimes called Urasoe bō and while its originator is completely uncertain, some say it was venerable Aragaki or venerable Tsuken Kōrā.

There is a rare hint, however, and I will disclose it to you now.

Namely, Motobu Chōki (1932) mentioned,

“Tsuken Hanta-gwā and venerable old Shichiyanaka were known as masters of the bō.

Well, in the private archive of this author is a credible source which says that Urasoe no Kon is also called Gyakute Hanta-gwā. Gyakute here means “reversed grip,” which is a major feature of this kata. Hanta-gwā in turn refers to the persons obviously known for using this reversed grip. Accordingly, a person named Tsuken Hanta-gwā might tentativley be considered as the originator of this kata.

What can be said about the techniques? The kata has several characteristic, and unique techniques, that’s for sure.

One is a combination in the reversed grip (gyakute) mentioned above used in the combination of a reversed high deflection (jōdan gyaku-barai-uke) followed by vertical block (tate-uke), a winding press (maki-oase), and finally a thrust (tsuki). See this combination here and also here.

Another characteristic technique is pulling the bō to the side of the body in a vertical position while at the same time assuming floating stance (ukiashi), as you can see here and also here.

Next, there is a stepping forward into crossed-legged-stance (kōsa-dachi) with a thrust forward, followed by a step back in shiko with a backward-forward double thrust, followed by a pressing-thrust (osae-zuki). See this part here.

Finally, there’s a 360 degrees turn that ends in a one-knee-stance, as you can see here and here.

The above are the most striking features of this kata.

Urasoe no Kon performed by Kinjo Seiji of the Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai in 1993.
Arcenio Advincula: Urasoe no Kon of Isshin-ryū Kobudō
See a short combi from Urasoe no Kon I have filmed in 2014.
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Fly the Flag – Did Ryukyu Adopt the Banner of Sea Adventurers and Pirates?

The military equipment during the 1st Dynasty of Ryūkyū included armor, helmets, bows and arrows, spears, shields, and there were also many short, regular, and long swords decorated with gold and silver, which were imported from Japan. There were also blacksmiths that produced swords, hoes, as well as knives, and there were also blacksmiths around the villages who produced edged tools. The warriors wore the formal Japanese attire of the samurai, called hitatare, rode horses with saddles painted in red, and wore sandals made of goat skin.

During the fifteenth century, following military leader Shō Hashi, the kingdom further expanded its sphere of authority and Ryūkyūans clashed with Japanese warriors in the Amami Ōshima region. It is estimated that the main island of Amami-Ōshima itself was brought under Ryūkyūan military control already around 1440 and that “Ryūkyū stubbornly defended their occupation of the Amami Islands against any attempt by Satsuma to recapture them.”

From the account of shipwrecked Koreans in the Joseon Wangjo Sillok we know that Gajiya Island, belonging to the Tokara chain situated between southern Kyūshū and northern Amami-Ōshima, in 1450 was controlled half by Satsuma and half by Ryūkyū. Subsequently the shipwrecked Koreans were taken to Kasari at the northern end of Amami-Ōshima, which they reported was under jurisdiction of a local Ryūkyūan military commander. This commander sent the Koreans to Shuri where they subsequently served close to King Shō Kinfuku and lived in the royal castle until about the end of the 1452. The reports of these Koreans demonstrate the existence of Ryūkyūan firearms (hand cannons) of an advanced design. The Koreans studied these weapons with the aid of a royal official charged with the oversight of these firearms.

While the sphere of influence grew under Shō Hashi’s militaristic government, it is said that he didn’t grant adequate treatment toward the conquered states. This was probably the reason for the civil unrest and war campaigns that broke out following his death.

Later, after the death of 5th generation Shō Kinfuku, in 1453 a war of succession broke out between the heir, crown prince Shiro, and Shiro’s younger brother Furi, who demanded the succession of the royal line (Shiro Furi no Ran). When their troops clashed, the soldiers of both armies killed each other recklessly. During the battles, the whole of Shuri castle and the government treasury were set on fire and burned down. Both Furi and Shuri were heavily injured and died. The gilded silver seal granted by the Chinese emperor was also destroyed.

Shiro’s other younger brother Shō Taikyū was nominated and ascended the throne in 1454. Under his reign, two powerful military leaders closely related to the royal family, namely lord Gosamaru of Nakagusuku castle and lord Amawari of Katsuren castle, were both killed in a series of military actions stirred by what is thought to have been high-treason (1458). Amawari, as general of the government forces, first attacked Gosamaru, but shortly afterwards turned against his lord and attacked Shuri castle. Defeated by government forces he took a flight and was killed. It seems obvious that these incidents took place due to members of the royal family fighting for power.

King Shō Toku (rg 1461-1469), last generation of the 1st Shō Dynasty, ascended the throne at the young age of twenty years. At this time, swashbuckling pirates and armed groups of privateers roamed the nearby seas. Ryūkyū itself was part of the smuggling network of the pirates and Ryūkyūan seamen even sailed Chinese junks and operated on behalf of private–that is, illegal–Chinese merchants. King Shō Toku is portrayed as having “fancied himself one of these fearless sea barons and proposed to emulate them in making himself a power on the high seas,” and adopted as his banner the symbol of Hachiman, the Japanese tutelary deity of war, who was considered the patron of sea adventurers and pirates. During the Muromachi era (1336/1338–1573 or 1392–1573), this banner was also used by Japanese naval vessels as well as kango (license) trading vessels. During the early period of the Wakō pirates, until the fifteenth century, when most members of the pirates where Japanese using the Inland Sea and Northern Kyūshū as their bases, they also used the Hachiman symbol as their sign, and their ships were even commonly called hachiman-sen.

Shō Toku sailed to Kikai Island twice, leading his troops himself, and in 1465 the islands eventually became part of Ryūkyū’s territory. The following historical narrative relates some of the points concerning Shō Toku.

Although Amami Ōshima had been incorporated into the Ryūkyū Kingdom by around 1440, Kikai Island, situated along the bidirectional trading route with southern Kyūshū and Japan, didn’t come to Ryūkyū’s shores to offer tribute. Many times, and over many years soldiers had been dispatched on expeditions to the island, yet no result was achieved. Prompted by this offensive behavior, King Shō Toku decided to personally command a punitive expedition to Kikai Island to pacify the enemy. Meanwhile, in Asato village, a bird flew by crying. The king, taking hold of his bow, faced towards heaven, and asked for divine acknowledgement: “If I am to pacify Kikai Island, then one arrow will kill the bird. If not, the arrow will fail.” Finishing his prayer, he released the arrow and while the bowstring still echoed, the bird dropped dead to the ground. On 1465/02/25, a navy consisting of 50 ships with more than 2,000 troops set sails in Naha. At the time they reached the open sea, the king had a vision of a large hanging bell rocking in the wavefront. Upon this divine sign, on board of the ship gifts were offered to the tutelary deity of war, Hachiman Daibosatsu. On 02/28 they reached Kikai Island. The enemy had blocked the harbor entry and fire-arrows and stones rained down on the attackers, so they could not advance. The king, getting very angry, sent more battle troops to attack, and the number of casualties was countless. One of the key retainers advised the king, saying the enemy soldiers are brave but had no wisdom. In order to defeat them the attack should be delayed a few days and then the enemy can be defeated. The king followed this advice. Coming the night of the 5th day of the 3rd month, with drizzling rain, the skies so black it wasn’t possible to see face-to-face. A fraction of the army proceeded towards the island, feigning to attack. Seeing this, the enemy troops set out to defend the harbor. Meanwhile the key retainer, having set out with several hundred soldiers in small boats, carrying large numbers of torches, got in the rear of the enemy burning huts and houses. The king, delighted, ordered the other troops to land also, and, “with battle cries shaking the sky,” to set fire to the houses and burn everything down. The enemy soldiers, with body and soul detached lost their fighting spirit, and capitulated in countless numbers. The enemy’s ringleaders, whose strength was exhausted, were caught and put to death. The king appointed other chieftains to govern the commoners, and on 03/13 they set sails homeward. Returning to Ryūkyū, the king ordered to establish a temple at the place where he shot down the bird, to place a bell in it and to name it Hachiman-gū, i.e., the Shrine of the God of War. And he also ordered to build a temple and name it Shintoku-ji, i.e. the Temple of Divine Virtues, and a large bell was cast and hung in it.

The above-mentioned events confirm the military nature of the 1st Dynasty and are considered a sign of its generally weakened foundation. The various regional rulers (aji) and the people lost all respect for the royal family and Shō Toku fell from grace. He was either killed or died in 1469 at age 29. His heir was also killed.

A former official for external affairs, named Kanemaru, was installed as king under the name Shō En. The entire faction of the 1st Royal Dynasty of Ryūkyū was banished from the royal capital of Shuri. By these events, the 2nd Royal Dynasty of the Shō Clan was founded, and, though the official histories tell the story of a “peaceful overthrow by men of letters,” this was apparently a forcible coup just as in the many preceding cases.

In 1471, Shō En, calling himself the “royal successor of Chūzan in the Country of Ryūkyū,” dispatched the envoy Sai Yo and others to the Chinese Emperor, offered local products as tribute, announced the death of King Shō Toku, and asked for being enthroned himself. In the same year, the 8th Ming Emperor Xianzong dispatched Qiuhong and others to Ryūkyū, and bestowed the title of “King of Chūzan” to Shō En. That is, Shō En, though not a member of the previous royal lineage, was made legitimate heir of the royal dynasty and carried on the Shō clan’s name. Just as in the case of Shō Hashi before, the Ryūkyūans “stole the throne one after the other, but they did not dare to change their surname.”

Summarizing the above it can be said that the 1st Shō dynasty was a continuation of the struggles of the Era of Fortresses on a larger scale and constituted a further consolidation and geographical expansion of the Ryūkyūan becoming-of-state, characterized by the use of military power. Accordingly, the life in Ryūkyū was characterized by continuous war turmoil for the span of 150 years straight, which spawned the proverb wallowing in the blossoms of battle (ikusahana sasobi).

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Warfare and Deception – How Shō Hashi Established the 1st Ryukyu Dynasty

King Shō Hashi, described as the “Hometown Hero” for Okinawans, is the main character of the musical named after him.

“For Okinawans, King Sho Hashi was the first historical figure to have a truly positive impact on the country. I want to take that passionate Okinawan tradition and convey it to future generations using King Sho Hashi as the motif.” 

Let’s take a look at the happenings back at the time of King Shō Hashi.

As mentioned in the previous article, each of the Three Kingdoms of Okinawa had succeeded in entering the investiture and tributary relations with Ming China and all three were heavily engaged in the annual China trade. The trade provided them a boost in status, economy, and culture. Competition for the superior position in this trade increasingly depended on warfare, so much that the Chinese Emperor warned Ryūkyū, saying:

“I have learned that in Ryūkyū three kings are fighting against each other. Thereby they destroy the agriculture and inflict harm upon the people. This saddens me very much. […] The kings should end the war and let the people come to peace.”

However, the Three Kingdoms were not unified by any one of the three kings, nor by the successors of a presumed royal line, but by the outsider Hashi.

So, let’s take a look at the true story of Okinawa’s famous unification under the royal Shō dynasty.

In 1402, Hashi attacked and defeated the lord of Asato near Urasoe, providing Hashi with a strategic stronghold. Four years later, in 1406, Hashi attacked and destroyed King Bunei of Chūzan, and installed his own father Shishō as king instead.

Upon the death of a sovereign, the Chinese Court had to be informed immediately, and the name of the successor submitted for approval. Therefore, in the 4th month of 1407, “King Shishō” dispatched an envoy to Ming China with local products as tribute. The envoy told the Chinese officials that Shishō’s father, King Bunei of Chūzan had passed away. Of course that was a blunt lie, and in fact, they had killed the king, but the Chinese Emperor Taizu didn’t know and so he dispatched an investiture mission that enthroned Shishō as the official “King of Chūzan in the Country of Ryūkyū.”

In this way Hashi and his father Shishō took over the China trade as well as the title of King of Chūzan. Chūzan’s port of overseas trade was Naha, and this undoubtedly contributed to further gain in power. With Naha as an excellent harbor Hashi ran a thriving overseas trade, secured his economic foundation, and gained knowledge of advanced weaponry used abroad.

Next, in 1416, Hashi rallied his troops to attack Nakijin castle, destroyed king Han’anchi, and assumed power over Hokuzan. Similarly as before, he then appointed his brother as the king of that region. China accepted without further ado. And so Hashi also annexed both Hokuzan’s tribute trade rights and kingship.

Shishō passed away in 1421, upon which Hashi informed the Ming Emperor about the death of his father in the 2nd month of 1424. In 1425, the Ming Emperor dispatched his envoy Chai Shan, to bestow on him the title of “Chūzan King Shishō’s heir Shō Hashi.” Notably it was at this exact point that the surname “Shō” was granted to Hashi by the Ming Emperor, a family name henceforth carried by each and every Ryūkyū king.

In 1429 Shō Hashi continued his expansion by attacking Ōsato Castle and killing King Tarumī of Nanzan. Again, China accepted without further ado.

During all the time of Hashi’s takeover, from 1406 to 1429, tributary missions continued to be sent to Ming China annually. Like this, Hashi established a single unified sphere of kingship and a single authority for tributary trade with China on the island of Okinawa, manifested in the establishment of the 1st Shō Dynasty of the Ryūkyū kingdom in the year 1429.

And this is how Hashi took over Okinawa by a successive series of warfare spiced with a good sprinkle of lies towards China. In recognition of his achievements, posterity labelled Shō Hashi the “Ise Shinkurō of the Southern Islands.”

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Sulphur and Horses – The Military Origin of Okinawa’s Tribute Trade with China

Last year, under participation of ten grand masters of Okinawa karate and kobudō, a museum and memorial monument related to Ryūkyū horses have been erected in Naha City. The topic is embedded within the peace theory of Okinawa and the description carries the usual phrases, such as “since ancient times…,” “deeply rooted in the lives of the islanders…,” or “closely related to karate and kobudō.” Also, the project aims to be registered as an intangible cultural heritage, probably with the UNESCO.

While this author supports these ideas, his curiosity led him to check the history for what the officials have not mentioned in their advertising brochure.

So, what is the true history of Ryūkyū horses?

According to the dynastic records of the Ming Dynasty, already in the 1370s there were three kings in Okinawa, namely in realms called Chūzan, Sanzan, and Hokuzan. The tribute envoys of each of these once even appeared together at the Ming court, competing for the establishment of investiture and tribute trade with Ming China. The main motivation for their competition was the yield expected from the investiture and tribute trade.

Precious articles and imperial gifts began to reach Okinawa and stimulated further activities in overseas trade. In 1396, the first Chinese investiture envoy (sappōshi) reached Ryūkyū, for the enthronement of King Haniji of Hokuzan, followed in 1404 for the investiture of King Bunei of Chūzan, and in fact the Chinese Emperor bestowed the title of king to all the three leaders. This is the reason why the period is called the “Era of Three Kingdoms” (sanzan-jidai). These kingdoms were the three most powerful trading communities in Okinawa at the time, with trading ports, fortresses, armies, and settlements with technical experts, people engaged in agriculture, production and trade.

Initially, Ryūkyūan tribute to China consisted mainly of sulphur and horses, both of which were two of the most important military materials urgently needed by the Ming. As Takara pointed out:

For their battles with the Mongols the Ming required supplies and one ingredient was sulphur, indispensable for gunpowder. They also needed horses to pull their cannons to the battlefield. The Ryūkyū Islands were able to supply both.

In short, horse pasturage became a cultural standard in Okinawa due to the military demand of the Ming Dynasty. For instance, in 1374, only two years after the begin of the tribute trade relationship, the Chinese envoy Li Hao purchased a huge number of horses and took them back to China, and for the year 1383 a single Chinese purchase of nine hundred eighty (980!) horses is recorded. Together with the vast quantities of sulphur, the original Ryūkyū tribute items were of high military utility to the Chinese, who regarded Ryūkyū as a major supplier. From this reason, and because the following Ming emperors adhered to the policies and practices of Ming Taizu, Ryūkyū earned a preferential treatment which lasted long after the military-supply question of the Ming was settled.

Yes, you have read it correctly: The 500 years of Ryūkyū-Chinese investiture relation is actually based on military supplies…

BTW, above-mentioned Li Hao, on the same occasion in 1374, brought with him to Okinawa “one thousand iron utensils” and some seventy thousand pieces of earthenware. He also noted in his official report to the Chinese Emperor that the Ryūkyūans were not interested in silk, but only in iron kettles and porcelain, which subsequently were sent in greater quantities. It is no surprise that we see a coincidence in Ryūkyū’s demand of iron from China, the emergence of blacksmithing and weapons and armor production technology, the increased fighting and emphasis on military preparation on Okinawa as indicated by the large number of fortresses built.

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Karate as an Intangible Cultural Property

Below is a translation of “Mukei bunkazai to shite no karate“, published in “Okinawa Karate Kobudō Jiten,” 2008. A quarter century after the first designation, Okinawa Prefecture works on having karate designated an intangible cultural heritage with the UNESCO. Yes, the attempt only includes karate, and not kobudō. It would probably be difficult to explain how killing someone with a hoe or maiming someone with spiked knuckle dusters qualifies as an “intangible cultural property.”

Okinawa karatedō and kobudō, which from its birthplace of Okinawa have spread and expanded far and wide to countries around the world, is of high historical and cultural value. On August 8, 1997, Okinawa Prefecture designated karate and kobudō as an “Intangible Cultural Property Designated by Okinawa Prefecture,” and at the same time recognized three holders of this title (Nagamine Shōshin, Yagi Meitoku, Itokazu Seiki).

Okinawan Karate and Kobudō developed as a unique martial art during the era of the Ryūkyū Kingdom by fusing traditional martial arts of Ryukyu with the martial arts brought about by trade and cultural exchange with China and other foreign countries. In the early modern period[1], to systematize it, Karate was distinguished into Shuri-te, Tomari-te, and Naha-te, and Uechi-ryū was added in the early Shōwa era[2]. Other ancient martial arts using weaponry (kobujutsu) were systematized as well.

Karate and Kobudō have been handed down as a means of self-defense or as a physical and mental training for the people, and they have developed to the extent that their value is being recognized internationally and they have spread worldwide, not to mention [their value] in school physical education.

All the three persons who were recognized as [intangible property] title holders by Okinawa Prefecture for the first time are persons who highly embody the traditional technique of karate and who are well-versed and familiar with it. The holders are also responsible for training the successors and preserving and inheriting this field of study. Additional certification of holders was carried out on September 12, 2000, when six people were newly certified (Iha Kōshin. Tomoyose Ryūkō. Nakazato Shūgorō, Nakazato Jōen, Mihahira Katsuya, and Wakugawa Kōsei). As a result, the preservation and inheritance of this field of study was further promoted.

[1] in Japan this usually refers to the period from the Meiji Restoration until the end of World War II.

[2] A rather inaccurate time statement, since the Shōwa era lasted from 1926 to 1989. It probably means that Uechi-ryū was added to the systematization of karate prior to the end of WWII in 1945.

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Jiganemaru @50th anniversary of the return of Okinawa

To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the return of Okinawa, the special exhibition “Ryukyu”, which reveals the history and culture of Ryukyu with more than 700 exhibit items, has opened at the Tokyo National Museum. The exhibition runs from May 3rd to June 26th.

When World War II ended in 1945, Okinawa was placed under control of the U.S. and remained so for almost 30 years. The island’s culture is therefore heavily influenced by American culture. On May 5, 1972, Okinawa was reversed from U.S. rule to become a Japanese Prefecture again, however, it was not a smooth process because there are a lot of opinions on Okinawa. The “Ryukyu Independence Movement” aimed to have Okinawa independent from both America and Japan. In Tokyo, a group of radical students discontent with American military presence in Okinawa, rioted using Molotov cocktails and steel pipes, killing a police officer. In the Koza riot roughly 5,000 Okinawans clashed with roughly 700 American MPs. Approximately 60 Americans and 27 Okinawans were injured, 80 cars were burned, and several buildings on Kadena Air Base were destroyed or heavily damaged. There are no stats as regards the influence of politics on the development of postwar karate, but it must have been huge and many Okinawans wanted to become stronger and dojo and styles sprung up, taxi drivers learned karate and carried kobudo gear in their trunks, several dojo and styles however then also taught American soldiers, who in turn brought Okinawa Karate on the international stage, which is yet another interesting turn, isn’t it?

Today the official narrative however is that karate is THE martial art of peace, and maybe that refers to Okinawan karate as a martial art to end brawls with drunk Americans or something. Who knows. We will never know the secret origin of karate, but the special exhibition “Ryukyu” in Tokyo has a few items that are related to martial arts from the era of the Ryukyu Kingdom. An example is the sword called “Jiganemaru.”

The story goes back to the second half of the fourteenth century, when

Meguro Mori, a regional leader (aji) from Miyako Island, established a praying ground (utaki), where people paid respect to the gods and ‘formed their hearts.’ He encouraged them to pursue agriculture as a source of food and clothing, and incidentally had them take lessons in the art of war, which indicates his authority. In those days, soldiers liked to fight without end, and if the enemy was defeated, they would burn down the village, entirely kill the men and women and snatch away their farmland.”

Like this, Meguro Mori established a ruling dynasty on Miyako Island. In 1500, his descendant Nakasone Genga, chieftain of Miyako Island, subdued the ‘Devil Tiger’ Oyake Akahachi of Yonaguni Island. Information about the specific circumstances is given in the “Ballad of Justice.”

  • On occasion of this campaign were chosen,
  • for the invasion of upper and lower Yaeyama,
  • at the time of commencement of the hostilities,
  • first the shrine maidens danced the butterfly dance and the dragonfly dance,
  • the vanguard mowed down a hundred enemies and defeated them devastatingly,
  • the rearguard mowed down a hundred enemies and defeated them devastatingly,
  • they penetrated the villages of Yonaguni, to kill Yonaguni’s leader, the Devil Tiger.
  • Nakasone Genga assumed his position, and took our famous sword named Jiganemaru,
  • and early in the morning he called out loud for him, and the Devil Tiger was beheaded,
  • and with good fortune of war, the island was brought to peace.

So that was that.

According to “The Origin of the Precious Sword Jiganemaru,” in 1522 Nakasone Genga presented the Jiganemaru to King Shō Shin and since then it was handed down as a family treasure within the royal family.

Now to the description, which I presented in my “Karate 1.0” (2013).

Jiganemaru is the designated title of this sword. It has an unsigned blade in black lacquer sheath and with short sword fittings. The length of the blade is 53.8 cm. The blade (tōshin) is a wakizashi without ridgeline and yokote. It has an A-shaped design of the blade spine (iori-mune 庵棟) and a curvature in sakizori 先反り style, i.e., with the deepest point of the curvature (sori) located in the front part of the blade, about halfway between the middle and the tip (kissaki).

The ground metal shows itame-hada 板目肌 grain, that is, a texture similar to that of tree rings. The temper pattern of the blade (hamon 刃文) is mixed between gunome 互の目, togariba 尖り刃, and mimigata 耳型, and with nie 沸 (martensite crystals in the temper line of the cutting edge shining like silver dust). The blade point’s temper line (bōshi 帽子) has a round omote, and its ura is curved towards the point. As carvings on a blade (horimono 彫物) there are two grooves (hi 樋), one each on the omote and the ura side. The blade is without a signature but has been estimated to be a production of the Nobukuni 信国 school from the Ōei era (1394-1428), when this school was mainly active in Kyōto.

The over-all length with fittings (koshirae 拵) is 73.6 cm. The scabbard (saya 鞘) is lacquered in black and is equipped so that it is worn with the cutting edge pointing upward (uchigatana koshirae 打刀拵え), as opposed to a long sword (tachi) worn with the edge pointing downward. The sword guard (tsuba 鍔) is of unique design.

Below is the the Jiganemaru at the special exhibition “Ryukyu” at the Tokyo National Museum.

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Control the opponent without causing injury. Kyan Shinei (1912-97). Sai. Bringing attention to Okinawa’s platonic ideal of peace.

Sai, which are used as weapons in ancient martial arts (kobudō), has been studied by warriors (bujin) since the Ryukyu Kingdom era. Originally used by the Buddhist monks of the Shaolin Temple in China, it is said that the tip was rounded and not sharp. It can be seen that it was not a tool to stab and kill, but a tool to let live and to arrest. Even in the Ryukyu Kingdom, officials of the government office called “Hirajo”, which was in charge of police functions such as maintaining security, carried Sai and used it to escort the king, put crowds to order, and to arrest criminals.

Kyan Shin’ei (1912-97) was born in Higa, Kitanakagusuku Village. Since Kina Shōsei, who was a teacher when Kyan was in elementary school, was good at Sai, he admired him and started martial arts under his personal instruction. He seemed so confident in his skill that he said, “Since I [first] grabbed [them], I never dropped a Sai.”

During his days at the normal school [in Shuri] he also joined the karate club and trained. His karate follows the styles of Yabu Kentsū and Hanashiro Chōmo.

In an interview, Kyan explained, “Sai is a very interesting martial art because it is abundant in wrist manipulations and varied movements. That’s why I’ve been doing Sai for 40 years until today. I don’t remember training having been difficult.”

Since every country has martial arts for the preservation of its nation/race/ethnic group, he talks about his pet theory, saying, “Unlike the martial arts of the world, Okinawa’s Sai are not to stab the opponent or for self-protection, but the aim is to appease the opponent without causing injury, and it has a deep meaning that cannot be fully expressed in words. As a weapon modeled after the human body, the Okinawan Sai is also an abstract symbol of the Platonic ideal of peace.

At the Okinawa Kobudō Presentation Meet held at the Naha Theater in 1961, Kina performed Sai (kata 1) and Kyan performed Sai (kata 2) on stage with his teacher, Kina Shōsei.

At that time, Kyan was the secretary-general of the Okinawa Teachers Association. Before the Kobudō presentation meet he emphasized, “I would like to make use of Sai and Bō, which are unique to my native place, a physical exercise equipment and make them a subject of physical education in schools. My present performance is an individual martial arts demonstration, but when done as a group performance, I think it is good as a physical education, to inherit the fine Kobujutsu left by our ancestors, and in that sense it is also good from an educational standpoint. We have an obligation to hand it down more to the younger generations.

Afterwards Kyan served as the chairman of the Okinawa Prefecture Reversion Council until 1971, driving the movement of reversion of Okinawa to Japan. He ran as a candidate for the House of Councillors in 1970, and since he was elected for the first time, he has continued to bring attention to the “Spirit of Okinawan” (Okinawa no kokoro) in national affairs for five terms and twenty-four years until he retired in 1995. The background to this is the strong spiritual power he has cultivated over many years in the practice of Karate and Kobudō.


The above is a translation of the following article:

Series of Biographies of Okinawa Kobudo (7): Control the opponent without causing injury. Kyan Shinei (1912-97). Sai. Bringing attention to Okinawa’s platonic ideal of peace. Weekly Okinawa Karate, No. 248. Okinawa Times, January 9, 2022.

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Sai, Tinbe and the “Expedition to the Southern Islands” 1893

As previously mentioned, in 2021, a list of “100 Footprints of Modern Karate” was published in the Okinawa Times. I have already written about Footprint No. 1 and Footprint No. 2 and today will turn to Footprint No. 3.

Footprint No. 3 is about Sasamori Gisuke (1845-1915) and the weaponry he witnessed and recorded in Okinawan in 1893. As usual, I will provide you with some context and also introduce the discovery.

Sasamori Gisuke was a Japanese explorer, politician, and businessman. In addition to investigating the Ryūkyū Islands and the Kurile Islands, which were remote areas in Japan at that time and whose actual conditions were hardly known, he also served as the island governor of Amami Ōshima and the second mayor of Aomori City.

From his experiences in Okinawa Prefecture, he published the book Expedition to the Southern Islands (Nantō Tanken), which is a detailed survey of the Nansei Islands including the Ryūkyū Islands. This work had a great influence on later folklore scholars such as Yanagita Kunio, a member of the “Southern Islands Discourse Meeting” seen in the photo below with Funakoshi Gichin.

Sasamori was born in 1845 as a son of Sasamori Shigeyoshi, a feudal retainer of the Hirosaki clan. After studying at the clan school called Keikokan 稽古館 (Practice Hall), he worked for the Hirosaki clan and for Aomori prefecture, and also served as the mayor of Nakatsugaru District, but resigned in 1881 due to political conflict at the time.

After resigning, Sasamori became a central figure in the conservative group, and together with Daidoji Shigeyoshi, the founder of the 59th National Bank, he established a farming management company for raising crops and livestock, of which he became the vice president. In 1886, when Daidoji was appointed mayor of Nakatsugaru District, Sasamori was elected president until in 1892 he retired from the company and turned towards exploring the Kurile Islands.

In April, 1893, when he met with Home Minister Inoue Kaoru in connection with the Kuril Islands expedition, he was asked to explore possibilities of expanding the sugar industry on the southern islands to promote domestic sugar production. Sasamori made preparations and inquired with botanist Tashiro Antei, who had been exploring each island of Okinawa before Sasamori. In May 1894, Sasamori headed for the expedition of the Nansei Islands, centered on the Ryūkyū island chain. Okinawa Prefecture at that time, and especially the Sakishima Islands (Miyako and Yaeyama), was a dangerous remote area with habu snakes and malaria, and Sasamori was prepared to die when traveling. In fact, Tashiro Antei suffered from malaria during his investigation, and when Sasamori visited him, he suffered from a related medical condition.

After arriving in Okinawa, Sasamori travelled around the main island of Okinawa → Kerama Islands → Miyako Island → Ishigaki Island → Iriomote Island → Yonaguni Island → Ishigaki Island → Miyako Island → Okinawa Main Island, and investigated the actual situation of sugar production and other agriculture as well as fisheries and excavated traditional documents. On the other hand, Sasamori also witnessed the appearance of the inhabitants who were forced into a miserable life. In Okinawa at that time, the “Preservation of Old Customs” (Kyūkan onzon seisaku, in effect from 1879-1903) was implemented as a political measure to win over the ruling stratum of the former Ryukyu Kingdom, and many harsh taxes and social divisions remained as before. Among them, the Sakishima Islands, where the poll tax was levied, were in a particularly miserable state, with the families’ daughters continuing to fold the Sakishima jōfu (hemp cloth), which was a poll tax. On small islands such as Hatoma Island, Aragusuku Island, and Kuroshima, rice was collected as a poll tax even though rice could not be cultivated there, so residents of these islands had to go to Iriomote Island to cultivate rice. In addition, school taxes were even collected from remote areas where elementary schools could not be opened. At the same time, by the “Preservation of Old Customs,” the taxes collected in this way provided a rich life for the samurē ruling stratum of the former Ryukyu Kingdom.

In addition, the spread of malaria was terrible in Yaeyama, with more than half of the settlements on Ishigaki Island and the entire island of Iriomote as breeding places. And, in spite of such a situation, the inhabitants could not complain of illness for fear of being charged for medicine, and the island was covered in abandoned houses as people died one after another. Sasamori carefully visited such villages and recorded the situation in detail.

After returning to Tokyo, Sasamori wrote Expedition to the Southern Islands (Nantō Tanken) about this trip to Okinawa, in which he appealed for the abolition of the poll tax, saying that it was the major cause of this tragedy. This had a major impact on the movement to abolish the poll tax that took place on Miyako Island in the same year. Despite the fact that it was the government’s wish for him to go to Okinawa, the Expedition to the Southern Islands (Nantō Tanken) denounced the inaction of the Japanese and the Okinawa Prefectural Government, and so Sasamori’s work was highly evaluated, stating that

Although Sasamori had a conservative tendency, his spirit was truly innovative in that he did not betray what he saw in his writings. That is what makes this book immortal today.

In the work Expedition to the Southern Islands (Nantō Tanken) a description (a journal entry) and illustration of weaponry as seen and recorded in Okinawa by Sasamori is found.

September 2nd, strong wind and rain, 83.3° Fahrenheit (28.5° Celsius).

A type of old weapon, like the one seen on the left. It is called Sai in dialect.

Interestingly, the sai differ considerably from modern sai. While the illustration shows the trident-like form of modern sai, all ends of this specimen are pointed and the hooks are not rounded and bent. Most importantly, the hooks point in the opposite direction than in case of their modern counterparts. Another noteworthy point is that is unclear on which end this sepcimen is held, at the short end or at the long end, or at both ends. If this was an original Okinawa sai from the kingdom era, it might be the case that modern sai where simply appropriated from Chinese martial arts at a later point in time, during the 20th century. It can also be that there were different kinds in use. In any case, this an extremely interesting example drawn and described by an actual eyewitness in 1893.

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Tode, Karate in the Tafaku 1867

Yesterday I wrote about the written notation of tōde 唐手 as found in the play Nizan Waboku (The Reconciliation of Nanzan and Hokuzan) in 1867 and 1891. While it used the same original notation as karate / tōde, it turned out that it did not refer to an empty-handed martial art, but to an everyday-object used in martial arts, such as found in kobudō or martial arts with tools.

If this is true, then what about the written notation of tōde 唐手 as found in what is popularly known as the “10 Items of Bugei”? These 10 Items of Bugei refer to a performances of Kume villagers that took place on March 24, 1867, at the royal tea-villa (uchaya udun) in Shuri Sakiyama in celebration of the investiture of King Shō Tai. This martial arts program is detailed in the historical document called Tāfākū as described in the Shimabukuro Zenpatsu Collection of 1956.

Shimabukuro Zenpatsu (1888–1953) studied at the law school at Kyōto Imperial University and after his return home he joined the Okinawa Mainichi Shinbun newspaper. Following Majikina Ankō, he then became the third director of the Okinawa Prefectural Library. He published criticism about varicolored topics such as philosophy, history, literature, and current affairs. He was dismissed as the director of the library because he criticized the prefectural governor’s office’s prevailing policy at the time over the eradication of the Ryukyu dialect.

During his time as the director of the Okinawa Prefectural Library, Shimabukuro had also collected historical material from Kume Village, among which was the said Tāfākū including the 10 Items of Bugei. While the Tāfākū itself turned to ashes during the Battle of Okinawa (April 1 – June 22, 1945), after Shimabukuro had died, what was left in previously published works was published together with his dissertation and along with barely remaining historical materials under the title of Shimabukuro Zenpatsu Collection in 1956.

In the preface, Higaonna Kanjun said,

“The document Tāfākū was sent directly to me and is an important document. Tāfākū is, in today’s words, a dramatic language play by a government official of the Chinese encampment (Kume village), which was so popular that, according to the elderly people, it has been screened until the time of the Nakamō Shibai (the first permanent playhouse in Okinawa). But as the times flowed, cultural exchange with China became incompatible in the minds of the young people, and was consciously and unconsciously alienated, and even memories gradually faded. In addition, the historical materials related to the Chinese encampment (Kume village) are extremely scarce, and rare documents such as the Kumemura Nikki (Journal of Kume Village) and the Oyamise Nikki (Journal of the Naha Government Office) burned down together with the Okinawa Prefectural Library, and even in this matter (of the performances of the Chinese encampment (Kume village)), there is nothing else but this one [Tāfākū], meticulously written by Zenpatsu.”

In Shimabukuro’s Tāfākū it is said that from among the residents of the four villages of Naha, those who distinguished themselves went to the Satsuma domain to acquire the skills necessary to be able to compete with Japanese people, such as drama and kabuki pieces, while the young people of Kume Village went to China to learn Chinese music and dance, a some were successful and estalished a school from it.

As regards Kume Village, besides “Chinese music and dance,”

“Of course, things to learn in that country [of China] were not only martial arts such as kenpō, spearmanship (sōjutsu), shield (tinbē), and iron ruler (tesshaku; saijutsu), but also the Tāfākū […], which is one of the performing arts of Chinese drama and is an umbrella term for the entirety of Chinese theatrical play.”

BTW, Tāfākū means Playing the Flower Drum, which is a double drum. You can watch a short example of Tāfākū here.

Well then, on March 24, 1867, Kume villagers performed Tāfākū and other arts at the royal tea-villa (uchaya udun) in Shuri Sakiyama in celebration of the investiture of King Shō Tai. Among the various martial arts – today popularly referred to as The 10 Items of Bugei – was also the written notation of tōde 唐手. Namely, the entry is “ vs tōdē” which was performed by Maezato Chiku Pēchin and Arakaki Tsūji Pēchin.

There are no details in historical sources as to how any of these techniques were performed. Naturally, karate people interpret tōde 唐手 as a historical form of Okinawa karate. However, as shown in the case of tōde 唐手 as used in the Nizan Waboku of the same year of 1867 as well as in 1891, this might not be the case.

In short, the meaning of tōde 唐手 in the 1867 performances by Kume villagers at the royal tea-villa in Shuri Sakiyama might as well not have referred to an empty-handed martial art and precursor of karate, but to something else, such as an everyday-object used in martial arts.

It cannot be said with certainty that tōde 唐手 in the 10 Items of Bugei does not refer to unarmed karate. However, there are overwhelming indications, especially when closely considering the martial arts program items, that tōde 唐手 in the 10 Items of Bugei was not a historical form of unarmed karate, but a martial art with an everyday object, analogous to the case of tōde 唐手 in the Nizan Waboku.

The above considerations are a hard blow for traditional Okinawa Karate and point to a a collective confirmation bias. After all, the above means no less than that the earliest verification of the written notation of the term karate / tōde in sense of an unarmed martial art of Okinawa did not take place in 1867 during the time of the Ryūkyū Kingdom, but around 30 years later at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century.

I would like to emphasize again that the theme of this article is solely about the term karate / tōde, and not whether martial arts of various kinds existed in Okinawa, because there is no doubt about it. This can be seen through the centuries or right here in the 10 Items of Bugei, among other things, where names of practice routines such as Sēsan and Sūpārinpē are already found, as well as various objects used as weapons.

After all, a detailled consideration of the historical sources is important. In the Nizan Waboku of 1867, tōde 唐手 unequivocally refers to an everyday object used as a weapon. In case of the 10 Items of Bugei, it is not yet 100% proven, but here as well tōde 唐手 can refer to an everday object used as a weapon, and, to be honest, I heavily lean towards this interpretation.

Most importantly, the above insights gleaned from the Nizan Waboku and the 10 Items of Bugei require a re-evaluation of the techno-historical chronology of Okinawa karate in the second half of the 19th century. This has far-reaching implications. For instance, you can easily imagine what this means for the narrative surrounding the person nicknamed Tōde Sakugawa, and I might cover this as a topic in the future.

BTW, when traveling home after completion of all 10 Items of Bugei in 1867, at the request of the king, the Kume villagers performed their martial arts program items again on the road in front of the gate of the royal castle. Traditional Chinese martial arts were important traditions of the Kume Village samurē class (shizoku), some of whom went directly to China to learn kenpō, spearmanship, tinbē (shield), and saijutsu. Unfortunately, due to political circumstances at the time, the significance of Kume Village in martial arts have been obscured and falsified in Okinawan historiography, and their Chinese-style martial arts have instead been attributed to Shuri, Tomari, and Naha. However, it is a fact that in the same year of 1867, the martial arts Shuri, Tomari, and Naha also performed martial arts, but these were of Japanese origin.

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Karate, Tōde, and “The Reconciliation of Nanzan and Hokuzan”

As mentioned previously, in 2021, a list of “100 Footprints of Modern Karate” were published in the Okinawa Times. Of course, “Modern Karate” here refers to the period since the establishment of Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. In this list, footprint No. 2 refers to the 12th month of 1891, the date of the written notation of karate 唐手 found in the theater play called Nizan Waboku as described in the “Kumi-odori Shū” (Collection of Kumi-odori Plays), a work from the possession of the Nakijin family branch of the royal family (Nakijin Udun).

This Nizan Waboku is basically unheard of in karate circles, and not one single entry is found in a Google search. Therefore, lets take a look at the Nizan Waboku and its entry on karate.

The context of the Nizan Waboku

The king of Ryūkyū welcomed the investiture delegation from China and received the imperial edict of enfeoffment. The ship carrying the investiture envoys was called a coronation ship (kansen) or otherwise a royal coronation ship (okansen). The celebratory banquet held during the stay of the investiture envoys was quite popular and called okansen-odori (Royal coronation ship dances). It was a once-in-a-lifetime grand ceremony for the king. To enrich the okansen-odori for the investiture of King Shō Kei in 1719, in the previous year the royal government had appointed Tamagusuku Chōkun (1684-1734) as odori-bugyō (magistrate of dances), who compiled several plays under the name of kumi-odori. These were national dramas based on historical events of Ryūkyū as the theme and in the Ryūkyūan language. The kumi-odori were an important part of the okansen-odori, and an important performing art conducted under the auspices of the royal government. Performed by members of the samurē class (shizoku), kumi-odori were presented to the investiture envoys under royal inspection of the king. After bidding farewell to the investiture envoys returning to China, and after confirming that they had returned safely, the royal retainers also celebrated the so-called gozen-susumu (offering a king’s meal and drink). The kumi-odori called Nizan Waboku (The Reconciliation of Nanzan and Hokuzan) was prepared for the gozen-susumu (offering a king’s meal and drink) celebration in 1867, the year following the tora no okansen (Royal coronation ship of the Year of the Tiger) of 1866, which was the investiture for Shō Tai (1843-1901), last king of Ryūkyū.

The story of the Nizan Waboku

The Nizan Waboku takes place during the Era of the Three Kingdoms (sanzan-jidai, 14th c. -1429) of Ancient Ryūkyū and the outline is as follows.

About ten years have passed since Yoza Ufunushi, the general of Nanzan, went to Hokuzan and became prisoner. Chiyomatsu and Kamechiyo, the sons of Yoza Ufunushi, decide to go to Hokuzan to free their father. Knowing that their father is alive, the two visit the feudal lord Hokuzan Aji and beg for their father to be returned. After that, Hokuzan’s resourceful general Jana Ufunushi convinces feudal lord Hokuzan Aji to pardon Yoza Ufunushi, and peace (waboku) is reached in a question-and-answer dialogue between Yoza Ufunushi and Jana Ufunushi.

The story is based on the topic of loyalty and filial piety. The script is written in the Ryūkyū language using kanji and hiragana. Nizan Waboku is rarely performed, but on Saturday, May 27, 2017, it was presented at the Large Theater of the National Theatre Okinawa, accompanied by a chorus, uta-sanchin, koto (13-stringed zither), flute, kokyū (3 or 4-stringed bowed instrument), and drum.

Karate in the Nizan Waboku

Earlier I have mentioned that the written notation of karate 唐手 was found in an edition of the Nizan Waboku of 1891, but it is also found in an older source, namely in the document “Kumi-odori” of 1867 from the collections of the royal Shō family currently in possession of the Naha City Museum of History. The text passage containing karate in this 1867 libretto is the following. I will refer to this as Text 1.

“When you come to Ōbara, the state of affairs is such that they are skilled in numerous bugei (martial arts), and there is no shortage of kamade, karate 唐手, yari, and naginata.”

Karate 唐手 is written with the kanji literally translated as “Chinese hand” and this notation can be read either as karate or as tōde, but at this point it is undetermined which is the correct pronunciation in this case. It is the two sons Chiyomatsu and Kamechiyo who know this karate / tōde and the other martial arts (bugei). It is important to note that both kamade and karate / tōde bear the suffix ~de 手 while the military-style Japanese weapons of yari and naginata don’t.

It stands to reason that karate / tōde here refers to an empty-handed martial art, while the other martial arts mentioned are all martial arts with weaponry, namely the sickle (kamade), the Japanese spear (yari), and the Japanese glaive (naginata).

This seems to be an example of karate / tōde during the Ryūkyū Kingdom era. Did it already exists during the Era of the Three Kingdoms (sanzan-jidai, 14th c. -1429), where the story takes place? Or did it exist at the time when the Nizan Waboku was created sometime during the 18th or 19th century?

First of all, this Nizan Waboku play takes place in front of the historical settings of Era of the Three Kingdoms (sanzan-jidai, 14th c. -1429). This is much earlier than any source referring to “Tōde Sakugawa” or any note on a “Chinese martial art skill” called karate / tōde. However, the term might have been adopted since or after the establishment of the kumi-odori, that is, since 1719, and then used retrospectively. This would indicate that the term karate / tōde existed already in the 18th century.

Err, sorry: Tōde in the Nizan Waboku

We find the decisive clue in a different edition of the Nizan Waboku. There the term in question is written as tōde とう手, with written only in hiragana. From this we know that the correct pronunciation in case of the Nizan Waboku is tōde, and not karate. Moreover, this tōde might have referred to the empty-handed martial art considered to be seen in the example of “Tōde Sakugawa.” However, since in the 1867 edition is written in hiragana only, it’s meaning remains undetermined. Furthermore, the notation of tōde 唐手 as found in the later 1891 edition of the Nizan Waboku might simply made phonetical use of the characters唐. In this case, the notation of 唐 could be an “assigned character” (ateji), i.e., a kanji used to only phonetically represent a word with little to no regard to its actual meaning.

So we need to dig further. Sure enough, in an attachement of the 1867 edition of the Nizan Waboku the term tōde is found again in a sentence relating to an incident involving the brothers Torachiyo and Toramatsu, who were the sons of the castellan of Hokuzan Castle. I will refer to this as Text 2:

“At that time, Torachiyo had tōde and Toramatsu had a sickle (kamade), while both also had an island cutter (shimakiride).”

In Text 1, we have seen that both kamade and tōde bear the suffix ~de 手 while the military-style Japanese weapons of yari and naginata don’t. In Text 2, tōde and kamade appear again, as does a new item called shimakiride (island cutter) which also bears the suffix ~de 手.

From the description it is implicit that Toramatsu held a sickle in one hand and a shimakiride (island cutter) in the other hand. Because Torachiyo also held an ‘island cutter’ in one hand, it would make no sense at all to interpret tōde as an empty-handed martial art. Rather, the suffix ~de here seems to indicate “to hold or use something as a weapon which is normally considered an everyday item.”

In short, the term tōde as found in different editions of the Nizan Waboku does not refer to a form of early karate or empty-handed martial arts. And in consequence, the Nizan Waboku cannot be counted as a historical source about a historical form of empty-handed karate.

Then, in case of Chiyomatsu and Kamechiyo in Text 1, and Torachiyo in Text 2, what did tōde refer to? Analysing the term とう, and while the meaning still remains undetermined, there are a few options that seem reasonable to speculate about.

  • First, 籐, which is a rattan or a cane and might refer to any sort of stick or cudgel of any length, from short sticks to a rattan staff.
  • Second, the very similar 藤. This is part of the Chinese word tengpai 藤牌 which refers to a shield and came to be pronounced as tinbē in the kobudō of Okinawa.
  • Third, as 刀, referring to a knife, a blade, a cutlass, a single-edged sword.

According to the above, it is resonable to conclude that tōde did not refer to an empty-handed martial art, but to an everyday-object used in martial arts, known by Chiyomatsu and Kamechiyo in Text 1, and held in hand by Torachiyo in Text 2, and it might have been any sort of cudgel or shield.

Or a shield cudgel.


Tonfā? I am not saying it is, but since tōde as used in the Nizan Waboku does not refer to an empty-handed martial art, it is possible after all.

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