Through The Myth...To the Man
By Tom Ross
by Christopher Caile
is the first of a two articles exploring the
truths and misconceptions about Choki Motobu
who was arguably one of Okinawa's greatest early
twentieth century karate masters, and the most
colorful. He was also the least understood and
probably the most maligned.
Motobu was the third son in
a great Okinawan family that had enjoyed privilege
and landed nobility (Motobu peninsula), but
which was largely ended by Japanese annexation
of the island, modernization and social reorganization.
A strong ox of a man with a will and ego to
match, Motobu preferred the tough and tumble,
practical karate over the pure practice of kata.
Like many of his day, Motobu was not raised
speaking Japanese nor was he schooled in the
mainland's sophisticated etiquette and ways.
When he traveled to Japan this
worked to his detriment and contributed to misunderstanding
about him. He was at a comparable disadvantage
to the like of Gichen Funakoshi, an educator,
who spoke Japanese and was well versed in Japanese
social skills. The two could not have been more
different, like oil and water, with no love
lost among their adherents. Funakoshi had been
selected to give the first official demonstration
of karate in Japan and whose intellectual approach
gained him notoriety and a dedicated following.
In contrast Motobu was more concerned with effective
technique and fighting skills. And while he
influenced many karateka in Japan, he never
developed a large karate organization around
his teaching as did Funakoshi.
The Time Period
Twenty five years or so into the new twentieth century
found Japan rising to the drumbeat of nationalism.
Her victories over China in 1895 as well as Russia
in 1905, followed by the official annexation of Korea
in 1910, set the stage for militarism and pride in
all things Japanese.
The Karatedo that Gichin Funakoshi had brought from
Okinawa and had begun to teach in the Japanese capital
was developing strong roots, and by April 12, 1924
he had awarded the first dan ranks in Karatedo (Sells
1996) to those who would serve as his cadre. It was
a difficult task for this Okinawan gentleman, teaching
what was essentially a foreign martial art on mainland
Japanese soil. But with the aid and inspiration of
Jigoro Kano (the founder of judo) and later the Dai
Nippon Butokukai (Great Japan Martial Virtues Association
founded in 1895 to preserve and promote the martial
arts and ways), Karatedo would find its history carefully
sanitized and the art repackaged in the image of Judo,
Kendo and many other art forms. This was necessary
for its acceptance into the Japan of the day. Karatedo
would now be a gentleman's art whose ultimate purpose
was self-cultivation. There was no room for the Bushi
(samurai) of yesteryear, nor the heavy handed.
Choki Motobu was born on April 5, 1870. His father
Choshin was a descendent of the sixth son of the Okinawan
King, Sho Shitsu, namely Prince Sho Ko, also known
as Motobu Chohei (Iwai 1994). Due to this lineage
the male members of the family were permitted to retain
the "CHO" character in their given names
(Sells 1996). Young Choki, as third son to Choshin,
was regarded by the Okinawan culture of the day as
the rough equivalent to a feudal lord in social status.
It has been stated by the noted historian Kinjo Hiroshi
that although Choki was fathered by Choshin, Choki's
mother was not his wife, but a courtesan. Choki was
thus only a half brother to his elder Choyu, the eldest
son in the family. It has been further suggested that
he was consistently reminded of this fact as a child,
and this may have contributed to his temperament.
Choki's eldest brother Choyu, in the Okinawan tradition,
was given a fine education. He was also taught the
family's secret "Ti" (fighting art) tradition
that was only passed on to the eldest son. Young Choki
was never allowed to participate. By some accounts,
however, Choki secretly looked on at his elder brother's
training and picked up many rudiments of the art.
Choki grew up with his mother. He was considered
a strong child with a willful and fiery temperament,
but athletically gifted and agile. His agility eventually
earning him the name "Motobu no Saru Umei"
(Monkey Motobu) for his ability to climb and swing
in trees. At the age of four Choki was forced to begin
attending school, but by his own account he hated
studying and would often sneak off to play with friends
Contrary to popular myth the legacy of Karate jutsu
(karate whose emphasis is focused on effective technique)
left by Choki (as distinct from his family tradition
passed down through his brother) is alive and well,
having been preserved by his son Chosei. It is through
the works of Tsukuo Iwai, a top student of Chosei
and a historian in his own right, that we obtain further
glimpses passed down about the early years of Choki
Motobu. Choki and his two brothers would often hit
the makiwara and practice karate by imitation beginning
at a very early age. Initially his training came via
a relative who frequently visited the home. This Kobujutsu
Master known as Ufuchiku (an old term roughly equivalent
to police superintendent) would be immediately greeted
at the door by Choki, who would say "let's practice
Ti!" (Iwai 1994).
Ufuchiku was none other than the legendary Sanda
Kanagusuku, a very close friend of Bushi Matsumura
(the best known karate master of his time and teacher
of Itosu). It is perhaps through him and his vast
experiences in law enforcement that gave the basis
for Choki's appreciation of the practical side of
reaching his teen years Choki and Choyu both began
training under Itosu (the great karate teacher who
first introduced karate into the Okinawan school system,
although the karate historian Mark Bishop states that
he was eventually asked to leave because of his attitude
of always trying to prove himself. Some sources also
say he was a student of Bushi Matsumura. But despite
his training, Choki could never seem to best his brother
at "hindi" (2)
(an older term for Kumite) which caused Choki to devote
himself even more to training (Iwai 1994).
As reported in the 1934 journal, Karate no Kenkyu,
Choki explained, "I was interested in the martial
arts since I was a child and studied under many teachers.
I studied under Itosu Sensei for seven to eight years."
He went on to train with Matsumura Soken, Sakuma of
Gibo and Kosaku Matsumora of Tomari (Iwai, 1994).
The common tales referring to Choki Motobu as a student
of "no one," are thus less than accurate.
If we take at face value that Choki spent two years
living and training with Matsumora of Tomari (Sells
1996), then Motobu had nine to ten years of formal
training without even considering the time spent with
Kanagusuku (as a child) Sokon Matsumura and Sakuma
I have the impression however the greatest amount
of time and the greatest impressions upon Motobu were
made by Itosu, Sakuma and Kasoku Matsumora, for it
is these men that he mentioned when asked during the
1936 meeting of the masters (Trans. McCarthy 1994).
The Search Begins
Having been exposed to so many brilliant masters
of the day and at such a young age, Motobu's concepts
of martial applications must have grown by leaps and
bounds. It is through the research of Shoshin Nagamine
in his book, "Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters,"
that we know that Motobu at the age of about seventeen
approached a well known wrestler by the name of Komesu
Magi (then thirty two and considered to be the biggest
and strongest wrestler on Okinawa), asking him for
Komesu was apparently very reluctant to engage someone
of Motobu's high social standing, but relented when
Choki insisted he merely wished to compare the differences
between Karate and wrestling techniques. Motobu is
said to have come away from this experience having
learned about the strengths and limitations of Karate
technique. If this account can be accepted as true,
and there is no reason to doubt it, then Choki at
the tender age of seventeen had a pretty fair knowledge
of karate technique and was beginning his journey
of self discovery.
Following his twentieth birthday, having gained confidence
in his skills and perhaps motivated by his budding
manhood, Choki visited the Tsuji Machi (known as the
Red light district) to test his skills against those
of similar ilk.
It is here where Motobu reputedly suffered perhaps
his only real defeat, against Itarishiki (Iwai 1994),
a fight that he would review night after night in
his head. Nevertheless return Motobu did, and he would
later recount, "I started having real fights
at Tsuji when I was young and fought over a hundred
of them, but I was never hit in the face" (3).
According to Nagamine, Motobu was never known to start
a fight, but was also never known to run from one.
From these matches Motobu gained tremendous experience
and adopted many practical techniques into his repertoire
Perhaps we should not judge Motobu so harshly, for
in the words of Kenei Mabunie (the son of the great
karate master and founder of Shito-ry karate): "In
his younger days many people would challenge my father
to Kake-dameshi (challenge match) or an exchange of
techniques after they heard he was practicing Te.
He accepted these challenges and would choose a quiet
corner of town for the match."
Kenwa Mabuni himself recalled, "A young man
he taught himself to fight independently as he had
no Sensei for this. He attempted to prove himself
by challenging many famous Sensei. Of course the Sensei
would all refused his challenge and he returned home
proud that these teachers were all afraid of him,
not realizing they refused for his sake!"
While these accounts are interesting and obviously
designed to discourage violence, it appears that they
may be less than totally honest. It would be slightly
naive to believe that no Kake-dameshi between two
men trying to prove themselves ever escalated or that
blood was never drawn. While Motobu was certainly
no saint he was perhaps unjustly vilified for failing
to conceal a part of his past that perhaps many more
are guilty of than care to admit! It is further interesting
to note that if Motobu was truly the barbaric anomaly
he is often portrayed to be, by 1918 he was a respected
member of an informal study group comprised of his
brother Choyu, Chojun Miyagi, Shinpan Gusukuma and
Chotoku Kyan (Sells 1996).
2 of Choki Motobu:Through The Myth...To the Man
As noted in the text "Motobu Choki Sensei:Goroku"
by Hashihiko Nakata 1978
(2) This brotherly competition was
the most likely source of rumors in regard to fights
between Choyu and Choki. There is nothing to corroborate
them as being anything more serious and this was further
regarded as Highly implausible By Seikichi Uehara
as mentioned by Richard Florence in Vol 5 Number 3
1996 in his personal interview with Richard Florence
(3)As noted in the text "Motobu
Choki Sensei:Goroku" by Hashihiko akata 1978.
About The Author:
Tom Ross is a retired NYC Correction Officer who
specialized in the Handling of Security Risk group
prisoners. A Yudansha in Shorinjiryu Kenzenkai Karatedo
(an Offshoot of the Shorinjiryu Kenkokan founded
by Masayoshi Hisataka), he also spent six years
studying Jujutsu (classical, modern and Brazilian).
Possessing an avid interest in the history of martial
arts and traditions he currently serves as the Research
Coordinator for FightingArts.com as well as moderating
its Martial Arts Talk forum. He additionally serves
as the moderator of the Sabaki List (which is dedicated
to various martial artists and full contact stylists)
and is a member of the International Hoplology Society.
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