2. The Mysteries of Naha Te (H)

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2. The Mysteries of Naha Te (H)

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By Graham Noble

One of the curious things about Goju Ryu is that the names of two of its kata, Seisan and Suparimpei, feature in the programme of an 1867 demonstration at the Ochayagoten of Shuri Castle: Seisan was demonstrated by Aragaki and Suparimpei by Tomimura. We cannot say whether these were the same kata that we know today, but it’s intriguing that these names were applied to martial arts forms all those years ago; maybe they were ancestors of the modern kata. Seisan is a particularly interesting kata because it appears in different forms across almost all the main styles of Okinawan karate, not just in Goju, but in Uechi Ryu and some Shorin Ryu styles too. Although it appears in these different forms, the correspondences between them indicate that they all share a common origin, presumably back in 19th century Okinawa. It is surely significant that a Seisan kata can be found in 19th century Okinawa but not in any of the extant Fujian styles.

There is little mention of Kanryo Higaonna in the early literature of karate, such as it is. Choki Motobu, in his 1926 and 1932 books gives a list of karate experts for different eras of history, according to the reigns of the Ryukyuan kings. The last era covers the reigns of King Sho Iku (1835 – 1847) and King Sho Tai (1848 – 1879), and although there are eighteen names listed for that era, including three described as from Naha, Higaonna is not included. (Most of the names are unknown to us, but the well-known Itosu and Azato are listed). That era, ending in 1879, may have been a little too early for Higaonna, but then nor is he mentioned in the seventeen page section on old-time karate experts, (“Ryukyu Bujin”), in Motobu’s 1932 book, “Watashi no Tode Jutsu.” Perhaps that’s not unusual either because, again, Motobu concentrated on an earlier generation of experts, including some from Naha such as Gushi, Sakiyama and Nagahama. He does, though, mention Itosu, Azato and Yabu, all well-known experts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

In his 1942 book “Miscellaneous Thoughts on Martial Arts” Morinobu Itoman wrote (Mario McKenna translation):

“In short, karate was acquired from military officers during the arrival of Chinese envoys to the Ryukyu Islands and from military offices and others while staying at the Ryukyukan in Fuzhou on the way to and from the Ryukyu Islands while on trade, tribute or other business. In addition, others learned it from those who travelled to Ryukyu or went to Fuzhou to learn it.

“The early modern warriors Aragaki Tanmei Wakuta, Naha, and Maezato Tanmei of Naha learned martial arts in Fuzhou. However, it would have been much more challenging to teach and learn martial arts at that time when they were not as openly available as they are today.”

We don’t know much about Morinobu Itoman, but to judge from his writings he was an assiduous researcher of karate, and of Chinese martial arts too. He couldn’t add much to our knowledge of early karate history although it’s interesting that he brought up the names of Aragaki and Maezato as Okinawans who had studied Chinese martial arts in Fuzhou. But - in our modern version of karate history the two best known Okinawan masters of Chinese kempo are Kanryo Higaonna and Kanbum Uechi, and Itoman doesn’t even mention them. Maybe we shouldn’t read too much into it, but it’s another one of those puzzles that run through this history.

There is an old, three-part series of articles, “Okinawa no Bugi” (Martial Arts of Okinawa) which appeared in the “Ryukyu Shimpo” newspaper in January 1914, (translation by Pat McCarthy in his book “Tampenshu”). The writer was “Shoto”, and there was a subtitle, “Recollecting the Words of Ankoh Azato.” “Shoto” was the pen-name of Gichin Funakoshi, so presumably the article was a combination of the knowledge of both men, though of course, Azato had been dead almost eight years at the time of publication. The article lists some of the karate experts still active at the time, over a dozen names. Many of these experts are unknown to us, but included in the list are the well-known names Itosu, Yabu, Hanashiro, and also “Nishi (West) no Higaonna Guwa, karate teacher at the Marine and Commercial School,” as well as “Higashi (East) no Higaonna.”

This article also mentioned the supposed, disputed, classification of karate into two styles, Shorei-Ryu and Shorin-Ryu, and it noted that “Nowadays, students of secondary schools in Naha are practising Shorei Ryu, while students in Shuri schools are practising Shorin Ryu . . . Training methods in Naha generally emphasize developing physical strength, while the focus of attention in Shuri is principally on developing technique.” Shorei Ryu, then, the more physical style practised in Naha, was identified with Kanryo Higaonna’s teaching.

This old 1914 article stated that “Many people have travelled to China to learn and then there have also been those who learned directly from Chinese here in Okinawa.” Higaonna was mentioned in the following list of such transmissions, which was also included in Funakoshi’s 1922 “Ryukyu Kempo Karate” and later books: “It is an indisputable fact that Okinawans studied Shina Bujutsu (Chinese martial arts) under Chinese. The following is certain . . . . Shimabukuro of Uemondono, Higa of Kunenboya, West Higaonna, East Higaonna, Senaha and Kuwae studied under ‘Waishinzan’ (Shorei Ryu).”

Waishinzan and two other Chinese mentioned in this section, Iwah and Ason, were described by Funakoshi as sapposhi, the military officers who were attached to Chinese missions to the Ryukyu kingdom. The Chinese characters for their names were unknown so katakana had to be used in the text.

Although Funakoshi may have been remembering something he had been told by Azato, it’s questionable how accurate his information was. He was writing about events that must have taken place well before he was born, and for which there were no records or literature. Funakoshi seemed to like the sapposhi theory of karate’s origins because it gave added prestige to the history of the art, but if the instruction in these cases was by sapposhi, then that most probably occurred in 1838 or 1866, the last two investiture dates of an Okinawan king, (the two investiture dates before that were in 1800 and 1808). In 1838, of course, Kanryo Higaonna, West Higaonna, hadn’t even been born and in 1866 he would have only been thirteen years old. Moreover, as he belonged to the lower level of society, how likely is it that he would have had regular access to the sapposhi? As Andreas Quast also notes about the sapposhi theory, such instruction would have been limited anyway by the length of the sapposhi’s stay, which was relatively short. One interesting thing, though, is that when Funakoshi referred to specific Okinawans who had learned from Chinese he seemed to write as if that transmission had taken place in Okinawa, not China: several Okinawans were linked to each Chinese expert. Apart from quoting the old tradition that Tode Sakugawa (1700s) learned kempo in China, and speculating that “In periods when Chinese culture was a held in high esteem, practitioners went abroad to learn Chinese martial arts, adding to their native Okinawan methods, or Te,” Funakoshi does not write about any 19th Century teachers, including Higaonna, travelling to China to study martial arts. The first written reference to Kanryo Higaonna learning kempo in China may have been by Kenwa Mabuni in his 1934 “Goshin Jutsu Karate Kempo”, but that was very brief, just one sentence.

What did Chojun Miyagi write about all this? Well, very little; he never put much down in writing. He did contribute an article to the August 1942 edition of “Bunka Okinawa” magazine, and he titled it with a line from the Bubishi, the old Chinese manuscript on kempo, the line that he had used to for the name of his style, Goju Ryu, (the characters read “Method hard soft swallow spit”, which is usually translated as “The method of inhaling and exhaling is hard and soft”, or something similar). But the article gave disappointingly little information. Miyagi mentioned the story about the Indian monk Bodidharma bringing martial arts to China’s Shaolin Temple. He repeated the orthodoxy that Chinese kempo was divided into Northern and Southern styles, and that the Northern style was more aggressive and specialised in leg techniques, while the Southern style concentrated on hand techniques and was more soft and defensive in nature.

The article, then, was surprisingly thin and unoriginal, and Miyagi seems to have had only a vague idea about Chinese styles – where was all the material he was supposed to have acquired during his Chinese trips? There was no evidence of any original research and he gave no information at all on the two areas where he might have contributed something special: those visits to China and Kanryo Higanna’s time in Fujian. It’s as if he had nothing to say. In fact, in writing about Northern and Southern styles of Chinese martial arts he was reduced to quoting a friend, Mr. Jingyu, on the differences between Northern and Southern styles - of painting. Miyagi also referred to Mao Yuan-I’s 17th Century military textbook, “Wu Pei Chih” – “Bubishi” in Japanese - but it’s not clear how much of this work he had actually seen. Mao’s “Wu Pei Chih” runs to 240 chapters, and includes chapters on the use of the staff and spear, and on boxing (ch’uan fa) but Miyagi was a frustrating writer and rather than referring to these chapters he chose to quote a couple of sentences on calligraphy and horsemanship, and so it’s questionable whether he had actually seen the section on boxing, which makes up Chapter 91 of the whole work.

Anyway, that was the “Bubishi” put together by Mao Yuan-I. But – and again, this seems puzzling - Miyagi made no mention of the other, completely different, “Bubishi”, the old Chinese manuscript on Crane boxing which was first shown publicly in Kenwa Mabuni’s 1934 “Sepai no Kenkyu”. The omission is doubly odd, in fact, because Miyagi had used a line from that old book as the title of the article itself. Perhaps he wanted to demonstrate a more elevated tone of thought and hence his references to calligraphy and the old, Ching Dynasty classic “Wu Pei Chih”. Perhaps he thought the contents of the Okinawan Bubishi were too unusual for a general article, or too technical and of interest only to martial artists. Still, his omission robs us of any knowledge of his thoughts on the Okinawan Bubishi.

One other puzzling thing about Miyagi’s rerefences to karate history is that at the well-known 1936 meeting of Okinawan karate masters, when asked about Okinawans researching martial arts in China, Miyagi commented that he had heard that Matsumura had studied in China. That would have been many years in the past, way back in the previous century and well before Chojun Miyagi was even born. Miyagi had the opportunity to mention Kanryo Higaonna, his very own teacher, who had supposedly gone to China only fifty or so years before, in living memory, in fact - but he chose not to. Nor, incidentally, did Juhatsu Kyoda, who was also at the meeting. Maybe the minutes are incomplete, but even so this omission seems very odd.

Miyagi’s most important piece of writing was his essay “Karate Do Gaisetsu. Ryukyu Kempo Karate-Do Enkaku Gaiyo”. This was delivered as a lecture at the Meiji Shoten in Osaka in 1936, and what Miyagi wrote here about karate’s history is again rather puzzling. In the section on karate’s origins in China he observed that Chinese martial arts were divided into Northern and Southern, and Internal (Neijia) and External (Waijia) styles, with the Internal being characterised by defence and softness and the external by aggressiveness and hardness. He noted that the Wudang (Wu Tang) School was Internal and the Shaolin School External, and that the Shaolin School came from the monastery of that name in Sung Shan in Honan Province.

These were the usual clichés of Chinese boxing history: there was nothing original in any of it, or anything that demonstrated any special, or personal knowledge: it was a very general, basic outline of Chinese styles and followed the then widely accepted division of those styles into Northern and Southern, Internal and External, Shaolin and Wudang. But that information was generally available in books of the time and Miyagi was saying nothing new. What is interesting though, are the names of the Chinese boxing styles that he mentioned: Tiger, Lion, Monkey, Dog and Crane. It was widely believed that quan fa (kempo) was originally developed from a study of animal movements, and the Shaolin style itself was said to be based on five animals: the Tiger, Dragon, Leopard, Snake and Crane. But the fact that Miyagi mentioned Dog style boxing is intriguing because this is an unusual ground-fighting style specific to Fujian. Lion, Tiger and Crane are styles of Fujian boxing too, and all these styles were also mentioned in a short section “Talks of Chojun Miyagi” included in Miki and Takada’s 1930 “Kempo Gaisetsu”. Here Miyagi separated the styles into “Hard” (Lion and Tiger), “Soft” (Dog and Monkey) and “Half-Hard” (Crane) and also located them geographically: Dog and Monkey in the Nanjing region, Tiger and Crane in Fuzhou, and Monkey and Crane in Taiwan. But this is all muddled. It’s impossible to say but maybe Miyagi got his information, or some of it, not from personal experience but from the Chinese tea trader Go Ken Ki.

When Miyagi moved his history to the introduction of karate to Okinawa, he simply recycled the various theories of the time, referring to the Thirty Six (Chinese) Families who supposedly settled in Ryukyu in 1392 and brought karate with them; the 1762 reference to the Chinese military man Kushanku and his demonstration of kumiai-jutsu; and the invasion by Satsuma in 1609 and the subsequent prohibition of weapons. He wrote: “I think it is reasonable to consider that karate was a fusion of martial arts from China and ‘Te’, a native martial art that already existed. So karate was developed remarkably and even today it is still improved rationally and developed.” In conclusion, though, Miyagi noted that, in the absence of any real historical evidence, there was no convincing explanation of karate’s history.

Despite his more than thirty years of karate study, and his years-long student-teacher relationship with Kanryo Higaonna, Miyagi did not, or perhaps could not, supply any original information to add to the little that had already been written on karate history. It seems very odd that he didn’t mention anything about Higaonna, or anyone else of that era, studying in China. And a little later in the essay, in a short section “About Karate Styles and Ryu”, he wrote: “There are various opinions about ryu or styles of karate in Ryukyu, but they are just guessing without any definite research or evidence. With regard to this matter we feel as if we are groping in the dark.”

Miyagi then, was saying that he knew almost nothing about the origins of the various styles of karate - including that of his own teacher Higaonna - but then he added: “The only credible fact is that Goju Ryu Toude Kempo descended from Shina Fukensho (China Fujian Province) school in Bunsei 11 and was studied deeply. And that (style) was considered legitimate, and remains to this day.”

Again, there is no mention of Kanryo Higaonna, and in fact this sentence traces Miyagi’s Goju Ryu back to a date twenty five years before Higaonna was even born. What exactly is this about?

The 11th year of Bunsei was 1828, but Miyagi does not explain whether this 1828 transmission was by Ryukyuans who brought kempo from Fujian, or by Chinese from Fujian who came to Ryukyu. In any case that transmission is unlikely to have been, as Gichin Funakoshi often supposed, from Sapposhi as the investitures of Ryukyuan kings during the first half of the 19th century were for King Sho Ko in 1808 and King Sho Iku in 1838, and there was no investiture mission between those dates. Andreas Quast also notes that this 1828 date cannot be connected to any students who went on government-sponsored scholarships to China during that period; however, a connection could have arisen from some kind of private travel to or from China, or perhaps as part of the regular (annual) Ryukyuan trading missions to China.

The occurrence of this date, 1828, in Miyagi’s writings seems to me the strangest thing in the whole study of Goju Ryu history. The text is quite specific: “In the 11th year of Bunsei.” Bunsei was the period of Japanese history which ran from 1818 to 1830, so the 11th year would be 1828. Also, this was not an error, or an isolated reference: a couple of years before, in the short hand-written essay he had given to his student Tatsutoku Senaha, (“Goju Ryu Kempo”. 1932) he had also referred to the 1828 date. Joe Swift’s translation of the relevant section reads “A style of Chinese boxing was brought (to Okinawa) from Fujian in 1828 and was subsequently studied deeply. My personal interpretation of this boxing ultimately led to the development of Goju Ryu Karate Kempo.” (Joe Swift, “The Essence of Naha-te”, 2015).

Unusually for the early history of Te a specific date is given and bearing in mind that this date was over a hundred years before Miyagi’s essay, and that he says the 1828 transmission date is known as a fact then presumably he would have had some documentation to confirm his statement. Whatever information he had, though, it must have been specific to him as none of the other early writers on karate history, such as Funakoshi, Motobu or Mabuni, ever mentioned 1828. Typically however, Miyagi gave no further explanation in the “Gaisetsu” text, or in anything else he wrote, nor did he ever seem to clarify the reference to any of his students, and so the significance of the date remains completely unknown. It would seem reasonable to assume that the date refers to events that happened in Okinawa itself, rather than in China. Of course, Miyagi may have simply been wrong, but we don’t know.

The reference to 1828 seems to be “an inconvenient truth”, if indeed it is true, and it has been pretty much ignored by historians of Goju Ryu because it cannot be fitted into the accepted history of the style and especially the story of Kanryo Higaonna and his many years in China. In the first English translation of Miyagi’s essay, by Toshio Tamano (“Black Belt”, March 1985) Tamano rendered the relevant section of Miyagi’s essay as follows: “The only theory we can trust is that, in the year Bunsei 11 (1879), Chinese Fukien style was brought to Okinawa by Kanryo Higaonna and became Goju-Ryu karate boxing (kempo) after continued improvement. The group which is heir to that legitimacy still exists with regular succession on Okinawa today.” Thus Tamano arbitrarily changed the date to fit Kanryo Higaonna’s lifespan and added the statement that the art was “brought to Okinawa by Kanryo Higaonna”, thus reinforcing the orthodox history of a direct transmission from China to Higaonna to Miyagi and then down to modern Goju Ryu practitioners. Of course, a date of 1828 eliminates Higaonna from the origins of Naha-te and casts doubt on his supposed study of kempo in Fujian.

Eichi Miyazato wrote in his 1978 book: “Naha was the largest trading port in Okinawa and the city, with its large population, flourished as a centre of trade. There was a large number of both Okinawan and Chinese traders who travelled between Okinawa and Fuzhou city in Fujian, China. Specialist traders made their living travelling between the two countries, and so it was not uncommon for native Chinese to take up residence in Naha City. Conversely, there were also many Okinawan people who, through study or trade, had found their way to Fuzhou, and during their lengthy stays had learned and mastered Kempo.” Possibly the distant origins of Goju Ryu lie back in early 1800s Naha, with the art being further developed by Okinawans over the years, and culminating with Kanryo Higaonna’s teaching in the last years of the Century.

The 1828 reference remains hard to understand, or explain. Miyagi never seemed to have told his students much about Higaonna’s study in Fuzhou. As Mario McKenna observed, “Miyagi left no information about his Goju-ryu project with respect to its origin, his experiences with Higaonna, his training methods, etc.” The result of this was that even senior Goju students like Meitoku Yagi and Eichi Miyazato appeared to know very little about this old history. Miyazato, for example, gave only the briefest treatment of Kanryo Higaonna’s study in China in his 1978 “Okinawa-den Goju Ryu,” writing simply that he had been accepted as a student by Ryu Ryu Ko and was allowed to live in the dojo where he trained. Higaonna worked during the day making cane chairs and trained at night. After several years of training he reached the rank of teacher, was highly regarded for his kicking technique, and ”it was widely accepted that no one could equal his ability.” This doesn’t amount to much.

When Akio Kinjo began to study karate in the mid-1950s and tried to research its history, he could find very little written material, so he began speaking to senior experts such as Seko Higa, Saburo Higa and Choshin Ishimine about tales of karate history, but here too what he found was fragmentary and unreliable.

Perhaps more information could be found in the history of To-on Ryu, the school founded by Kanryo Higaonna’s other main student, Juhatsu Kyoda? Well, in conversations between Mario McKenna and Shigekazu Kanazaki, the then head of To-on Ryu and a direct student of Kyoda, Kanzaki had no fresh information at all to give about Kanryo’s Higaonna’s training in China, or the origins of his Naha-te. “I have never made any special research into karate-do,” Kanzaki told Mario. “It is said that karate originally came from China and I have always just studied it from that point of view . . . When I was young there were no historical documents available like there are these days. Like others I just obeyed and did what Sensei asked of me.” Despite studying with Juhatsu Kyoda for many years and becoming his successor, Kanzaki said that he had never thought of asking about the history of the style while Kyoda was still alive. “For some reason or another I couldn’t bring myself to ask Kyoda Sensei my questions,” he said. “I think Kyoda Sensei was the same way with respect to Higaonna Sensei. You tend to hold back with respect to your teacher. You feel you can’t ask your teacher too many questions. It was extremely difficult for me to ask him questions. I just couldn’t. I was his student. Because he was my teacher, I just held back. It’s strange, isn’t it?”

In one of his blogs about To-on Ryu and kobudo weapons Mario mentioned that the style included a version of the sai kata Tsuken Shitahaku. He asked Kanzaki where that form had come from but was shocked to find that Kanzaki didn’t know and had never asked: “When I asked Kanzaki sensei where Kyoda sensei had learned this version of Tsuken Shitahaku Sai he replied that he didn’t know because Kyoda sensei had never told him and he had never asked. When Kanzaki sensei said that I felt like crying. What if it had come from Higaonna sensei? What would that say about the supposed ‘Chinese origins’ of Naha-te? Now unfortunately, we’ll never know.”

It’s quite possible that neither Miyagi nor Kyoda knew Kanryo Higaonna’s real history. It’s quite possible that Higaonna never talked about it, and they never asked. The lack of any real historical material has still not deterred people from writing, in some detail, about Kanryo’s study in China and the forms he learned, but bearing in mind the passage of so much time and the complete absence of any historical documentation this can never be anything more than speculation and supposition. After working through all this, my view is that we know virtually nothing about Kanryo Higaonna before the early 1900s. We cannot be sure when he went to China - or if in fact he ever did go - how long he stayed, who he studied with, or what style he learned. The efforts that have gone into the search for Goju’s origins are admirable, but in my opinion the attempts to find Ryu Ryu Ko, or the style he taught, have been unsuccessful. That was always going to be the case, bearing in mind all the time that has passed, the almost total lack of any historical material either in Okinawa or China, and the absence of styles similar to Goju Ryu in Fujian. This was a search through the dead zone of karate history; I don’t think it was ever going to be successful.

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