Post War (B)

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Post War (B)

Post by emattson »

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By Graham Noble

One other interesting feature of Kanei Uechi’s leadership was the approach to free sparring, jyu kumite, and competition. Although Uechi himself believed that the old ways were the best, he allowed a lot of latitude for individual dojos and teachers to practice jyu kumite, and even competition. For the time that was a surprisingly liberal attitude because it was in contrast to mainstream Okinawan schools which generally frowned on free sparring: as Ryukyu Tomoyose observed of the post-war period, “In Shorin Ryu and Goju Ryu dojo, sparring was not widespread then, perhaps because in Okinawan karate we were taught to finish the opponent with a single kick or punch.” Tomoyose told “Classical Fighting Arts” magazine that Uechi students were sparring in post-war Okinawa from the late 1940s, although the practice wasn’t shown publicly till around 1960. He recalled that students were allowed to free spar after they had learned Seisan kata.

According to some Uechi Ryu practitioners, a form of free sparring had pretty much always been part of the style, going back to the days of the old Wakayama dojo, and of course there is that 1965 Wakayama footage, which contains a minute or so of jyu kumite. From a modern perspective, I suppose it looks rather primitive and limited, with rather tentative kicks and punches and lacking the variety and penetration of modern karate technique – but it was being practised.

Stylistically, this must be the oldest form of Uechi sparring that we have on film. What is interesting is that to some extent we can trace the development of Uechi jyu kumite over the years from other pieces of footage. For example, there is a film of competitive free sparring which dates from the late 1950s. This footage is titled “The first Uechi Ryu karate pre-tournament”, presumably an early experiment in competition held in the dojo: Kanei Uechi is there overseeing proceedings. Some future Uechi seniors appear on this footage, apparently, Seiki Irei, Shigeru Takamiyagi and Minoru Miyagi, and the competition also has a few American servicemen taking part. Many of the fighters take a more sideways-on, rather crouching stance with the hands down, and the fighting style is rather static, taking up a position and flicking in kicks off the front foot, or lunging in with punches. After the fighters attempt an attack they tend to draw back and take up a pose, so there is an old-style stop-start tempo to the kumite. Overall the fighting is rather spirited but scrappy and it looks like this was an early stage of jyu-kumite where the participants hadn’t really learned how to apply karate technique in free-style sparring, or put moves together very well. The bigger and heavier Americans consistently push the smaller Okinawans back, often out of the fighting area.

Unlike some other Okinawan schools Uechi Ryu never seems to have employed the full bogu (protective equipment) for sparring or competition, but there is a photo in the 1965 “Black Belt” article on Uechi Ryu showing two practitioners sparring and they are wearing chest protectors, presumably to allow heavier contact to the body. That may have been a fashion then, because when John Bartusevics, an Isshin Ryu stylist, won the All-Okinawa championship Tournament in 1965 (“Black Belt” June 1965) the competitors were wearing this kind of protector. But that practice didn’t seem to go anywhere.

Anyway - In film of the demonstration for the 25th anniversary of Kanbum Uechi’s death (so 1973?) there is some jyu kumite shown by younger black belts: as usual, the seniors do not spar. The use of technique here is easier and more assured than in the 1950s (Okinawa) or 1965 (Wakayama) footage. The stances used are quite natural and the kicks and punches put together more easily, and overall it looks like more modern dojo sparring, with modern-era kicks such as roundhouse kicks and occasional back kicks. You can continue to follow the jyu kumite in various pieces of footage through the 1970s onwards, and it begins to assume, pretty much, the orthodox Japanese style of jyu kumite: the specific Uechi nature of the sparring, if it was ever really there, diminishes. But that also applied to other karate styles as the practice of jyu kumite and competition grew in the 1960s and ‘70s and a general style of fighting emerged.

Competition came late in the history of Okinawan karate, but when it did come Uechi Ryu soon became the most successful school in the island’s tournaments. Some people believe that the style lends itself to free fighting, but most likely its success was due to the amount of free sparring practised in dojos. I do recall seeing some friendly sparring back in the mid-1970s between an Uechi Ryu nidan who had trained at the hombu dojo in Naha – concentrating on kata, with little free sparring practice, I imagine - and a friend of mine who had trained in Wado and Shotokan, and was a good free fighter with a variety of powerful kicking techniques. It was one-sided: the Uechi Ryu nidan had no way of dealing with the strong side, roundhouse, and back kicks which penetrated through his defence and seemed, in fact, quite new to him. This seemed to be a demonstration of the limitations of the traditional style and forms of training.

According to Alan Dollar, the first Uechi Ryu tournament was in held in 1968. That first year’s event, and the second year’s, were won by Kosuke Yonamine of the Koza dojo. The most famous of modern Uechi Ryu competitors, Kyohide Shinjo, won the third tournament in 1970, and according to Dollar, he won the tournament nine times in all. When the first open (all styles) All Okinawan karate Championships was held in 1979, Shinjo won that too.

Records on this are not easy to come by, but it seems safe to say that Uechi Ryu was the dominant style in Okinawan tournaments from the 1970s to the 1990s, (and maybe after, I don’t know). These events attracted little interest in the West but occasionally you might see references or reports in some of the magazines. An article in “Black Belt” of June 1983, for example, mentioned that in the previous year’s All Okinawa tournament Uechi Ryu practitioners had filled all top eight position. The winner that year was Uechi Ryu’s Nobuhiro Higa. A 1993 report in “Australasian Fighting Arts” noted that Higa was an eight times Okinawan champion. Such an extended string of results established Uechi Ryu as the strongest fighting style on Okinawa.

Footage of the early contests seems very rare but Dave Scott, who trained in Uechi Ryu in Okinawa in 1974 gave me a copy of the super-8 film he had taken there, and that includes some tournament clips. The film is dark, so it’s a little hard to identify fighters, but several of Kiyohide Shinjo’s matches (I think) are shown. He fights from a high, natural stance, quite relaxed, with his hands held low in the common competition style. His attacking and countering technique is sharp and he generally wins his fights with punches, gyakuzuki mainly, though he can back up his punches with kicks. Shinjo was gifted but he was also unusually tall for an Okinawan of that time and that must have accounted for a large part of his success: he had a significant reach advantage which allowed him to penetrate the opponent’s defence with his punches. His kicks more often than not are at chudan level, but overall he has good kicking techniques and there is a clip of him in another tournament knocking an opponent out five seconds into their fight with a devastating left roundhouse kick to the head.

“Late one night while working as a taxi dispatcher,” wrote Alan Dollar, “he received a call for help from one of the drivers. When Kiyohide arrived he saw the driver arguing with three Americans. When he approached them, the men challenged him. He defeated all three men in short order.”

Shinjo appears in a video of the 9th Uechi Ryu Championships (identified from a banner in the background). He shows the same relaxed style here, uses kicks easily and has fast hands, and again he has a lot of success with gyakuzuki, often as a counter after blocking the opponent’s kick. Again, he has a reach advantage over most of his opponents although that is not the case when he fights (I think) Bob Campbell, the American Uechi Ryu competitor, who is bigger than Shinjo and seems to tower over everyone in the opening line up of competitors. Shinjo doesn’t find it easy get on top in this match: he has to keep more of a distance, can’t get in so deep with his attacks, and the frequent exchanges of punches look pretty even. Shinjo gets the decision but it looks quite a difficult fight for him.

Bob Campbell didn’t get to be tournament champion, but in 1992 the Australian Uechi Ryu nidan Karl Aycliffe did win the All Okinawan tournament, a success which he repeated in 1993. In both events he beat former champion Nobuhiro Higa, knocking Higa down with a roundhouse kick in their 1993 match. In 1994 Aycliffe lost in the final, to another foreign entrant, the American Uechi Ryu practitioner Ric Martin. I don’t know the results for subsequent tournaments, but those successes by gaijin at the Okinawan Championships demonstrated in full that Uechi Ryu had become an international style, and that was probably something that the rather reserved and cautious Kanbum Uechi could never have imagined.

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“Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.”
- John Adams
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