Okinawa Kenpo – Viewed from a different angle

Jūjutsu and jūjutsu-like systems were known since feudal times in Japan under a multitude of names. The two most common of which were yawara and jūjutsu. Others were:

  • kenpō, hakuda, hade, shubaku
  • torite,
  • taijutsu,
  • kumiuchi, kogusoku, koshi no mawari,
  • wajutsu,
  • aikijūjutsu, aiki no jutsu, aikijutsu
  • yawarajutsu, yawaragi, yawarariki…

These are all jūjutsu systems and their names also generally apply to the art itself. At the same time, they can all be distinguished from one another. Such differences have already been pointed out by Jigorō Kanō (Lindsay & Kanō 1889). You can see it like this: “Jūjutsu” and “jūjutsu-like systems” refer to all systems that have certain characteristics of jūjutsu in common, but do not necessarily call themselves by that term. The word “system” simply refers to a method of martial art that displays tactics or techniques within the framework of a certain scope of characteristics. In general, capturing and restraining were the main focus of torite and hobaku (binding of an overpowered opponent), kicking, thrusting, and hitting were stressed in such systems as kenpō, koppō, hade, hakuda, and shubaku, while grappling, throwing, locking, and choking were emphasized in systems such as kumiuchi, yawara, jūjutsu, taijutsu, koshi no mawari, and kogusoku.

What about the martial art called kenpō in Japan?

The following is from the “Biographical Sketch of the Martial Arts of Japan” (Honchō Bugei Shōden, 1716):

“According to the Kenpō Hisho, [ken] is what today is called yawara. In the Wubeizhi it is called ken. In olden times it was called shubaku.”

Ken here refers to kenpō, fist method. As regards yawara: The above quoted book writes the characters jūjutsu 柔術, but adds the phonetics of yahara ヤハラ as a pronunciation. Yahara in turn is an old notation, and it is pronounced as yawara. Like this, the Yamato Koto Hajime (1697) also writes the character ken 拳 (fist) with the pronunciation of yawara ヤハラ, and jūjutsu 柔術 with the pronunciation of yawara no jutsu ヤハラノジュツ. In other words, in Japan at that time, there was no clear distinction between kenpō and jūjutsu. They believed that both would be the same thing and referred to it by the pronunciation of yawara. Like that, under the headings of yawara no jutsu (jūjutsu 柔術) and yawara (ken 拳), the above-mentioned Honchō Bugei Shōden lists the names of the founders of Seigō-ryū, Kajiwara-ryū, Sekiguchi-ryū, and Shibukawa-ryū, which are Japanese martial arts schools. In other words, ken (fist) originally referred to a Japanese jūjutsu-like martial arts system. The pronunciation of the characters 柔術 as jūjutsu is obviously a later thing.

What else is there to know on the term kenpō?

There is a work from 1767, called “The Outline of Genealogies of Japan’s Martial Arts Revival” (Nippon Chūkō Bujutsu Keifu Ryaku). Under the entry “kenpō 拳法,” it is said,

“According to the Secret Book of the Fist Method (Kenpō Hisho), this [kenpō] is what today is called yawara no jutsu. In the Wubeizhi this is called ken (fist) or otherwise shuho.”

First of all, the term shuho 手捕 used here means “to catch with one’s hands.” It consists of the same two characters as torite 捕手, only in reverse order. Shuho 手捕 here may also be an alternative spelling of shubaku 手博. Next, in the quote, reference is made to a work called “Secret Book of the Fist Method” (Kenpō Hisho, 1661-73). Because of the time of its creation, which roughly corresponds to that of the Yamato Koto Hajime (1697), the characters jūjutsu 柔術 used in the text would have been pronounced as yawara no jutsu.

Finally, the above referred “Secret Book of the Fist Method” (Kenpō Hisho, 1661-73) itself states:

Ken (fist) is called yawara no jutsu today [= 17th century]. In the Wubeizhi it was called shubaku 手博.”

Well, as every karate person knows, kenpō was also mentioned in the Ōshima Hikki (1762):

“Recently, a man named Kōshankin (this seems to be a title of praise), a master of kumiai-jutsu (Yoshihiro thinks it refers to kenpō as described in the Wubeizhi), came to Ryūkyū from [Qing-]China with a large number of disciples.”

Here, the term kenpō is used as well, this time for a Chinese martial art and with a reference made to the Wubeizhi (“Treatise on Military Preparedness”) variously mentioned earlier, which is a massive work by Mao Yuanyi published in 1621. Moreover, the author of the Ōshima Hikki refers to this kenpō by using the term kumiai-jutsu, which is a Japanese term historically used within jūjutsu-like systems.

As you can see from the above, in feudal Japan, no clear terminological distinction existed between Chinese kenpō and Japanese kenpō, except the occasional use of a phonetic aid identifying ken 拳 (fist) to be read as yawara ヤハラ, i.e., a historical jūjutsu-like martial arts system.

As a lesson from the above, when looking at the term kenpō in historical Japanese texts, each time the context must be checked individually as well as the time the term was used. In this connection: what did Funakoshi Gichin mean by his title “Ryūkyū Kenpō Karate” (1922), and Motobu Chōki by his title “Okinawa Kenpō Karate-jutsu” (1926)? Apparently they understood karate to be a Ryūkyūan/Okinawan system of kenpō. But which kenpō? Ryūkyūan jūjutsu? Okinawan kungfu? Probably a potpourri of both, plus x.

© 2021, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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