About Ryūkyū / Okinawa Kobudō / Kobujutsu / Bugei / Bujutsu etc.pp., or in short: Have a salad!

Where does the word kobudō in relation to Okinawa or Ryūkyū originate from?

Ryūkyū Kobudō is distinguished from Nihon Kobudō, but when was it defined and classified as a composite word and category of Japanese budō?

First of all, kobudō refers to technicalized and systematized forms of combat-related skills developed mainly by warriors and established before the Meiji Restoration. Generally it refers to bugei established since the Muromachi period (1336-1573), such as swordsmanship (kenjutsu), grappling (jūjutsu), spearmanship (sōjutsu), archery (kyūjutsu), gunnery (hōjutsu), etc., which were then organized in, handed down and represented by specific schools (ryūha). After the Meiji period, the general term budō was established, and to clearly distinguish it from contemporary developments, it came to be called kobudō.

Kobudō is a generic term to classify traditional Japanese methods of using the bare hands or weapons such as blunt weapons, edged weapons, and firearms, as well as techniques related to combat such as swimming and horseback riding. Kobudō is counted as one of the traditional performing arts of Japan (nihon no dentō geinō), but outside Japan it is mostly considered solely as a “martial art.” The expressions Nihon bujutsu, koryū bujutsu, and kobujutsu are used almost synonymously, as well as terms such as bugei, bujutsu, and heihō.

Ryūkyū Kobudō on the other hand is a general term for ancient martial arts in Okinawa Prefecture. Although it sometimes includes karate, it generally refers to weaponry only. It is also called Ryūkyū kobujutsu, Okinawa kobudō, or Okinawa kobujutsu and most schools and factions teach weaponry as well as karate. While Japanese kobudō per definition includes empty-handed systems, Ryūkyū Kobudō and karate are defined as two different things, although it is said they are “two wheels of a cart.”

There are many differences between Japanese and Ryūkyū kobudō. However, simply describing these differences means to accept their historicity as original entities, which in turn would allow them to be arbitrarily backdated, which is exactly the problem and what happened so far. Instead, here I want to inquire into the origin of the name Ryūkyū Kobudō and see where it can be positioned within the overall terminological development.

I’ve looked into this topic several times over the years, so I had a few clues already, but will try to keep it concise anyway.

First of all, the use of the term kobudō in Japan is not that old. As mentioned earlier, kobudō began to be used after the Meiji period (1868–1912). This is a rather imprecise indication of time, so let’s try to find examples. To do so, I toured the archives of the National Diet Library of Japan and Webcat Plus. Here are a few examples.

In 1926, the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture produced and published a number of educational movies, among which are found the “Ancient martial arts (kobudō) of our country.” According to this, the term kobudō was used by a government ministry by 1926.

Next, the term appeared in the name of the Japan Kobudō Promotion Association (Nihon Kobudō Shinkōkai), which was established in 1935 with the aim of preserving and promoting Japanese kobudō as a valuable cultural heritage. It is the oldest kobudō organization in Japan and was formed by representatives of the kobudō schools.

At this point, the term kobudō had already become sort-of official, which also means that it must have been part of a more or less extensive discourse within related specialist fields for some time already before.

Also, and this is an extremely interesting case, in the Kōdōkan’s magazine Jūdō (1942-11:26–27), a certain Sai Chōkō wrote “Chinese Kobudō: The Atemi Method of the White Lotus Temple (Shina Kobudō Byakurenji-den Atemi-hō), and the same was published again in the same magazine in 1943. Sai Chōkō was born in 1914 the oldest son of a ward mayor in Taiwan, which was under Japanese control since 1895. Already in his youth he has studied Crane Boxing (tsuru kenpō) and Ancestors Boxing (taisoken). In addition, among others, he actually worked as the editor of the Kōdōkan’s magazine Jūdō. In 1958 he published a book on karate and Sai Chōkō’s support helped fascilitating the development of the old Japan Karate Federation (JKF) in 1959, with the headquarter being Tōyama Kanken’s Shūdōkan dōjō. With Tōyama Kanken as grandmaster of the headquarter dōjō, Sai Chōkō as president, Konishi Yasuhiro (1893–1983, Shindō Jinen-ryū) and Kinjō Hiroshi (Kanbukan) as vice presidents as well as Ōtsuka Hironori (1892–1982, Wadō-ryū), Yamada Tatsuo (1905–1967, Nihon Kenpō Karate-dō) and Gima Shinkin (1896–1989, Shōtōkan-ryū) as advisers, a great number of leaders of the karate world of those days were part of this organization, which was the predecessor of today’s JKF. In addition, he was an 8th dan in jūdō and a 9th dan in karate.

In short, “Ancient martial arts (kobudō) of our country” by the Ministry of Education in 1926, and the Nihon Kobudō Kyōkai established in 1935 can be used as benchmarks for the use of the term kobudō in Japan. There were a number of other works in the 1930s and 1940s, including the above-mentioned article about Chinese kobudō by Sai Chōkō in 1942 and 43, which – in accordance with the previously described definition of Japanese kobudō – also includes the unarmed method of atemi-waza as a form of kobudō.

In Okinawa, on the contrary, karate already existed and had long been defined as a dedicatedly empty-handed system and in antagonism to the use of weaponry. As a result, there was a historio-terminological problem and it was not possible to include a method using weaponry under the same name. In fact, methods of weaponry were called differently in Okinawa before. Since aorund 1900, names such as bō no te (techniques of the staff), kama no te (techniques of the sickle), and yari no te (techniques of the handspear) among others appeared.

Then, when and where did the term Ryūkyū Kobudō first appear? There are many stories giving various dates about the establishment of a Ryūkyū Kobudō assocation, which go as far back as 1911, but there is no documentation for it. In fact, it seems it was the wish to backdate some kind of official establishment Ryūkyū Kobudō as far as possible. If this would be true, the term kobudō Okinawans would have been formalized by Okinawans before it came to be used in Japan. Because this is such a huge claim, unless documentation is presented, this claim must be vehemently disputed. If documentation is found, things need to be reconsidered. As a hint, Taira Shinken, who is considered the father of Ryūkyū Kobudō and established an association using this name in around 1955, did not even once mention the term kobudō in his 1938 description about bōjutsu in Okinawa.

This all being said, the first documented use of the composite term Ryūkyū Kobudō known so far is seen in a certificate given by Yabiku Mōden to Taira Shinken in 1933. Actually, the certificate shows both the expressions Ryūkyū Kobujutsu and Ryūkyū Kobudō.

The text reads as follows

(1) Instructor’s diploma

(2) Ikaho Onsen

(3) Taira Shinken

(4) The aforementioned person has trained in Ryūkyū bōjutsu and saijutsu for many years. Therefore, he is granted the title of shihan (instructor).

(5) August 15, 1933

(6) Training course of ancient martial arts with weaponry from Ryūkyū (Ryūkyū Kobujutsu Kenshūkai)

(7) Chairman: Yabiku Mōden

(B) chairman’s seal

(A) Seal of the General Headquarters of the Ryūkyū Kobudō Preservation Society (Ryūkyū Kobudō Hozonkai Sō-honbu In)

In short, Yabiku Mōden held a training course in Ryūkyū Kobujutsu in 1933 and awarded a certificate in his role as the chairman of the General Headquarters of the Ryūkyū Kobudō Preservation Society.

There are obviously a number of options here. Yabiku could have been an innovator who came up with the the composite term Ryūkyū Kobujutsu, or Ryūkyū Kobudō, respectively, on his own in 1933 or any earlier date. He also might have heard and adopted the words from elsewhere, such as from his professional circles or from acquantances active in budō. While this would all be speculation, this certificate establishes a clear date to work from in the future. Until then, it should be noted that the term kobudō was also used by one of the most influential budōka in Japan, some say the inventor of budō itself. Exactly: Kanō Jigorō.

It is well known that classical jūjutsu schools used small and hidden weapons (kakushi buki), the latter a concept also used in Ryūkyū Kobudō. Like this, Kanō defined old-style (koryū) jūjutsu as “the art of attacking or defending against enemies while being unarmed or wielding short weapons.”

Regarding jūdō training and techniques, he said

“The training method is to master the essence of this art by forging and cultivating body and mind through the practice of offense and defense. […] For the sake of convenience, the practice of offense and defense, or attacks in jūdō, are divided into three types: throwing techniques (nage), grappling techniques (katame), and blows to a vital point of the human body (ate).

Nage refers to knocking the opponent down to the ground by performing various movements depending on the situation.

Katame can be divided into strangleholds (shime-waza), joint locking technique (kansetsu-waza), and pinning holds (osaekomi-waza), but in short, it refers to restraining the opponent’s body, neck, or limbs, etc. so that they cannot move or the pain becomes unebarable.

Ate is the use of hand, foot, head, etc. or sometimes an object or weapon to various parts of the opponent’s body to cause pain, or to cause death. Defense, then, refers to the various actions taken to defend oneself against these attacks.”

In short, Kanō states that the atemi-waza of jūdō include the concepts of weaponry (bukijutsu) as well as anti-weaponry (taibukijutsu). When  asked about Kanō’s concept of jūdō over time, I don’t think that anyone would come up with “an object or weapon to various parts of the opponent’s body to cause pain, or to cause death,” least of all jūdō athletes, and neither exponents of kobudō and karate.

Kanō’s criteria for an ideal jūdō teacher were that of

“A person proficient in offensive and defensive techniques, not only in empty-handed techniques, but also in the arts of using staff () and the sword (ken), who is well versed in the theory of two-person matches, and at the same time possesses the necessary knowledge as a physical educator, and has mastered the methods of education, and in addition, as an physical educator, who is well versed in the theory of moral education (dōtoku kyōiku) and has mastered the methods of teaching students, and who also possesses an in-depth knowledge and mastery of how to apply the principles of jūdō to social life.”

From this can be seen that Kanō’s ideal practice of offensive and defensive jūdō was not limited to empty-handed techniques, but that it also included weaponry. As a side note, Kanō placed high expectations on his ideal image of a jūdō teacher.

In 1926, in the journal Sakkō (Promotion) published by the Kōdōkan Cultural Association, Kanō wrote that

Jūdō as a bujutsu includes not only empty-handed techniques (mute-jutsu), but also swordsmanship (kenjutsu), staffmanship (bōjutsu), spearmanship (sōjutsu), archery (kyūjutsu), naginata, and all other bujutsu.”

He also said,

“I recognize that swordsmanship and staffmanship are both valuable, but since practice for matches in swordsmanship has already spread throughout society [by means of kendō], for the time being I intend to practice kata of swordsmanship and staffmanship in addition to empty-handed techniques.”

Instead of using competition matches, he wanted to use kata! To do so, in 1928, Kanō set up a Kobudō Research Society (Kobudō kenkyūkai) within the Kōdōkan with the aim of testing this kind of practice, and proceeded with research into the preservation of old bujutsu such as jūjutsu, kenjutsu, bōjutsu, and jōjutsu to create a new bujutsu from it, and to systematize it under the umbrella of jūdō.

About the Kobudō Research Society, participating member Mochizuki Minoru (1907–2003) commented:

“While bujutsu used to be techniques for killing and wounding, the budō were modernized as a means of education oriented towards young people by physical education (taiiku), moral education (tokuiku), and intellectual training (chiiku). Therefore, even if technically effective as a technique for killing and wounding, many techniques considered unsuitable for physical education were all eliminated. Kanō Jigorō Sensei began to reexamine this matter since the end of the Taishō era, and focused on preserving the ancient martial arts (kobudō), which were already on the verge of extinction at that time.”

Along with the establishment of the Kobudō Research Society, Kanō said,

“In an age when the general public does not carry weapons, bujutsu that can be performed empty-handed are the most valuable, but being able to attack and defend with easy-to-use items such as staffs, sticks, and umbrellas as a weapon is the next most valuable.”

For his study of kobudō, Kanō invited Tamai Kōhei, Shiina Ichizō, Itō Taneyoshi, and Kuboki Sōzaemon of Katori Shintō-ryū, and Shimizu Takaji (1896–1978) of Shintō Musō-ryū and others as his mentors to work on systematization. Kanō was thinking of the completion of a Kōdōkan Bōjutsu as a branch of Kōdōkan Jūdō and its spread throughout the world.

Due to various reasons, the “staffmanship of the Kōdōkan” was obviously discontinued after the end of the war.

The term kobudō in Japan appeared in a variety of endeavors since around the mid-1920s. It was also used in a specialized and distinguishable manner as Ryūkyū Kobudō and Ryūkyū Kobujutsu at least since 1933. This is documented in the certificate presented by Yabiku Mōden to Taira Shinken. It is noteworthy that this took place in Japan, and by Okinawans who had lived in Japan for an extended period of time by then. In Okinawa itself, the term Ryūkyū Kobudō and Ryūkyū Kobujutsu, or Okinawa Kobudō and Okinawa Kobujutsu, were obviously adopted only in the postwar era, mainly by Taira Shinken since the 1950s and by Matayoshi Shinpō since 1960, both of which would later be certified as 10. dan hanshi by Japanese kobudō federations.

It should be noted though that the first use of the word kobudō for Okinawan methods in Okinawa itself seems to have taken place at the former Dai Nippon Butokukai Okinawa branch. This is documented in the program of the opening demonstrations in 1939, where karate kata and kobudō kata is written as categories of performance.

It is therefore difficult and probably futile to find an individual originator. Rather, kobudō should be seen as a concept that developed in the first half of the 20th century in Japan, and based on Japanese cultural and historical ideas radiated throughout the nation, and to distinguish it from Japanese kobudō, and while in search of an own Okinawan identity within that of the Japanese identity, along the tectonic rifts from Meiji to 1945, and beyond, the composite term Ryūkyū kobudō came into being first in an isolated event in the 1930s, and was subsequently adapted here and there while continuously being exposed to the intersecting dimensions of Okinawa and Japan plus x, like a pushmi-pullyu, and became conceptionalized variously and differently in the postwar era, swinging between the poles of self-identity as a people, individual identity as a person, and the conceptions and terminology of Japanese kobudō, and despite all the various distortions of a cultural, temporal, terminological, and technical kind, and probably often of the personal kind, it got a foothold and continued to develop in multiple manifestations while spreading from a regional to a global scale and there is probably more to it.

The composite term Ryūkyū Kobudō reflects all of this.

© 2023, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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