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Interview With Hohan Soken: The Last Of The Great Old Time Karate Warriors – Part 1

Interview by Ernie Estrada

Hohan Soken

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.

“Bushi” Matsumura

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.

Nabe Matsumura

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 had 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 his student.

“By studying my Matsumura Orthodox you walk back into ancient times when karate was more forceful and challenging.”

I 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 hakucho kata?

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 the log.

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 speak Spanish?

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 demonstrations. (3)

A previously unpublished photo of training in Soken’s home in the early 1970s. Soken taught a small number of private students 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.

A photo from the street of the Soken family residence where Hohan conducted classes for a small group of private students. The next photo is a close up of the outside of the porch area. The wooden structure is typical of pre-war urban style residences. The house was subsequently rebuilt of masonry, shown lower left. At lower right is Soken’s family shrine that includes family photos of the master and his wife. (Courtesy of Charles Garrett & Christopher Caile) (5)

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 - because 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 much now.

I also teach bo (long staff), sai (a metal shaft with two curved prongs and a handle: trident), tuifa (short wooden batten-like implement with 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 the 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

Part 2


(1) Courtesy of Charles Garrett

(2) This photo and other family photos were photographed (photos of photos) by Christopher Caile in Soken’s family home on Okinawa in December 1994 with permission of Hohan’s son who was living there at the time.

(3) This and a few other photos were given to Estrada by Soken during an interview in 1978. The small, 2” x 4” black and white images are difficult to see. would like to thank Bill Heaps of Pigpen Studios Inc. for his work in digitally enhancing this image. Soken at this time was virtually unknown. He has been a private student of Nabe Matsumura. At that time there were no traditional uniforms, ranking or titles. He was one of a number of Okinawan martial artists who had immigrated to Argentina where there was a small Okinawan community. Many, including Soken, taught in a shared community dojo, each developing his own small following. Soken was also known as much for his weapons as his karate technique.

(4) Courtesy of Charles Garrett.

(5) In 1994 only Soken’s son still lived in the family home. At the time he was not well and has since passed away. Roy Suenaka, a long time student of Soken, had trouble finding the location since streets and buildings had changed so much since he had trained in Soken’s home. Soken’s son remembered Suenaka and welcomed him, Christopher Caile and others. Because of this Caile was allowed to photograph some family photos of Soken, several of which appear above. Soken also had a second son who is reportedly still alive. Neither son, however, was much interested in karate and did not inherit their father’s teachings.

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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.

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

Matsumura Orthodox, Matsumura Seito, Kiyo Soken, Matsumura Soken, Bushi Matsumura, Nabe Matsumura, tanmei, Uchinan Sui-di, Nabe-tanmei, kusanku, Kanku, kanzashi, hairpin, hakutsuru, Komesu Ushi-no-tanmei, Tsuken Mantaka, - Machimura sui-de, Matsumura Shuri-te

Read more articles by Ernie Estrada

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