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Interview With Hohan Soken: The Last Of The Great Old Time Karate Warriors – Part 2

Interview by Ernie Estrada

Editor’s Note: This is the second part of an interview of Hohan Soken, the great Okinawan karate master, by Ernie Estrada on September 10, 1978.

Estrada: Sensei, you say that Shorin-ryu Matsumura Seito Karate-do is an old style with many secrets. Since you also say that you are getting old, what do you feel needs to be passed on to modern day students of Okinawan karate?

Soken Sensei: There are many secrets in karate that people will never know and will never understand. These ideas are really not secret if you train in Okinawa under a good teacher. You will see the teacher use these so called secret techniques over and over again until they will become common knowledge to you. Others will look at it and marvel that it is an advanced or secret technique to them. That is because they do not have good teachers or their teachers have not researched their respective styles.

Roy Suenaka a long time student of Soken and teacher of Matsumura Seito Hakutsuru Shorin Ryu Karate-do demonstrates one of Soken’s typical trapping and takedown techniques (here, an arm bar). Soken’s karate included a lot of trapping and capturing techniques (torite) combined with countering and jujutsu-like control methods.

Soken also taught two man drills where partners would practice exchanging various techniques back and forth in a continuous fashion. Here Suenaka Sensei practices a two man punch and block drill with Christopher Caile.

Karate is much more than simple punching and kicking and blocking. It is the study of weaponry and of grappling. Weaponry and empty hand fighting go together. How can you learn about defending against a weapon unless you are familiar with what the weapon can do?

Interviewer’s Note: Soken-sensei used the Spanish word for wrestling when describing this art-form but I felt that a more apt term would be grappling - much like Japanese-style jujutsu. He stated that many people often referred to the Okinawan grappling arts as Okinawan-style wrestling mainly because it was never systematized and looked like a free-for-all form of fighting.

As a youngster on Okinawa (Soken), grappling was taken very seriously and it was not uncommon for individuals to suffer broken arms and legs as a result of taking part in this light form of entertainment. (Soken-sensei used the terms "te-kumi" (1) or "gyaku-te" (2) as identifying this old Okinawan art form)

Interviewer’s note: The danger of reminding Soken-sensei of the "old methods of playing" was that he would often stand up, grab you, and then apply one of these painful methods of common people entertainment - he enjoyed watching an American "squeaking like a mouse who had been stepped on."

Grappling is an old Okinawan custom that is commonly practiced in all villages. In America, the children played at "cowboys and indians." In Okinawa we played by grappling with each other. We would have contests for grapplers in every village and one village would pit their best grapplers against all comers. It was very exciting.

Some people see the grappling and call it Okinawan jujutsu but this is not right. It is the old method called "ti" (often written as ‘te.” When pronounced in the old dialect of Okinawa it sounds like the word "tea"). Ti practice was very common during the Meiji / Taisho era (turn of the century) but with the Japanese influences, these methods have almost disappeared.

Estrada: Sensei, any recommendations for us -- Americans?

Soken Sensei: Yes, but you won't like it! Americans want to learn too much, too fast. You want more this and more that. You have a life time to learn. Learn slowly. Learn correctly. Look. Listen. Practice, practice, practice. Don't be a rash American, but a smart American. Never be in a hurry to learn, OK? Learning in a hurry can cause pain. Do you know about pain? Let me show you!

Soken used the thumb to hit sensitive pressure points on the body – the hand position shown here. Estrada recounts that when Soken demonstrated these techniques on him the targets included under the arm (arm pit area), floating ribs, the throat (slowly striking the "V" area and the jabbing your head back, the solar plexus, the inside of the thigh, and also the middle of the forearm (on the palm side) which caused the hand to go numb. “It was very scary!” recounts Estrada.

Interviewer’s Note: At this time, Soken demonstrated basic "ti" methods involving the use of the "sharp forearm bone" and the "thumbing" methods. All of them hurt - a lot! He had an uncanny command of the human anatomy and would use the thumb to hit the various nerves in the shoulder, the forearm and the sides of the body. He laughed a lot when doing this - he really enjoyed grappling. (3) A number of techniques resembled aikijujutsu movements and instead of moving in on the opponent, he would step backwards and would use his body weight to increase the power of the technique. (4) He would always block using what he called a "double bone block" and counter with a thumb technique or a grappling technique that took you to the ground. Soken stated that he could drive an individual through the ground or just simply throw him on the ground - either way, the opponent was at a distinct disadvantage. He could then subdue you with techniques like kicks or move away from the confrontation.

Estrada: Sensei, your kata is very distinct and beautiful to see. I have a question that has been bothering me since the Okinawan Expo. Remember when we saw the bo fighters in Nago? They used the names of many of the kata that are practiced today but they are very different. The only thing that appears to be the same is the name.

Soken Sensei: Yes, they are the same and they are not the same. You say you lived on Okinawa for five years but you cannot understand the Okinawan people. In the old days, when we were really Okinawan and not Japanese, many of the old people were not smart -- or as smart as they are today. They did not travel, they did not watch TV, many never left their villages unless they had to. What we did have was festivals... village festivals. Everyone would come and watch and learn.

These village people would watch the other fancy city people practice their ti or their methods of weaponry. Say, like... well, ... Yes, a kata that they knew or practiced had a number of movements. They come to the city and see city kata with some of the same movements. The city kata had a name... and maybe their kata did not have a name. So, they would go back and ... yes, you now understand. They would name their kata after the city kata because they had a few of the same movements.

Some of their kata had five or maybe ten movements. Taira, my friend, would go to the village and learn these kata. He says that he learn 500 kata this way! Wah! He says that this is true but he also likes to tell stories. Some of these kata had only 3 or maybe 5 movements. 500 kata, yes, now that is funny but he was a history collector. He knew them but he didn't understand them.

Estrada: Was Taira a friend or student? He is very famous for his weaponry in Japan.

“…in good karate... movements are quick, like a mongoose. If you are slow, you can die.”

Hohan Sensei: Yes, Taira... he knew a lot of kata, huh. Huh, huh, huh... Yes, he is dead, you know that. He would watch my kata all the time and try to learn my tsuken style stick. But I would trick him and change the kata, wah!! ... just like that. He would still come back and look some more in the hopes of being able to take it back. When we both were young -- our karate was very good. When we both got old, our weaponry was good.

Why do you want to know these things -- these old ideas, these old ways. Their old value was to survive a challenge match. You punch me and I will show you ... good karate means you also test yourself through pain. Like pain... in good karate... movements are quick, like a mongoose. If you are slow, you can die. If you are quick, then there is a chance that you and your family will live.

Estrada: Yes, fighting must have been very different at the beginning of this century.

Soken Sensei: Yes, you don't know these old days. In a fight... if you would lose, the lost would be suffered by your family. They could die. You would work hard to support the family working all day. If you were injured or killed while fighting, then your family would starve... maybe even die. Okinawa life was very hard.

Now, the young people want to be Japanese. They don't speak the Okinawan language. They are lazy. They do not respect old people, they have no pride in being Okinawan. Yes, we are a poor country but that is no excuse in putting our culture in the dark and saying we are someone that we are not. This is no good.

The second interview ends here. Sensei's mind begins to wander and he begins to get angry. I believe it has to do with painful, old memories that are brought up by the questions.

Interviewer’s Note: A number of individuals have managed to obtain, borrow, or copy the above interview and have passed it off as being their own work. It is sad that they would do this and hopefully they will repent or atone for their infringement on my work. If not, then the words "karate is meant to develop one's character, although it does not guarantee it" truly has meaning. This makes me sad.


(1) Te Kumi literally means “hands meeting.” This ha the connotation of a challenge match, often one village against another. This was taken as a serious challenge – something that the villages often conducted. Intent was very different from kumite (kumi te), which modern karate calls practice sparring and is taken more as a sport. When I (Estrada) witnessed practice of te kumi in Okinawan villages, I thought it resembled a sort of Okinawan aikido. While practitioners were not allowed to punch, they could slap, pull, push and manipulate their opponents’ joints as they wrestled to gain advantage (this is separate from Okinawan Sumo which is different). Te Kumi is, I believe, related to Village Karate, where often the kata had well known names, but were short and did not resemble the kata he knew by that name. The interview with Soken above, explained this situation for me.

(2) Gyaku te means “reverse hands” and relates to te kumi. When an opponent tries to execute a grappling technique to achieve dominence, a reverse (gyaku te) technique neutralizes the opponent’s technique and turns it into an effective technique for the other person. Reversal techniques, it should be noted, are common to most jujutsu and aikido systems.

(3) “At the time I really didn’t know what he was showing me” (Estrada). He would do a thumb technique and everybody would laugh.” It was only later that I recognized the significance of what he had been shown. “I realized that they were controlling by pain through use of the thumb, slapping techniques (Soken had very hard hands toughened through years of drills) and edge of the forearm. He also grabbed me on the forearm and the pain made me cringe.”

(4) Editor’s Note: This is very prevalent in many forms of aiki-jujutsu and diato-ryu (also found in advanced techniques of kenjutsu) where the practitioner generates power by collapsing or dropping the body (relaxing the joints) behind and into the technique.

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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, Shorin-ryu Matsumura Seito Karate-do, te-kumi, gyaku-te, ti, te

Read more articles by Ernie Estrada

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