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Choki Motobu:
Through The Myth...To the Man

By Tom Ross

by Christopher Caile

This 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.

The Man

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 (1).

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 Karate.

Upon 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 of Gibo!

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 a match.

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 of skills.

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).

Part 2 of Choki Motobu:Through The Myth...To the Man


(1) 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 M.A.

(3)As noted in the text "Motobu Choki Sensei:Goroku" by Hashihiko akata 1978.

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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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