Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.
The following article originally appeared in Classical Fighting Arts, Issue No. 1, 2003 (pages 40 - 47) and is reprinted here with the permission of the author, Graham Noble. Photographs have been omitted. Copyright © Graham Noble. All rights reserved.
A Meeting With Chosei Motobu
by Graham Noble
The renewed interest in Choki Motobu has been a feature of the recent study of karate history. Anyone interested in the development of karate was well aware of Choki Motobu's name, but little if anything was known about his life and technique. He seemed to have left few living students, his dojo had long since closed down, and although he had written two books, few people were aware of them, and anyway, they had been out of print for decades. There was even a view -- and I heard this personally from a couple of senior Japanese teachers -- that Motobu was not a true karate master but rather just a fighter who made use of karate techniques.
But, as research into karate history developed, people began to look afresh at Choki Motobu and his legacy. Bit by bit material became available, and gradually it became possible to get some idea of his life and methods. Then just a couple of years ago Kimo Ferreira, a kempo instructor from Hawaii, made contact with Choki Motobu's son Chosei and helped introduce him to American karateka. In July 2002 when Kimo and his wife Kiko accompanied Chosei Sensei and his senior student Takeji Inaba to England for a seminar, they stopped off in London for some sightseeing, and this is where Harry Cook and I were able to meet the group and try and find out a little more about Motobu karate. Chosei Sensei does not speak English, but Keiko did a great job translating.
At the time of the meeting Chosei Motobu was seventy-eight and Takeji Inaba seventy-four, and they were remarkably sprightly for their age. Not long before, they had completed their Tsunami video, on which they personally demonstrate all the techniques. Chosei had spent his working life as a policeman in Osaka, and when he retired he decided to devote his time to the development of Motobu style karate.
He had studied karate with his father, he told us, from the age of fourteen, when Choki Sensei would come down from Tokyo to visit his family in Osaka. The training ceased when Chosei was seventeen and Choki Motobu returned to Okinawa. Chosei did not learn karate from anyone else, though for a time he did train along with a student of the well known Shinpan Gusukuma (Shiroma). He recalled that this karateka (I thought I caught the name Kina, but can't be sure) would walk around the dojo on his toes as training for the front kick.
What did Choki Motobu teach his son? For kata, essentially Naihanchi, which constituted a kind of kihon, or basic training -- Motobu did not teach the modern method of moving up and down the dojo drilling single techniques -- and kumite, mainly the twelve kumite sequences shown in his 1926 book and in Chosei's recent Tsunami video. Choki Motobu also stressed two points: 1. Always irimi (enter): move into your opponent's territory, don't step backwards; 2. Don't stand in neko ashi (cat) stance. This is a defensive position, and Motobu used to say that if you take up this stance, in a way you are telling the opponent you are losing. He may also have found that the neko ashi stance hadn't worked out too well in the numerous close quarters fights he had had back in Okinawa.
Choki Motobu used kicks, but sparingly. He taught that kicking should not be used as a first attack. There are risks in kicking, and Motobu considered that you should only kick when you have a strength advantage over your opponent, (60 to 40, according to Chosei), or when you have first hit him with a punch or a strike. Timing is essential: you have to choose the right moment when you will knock the opponent down with one kick. Also, don't kick higher than the waist.
We mentioned that Choki Motobu's karate was close range, in contrast to Funakoshi's Shotokan, for example, where opponents take up kumite positions a relatively long distance apart. At this, Chosei Motobu stood up to demonstrate with Inaba Sensei. The engagement was from a close distance, forearms in contact ("a basic training form"), and Chosei explained that at this distance it was easier to control the opponent and anticipate his actions. When a punch was thrown Chosei blocked it close in. The non-blocking hand was not pulled back to the hip in the orthodox hikite position, but kept close in front of the body, where it was ready to block a second punch, as Chosei demonstrated. In Motobu karate both hands are often used together, and this is called meotode, or "husband-and-wife hand"; the hands are close and work together to achieve the desired result. We mentioned that Choki Motobu would often use the front hand to strike, and Chosei said yes, a student (maybe it was Hironori Ohtsuka) had once asked Choki which hand should be used to strike, and he had replied, "The hand closest to the opponent."
When he stood up to demonstrate Motobu-style blocking, Chosei contrasted it with Itosu-style technique, which he showed in a kind of back stance, away from the attack, with an extended blocking arm, the other fist held back at the hip. This method, rather than covering the body, opened it up, and didn't seem a technique born out of real fighting experience.
Reading the little information there is on the subject, it seems that the relationship between Choki Motobu and his one time teacher Ankoh Itosu was not all that smooth. We asked about this, and Chosei said it was true, there were aspects of Itosu karate that Choki was critical of. He didn't like the Pinan kata, for example, (they have many cat stances, for one thing), or the way Itosu set his feet in Naihanchi kata, ("very bad"), or "the way he twisted his arm," (whether this was in a punching or blocking moving wasn't too clear). That Motobu could consider criticizing Itosu, who at that time was probably the leading karate teacher on Okinawa, showed an unusual confidence, (or some would say arrogance) and independence of thought on his part.
Choki Motobu trained with other well known experts such as Soken Matsumura of Shuri, Kosaku Matsumora of Tomari, and, possibly, Tokumine. Choki Motobu himself told a story of how when he went to Matsumora for lessons he gave a false name because of the bad reputation his own name had. We asked Chosei Motobu if he knew anything about his father and Tokumine. Not really, he replied, but he had been told by Choso Nakama that one time when judo's Jigoro Kano was in Okinawa, a meeting with Choki Motobu wasn't made because Motobu was away at Yaeyama Island. Since this was where Tokumine lived, (exiled there apparently, for his drunken, brawling behavior), it's possible that Choki Motobu studied with him around this time.
Chosei told us that one time as a youngster he had been hanging around the house and he heard someone ask his father who had been the greatest martial artist he had known. Choki Motobu replied, without hesitation, Sokon Matsumura: he was a really great, sharp martial artist. In his 1932 book Motobu wrote briefly of Matsumura's knowledge of kata application and ability to read an opponent's actions.
We talked a little about some of Choki Motobu's Japanese pupils, Hironori Ohtsuka, for example, the founder of Wado-ryu. Chosei said that Ohtsuka had not been a registered student of Choki Sensei, but he would study with him whenever he had the opportunity. Chosei agreed that occasionally you can see elements of Choki's technique in Ohtsuka's karate. Ohtsuka didn't teach Motobu's style, but he would take techniques and ideas from it and add these to his Wado-ryu. Regarding Yasuhiro Konishi, the founder of Shindo-Jinen Ryu karate, Chosei confirmed that he had been a great help to Choki Motobu in Japan, not just financially, but in promoting his cause and helping him to get his dojo established. There was also Sannosuke Uejima, a ju-jutsu instructor who had been one of Motobu's early students in the 1920s. Takeji Inaba had actually been to meet Uejima, who told him that when he had first gone to see Choki Motobu they had exchanged ideas on technique. Uejima recalled that each time he tried a move, Motobu would anticipate it, then neutralize or counter it. He seemed to do that almost instinctively, and Uejima was somewhat shocked by this. Uejima told Inaba that although many people said bad things about Choki Motobu, he really was an exceptional martial artist.
Hironori Ohtsuka once told of a similar kind of meeting between Choki Motobu and "Piston" Horiguchi, the Japanese featherweight boxing champion. According to Ohtsuka, Horiguchi was unable to land a clean punch on the sixty-odd years old Motobu. We asked about that and Chosei added the information that it had been Yasuhiro Konishi who had brought Horiguchi to the dojo, maybe to learn something from Choki Sensei. A brief discussion then took place, but Motobu said that you can't learn anything by talking, so he told Horiguchi to try and attack him any way he wanted. Horiguchi threw a round punch, but before it was half way to its target Motobu's hand was right on his nose. Horiguchi tried a few more times to punch Motobu, but the result was the same. At the end of the exchange Horiguchi, who was a well-mannered person, said that he had learned a lot, and thanked Motobu. As for Choki Motobu, he recognized that Piston Horiguchi had great fighting spirit, but he wondered about his skill level. "You know", he told Chosei afterwards, "it's hard to believe that he's the Japanese champion."
Motobu, of course, had made a name for himself when he defeated a foreign boxer in Kyoto, around 1921. Strangely, he never talked to his son about this, so Chosei had little to add to the account of the match in the old magazine, "Kingu" (1925). He did say that he had heard from some of the seniors that Choki had beaten a boxer called John Kentel. (We gave Chosei Sensei a copy of an old Japanese postcard showing the Russian wrestler and strongman Jan Kentel). He also said that years ago he and Inaba Sensei had made a special trip to Okinawa to meet a noodle shop owner who was said to know the truth about Choki Motobu and the boxer. When they met this man, though, he said he hadn't seen the match himself, but he knew someone who did, and he gave them an address in Tokyo. So off went Chosei and Inaba, back to Japan, but when they tried to look this person up they were told that he had moved and had left no forwarding address. They were never able to pick up the trail again.
And then there was Choki Motobu's troubled relationship with Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan, who is often referred to as "the father of Japanese karate." The two men were rivals in a way, opposites in character, and with different views on karate, but there was some personal animosity there too. Keiko Ferreira explained that Chosei Motobu didn't like to talk badly of people, so he hadn't spoken about this in the past, but with some gentle urging from Inaba he opened up a little. Chosei had also spoken to Kenji Murakawa, Choki Motobu's senior living student, who had agreed that the Motobu side of the story should be told...and it was this.
Apparently Choki Motobu never rated Funakoshi very highly as a karateka; according to Motobu, Funakoshi had only been a minor figure on the Okinawan karate scene. But the real bad feeling began in Japan, when three of Funakoshi's senior students (Ohtsuka, Konishi, and another whose name we didn't get) had grown disappointed with his teaching and began studying with Choki Motobu, whose karate they found much more logical and effective. Then there was an occasion in the dojo when Motobu and Funakoshi were comparing technique and Motobu asked Funakoshi what he would do in a certain position. Funakoshi was not able to respond immediately; he had to think of his counter and then when he moved Motobu threw him down -- right in front of Funakoshi's own students. This was a terrible loss of face for Gichin Funakoshi and from that moment he regarded Motobu as a treacherous rival. And there were other things. One of the curiosities of the 1925 Kingu article on Choki Motobu and the boxer is that the illustrations are drawn as if it were Funakoshi and not Motobu who had defeated the boxer. Was Choki Sensei angry about that? According to his daughter he was not just angry, but "super angry." "It's true," said Chosei, "the relationship between Choki Sensei and Funakoshi was very bad."
Some other things that came up in our conversation... It was true that Choki Motobu had a low opinion of Chinese Kempo. He had met many Chinese Kempo men and none of them were very strong, or good fighters. In the old days goods would be brought from China, and the Chinese sailors, who were rough characters, would often get drunk and start fights with the Okinawans. Some of these Chinese were experts in Kempo, and Choki Motobu would be called to fight them. He defeated them easily. Inaba Sensei told us that, in many of his streetfights in Tsuji, Motobu would knock the opponent out with one punch... One time a prisoner escaped from jail and took the guard's sword. He was chased, but sought refuge in a koban (police box), swinging his sword around so no-one could get near him. Choki Motobu, who was nearby, came on the scene and threw his coat over the criminal's head before knocking him to the ground with a forefist thrust to the stomach. The prisoner was dragged back to jail.
When he was in Japan a movie came out entitled Judo Defeats Kempo Karate, which, apparently, had Kodokan input. Choki Motobu was furious. "I never challenged any judo stylists," he said, "but this is a really stupid title. So I want to go to the Kodokan and challenge them to a fight. I don't want to hear people saying Kempo karate is no good. I will go there naked (with a loin cloth or shorts) so they can't take hold of my gi." Motobu was in his late sixties at this time and his students pleaded him not to go; his spirit was still really strong, but he was not a young man anymore. It was only after a lot of talking that he agreed not to go.
After Motobu returned to Okinawa, on one occasion he was invited to a formal event. He was sitting at the back of the room when a mean looking man appeared. He was covered in tattoos, a butcher from the lowest class. He had some grudge against Motobu and challenged him to a fight. Everyone was shocked and shouted at the man for this show of disrespect. He left, but came back a minute later with a butcher's knife and stuck it hard into the tatami, again challenging Motobu to fight. Most people had now left the room. Motobu said OK, he would fight, but they should go outside. "OK", said the butcher, taking the knife and turning to go outside. As he turned his back Motobu kicked him violently in the spine, knocking him to the floor where he lay paralyzed. He had to be lifted up and carried home.
Chosei was told this story by the well known Chozo Nakama, a student of both Motobu and Chosin Chibana. Nakama actually knew the butcher and went to see him a week later. He was in bed, still unable to move. A month later Nakama went back again, but the man had moved. He had told his neighbors he was too ashamed to live in the area anymore.
Choki Motobu was an interesting and important karate teacher, and yet for some reason his story was pushed to the margins of karate history for decades. It must have been sad sometimes for Chosei Motobu to see his father's reputation suffer like this, but at least that has recently begun to change. We said that he must be pleased to see this renewed interest in his father, and when Keiko Ferreira put this to Chosei Sensei in Japanese, he just bowed his head a little and simply said, "Yes." Keiko was visibly moved.
We want to thank Kimo and Keiko for organizing our meeting and for all the translation work. And we want to thank Chosei Motobu Sensei and Takeji Inaba Sensei for their time and patience in answering all our questions. We wish them the very best in their efforts to promote Motobu style karate.
A translation of Choki Motobu's 1932 book Watashi No Karate-Jutsu (My Method of Karate) was recently published by the International Ryukyu Karate Research group, PO Box 420, Virginia 4014, Australia. This edition also includes a translation of the 1925 article from Kingu magazine and other related material. I've given a little more information here about Motobu and the boxer. Chosei Motobu and Takeji Inaba have made a very nice video with Tsunami Productions of Westlake Village, California, The Karate of Cboki Motobu which also contains many rare old photographs of Choki Motobu from the Motobu family archive.
Copyright © Graham Noble. All rights reserved.
Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.