Okinawan “young men groups” and traditional pastimes

Okinawa Kobudo is presented as an almost ancient martial art originally meant for combative purposes. In contrast to this, there are the numerous traditions of Mura-bo (village bojutsu), which are considered non-combative entertainment which developed from older, combative kobudo. Unsurprisingly, this hypothesis almost exclusively comes from kobudo circles.

Here are some things to consider. First of all, kobudo is a modern term which came into use only in the 20th century. Second, how did they train bojutsu in Okinawa 150 years ago? Staff fencing without protective equipment inevitably means injuries, including irreparable ones. That is, if you have technique, aggression, and dynamic. That’s why they invented bogu (armor) in kendo hundreds of years ago to allow for real strikes in practice. Maybe bojutsu people on Okinawa practiced yakusoku style, i.e. exchange of techniques in prearranged order. This is a distinctive characteristic seen abundantly in Mura-bo (see video below). It is also known from Japanese old-school kobudo like kenjutsu, jojutsu, naginatajutsu etc., where two-person drills are an important part of the didactics (see video further down).
Did they only practice individual kata in Okinawa, without partner practice? Or did they practice friendly bouts with light weapons under controlled circumstances and no intention to injure, like in the video of Juego de Palo at the end of this article?
In any case: The lack of even the tiniest hint to the existence of protective equipment in Okinawa begs the question: How martial or combative was it really?

The Assault at Arms at St. James’s Hall – A Bout at Quarterstaff. From: The Illustrated sporting & dramatic news, London 1875. Also note huge indian clubs in the rear, for “hojo undo.”

Well, as I said earlier, Okinawa Kobudo is presented as an almost ancient martial art. There are, however, strong indactors that kobudo went through a process similar to karate in the early 20th century. It is possible that kobudo, just like karate, has intentionally been developed into a bujutsu from less militant/combative, cultural traditions of Okinawa. Or, how academics call it, from traditional pastimes.

The prearranged format of Mura-bo

Even before modern sports were transferred to Okinawa, there was a traditional athletic culture that used physical exercise as a medium. That is, a specific athletic culture has had been handed down in Okinawa in the form of traditional events since before the abolition of the Ryukyu Kingdom and the establishment of Okinawa Prefecture in 1879. The traditional athletic culture was handed down by young men’s groups (called niseyuri) who

“participated in the villages’ local self-government, customs, and management of agricultural produce, in monitoring against theft and robbery, in fire prevention, checking travellers, in watching over unmarried daughters (mijarabi ミヤラビ), and they were involved in events such as a tug of war.” (Maeshiro 380-81)

Against the backdrop of the government’s military encouragement policy after the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), above-mentioned niseyuri groups became increasingly active within the new movement of the “young men’s associations” (seinenkai 青年会), which were – however – controled by the prefectural authorities.

Here are just two from among dozens of examples:

  • On October 26, 1907, karate, jūjutsu, gekken (kendo), sumō, and footrace were performed as sideshows after the end of the general meeting of the Shimajiri County Young Men’s Association.
  • On August 18, 1909, karate, bayonet fencing, gekken (kendo), and sumō were performed as sidewhows after the end of the general meeting of Goeku Village Young Men’s Association.

Like this, karate was performed together with armed foot race, ping-pong, judo, gymnastics, long distance running, rope skipping, “two person three leg” race etc.pp.

Japanese old-school kobudo. While it is prearranged, they still use hand/wrist protection.

Well, in 1909, the Ryukyu Shinpo newspaper published a survey about recreational pastimes made by the Shimenajiri County Young Men’s Associations, which recommended the following:

Things that already exist and which should be promoted:

  • 1. Horse riding
  • 2. Wrestling
  • 3. Tug of war
  • 4. Bo-odori
  • 5. dragon boat race
  • 6. Traditional weight lifting (bo-ishi = chiishi)
  • 7. Apparatus gymnastics

Things that exist, but which should be ignored:

  • 1. Samisen (or sanchin; three-stringed Japanese or Okinawan lute) 三味線
  • 2. Amateur theatricals
  • 3. Kushiyukui (Formerly an annual event in Okinawa held on April 4th of the lunar calendar. In the villages, people brought treats such as pork dishes and started a feast.)

Things that exist but should be prohibited:

Mō-ashibi (A custom that was once widely used in Okinawa. It is a gathering of young men and women in the fields and the seaside, eating and drinking, and interacting mainly with singing, mainly in the evening and late at night.)

New things to encourage:

  • 1. Karate
  • 2. Fencing (kendo)
  • 3. Judo   
  • 4. War songs
  • 5. Singing
  • 6. Chanting recitation of Chinese poems (especially to accompany a sword dance)
  • 7. Band; orchestra
  • 8. Athletic meets
  • 9. Excursion meetings
  • 10. Swimming
  • 11. Social evening; gathering for discussion; colloquium
  • 12. Discussion meetings
  • 13. Newspapers and magazines
  • 14. Various games such as football and baseball

In the above list we see Bo-odori 棒躍 proposed as semething already in existence and established and which should be promoted. Now, bo-odori literally means “jumping lively with staff,” but came to be known as “staff dance 棒踊.” It is a traditional athletic culture and actually refers to fencing with the staff. It has roots in warrior traditions and this is the source of the Mura-bo, or village bojutsu. It might well be that it continued in two lineages:

  • 1. The combative variant that became known as the martial art of bojutsu, and
  • 2. the original variant that became known as Mura-bo.

The above is analoguous to Funakoshi’s saying that

As regards the origins of karate … (omission) … as martial arts unique to Okinawa, the Mēkata dances of the rural areas are the same as not yet developed karate.

Ryukyu Shinpo, 1914

The lack of even the tiniest hint to the existence of protective equipment in Okinawa still begs the question: how much of an actual warrior tradition was kobudo, really? And what were its tactical characteristics?

Juego del Palo Canario, with light sticks and a lack of intention to inure, or strike through.

© 2020, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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