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
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 Karate.
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
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
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
noted in the text "Motobu Choki Sensei:Goroku" by Hashihiko
(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.
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.