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.

© 2022, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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