Through The Myth...To the Man
By Tom Ross
Note: This is the second 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. Part
one discussed Motobu's childhood, family,
education and early karate training. Part two discusses
the kata Motobu knew and practiced, his move to Japan,
rivalry with Funakoshi, accomplishments and his continuing
The Kata Of Motobu
Although it is often alleged that Motobu knew only
the katas Naihanchi Shodan and possibly Passai, in
light of recent developments this appears to be a
complete misinterpretation of Motobu's knowledge and
method of teaching. It was quite a common practice
in the old days to begin a student training with Naihanchi
kata and only when he mastered it to a degree considered
sufficient was a new form taught. This seems to be
corroborated through the words of Konishi Yasuhiro
(as told by Yamazaki Kiyoshi in an article on Konishi)
"Konishi Sensei considered
Motobu to be a martial genius and made every effort
to train with him. Motobu Sensei's favorite Kata
was the Naifanchin kata (another pronunciation of
Niahanchi). As a teacher he knew many Kata, but
would only teach them once the student had mastered
Given Motobu's vast knowledge of Naihanchi, the applications
of which were forged through actual altercations,
it likely took a significant period of time to progress
to another kata with him. Thus many of the modern
stories which recount Motobu as knowing or having
shown only the kata Naihanchi are told by those having
trained for less than a year with him!
Further proof of Motobu's knowledge of other Kata
comes inadvertently from Motobu himself. Motobu is
quoted by Nakasone Genwa as describing a visit to
Itosu Sensei (Itosu was perhaps the most famous karate
teacher of his time) as follows:
"I visited him one day near
the school, where we sat talking about the martial
arts and current affairs. While I was there two
to three students dropped by and sat talking with
us. Itosu Sensei turned to the students and said
'Show us a kata!' The Kata they performed was very
familiar to the Channan Kata that I knew but there
were also some differences. Upon asking the students
what the kata was, he replied, 'It is Pinan no Kata!'.
The students left shortly after that, upon which
I turned to Itosu Sensei and said 'I learned a Kata
called Channan, but the Kata that those students
just performed now was different, What is going
on?" Itosu Sensei replied, "Yes, The kata
is slightly different but the kata that you just
saw is the kata that I have decided upon."
While it has been speculated that Motobu never learned
the Pinan kata (sometimes known as Heian), it appears
now that this information may be correct. Motobu learned
from Itosu before Itosu had fully developed the Pinans,
a time when the katas were still practiced in their
We further know that Choki Motobu passed on a significant
array of kata which are part of the curriculum as
maintained by his son Chosei. They include Naihanchi
Shodan and Nidan, Channan (the predecessor of the
pinan kata which within the Motobu system are called
Shiraguma no Kata), Passai, Wanshu, Wankan, Chinto,
Kusanku, Chinti and others. This demonstrates that
Motobu was far more knowledgeable in terms of the
kata than many have given him credit for.
Move To Japan
In 1923 (Iwai 1994; other sources say 1921), perhaps
in an effort to find greener pastures, Motobu moved
with his family to the city of Osaka on mainland Japan.
Not long afterwards he returned briefly to Okinawa
for three months which he spent training with his
brother Choyu. This was when a nineteen year old student
of Choyu by the name of Seikichi Uehara first met
Choki. Uehara recalled having Choki for a training
partner: "Every time I punched Choki hit my arm
before I could touch him. He hit it so hard he almost
broke my arm" (Uehara 1992).
Soon after Choki returned to Osaka, he obtained a
job as a security guard. This was no small feat for
someone who reputedly never learned to speak Japanese
in any fluent fashion. We must remember, however,
that Motobu was nobility by birth and perhaps as an
act of personal defiance (which was not unheard of
in those days, something also done by the karate legend
Hohan Soken), he refused to humble himself and learn
what was to him a foreign tongue.
In November of 1924 (Iwai 1994) an event would took
place which brought Choki to the attention of many
on mainland Japan. On his day off from work at the
factory, Choki and his landlord saw a sign advertising
a challenge match with boxers in Kyoto and decided
to go. Having viewed several matches where the boxer
(reputed to be a European boxing champion) defeated
several judo people, Motobu accepted the challenge
himself. He entered and felled the much larger boxer.
Motobu would later recount to students: "When
I fought the foreign boxer in Kyoto, he was taller
than me so I jumped up and punched him in the face.
This is effective against people who are taller than
you." (5) This
did much to stimulate Motobu's reputation (according
to Iwai) and many began to seek him out for instruction.
Another source (Choso Nakama quoted in the book,
"Okinawa Karate" by Mark Bishop) recounted
that Motobu had at first just dodged the boxer. But
in the second round the boxer came on strong. Motobu
hit him (after jumping up) with a typical "Ti"
(old term for karate) technique, a knuckle strike
behind the ear.
At fifty-two years of age and after putting his honor
and reputation on the line, Choki finally began to
attract the attention he truly deserved. Choki formed
the Society for the Promotion of Toudijutsu (an old
term for karate).
It certainly must have been a shock to Motobu, however,
when in the following September (1925) an article
appeared in Kingu magazine describing his bout with
1925 King Magazine article
showing Funakoshi, not Motobu, defeating a
boxer in a challenge match.
The picture accompanying the article, however, was
not of him. Instead it was a drawing of none other
than Gichen Funakoshi, shown as felling the boxer.
It was rumored by those close to Motobu that he was
angry about this misrepresentation but felt quite
helpless against the resources of company the size
of Kodansha (which owned Kingu). Perhaps he felt Funakoshi
himself or one of his collage student Karateka (where
many journalists began) was behind the error.
In any event there was certainly some bad blood between
them and this incident may very well have played a
part in Motobu's decision to go to Tokyo and seek
Although many stories exist about a confrontation
between the two (6),
I am unable to find any confirmed accounts giving
specifics of the battle. David Chambers, however,
in a Tsunami video tape, "Wado Ryu the way of
peace and harmony," claims that: "Yasuhiro
Koneshi reported that a newspaper carried the story
of a fight that took place between the two in 1930.
When Funakoshi finally faced his nemesis, his feet
were instantly swept from beneath him and he suffered
the indignity as he lay at Motobu's feet of having
his face menaced with the latters enormous fist."
Whatever the facts of this story, Motobu was beginning
to attract attention. Several judoka and wrestlers
sought him out to learn fighting skills. Two of Funakoshi's
top students (Hironori Ohtsuka and Koyu Konishi) also
left to train with Motobu. The defection further added
to the deterioration of relations between the two
teachers. Another karateka to seek out Motobu was
Kose Kuniba (known as Kosei Kokuba in Okinawa).
Interest in the testing of karate fighting skills
was perhaps understandable since in Japan at that
time, judo (a synthesis of old jujutsu self-defense
systems) and kendo (old warrior sword arts modified
into a sporting form) had been adopted into the Japanese
education curriculum and were popular. Both offered
competition formats. The attraction of practice fighting
thus naturally bled over to many young karateka who
sought to test their skills or develop effective technique
in their own art.
The true feelings between Motobu and Funakoshi may
never truly be known. But, it can be assumed that
Funakoshi (a well educated school teacher who spoke
Japanese and was well versed in Japanese social customs)
may have regarded Motobu to be densely illiterate.
He was also probably irritated by the fact that Motobu
was higher placed in the old Okinawan class system.
Motobu in turn probably regarded Funakoshi as a mere
confidence man, someone who had learned only the most
superficial aspects of karate and kata and was not
a strong fighter.
If Motobu's intent in traveling to Tokyo was to drive
Funakoshi out, he didn't succeed. Funakoshi had been
there a bit too long and Motobu's lack of linguistic
ability surely limited his ability to communicate.
To Motobu's credit he did manage to author two rather
excellent books on Karate. It has been put forth by
Chozo Nakama (a disciple of Chosin Chibana) that these
works were dictated and translated into proper Japanese
for publishing. This is only logical since Motobu
didn't speak more than pigeon Japanese.
The first book, "Okinawa Kempo: Karate-Jutsu
On Kumite" was published in 1926. It came just
four years after Funakoshi produced the first published
book on karate. Funakoshi's book (1922 and updated
with photos instead of drawings in 1924) illustrated
mostly kata and formalized self-defense. The two books
couldn't have been more different.
Funaksohi's book reflected his own personal preference
of kata as a principal teaching method and his opposition
to focusing on sparring. He considered it detrimental
to karate practiced as a martial way.
Motobu's book was just to opposite. Its focus
was on fighting -- effective close-in skills
as illustrated in this photo. Featured were
a series of practical responses to variety of
attacks. Utilized were a variety of punches,
vital point and unbalancing techniques accompanied
by grabs, blocks, knees and strikes using both
arms. Kicks, it should be noted, were minimal.
In 1932 Motobu published a second book, "Watashi
no Karatejutsu" ("My karatejutsu")
which served as a natural complement to his
first. This book focused on illustrating his
favorite kata, Naihanchi, along with many applications,
some of which had been adopted and illustrated
in his first book. Notice that this photograph
from his book illustrating a move from the kata
Naihanchi (Tekki in some Japanese systems) illustrates
the same stance and technique as used in a fighting
technique (above photo) illustrated in his first
Choki Motobu returned to Okinawa several times, most
notably for the 1936 meeting of the masters sponsored
by the Ryukyu Shinposha (Okinawa newspaper company).
The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the promotion
and future development of Karate (McCarthy 1994).
Other attendees included such other karate masters
as Chojun Miyagi, Choshin Chibana, Chomo Hanshiro,
Shinpan Gusukuma, Juhatsu Kiyoda and Chotoku Kyan.
Motobu was respected both as a person and a martial
artist during his lifetime. After his death, however,
negative rumors and stories circulated (perhaps propagated
by those who feared him in life). He is often described
by those who actually knew him, however, as a quiet
man who presented the very picture of dignity.
Choki Motobu passed from this life on August 1944.
Concepts of Toudi (karate)
The following are but a few of the noted concepts
Choki Motobu expressed to his students and are recorded
by Hashihiko Nakata as overseen by Kenji Marukawa
(a direct student of Choki Motobu) from the 1978 essay
"Motobu Choki Sensei Goroku" (Collection
of sayings by Choki Motobu) as partially translated
by Joe Swift.
"Everything is natural and
Kamae is in the heart, not a physical
One must develop the ability to
deflect attack even from behind.
In a real confrontation, more than
anything else strike to the face first, as this
is most effective.
When punching to the face one must
thrust as if punching through the head.
Kicks are not all that effective
in a real confrontation.
When blocking kicks, one must block
as if trying to break the opponents shin.
One must try and block the attack
at its source (Block not the attacking hand but
deeper on the arm).
Karate IS Sente
One can not use continuous attacks
against true Karate. That is because the blocks
of Karate make it impossible to launch a second
While Motobu never became as famous as Funakoshi,
around whom Shotokan karate and its many offshoots
developed, he did leave a rich karate heritage in
the Osaka, Kyoto and Gunma areas of Japan. While he
never organized his own system, he did play a positive
role in the development of several karateka who went
on to become famous in their own right. This included
Yasuhiro Konishi (who also studied with Funakoshi)
who founded Shindo Jinen Ryu in 1934 and Kose Kuniba
who founded Seishinkai Karatedo in 1934. Another student
was Hironori Ohtsuka (also a well known student of
Funakoshi) who went on to found Wado-ryu karate with
a curriculum that stressed practice fighting, something
that reflected Motobu's influence.
Choki Motobu's son, Chosei, also continues to teach
his father's tradition of karate. The style is known
as Nihon Denryu Heiho Motobu Kempo and the name of
his individual dojo is the "Daidokan."
Between the publication of his second book and his
return to Okinawa in 1936, there is little information,
but there is one fascinating reference. It is recorded
that he traveled to Hawaii in March of 1932 and encountered
Refused entry, for about a month he was detained at
Honolulu immigration station before being returned
While in Hawaii Motobu began to instruct Thomas Shigeru
Miyashiro, a resident who tried to help Motobu with
his visa problems. This started a continuing relationship
with Motobu, who is reported to have asked both Mizuho
Mutsu and Kamesuke Higashionna to continue to help
train Miyashiro when they traveled to the island the
next year. This relationship was later continued by
Choki's son. Chosei (along with Takeji Inaba) visited
Hawaii Karate Seinenkai on April 25, 2001.
It is my sincere hope that in the future additional
facts will come to light about this great man and
that he will be given credit not only as a talented
Karateka but as the Martial Genius I believe he truly
was. It will only be through the objective observation
of the facts and accounts of those who knew Choki
Motobu that we will be able to see "Through the
Myth to the Man."
Special Thanks to Joe Swift for his friendship, encouragement
and translations as well as his intense dedication
to Karate which allowed me to obtain the substance
to back my thoughts and without whom this search for
the truth would not have been possible. Thanks also
to Christopher Caile whose editing, addition of pertinent
historical facts and historical photo collection added
much to this article series. Thanks also to Patrick
McCarthy for the images from the 1925 King Magazine
article which depicted Funakoshi, not Motobu, defeating
a boxer in a challenge match and the picture of Motobu's
1932 book, "Watashi no Karatejutsu," which
he is currently translating.
(1-3) Footnotes found in part
one of this two part series.
(4) As recounted in a special
article for Dragon times Vol. 9, The Origins of Karate-do,
"Shindo Jinen Ryu Karate," Yasuhiro Konishi
Sensei's contribution to Karate by Howard High (Note:
The Dragon Times in its printed version of its publication
erroneously attributed the authorship of this article
to Kiyoshi Yamazaki, an error corrected in the Web
version of the article).
(5) As noted in the text Motobu Choki Sensei:
Goroku" by Hashihiko Nakata 1978.
(6) In Nakata's 1978 book,
which was overseen by Choki's direct student Kenji
Marukawa, Motobu recounts the following statement:
"When I came to Tokyo, there was another Okinawan
there who was teaching Karate quite actively. When
in Okinawa I hadn't even heard his name. Upon guidance
of another Okinawan I went to the place where he was
teaching youngsters, where he was running his mouth,
bragging. Upon seeing this, I grabbed his hand, took
up the position of Kake kumite and said "What
will you do?" He was hesitant, and I thought
to punch him would be too much ' so I threw him with
Kote Gaeshi at which he fell to the ground with a
thud. He got up, his face red and said "Once
more" so we took up the position of Kake Kumite
again, and again I threw him with Kote Gaeshi. He
did not relent and asked
for another bout, so he was thrown again for a third
(7) It was at this meeting
that the masters agreed to the change of the first
character ("Kara") in the name karate to
mean "empty," rather than "Chinese"
(both characters are pronounced the same) which had
been the most widely used meaning up to that time.
This was an important change because "empty hand"
was a much more acceptable meaning of the term karate
in Japan than "Chinese hand. This change was
an important factor in the widespread adoption of
karate on the Japanese mainland.
Koden Ryukyu Karatejutsu (Tokyo Airyudo
1994) by Iwai Tsukuo (partial translation by Joe Swift)
"Channan: The 'Lost' Kata of
Itosu?" (Insights into the Martial Arts, NZ,
in press) by Joe Swift. Also an article featured by
"Unante The Secrets of Karate,"
by John Sells (1996)
Motobu Choki Sensei Goroku (Collection
of sayings by Choki Motobu) by Nakata Hashihiko, overseen
by Marukawa Kenji 1978 (partial translation by Joe
Tales of the great Okinawan Masters
by Shoshin Nagamine (Translation by Patrick McCarthy)
The minutes of the 1936 meeting of
the masters as translated by Patrick McCarthy 1994
and found in "The Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts:
Koryu Uchinadi 2," by Patrick McCarthy
Bu No Mai : Ryukyu Oke hiden Bujutsu:
Motobu ryu Udundi (Dance of the Martial arts: The
secretly taught arts of the Okinawan Kings family:Motobu-ryu
Udundi) by Uehara Seikichi (October 1, 1992) Tokyo:
BAB, Japan Printing bureau
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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