Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.

The following article was originally published in the June 1930 issue of Bungei Shunshu. It was translated into English by Charles Joseph Swift on May 20, 2001. Copyright © Charles Joseph Swift (as to translation). All rights reserved.

Karate Den

by Kosugi Hoan
translated by by Charles Joseph Swift

Note: Kosugi Hoan was a famous Japanese artist and one of Gichin Funakoshi's early supporters in Tokyo.

Several years ago, I watched a demonstration of Shaolin martial arts with three friends, in Shanghai.

The Shaolin Temple was where the great Zen founder Boddhidharma taught, but in later years, it became known more for its martial arts than for its Zen. It is said that most Chinese martial arts stem from this Shaolin Temple. There are many types of martial arts, including those that utilize spears, staves, swords and the like, but the fist methods are really exquisite. My friends, upon seeing the Quanfa forms performed, were very happy and exclaimed how mysterious and interesting they were. On the way back, we stopped at a restaurant for dinner. I was feeling a bit tipsy, and stood up, saying "so, shall I show you something?" and proceeded to perform a kata.

My friends, surprised, said "I didn't know you had that good of a memory!" Although my performance wasn't very skillful, they praised me by saying that the kata was just like that they had earlier witnessed. At that point, I told them the truth. "This is the only kata I ever learned from my teacher of Ryukyu karate, Funakoshi. It is called Kushanku."

Originally, the karate of Ryukyu was imported from China, and was researched and developed to its present form by generations of experts over a period of three hundred years. It has been somewhat Ryukyuan-ized but remains basically the same as the original Chinese precursors. It is said that the Kushanku kata was taught by a Ming Chinese of the same name who came to Ryukyu.

Or, just as some old works of art or books that have disappeared in China sometimes turn up in Japan, it is entirely possible that there are some old forms of Quanfa that have been slightly modified, and being transmitted in Ryukyu.

It has been about 7 or 8 years since Funakoshi Gichin came to Tokyo from Ryukyu in an effort to spread karate. I have mostly forgotten the one kata that I did learn due to my lack of consistency, but there are many enthusiastic young learners who are given grades (dan) based upon their years of training and technical prowess. A grading ceremony is held every year. I was surprised at the young nidan and sandan practitioners who used many kinds of kata and kumite, their vigorous jumping, I could even hear the sound as their hand strikes and kicks literally cut through the air, all in all very powerful. Even those at shodan level broke through a pine board with a single blow of the fist. I took this board home and measured it to be nearly 6cm thick. If one were to get hit in the head with that board, the skull would surely split.

Karate enables one to turn any part of the body into a weapon, but its spirit lies in training the fist. It is said that Funakoshi's teacher Itosu, when trying to get into a drinking party he was locked out of, just simple put his fist through the wooden door and unlocked it from the inside. When Itosu was in his later years and in the care of a certain Baron's family, he went over to where the manservant was splitting bamboo with a hatchet in order to build a fence. Saying that a hatchet was too slow, proceeded to break the bamboo with his hands. Splitting thick pieces into fourths, and thinner ones into thirds, it is said that even the width of the pieces he split were all the same.

The training method for achieving such remarkable grip strength is to fill a jar with sand, then grab the mouth of the jar with the fingers and lift it up. Even now in Naha, a karate man named Kinjo grabs onto boards in his ceiling and just travels around hanging from the ceiling. A long time ago, an expert from Shuri named Uehara used to swing around his house once every night on the rafters. If one were to be grabbed by such a man, the flesh would surely be ripped from the body, like a freshly pounded soft rice cake.

There are many other such great practitioners. It is said that many years ago, Ota from Kinjo once kicked the tiles of the roof at Shuri's Chuzan Gate. Ryukyuan castle gates are the same as those in China, so the roof was extremely high. Another man is said to have jumped up and kicked a ceiling, from a seated position. His motions were so fast that those in attendance were in disbelief, so he put black ink on the bottom of his feet and did it again, leaving his footprints on the ceiling.

Matsumura Peichin is such a famous master that his name always comes up whenever speaking of karate. In his later years while living at the Royal family's villa at Shikina, it is said that several students came all the way from Shuri just to train with him. Of these students, one group of five were in very good condition. They would all stand up on top of each other's shoulders and walk, a five-person stilt. On their way home, they would each jump over the gate. It is said that even Matsumura Peichin himself was impressed with these young men.

Although not as impressive as the previous feats, Funakoshi's son himself can jump up and kick a ceiling that is 2.1~2.4 meters high. At any rate, in order to impress someone who has mastered any art, takes a bit of natural talent, as well as severe conditioning. I believe that if either one is missing, it will not work.

The styles of karate are called Shorinryu and Shoreiryu. The former places much emphasis on technique, whereas the latter places its focus upon strength, and is probably well suited to physical education. I personally believe that this Shorin is referring to the previously mentioned Shaolin Temple.

Funakoshi learned from the previously mentioned bamboo crushing Itosu, as well as Asato. Itosu was a model of Shoreiryu, his body was strong and his art was powerful and large. If he was struck in any part of his body but his nose, he felt no pain. On the other hand, Asato was a minor land lord, whose given name was Anko, and title was Rinkakusai. He was involved in politics, and was well versed in both literary and martial arts. He was a hero of the late Edo era, and his karate philosophy was to think of the hands and feet as swords. This shows that he placed more emphasis on technique, a trademark of Shorinryu. Asato's fist was truly like a sword. Once, he thrust his hand, the fingers held together, into a freshly slaughtered pig, and it sank in over half way.

The practice of karate consists of kata and kumite to study the methods of attack and defense, punching the makiwara with the fist, thrusting the fingertips into jars of sand, kicking pillars with the feet, and conditioning all parts of the body with various equipment. A strong strike can prove fatal, even with resuscitation methods. Therefore, it is impossible to compete in the manner of Judo randori. It is basically an art for defense. All kata begin with a block. If one follows the golden rule of "karate ni sente nashi," one will not be drawn into fights. However, there are tales of young men long ago going out looking for fights in which to test their skills night after night. Maybe it is because after striking the makiwara for a while and making the fist hard, the hands become itchy, as if they are impatient to try and punch something or someone. There are tales of people punching through earthen fences or breaking pillars with their kicks. Itosu made a bet once with someone, that he could kill a huge ram with a single blow, without causing it to cry out. The rule was, however, that he could not punch it in the head. When it fell, it gave a little grunt. However, the bet remained decided, as it was argued that the sound was only of the ram's breath. There are also other stories such as the one about the person who felled an uncontrollable bull by punching it once between the eyes.

There are those that say that karate was vigorously pursued as self defense after the Satsuma had invaded Ryukyu and disarmed the populace. Young men were sent to take tribute to China, and Chinese officials also visited Ryukyu. Of course it is speculated that literature and arts were among those things imported, but it is also believed that martial artists of the Shaolin lineage also transmitted their arts, which were in turn studied by the Ryukyu people. There are also those local stalwarts who had defeated Chinese martial artists. There were also some farmers and women who also had a mysterious ability in "ti."

Matsumura Peichin's wife was Tsuru from Yonamine. She went out around Shuri Castle every night, and challenged young men to a match for her hand in marriage. It is said that she defeated all comers, but when she met Matsumura, he won and thus they were married. Once when someone visited an old lady who was the granddaughter of Matsumura about her grandmother (i.e. Matsumura's martial artist wife), she said that she did not remember much very clearly, but did recall once seeing her grandmother cleaning the kitchen, and lifting a 900 liter bag to sweep under it.

Matsumura Peichin lived to ninety years of age, and both Itosu and Asato lived to be over eighty. It is said that many karate experts live long lives. It is not known whether they lived that long naturally and improved their karate in that time, or whether the exercise they received through karate training had improved their health. This seems to be a question of the chicken or the egg. The graves in Ryukyu are large, for a whole family, all members buried together. They are basically mounds made of concrete. The corpse is first put into a coffin, and placed on the floor of the tomb. The entrance is then sealed for three years, after which the bones are removed from the coffin and put into burial urns and placed beside those of their ancestors. This is called the bone washing ceremony. After three years, the flesh and muscle will have decayed away, leaving the bones scattered in the coffin. However, the 49 joints of Matsumura Peichin were still all connected. This is a case that a well-conditioned man is different from a normal man. Funakoshi, recalling this story when he attended Asato's bone washing ceremony, looked closely at the remains of his teacher and saw that his spine was like a rod, not one vertebrae out of place, and that not one tooth had come loose.

Copyright © Charles Joseph Swift. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.