Hawaii Karate Seinenkai

The following article appeared on pages 76 - 80 of Okinawan Mixed Plate: Generous Servings of Culture, Customs and Cuisine, Hui O Laulima, August 2000. Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

The Roots of Okinawan Karate in Hawaii

By Charles C. Goodin

What aspect of Okinawan culture has spread to more countries and is practiced by more people than any other? The answer may surprise you: karate.

"Karate Jutsu" ("China Hand Art") came to Hawaii in 1900 with the first group of Okinawan immigrants aboard a ship appropriately named the SS. City of China. For the next four decades, karate, which was more commonly pronounced "to-de" or "tu-di" meant "China hand" in Hawaii. It was only after the war that the term "empty hand" became widely used. In many ways, the change in terminology reflected the desire of some teachers in Japan to distance themselves from the art's Chinese and Okinawan roots. But the karate that was introduced to Hawaii at the turn of the century was distinctly Okinawan.

Karate, one of the crown jewels of Okinawan culture, was here from the beginning of this century as evidenced by old photographs, numerous newspaper articles, and the recollections of Hawaii's Okinawan Issei and Nisei, and their families.

In "Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii," Chinzen Kinjo, one of the first 26 immigrants, described using karate to defend himself against a luna (plantation field boss) at Ewa Plantation. This must have been shortly after his arrival. Many other Okinawan immigrants learned karate in Okinawa before coming to Hawaii. They include: Seio Morikone (originally from Hakalau), Watoku Higa, Kizo Teruya and Shuichi Agena (originally of Kekaha), Seishin Uehara, Taro Arakawa, and Seichi Urasaki (from Hilo). The actual list of karate practitioners and teachers is far too great list. Karate was probably present wherever there was an Okinawan community. For example, there were several "karate men" in Kekaha on Kauai as well as on the Big Island.

From left: Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro, Taro Azama,
Kamesuke Higashionna (a visitor from Japan), and Seishin Uehara in 1933.
(Photo courtesy of the families of Seishin Uehara and Shigeru Miyashiro.)

One of the earliest Okinawan Nisei to learn karate in Honolulu was Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro, who had poor posture as a child. He learned karate from an Okinawan immigrant known only as Mr. Kuniyoshi to correct this problem. He also studied with Seishin Uehara, another Okinawan immigrant who had learned karate in Okinawa. Miyashiro eventually trained with all of the famous Okinawan karate teachers who visited Hawaii before World War II. These included: Kentsu ("Gunso" or "Sergeant") Yabu, Choki ("Saru" or "Monkey") Motobu, Zuiho Mutsu, Kamesuke Higashionna and Chojun Miyagi.

Yabu Gunso was well-known as the first Okinawan officer in the Japanese military. He was an army lieutenant, but his nickname meant "Sergeant." A student of Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura and Anko Itosu, Yabu was one of the first teachers to conduct karate classes in the Okinawan school system. He also taught at the Teacher's College and the Police Academy. At the time of his visit to Hawaii, he was the most senior instructor of the Shuri-te (Shorin-ryu), form of karate in Okinawa.

Yabu taught classes in Honolulu and on Kauai and also visited Maui with Admiral Kenwa Kanna. He gave the first karate demonstration in the United States at the Nuuanu YMCA in March of 1927 and another on July 8, 1927. He performed several of the kata practiced in Shorin-Ryu, including Kusanku, Gojushiho, Naihanchi, Sanchin, Pinan (deveoped by Itosu), and Passai. These kata are still practiced today.

While the March demonstration was small and attended mostly by members of the Okinawan community, the July demonstration was open to the public and attended by several hundred people.

Yabu's demonstrations at the Nuuanu YMCA included several young boys. One of his students was Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro, who was only 12 at the time. Some of the adults who trained with Yabu Sensei included Koto Shiroma, Sadao Arakaki, Ryokin Nakama, Taro Azama, Kitatsu Kawamae, Sadao Asato, K. Kiyabu, Kitaro Kawakami, Saburo Teruya, and Yasuhiro Uehara. Many of them went on to become leaders in their respective communities. Sadao Asato became a prominent insurance agent and one of the early presidents of the United Okinawan Association of Hawaii (1959-1960).

Yabu also met with people in the sanshin community and helped to arrange purchases of fine instruments from Okinawa. Many of these treasures were returned to museums in Okinawa after the war. He was also an Okinawan sumo enthusiast and was photographed with Oki Shikina on Maui. Oki Shikina also studied karate with Yabu and Chojun Miyagi.

Choki Motobu, nicknamed "Motobu No Saru (Monkey)," was famous for having defeated a European boxer in a contest in Kyoto in 1921. Known as a kumite, or sparring expert, his karate was largely self-taught. This is a bit ironic because Motobu's father was an Okinawan lord whose family practiced the King's form of karate. However, only the eldest son in the family was permitted to learn the art, leaving Choki (the third son) to fend for himself. Known as somewhat of a troublemaker as a child, Choki Motobu was refused instruction by many teachers. It is said that he learned some karate by peeking through or over fences during training sessions. For the most part, however, he trained by strengthening his body with weights and large rocks, striking the makiwara (wooden posts), and sparring with friends. He also was fond of testing his skills in challenge matches, some of which were quite violent. The challenge of the European boxer was probably irresistible to him despite the fact that he was in his 50's at the time!

Upon his arrival in Hawaii, Motobu encountered visa problems. He was refused admission and detained at the Honolulu immigration station for about one month before being returned to Japan. I have heard many explanations for Motobu's detention -- the most likely seems to be translation difficulties (he spoke Okinawan only, not Japanese) and the lack of a suitable sponsor. During his brief stay, Motobu instructed Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro, who had tried to assist with his visa problems.

Motobu wrote two books on karate, which he probably brought with him when he came to Hawaii. "Okinawan Kenpo Tode Jutsu, Kumite Hen" (1926) showed various kumite techniques, while "Watashi no Tode Jutsu" (1932) focused on Naihanchi (or Naifuanchi), his favorite kata. Many of the early Okinawan immigrants knew the Naihanchi kata as it was the first kata taught in the Shuri-te and Tomari-te systems. Although quite a few people in Hawaii seem to have had one or both of Motobu's books, this writer has not been able to track down either of them.

Motobu continued to teach in Japan after leaving Hawaii. He eventually moved back to Okinawa where he sought out instruction in classical kata from none other than Yabu Gunso. Years earlier, the two had engaged in a wrestling match that Yabu had won. Rather than diminishing Motobu's reputation, however, the match seemed to have heightened it. Anyone who could have survived a match with Yabu was considered quite strong!

Kamesuke Higashionna visited Honolulu and the Big Island several times. His mother, Kama Uejo, lived in Olaa on the Big Island. Higashionna and Zuiho Mutsu, both of whom were from universities in Tokyo, gave a major demonstration at the Civic Auditorium on September 9, 1933. It generated so much interest that Mutsu, Higashionna and Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro started teaching karate classes downtown. These were probably the first karate classes open to the general public, particularly to non-Asians.

Mutsu returned to Tokyo shortly after the Civic Auditorium demonstration. He had co-authored a book entitled "Kenpo Gaisetsu" (1930) and written another book entitled "Karate Kenpo" just prior to his arrival in Hawaii. Both books a very rare today. According to newspaper accounts of the time, he was a very articulate and educated gentleman. One of the karate elders Mutsu met with in Hawaii was Seio Morikone, who gave a lecture at one of the local demonstrations he and Higashionna presented.

Chojun Miyagi was the founder of Goju Ryu (Hard/Soft Style) karate. His teacher, Kanryo Higashionna, was the most senior instructor of the Naha-te form of karate. Miyagi was an active teacher in Okinawa and Japan and stayed in Hawaii for several months. He was sponsored by Chinyei Kinjo of the Yoen Jiho Sha on Kauai, and said that he came to teach the Nisei and study karate here. Mr. Kinjo was the son of Chinzen Kinjo, one of the first immigrants to arrive in 1900. He had practiced karate with Miyagi in Okinawa before immigrating to Hawaii. Unfortunately, copies of the Yoen Jiho from the 1920s and 1930s were all lost. Miyagi taught many people in Honolulu and on Kauai, including the famous sumo and western wrestler, Oki Shikina.

On Kauai, one of the people Miyagi taught was Kizo Teruya. Yabu and Miyagi both stayed at the family's home in Kekaha during their respective visits to Kauai. There were some reports that a film was made of Miyagi during his visit. If one was shot, it has never been found.

Karate reflects the rich culture and traditions of the land of its origin -- Okinawa. At the beginning and end of each karate class, the students bow in respect to the sensei who came before them. In each class, the feeling that the eyes of these elders are watching the students is ever-present. In their lives they try their best to live up to the standards set by the sensei. Karate provides its students an opportunity to learn about the rich culture of Okinawa, including the many contributions of practitioners and teachers here in Hawaii -- and to spread a message of understanding and peace.


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Haines, Bruce. Karate's History and Traditions. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1968.
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McCarthy, Patrick, The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1995.
Nagamine, Shoshin. The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do. Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1976.
Nagamine, Shoshin. Tales of Okinawa's Great Master's (Translation). Boston: Charles E. Tuttle Co., 2000.


Goodin, Charles, C. Hawaii Pacific Press.

Goodin, Charles, C. "Yabu Gunso's 1927 Visit to Hawaii: Do You Know These Men?" Uchinanchu newsletter, Hawaii United Okinawa Assocaition, November/December 1999.
Goodin, Charles, C. "The Roots of Karate in Hawaii," Pacific Citizen Holiday Issue, Japanese American Citizens League, December 1999.
Lum, Steve. "Wanted: Hawaii Karate 'Pioneers'," The Hawaii Hochi, April 2, 1999.
Muromoto, Wayne. "Searching for Prewar Karate in Hawaii," Furyu: the Budo Journal, Issue #10, Spring 2000.

Contact Charles C. Goodin

Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai