This is a continuation of the interview with Ronald Lindsey, Shihan. Lindsey Sensei is a senior in Matsumura Seito karate of the Hohan Soken lineage. Lindsey Sensei is a military veteran and author of Okinawa no Bushi No Te, a comprehensive examination of karate history and Matsumura Seito concepts. In Part 1 Lindsey Sensei discussed his early experiences on Okinawa, Hohan Soken’s students, Matsumura Seito history, and more. In Part 2 Lindsey Sensei continues discussing his experiences with seniors like Kuda Yuichi and Odo Seikichi, and what it was like bringing karate back to the United States.
In this video Lindsey Sensei demonstrates a series of Matsumura Seito fighting concepts:
Q: You’ve seen Matsumura Seito spread out over the course of a generation. What do you think of the developments and changes or lack thereof?
What you have to understand is that Okinawan teachers and culture did not have a longing need to preserve a style 100% as it was. Instead they follow a principle known as suhari.
Suhari (su-ha-ri)….su means that the first time period (5 years, 10 years, time varies with the individual) you emulate your teacher and try to make everything exactly like him or her. Then the “ha” is another time period. During this time it is natural for you to make some changes according to what you need and can do as long as it doesn’t violate the principles of the ryu. The “ri” is when everything becomes automatic and it just “boom” happens. Really Suhari is the natural way of doing things.
This used to really bother me. I knew my kata were drifting from what I learned in Okinawa, which was natural since I was built different than an Okinawan. Over a period of time my kata became my kata although I try to keep them like Soken Sensei did, especially in principle the kata will change some what. Anybody who says they are doing Hohan Soken’s kata are not really telling the truth. They think they are, but kata drift according to what their body can do the best. This is not to mention the age factor which also alters the kata. When Hohan Soken died, his style died. The principles and how they can be applied are still alive, but my kata became uniquely mine and so it is with all karateka.
Q: How did you come to meet Yuichi Kuda Sensei and did you train extensively with him?
I knew him in Okinawa and trained with him; but, I really started studying under him when I got directly involved with his organization (we were all Matsumura Seito). Kuda SEnsei blended Okinawa Kenpo with Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito to found Shorin Ryu Matsumura Kenpo. I actually switched from Fusei Kise’s kata to Yuichi Kuda’s kata one afternoon; my senior student Charles Tatum and I switched once we saw how Kuda was teaching and performing his kata.
Fusei Kise is a brilliant tactician and his fighting techniques are very good. Kata-wise he does a bit of blending, and shortcuts, and his own “thing”. On the other hand Kuda Sensei was very precise and his teachings were very precise. He was not as flamboyant and flashy, but nevertheless he had really good fighting techniques too. Kuda Sensei was a bigger physical person than Sensei Kise which suited me well since I am also a big person.
It’s important to note that although there were differences between their methods, at a high level they were executing very similar concepts. When you hear these heated arguments about small details, this teacher did it such and such a way vs. the way of another teacher, it really misses the point of what the teachers were doing. They are merely executing Suhari.
One thing I think a lot of people are missing in their training is the experience of seeing the old masters train on their own. When teachers like Kuda Sensei and Kise Sensei trained on their own it was different then when they taught classes. They would ad lib and add different timings, alter techniques and other similar principles.
In the old days kata was a live thing, not meant to be set in concrete. It was a set of principles that could be tweaked and used to explore and teach and learn. In addition, using the concepts of the kata the teacher would optimize it to each individual. He would walk behind and around you and make mental drawings of your procedures and how you stand, etc. and how it could be optimized to you. Their methods would make you stronger just by correcting your kata.
Q: When you returned to the United States did you begin developing a school and association right away? If so, what were some difficulties you experienced at the time?
I noticed in the United States that there was a lot of focus on getting quick promotion. There was a big mindset (and still is) of wanting to get a one up on someone else. The problem with a lot of organizations is that they are not really organizations, they are cults. I did not do that.
We had a quality standard and I wanted people to meet that standard. Rank has a tendency to devalue over time and become worthless if there are no high standards being met. I tended to bring Okinawan Sensei over and we held a large camp to spread the cost and make it affordable for everyone involved. Not too many other people wanted to do that because they wanted extended personal time with the sensei instead of sharing that time. There was a lot of ego involved with spending time with the sensei. All of these ego trips made it difficult to teach traditional karate.
Q: When did you meet and train with Odo Seikichi Sensei? Could you talk a bit about your experiences with him and what you were able to learn from him?
I met him when I was on Okinawa and trained with him for a while there. I got to the point where I was ready to test for Sho Dan in Nago (the location of Nakamura Shigeru’s dojo), but I was already a black belt so I couldn’t see the point in getting another one.
When I trained with Odo Sensei I wasn’t so concerned about emulating his physical technique specifically, but I liked his mental attitude and the way he treated his students. He would encourage you and would always be in good spirits. He said things like “don’t try TOO hard”, or “take it easy”. One thing he really liked to say was “kill him a little bit”, and that meant to slow down, learn the technique right, and focus on quality over raw speed or power. He was a true gentleman.
Q: How did training on Okinawa when you were there differ from what individuals might experience nowadays?
One very key difference is the military factor. If you were in the Army, Marine Corps and Navy in Okinawa you had to take, twice a year, a combat proficiency test. You trained continuously to get ready for that test which was of course getting ready for the act of combat. We started our work day way before dawn. We conducted the army ‘daily dozen’ and then finished that with a 4 mile run. After that we went to work for the US Military; at the end of our military work day, we repeated the Army Daily Dozen and the four mile run. Then we went to karate training for a number of hours. We did this five to six days a week. If you were in the Marine Recon you did a 20 mile run every day.
Going over to train in Okinawa now is less strenuous. Today visiting students don’t get up before dawn and undergo vigorous work outs before day light. Their training is different from what we did some 40 to 50 years ago. We lived a Spartan lifestyle.
Okinawan GIs (American Service men during the 1950’s, 1960’s and early 1970’s) were on the island at a special time. There were masters on the island who trained directly with older masters who were, in fact, Samurai (Shizoku). What was learned by them and initially passed down to us was the old art. That time is now gone. According to men like Kuda Yuichi and Nakaza Seiei there is more old karate now in the United States then there is in Okinawa, tucked away with the Okinawan GIs. Okinawa Sensei are now much more focused on business and sport karate. There are just a few teaching old karate and you’d be hard pressed to find them.
Q: In a lot of modern dojo we often hear the term “oss” or “osu” used. Did you detect a lot of that on Okinawa?
We never heard it on Okinawa. It was not said on Okinawa when I was there. I asked Kuda Sensei about it one time because we had a number of Shito Ryu people at one of our camps and they were doing a lot of oss-ing. Kuda Sensei said it was ok if they wanted to do it and that it just meant “hi”. I also asked Shimabukuro Zenpo, Tomoyose Ryuko, and several others all of whom said that it was not a term the Okinawan masters used.
Q: You recently released a book called “Okinawa no Bushi no Te”. Could you tell us a little bit about this work and what readers might gain from it?
The book started to be written shortly after I got back from Okinawa in 1970. I started gathering historic material while I was in Okinawa because I wanted to learn the history. I am somewhat of an amateur military historian. In my civilian job I was in the agricultural extension service, which meant I wrote thousands of newsletters and newspaper articles and pamphlets. I have written a lot of stuff over the years. Previously I had written a karate magazine for a while called “Maishin Shorinji” which was all educational. I tried to steer clear of politics and saying bad stuff about anybody because there is nothing to be gained by doing this. I tried to focus on history. Of course, there will be people who will disagree with my history and findings, and that’s totally fine. The thing about Okinawan history is that it greatly depends on who you get it from, depending on how they slant that history, and what they want you to know. All you can do is present the facts as best you can.
So I had all this material, boxes and boxes, some of it was no more than slips of paper or research notes. I got it all out and sorted into subject matter piles and reduced it down and organized it. Then I took that information and created something coherent. The book itself is divided into two main parts: first is history. I go into who the Bushi class were that developed karate and kobujutsu. Then I discuss the warriors themselves, including Matsumura Sokon and his lineage down to Hohan Soken.
The second half of the book is called “My Walk with Matsumura”. This involves more of my own personal history on Okinawa and in Matsumura Seito. I broke this second section down into four major strategies that in my opinion are essential to the learning of any martial art. These are:
* Kokoro no heiho – proper mental attitude and spirit.
* Minari no heiho – strategy of appearance. This is about what the kata is trying to teach us.
* Maai no heiho – strategy of combat distance.
* Chushin no heiho - strategy of the center.
I include a lot of little stories about warfare and how these strategies have been used and how they relate to kata and martial arts.
I never like to get too bogged down when I’m writing. I kept the book simple and wrote it to be what it is: an old man telling stories in a way that you can read and understand and retain. It is user friendly.
Q: Where can people go to get this book?
Generally I will autograph the book and write a little something in there. I try to get the book out the day after I receive an order.
Q: What could you tell the next generation of karateka to help them preserve the essence of Okinawan karate and kobudo as you have come to understand it?
In terms of passing the arts to the next generation…there are a lot of people who studied in Okinawa but have not contributed much after they left the island. They have not produced high quality students, or they have taken long extended breaks in training and then come back and want you to treat them with respect. Hell…they have moved back toward a beginner, not forward! Maintaining training and contributing to the next generation is key to becoming a true karate senior.
In terms of advice, I would have to say this – you cannot learn every kata invented, so don’t try. Find a school and learn the core curriculum. Knowing 25-30 kata does not mean you know 25-30 times more than a person who knows less kata. We (including myself) have made the mistake of trying to learn too many kata. Learn a few kata well instead of many halfway. Be stubborn and do not quit.
Thank you very much Lindsey Sensei for your great insights and stories!
To hear more from Lindsey Sensei visit “Tales From the Western Generation”. This book contains extensive interviews with a number of senior karateka.
I’m pleased to present this interview with Ronald Lindsey, Shihan, Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito. Lindsey Sensei is a senior American karate practitioner and military veteran. He was on Okinawa during a very interesting time and had the opportunity to train directly with a number of top masters.
I had a chance to discuss a wide variety of topics with Lindsey Sensei, ranging from his time with senior karateka to his efforts to bring karate back to the United States. We also discussed the nature of martial arts organizations and how Americans were viewed on Okinawa.
The interview below contains a mixture of video, historical photos, and q&a. Please enjoy!
Q: Could you provide us with a brief outline of when you decided to enlist in the military and where it took you geographically?
I actually did not enlist; I was commissioned from the Cadet Corps at Texas A&M University. I could have played professional football but I chose to serve Uncle Sam as an officer instead. I was in the U.S. Army Military Police and went to Okinawa, Korea, the Philippines and so forth. I also went TDY numerous times to South Vietnam. TDY means temporary duty. The years that I served as active duty military were 1968-1969-1970 and for a number of years after as reserve officer. I was first stationed on Okinawa in 1968.
My main job was training military dogs. At one time I had over 300 German military police dogs. We were training sentries and scout dogs; I actually wrote the lesson plan and carried out the program to train the first drug detection dogs ever used in the military.
Q: According to your biography your study of martial arts began in 1963 in Shotokan. This would have been while you were still in the United States. Who did you study with and what prompted you to take it up?
I was from a little town called Hallettsville, Texas. We didn’t have any karate schools there. The summers when I was not at Texas A&M, I worked in Houston Texas. During this time I trained in Shotokan at Japan Ways in the Southern part of Houston. The karate training was good, but it was nothing compared to the football training I got during my college years. What we actually did at Texas A&M was probably the hardest football practices ever conducted in the game, and that was under Gene Stallings, a protégé of Bear Bryant. They made us fight against each other during the off season program. It was not Asian Fighting but it certainly was combat training. In the end there were less than 44 boys who did not quit Gene Stallings’s program out of about 140 athletes who were there when the program started. That was very rigorous training. You learned not to hesitate. This gave me an edge even when I went to Okinawa and participated in karate training, especially bogu sparring.
I don’t recall who was teaching at Japan Ways at that time, but I did pick up a number of kata including the Heian and Tekki forms, so I had some familiarity with karate training when I got to Okinawa in 1968.
Q: When you heard you were going to be stationed on Okinawa did you have karate in mind right away or were you entirely focused on military responsibilities?
The military aspect had to be the number one priority. Nevertheless, I looked for karate as soon as possible. There were two things I wanted right away when I got to Okinawa – I wanted to improve my karate and I wanted to find a Japanese Samurai sword. I was able to accomplish the former. Actually, I only saw four Japanese swords the whole time I was there. At that time on Okinawa you had to have written permission to even own one.
Q: You studied under a number of top tier masters, but who was your first teacher on the island? What drew you to him over other options?
The very first style I studied was Uechi Ryu under Seiyu Shinjo. My wife and I lived in a little housing development called Morgan Manor near Kadena Village. To get there you had to go around the Kadena Village traffic circle. On that circle was Sensei Shinjo’s dojo. This is the father of the now famous Kiyohide Shinjo.
A short time after joining Sensei Shinjo’s Dojo I was on duty as the Armed Forces police duty officer in Okinawa (all company grade officers in the First MP Group were required to serve about once per week as duty officer). One of the Duty Officers “check points” was to check the MP Sub-station in Koza. While I was at the sub-station I told one of our interpreters about how I started karate. He said, “ohh, the person who owns the store next door also does karate”. So I went over there and ended up meeting Seizan Kinjo (alt. spelling: Seizen or Seisan), whose parents actually owned the store. Seizan Kinjo lived either on top or behind the store at that time and was a student of Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito under Grandmaster Hohan Soken and Master Fusei Kise. Matsumura Seito was a direct Shorin style stemming from the famous Matsumura Sokon.
I started training with Kinjo Sensei. We would meet at that store and then go down a nearby alley to Sensei Kise’s dojo where we would work out. At that time I was the only American in the dojo. The training was about 50% kata and 50% bogu gear fighting.
Q: Could you tell us what Seizan Kinjo was like as an individual? Was he stern, fun loving, etc?
His personality was jovial and easy to get along with. He was really strong for his size. At that time in my martial arts career he was the type of teacher I needed. We did kata training but it was not very strict. What he wanted to do was teach both bogu gear fighting (fighting with kendo like armor) and then real fighting techniques. Much of what we did was called tuite but was different than the tuite you see nowadays.
The tuite we did on Okinawa , at least that I learned, was mostly pressure point hitting. The only major difference between our tuite and regular karate was instead of striking we used compression with our thumb or one of the knuckles of the fingers. Now it seems like a lot of modern tuite is almost like jujitsu; we didn’t really do that. Encounters in those days were over in a second or two…or half a second.
Q: How did your training with Seizan Kinjo Sensei eventually lead to your studying with Hohan Soken Sensei?
Well Soken Sensei was the head of the system, so everybody drifted toward him. Especially the summer of 1970 I would go with Seizan Kinjo and we would train in Soken’s dojo.
Q: Was Hohan Soken able to practice/demonstrate/conduct class himself or had old age relegated him to the sideline?
The thing about Hohan Soken is this – he, and people of that generation, did not have formal classes. You did not have classes where you lined up, bowed in, and things like that. They did not use formal terms for a lot of things, you were expected to watch and follow and they would correct. They didn’t focus on a lot of verbal bunkai discussion. Some people found him to be stern but I did not think that. He was very capable for his age and he would demonstrate, counter, and so forth.
Yuichi Kuda said Soken taught 50/50 kata and fighting techniques. I found him to do more fighting technique training than say Sensei Odo (Okinawa Kenpo), who focused more on kata.
Q: Did Soken Sensei have much of an issue with you as a foreigner?
No. That is the biggest falsehood that I hear about American karate is that the Okinawans didn’t like us or train us. Think about it this way – I was side by side with Okinawans training at the same time. When did these Okinawans supposedly learned ‘special techniques’ separate from what I learned…at 3 in the morning? We were there, they were there, it was all the same thing. Sometimes we had difficulty with understanding the language, but that was the only barrier.
Q: Do you feel as if the Okinawans would make character judgments on foreigners and restrict certain teachings as a result?
Not particularly. If a person came to the dojo regularly he received training. Now, there are certain levels of absorption that have to take place before you are able to learn certain things. Some things they tried to teach you and you may not have been capable of learning. Many Americans that studied on Okinawa returned to America shortly after their time there. Now they may have received a black belt rating while there, but they also may have quit practicing or may have never received another teacher.
Had they gone back and found a teacher, the second levels and third levels of learning may have gradually sunk in, but there is a time element involved that cannot be shortened due to the physical and mental level of absorption. On Okinawa, unless a person was a real “jerk”, they received training. In some cases senior students would show us advanced stuff when the senior sensei wasn’t looking.
Q: Could you describe some of the unique characteristics of Matsumura Seito? How much emphasis did Soken Sensei place on Hakutsuru forms and techniques over other methods?
Hohan Soken’s style compared to other Shorin Ryu styles is different. In Soken’s style there was not a lot of block-then-punch and there was no fighting or punching with the hand chambered on the hip; chambering the fist was mainly done only during kata. The hands were always out in front and techniques were done at one time, block and strike at the same moment. Tai sabaki, body change, was used at all times.
Soken’s karate was never associated with the karate that was brought into the Okinawan public schools systems. They (my Okinawan teachers) called Soken’s karate “straight karate”. They meant it was a straight line from Matsumura Soken, through Matsumura Nabe, to Hohan Soken. Other styles of karate that were being modified and put into the school systems they referred to as “school karate”. “Village Karate”, like Soken’s style, was considered by my teachers to be unaltered and different from the school styles.
In Soken’s style the hands were held open and the finger tips were used heavily. A lot of pressure points were used and low kicks. For example, Hohan Soken did not have a back kick. He would just change body 180 degrees and use a low front whipping kick. He did not bring his knee up, he would cock the heel backwards slightly and then whip the foot up from the ground, using the big toe as the impact point.
Hakutsuru was seeded throughout the whole style. A lot of the village karate kept many of the techniques that were discarded in school karate.
Hohan Soken performing Passai Sho, narrated by Ronald Lindsey:
Q: Did Soken Sensei have any anxiety about the changes going on in karate, especially in terms of modified techniques and kata in school karate?
I have a letter in my book where Chibana Choshin wrote to Hohan Soken, inviting him to the meeting in 1956 (where they started the first Okinawan Karate Renmei) to discuss these matters. Soken was troubled at times with the idea that karate was changing and so forth. He made very little changes in his own style from what he learned when he was younger. Some changes were made of course as he got older because he had to adjust what he was capable of doing and what he understood.
Q: There isn’t much known about Hohan Soken’s teacher, Matsumura Nabe, and the other direct students of Matsumura Sokon. Did Soken Sensei ever discuss his teacher or that generation?
It’s important to understand the Okinawan culture in regards to this, especially people of Grandmaster Soken’s generation. They were old and it was considered disrespectful to ask questions like that. They would offer some little things sometimes. One time Soken Sensei told a story of Matsumura Nabe doing his kata and Funakoshi Gichin (the founder of Japanese Karate) was caught watching Nabe Sensei’s kata through a hole in the fence. Besides such stories from time to time he didn’t say much. I know he looked for Matsumura Nabe when he returned to Okinawa in 1952 from Argentina. It seems that Nabe died sometime around World War II or just prior to the War.
In regards to Matsumura Nabe – the “Nabe” was actually just a nickname. If you look at his name when you see it written in Japanese it is never written in kanji, it’s always in hiragana which means it is a pronunciation instead of “picture writing”. Yuichi Kuda said that Nabe was a “baby san” name. Nabe’s last name might not even have been Matsumura, it could have been something else. I have some more extensive research in my book, but off hand I recall that Matsumura Nabe may also have been called Nagahama Nabi no Tanmei and maybe even Ko Ishigawa (Okinawa no Bushi No Te pg.136-137).
The Okinawans often had multiple names throughout their lives. Sometimes they would use their wives maiden surnames. In the case of Nabe specifically, there was a period in his life when he was on the run from the Japanese. He supposedly hid out on Ishima for a while. He might have actively avoided the use of the name Matsumura.
There is little recorded history of Matsumura Nabe and karate in general, and even worse a lot of historic objects were destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa.
Q: How much focus did Soken Sensei place on bunkai during training?
Generally The Okinawans didn’t teach bunkai. The trick was to ask them leading questions. If they showed you something you would have to tell them that it wouldn’t work, then they might show you something a little more. Bunkai, as it appears today, is a non-Okinawan need. The real secret to Okinawan karate is not bunkai, it’s the coordination of trying to perfect kata. That, combined with the principles of shuhari, lead to exceptional coordination and understanding. When your coordination is really good you can do many things as a reflex action; this is the last step in shuhari.
Mr. Kuda would say “your bunkai good, his bunkai good, everybody’s bunkai good”.
A lot of time when asked about bunkai they showed a technique that didn’t resemble the kata. Sometimes information would only come after a bit of quiet discussion, or nudging, or coercing.
Q: Could you talk about when Fusei Kise began his study with Soken Sensei and what role he played in the dojo?
Fusei Kise was a senior in Soken’s dojo, although he was not the only senior. Soken Sensei had what we called the ‘big 5’ – Arakaki Seiki was his senior student. I believe Arakaki’s father and Soken were boyhood friends. They both grew up in Nishihara Village. Arakaki was #1. Mitsuo Inoue was second. In addition there was Kohama Jushin, Nishihira Kosei, and Nakazato Hideo. Those five guys were from the Nishihara village area and studied more with Soken than many others. That being said, there were others that studied too, including Kuda Yuichi, Fusei Kise, Nishimei, Takaya Yabiku, Ushiro, and Saha, etc. Many people also came to Soken Sensei for specialized training, say in the sai or bo or fighting techniques. Even Shinken Taira came to him on some occasions. He had a lot of students.
There is often discussion regarding whether or not Kise was the direct successor to Soken Sensei, and if Kise received a Menkyo Kaiden (scroll of direct transmission). Let’s go ahead and look at that a bit. This should be read with the understanding that I studied with Kise; his skill and mastery of Matsumura Seito are not being called into question.
First of all, it would have been out of character for an Okinawan of Soken’s generation to issue a Menkyo Kaiden to anyone. That was not a widely used Okinawan method of the time; it was more based in Japanese arts and only came into practice later as Japanese influence gained momentum in Okinawa. As such, I do not believe Kise Sensei received a Menko Kaiden from Soken.
Hohan Soken died in 1982. At that time Kise Sensei claimed that he was the successor to Matsumura Seito. I wrote an article back then entitled “The Last Samurai” covering that issue. After extensive research I found no declared heir by Hohan Soken. Arakaki Sensei went directly to Kise and asked if he received a Menkyo Kaiden from Soken, and the answer was no.
Kuda Sensei also said no, that this transmission did not occur and that the successorship would go by age starting with Arakaki.
I have been told that in Kise’s dojo there was/is no Menko Kaiden from Grandmaster Soken.
Hohan Soken had a falling out with Kise in the late 1970s. I don’t know how well they mended those fences before Soken died.
I have been told that Soken Sensei denied Kise permission to use the name Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito, which I think was the wrong thing to do. Certainly Fusei Kise was an expert in Soken’s art. I think that after a number of years went by and people started dying, including Arakaki, Kise took whatever legal action was needed to get permission to use that name. I also believe it was correct for Kise to use the name Matsumura Seito due to his hard work and dedication to the style.
Of course there is the matter of the Japanese Government recognizing Kise as a progenitor of Soken’s style. I don’t think the Japanese government can truly take a family art and give it to another person. They can provide permission to use the name, but can the government give the style over to someone? I think not.
I could be wrong on this topic…but my research has been thorough and I have spoken with a good many Okinawans on this subject, all of whom were close to the situation and tend to agree with me.
” A long time ago, there was a karateka whose name was Machaa Buntoku or Kinjo Matsu in Itoman village, Okinawa. He was born in 1867. People said that he had been practicing karate in Fuzhou city, Fujian province, China and mastered the fighting arts in depth.
Hearing about Machaa Buntoku, Miyagi Sensei, the founder of Gojuryu, visited him together with Sensei’s disciples, Jin-an Shinzato and Seiko Higa. Miyagi Sensei asked him to show them his best Kata that he mastered in China. Then Machaa Buntoku put on Hachimaki (=headband) and performed a strange dance in front of them. He danced and danced. Seeing his strange dance, Seiko Higa thought this old man must be crazy or mad because of his old age. Jin-an Shinzato who was yet young at that time lost his temper to see his dance and told him “OK. Dance is enough! Show me your fighting technique! I will be your opponent.” Shinzato delivered a karate blow at him, but Shinzato was thrown down by the dancing old man and hurt his back. He lost face. Everyone there felt awkward about it, so they bowed to the old man and went home. On the way home no one spoke.” – by Kiyohiko Higa, Translated by Sanzinsoo
Dance has always been an important part of Okinawan culture. Ranging from the famous Eisa Dance During Obon Festival to rarely seen village dances, the breadth of Okinawan musical expression is almost as diverse as it’s martial arts. What many people don’t realize is that martial arts and dance did not simply coexist throughout Ryukyuan history, but came together in very important ways so as to preserve the essence and spirit of Okinawa itself.
In this article we’ll explore how and why dance and karate intermingled. We’ll also discuss how the concepts preserved in dance are important to the understanding of karate as a complete life protection system.
Our study begins primarily in the 1600s. Before that time both dance and martial study existed, but we have very little information on how they might have influenced each other. However, in 1609 a cataclysmic shift in Okinawan culture and history occurred, bringing on a sharp need for secrecy and subterfuge.
The Shimazu Clan of Satsuma, Japan had a long standing claim on Okinawa, but their concerns on mainland Japan never allowed them to focus much on the small island chain. Unfortunately, as the Warring States Period dragged on and Tokugawa Ieyasu made his push for dominance over Japan, the Satsuma Samurai found themselves on the losing side of the Battle of Sekigahara and ultimately the war. Ieyasu, once comfortable in victory, realized the bubbling cauldron of potential trouble that the Shimazu represented. Instead of allowing them to fume away and scheme their eventual reprisal, Ieyasu suggested they set their sites on conquering the Ryukyu island chain to the south which had for years skirted their responsibilities and tributes ‘owed’ to the Japanese.
The Shimazu clan, seeing an opportunity to extend their influence and test their skills once again, agreed and set sail. The Okinawans, while fierce fighters and brave warriors, were under-equipped and under-manned. They stood little chance against the Satsuma fighting machine.
Going Underground and Adding Disguise
When the Satsuma conquered Okinawa they laid down a series of rules. First, they realized that Okinawan weaponry was already centralized around Shuri (the general populace was disarmed so as to avoid splintering factions on the island). The Satsuma decided to go one step further and remove all potential for a standing army on the island. The only individuals allowed to have weapons were the highest warrior and royal families, and most of that was just for ritual. In addition, the Japanese planted roaming informants known as metsuke to keep an eye on all Okinawan activity and either report misconduct or cut it down directly.
As a result of the Satsuma occupation the Okinawans had to be extremely cautious regarding the militaristic arts they demonstrated. Practicing tode (the predecessor to karate) and kobudo (weapons arts) became a dangerous proposition, even when training in private. As such, many teachers took their arts ‘underground’ and only studied at night or in locations away from prying eyes.
The royal court at Shuri became aware of their conundrum: they needed to continue developing their skills in order to protect the king but could not openly practice their most effective techniques. Being privileged members of Okinawan society, they still had rights to art forms like calligraphy, poetry, and dance. They decided upon an ingenious solution…bring the worlds of dance and martial arts together.
The Dancers with Dangerous Hands
“The te-waza in Tuiti are believed to arise from variations on three hand applied positions that correspond to those used in the Ryukyuan Court Classical Dances: oshi-te (forward push hands), ogami-te (supplication hands), and koneri-te (kneading hands). Positions appear in the earliest poetry collection of Ryukyu, Omorosaushi (1531-1623), and gestures seem to have been used in rituals and ceremony in ancient Okinawa. These gestures are said to have been incorporated into the court dances by Tamagusuku Chokun (born 1684), who was connected to the Motobu Udun.” – MotobuRyu.org
Tamagusuku Chokun may have been an important figure, but the overall integration of dance with martial arts cannot be traced back to a single individual. Most villages on Okinawa and the outlying islands had their own cultural dances serving varying purposes, including celebrations, tributes, and commemorations. However, there are two specific ‘groups’ who did extensive work in building and preserving dance, and must be mentioned explicitly.
The first group is women. Ancient Okinawan culture placed women in positions of high regard when it came to spirituality, history, and cultural expression. As such, while dance was expressed by both genders it frequently fell to women to preserve and transfer forms. It was only natural then for the women to uphold dancing traditions even as the resident martial experts infused deadly concepts into the movements.
This example is the Hatuma Bushi dance executed by Chibana Kazuko:
The second group that requires further mention is the Shuri court. The court eventually involved individuals like the great Matsumura Sokon, but was centralized around the Motobu family. For generations the Motobu’s were responsible for the protection of the king and served as his closest aids. They often traveled with him and were always present during court events. The Motobu’s also represent the longest discernible linear lineage in Okinawan karate history. They developed and preserved Motobu Udun Di, the Palace Hand.
The Motobu’s were an interesting group because not only did they have to protect the king, but also had to put on impressive demonstrations whenever Chinese Envoys came around. Even though Okinawa was dominated by Japan after 1609, trade with China still took place. This was unusual since economic and political relationships between China and Japan were extremely strained at this time. As a solution, the Japanese and Chinese played a clever game of look-the-other-way while on Okinawa so as to continue trading with each other through the Okinawans. As we’ll see, that continued connection to China was integral in the martial/dance development of Okinawa.
Flowing Fundamentals from Across the Sea
“There is a clear correlation between traditions of martial arts and the dances which are indigenous to regions in which those martial arts may be found. In Okinawa it is likely that Chinese martial arts and dances influenced the interpretation and performance of Okinawan martial arts and dance.” – Hakuda Ryu
Many of the connections between dance and tode seem to relate back to fundamental Chinese sources. The effects of Chinese chuanfa on tode is undeniable, and the flowing grace of Chinese techniques seem to have lent themselves naturally to dance. The Chinese families who settled on Okinawa (predominantly in Kumemura) were heavily involved with court life. Therefore, it is a likely possibility that dance and martial arts were simultaneously influenced by the respected Chinese residents.
One important aspect of integrating Chinese elements into dance and tode was the full range of effective damage those techniques allowed. The royal court and guard were responsible for a wide variety of activities, ranging from killing intruders and pirates, to subduing rabble-rousers, to performing for Chinese Sapposhi (dignitaries). As such, they needed a full arsenal of techniques that could quickly and effectively activate pain compliance, mechanical compliance, or lethal force (very much like modern day police officers). In fact, there was an element of honor in control specifically associated with the royal family’s martial practices:
“In addition to the hard techniques of strikes and kicks, Motobu Udundi had a system of joint locks and throws called Tuiti . Among the Ryukyuan Royalty, use of Tuiti was passed down in secret only Udun among the Motobu. The aim of Tuiti is to subdue an opponent without causing harm, in the spirit of royal benevolence.” – MotobuRyu.org
The Motobu traditions were certainly unique, but the concepts of preserving tode via dance manifested all across the island.
Modern Examples of Dance in Action
Thanks to the efforts of a few skilled martial artists and Okinawan culturalists we have examples passed down to us of Okinawan dance. Even more valuable are those individuals who have preserved some of the meaning behind the movements.
Our first modern example demonstrates that tode wasn’t the only beneficiary of dance preservation; kobudo was just as positively affected. In fact, in the days of the Satsuma occupation it may have been even more important to preserve weapon arts in a hidden manner.
|These skilled ladies execute a graceful and powerful dance using shortened Eiku (oars). The practitioners are clearly formal martial artists as well as able dancers:||__||This Ryukyuan festival demonstrates multiple different weapon dances set to music. The forms are probably modern influenced, but still provide a wonderful connection:|
Next is one of the most important karateka of our time, Uehara Seikichi. Uehara Sensei was the heir of the Motobu Udun Di line (the first none Motobu to claim that title). He worked diligently to explore the connections between his art and the popular dances of Okinawa. In the following video, a skilled dancer performs Hamachidori and Uehara Sensei explains some of the most basic tuiti joint locking concepts hidden within. Uehara Sensei also executes an important footwork concept known as Tachu Gwaa in which he walks around his opponent using a very natural posture:
‘Dance techniques’ are not just relegated to graceful and slow demonstrations. When used in earnest they can express the most fundamentally effective aspects of karate. They also tend to excel at ‘chaining’, providing opportunities to strike/grab/kick/bend/push in a smooth series without pause.
Bill Hayes Sensei occasionally demonstrates a portion of technique based off the popular dance Kachashi. The intriguing thing about Kachashi is that it has fundamental movements similar to those expressed by Uehara Sensei in the video above. However, it is also considered a ‘freestyle’ dance form. Hayes Sensei uses this set of concepts to execute a string of techniques that combine striking, tuiti, kicking, and kyusho activation. Furthermore, he enters the ‘dance’ against full speed attacks.
Neglected but Important
Dance is not (and probably will never be) a well known part of karate’s history. It is not useful in tournaments and does not particularly appeal to Western sensibilities. Nevertheless, some of the most effective and important aspects of karate are contained within and understanding karate history is impossible without factoring in all of the cultural elements that were so crucial to survival on the island.
While dance is certainly not required to be a good karateka, being aware of it honors the efforts of prior generations of both men and women on Okinawa and helps modern practitioners grasp the full possibilities of the art.