How many martial artists in the history of karate had ever enjoyed the opportunity to study directly under such formidable masters as Bushi Matsumura, Tokumini Pechin, Itosu Ankoh, Matsumora Kosaku, Motobu Choyu and Satkuma Usumei? To the best of my knowledge there was only one, Motobu Choki. With instructors of that caliber, the experience that 100 street fights in Naha's Tsuji district bestows, and the ambition to continually improve his skill, Motobu Choki stands alone in the annals of karate history as its most tenacious pioneer. Other than his training, extra-curricular activities in Tsuji and failed horse-drawn carriage taxi business, not much is known about the years between his young adulthood and middle age. In 1921, at 51 years of age, the master left his home in Okinawa and ventured to the mainland of Japan. Setting up in Osaka, for the next twenty five years he took on a few odd jobs, gained a reputation as the strongest karate fighter in the entire country, reared a family, developed his own style, published two books on the subject, established the Daidokan dojo and became the most controversial karate teacher of his generation. Returning to Okinawa in 1941 during the escalation of WWII, the master quietly passed away three years later in Tomarai at 74 years old.
In his interview with Motobu Chosei, Charles Goodin wrote: "The Motobu family descended from the sixth son of King Sho Shitsu who reigned from 1648 to 1668. There were four classes in Okinawa: the Royal family (the King and Princes), the Lords, the Aristocrats and the commoners. Families with blood relations to the King were known as Keimochi. In such families, all son's names began with "Cho." Among the Keimochi, the Motobu family was the highest ranking.
An area of Okinawa was even named "Motobu" to honor the Motobu family. Motobu Choshin, an Okinawan Lord (or Anji), and his wife Ushi, had three sons: Choyu, Choshin and Choki (born on April 5, 1870). This is based on Motobu Choki's Koseki Tohon (family registry), which Motobu Chosei brought to Hawaii. "Motobu Choshin was an important official, so much so that he was the first to meet with Commodore Perry during his historic visit to Okinawa." This is important information as it discredits the un-sourced allegation that Motobu was little more than the illegitimate son of his father's so-called Tsuji-based courtesan.
Another remarkable discovery was learning that Kyan Chotoku (1870-1945), another of Okinawa's greatest karate masters, was Motobu's cousin. According to Motobu Chosei, "Kyan was born as a Motobu but became a Kyan family member to maintain the Kyan family name. In Okinawan noble families, this was not unusual. First sons had to maintain their own family's names to preserve the family's lands and entitlements. Later born sons would often be adopted or marry into other noble families in which there were no sons. Motobu Choki and Kyan Chotoku, who were about the same age, often practiced karate together."
In addition to Yubu Kentsu and Miyagi Chojun, two other pre-war teachers named Mutsu Mizuho and Higaonna Kamessuke also taught karate in Hawai. What only a few people probably know is that Motobu Choki also visited and taught karate in Hawai.
Two announcements of Motobu's arrival in Hawai appeared in local Hawaian newspapers at that time. The March 13th 1932 issue of a local Japanese newspaper named, "The Nippon Jiji," reads, "Karate-jutsu authority, Motobu Choki will be arriving in Hawai on board the Shunyo Maru. Motobu Choki who is teaching karate-jutsu to several hundred students in Tokyo is a well-known authority and presently has his own dojo in Hara Town of Koishikawa Ward of Tokyo. At this time, we understand that he is en route to Hawai on board the Shunyo Maru, scheduled to arrive on the 26th. Invited by Tamanaha Yoshimatsu of Hawai, Motobu Choki is the third son of the wealthy Motobu family from the town of Suri in Okinawa Prefecture. He's enthusiastically studied karate-jutsu since his childhood and is recognized as an authority on Japan."
The other announcement of his arrival in Hawai appears in the March 13th 1932 issue of the "The Hawai Hochi." It reads, "Karate authority Motobu Choki will be arriving on the 26th. Motobu Choki, who is teaching several hundred students in Tokyo, is well known as an authority on karate/martial arts. Presently he has a dojo in Hara Town of Koishikawa Third Ward in Tokyo but we recently heard that he'll be arriving in Hawai on board the Shunyo Maru, on the 26th. He is the third son of the wealthy Motobu family from the town of Shuri in Okinawa. He's been devoted to studying karate-jutsu since childhood and he's a very famous martial artist. In fact, there's almost no one who's not familiar with his nickname, Saru."
On pages 64-65 of Bruce Hain's Master's thesis entitled "Karate & Its Development in Hawai to 1959," I found the following testimony from an interview with Thomas Miyashiro, the only person to ever train directly under Motobu Choki during his brief stay in Hawaii in 1932: "In the late twenties and early thirties in Hawai it was common for boxing promoters, etc., to match Judo men against boxers. Seeing that these matches proved interesting and profitable, a group of Okinawan men headed by Mr. Chosho Tamanaha decided to pit a karate man against a boxer. This group selected Choki Motobu, the great Okinawan master who had defeated a 'Russian heavyweight boxer' in a bare-handed bout in 1922."
If this is true, and knowing that Kano was an avid supporter of Funakoshi Gichen, it is not completely surprising that he did not welcome Motobu into the Tokyo budo community. In fact, it is entirely possible that Kano saw Motobu in the same harsh light as he did the old-school Jujutsu-ka who fiercely critiqued him during the time he was establishing Judo. I concur with Goodin's observations when he wrote, "In many ways, Kano and Funakoshi had similar roles. Kano was largely responsible for the transformation of the ancient fighting discipline of Jujutsu into the modern sport of Judo. Funakoshi played a similar role in the transformation of Karate-jutsu into karate-do. The change of Karate was probably inevitable. It had been initiated in Okinawa as the turn of the century by one of Funakoshi's teachers, Anko Itosu. Funakoshi is rightly regarded as the father of modern karate in mainland Japan." Who is to say that the hostility between Funakoshi and Motobu is not unlike that experienced between Kano and the old-school Jujutsu-ka?
An incident that never sat well with Motobu was the unfounded publicity Funakoshi Gichen received for his (Motobu's) unprecedented victory over the foreign challenger at the Butokuden in 1922. The only Okinawan martial artist that we know of to enter the ring and confront a larger foreigner in a contest, Motobu dispatched the fighter and helped bring national attention to this little-known Okinawan tradition. However, when the story was finally featured in the 1925 edition of King Magazine, despite naming Motobu (actually mispronouncing his name), it pictorially illustrated Funakoshi confronting and defeating the foreigner!
According to Motobu Chosei "his father was incensed by this and suspected that it had been done in an effort to give Funakoshi credit for something that he had not done. In fact, photographs of both Motobu Choki and Funakoshi appear in the article, making one wonder how the magazine's artists could have possibly confused the two. The rivalry that existed between Motobu Choki and Funakoshi is well known. Put simply, Motobu Choki did not believe that Funakoshi, a retired schoolteacher, was qualified to teach authentic Okinawan Karate. In essence, he thought that Funakoshi's karate would not work in an actual fight. Motobu Choki's detractors responded by attempting to discredit him personally (for his speech, manners, appearance, etc.). Behind his back, he was wrongfully portrayed as an uneducated, uncivilized brute. His childhood nickname of "Saru" or "Monkey" was even used to mock and belittle him.
But it does not appear that any of his detractors ever challenged him to a fight! Remember that in Okinawa a challenger was expected to do just that – to literally "put up or shut up." Fists were the medium of discussion rather than words. Motobu Choki was certainly not one to mince words. And no one could claim that his karate was anything less than effective.
There's a ten page article – in Japanese – entitled "Konishi Yasurhiro," by Kaku Kouzo, published by Baseball Magazine that my wife, Yuriko, and I translated into English that helps provide deeper insights into this issue. A very rough English translation of this same article also appears in the 1993 publication entitled, "Karate & His Life," on pages 13 through 16 published by the Ryobukai. Our translation is as follows: "Konishi Yashiro exerted tremendous effort to improve the level of karate-jutsu during his time. In fact, what he did was, even by today's standards, questionably daredevil. Despite a long tradition of having multiple teachers in Okinawa, and the cross training freedom we enjoy today, as a student of Funakoshi Gichen, Konishi did the ultimate unthinkable thing when he petitioned Motobu Choki, then a principal pioneer of Karate-jutsu, to enter his dojo as a student. Describing Motobu as, "his irreconcilable enemy," Funakoshi Gichen cared little for his fellow countryman and even less for his efforts to cultivate their native art on the mainland. In other words, according to this inflexible standard it was considered an act of betrayal that Konishi would contact Motobu for any purpose, such as that of widening and deepening his insights into Karate.
At that time, a great swirl of criticism against Konishi surfaced amidst the supporters of Funakoshi's movement. Even later, when Konishi became regarded as the principal Japanese architect of karate on the mainland through his connection with the Dai Nippon Budokukai, animosity and criticism lingered on. A teacher not generally known for openly criticizing other people, Funakoshi maintained that Motobu was a densely illiterate person, irrespective of Konishi's support. In fact, whenever the name of Motobu was mentioned, Funakoshi's face contorted. Conversely, Motobu referred to Funakoshi's karate as a Shamisen (3 stringed Okinawan guitar), beautiful on the outside but hollow on the inside.
Without question, the character and Karate of both teachers were diametrically opposite (Motobu & Funakoshi), like cats and dogs. Motobu may have been envious of the success fellow countryman Funakoshi Gichen experienced in Tokyo, as it far surpassed his own efforts, though as far as the actual ability was concerned, Motobu always lay claim to being superior to him.
There is an interesting story about Motobu that Konishi (a senior student of Funakoshi who later affiliated himself with Motobu) passed on that I would like to share with you. While Konishi was still taking lessons from Funakoshi Sensei, "Piston" Horiguchi (Japanese featherweight champion in 1933-34, 1942, and again in 1948) joined his dojo to study Kendo and Karate. One day, an elderly and liverish man dropped by the dojo to see Konishi and struck up a conversation with Horiguchi. During the conversation the elderly man gave some advice to Horiguchi, and, in order to substantiate the point, invited the boxer to "punch him." With permission of Konishi, Horiguchi tried to punch the old fellow. Despite his "piston-like" strikes he failed to land even one punch on the old guy and finally gave up. Exhibiting cat-like body movement, the old guy as no other than Motobu Choki.
Besides actually being incredibly strong, Motobu was the kind of person who just looked angry all the time because of his weathered face and serious appearance. A proud man, deeply devoted to his art, and standing in opposition to Funakoshi, naturally he maintained the position, when compared to his rival, that he was, "the only representative of Ryukyu's traditional martial arts." On the mainland (at that time), Konishi often visited Motobu when he came to the Tokyo area and invited the master to his dojo to instruct him. Over the course of their relationship, Konishi learned the fundamental theories and practical application of Motobu's karate.
The tradition of kakedamashi (match fighting to test/improve skill) is a vital part of Karate handed down in Okinawa and helps to improve their practical fighting skills. This practice does not have any nobleness like Funakoshi's Karate. Yet, on the other hand, there's no technical compromise or ambiguity either. How come? Konishi understood the arm positioning and appropriate kicking level that Motobu taught. Motobu had excellent technique and mastered the ability to slip and avoid an opponent's attacks. Moreover, his punching was unbelievably quick.
However, one big disadvantage Motobu had, according to Konishi, was that his Okinawan dialect was very thick and any explanations he gave were very hard to comprehend for the untrained Japanese ear. Japanese students who did not receive lessons from Motobu really had a difficult time understanding him.
Despite Azato Ankoh (the great Karate pioneer, friend of Itosu and teacher of Funakoshi) and Itosu Ankoh (teacher of Funakoshi, creator of the Pinan series of kata, who also first introduced karate into the Okinawan school system) pioneering a new and unique path, Motobu insisted that, "Funakoshi Karate was fake." Motobu said, "He could only copy their elegance by performing the outer portion of what they taught and used that to mislead others into believing he was an expert when he was not."
"His demonstrations were simply implausible. This kind of person is a good-for nothing scalawag. In fact, his tricky behavior and eloquent explanation easily deceives people. To the naïve person, Funakoshi's demonstration and explanation represents the real art! Nothing is more harmful to the world than a martial art that is not effective in actual self-defense. If that stupid person opens a dojo then let him fight with me and I'll make him go back to Okinawa. This would be a real benefit to the world."
Article #37, which appears on pages 52 through 54 of the publication entitled, Ryukyu Kenpo Karate-jutsu Tatsujin Motobu Choki Seiden by Nakata Mizuhiko, supervised by Marukawa Kenji (a Shihan of Motobu Kenpo and head of the Daidokan), compiled by Onuma Tamotsu and published by Sojinsha in Saitama prefecture (Japan) in 1994, quotes Motobu saying: "When I came to Tokyo, there was another Okinawan who was teaching karate there quite actively. When in Okinawa I hadn't even heard of his name. Upon guidance of another Okinawan, I went to the place he was teaching youngsters, where he was running his mouth, bragging. Upon seeing this, I grabbed his hand, took up a position of kake-kumite and said, 'what will you do?' He was hesitation and I thought to punch him would be too much, so I threw him with kote-gaeshi (a wrist throw common to Jujutsu and Aikido) at which time he fell to the ground with a thud. He got up, his face red and said 'once more.' And again I threw him with kote-gaeshi. He did not relent and asked for another bout, so he was thrown the same way for a third time."
Konishi Yasuhiro recounts a version of the same story to Ikeda Hoshu, on page 22 of Karatedo o Kataru Genzai no Budo teki Shiten: "I heard that Motobu met Funakoshi and they talked about how various attacks could be effectively received, when Motobu asked him to show him a block against a punch. When Funakoshi blocked the technique Motobu seized his hand and threw him about three and a half meters. I'm not sure if this is true or not but I do know that since that time Funakoshi hated Motobu very much, referring to him as an illiterate."
"Therefore, I was not surprised when Funakoshi's students hated me for supporting Motobu, but Motobu Sensei was so very poor. Before he returned to Okinawa I organized a support group for him and collected contributions from many people to give him for daily expense. At that time they (Funakoshi's students) spoke badly about me insinuating that I had used Motobu. Because I supported Motobu, they disliked me from that time on (ibid p22). Funakoshi himself, treated me like a heretic." (ibid p25)
It is also said that Motobu said, after hearing that Funakoshi was issued a 5th dan from the Kodokan (long before Konishi Yasuhiro conferred a Butokukai Renshi license upon Funakoshi. The Kodakan was the headquarters for Jigoro Kano's judo in Tokyo) "if that's the case then what am I, a 10th or 11th dan?" Taken out of context the issue provides the basis from which disgruntled rivals have also tried to discredit Motobu.
As a matter of interest, Funakoshi Gichen can be seen performing kata and application principles on the vintage footage now available through Master's Publications. This might help some readers draw their own conclusions when evaluating Motobu's comments.
Master Motobu imparted his tradition through a unique system of conditioning exercises, weight and makiwara training, highly functional two-person kumite drills and one or two kata.
It would certainly coincide with what I have discovered about most old-school practices where the kata culminated the defensive lessons rather than actually teach it. Although Motobu Chosei, his son, believes his father may have also known Passai and Seisan and even developed a form, named "Shiro Kuma (White Bear), they do not appear to have been handed down.
In his interview with Ikeda Hoshu, Konishi Yasuhio said "….he had also learned Passia and Gojushiho from Matsumura Sensei in Tomari" (ibid p21). Actually, I support the insightful comments of Charles Goodin who wrote, "With fewer kata, more and more time and effort can be devoted to bunkai. I do not think that Motobu-Ryu emphasizes bunkai because it has fewer kata – I suspect that it has fewer kata in order to emphasize bunkai." In my opinion, Master Motobu Choki represented the last of a warrior-like breed, a stalwart not intimidated by political pressure, or afraid to stand up to what he believed in. He walked the talk. Always the perpetual student, never a clone of mass production or mundane training, Motobu Choki demanded all or nothing. It's too bad we don't have more men like him today.
One mistake the inexperienced researcher often makes when trying to grasp the technical ambiguities surrounding the application of early karate practices is to depend on contemporary assumptions. That is why it is so important to study the birth and evolution of this tradition when conducting a comparative analysis. One of the most fascinating things about delving into the history and evolution of this wonderful tradition is just how much one can learn about the culture, philosophy and people who shaped its practice. In doing so, a message of more important proportions unfolds. What could possibly improve our overall understanding of karate more than walking in the footsteps of those people most responsible for pioneering it? Great people should never be forgotten, if only to remind us of the potential latent in ourselves. By studying the anthropology of this tradition it becomes evident that many of the early pioneers established a symbiosis with karate so that their lives became as much a product of the art as was the art a product of their lives. When learning the art comes a responsibility to keep this knowledge alive, a responsibility that extends beyond karate and into society as a whole. Early pioneers maintained that karate conditions the body, cultivates the mind and nurtures the spirit. However, an even more important message reveals that the source of human weakness lies within and it is there where all of our battles must be first fought and won before karate can ever improve the quality of our daily lives.
It is the wish of the master's son, Motobu Chosei, that Motobu Ryu be perpetuated and for his father's distinguished record as a karate pioneer and teach to be set straight.