In 1928, at the request of Dr. Iha Magobei, who owned a hospital in Chatan’s Yara Village, Ankichi painted a hanging scroll depicting a god of thunder and composed a poem for it while at a party near Murochi. This hanging scroll is a unique specimen of Ryūkyūan martial arts. Ankichi’s brother, Angi, presented the painting to Nagamine Shōshin in January 1984 as a memory of his venerated teacher. It remained in family possession of his son Nagamine Takayoshi.
I first saw it displayed at the Matsubayashi-ryu Kōdōkan Dōjō of my late sensei Nagamine Takayoshi in 2008. The picture scroll bears a verse on top: Kuken karate hatsukaminari mo nigiri o osafu, to be read from top to bottom and from right to left. It is difficult to interpret, but it is something like:
“The bare hands of karate, seizing the first bolt of lightning.”
Yes, something like that. And now it is getting really interesting. Because during my assessment and evaluation I came to the following conclusion, shedding some light on this alcove-forgotten figure.
Among the poem is the depiction of a god of thunder (raijin) with two short horns, governing lightning, thunder, and storms. One might suppose an allusion to the young horned dragon found in Ryūkyū myths. On a cloud scattering lightning he rides along through the sky. In his right hand is a drum, which bears three right-rotating commas. With his left hand he wields a drumstick and with his drumbeats unleashes thunder and lightning. His otherwise naked body is covered with a loincloth made of tiger skin. Around his neck he wears a type of scarf, which in fact is the bag of winds of the wind god (fūjin): our figure is a combination of two old Shintō deities, the God of Thunder (raijin) and the God of Wind (fūjin)!
On the left side the picture scroll is signed:
“An immortal mountain wizard from the shores of the pond of time.”
As regards gods of thunder and winds mythology, there are many legends across all cultures. Buddha commissioned the gods of thunder with the protection of the cosmic law and order, or dharma. In Japanese shintō mythology, gods of thunder were created by the divine pair Izanami and Izanagi after they created Japan. An example is Takemikazuchi, often revered as a god of thunder and considered the deity of jūdōka and kēndōka, as well as a protective deity of war. In the end, the three right-turning commas are also a symbol for the Hachiman Daibosatsu. For those who wonder: the royal symbol of the Ryūkyū kingdom always had three left-turning (clockwise) commas, as I described here and also here.
In this way, Arakaki’s magnificent example of the artistic culture of the Ryūkyūs compares karate with the fearsome force of nature and merges mythology with poetry and music. At least if you ask me, it carries a message:
Just like the god of thunder and wind in all cultures controls the enormous power of thunder, lightning, and storms, a master controls the enormous power karate. Just like thunder, lightning, and storms are terrifying and destructive and thus need to be controlled by the gods, so does karate need to be controlled by man and women.
Alhough frightening in their power and warlike in their implications, the thunder and wind gods originally were and still are protective deities. Again, the same relationship is valid for karate men and women.
In this way, and independent from its literal translation and screaming linguists, the ultimate meaning of this picture scroll becomes a piece of art bearing witness of the deep humanity and artistic and philosophical ideals of the person Arakaki Ankichi.
Watch and listen to Sanyama-bushi or Scattered mountain tune performed by the Nomura-ryū.
© 2023, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.