2. The Mysteries of Naha Te (I)

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emattson
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2. The Mysteries of Naha Te (I)

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By Graham Noble

Had Higaonna studied Te before he made the journey to Fuzhou? Well, in the past this idea wasn’t given much attention; the general view seemed to be that, as Kenwa Mabuni wrote in 1934, “The founder of our style Goju Ryu Kempo, Kanryo Higaonna Sensei, travelled to China to study Kempo (mastering Fujian style Kempo).” There was, though, a Naha-te tradition which preceded Kanryo Higaonna. This may not have had much, if any connection with Higaonna’s teaching but Choki Motobu, for example, wrote that “from Naha there were Gushi, Sakiyama, Nagahama and Kuwae etc., all of whom were well known martial artists.” Motobu rarely if ever seemed to refer to Kanryo Higaonna.

In his 1964 book on the old karate masters, Eizo Shimabuku wrote that according to the stories he had heard, “from the time Nishi-no-Higaonna was about thirteen years old he learned the elementary steps of karate on the sly from fighters in Naha and did not have an established teacher. And from the age of twenty four he was called Nishi-no-Higaonna Kanryo for the first time, and became famous as the possessor of a new style different from all of the other masters of the time.” Shimabuku wrote that although he had known Chojun Miyagi, Myagi was taciturn so he had sought stories of Kanryo Higaonna from other people. Shimabuku, though, does not give any sources and his book is not historically reliable.

The current history is that Kanryo Higaonna began earning Te from Seisho Aragaki at the age of about thirteen or fourteen, or around 1866/67. This is repeated as fact from article to article, but it’s hard to understand where this idea could have come from. According to Mario McKenna, “the whole story of Aragaki being the teacher of Higaonna” began with Gohakukai founder Tokashiki Iken, who published the idea in his 1988 association yearbook. He also included a portrait (drawing) of Aragaki, though presumably that must have been a work of pure imagination. Yet, Mario noted, Tokashiki provided “no reference or source to support that Aragaki was Higaonna’s teacher. Students, researchers and teachers alike have simply made this assumption.” Mario also makes the point that Aragaki would have been of the Pechin class and so “Kanryo’s impoverished background should have closed the door to receiving any kind of instruction from Sesho (Aragaki).” Anyway, this Aragak/ Higaonna “history” appears to date back only to 1988 – but once the connection had been asserted everyone seemed happy to run with it and it has subsequently been passed down from writer to writer so that it now stands almost as established fact – yet without a shred of evidence to show that the two men ever even met. The whole supposed connection may rest on something as thin as the idea that Higaonna’s style included the kata Sesan and Suparimpei and two forms with those names were performed at an 1867 festival of arts which took place at the Ochaya-goten (Royal Tea House) in Sakiyama. The performers on that occasion included an “Aragaki”, who performed Sesan, and Tomimura, who did Suparimpei. Hence a supposed connection between Higaonna and Aragaki could be asserted. Kanryo Higaonna would have been fourteen at the time, but again, there is no evidence at all that he was ever at this demonstration and it seems unlikely.

Before, say, the 1970s, there was little literature on Goju Ryu or its history, but in the few older articles and books we can find there appears to be no reference to Kanryo Higaonna being taught by an Aragaki. Neither Chojun Miyagi nor Kenwa Mabuni mention it, although their historical references are very brief. Eichi Miyazato’s 1978 “Okinawa-den Goju Ryu” did have a historical section but although he wrote that Higaonna learned Te before going to China he did not, and probably could not, give any details. Nor did Eizo Shimabuku (1964), Richard Kim (1974) or Dennis Martin (1975). It seems that the introduction of Aragaki into Goju Ryu history came quite late, and coincided with the increasing awareness of the 1867 festival in Sakiyama and an Aragaki’s appearance in it. According to Henning Wittwer the programme of that demonstration was only published in 1956 in the collected works of the Okinawan scholar Zenpatsu Shimabukuro (1888 – 1953). Before that, I imagine, it had been completely forgotten.

The collected works of Zenpatsu Shimabukuro was not a martial arts publication, and the contents of the festival programme seemed to have remained unknown to most karateka until they were published in Shigeru Takamiyagi’s historical section of the 1977 Uechi Ryu book “Okinawa Karate Do.”

Anyway, the programme lists performances of various arts, forty seven in all, of which ten are of martial arts. Two of these are Seisan (“Thirteen steps”) and Suparimpei (“One Hundred and Eight Steps”) and there is another item, Chisaukiun (performed by Aragaki) which some modern historians have identified as the modern kata Shisochin – but, again, there is no evidence whatsoever for that identification other than a similarity in the name. Nobody really knows what Chisaukiun was, or what it might have looked like.

The other martial arts items on the programme: there is “koushu” (crossing hands, jiaoshou in Chinese) by Aragaki and Maesato Chikudun Pechin, possibly a demonstration of prearranged (empty hand) sparring; bojutsu and Toudi (Chinese hand) by Maezato and Aragaki, possibly karate-type defences against the staff, and then five other items featuring weapons: the tinbei, tesshaku (iron ruler; this is interpreted as the modern-day sai), bo, and shabo (an unknown form of bo). A couple of these demonstrations appear to have put one weapon against another in a form of sparring, (tesshaku and bo, and tinbei and bo). There are just four performers listed for the martial arts items: Aragaki Tsuji Pechin, Maesato Chiku Pechin, Tomimura Chiku Pechin and Ikemiyagi Shusei. Aragaki – he is not specified as Sesho Aragaki - is listed as a performer for six items, performing Sesan and Chishaukiun, and in the demonstrations of tessaku and bojutsu, bojutsu and Toudi, tinbei and bojutsu, and koushu. Maezato appears in five, Tomimura in two, and Ikemiyagusku in just one (the shabo). Bearing in mind the significance of the demonstration and the number of items performed by Aragaki, he was clearly a well known and respected martial artist of the time. Henning Wittwer observed that the performers’ titles indicate that they were individuals of known rank and name, that is, individuals of higher social class and not commoners.

But this is an isolated reference, and it doesn’t allow us to connect this Aragaki with Kanryo Higaonna or anyone else. Previous to the publication of the 1867 demonstration programme, the name Aragaki was best known in karate as the teacher of three kata: Niseishi, Unsu and Sochin. These kata are taught in Kenwa Mabuni’s Shito Ryu, and according to Mabuni he learned the forms from Aragaki in Naha – again, I don’t think he identified him as Sesho Aragaki. Mabuni showed the Aragaki Sochin in the 1938 “Karate Do Taikan” but all he wrote of Aragaki himself was that there were various versions of the kata Sochin and that the one he was showing was “from the teachings of Aragaki Sensei.” Ryusho Sakagami, (Shito Ryu) also showed Aragaki Sochin over three issues of “Karate Do” magazine (February to April, 1980) and this short series prompted a response from Hiroshi Kinjo on issues of karate history. According to Kinjo, Kenwa Mabuni had said that Aragaki had taught only these three kata. Kinjo also commented that “It is difficult to prove that Sensei Aragaki even existed in Naha.” He noted that an Aragaki appeared on the 1867 Ochayagoten demonstration programme but added that “I am not certain that this was the Aragaki that Mabuni Sensei referred to. This matter needs further research.”

Andreas Quast refers to a 1914 article in the “Ryukyu Shimpo” newspaper about two of the greatest warriors (bushi, I guess) on Okinawa, one of whom was Seisho Aragaki. Seisho Aragaki was said to have been seventy five years old at that time and still training the youths who took part in tug of war contests. Despite his age, Aragaki was described as “jumping around like a youthful warrior” at this time. The article contained an account of an incident that took place at an 1874 tug of war contest in Naha when Aragaki was the “general” of one side, (the “Eastern” side). His side won, but there was a riot, and it was recorded that Aragaki “with a six foot staff defended in all directions against the yari, naginata, and bō that rained down on him. His bō, marked with the signs of the combat, was enshrined in his family’s alcove to worship the soul of the warrior.”

The expert who supposedly taught Kanryo Higaonna is said to have been this same Seisho Aragaki, who lived from 1840 to 1920, but whether this is is the same Aragaki who appeared on the 1867 Ochayagoten festival programme, or who taught Mabuni, I have no idea; beyond having a common name there doesn’t appear to be any evidence that they are all the same person. There is, though, a problem with the kata. All we know of the Aragaki of 1867 is that he demonstrated Seisan and several weapons. It is sometimes assumed nowadays that it was he who he taught Higaonna the four kata, Sanchin, Seisan, Sanseru and Suparimpei, and yet Kenwa Mabuni’s Aragaki taught him Niseshi, Sochin and Unsu, and those were said to be the only kata he taught – a completely different set of kata. Again, it’s hard to understand how you can establish a direct relationship between any Aragaki and Kanryo Higaonna.

There is, though, a possible, tenuous link to an Aragaki, whoever that may have been. The Niseish kata which is traced back to Aragaki is quite different to any of Higaonna’s Naha-te kata but strangely, it does show intriguing similarities to the Sanseru form of Uechi Ryu. Niseishi has a unique embusem, and going through the two kata, it seems that this is shared, in large part, with the Uechi Sanseru, suggesting that the two kata share a common origin – in Okinawa, rather than China, I would guess. And then, when you look at the versions of Niseishi you do find a couple of correspondences with the Naha-te (Goju Ryu and To-on Ryu) Sanseru. The Niseishi shown in the 1930 “Kempo Gaisetsu” (Miki and Takada) and the 1933 “Karate Kempo” (Takada) shares the left hand block-step forward-right vertical elbow-low left punch sequence of the Naha-te Sanseru, as does the Niseishi of Okinawa Kempo. The technique is performed twice in Miki and Takada’s kata and three times in Okinawa Kempo. In its opening and closing phases the Niseishi of Ryuei Ryu is similar to these other versions but then at the half way point it too goes into the same right vertical elbow-low left punch sequence, and the sequence is performed four times in four directions - just as it is in the Goju Ryu and To-on Ryu Sanseru. There is something really unusual about the relationship between Niseisi and Sanseru across these different styles.

A modern view on Kanryo Higaonna’s Te is that it contained four “core” kata: Sanchin, Seisan, Sanseru and Suparimpei (Pechurin). Seisan is a particularly interesting form because it appears not just in the Higaonna-related styles but also in Uechi Ryu and also some Shorin Ryu styles, and of course a Seisan appears in the 1867 demonstration programme. We don’t know what that 1867 kata looked like, but the fact that a Seisan existed so far back, and that Seisan is found in several different forms in separate schools of Okinawan karate, suggests that this form has quite a long history in Okinawa: a certain passage of time must have been needed for the various different versions of the kata to emerge.

One intriguing thing is the similarity between the Sanchin and Sesan of Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu. The two Sanchin follow pretty much the same embusen, stance, foot movement, hand position and technique. The main differences are that in the Goju version of the kata the hands are closed into fists, the kata is performed slowly with obvious muscular tension and the breathing is done with a harsh rasping sound. It is generally agreed that these were changes made by Kanryo Higaonna – which would mean that originally the two versions of the kata were pretty much the same and share a common origin. Similarly, the first half of the Goju and Uechi Sesan show striking similarities: the rapid triple open hand movements at the start of the kata, the right kick (or knee strke) before turning in the opposite direction, the following series of double open-hand techniques going forward (each hand moving in a different direction), a turn to the right then left, a set of triple punches on the turn to the left, and so on. The correspondence breaks down for the last part of the kata, but the first half of the two forms again points to a common origin. The development of Sanseru is less clear cut, but another curious point about this set of forms is that the Uechi Ryu root style was also supposed to have included Suparimpei as a fourth kata, which would mean that Kanbum Uechi’s style and Higaonna’s Naha-te would have shared share a set of four kata with identical names and unusual correspondences in technique.

Years ago, when I began looking at the Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu I couldn’t help noticing similarities in technique between the styles, not just Sanchin kata and the use of Sanchin stance, but the basic circular block (wa-uke in Uechi, and hiki uke or kake uke in Goju); the use of mawashi uke; the vertical elbow strike, the chudan elbow strike-backfist combination, and the middle-level spearhand thrusts with the palm facing up.

According to Kanei Uechi – he had been told this by his father Kanbum, apparently - two of the most popular styles in Southern China were Pangainoon and Kingai. The Uechi tradition is that Kanbum Uechi learned Pangainoon in Fuzhou and this later became known as Uechi Ryu, and Kingai became known on Okinawa as Goju Ryu. The Uechi belief is also that, before the changes made by Higaonna and Miyagi, the Sanchin kata of Pangainoon and Kingai were originally very similar. Uechi Ryu and Goju Ryu were thus linked together as commonly practiced Fujian styles; however, no traces of either Pangainoon or Kingai can be found in Fujian. There seems to be a memory of some long-ago common history here . . . . but it can’t be found in China.

There are curious correspondences too between Higaonna’s and Uechi’s stories, fragmented as they are. From their youths both men had a wish to go to China to learn kempo and they did eventually go there to study for years with a famous master. In a letter to me of September 1973 – I had written asking how Kanbum Uechi had met his Chinese teacher - George Mattson wrote that “I am not sure how Kanbum Uechi was introduced to his teacher (Shushiwa) but one story has it that the family he was living with did. Another story has it that Kanbum saved the life of the master’s son and was then taken in as part of the family.” This sounds oddly similar to the story of Kanryo Hgaonna saving the life of Ryu Ryu Ko’s daughter, or grand daughter, in a flood soon after he settled in Fuzhou. Saburo Kinjo had heard that story from his teacher Seko Higa, and Shigekazu Kanzaki had heard the same thing from Juhatsu Kyoda. According to Kinjo, Higaonna often talked about this incident to his pupils. After this rescue, Higaonna became a formal student of Ryu.

In China, both Uechi and Higaonna are said to have studied only Sanchin for the first three years or so of training, and both subsequently stressed Sanchin as the most important kata, and in fact the only kata you really needed to master karate. Both teachers and styles are remarkably similar in this respect. In Goju Ryu there is a story that a challenge match took place in Fuzhou between the school of Ryu Ryu Ko and another teacher. The match took the form of demonstrations of kata and Kanryo Higaona, representing Ryu Ryu Ko, performed a Sanchin that was so good that the rival teacher immediately conceded defeat. Uechi Ryu history tells us that Kanbum Uechi originally trained in Fuzhou at the Kojo dojo, but was ridiculed by one of the senior instructors there, Makabe Udun. Uechi then went to study with Shushiwa, and after three years made a return visit to the Kojo dojo. In this story too, there was a demonstration of Sanchin, by Uechi, with Makabe straightaway recognising his development and praising him as a great expert, while also apologising for his previous behaviour. The two stories are not the same, but they are similar, and importantly, they both demonstrate the unusual belief that a person’s skill in karate could be established solely by their performance of Sanchin kata. And of course, both Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu stress Sanchin testing, a practice which doesn’t seem to exist in China.

In his 1963 “The Way of Karate” George Mattson told a story about Uechi being stopped by a group of bandits one night on his way home, and how Uechi killed the bandit chief with a counter strike. In his book on the old karate masters, Eizo Shimabuku told the story about Higaonna being stopped by a group of bandits and how in the ensuing fight with the bandit leader Higaonna had torn the flesh from the man’s cheek. Mattson also told a story (said to come from China) of a young challenger coming to the home of a famous old master and demonstrating his strength by breaking a thick pole in two. The old master then brought a thicker bamboo pole which the young challenger was unable to break. The master then took the pole and with a single twist snapped it in two. It’s surprising then to see Morio Higaonna (“Traditional Karate Do”, Volume 1, 1985) writing about a strong young kempo expert coming to challenge Ryu Ryu Ko, and how, after the younger man had crushed a bamboo pole, Ryu Ryu Ko picked up the pole and then pulled it apart lengthwise, a feat Kanryo Higaonna had considered impossibe. Moreover, when they returned to Okinawa both Higaonna and Uechi refused to teach, although in stories both became known as great experts from tales told by traders who had known of them in Fujian.

One other story about Kanryo Higaonna, of course, is that he went to Fujian to learn kempo so that he could return to take revenge on his father’s killer. The outcome of that tale is that by the time he returned to Okinawa Higaonna had been changed by his training and no longer wanted to take revenge. One of the old stories about Kanbum Uechi is that he too travelled to Fujian to learn kempo so that he could return and take revenge, though in this case it was against his friend, who had stolen Uechi’s fiancée from him. Curiously, Choki Motobu, who had a good knowledge of the old karate masters, wrote in his “Watashi no Karate-Jutsu” that one story about the famous Bushi Matsumura was that “in order to revenge his uncle, he went to China for the purpose of learning Chinese Hand (karate).” Even more curiously, Gogai Sasaki, in his 1921 article on karate, “Secret Fighting Techniques”, told a story about a famous Okinawan karate master who went to learn kempo in China (Shantung or Fujian) so that he could come back and take revenge on his father’s killer. As in the stories about Higaonna and Uechi he never took revenge when he returned to Okinawa, although in this version it was because his father’s killer had died the day before his return. Nevertheless, he went to the man’s funeral to pay his respects, which signified a change of heart on his part. Sasaki did not give the name of the karate expert but noted that if he were still alive he would have been over eighty years old at the time of writing (so born c.1840), and “had been busy teaching many students up until seven or eight years ago” (ie up to 1913/1914). Sasaki concluded that “I am sure that as readers you must have heard about incidents where swords and spears were used to take revenge. Isn’t it fascinating, however, to read a tale about someone developing his fists to take revenge? This is revenge, karate-style.”

What is going on here? Is it possible that the histories of both Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu were copying each other or were both tapping into some old oral tradition which predated both styles? This whole history is such a terrible tangle that it’s impossible to make much sense of it, but going through all this mess of inconsistent stories and “facts” over and over it becomes almost impossible to hold on to the idea that Higaonna had learned his whole system in Southern China and then brought it back intact to Okinawa. There must have been Chinese influence somewhere back along the line - the existence of Sanchin alone is enough to show that - but I have gradually come round to thinking that Kanryo Higaonna learned his kata – Sanchin, Seisan, Sanseru and Suparimpei/Pechurin – in Okinawa. This seems a real possibility, bearing in mind the failure to find anything resembling the Naha-te kata in China, the 1867 references to Seisan and Suparimpei, the existence in Okinawa of different versions of Seisan in several schools, and the apparent relationship between Niseisi and Sanseru . . . and also Chojun Miyagi’s reference to 1828, which doesn’t make any sense otherwise.

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Erik

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Re: 2. The Mysteries of Naha Te (I)

Post by emattson »

"The old master then brought a thicker bamboo pole which the young challenger was unable to break."

Bamboo poles are strong. Even today, Hong Kong uses them as scaffolding when constructing high rises. It has a tensile strength of 28,000 per square inch, in comparison to steel which is 23,000 per square inch.
Erik

“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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