Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.
The following article originally appeared in Fighting Arts International, Issue No. 32, Volume 6, No. 2, 1986 (pages 10 - 17) and is reprinted here with the permission of the author, Graham Noble. The article has not been updated or edited. Photographs have been omitted. Copyright © Graham Noble. All rights reserved.
The Founders of Modern Karate ... Choki Motobu
"No other Karateman in The History of Okinawan Karate has ever matched Motobu in the destructive power of Keikoken (one-knuckle fist)"
Master Choki Motobu ... 'A Real Fighter'
by Graham Noble
Posterity has not treated all the old karate masters equally. Some have had their praises sung many times in print while others, equally accomplished, have been all but forgotten. It would be nice to turn the spotlight onto some of these little known figures but so much karate history has been lost that it is often impossible. Even for a comparatively well known master like Choki Motobu, it is difficult to arrive at an accurate picture of his life and times.
Karate was introduced to Japan in the 1920's when several masters came from Okinawa to teach the art. The best known of these today are Gichin Funakoshi, who founded the Shotokan school; Chojun Miyagi (Goju style), and Kenwa Mabuni (Shito style). There were others however, such as Kanken Toyama, Moden Yabiku, Kanbum Uechi - and Choki Motobu, who in many ways was the most interesting of them all. Unlike Funakoshi, Miyagi and Mabuni though, Choki Motobu did not leave behind him a major karate school. Perhaps he never organised his methods into a formal system, or maybe he was too much of an individualist.
1. Choki Motobu in Japan
Motobu was born in Shuri, the old capital of Okinawa, in 1871. He had considerable local fame in Okinawa as a fighter-strongman but it was only after he moved to Osaka in 1921 that he became known in Japanese martial art circles.
What brought Motobu to the attention of the Japanese was his victory over a western boxer in a kind of all-comers challenge match. In the earlier part of this century such bouts were occasionally held in Japan pitting western boxers against judo or jujutsu men, (karate was unknown in Japan around this time). These were not "official" bouts for any sort of legitimate title, but something more like sideshow attractions. The results of such bouts have even been recorded in a few cases. Boxing historians for example are fond of pointing out that, back in 1928 in Yokohama, top bantamweight Packy O'Gatty KO'd a Japanese jujutsu man named Shimakado in 14 seconds. That 14 seconds included the full count, by the way. E. J. Harrison also mentioned in passing a couple of boxing vs. judo shows in his book "The Fighting Spirit of Japan", first published in 1913. Few of the fighters in these events were champions in their sports, but the shows did arouse interest in a certain section of the populace.
Anyway, this was the background to Motobu's victory which so delighted the people back in Okinawa when they heard about it. Soon after Motobu settled in Japan he went to watch a boxing vs. judo show in Kyoto. A boxer taking part beat several judomen rather easily and then issued an open challenge. Moreover, the challenge was issued in a boastful and derogatory way. Choki Motobu, who was sitting in the audience stepped up onto the stage (or ring) and in the ensuing battle he knocked the boxer out - probably with a punch, or series of punches, to the head. That is about as much as we can say about it since no contemporary reports of the fight exist.
I knew that the Japanese magazine "Kingu" (King) had published a story on Motobu and the boxer back in 1925, but when I finally tracked this down and read the translation I found that it was a piece of imaginative, popular journalism rather than an accurate blow-by-blow report. However, the importance of this feature lay not in its accuracy as a fight report but in the publicity it gave to what had previously been an obscure event. "King" was the major general interest magazine at the time with a circulation of over a million and this is how Motobu's exploits came to be widely reported. For the record, the "King" story states that Motobu knocked the boxer unconscious with a rising palm heel strike. On the other hand, Seiyu Oyata, a modern day Okinawan karate expert, states that Motobu won the fight by kicking the boxer in the solar plexus and finishing him off with a strike to the neck. Shoshin Nagamine (Shorin-ryu) says that the knockout came in the third round from a strike to the temple. Motobu hit the boxer so hard that he was knocked down and blood came from his ears. Nagamine was told by Motobu that he had won a hundred yen by betting on himself.
There is no doubt that Choki Motobu was a formidable fighter. Hironori Ohtsuka, the founder of Wado-ryu, knew Motobu in the 1930s and recalled that he was "definitely a very strong fighter". Ohtsuka remembered seeing a fight, or maybe it was more of a sparring match, between Motobu and a boxer named Piston Horiguchi. Motobu blocked all the boxer's attacks and Horiguchi was unable to land a single clean punch.
Choki Motobu was over 50 years old when he defeated the Western boxer! People on Okinawa used to say that he liked to fight more than anything else, and certainly he did not seem to mind a good brawl. In 1932, when he was 60 years old, a group of expatriate Okinawans brought him to Hawaii to face the fighters there, presumably boxers and judomen. However, no bouts took place because the Hawaiian immigration authorities considered him an undesirable and he had to leave almost immediately.
Motobu was born into a high ranking family at a time when education and privilege were reserved for the first born son. Consequently, as a third son, he was rather neglected. His elder brothers, however (and particularly Choyu Motobu, the eldest) were good karateka and he may have learned something of the art from them.
As a young man, Choki Motobu's ambition was to become the strongest man in Okinawa. To fulfill this ambition he trained himself every day, lifting stone weights and hitting the makiwara (striking post). There are stories that he would hit the makiwara a thousand times a day, and even if this is an exaggeration it illustrates the importance he attached to this training drill. Nagamine recalls that Motobu would sometimes sleep outside, (when he slept inside the dojo he would lie on the hard wooden floor, without a mattress), and if he woke up during the night, rather than turning over and going back to sleep he would get up and hit the makiwara. Motobu was also very agile and quick and he got the nickname "Motobu-saru" (Monkey Motobu) not only because of his rough behavior but also because of his remarkable agility in climbing trees and moving from branch to branch as nimbly as a monkey. In his youth at least he seems to have been a good natural athlete.
He was a good runner too, and Japanese karate expert Hiroyasu Tamae writes of one occasion when Motobu was fighting attackers then ran off, jumped nimbly onto a roof and began tearing off the roofing tiles and throwing them at his assailants, beating them off in this way. Tamae makes the point that Okinawan roof tiles are secured very strongly to withstand typhoons, and it requires powerful hands and arms to tear them loose, but for a man reputed to be the best fighter on Okinawa it still seems a strange way to act. I guess Motobu's behavior was just eccentric at times. Gichin Funakoshi used to say that he never knew what Motobu would get up to next.
One time when Choki Motobu was watching the bullfighters in Shuri he constantly blocked the view of the spectator behind him. The man became increasingly agitated and finally shouted at Motobu and struck him with a walking stick. Motobu turned, grabbed the stick from the man and struck him back across the head - knocking him unconscious. He may not have intended this but he was rough and heavy-handed and probably didn't realise his own strength. And this was not the end of the matter because on the way back from the bullfight the man's friends attacked Motobu. After he knocked several of them down however the rest ran off. It was incidences such as this that gave rise to Motobu's other nickname of "teijikun" - "real fighter". (This story is from Richard Kim's book "Weaponless Warriors").
Choki Motobu's idea of a good training session was to go down to Naha's entertainment district and pick fights. This area was well known for street fighting and Motobu picked up valuable experience in this way. Being bigger and stronger than the average Okinawan he usually won these fights but there was one occasion when he tackled a man called Itarashiki and was well beaten. This Itarashiki was a karate expert and the defeat only made Motobu more determined to train hard and learn more about karate.
At this time, around the turn of the century, karate was just beginning to emerge from generations of secrecy and the senior masters were sensitive about the image of the art. They looked upon karate as a physical art, building health, strength and character and they did not approve of Motobu's exploits in the rough areas of town. Nevertheless he was able to get instruction from several leading experts. (Seikichi Toguchi has said that, because of Motobu's upper class birth, many karate masters found it difficult to refuse him instruction). Motobu originally studied karate with the famous Ankoh Itosu (1830-1915), the leading master of Shuri-te. However he came to feel that he was not learning enough, and growing dissatisfied with Itosu's teaching he later studied with Tomari-te's Kosaku Matsumora (1829-1898) and with Master Sakuma. However, Motobu's karate always seemed to bear his own distinctive stamp, arising no doubt from his independent nature and his fighting experiences. He always emphasised practicality and in time many people came to regard him as the best fighter on Okinawa. True, he was beaten in a shiai (contest) by Kentsu Yabu (1863-1937), Itosu's senior student and a tough character, but we don't know the full circumstances surrounding this. Yabu was Choki Motobu's senior in karate by several years, and at the time of the contest Motobu may have been a comparative novice. This is something that needs clarification, but anyway it is a fact that Motobu was famous in Okinawa for his fighting ability.
I first read about this colorful figure years ago in Peter Urban's book "Karate Dojo". Although this has remained one of my favorite karate books, it has little value as a historical source and Urban describes Choki Motobu as a giant of 7 foot 4 inches "with hands and feet like monstrous hams" . . . an early Okinawan version of the Incredible Hulk in fact, who was almost impossible to hurt and who "preferred to grab his enemies and chop them to death". A couple of years later the American karateman, Robert Trias, trying to inject a note of reality (?) into the subject, told an interviewer that the accounts of Motobu's size had been exaggerated and that actually he was "only 6 feet 8 inches" tall.
All this was rather hard to believe and at one time I wrote to Richard Kim, the famous authority on karate history, about it. He kindly replied, stating that Motobu was a little under 6 feet tall and solidly built, weighing around 200 lbs. This sounded reasonable, yet as I learned more about Choki Motobu I had to constantly revise the estimates of his height downwards. In fact the existing photographs, taken in the 1920s and 1930s, show him to be no bigger, and in some cases smaller, than his training partners. The article in the old "King" magazine gives his height as 5 feet 3 or 4 inches and I would think this is correct. He was thus only a little bigger than some of the other early pioneers of Japanese karate such as Funakoshi, Mabuni and Konishi, although of a much heavier build.
The photos we have of Motobu show him in middle age when he had put on weight and thickened appreciably round the waist. He had a sturdy, robust appearance but for a reputed strongman, the muscular development of his arms, chest and back does not look particularly impressive, at least by today's standards.
Another myth about Motobu is that he only knew one kata, the 'Naihanchin', ('Tekki' in the Shotokan version). This is incorrect. He also knew 'Passai' - evidently there is a rarely seen Motobu version of this kata - and 'Gojushiho', and although he may not have practiced them he was aware of the major kata of each style - Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te. (He provided a list of the major kata in his book). It would be true to say, however, that he did become attached to 'Naihanchin' and for all the talk about him not being good at kata, the photographic record shows that technically his performance of 'Naihanchin' was quite as good - if not better - than Gichin Funakoshi's.
Choki Motobu was not against kata but he did require that they relate to combat. In 'Naihanchin' for instance, his students were taught to pay attention to various technical points. It seems that the nami-ashi ('wave returning foot movement) in 'Naihanchin' was originally interpreted as a stamping movement to attack the opponent's leg (now it is usually taught as a foot block against a kick) and consequently many karateka would crash their foot down noisily on the floor while doing this technique. Motobu however, although he did the movement strongly with a kiai, always kept good balance and put his foot down lightly. It wasn't that his technique was weak, because he once broke an opponent's leg with this stamping waza (technique). He explained to his students however that if the technique was done too heavily and the foot was brought down with a big crash then you might find it difficult to maintain your defence throughout the movement. According to Yasuhiro Konishi, Motobu thought about every detail in the kata in this kind of way.
However, where Choki Motobu really differed from other leading karate masters such as Funakoshi, Mabuni and Miyagi was in basing his style on the study of kumite.
Kata seemed to occupy a secondary position with him. His karate stressed alertness, sharpness, and practicality, and his experience in brawls and streetfights showed through in his techniques which were straightforward and effective. Some of his kumite-waza were shown in his book "Ryukyu Kempo Karate-jutsu. Kumite," (The Okinawan boxing art of karate-jutsu. Sparring techniques), published in 1926. Incidentally, Motobu could not speak or write mainland Japanese at all well and it is thought that someone else must have written it under his direction, or possibly he dictated it. But at any rate the book's philosophy is his and he posed for all the illustrations.
Judging from this book, Motobu used a natural stance and it is noticeable that when blocking or striking he did not pull his other hand back to the hip (the action of hikite) but held it across his body as a guard, where it could be brought into action more readily. He also stressed training the weaker side of the body to bring it up to the natural side. For instance, in hitting the makiwara he recommended doing more repetitions with the weaker, left hand, if you were right handed. And he also frequently told his students to "Defend the centre of the body and attack the centre of the body"; an early form of centre-line theory in fact.
Motobu also made full use of the lead hand for striking. This was rather advanced for that time, when the orthodox method was to block with the forward hand, and use the rear hand to counterattack. Motobu taught that the forward hand, being closer to the opponent is quicker in action and should be used for striking effectively.
Choki Motobu relied mainly on hand techniques, with the feet and knees being used in a supporting - but effective role - aiming his kicks at the stomach, groin, and knee joints. He often liked to grab and he also used basic techniques of covering or checking the opponent's hands and arms. His attacks were directed not only to the face and midsection, but also to the groin (striking with the knee or foot, or grabbing the testicles) and knees (with stamping kicks). The forefist, backfist, elbow, and one-knuckle fist seem to have been his favourite weapons. According to Shoshin Nagamine, Motobu attached some importance to the one-knuckle fist (keikoken), and he would train this technique on the makiwara, striking with full force. Over the years he had found that at close quarters the orthodox forefist punch might be smothered or unable to generate sufficient power and that in such situations keikoken could be very effective. "No other karateman in the history of Okinawan karate", wrote Nagamine, "has ever matched Motobu in the destructive power of keikoken."
As for training equipment, Motobu stressed the use of makiwara, and also recommended the use of the chishi and sashi, the traditional tools for building the strength of the hands and arms. He also used to practice a crude form of weight training, lifting a heavy stone weighing about 130 lbs., to his shoulders daily.
Motobu sensei was actually the first of the Okinawan karate masters to settle in Japan, preceding Gichin Funakoshi by a year or so. He came to Osaka in 1921, but his purpose in coming to Japan may not have been to teach karate. He may simply have moved because, like many Okinawans, he believed Japan offered greater opportunities to make a living. In 1879 the Ryukyu Islands were made a prefecture (Ken) of Japan, and from then till 1945 this Okinawa-ken was Japan's poorest and most neglected prefecture. Consequently, many islanders emigrated to Japan and it was estimated that by 1940 over 80,000 Okinawans were living there. This was out of an Okinawan population of something over half a million.
Motobu had been living in Japan a couple of years when he made the acquaintance of a judo teacher named Doi, who encouraged him to try to teach karate in Japan. Motobu subsequently began giving demonstrations and teaching in the Kobe-Osaka area, but development of the art was slow. After a couple of years he thought of giving it all up, but then in the mid-1920s interest in the art slowly began to grow. In 1927 he moved to Tokyo where he probably saw greater potential.
When Motobu came up to Tokyo, Gichin Funakoshi had already been teaching there for several years, and a certain amount of ill-feeling arose between the two men, who had known each other back in Okinawa. It was something like a question of who was to assume the leadership of karate in Japan, but really, the two men were incompatible personalities. Gichin Funakoshi for instance, seemed to feel that Motobu did not really understand the true nature of karate. Funakoshi, a man who valued propriety and culture, criticised Motobu's lack of education - he called him an illiterate - and his rough behavior. For his part, Choki Motobu said that Funakoshi's art was just an imitation karate, not much more than a dance. A Japanese karate teacher named Fujiwara has also pointed out that in the rigid social ranking system of Okinawa, Choki Motobu was two classes higher than Gichin Funakoshi and so it was impossible for him to regard Funakoshi as his superior in any way.
I don't know if much ever came of all this, but there were rumours. Yasuhiro Konishi, who studied with both masters, heard that one time when the two men met, they began comparing techniques of attack and defence, as Okinawans often do. In demonstrating a movement Funakoshi was unable to block Motobu's thrust completely and moreover was knocked back several feet by its force. Konishi heard that Funakoshi was resentful about this. There was also a rumour that Motobu had challenged Gichin Funakoshi to a match and when the two met, he swept Funakoshi to the floor and followed up with a punch to the face, which he stopped a couple of inches short - just to show who was boss I guess. Konishi could not vouch for the truth of this and it may never have happened. Reading all the available material on Gichin Funakoshi, he does not come over as the type of person who went in for challenge matches - just the opposite in fact. However, if the two men ever had met in a serious contest then (this is just my opinion) Motobu would probably have won rather easily. For one thing, Funakoshi who was only 5 feet tall, was slightly built and would have been heavily outweighed. For another, Funakoshi never became involved in fights, whereas Motobu had the experience of numerous streetfights behind him and was a fighter by nature.
But anyway, the years rolled by and "the leadership of karate", if it could be called such a thing, did pass to the Funakoshi school. The Motobu method does not seem to exist today as a distinctive style. Funakoshi organised his teaching well, he had energetic helpers (including his brilliant son, Yoshitaka), and influential friends such as Jigoro Kano, the famous founder of Judo. Funakoshi's first book "Ryukyu Kempo Karate" (1922) contained forewords by such people as Marquis Hisamasa, the former Governor of Okinawa, Admiral Rakuro Yashiro, Vice Admiral Chosei Ogasawara, Count Shimpei Goto, and so on. Choki Motobu, however, never sought out such patrons, and in fact, according to Hironori Ohtsuka he was quite a solitary man. This agrees with the view of Konishi, who was quite close to Motobu for several years and never once saw him in an actual fight. Konishi felt that, although Motobu was obviously an exceptional fighter, he would never provoke trouble and was actually a very quiet person. So it sounds as if Choki Motobu calmed down quite a bit as he grew older. He seems to have been a straightforward, intelligent, but uncomplicated type of person who lacked Gichin Funakoshi's education and knowledge of Japanese culture and etiquette. Motobu did not speak mainland Japanese very well - the Okinawans had their own dialect which was often incomprehensible to the Japanese - and even when he moved to Tokyo he had to use Yasuhiro Konishi as an interpreter.
Choki Motobu spent nineteen years in Japan, teaching karate for most of that time. In 1940 he returned to Okinawa and died there in 1944.
2. Motobu and the boxer
The story of Choki Motobu's contest with the boxer was featured in the Japanese magazine "Kingu" (King), in the September 1925 issue (No.9), pages 195-204. It needed quite a bit of detective work to track this down and I must thank Mr. R. A. Scoales of the Japan Society of London, and Mr. Kenneth Gardiner of the British Library, for their help. It was Mr. Gardner who finally located a copy of the article for me. I am also deeply grateful to Kenji Tokitsu, the leading authority on Japanese karate history in Europe, who made a translation of the article. Below
The story is entitled, "When Human Bullets Clash: Great Contest Between Karate and Boxing", and it states that in 1921 in Kyoto a series of contests were held between boxers and judoka. These gave rise to much discussion and drew many enthusiastic spectators. These fights were often extremely violent and surprised even those onlookers who regularly attended the annual contests at the Butokuden, (of judo and kendo).
During the action someone with the appearance of an old countryman went over to the organisers and asked if a late entry to the fighting would be allowed. The following conversation occurred.
"Mmm. Who is it you wish to enter?"
"What? You? . . . Are you a judoka then, or a boxer?
"Well what have you trained in then?"
"Nothing special. But I think I could manage this type of contest - So will you let me enter?"
"Yes, let him enter!" cried the onlookers who had been following all this with interest. "Everybody would want to see a surprise entrant."
"But he says he doesn't do judo or boxing. I wonder if he does some form of provincial wrestling."
"It doesn't matter. Since he wants to enter he must have learned something. If not he's an idiot. Let him enter?"
"Well OK," said the promoter. "Do you know the rules?"
"Rules?" replied Motobu. "What rules?"
"It's forbidden to strike with the fists and feet."
"Mm. What about an attack with the open hand?"
"Fine, let's get on with it."
"Wait a minute. What uniform are you going to wear!"
"I'll just wear my ordinary clothes".
"Those you're wearing now? You can't do that. I'll lend you a judogi."
The promoter brought a judogi, and looked at the man, still trying to make him out. As he stripped a murmur of surprise arose from the onlookers. Although his face was that of a man well over fifty, the muscular development of his arms and shoulders was impressive and his hips and thighs looked extremely powerful.
Motobu was asked who he wanted to fight, a boxer or a judoka. He replied "Whoever you like," and the organisers decided to send him against a boxer named George. (No surname or nationality is given in the article. The name may be invented).
As the contestants entered the arena a cry rose from the crowd. "Look! A surprise entry" . . . "Who is this Motobu? I've never heard of him" . . . "He looks like an old man. What's someone like him entering a contest like this for?"
The contrast between the two men was striking. Here was a boxer seemingly brimming with vitality, against a man of fifty who stood only 5 feet 3 or 4 inches. As they began, George took up a boxing guard and moved about looking for an opening. Motobu lowered his hips, raising his left hand high with his right hand close to his cheek. The spectators thought this looked like some kind of sword dance (karate was more or less unknown in Japan at this time) but actually it was the opening position of the 'Pinan Yodan' kata.
George, the expert boxer, seemed surprised by the ability of his opponent whose guard presented no weak spot. He contented himself with searching for an opening, continually moving his fists around and feinting. Motobu kept his position.
George's breathing grew less steady and, he realising that he might tire himself out if things continued like this, he edged forward and send out a fusillade of blows to the face. Everyone expected to see the end of Motobu but without moving his position he parried the blows with his open hands and forced his opponent back.
Growing more and more frustrated as the fight went on, George steeled himself for an all out attack. He drew back his right hand and threw a punch with all his strength at Choki Motobu's head.
Just at the moment when it seemed as if Motobu's face would be crushed he warded off the punch with his left hand. The force of the parry unbalanced the boxer, forcing his hips to rise, and at that instant Motobu struck him in the face with the palm of his hand. George, struck on the vital point just below the nose with the rising palm strike fell to the ground like a block of wood.
Everyone was shouting! What had happened?
The organisers went to look for someone to help George who was still unconscious. "What a formidable old character!"
Various people who went to talk to Motobu were astonished by his hands, calloused and almost as hard as stone. Even a blow with the open hand would be terrible, they thought.
"Ryukyu Karate," said one. "Hmm. I didn't know such an art existed. In fact, you have such trained hands that you don't need to be armed. The hands themselves are terrible weapons."
Spectators and contestants continued to talk for hours about the events which had taken place.
A few observations on this old article might be worthwhile. As I said, when I first heard about it I thought it might give an accurate account of the contest, but although it obviously relates to the events which occurred, both the descriptions of the action and the dialogue are imaginative. The author, someone writing under the pseudonym Meigenro Shujin, does not give his sources but he had obviously done some basic research and probably had talked to some of the spectators or even Motobu himself. He may have even been at the event, but somehow I get the impression that he was not an eye-witness. In any case the article appeared 4 years after the events described (if the date of 1921 is correct) and by then people's memories may not have been too clear about what actually happened.
One point of interest is that the artist who did the accompanying illustrations confused the two karate masters teaching in Japan at that time - Choki Motobu and Gichin Funakoshi - and drew the illustrations as if it had been Funakoshi and not Motobu, who had defeated the boxer . . . I wonder what Choki Motobu thought about that when he saw the article?
For other source material the artist and author must have used Gichin Funakoshi's "Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu", published the same year (1925), since the illustration for "the guard of Pinan Yodan" is copied directly from that book. Of course the posture shown is not an "on guard" stance but an intermediate position of defence before a counterattack is launched. The writer probably chose this stance because it looked very "karateish", but it is hardly conceivable that Choki Motobu would use it. Kenji Tokitsu has pointed out it is unlikely that Motobu knew the Pinan kata, and even if he did (i.e. the order of the movements) he did not practice them sufficiently to apply the techniques in combat. Anyway, we know that Motobu's fighting stance was much more natural and orthodox than this. One point that does emerge from the story, however, is that Motobu fought without the use of gloves and struck the knockout blow with his bare hands - whether with the palm or closed fist we can't really be sure. It does not seem that Motobu used palm strikes much at other times.
The nationality of the boxer is not given but there is a tradition that he was German - or Russian. His identity will probably never be known, and even if it was, it probably wouldn't mean very much to us. I mean, it is unlikely he was a well known professional whose record we could refer to. He was probably an itinerant boxer who found himself in Japan and was making some money knocking over judomen. That he was the German Heavyweight Champion on his way to the USA to fight for the (World) Championship, as has been suggested, is extremely unlikely. There simply was no German contender for the title at that time. The top European heavyweight was the Frenchman George Carpentier who did fight for the World title in July 1921 and was stopped by Jack Dempsey in four rounds. The first German boxer to make a name for himself was Max Schmeling but he didn't win the German title until 1928 when he beat Franz Diener.
As for him being the "Russian Heavyweight Boxing Champion" (per Bruce Haines in his "Karate's History and Traditions"), the Russians did not even have organized boxing until after the second world war, when they began competing internationally in all sports. However, he may indeed have been a Russian (or German) who had picked up some boxing in his travels.
All this is not to put down Choki Motobu's achievement, but just to try and introduce some kind of perspective into the stories which have grown up about this contest. l think that, sitting there watching the action, Motobu must have realised he had the measure of the boxers, but it still took courage and confidence to step up in front of a skeptical crowd and accept the challenge. When the fight actually began, he did what had to be done - and he did it at an age - fifty - when most people today are happy to spend their time in front of the television or down at the pub. What a fascinating character he must have been.
Just a few words too about "King" magazine and its publisher, Seiji Noma, the founder of Kodansha. (A leading international Publishing house that has published a great many fine martial arts books by leading masters. Editor). The magazine was launched in 1925 and its circulation soon passed a million. It was the largest circulation general interest magazine of the time and martial arts featured frequently in its pages, mainly judo, kendo and samurai tales. Apart from the Motobu story, karate was rarely, if ever, featured in its pages.
In his younger days, Seiji Noma had been a teacher and in the years 1904 to 1908 he was an instructor in Japanese and Chinese classics at the Prefectural Middle School in Okinawa (The Ryukyu Islands). He wrote in his biography "The Nine Magazines of Kodansha" (1934) that "there could scarcely be a more remote outpost than Okinawa", and like most Japanese he regarded the Okinawans as little more than peasants. However, he liked them a great deal and believed that this period was "in a sense, the time of my life."
What is interesting, though, is that Noma mentions karate in his book (called tekobushi in this case), in what is one of the very first references to the art published in English. He writes:
" - The Ryukyuans are a Pacific people, but like all those given to strong drink and leading a primitive life, they would commit acts of nameless cruelty if their blood was stirred. The Ryukyuans had developed through centuries of practice the peculiar art of self-defence and aggression known as tekobushi, which consists of making incredibly deft and powerful thrusts of the fist after the fashion of jujutsu or even boxing. This was the only possible mode of self-defence for the Ryukyuans, who had been prohibited the use of weapons by their double rulers of China and Japan. A Ryukyuan expert in this deadly art could smash every bone in his victim's body with the thrusts of his arms, as if he had struck with a giant hammer. Not infrequently poor victims were found dead by the road side bearing marks of terrible blows from naked fists. Near Tsuji at night there were always gangs of roughs supposed to be skilled in tekobushi who were ready to pick quarrels with unwary strangers."
Noma was clearly relying on rumour and hearsay in writing this description, which would seem to show that around this time there was little real awareness of karate among the general public, even in Okinawa. Noma also uses an old term for the art, meaning warrior's hand (te meaning hand, and bushi meaning warrior). It is a little surprising that he was unaware that karate had actually been introduced into the Okinawan education system in a limited way while he was there - especially as he was an enthusiastic budoka himself (he practiced kendo), and a schoolteacher too.
3. Some related matters
The Motobu family had its own martial art, which had been handed down through several generations. In the last century Chomura Motobu headed the family and he taught the system to his eldest son Choyu (1865-1927). The two other sons, Chosin and Choki, however, were not taught the art. As mentioned earlier it was customary for education to be centred on the eldest son, but Choyu Motobu himself also refused to teach his younger brother Choki because of the latter's rough behaviour. That is the story anyway.
An Okinawan named Seikichi Uehara was taught the art, though. He later began teaching and in 1961 formed his own school, calling it Motobu-ryu. Motobu-ryu is not to be confused with Choki Motobu's karate, and in fact it is not even a karate system. It is closer to jujutsu or aiki-jutsu, concentrating on locking and throwing techniques.
During Choki Motobu's period in Japan he taught such people as Yasuhiro Konishi, Tatsuo Yamada, H. Ninomiya, Chozo Nakama, S. Uejima (Kushin-ryu) and Hironori Ohtsuka (Wado-ryu). His influence can occasionally be seen in the teaching of these masters, as it can for example in Shoshin Nagamine's Okinawan Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu. Nagamine was in Japan for several months in 1936 and took the opportunity to study with Motobu.
Yasuhiro Konishi, who died a couple of years ago, was one of our last links with the heroic period of Japanese karate. (A feature on Konishi, plus an exclusive interview, appeared in 'Fighting Arts' Vol. 4 No. 6 Editor). It seems that Konishi knew anybody who was anybody in the martial arts. He originally practiced jujutsu and kendo but then in 1923, met Funakoshi and his assistant, Hironori Ohtsuka, and began studying karate. He was also a friend of Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of Shito-ryu, and one of the first students of Choki Motobu when Motobu settled in Tokyo. Konishi also trained with Aikido's founder, Morihei Ueshiba and he believed that, of all the experts he had trained with, Ueshiba was the greatest, a true master.
When Konishi left the Funakoshi school and began to study karate with Motobu, Funakoshi regarded him as a heretic. Motobu was so poor at this time that he was thinking of returning to Okinawa but Konishi helped him out by organising a kind of support association.
The bad feeling must have died down within a few years because Funakoshi was grateful when Konishi helped him enter the illustrious martial arts association, the Butokukai. Funakoshi was given the grade of Renshi, and later Tashi, and it is ironic that Konishi was on the Butokukai's karate examining board, since of course he was actually Funakoshi's student.
Konishi remembered the original group of Motobu's karate students in Tokyo. It included such people as Seiko Fujita, a jujutsu and martial arts expert who is remembered in some quarters as the "last officially recognised ninja" (ie. the last to see active service), Lion Kamemitsu, a sumo wrestler, and Piston Horiguchi, a boxer - and a colourful group it must have been.
In a little book called "Talks on Karate" (in Japanese), Konishi also reminisced with Hoshu Ikeda about Tatsuo Yamada, one of the earliest of Motobu's Japanese students. Yamada later founded "Nippon Kempo Karate" and I think he experimented quite a lot with bogu kumite, (sparring with protective equipment). He was a tough, uncompromising character - Konishi seemed to think he was something like "a boss of gangsters" - and he called other karateka "dancers". Yamada was a friend of Hironori Ohtsuka and stayed with Ohtsuka during one period. Every time Ohtsuka went out to do a demonstration of kata, Yamada would say something like, "Oh, you're going out to dance again". Ikeda and Konishi agreed that Yamada was a kind of precursor of kick boxing. Konishi told Ikeda that at that time (the 1930s) Tatsuo Yamada was one of the karate radicals, ("you can say that again!" Ikeda responded).
Incidentally, Yamada was also an early student of Gichin Funakoshi, and Mas Oyama once said that he was the best karateman, Funakoshi produced. This is not a view that many people would take, but Oyama may have seen in Yamada an early version of himself - someone who stressed realism, conditioning and hard kumite; a radical who did not blindly follow tradition.
Piston Horiguchi was referred to earlier in this article, when his sparring match with Choki Motobu was mentioned. In fact, during his classes, Motobu would often tell Horiguchi to get up and spar with him.
A western-style boxer was something of a rarity in Japan in those days since boxing and wrestling (western-style) were considered barbarous - the Japanese generally considered that they lacked the "form" that is so important in the Japanese martial arts. It was a tough life for Japanese boxers too since there was no organisation overseeing the sport (the Japan Boxing Commission was only founded in 1951) and they would often travel from town to town fighting daily. A fighter would frequently have to give away weight, and as an attraction boxers were occasionally known to fight sumo wrestlers, (not the Grand Champions, but still . . .). Not surprisingly their careers were short.
But what fighting spirit they had! Japanese boxers today are known for their courage, but the few veterans who can remember the pre-war days say that the modern fighters are soft by comparison - although admitting that the modern fighters are better athletes and much better boxers.
The information on this neglected subject comes mostly from an article by Leo Noonanm in the now defunct American magazine "The Fighters"; (Vol. 1, No.1, 1974). This article does mention one pre-war Japanese boxer. It is Piston Horiguchi.
"Takayuki Yamagata, trainer of Misako's fighters and the youngest looking 50-year old I've ever seen, jogged his memory to recollect a scene of 38 years ago."
"'In 1936, when I was a 12-year old growing up in Hawaii, I saw a Japanese boxer named Piston Horiguchi, the most courageous athlete I have ever known. Now there was a fellow with a college education who displayed more bravery in the ring than you could imagine.'
"Yamagata struck something resembling the legendary John L. Sullivan pose. Then he began pistoning his clenched fists back and forth with blinding speed. 'That is the way Horiguchi carried on in the ring. He did not have a lot of ability, but those fists always, and I mean always, were coming at you. In one fight, both of his eyes had been swollen shut. He went on. And do you know he won the fight? Today that could never happen, but remember there was no governing body then'."
My attempts to find out more about this colourful fighter came to nothing and I don't even know whether Horiguchi is dead or alive. For interested readers there is a boxing gym in Japan named The Piston Horiguchi Gym - whether still run by Horiguchi or just named after him I do not know. Its address is given by "The Japan Sports Guide" as 3-23 Sawai-cho, Chigasaki-shi, Kanagawa- ken. Anyone with further information please drop me a line.
Information on Choki Motobu and the other early masters of karate is scattered and difficult to trace. I am grateful to the following for their invaluable help: K. Gardiner, R.A. Scoales, and Kenji Tokitsu for help with the old "King" article; Mr. & Mrs. Brian Waites and Ron Ship for translations or help with translations; and Henri Plee and Terry O'Neill for material from their collections. If anyone has any further information on any of the material in this article they can reach me c/o 46 Clinton Place, Sunderland.
Copyright © Graham Noble. All rights reserved.
Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.