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On Choki Motobu – Part 1

By By Patrick McCarthy

Editor’s Note: This article was originally titled “More On Motobu” and is included in the book “Motobu Choki Karate – My Art” compiled and translated by Patrick and Yuriko McCarthy. The article has been edited to stand alone and appears in two parts on FightingArts.com.

How many martial artists in the history of karate had ever enjoyed the opportunity to study directly under such formidable masters as Bushi Matsumura, Tokumini Pechin, Itosu Ankoh, Matsumora Kosaku, Motobu Choyu and Satkuma Usumei? To the best of my knowledge there was only one, Motobu Choki. With instructors of that caliber, the experience that 100 street fights in Naha’s Tsuji district bestows, and the ambition to continually improve his skill, Motobu Choki stands alone in the annals of karate history as its most tenacious pioneer. Other than his training, extra-curricular activities in Tsuji and failed horse-drawn carriage taxi business, not much is known about the years between his young adulthood and middle age. In 1921, at 51 years of age, the master left his home in Okinawa and ventured to the mainland of Japan. Setting up in Osaka, for the next twenty five years he took on a few odd jobs, gained a reputation as the strongest karate fighter in the entire country, reared a family, developed his own style, published two books on the subject, established the Daidokan dojo and became the most controversial karate teacher of his generation. Returning to Okinawa in 1941 during the escalation of WWII, the master quietly passed away three years later in Tomarai at 74 years old.

In his interview with Motobu Chosei, Charles Goodin wrote: “The Motobu family descended from the sixth son of King Sho Shitsu who reigned from 1648 to 1668. There were four classes in Okinawa: the Royal family (the King and Princes), the Lords, the Aristocrats and the commoners. Families with blood relations to the King were known as Keimochi. In such families, all son’s names began with “Cho.” Among the Keimochi, the Motobu family was the highest ranking.

An area of Okinawa was even named “Motobu” to honor the Motobu family. Motobu Choshin, an Okinawan Lord (or Anji), and his wife Ushi, had three sons: Choyu, Choshin and Choki (born on April 5, 1870). This is based on Motobu Choki’s Koseki Tohon (family registry), which Motobu Chosei brought to Hawaii. “Motobu Choshin was an important official, so much so that he was the first to meet with Commodore Perry during his historic visit to Okinawa.” (Setting The Record Straight,” 3rd Quarter issue jounal 2001, page11). This is important information as it discredits the un-sourced allegation that Motobu was little more than the illegitimate son of his father’s so-called Tsuji-based courtesan.

Another remarkable discovery was learning that Cyan Chotoku (1870-1945), another of Okinawa’s greatest karate masters, was Motobu’s cousin. According to Motobu Chosei, “Cyan was born as a Motobu but became a Cyan family member to maintain the Cyan family name. In Okinawan noble families, this was not unusual. First sons had to maintain their own family’s names to preserve the family’s lands and entitlements. Later born sons would often be adopted or marry into other noble families in which there were no sons. Motobu Choki and Cyan Chotoku, who were about the same age, often practiced karate together.” (Setting the Record Straight,” 3rd Quarter issue journal 2001, pages 12/13)

Introducing Karate to the West

In addition to Yubu Kentsu and Miyagi Chojun, two other pre-war teachers named Mutsu Mizuho and Higaonna Kamessuke also taught karate in Hawaii. What only a few people probably know is that Motobu Choki also visited and taught karate in Hawaii.

Two announcements of Motobu’s arrival in Hawaii appeared in local Hawaiian newspapers at that time. The March 13th 1932 issue of a local Japanese newspaper named, “The Nippon Jiji,” reads, “Karate-jutsu authority, Motobu Choki will be arriving in Hawaii on board the Shunyo Maru. Motobu Choki who is teaching karate-jutsu to several hundred students in Tokyo is a well-known authority and presently has his own dojo in Hara Town of Koishikawa Ward of Tokyo. At this time, we understand that he is en route to Hawaii on board the Shunyo Maru, scheduled to arrive on the 26th. Invited by Tamanaha Yoshimatsu of Hawaii, Motobu Choki is the third son of the wealthy Motobu family from the town of Suri in Okinawa Prefecture. He’s enthusiastically studied karate-jutsu since his childhood and is recognized as an authority on Japan.”

The other announcement of his arrival in Hawaii appears in the March 13th 1932 issue of the “The Hawaii Hochi.” It reads, “Karate authority Motobu Choki will be arriving on the 26th. Motobu Choki, who is teaching several hundred students in Tokyo, is well known as an authority on karate/martial arts. Presently he has a dojo in Hara Town of Koishikawa Third Ward in Tokyo but we recently heard that he’ll be arriving in Hawaii on board the Shunyo Maru, on the 26th. He is the third son of the wealthy Motobu family from the town of Shuri in Okinawa. He’s been devoted to studying karate-jutsu since childhood and he’s a very famous martial artist. In fact, there’s almost no one who’s not familiar with his nickname, Saru.”

On pages 64-65 of Bruce Hain’s Master’s thesis entitled “Karate & Its Development in Hawaii to 1959,” I found the following testimony from an interview with Thomas Miyashiro, the only person to ever train directly under Motobu Choki during his brief stay in Hawaii in 1932: “In the late twenties and early thirties in Hawaii it was common for boxing promoters, etc., to match judo men against boxers. Seeing that these matches proved interesting and profitable, a group of Okinawan men headed by Mr. Chosho Tamanaha decided to pit a karate man against a boxer. This group selected Choki Motobu, the great Okinawan master who had defeated a ‘Russian heavyweight boxer’ in a bare-handed bout in 1922.”

If this is true, and knowing that Kano was an avid supporter of Funakoshi Gichen, it is not completely surprising that he did not welcome Motobu into the Tokyo budo community. In fact, it is entirely possible that Kano saw Motobu in the same harsh light as he did the old-school jujutsu-ka who fiercely critiqued him during the time he was establishing judo. I concur with Goodin’s observations when he wrote, “In many ways, Kano and Funakoshi had similar roles. Kano was largely responsible for the transformation of the ancient fighting discipline of Ju Jutsu into the modern sport of Judo. Funakoshi played a similar role in the transformation of karate-jutsu into karate-do. The change of karate was probably inevitable. It had been initiated in Okinawa as the turn of the century by one of Funakoshi’s teachers, Anko Itosu. Funakoshi is rightly regarded as the father of modern karate in mainland Japan.” (Setting the Record Straight, 4th Quarter issue journal 2001, page 8). Who is to say that the hostility between Funakoshi and Motobu is not unlike that experienced between Kano and the old-school jujutsu-ka?

An incident that never sat well with Motobu was the unfounded publicity Funakoshi Gichen received for his (Motobu’s) unprecedented victory over the foreign challenger at the Butokuden in 1922. The only Okinawan martial artist that we know of to enter the ring and confront a larger foreigner in a contest, Motobu dispatched the fighter and helped bring national attention to this little-known Okinawan tradition. However, when the story was finally featured in the 1925 edition of King Magazine, despite naming Motobu (actually mispronouncing his name), it pictorially illustrated Funakoshi confronting and defeating the foreigner!

According to Motobu Chosei “his father was incensed by this and suspected that it had been done in an effort to give Funakoshi credit for something that he had not done. In fact, photographs of both Motobu Choki and Funakoshi appear in the article, making one wonder how the magazine’s artists could have possibly confused the two. The rivalry that existed between Motobu Choki and Funakoshi is well known. Put simply, Motobu Choki did not believe that Funakoshi, a retired schoolteacher, was qualified to teach authentic Okinawan karate. In essence, he thought that Funakoshi’s karate would not work in an actual fight. Motobu Choki’s detractors responded by attempting to discredit him personally (for his speech, manners, appearance, etc.). Behind his back, he was wrongfully portrayed as an uneducated, uncivilized brute. His childhood nickname of “Saru” or “Monkey” was even used to mock and belittle him.

But it does not appear that any of his detractors ever challenged him to a fight! Remember that in Okinawa a challenger was expected to do just that – to literally “put up or shut up.” Fists were the medium of discussion rather than words. Motobu Choki was certainly not one to mince words. And no one could claim that his karate was anything less than effective. (Setting the Record Straight, 3rd Quarter issue journal 2001, page 14)

There’s a ten page article – in Japanese –entitled “Konishi Yasurhiro,” by Kaku Kouzo, published by Baseball Magazine that my wife, Yuriko, and I translated into English that helps provide deeper insights into this issue. A very rough English translation of this same article also appears in the 1993 publication entitled, “Karate & His Life,” on pages 13 through 16 published by the Ryobukai. Our translation is as follows:

“Konishi Yashiro exerted tremendous effort to improve the level of karate-jutsu during his time. In fact, what he did was, even by today’s standards, questionably daredevil. Despite a long tradition of having multiple teachers in Okinawa, and the cross training freedom we enjoy today, as a student of Funakoshi Gichen, Konishi did the ultimate unthinkable thing when he petitioned Motobu Choki, then a principal pioneer of karate-jutsu, to enter his dojo as a student. Describing Motobu as, “his irreconcilable enemy,” Funakoshi Gichen cared little for his fellow countryman and even less for his efforts to cultivate their native art on the mainland. In other words, according to this inflexible standard it was considered an act of betrayal that Konishi would contact Motobu for any purpose, such as that of widening and deepening his insights into karate.

At that time, a great swirl of criticism against Konishi surfaced amidst the supporters of Funakoshi’s movement. Even later, when Konishi became regarded as the principal Japanese architect of karate on the mainland through his connection with the Dai Nippon Budokukai, animosity and criticism lingered on. A teacher not generally known for openly criticizing other people, Funakoshi maintained that Motobu was a densely illiterate person, irrespective of Konishi’s support. In fact, whenever the name of Motobu was mentioned, Funakoshi’s face contorted. Conversely, Motobu referred to Funakoshi’s karate as a Shamisen (3 stringed Okinawan guitar), beautiful on the outside but hollow on the inside.


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About The Author

Patrick McCarthy is an internationally known teacher, lecturer, seminar leader and author who is a 7th degree Black Belt in karate (under Kinjo Hiroshi Hanshi) and holds a Kyoshi Menkyo issued by the Dai Nippon Butokukai Kyoto Honbu in April 1994. He has been a supporter of the Dai Nippon Butokukai for many years, as a student of Richard Kim Hanshi (the man originally responsible for first establishing the Butokukai in North America). A veteran Canadian/American touriment competitor during the 1970’s and 1980’s he was recognized as a North American top-ten rated competitor in kata, kumite & kobudo and received many meritorious awards. He then migrated to Japan as a 5th dan where he immersed himself in the study of karate, its origins, ethos & technical theories. He was invited to test before a board of DNBK honbu Hanshi at the Kyoto Butokuden in 1988 and was awarded his Renshi accreditation and 6th dan in karatedo. In 1995 McCarthy moved to Australia where he oversees that county’s first government accredited instructor's program in traditional Karatedo. He also represented the international division of the Butokukai, but discontinued this association when he established the Ryukyu Karate-jutsu Kokusai Kenkyukai as an international organization. He is the author of hundreds of articles on karate, its history and origins that have appeared in leading martial arts journals. He has also authored a number of books including: “The Bible Of karate: Bubushi”, “Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts: Koryu Uchinadi 1 & 2”, compiled and translated materials for the books “Tanpenshu: Funakoshi Gichin“ and “Motobu Choki: My Art” and translated “Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters by Shoshin Nagamine.”


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

karate, Okinawan karate, Karate in Japan, Cyan Chotoku, Gichen Funakoshi


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