This is a continuation of the interview with Kimo Wall, Kyoshi. Wall Sensei is a senior Goju Ryu and Kingai Ryu practitioner, studying directly under some of the great masters of Okinawa while stationed on Okinawa as a marine. In part 1 Wall Sensei discussed his early training and experiences with Higa Seiko Sensei. In part 2 presented here Wall Sensei will discuss Matayoshi Sensei, bringing karate to Western cultures, and more.
MA: Could you discuss your relationship with Matayoshi Shinpo Sensei, the great White Crane and Kobudo luminary?
KW: Master Matayoshi was quite a unique Master. He was very sharp and disciplined, but he had a most pleasant and comical personality. When I was in the Marine Corps my duties usually required me to be on post at night, so I spent my days with him. Master Matayoshi taught me all the Kobudo that I know except Chizi-kun-bo (aka tekkos) and two training Bo kata that I developed. Plus, he taught me his Kingai Ryu kata that he learned from Gokenki.
Wall Sensei performing Chizi-kun-bo:
I spent many wonderful years with the Matayoshi family. For 10 years the family lived at Higa Sensei’s dojo in Yogi Machi. Then Matayoshi bought land on Sobe hill in Naha and built his beautiful dojo and home. When he moved, it was only a few miles from Yogi Machi, I went to both dojos to continue my training in Kobudo, usually training in the daytime. Like in the Marine Corps, most work I got in Okinawa was night work. When I became a civilian, Sensei helped me get jobs when I was on the island, like teaching English, unloading ships, working at Naha city market, etc.
Master Matayoshi and family visited me and my wife in California. Sensei came to the States several times and my students and I hosted him. Sensei and I took a round trip tour of all America and Puerto Rico from LAX back to LAX in my Plymouth Voyager van, except flying to PR.
Wall Sensei performing Matayoshi kata Hakutsuru no Mai:
In 1992 Sensei and I were invited to participate at the Butokukai in Kyoto, Japan, with demos from all of Japan’s top martial arts.
MA: What was the butokukai demonstration like in 1992? Did you demonstrate anything yourself?
KW: The Butokukai, in Kyoto, Japan, happens once a year. The top Martial Arts Masters of Japan and students get a chance to demonstrate in the Great Hall of the Butokukai. That year I was given the honor of demonstrating with Master Matayoshi. He did White Crane kata from Gokenki and I did Pichurin and Kama.
|Butokukai with Master Matayoshi, 1992||Wall & Matayoshi at Butokukai|
I’m sure you are familiar with Master Wally Jay, from Hawaii. He did his Small Circle jiujitsu and Sensei Patrick McCarthy, did Tonfa and Sai. I think we were the only foreigners there. It was a great honor for me. I will never forget how amazing Master Matayoshi’s Kingai Ryu kata was and how much he was respected by the whole group of demonstrators and the government officials.
MA: Where did Matayoshi Sensei collect his extensive kobudo and white crane repertoire?
KW: Master Matayoshi’s extensive repertoire of Okinawan Martial arts was taught to him by his father, Shinko. He learned Shorin Ryu Karate from his father. The Kingai Ryu was taught to him by Gokenki, a Chinese immigrant from Fuchou, Fukien, China. He learned Goju Ryu from Master Higa Seiko and Grand Master Miyagi Chojun.
MA: The Matayoshi Kingai Ryu has very well preserved elements of white crane. Was Matayoshi Shinko (father to Shinpo) the senior student of Gokenki? Also, did the Matayoshi White Crane System involve Kyusho vital point striking as well as seizing and gripping techniques?
KW: Yes, Matayoshi Kin Gai Ryu is a very powerful and complete system. Gokenki taught several people his system, especially Matayoshi Shinko. I know Shinko Sensei was a top student of Gokenki. Gokenki was a tea merchant from Fuchou and Shinko Sensei was a customer of his. In the beginning, Gokenki was a guest at the Matayoshi home. Eventually, Gokenki stayed in Okinawa, married and had a family. He has many family members there today.
Matayoshi Shinpo performing Kingai Ryu kata Hakkucho:
The vital point, Kyusho, was taught only after you reached a high level of proficiency. Not many people reached that point. But, it is very similar to what we are taught in Goju Ryu. Like Goju Ryu, it came from Fuchou and some things are the same.
MA: You mentioned eariler (in part 1) that Odo Seikichi Sensei was at the Sho Do Kan with Matayoshi Sensei on your first day there, and you got to know Odo Sensei more over time. Did you train directly with Odo Sensei at any point, and if so what was that training like?
KW: Yes, I met Odo Seikichi Sensei on my first trip to Sho Do Kan dojo. It was one week after I was on the Island. I was a Lance Corporal in the Marine Corps and was new on the Island. You had to stay on base in those days for one week taking indoctrination course about Okinawa.
I took a bus to Naha bus station. Almost nothing had been rebuilt. Homes, highways, big buildings, stores and banks were very quickly built after WWII. Kokusai Dori was mostly dirt road in those days. From the station I took a “sukoshi cab”. The driver knew exactly where the dojo was.
Right after my first meeting with Matayoshi and Odo Sensei I became a member of the dojo. Odo Sensei came once in a while to train the Sanchin and Tensho kata with the karate class. This was after 9 PM, when older men trained with Seiko Sensei. On the weekends Odo Sensei came to train Kobudo with Master Matayoshi and that is when we became friends. His dojo was on the way to my Marine base so I gave him a ride home many times.
I was a beginner in Kobudo at that time and Master Odo was a very high level student. He had even trained before the war with Master Matayoshi’s father, Shinko. I trained, usually in the day time, with Master Matayoshi, but on the weekends Odo Sensei came and he and I both studied together. His kata was higher than mine as he was a very advanced student. Often, he would get information from Master Matayoshi and train by himself. I always had the chance to watch his training. I was amazed at his skill and power. He could make the Bo quiver with power at the end of each technique. After a few years I was studying the Kama and he was studying it with me. He knew another Kama kata but this one was a new one for him, so we shared the time together. I could always remember, he was what I would aspire to be like.
Odo Sensei was a very confident martial artist. He had trained with Master Nakamura up in Nago for many years who was a very respected leader in Okinawa Kenpo. Until he passed away, every time I went to Okinawa, Mr. Nakasone from SHUREIDO would call Odo Sensei and he would come to Naha to meet me. Sometimes we went to Nakasone’s home or to eat soki soba at a restaurant. Mr Nakasone is another wonderful person who became very close to me. I will make this story a little quick.
Mr. Nakasone trained karate and at that time he had a sports store (this was around 1967). His store sold general sports equipment, baseball stuff mostly, but he had someone who could make gis. So I had one made through him. I suggested that he should concentrate on martial arts equipment. There was a growing amount of karate students, mostly GIs. Finally he did give up regular sports and did only martial arts equipment. A friend of mine, Toshio Tamano Sensei, made the first SHUREIDO emblem and I made the first ad, in English, for his store. If you have been to Naha, Okinawa, you must have gone to SHUREIDO. You will see what a great businessman he is.
MA: As a westerner, did you ever feel like you were being kept in an ‘outer circle’, different from how the Okinawans trained amongst themselves? How long did it take for the Okinawans to trust you given the wartime history between America and Japan, culminating in the Battle of Okinawa?
KW: I don’t think I was ever kept in an outer circle from anyone in the dojo. The only thing that separated us was the language but I had many friends who helped me. I learned to take notes in the Marines so I took many notes and had a friend try to explain things to me. Some things are complicated, even for Okinawans to understand (like the meaning of what comes after bunkai). It is very deep and you must love what you are doing and be there for a long time.
Trust happened right away. Understand, the Japanese caused a lot more damage than the Americans. They caused the Okinawans to commit suicide (the term “suicide cliff” is well known in Okinawa). My wife’s father was shot by the Japanese army for stealing food from a garbage can to feed his family.
There was even a Statehood Party on Okinawa at one time. In our modern times, Communism has done a job in Okinawa as well as rape by a few American GIs, but there are many cases that you never hear of such as rape done by Okinawans themselves and many other foreigners. I think most Okinawans are very welcoming to Americans and have really benefited from the U.S. Forces paid to be there. You talk to any American who has spent many years on Okinawa and they can tell you the same. I love Okinawa, the people, and its culture.
MA: What were the early days like starting a program in the USA? Did people understand what you were trying to teach?
KW: In the States, at first, I only taught in the Marine Corps. I began teaching in Puerto Rico in 1965 while stationed at the Marine Barracks, San Juan, Puerto Rico. A lot of Marines and Sailors trained but I had a few civilians in the dojo and some are still training today. Then when I got out of the Marine Corps, 1970, I returned to the University of Puerto Rico to teach again. In 1965 I think true karate was very much unknown in PR, but from my dojo we developed a large group of very strong and talented followers.
MA: What was your primary objective in establishing Kodokan Goju Ryu?
KW: It was to help promote Okinawan Goju Ryu Karate and Kobudo outside of Okinawa. KODOKAN means “Home of the Ancient Ways”.
MA: What have been the biggest challenges in growing the Kodokan while maintaining a level of quality and integrity in your art?
KW: Time, is the answer. If you have a chance to live on Okinawa, military is the best and cheapest way. Go there and live with the dojo and learn from the people. I lived in Okinawa for a long time. Since those times I traveled a lot and didn’t spend enough time with most students to take them to higher levels, but I am very proud of those who have been able to continue and I see them often. Puerto Rico, Guatemala, California, UMASS, Tennessee, New Mexico, Arizona and the list goes on.
MA: What inspired you to investigate Thai style massage and physical therapy?
KW: In the Sho Do Kan dojo there was a teacher who taught acupuncture and herbology on Saturdays. I took advantage of this and studied until he passed away. Many teachers in the old days practiced some type of healing. It was the dojo responsibility to help anyone who might get injured in training. That inspired me to study more about ways to heal people in my dojo. I studied Thai Massage in Chiang Mai, Thailand and received a teaching diploma from The Traditional Medicine Hospital and The International Thai Massage Center. It is used in Thailand by Mauy Thai fighters at all boxing camps for healing and therapy. It is a proven and effective means of healing and conditioning. In Thailand it is known as THE FAMILY HEALTH SYSTEM.
MA: How has your training changed as you have gotten older? Are there any forms or training methods which you have come to prefer? Is there anything you did as a youth which you would warn others against?
KW: I am almost 70 so I don’t put as much time on rigorous training. Kata and meaning is important. Just grow old gracefully. Don’t smoke, don’t drink, have faith and believe in God.
Train hard train often. Always practice kata with Sanchin/Tensho. Replace fear and doubt with knowledge and understanding. Open mind, joyful training. Train everyday. Really LOVE what you are doing.
All our katas were developed by Grand Master Miyagi Chojun. Unfortunately, there was WWII that destroyed Okinawa and set it back several years. He passed away before he finished his development of Goju Ryu. Now, we who love Goju Ryu must find our way through the kata. I don’t think there is any ‘Superior Kata’. All have their importance and meaning. Grand Master Miyagi said, “The secrets of Goju Ryu are in the kata”. So, we must always study kata…even the simple kata. Gekisai Sho has a whole system within itself.
MA: Wall Sensei, thank you very much for giving us some insight into your training and personal history. We thank you for your continued efforts in preserving the old ways of karate and kobudo!
I’m very pleased to present this interview with Kimo Wall, Kyoshi. After World War II and throughout the Vietnam era a handful of Air Force, Navy, and Marine members had the opportunity to learn classical karate directly from the masters on Okinawa. Much of this learning took place before sport and business made karate a global phenomenon. Kimo Wall is one of those “koryu” practitioners working hard to preserve the old ways as they were handed down to him.
As a marine stationed on Okinawa before and after the Vietnam conflict Wall Sensei had the opportunity to learn Goju Ryu directly from Higa Seiko Sensei. He also became a student of Matayoshi Shinpo and a friend of Odo Seikichi, two of the great kobudo luminaries in Okinawan history.
Wall Sensei was one of the early influencers of western karate as he brought back Goju Ryu, Kingai Ryu, and even Thai massage. Wall Sensei eventually became one of the most traveled instructors in the world, sharing his art throughout the Americas and beyond.
Please enjoy this Q&A as Wall Sensei shares some of his experiences and theories on classical martial arts.
MA: You began training in Goju Ryu when you were 6 years old. Who was that training with and how long did it last? Was the dojo you attended one of the first Goju programs in the United States?
KW: My training began in Kamuela, (Waimea) Hawaii, in 1949. Hawaii wasn’t an actual state yet, believe it or not, so I don’t know if it counts as an early US program.
As a kid I had a breathing problem. One day the mother of a playmate of mine (who also happened to be the wife of a karate instructor in our community) mentioned that she could help me with some breathing exercises that would make my lungs and heart stronger. I will never forget it. It was a simple warm up and stretching exercise and after a few days we started something like San Chin with lots of deep breathing and slow punching but no turns. Just walking forward and backwards doing the same thing concentrating on posture, relaxing and listening to my heart and lungs. Before long, I could hear my heart beat and the air going deeper into my lungs. I did this for several weeks. It didn’t take much time to get my breathing and heart in good shape.
The formal karate teachers in my village were Walter and Sam Higa, (Higa is a common name in Okinawa) father and son. The father, Sam, had learned in Okinawa sometime before WWII. He had studied with Master Miyagi Chojun and Higa Seiko in the early days of its development. I know he studied under Master Higa Seiko because he sometimes received letters from him and sent a letter of introduction with me when I went to Okinawa in the Marine Corps. Sam Higa Sensei immigrated to Hawaii with his wife, Haruko and son, who was born in Okinawa. I think they arrived in Hawaii about 1939. In 1949 Sam Sensei was about 60 years old and Walter was about 35. Walter learned from his father and Master Higa Seiko from an early age. Sensei taught katas Gekisai ichi and ni, Sanchin, Tensho, Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, Seisan, Naihanchin, (Naihanchin was a part of Master Miyagi’s training in the early years) and Kururunfa. There were more katas in Master Miyagi’s system but I think that was all Sam Sensei learned before he immigrated for Hawaii. I only studied up through Shisochin. Sam Sensei passed away in 1968 and Walter passed away in 1988.
Wall Sensei demonstrating Higa Seiko’s Tensho:
MA: What led you to join the Marines in 1961, and were you stationed on Okinawa right away?
KW: I joined the Marine Corps in 1961 after working in Vidalia, Ga. for a few months. I went to Boot Camp at Parris Island, SC, Infantry Training at Camp Lejeune, Weapons Training at USMC Schools, at Quantico, Va. and other schools during my first year, then I was sent to Okinawa.
MA: Could you tell us a little bit about your time in the Marines, where you were moved around to, and how long you stayed in?
KW: I was in the Marine Corps for ten years. After Boot Camp and my schooling, my first duty station was Camp Pendleton, Ca. and on to Okinawa. I returned to the States and went to the Cuban Crisis from Camp Pendleton. Then I returned to Camp Pendleton and shipped out to Okinawa once again. After that I returned to Quantico, Va. followed by the Marine Barracks in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Finally I returned to Okinawa and SE Asia. I left the Marines in 1970 and returned to teach at the University Of Puerto Rico, Universidad del Sagrado Corazon, and Roosevelt-Baldrich. I trained with some of the best young men and women in Puerto Rico. Some are still training today.
MA: How did you first meet Higa Seiko Sensei on Okinawa? What made you decide that this was the individual you wanted to study with?
I met the Higa family at their dojo in Yogi Machi, Naha, Okinawa. I came with a letter of introduction from my teacher in Hawaii. My teacher had studied before with Master Higa Seiko before WWII, before he immigrated to Hawaii. The Higa dojo, Sho Do Kan, was a typical dojo of the times. It was old and in a residential area. Master Higa lived with his son and daughter-in-law, their two sons and, soon, a little girl. Their home was a nice home just in back of the dojo. I always considered it my home dojo, but I also studied at Sho Rei Kan in Koza City. I’ll explain that more a little later.
At the same time I met Master Matayoshi, who lived in an extra room in the dojo. He lived there with his wife and daughter, and soon, his son. He had recently returned from living in Kawasaki, Japan where he had lived since WWII. Master Matayoshi lived in the Higa dojo until about 1972.
It was interesting because I met Master Matayoshi on the first day that I went to Sho Do Kan. He was in the dojo with Odo Seikichi Sensei. I didn’t know Matayoshi Sensei at this time so I introduced myself and he said Higa Sensei was with Takamine Sensei in Naha and would be back soon. He said to just wait. So I got a little familiar with him and Odo Sensei. Wow, it was quite a surprise. Odo sensei seemed like a very relaxed fellow, sitting and drinking tea, maybe around 5′ + tall. He stood up to do a kata, slow and easy. He faced the kami dana and bowed, then turned to the dojo. His eyes and his manor seemed to change, he was so fast and smooth and jumped so high. I had never seen much about other styles before and he really made an impression on me. I think the kata he did was Chinto. His movement was like lighting and kiai was so strong. When he finished, I’ll never forget, he just melted back down to the floor, like nothing had happened. Master Matayoshi did Kakuho kata. They looked amazing. I was just a kid (19) in the Marines and here I was watching two of the best martial artists in the world.
MA: What was day-to-day training like at the Sho Do Kan dojo?
KW: I think the training was like most Goju Ryu dojos or other styles on the island. From 7-9 each night we trained. Strong warm ups, a lot of hojo undo with many implements, basics, lots of kata and imi-wa niwaka touben (bunkai). For several years there was training after the 7-9 class at the honbu dojo, sometimes until midnight. Most senior students came to this session where Higa Sensei and Takamine Sensei taught. We trained with many hojo undo implements. After training we had tea and cake or sushi and always went to local public bath, sinto, for 15 cents. In those days most homes in Okinawa didn’t have baths. In the Marine Corps, while stationed in Okinawa, I had mostly night duties so I spent most of my days at the dojo. It was like a lot of private lessons from the great masters. Master Higa passed away in 1966.
At the dojo I met many life long friends from Okinawa, such as Master Takamine, Gibo, Kanai, Kyuna, Ushiro, Yamagawa, Yamashiro, Gakiya, Tamano, Shinoda and especially Odo Seikichi who was a great teacher of Okinawa Kenpo. He came to our dojo to study Kobudo, Sanchin, and Tensho with Master Matayoshi.
My peers in the dojo helped to inspire me to be as good as I could be. I spent many special, private hours in the dojo doing extra training.
MA: Could you share an interesting story about Higa Sensei that people might not know?
KW: Once Higa Sensei was visiting Masanobu Shinjo Sensei in Koza. He was on the street when a young boy asked him to watch his shoeshine things for a moment. Koza is just outside of Kadena Air Base and of course, many GI’s. One GI was a little drunk and stopped and asked Higa Sensei to shine his shoes. Sensei did not speak much English at all. The GI got a little heated, “Papa-San, shine my shoes!” Master stepped back and said “waiting.” Maybe the GI thought Sensei was ” waiting” for some action. He rushed Higa Sensei and landed on the ground. Angrily, the GI started to swear at Sensei. Sensei again said, “WAIT!” He picked up the shoeshine box and punched it so hard it went flying across the street and Sensei hardly moved is body. The GI was so surprised; he looked where the box had gone, looked at Sensei, and apologized.
MA: You mentioned the term imi-wa niwaka touben when discussing your day-to-day training. Could you break down what that phrase literally means, and if it is different than the typical western idea of bunkai? Is it similar to the term used by Bill Hayes Sensei called ti chi ki?
KW: Good question. Bunkai means to analyze, which means that a punch, or kick, that is thrown at you is blocked. In most bunkai that you see everything is blocked until the end of the kata, and then someone wins. In a real situation, you must end the altercation as soon as possible. You would never have the chance or opportunity to do a whole string of movements. The term imi-wa niwaka touben was explained to me with those words, and in other several ways. There are meanings in the Okinawan languages that can’t be explained in simple terms. It kind of means, after a block or a movement from a sudden confrontation, what will you do? By training your kata for many years you will respond with the right answer. This means lots of work.
Video below demonstrates base level Gekisai Sho Bunkai:
You can break any Okinawan kata down and find the meaning behind “What would you do after the block, or movement, that you do?” The answer is, “punch, kick or throw, TO KILL, as quick as possible.”
Bill Hayes Sensei. Great Okinawan martial artist and most respected. Yes, I believe his term ti chi ki is similar to what I have said. He is another person who has had combat experience and knows “What would you do after the block”?
MA: Did you study with Toguchi Seikichi at the same time as Higa Sensei?
KW: Actually I never trained personally with Toguchi Sensei. He lived in Tokyo all the time that I was in the Marines but came to Okinawa once in a while. I met him in Okinawa around 1969 and then in New York City in 1972. He and Master Matayoshi came for a demonstration for Sho Rei Kan. Then, at the end of 1972, he came to my wedding in Okinawa.
During my Marine Corps years I trained mostly with Higa Seikichi Sensei, Matayoshi, Takamine, and a few other sensei. Master Higa Seiko was always there until he passed away in 1966. His son lived at the dojo so I was with him everyday. When Seiko Sensei passed away his son, Seikichi, was not the senior dojo member. Takamine Sensei was. In 1989 there was a celebration turning the dojo over to the son, Master Higa Seikichi. Many Sho Do Kan senior members were there including Toguchi Sensei from Sho Rei Kan. Me and some of my students from UMASS attended the ceremony.
In 1968 I met Toshio Tamano and Nobuharu Shinoda, from mainlad Japan, who studied at Sho Rei Kan, Master Toguchi’s Okinawa dojo in Naka-No-Machi, Koza, Okinawa. They were karate club captains at their universities in Japan. I went to a demonstration where I saw their students do two man katas with Fukyu, Gekisai, Gekiha, and Kakuha, with bunkai. I was really drawn to the idea and later I joined to learn more about it. It turned out to be very valuable to my training and my own ideas. I talked about this at Sho Do Kan. I learned that Master Toguchi had been a student of Master Higa Seiko for thirty years. In the ’50′s he was working on his ideas at Sho Do Kan dojo, but according to tradition he opened his own dojo. Of course, he was a master in his own right with many followers.
The training was very close to training at Master Higa’s Sho Do Kan. Master Toguchi studied with Master Higa very well before developing Sho Rei Kan. Master Toguchi made his Sho Rei Kan dojo because he developed his own kata and ideas, so out of politeness he started his own Kan. He was even helped by Master Higa for setting up his dojo in Koza. That was just a few years before I first went to Okinawa. That was a great point in Master Higa’s personality. He was very kind and understanding.
I had a similar reason for starting my own Ko Do Kan dojo. I adopted some of Master Toguchi’s ideas and I studied Kobudo under Master Matayoshi. However, there is still a strong family tie between me and Sho Do Kan. When I go to Okinawa I only study at Sho Do Kan. At the memorial of Master Higa Seiko’s 33rd and Master Higa Seikichi’s 3rd anniversary of their passing, in 2002, the only foreigners there were me and my students from the States, Jay Schwarzman, Dan Rajic, Brian Conz and Ivan Shiff.
Click here for Part 2 as Wall Sensei discusses experiences with Matayoshi Sensei, Odo Sensei, and more. He also provides thoughts on spreading the martial arts to the West.
Not all styles of karate possess a version of Seisan…but enough do to warrant a rather ubiquitious reputation, causing some practitioners to refer to it as the “universal” karate form. A bold nickname, but perhaps a well deserved one. Styles that have Seisan include: Goju Ryu, Shorin Ryu, Uechi Ryu, Shito Ryu, Okinawa Kenpo, Ryukyu Kempo, Ryute, Ryuei Ryu, Wado Ryu, Shotokan, Chito Ryu, Koryu Uchinadi, Seibukan, Seidokan…you get the idea. This kata is well traveled.
When different versions of Seisan are viewed in close succession they clearly exhibit unique stylistic quirks, yet preserve common aspects of some original pattern or set of concepts. That being the case, this “walking tour” article intends to do two different things:
- Establish a few bits of historical info that provide insight into the possible origins of the kata.
- View different styles of Seisan so as to observe and appreciate how each ryu has grown the form over time and made it “their own”.
Let’s get started!
The Historical Tidbits You Need to Know
It is evident that the many varieties of Seisan originating from Okinawa do NOT stem from a single, central practitioner. In fact, it appears that multiple individuals went to China at various times and brought back bits, pieces, and versions which conjealed and fractured over time.
One of the big defining points in karate’s history was after the fateful invasion of the Satsuma Samurai in 1609. It was then that records and stories began to take shape in meaningful ways. Throughout the 1800s the Meiji Restoration was taking hold and karate on Okinawa was developing into three nebulous, sometimes interweaving prongs: Shuri Te, Naha Te, and Tomari Te.
Two foundational versions of Seisan were imported/created at this time, one predominantly via Shuri Te and the other Naha Te. Both Shuri and Naha had strong roots in Chinese Chuanfa, especially from the Fuzhou Region (the Okinawans had a settlement in Fuzhou and Kume Village was a fairly direct historical connection). From that launch point we can analyze the backgrounds of both foundational forms, starting with the trickier one.
The Shuri Te variety of Seisan is very difficult to pin down lineage-wise. To see what I mean, read the following two quotes, both from respected researchers:
“Noted senior Okinawan karate authority Hiroshi Kinjo (b. 1919) states that there is no evidence of a Seisan kata being passed down in the “Shuri” lineages of Sokon Matsumura and Anko Itosu, and that the familiar “Shuri” lineage Seisan versions such as the Hangetsu of Shotokan and the Seisan of Kyan lineage systems, should be referred to as Tomari Seisan. His reasoning is that the so-called Oshiro Seisan as presented in the 1930 “Kenpo Gaisetsu” by Nisaburo Miki and Mizuho Takada was actually passed down from Kosaku Matsumora to Kodatsu Iha to Kinjo’s own teacher Chojo Oshiro of Yamaneryu Bojutsu fame.” – Joe Swift on Fighting Arts
“Then there is the kata Seisan. It was a kata taught by Soken Matsumura. If Itosu’s primary karate teacher had been Matsumura, surely he would also have taught this kata. But he did not. An explanation for the absence of Seisan can be found in the existing Tomari te (Tumaidi) traditions. For example, the continuing Tomari traditions as were passed down through the Oyadomari brothers of Tomari, as well as those of the Matsumora ha Tumaidi (Tomari te) as passed down to Tokashiki Iken, also lack the kata Seisan, as does the tode passed on by Itosu. Seisan was not a Tomari kata.” – Tom Ross on Fighting Arts
Ahh buh? Well someone had to have it, the darn thing is all over the place!
Despite common belief, Matsumura was not the only teacher of Itosu Ankoh. Itosu was also heavily influenced by two Tomari gentleman named Tomari Gusukuma and Matsumora Kosaku, as well as one Naha based individual named Nagahama who was an expert at body conditioning. Therefore, either of the quoted suppositions above could be true. Itosu could have never learned the form from Matsumura because Matsumura didn’t have a chance to teach him and/or Matsumura didn’t know it, OR Itosu may never have learned the form from Gusukuma/Matsumora because they didn’t utilize it. Furthermore Itosu may have actually learned the form from either branch but forgot it or chose to pass it on selectively.
Noted researcher Patrick McCarthy seems to believe that Seisan existed in both lineages:
“Arguably, the martial art-like traditions in an around the old castle capitol of Shuri predate those elsewhere on the island. As such, the Shuri-based version of Seisan is believed to be the oldest. While several, if not many, other proficient Bujin are known to have resided in the Shuri district prior to the time of Matsumura Sokon [1809-1898], he is regarded as the father of its karate movement; hence, Matsumura Seisan “is” the oldest version.”
“Kinjo Sensei sometimes refers to Seisan as Jusanpo (i.e 13 steps/ways). This Tomari version was taught to him by his teacher, Grandmaster Oshiro Chojo. It originally came from Oyadomari Koken by way of Iha Kotatsu who passed it onto Oshiro. Kinjo sensei believes the Tomari version of seisan may be the “cross-over” Okinawan representation from old Chinese quanfa (i.e. possibly the version from Aragaki or Kume).” – Patrick McCarthy, also pg. 73 of “Classical Kata of Okinawan Karate”
Many other resources seem to reinforce the idea that Matsumura was responsible for a variety of Seisan, some of which are:
- “Okinawa Island of Karate”, George Alexander, pg.100
- “Unante”, John Sells, pg. 258
- “Katas of Shorin ryu Seibukan”, Kim Mitrunen & Tommi Prami
It is stated that Matsumura Nabe, grandson of Matsumura Soken, learned and passed along Seisan to Hohan Soken. Unfortunately, the history and circumstances surrounding Nabe are difficult to verify. Kyan Chotoku is also often cited as learning his Seisan from Matsumura or one of his disciples (Sources: Graham Noble, Bill Hayes, others). Some individuals have suggested that Matsumora Kosaku is responsible for Kyan’s Seisan, but it’s known that Kyan added Tomari flair to a few of his pre-existing forms so the case may be made that the end product of Kyan’s form was based in Shuri and flavored in Tomari.
As mentioned earlier, both Shuri Te and Naha Te had strong Chinese roots, but Shuri Te was more apt to changing and “Okinawan-izing” things. Both branches did it, but Naha seemed a little more inclined to preserve Chinese elements.
Two men, Aragaki Seisho and Higaonna Kanryo, are the forefathers of what is considered “mainstream” Naha Te (mostly thanks to the titanic efforts of their disciple Miyagi Chojun). These men both travelled to China and definitely secured a version of Seisan there. In addition, Nakaima Kenri and Sakiyama Kitoku made travels as well (at one point traveling together) and brought back versions. Let’s also not forget Uechi Kanbun who was an avid student and preserver of Chuanfa. Each important individual constituted a separate spawning point under the Naha umbrella.
The final unmentioned “branch” of Seisan development is that of Funakoshi Gichin. In his writings Funakoshi explained that Itosu Ankoh and Itosu Azato were his primary teachers. Nevertheless, he also had extensive contact with Aragaki Seisho/Higaonna Kanryo of Naha Te and Iha Kotatsu of Tomari Te during his time as a teacher in Tomari (Source: Patrick McCarthy). As such his version of Seisan, which would become Hangetsu, took on a life of it’s own as he developed it for the Japanese masses.
One thing most researchers agree upon is that the movements for Seisan, in all of it’s original variations, were likely imported from Fuzhou, China. Specifically, it seems likely that it was part of the training regiment of the White Crane families who resided there (MORE specifically, Kinjo Akio suggests that it derives from the Yong Chun White Crane branch). Over time Seisan has grown on Okinawa while fading in China to the point where a direct mirror form can no longer be found in Chinese styles. The variations found on Okinawa contain pieces of the original concepts, stylistically emphasizing different ideas and growing in ways that agree with the overall construct of each Okinawan method.
That all being said, I think it’s time to view some kata! Let’s pay attention to the differences and similarities between each style, keeping in mind their roots in Naha and/or Shuri as well as their shared history reaching back into Fuzhou.
The Walking Tour (Right This Way!)
The following video is from Yamaguchi Goshi, student of Yamaguchi Gogen (The Cat). The form has distinct Goju characteristics and highly emphasizes rooting and breathing technique. As a Naha Te form you’ll notice an above average usage of open hand vs fist, although both striking methods make an appearance.
Kanazawa Hirokazu aptly performs the Shotokan variation known as Hangetsu. You’ll notice similar tension in some spots with increasing pace in later sections. This changing dynamic hints at the multiple influences on Funakoshi as he developed the form. You’ll also notice big wide stances and arm/leg movements which became signatures of Shotokan as it developed.
Founder of Wado Ryu, Hironori Ohtsuka, was a direct student of Funakoshi Gichin and an important Shotokan practitioner. It should be no surprise that the Wado Ryu variety of Seishan (aka Hangetsu aka Seisan) closely relates to the Shotokan version. Tatsuo Suzuki Sensei demonstrates.
Tang Soo Do
One thing we haven’t mentioned yet is the expansion of karate outside of Okinawa and Japan. The Korean art of Tang Soo Do traces much of it’s lineage to Shotokan Karate. We see here Nathaniel Verbeke perform a Tang Soo Do version of Seisan which shares many of the same qualities as the two previous videos. you’ll notice a little high kicking sneak in; Tang Soo Do is Korean after all.
Isshin Ryu traces it’s Seisan through Tatsuo Shimabukuro, a student of Chotoku Kyan and other Shuri influences. As such, this is the first form on the tour that could be considered predominantly “Shuri Te”. It is important to note that the practitioner in the following video, Angi Uezu Sensei, executes the kata while incorporating specific Isshin Ryu concepts like the vertical punch. Despite this being Shuri instead of Naha, the embusen remains similar especially in the opening three strike sequence and the turns to the side and back. One trademark of Kyan flavored Seisan is an “Ananku” like sequence toward the end.
Kyan Shorin Ryu
The next clip comes to us via one of Kyan Chotoku’s direct students: Shimabukuro Eizo. You’ll notice slightly higher stances and less emphasis on the hard breathing than in Goju and Shotokan versions. While the footage is quite old and seen at a distance, you’ll still be able to notice the rigorous pacing and application of body movement.
Don’t be fooled, we are still in Kyan country. In fact the father of our next performer is often considered the individual with the most personal time spent under Kyan. Watch as Shimabukuro Zenpo, son of Zenryo, demonstrates the acceleration, snap, and percussive power of Kyan style Seisan. Although the very end appears slightly different, you’ll still notice the twisting technique to finish the final opponent.
For the next video we go back to Naha Te, but not in the standard Goju way. In fact, the next performer was not heavily influenced by the popular Aragaki/Higaonna/Miyagi chain and instead traces his roots to Nakaima Kenri. Sakamoto Tsuguo became well known for his Annan form, but he performs a skillful Seisan as well. Despite the Naha nature of Ryuei Ryu and it’s close connection to China, you’ll notice Sakamoto Sensei emphasizing the speed and acceleration of the form not unlike Kyan style. You’ll also notice he shares the high stances utilized by Kyan and Tomari styles.
Tomari Seisan / Okinawa Kenpo
This next one offers an interesting dilemma. We can surmise from historical context that there probably was a Tomari Seisan at one point and it may have been influenced by Aragaki Seisho, Matsumora Kosaku, and Iha Kotatsu. However, there is a Tomari Seisan floating around in modern culture that is completely unrelated to these men.
Tomari Seisan as it can be found today traces back to Ryukyu Kempo, a style named by Oyata Seiyu. Interestingly, Oyata received his Seisan from Nakamura Shigeru, the same man who taught Odo Seikichi of Okinawa Kenpo. Not so coincidently, the “Tomari Seisan” of Ryukyu Kempo and “Seisan” of Okinawa Kenpo are identical. The snag is that Nakamura Shigeru’s Seisan came from Kuniyoshi Shinkichi. Kuniyoshi was one of the primary students of Sakiyama Kitoku, the travel mate of Nakaima Kenri (Ryuei Ryu) and one of the individuals who brought Seisan concepts back to Okinawa. Sakiyama is largely grouped into the Naha vein of things, and Kuniyoshi lived in Nago village. As such, Okinawa Kenpo’s Seisan has virtually nothing to do with Tomari, and thus Ryukyu Kempo’s Seisan also has little to do with Tomari. It might be argued that both Nakamura Shigeru and Oyata Seiyu had Tomari influence in their arts, which is true (Nakamura with Motobu Choki and Oyata with earlier experiences before Okinawa Kenpo). But as we have seen many instructors were influenced by Tomari, some much more than Nakamura and Oyata (namely Kyan), and thus we would be teeming with Tomari Seisans if everyone affected by Tomari was labelled as such. Furthermore, the Okinawa Kenpo Seisan is well documented to have come from Kuniyoshi and is preserved in form by both Okinawa Kenpo and Ryukyu Kempo. Possible differences in bunkai alone would not warrant such a geographical name change.
As of this writing I have not uncovered the explanation for this matter.
View below two examples of “Tomari Seisan” followed by an “Okinawa Kenpo Seisan”.
Last but certainly not least is Uechi Ryu. Uechi Kanbun spent significant time in China and developed an art which preserved Chinese elements more than most. In the following video Uechi Kanei, son of Kanbun, demonstrates his version of Seisan. Notably, Uechi Ryu was originally taught with just three kata: Sanchin, Seisan, and Sanseirui. You’ll notice similarities to other versions of Seisan in the beginnings of Kanei’s pattern, but pretty soon significant differences emerge. The most unique aspects come in the form of persistent open hand usage and lengthy additional concepts toward the middle and end of the form.
That Wraps It Up
I hope you enjoyed this stroll through one of the most frequently practiced kata of our time. When viewed back to back it becomes easier to see some of the common threads. Seisan’s opening sequence has some interesting differences between Naha and Shuri but follows a very consistent structure. Various karate styles have taken the form and used it to express the functional concepts of their system. On one hand the growth of the form over time has moved it away from it’s roots; on the other hand the kata has grown into a distinctly effective Okinawan method.
I imagine if you do this form it is probably subtly different than many of the examples of above. Let those subtleties inform your training and give you ideas about the breadth and possibility of Seisan!