10th Dan Hanshi, Uechi Ryu
Professor Emeritus, Kokusai & Meio Universities
Tsukasa (Scott) Higa P.E.
7th Dan Uechi Ryu
Originally published from Classical Fighting Arts magazine.
Vol. 2 No. 26 (Issue # 48)
Karate-do, a fighting art developed during the years of the Ryukyu Kingdom by the amalgamation of Chinese and indigenous Okinawan fighting methods, is now practiced throughout the world. Yet, despite this widespread interest, even karate practitioners sometimes forget that karate as we know it was born in Okinawa, and its history is part of the history of the Ryukyu Archipelago.
Without a knowledge of the history of karate and the achievements of its Founding Fathers, modern practitioners will be hard pressed to acquire anything more than a superficial knowledge of our art. To ensure the survival of true karate, we must all make a commitment to study it in its entirety, and not just focus on a few simple techniques for use in competition.
The Ryukyus and the Middle Kingdom
From 1372 co I876, The Kingdom of Ryukyu (Ryukyu Koku) enjoyed a special relationship with China. This began during Taiso's Ming Dynasty(1) and ended during the Shin Dynasty(2) when diplomatic relations between the two countries were severed. During the five centuries the relationship endured, the Ryukyu Kingdom paid tribute to China, traded widely throughout Asia, and became viewed as safe neutral ground where trade (often very profitable business for the financially shrewd Okinawans) could take place, even between states that were normally antagonistic towards one another. The Okinawans were regarded as honest and reliable middlemen, and their kingdom prospered greatly as a result.
This long commercial and cultural connection with China influenced the development of Okinawa and its culture significantly. The Kingdom's nearest and most convenient port from the standpoint of navigation was Fuzhou on the south east coast of Fukien Province. So great was the trade between the Kingdom of Okinawa and Fuzhou, that the Ryukyukan was established there to serve as an unofficial consulate, trading post, school, and hostel for expatriate Okinawans. Ships from the Ryukyu Kingdom would traverse the East China Sea, navigate the Min River to Fuzhou, and with the Ryukyukan as a base, exchange their cargoes for the rare and expensive Chinese products such as tea and herbal medicines that were in great demand in the Okinawan port city of Naha.
This trading relationship, and the inevitable cultural intercourse it fostered, had a profound effect on the lives of the Okinawans who greatly admired the wealth and power of China (the Middle Kingdom). Even today, there is hardly an area of Okinawan life where Chinese influence cannot be seen. The art of Okinawa, as expressed though architecture, music, dance, ceramics, lacquer, dyeing, painting, and calligraphy is undeniably influenced by Chinese models. Society is, for the most part, organized according to Confucian principles, and the Chinese calendar is still used to regulate the ceremonial and religious life of the Okinawan people. Agricultural advances made in China, such as the cultivation of sugar cane, were rapidly adopted in Okinawa, and with them, the colorful festivals of the farmers of Southern China such as, dragon boat racing, Shi Shi Mai (Lion dancing) and O Tsuna Hiki (tug-of-war festival).
The Okinawan religion, too, appears to be a combination of Chinese and indigenous beliefs, a potent symbol of which are the thousands of tombs that can be seen literally everywhere on Okinawa, and around which many customs have developed. Everything in Okinawa, from agriculture to customs, language, art, and religion has been influenced by Chinese thought and philosophy. Perhaps a part of this cultural treasure trove were the Chinese military arts that were intermingled with indigenous fighting methods to create what we now know as karate (originally China hand) and kobudo (weapon arts).
Okinawan Martial Arts and Karate Do
It is generally accepted that Okinawan martial arts were influenced by those of China which, it has been suggested, were already being systemized as long ago as AD 92. This is evident from the Kan Sho (Geibun Shi)(3) and is also mentioned in Sai’s Te Ha Ku, Roku Hen.(4)
Later, both the study and demonstration of Chinese martial arts were proscribed by Shogun Kivo Asa(5) in 1727. In 1611 the Bu Bi Shi,(6) an ancient book outlining the 1600 year history of Chinese martial arts which had been written by Bou Moto Gi,(7) was republished, but subsequently banned.
The defeat of the members of the Yihequar (“Righteous and Harmonious Fists") movement, known in the West as "Boxers" during The Boxer Rebellion of 1900 (also known as the Hoku-Sei Incident,(8) Giwa Koku no Hen,(9) and Kenpi no Ran(10)) discredited Chinese martial arts and drove them underground where they drew both method and inspiration from the volume entitled. The Secret
The Chinese say chat you cannot tell a warrior from his external appearance. An outwardly dull and cowardly appearance may conceal the heart of a lion. Similarly, a shrewd and experienced warrior does not give himself away by behaving foolishly. Uechi Kanbun was one of a handful of karateka who traveled to China to study this sort of philosophy as well as practical fighting methods. What follows is a partial list.
- Ryu Ei Ryu:(12) Nakaima Norisaro, died 1879.
- Shorin Ryu:(13) Matsumura Soukon, died 1892.
- Goju Ryu:(14) Kanryo Higaonna, died 1915.
- Kojo Ryu:(15) Kogyo Kaho, died 1928.
- Uechi Ryu: Uechi Kanbun, died 1948.
- Goju Ryu:(14) Miyagi Chojun, died 1953.
- The Last Itoman warrior, (nicknamed Machar Buntoku) Kinjo Marsu, died 1945.
The Birth of Uechi Kanbun
The founder of Uechi Ryu karate was born on 1 May I877, the first son of a Samurai clan in Izumi, Motobu Township, Kunigami Gun, Okinawa. Izumi is a small village surrounded by evergreen acres of rich soil that produce oranges, pineapples. and cherry blossom, often the first to bloom in Japan each year, sometimes as early as January. It was known to be an area that many warriors called home.
The Uechi family moved to the small mountain village of Takafuto(16) when Kanbun was three or perhaps four years old. Takafuto, the home at that time of around twenty families, was located near the center of Mount Yaedake where the views are breathtaking, and the only sounds those of the wind and the birds. There was a stillness here, and a feeling of being at one with nature and its beauty. Sadly this location was destroyed during the war, and what graces Mr. Yaedake now is a radar station of the Japan Defence Force (Jiei Tai)
Kanbun Uechi grow up surrounded by the beauty of nature and in an atmosphere of spiritual tranquility and peace. His father was of average height and weight, and known to be a quiet, gentle person with a warm heart. He was a moral man with a well developed sense of the spiritual world, and was liked by all who knew him. His wife, Tsuru, was strikingly different. She was a large, robust, broad-shouldered woman who yet spoke eloquently. In contrast to her physical presence, which was legendary, she was gentle of character, and warm-hearted.
Those who knew him believed that Kanbun Uechi inherited his stoic spirit from his father, and his warmth and openness from his mother, Tsuru. He was muscular, strongly built, and stood 5 feet 5 inches tall. His fierce penetrating gaze, for which he would become famous, was a trait prevalent in his mother's family. As a youth his body was honed by farming the rocky soil of Takafuto; as a young man his body was turned to steel by Sanchin.
Voyage to Fukien Province, China
There are a number of reasons for Uechi Kanbun's voyage to China. Undoubtedly, growing up in Motobu, an area known for producing strong fighters, he heard exciting stories of Bushi (Okinawan Samurai) and their adventures when family or friends gathered to eat or relax. He was fascinated from an early age by the Bushi, their Tou-ie(17), and other combat methods.(18)
This early exposure created in the young Kanbun the desire to one day become a strong and fearless Bushi himself like the aged Tou-ichi-Tanme-Touyana(19) who told him stories of his own adventures in China many years before.(20)
While his desire to learn the martial arts was a factor in Kanbun’s decision to travel to the Middle Kingdom, the conscription of Okinawan youth by the Japanese government was the primary reason for his departure. Imposed on the Okinawans in 1898, the removal of the sons of farming families to perform military service in the army of a nation many Okinawans viewed as a foreign oppressor, was hard indeed. As a result, so many young men left to avoid the draft, that a social crisis was created.
For Kanbun Uechi, the ability of the wealthy to purchase for their sons an exemption from military service for just ¥270, was an injustice of the highest order, and an affront to his moral beliefs and values. In his mind this was tantamount to setting a value on a human being’s freedom, or perhaps even his life, of ¥270, something that he decided to resist very strongly.
Knowing that he would be facing isolation, loneliness, and hardship in China, Kanbun nonetheless left Okinawa secretly in March 1897 before conscription became law, to study Chinese boxing. Other notable and equally unwilling emigres of this period were; Unchu Marchida Sanda(21) and Arakaki Kamade Unchu(22) who were also students of karate,(23) bo,(24) (stick fighting) and fighting techniques(25).
Training with Shu Shi Wa(26)
When Kanbun Uechi arrived in China he was just twenty years old. Alone, disoriented, and overwhelmed by the scale of the country in which he found himself, he was like a boat adrift in the ocean without purpose or direction. His father had told him that living in a foreign country without support would be very hard, and that he would need to overcome many hardships. He resolved to do just that; but how!
The first Sino-Japanese War(27) had ended in defeat for the Chinese at the hands of the Japanese army, and political instability in China was the feeding pressure that would explode in Peking as the Boxer Rebellion.(28)
Kanbun wandered without purpose through one of the most trying times in China’s history, viewed no doubt with great suspicion by the local people. The customs of those around him were different from his own, and his lack of language skills caused further isolation. He knew not East from West, and felt himself to be in a vast enemy territory, alone and without resources. Feeling hopeless and lonely, his only companion on this solo pilgrimage was a profound sense of nostalgia for his home and family.
Little is known of the period between Kanbun’s arrival in China and his enrollment in the Kogyo dojo, from which point he evolved from an aimless wanderer to a nascent warrior. Now he had a purpose and direction to add to the hope and faith that had sustained him. He never doubted that he would reach his goal, and trained with such determination that he not only survived in his new homeland, but in time also prospered. Hopelessness and loneliness gave way to energy and enthusiasm that drove him to study the martial arts of China for thirteen years.
Two of the most famous martial artists from the Meiji to the Taisho(29) eras were Higashionna Kanryo of Naha-Te,(30) and Kogyo Kaho of Kojo Ryu, who studied unarmed methods and the long staff.(31)
The latter’s study of Confucianism caused him to be named the “Samurai Scholar,” and he was the first Japanese instructor to open a martial arts dojo in China. His style of martial arts is no longer extant in Okinawa, but has been preserved by Shingo Hayashi of Yudokoro, Totori City, Japan.
With his friend Tokusaburo Matsuda, Kanbun Uechi joined the dojo of Kaho Kogyo where they were taught by Makabe Udon.(32)
Kanbun did not see eye to eye with Makabe, and perhaps questioning the logic of learning Chinese martial arts from a non-Chinese instructor, left the Kogyo Ryu dojo to search for a new teacher.
Chou Tze prostitute
Chou Tza prostitute (Japanese: Shu Shi Wa) was commonly known as Yeikan(33) and formally as Azan Do Sha.(34) He was the eldest son of a wealthy family in Fushu Province Nanko Chin Shibata.(35)
In his youth he studied with the noted Southern Shaolin Boxing stylist, Shu Hoku(36) (Li Chou Pei) in Ei Tai prefecture, and later with the famous martial arts master, Ko Sai Tei(37) (Kou Hsi T’i) from San To province for whom the house was built by Shu Shi Wa’s wealthy father, and a stipend provided. (He would subsequently dedicate martial arts museums in Nanko-Giogai(38) and Fuku-Shu-Nan-Ko-Gai.(39))
Kanbun’s whereabouts from the time he left the Kojo Ryu dojo and became a member of Master Shu Shi Wa’s dojo, remains a mystery that warrants further research.
Although Shu Shi Wa was only three years older than Kanbun Uechi, he had practiced martial arts from infancy and was already recognized as a leading expert. Kanbun Uechi commented in his book The Instruction Story,(40) “My main purpose of seeking a master is to pursue the way of martial arts. Therefore, it should not have any bearing, or even be questioned whether my master is the senior or junior (in age) to me. If a younger master can lead me in the way of Bushido, then I will choose that person as a master.”
After three years of hard training under the watchful eye of Shu Shi Wa, Kanbun Uechi had occasion to return to the Kojo dojo where his training had begun. He had dismissed from his mind the ridicule and insults that had caused him to leave this place, and was seeking only the pleasure and comfort that meeting one’s compatriots in a foreign land can bring.
Makabe Udon noticing how Kanbun’s physique had changed and how penetrating his gaze had become, asked him to perform a kata, which he did without hesitation. As Kanbun performed Sanchin, Makabe in his astonishment, could not stem the words of praise that flowed in a torrent from his lips. No external impact could move or unsettle Kanbun as he performed the kata. “His physique was as robust as a banyan tree embracing a boulder with its roots.” His movements were light and as swift as lightning while exuding elegance and power.
On his return to Okinawa, Kanbun’s friend and countryman, Tokusaburo Matsuda, delighted in telling all who would listen of this event. How Master Makabe Udon, who had ridiculed Kanbun Uechi, and driven him from his dojo with insults like “Fat belly Uechi,” was astonished by the progress Kanbun had made in just three years training in the dojo of Shu Shi Wa, and could not stop complimenting him. Just seeing him perform Sanchin, Makabe said, was enough to recognize him as a true warrior. After this incident the three of them, Kanbun, Tokusaburo, and Makabe became true friends.
Selling Chinese Medicine in the Street
After seven years of devoting his life to training in the dojo of Shu Shi Wa, Kanbun had achieved a very high level of ability in both the physical and mental aspects of the martial arts. He had studied Chinese herbal medicine and mastered the language to the point where he could converse with local people comfortably. At the age of twenty-seven, China was no longer a foreign land to him, and the customs of its people had become his own. Now it was time for him to integrate fully into Chinese society as a martial artist.
Since ancient times it was the custom for martial arts practitioners to demonstrate their skills by selling medicine on the public streets in China. The marketing theory was a sound one, linking as it did in the potential customers’ minds the strength and ability of the performer, with the effectiveness of his products. The more impressive the fighter, the more desirable his medicine, and therefore, the higher the price it would command. The drawback was the need to accept challenges from passing martial artists of perhaps superior ability, who could, with a single blow, ruin the street performer’s commercial enterprise. Consistent success required a very high level of skill and determination, and selling medicine in the street could be considered a finishing school for martial artists, despite the scorn it engendered from certain segments of society. So much so that when Macha Buntoku(41) (1867-1945) often referred to as the, “Last Samurai” returned to Okinawa in 1909 he stated publicly that, “Uechi Kanbun was a fearful warrior; he had the ability to sell Chinese medicine in China.”
Teaching Certificate Granted
Kanbun Uechi spent his young adulthood studying martial arts in the training hall of Master Shu Shi Wa in Fuzhou. Eight years of severe training earned him a level of ability rare in one so young. Eight years during which, to strengthen his resolve, he told himself repeatedly that he would never return to Okinawa if he failed to master tiger boxing. Now, in the spring of 1904, his hard work was rewarded with the formal acknowledgment of his ability in the form of a teaching license from his teacher Shu Shi Wa. Kanbun had not only mastered technique through hard training, but also developed the wisdom and presence of mind that distinguishes a martial artist from a fighter, as we shall learn from the following account.
One evening in the spring, Uechi and a small group of students made there way to a remote village to pass the evening in conversation over drinks. The time passed quickly, and soon they needed to decide whether to stay the night, or make their way back in the darkness. Kanbun decided to return despite talk of a bandit named Fi-E-Re(42) who frequent that area. He left his students, and with a breeze in his face and a tune on his lips, set off for home.
By the light of a hazy moon, Kanbun could see the terrain either side of the path was flat and offered no place to hide. And yet, within minutes, his progress was halted by a large shadowy figure with both arms fully extended to block his way. A menacing demand came in a forceful tone, “Give me your money!” Kanbun quietly replied that he had none having spent it drinking with his students, preparing himself for a confrontation as he spoke these words.
This time the bandit demanded, “Take off your clothes!” Kanbun’s response was to refuse, but even as he was doing so a lightning fast punch was aimed at him. Sensing that he was facing a strong, dangerous fighter, Kanbun blocked the punch with his left hand then struck the bandit in the heart with a powerful right four finger strike, felling him instantly before he could utter a sound. From the darkness Kanbun heard the sound of footsteps rapidly disappearing into the night as the companions of the giant bandit melted into the darkness.
This account comes from Ryuryu Tomoyose who was Vice President of the Uechi Ryu Karate Do Association immediately after World War II. According to Tomoyose, Kanbun Uechi was a courteous, honest and compassionate man, but one with an iron will. He preferred to remain silent, but when discussing karate he would become animated and very talkative and his eyes would shine like those of an eagle. His favorite techniques were Hajike (43) (four finger thrust) which on making contact would throw its recipient back several meters; Nukite(44) (horizontal four finger strike) and Kakushiken(45) (crane thrust). All his favorite techniques were performed with the fingers of the open hand, and it was said of him, “One strike, certain death!”
1. Documented as the first visit of a Chinese emissary and the commencement of a trading relationship between the two countries in 1392.
2. Last Chinese dynasty (Qing 1636 – 1912)
3. Chinese technical manual.
4. 100 chapters of Chinese history, literature, and art
5. Shin Cho-Last Chinese dynasty (Qing 1636 – 1912)
6. The will of the warrior, Bu-Bi-Shi (240 chapters of fighting strategy by Bou Moto Gi).
7. Author, Bou Moto Gi.
8. North Sei Dynasty Incident
9. Gi Wa Koku no Ran.
10. Ken-pi’s conflict. Footnotes 8, 9, and 10 are different names for the rebellion of 1900 in which “The Boxers” violently protested interference in China’s affairs by the imperial powers of Australia, Hungary, Britain, America, Russia, France, Italy, and Japan. This epic event was romanticized in thye 1963 cinema presentation, 55 Days at Peking, starring Charlton Heston, Ava Gardener, and David Niven.
11. Hi-chu-no-den, The Secret Biography. A book whose martial secrets were closely guarded.
12. Ryuei-Ryu, martial art style allegedly based on the teachings of Ryu Ru Ko, best known as the teacher of Kanryo Higaonna, founder of Goju Ryu karate.
13. Shorin-Ryu, martial art style.
14. Goju-Ryu, martial art style. See footnote 12.
15. Kojo-Ryu, martial arts style. Kogusuku Ryu in Okinawa dialect. Founder of this art is said to be an individual known as Sai-Chu-Kou; whose true identity is unknown.
16. Tokafuto, place on the Motobu Peninsular in Northern Okinawa.
17. Tou-te, old name for karate from Tou Dynasty (618 – 690; 705 – 907)
18. Bu-jutsu, Kobudo, martial art, hand & weapon technique.
19. Tou-ichi-tanme-touyama a person’s name in Okinawan dialect meaning “Old Man Toyama.”
20. Several generations before.
21. Matsuda Tokusaburo, Unchu Machidasanda in Okinawan dialect. Uechi Kanbun’s best friend in both China and Okinawa.
22. Arakachi Kamade Unchu. Okinawan dialect. “Uncle Arakaki Kamade.”
23. Karate (Empty Hand). Using they modern characters adopted in the 1930s.
24. Konbo, stick
25. 10,000 methods of fighting.
26. Shu Shi Wa, Uechi Kanbun’s karate master (Also called Shu Shabu).
27. Nisshin War. The first Sino-Japanese War-July 1894 ~ March 1895
28. Hoko Sei Incident, North Shin Dynasty conflict (Same as Item No. 8.)
29. Japanese calendar. Meiji Era (1868 ~ 1912) Taisho Era (1912 ~ 1926).
30. Naha-Te, from Higaonna Kanryo, founder of Gojo Ryu.
31. Kon prostitute, stick art, part of kobudo
32. Makabe Udon. Makabi Chan-Gyuwa in Okinawan dialect, a well-known karate expert.
33. Yeikan, Shu-Shi-Wa’s nickname.
34. Azan-Do-Sha, Shushi Wa’s military title.
35. Rongcheng in Fuzhou Province Nanko Chin Shibata Village - North-East of China, Capital.
36. Shu Hoku, name of place in north-east China.
37. Ko Sai Tei, Shushi-Wa’s master’s name, attributed by some to have super human powers.
38. Nankyo-Giogai, name of place in north-east China.
39. Fuku-Shu-Nanko-Gai, name of place in north-east China.
40. Shi-Seshu, Instructor guidance for life.
41. Macha Buntoku in Okinawa dialect. Japanese, Machida Buntoku.
42. Fi E Re. A bandit
43. Hajike, Snap Four Finger Thrust.
44. Nukite (Horizontal Four Finger Thrust)
45. Kaushi-Ken (Crane Finger Thrust)