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1923 - 1944 Choki Motobu Print

Choki Motobu



1. The Motobu family


The Motobu “Udun” was an aristocratic family in the Ryukyu Kingdom of Okinawa. Its progenitor was Motobu “Ōji” Chohei (1655-1687), also known as Sho Koshin, who was the sixth son of the tenth monarch of the Second Sho Dynasty (1469-1879), Sho Shitsu who lived 1629-1668. Motobu Ōji Chohei received the domain of Motobu Magiri which is now the village of Motobu in the northern part of the main island of Okinawa, and he assumed the title of Motobu “Ōji”. From this time on, successive heads of the house used the name Motobu.


From the 17th century to the Meiji Reforms of the late 19th century, the heads of the Motobu family held the rank of “ōji” (or aji), below only the king himself, and served as vassals to the Shuri monarchy. The term “udun” indicated blood relation to the monarch. Motobu Choyu (1857-1928) was the inheritor of Motobu udundi in the 10th generation. Motobu Choyu's thirteen years younger brother, Motobu Choki, was the third son of the family.  


Chotoku Kyan, who was a famous practitioner of karate, was a relative of Motobu udun. The Motobu Udun was one of the great martial families of Ryukyu. The family crest of the Motobu Udun is a circle containing three comma-like shapes rotating clockwise. The design was a royal crest and a sacred symbol allowed to be used only by members of the monarchy and royal family. The crest represents the unification of the three kingdoms of Hokuzan, Chuzan and Nanzan. Families of the udun rank added their own particular border designs around the central motif of the royal crest.



2. Choki Motobu’s early years


Choki Motobu was born during the Meiji Restoration on April 5th 1870 in Akahira village in the Shuri region of Okinawa. He was the third son of Motobu Udun Chomo, who was a nobleman and had a position in the old Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879) under the last King Sho Tai. Choki began his karate training at the age of 12 under the Shurite master Anko Itosu, who was invited to the aristocratic Motobu home to teach the family members. Choki did learn some of the techniques of his family's fighting system, but because of Okinawan tradition, only the first son Choyu received a formal education in martial arts, Confucian classics and Japanese language.


But Choki Motobu was determined to become the strongest man in all of Okinawa. Together with his friend Yabu Kentsu, Choki Motobu secretly sought instruction from the legendary Shurite teacher Matsumura Sokon (1800-1890). He also began to lift heavy rocks and struck the makiwara every day. By doing that he grew strong and his fist became very hard. After a while, he became so strong that he earned the name “Motobu no Saru” (Motobu the monkey) because of his strength and agility. Choki was called in his family "Ma-sanraa" meaning "third son" which is also the source of his later nickname  “Motobu Udun no Saru” (Lord Monkey of the Motobu Udun) which was known throughout Okinawa. At that time, it was very common to have a nickname. For example, Choyu Motobu sensei was nicknamed “Motobu Leg” because of his facility with kicks. Choyu’ second son Chomo was nicknamed “Traju” (tiger trail), and Kuniba Kosho’s nickname was “Shogo” (young warrior).



3. Establishment of the Okinawa Karate Kenkyu Club


Around 1923-1924, Choyu sensei established the Okinawa Karate Kenkyu Research Club, also known as “Club Gwaa”, east of the Naminoue Shrine at the base of a hill known as Nanminmou. Teachers such as Kyan Chotoku, Mabuni Kenwa, Miyagi Chojun, and Uehara Seikichi came and received instruction directly from Choyu sensei. As president of the club and the most senior member of the world of Okinawan karate, Choyu sensei gave instruction in everything from karate theory to practical skills. For example, he would instruct Miyagi sensei in kata bunkai and Mabuni sensei in hojō-jutsu, or rope binding.


Because of Choyu sensei’s noble blood, he was not addressed by name. Instead, people like Kyan sensei and Miyagi sensei would address him as “aji ganashi-mē", or "Your Excellency" an honorific from the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Because Okinawans maintained a sense of independence into the middle of the Meiji Period, even in the following Taisho Period people kept alive such old traditions.


Choyu Motobu sensei was also famous for his facility with ashi-waza and neutralizing attacks from opponents using kicks. Uehara sensei once said: “During my time at Club Gwaa, I saw with my own eyes how other advanced practitioners moved. There was no one as good as Choyu sensei at tai-sabaki or ashi-sabaki. At that time, almost no one practiced against opponents. Even people who were called advanced did almost nothing but kata practice. Free kumite did not exist except for kakedameshi (actual fights). Anyone who says it did is exaggerating.”


Advanced tai-sabaki and ashi-sabaki techniques that could be used in an actual confrontation had already been lost by the Taisho Period. What is known as kumite today is a Showa-period particularly, post-war-invention, not from the Ryukyu Kingdom. Only Choyu Motobu sensei and Choki Motobu sensei inherited traditional kumite techniques. The style “Nihon Denryu Heihou Motobu Kenpo” (Japanese Traditional Fighting Tactics Motobu Kenpo) is the most historic and pedigreed school of karate in Japan, founded by master Motobu Choki sensei in 1923. Today, it is more commonly known as “Motobu-ryu karate-do”.



4. The practice of Kakedameshi


In the old days, it was common to challenge each other to “Kakedameshi” which is the practice of training thru picking fights. It wasn't so much like an argument or a really bitter confrontation rather a test of ability. If you challenged someone much stronger or much weaker, you could withdraw. It was unusual for anyone to get really badly hurt. But when you left the dojo you would have to be careful because people would hang around outside to pick a fight with students and see how good they were. Some teachers didn't engage in that behavior, but the young Choki Motobu did something unprecedented for an aristocratic person, he spent a lot of time seeking out strong looking men to challenge them in the street. Choki Motobu believed in the authenticity of experience. He sought to verify the usefulness of the techniques he had learned from his teachers in hundreds of actual confrontations. He won most of his fights and learned much from these encounters.


But one day Choki Motobu challenged a man by the name Itarashiki who was older than Motobu and who was famous for Kakedameshi. Itarashiki defeated Motobu easily, and Motobu could not sleep that night because he was trying to reassess his opponent’s fighting strategy. From that day on, Motobu devoted himself to karate with an immense intensity. At the age of 19, Choki Motobu was introduced to Peichin Matsumora Kosaku by a popular Okinawan musician named Kin Ryojin who was Matsumora’s student. Master Kosaku Matsumora who lived in Tomari accepted Choki Motobu as student and taught him the kata Naihanchi and Passai. He helped him to discover the real adversary, namely the enemy within.



5. The limits of Kata


When Motobu was about 18 years old, he met Komesu Magii from the Gaja District in Nishibary village, who was the strongest wrestler in all Okinawa. Motobu, the son of a nobleman, asked Komesu to a bout, but Komesu was a commoner from a peasant’s family who knew that it would be improper to injure a nobleman in a fight, thus he politely declined. Also, Komesu was about fifteen years older and much taller than Motobu. But Motobu convinced Komesu that he was merely interested to analyze the differences between wrestling and karate. Thus, Komesu accepted the offer and since Motobu didn’t have a proper belt (obi) needed for such grappling bouts, he made one out of a straw rope and taught the young Motobu how to grib onto his obi.


Motobu hoped to punch his opponent with his iron fist, but Komesu was too big and too powerful for the much smaller Motobu. After Motobu was defeated, he asked Komesu what one could do if one was grabbed from behind on his topknot. Back then it was the custom that men wore their hair in the topknot style. Komesu grabbed Motobu by his topknot and even though Motobu was struggling vigorously, he was helpless and unable to regain his stability.


This wrestling experience taught Motobu that regardless of one’s prowess in karate, it was not possible to beat an opponent who is much larger and stronger. Sensei Motobu started to understand that kata has its limits, and he said that kata was not developed to be used against an experienced fighter, but against an unskilled fighter. Motobu sensei recited a poem which was handed down in karate history: “Kata and waza are both limited by themselves. They are useless until one learns how to apply them in any situation”.



6. Karate made popular in all Japan


Master Motobu challenged many men in Japan, but in 1921, when Motobu was living in Osaka and about fifty-two years old, he defeated a Russian professional prize-boxer by the name John Kentelu in a open-to-all fighting competition at the Okinawa Butokuden, which made him the most famous fighter in Japan. The foreigner boxer was six feet tall and nobody dared to challenge him. Motobu knocked him down with one strike to his temple and it happened so fast that no one really knew how it happened. Someone in the audience shouted “was that yawara?” which was a system of martial arts similar to JuJutsu (the kanji for both names is similar).


This fight, which was described in the magazine “Kingu” in 1925 as “David vs. Goliath” didn’t make only Choki Motobu the most famous figure in karate, but also the most popular topic of discussion in Okinawa. It is from this article that many people in Japan first heard of the Okinawan martial art of "karate." Karate became very famous also on mainland Japan for its effectiveness in sparring. During this time, Motobu gained great respect for his fighting ability. He was hailed as the greatest fighter in Japan. Many sensei advised their students to go and train with Motobu and learn his Kumite techniques. He was also asked to teach at several universities. Because of this, many of today's great instructors of various styles had the benefit of his instruction. Motobu usually only taught Naihanchi kata to his students and it was his own version. However, it was his Kumite that had the greatest impact on karate. He loved the “keikoken zuku” (forefinger-knuckle punch) which was a tremendous technique.



7. The years in Japan


After the match against the Russian boxer his reputation as a martial artist began to spread on mainland Japan, and he was besieged with inquiries about karate and requests for instruction. He established a dōjō in Osaka's Higashi-Yodogawa Ward, but he also instructed at the Mikage Police Department and the local School in Hyogo Prefecture. In May of 1926, Motobu sensei published the “Compilation of Okinawan Kenpo Karate-jutsu Kumite”. This volume is the oldest record of kumite. It is not simply the kumite manual of one particular style (ryūha), but also a document of Okinawan culture and history.


In the late 1920s, Motobu sensei moved to Tokyo while his family remained in Osaka. In 1929, he became shihan of the Tokyo University karate club. Around the same time, he established the Daidokan dōjō (“broad way”) in Tokyo's Bunkyo Ward. The historical importance comes from the fact that this was the oldest formally named dōjō dedicated exclusively to karate in Japan. Motobu sensei chose the name by the inspiration of the Zen verse "daidō mumon," which means that the path to understanding must be broad and open for everybody, and everybody can understand if he really tries. Choki Motobu was also the first one who accepted in his dojo women as students.



8. The understanding of kata


In 1932, Motobu sensei published his second book “Watashi no karate-jutsu”. In this book, which is considered to be the primary document regarding the history of karate, he photographed the entire kata Naihanchi. He was also concerned about the progressing alteration of the ancient stream “koryu kata” on mainland Japan. He said that it is pointless to accumulate many kata without understanding their proper applications (bunkai). By doing that, kata would become a lifeless practice.


Motobu sensei gave demonstrations in kumite and kata, and after Chojun Miyagi returned from Hawaii in early 1935 where he spent about eight months, Motobu sensei also travelled to Hawaii where he arrived in March 1936. But because of visa problems he was refused entry and he was detained at the Honolulu Immigration Station for about a month before being returned to Japan. During that time, he met Shigeru Miyashiro who was also detained. Both trained together at the Immigration Station and developed a long friendship thereafter.


In 1936, Motobu sensei briefly returned to Okinawa, and on October 25 he took part in the Ryukyu "Karate Master Symposium." The historical significance of this symposium was so great that October 25 was officially declared by the Okinawan legislature as the "Karate Day". During another symposium in November Motobu sensei criticized again the alteration of the ancient stream koryu kata, and he also disapproved the creation of kumite with no connection to tradition of the classical kumite of the Ryukyu Kingdom.



9. Choki Motobu’s legacy  


In 1937, Motobu sensei returned to Tokyo and resumed instruction at the Daidokan dojo. His dojo was close to the Kodokan dōjō of Toku Sanpo sensei, and many teachers would often come by and visit Motobu sensei. When Motobu sensei would return to Osaka, he would also meet Kenwa Mabuni sensei who was not his disciple, but his close friend. Motobu sensei taught also Shoshin Nagamine, Tatsuo Shimabuku, and Kosei Kokuba. In 1941 Motobu sensei closed the Daidokan dojo and returned to Osaka. In the following year he left for Okinawa where he stayed until his death on April 15 of 1944. Today, his grave is in Kaizuka city in Osaka.


Motobu was described by some of his karate contemporaries a bit negatively, but the truth is that Choki Motobu was not only of royal blood, but he also became the most famous karate teacher of his time. He was the one who made karate known and popular in Japan, and he was also first teacher to open a karate dojo on the mainland Japan.







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