Interview With Hohan Soken: The Last Of The Great Old Time Karate
Warriors – Part 1
Interview by Ernie Estrada
Editor’s Note: this is the first of a series
of interviews with Hohan Soken one of the most famous and most respected
karate masters of the 20th century. This interview was conducted
at the Kadena NCO Club located at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. Present
were Soken Hohan, one of his senior students, Kisei Fusi and the
interviewer, Ernie Estrada. Soken was a Shihan 10-Dan in Shorin-ryu
Matsumura Seito Karate-do. Since his death in 1982 several organizations
have sprung up teaching karate founded on his teachings.
The date of the interview was September 10, 1978. The interview was
conducted in Spanish to the great annoyance of Kisei. Soken spoke excellent
Spanish due to the fact that he had lived in Argentina for over twenty-five
years. I should also mention that I was a Spanish language translator
for the Pentagon for two plus years and worked in Washington, D.C.,
hence, I am familiar with the language.
Estrada: Sensei, can you please identify yourself.
Soken sensei: My name is Soken Hohan and I was born on May 25, 1889.
I come from (I live in) Gaja Village, Nishihara City, Okinawa Prefecture.
I am a native Okinawan. My style is officially called the Matsumura
Orthodox Shorin-ryu Karate-do and I am a Shihan 10-Dan. My honbu dojo
is presently located at Gaja Village, Nishihara City.
My style comes from Kiyo Soken. To mark the occasion when Kiyo was
appointed the chief bodyguard to King Sho Ko (and later to Sho Iku
and then Sho Tai), he was allowed to change his name. This was a custom
back then, especially if something important or notable happened to
you; he changed his name to Matsumura -- Matsumura Soken.
It was later that King Sho Tai officially gave Matsumura the title of "Bushi," and
to this day he is, with affection, referred to as Bushi Matsumura.
[Note: The term "bushi" is different from the Japanese meaning.
In Japan a "bushi," in simplistic terms, is a warrior. In Okinawa,
the term "bushi" also refers to the individual being a martial-man/warrior
but with a strong slant to also being a true gentleman -- hence, the
meaning, "a gentleman warrior."]
When Bushi Matsumura died he left the "hands" of his teachings
to my uncle, who was his grandson, Matsumura Nabe. My mother was Nabe-tanmei's
sister. Tanmei means "respected senior or respected old man." This
was and still is a title of much respect in Okinawa. I became a student
of my uncle around 1902 or 1903 and learned the original methods of Uchinan
Sui-di, as it was then called.
Back then, there weren't large followings of students for a master
of the warrior arts. Itosu Ankoh had less than a dozen students
and he was one of the greatest of teachers at the time. My uncle
only one student, and that was me. He was still a practitioner
with an "old mind" and would only teach or demonstrate
for family members. Since I was the most interested, he allowed
me to become
“By studying my Matsumura Orthodox you walk
back into ancient times when karate was more forceful and challenging.”
should also state that Matsumura Orthodox is not the only authentic shorin-ryu
style. This style, my style, was passed on from Matsumura
Soken to my uncle, Nabe-tanmei, but Nabe-tanmei was not Bushi Matsumura's
only student. Matsumura had a good dozen or so dedicated students. Each
one learned his methods and then expanded on them.
My uncle only learned from Bushi Matsumura and only taught me what
he had learned. So, it can be said that it is an "old version" with
no updates. By studying my Matsumura Orthodox you walk back into ancient
times when karate was more forceful and challenging.
Estrada: Sensei, can you tell me something about your training methods?
Soken Sensei: Old training was always done in secret so that others
would not steal your techniques. Nabe initially taught me stepping
before anything. He would cut the leaves off the banana tree and place
them on the ground. He would then have me do exercises to develop balance.
If the balance was not good you would fall and since the exercises
were always vigorous, a fall could seriously hurt you.
We would also use the pine trees that were found throughout Okinawa.
We would slap or kick the trees and develop our gripping methods for
close in fighting. This kind of training was very hard and severe on
a person who had to work hard all day and then train hard at night.
Life was very hard back then.
We would train twice a day. Early in the morning we would train on
striking objects and conditioning to prepare one for the day. After
working hard in the fields, we would have nightly training in two person
techniques and conditioning like present-day kotekitai (an Okinawan
form of body and arm conditioning). We had to toughen our legs and
hands - like iron, then they became true weapons. During the late hours
we would practice the kata of Matsumura.
Estrada: Can you tell me something about the kata you teach.
The hairstyle for men in Okinawa (as well as Japan) prior to the
modern era was to tie long hair in a knot on top of the head and
secure it with a single hairpin, as shown here, or with two hairpins
pushed through the topknot from different angles. The two hairpin
option is probably what Soken used for kusanku (kanku) kata practice
since one could be held in each hand. In the begining of the kata
the hands are raised overhead, a move which could be modified into
a grab of the hairpins. Hairpins also differed. Men of the noble
class wore special hairpins in their Samurai-style topknot to signify
their social position as shown in this drawing. Made of metal or
bone, hairpins were pointed on one end and had a round flat end or
wire configuration that would hold the pin in place. Sometime after
Japan formally annexed Okinawa, the Meiji authorities outlawed the
wearing of topknots (as an old style warrior symbol) and thus hairpins
were no longer used.
Soken Sensei: Well, kata, yes, the most important Matsumura Seito kata
is the kusanku. Sometimes we would practice the kusanku (Kanku) with
kanzashi (hairpins) held in the hands - this was a common method of fighting.
The hairpins were symbols of rank and many Okinawans carried them for
decoration and also for protection.
Estrada: I understand that you teach a white crane form. Is this the
Soken Sensei: No, hakucho is another kata that, I believe, came from
the Chinese tea seller, Go Kenki. He moved to Japan but my kata is
much different. I call it hakutsuru. It was about... no, it was after
ten years of training my uncle taught me the most secret kata of Matsumura
Seito shorin-ryu, the hakutsuru (white crane) kata. This form stressed
balance -- all the Matsumura kata stressed balance but this form was
the most dangerous in training.
Soken demonstrating a
position from the hakutsure (white crane) kata. (1)
The practice of the hakutsuru form forced me to learn better balance
by performing the techniques while balanced on a pine log. Initially
I learned the form on the ground and then I had to perform it on a log
laying on the ground. For the advanced training the log was put into
the river and tied down so as not to float away. I was then instructed
to perform the kata while balanced on the log. It was very difficult
and I almost drowned several times by falling and bouncing my head off
Estrada: You are recognized as a leading practitioner of traditional
weaponry. Can you tell something about your weapons training?
Soken Sensei: I studied traditional weaponry under Komesu Ushi-no-tanmei
and later under Tsuken Mantaka. Tsuken is known for the bo form called
Tsuken-nu-kun or Tsuken-bo. It is very famous.
Estrada: Sensei, you speak excellent Spanish. Where did you learn to
Soken as a young man. (2) (Courtesy
of Christopher Caile)
Soken Sensei: Yes, Spanish. In 1924
I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to find my fortune. I apprenticed
myself as a photographer and later I worked in the clothes cleaning
business. I learned Spanish there and I taught karate after they
found out who I was. Most of my students in Argentina came from the
Okinawan community - some Japanese.
All in all, in Argentina, I only had a small handful of students but we gave
numerous demonstrations throughout the country. There were many, many Okinawans
and Japanese living in Argentina. I returned to Okinawa in 1952.
Estrada: What happened when you returned to Okinawa?
Soken Sensei: I did not teach karate at first. Yes,
not to the public but I began to teach a few family members which then
opened up to a
small dojo. I initially called it by the "hogen" name - Machimura
sui-de or in Japanese, Matsumura Shuri-te.
A previously unpublished 1952 photo
of Soken demonstrating a sickle and rope kata at the Japanese-Okinawan
Benevolence Society located in the city of Cordoba, outside of
Buenos Aires, Argentina. Soken often participated in these annual
A previously unpublished photo of training in Soken’s
home in the early 1970s. Soken taught a small number of private
in an enclosed porch area of his home, but would also visit military
bases where classes were taught to US military personnel. Teaching
in the home or backyard was typical of early karate. (4)
Around 1956 I changed the name of my teachings to Matsumura Orthodox
Shorin-ryu karate-do. I still trained in the old ways and did not understand
the new methods that were being taught. It appeared to be softer and
more commercial. Because of this, I did not join the new organizations
that were being formed at the time. My old ways of karate was not readily
accepted by everyone. They thought it too old and too crude -- I think
it was just too hard or maybe my training methods were too severe. Whatever
it was, it was the way I learned and the way I taught. It was later,
when the Americans came to learn, that I changed my ways.
I found that there were two kinds of students - one was a dedicated
and motivated student who wants to learn the Okinawan martial arts.
The other is an individual who only wants to say he is learning karate.
There are more of the latter. It is the latter that you see everywhere.
They say that they "know" karate or that they "use to" practice
karate - these are worthless individuals.
Estrada: Can you tell me some more about your kata.
Soken Sensei: I teach the Matsumura kata. The kata
that I teach now are pinan shodan, pinan nidan, naihanchi shodan,
naihanchi nidan, patsai-sho
and dai, chinto, gojushiho, kusanku, rohai ichi-ni-san, and last,
the hakutsuru. The last one is my favorite kata that I demonstrate -
it is easier to do. When I was young, the best kata was the kusanku.
This is the Matsumura kusanku -- the older version that is not done
I also teach bo (long staff), sai (a metal shaft with two
curved prongs and a handle: trident), tuifa (short wooden batten-like
a right angle handle), kama (sickle), nunchaku (flail), kusarigama
(Kama with weighted rope or chain) and suruchin (weighted chain).
My favorite weapons form is tsuken-bo (I learned that from Kemesu Ushi)
but in the old days it was the furi-gama or kusari-gama. We, on Okinawa,
use a hand made rope to tie the kama to the hand or wrist. In Japan
they use an iron chain but this is too cumbersome and can damage
student that practices that method.
I knew Taira Shinken very well before
he died. I taught him some of my older forms. In 1970 I formed the
All Okinawa Kobujutsu Association.
I hope that this will spread all over the U.S. and mainland Japan.
I am also a member of the Ryukyu Historical Society. We are trying
to preserve the "hogen" dialect (the old Okinawan language).
Many young Okinawans no longer understand or even speak the old Okinawan
language anymore. It is a shame.
Interviewer’s Note: It should also be noted that
Soken preferred to speak in his native dialect of Hogen. He often stated
that he did
not care for the Japanese language that much.
End of Part 1
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Hohan Soken - The Life of a Grand Master
This historic video is a documentary on Hohan Soken, 10th Dan
and founder of Matsumura Seito Shorin Ryu Karate. This video
includes “Newly Discovered- Lost Footage” of Hohan
Soken as well as a biography of Soken Sensei detailing his life
in Karate Do. Also shown is rare historic footage of Soken Sensei
performing the kata: Naihanchi 1-3, Seisan, Chinto, Kusanku,
Gojushiho, Rohai, Tsuken bo, Kama Kusari and Hakutsuru, the closely
guarded secret White Crane kata of Matsumura Seito Shorin Ryu.
Additionally, the video includes rare footage of some of Soken
Sensei’s top students performing in Okinawa in the 1960s
and much more! This documentary style video is a piece of history
and brings the past to life! It preserves the teachings of a
highly respected Okinawan Grand Master whose legacy was to bring
karate from a bygone age into the modern era. A must for the
serious martial arts collector.
About The Author:
Estrada is a well know teacher, historian and writer on the martial
arts and is considered by many as one of the most knowledgeable authorities
on modern Okinawan history. He began training in Okinawan karate-do at
his local YMCA in 1960. In 1963 he joined the US Military and served
in Japan and Okinawa. Later he was re-assigned to Washington, DC, and
worked as a translator at the Pentagon for two and one half years. In
1972 he was promoted to shihan by the Zen Nippon Karatedoh Renmei (All
Japan Karatedoh Association) in Okinawa Seito Karatedoh. In 1973 he also
was promoted to shihan by Nakazato Shugoro Sensei in Okinawa Shorinryu
Karatedo (Chibana-ha). Has been an active teacher of Chibana-ha Shorinryu
since 1970 and has taught in Argentina, Mexico, England, Germany, Spain,
Ethiopia and Canada. Presently he teaches Chibana-ha Shorinryu in Michigan.
Professionally he is a retired Probation Officer supervisor (31 years)
and now works full time as a court appointed Fiduciary. Over a period
of 30 years he has researched karate and interviewed a wide assortment
of well known Okinawan karate teachers. He has authored numerous articles
for a variety of martial arts publications and as well as a series of
15 booklets based on his research. His most current project is to transfer
500+ VHS videos of Okinawan karate-do training and demonstrations to
DVD. Next year will be the transferring of 300+ rolls of 8mm and super
8mm to DVD.