4. Wakayama Dojo (A)

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4. Wakayama Dojo (A)

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By Graham Noble

In one way it didn’t matter what the origins of Kanbum’s karate were because his teachings were valued by his students and, according to Uechi Ryu tradition, by the local Okinawan community too. There was maybe something of a social-problem background to the setting up the Wakayama dojo. The Okinawans in Wakayama had to face various difficulties such as the language and customs of Japan, a general prejudice from the Japanese population, and trouble caused by the wadoban, an Okinawan criminal group which preyed on their fellow countrymen. The Uechi history is that around 1926, “Bungoro Nakamura, an especially successful Okinawan who had graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo, decided to initiate a response to the wadoban problem. He and a few other Okinawans approached Kanbum, whose reputation had been growing, Ryuyu Tomoyose, and a man named Chomo Motobu about this situation. At the same time another group of migrant Okinawan men decided to do something about the wadoban. A confrontation ensued in which it became clear the two vigilance groups would no longer tolerate the crimes of the wadoban. Thereafter the violence against Okinawans ceased.” Ryuyu Tomoyose was described as “a young man known for his sense of justice,” and Chomo Motobu, apparently, was Choki Motobu’s nephew. In some accounts the other group of men who challenged and fought against the wadoban was said to include Kaei Akamine and Susumu Tamaura. Both had studied karate with Akamine’s father and Akamine became one of Kanbum Uechi’s senior students. It’s too bad we don’t have any more information on this period but there may be an echo of these events in a story told by George Mattson in his “Uechi Ryu Karate Do.” Mattson relates that Uechi had a number of run-ins with the local village bullies in Wakayama and on one occasion a man named Oor – Mattson states that he was a kempo expert who was jealous of Uechi’s reputation – attacked him with a knife one night as he walked home along a dark path. Kanbum evaded the surprise attack and grabbed Ooor’s arm “so hard that it nearly broke.” Uechi let Oor go with the warning that he would kill him if he tried to attack him again.

Kanbum’s Wakayama teaching was based on the three kata Sanchin, Seisan and Sanseru, and body conditioning methods such as arm pounding. Sanchin was regarded as the foundation of the system and apparently Uechi used to say that Sanchin alone warranted ten years of training, and that you could become a master of karate knowing no other kata than Sanchin. “Without Sanchin, you know nothing,” he is reported as saying. “Whether you study three years or thirty, you must do Sanchin daily.” Kanbum taught kata in sections, individual movements, and in fact it’s been said that during his years of teaching in Japan he never performed an entire kata in front of his students. That refelected an old style of teaching. Interestingly, a form of free sparring, jyu kumite, seems to have been there since the early days of the Wakayama dojo.

He seemed to have lived quietly, keeping to himself: “When young people were around he never spoke much, but just sat and listened and watched. He was one who was not in the limelight very often.” In the karate world of the time he was pretty much below the radar; his school seemed to have had little if any contact with other karate schools in 1930s Japan and there was almost a complete absence of written information on his style. It’s interesting, for example, that when Chojun Miyagi included a list of notable karate instructors in his 1934 essay “Karate Do Gaisetsu,” Kanbum Uechi was not included. However, when Miyagi presented a slightly updated version of that essay in Osaka in May 1936 he included Uechi in the list of experts teaching karate outside of Okinawa (ie on the Japanese mainland.). He may have been made aware of Uechi by Kenwa Mabuni who had actually visited Uechi in Wakayama and had written a short account of the meeting in the 1934 “Karate Kenkyu.” Mabuni had been accompanied by Yasuhiro Konishi, who also wrote briefly of the visit, and.these seem to be the only contemporary references we have to Kanbum Uechi and the Wakayama dojo. Neither Mabuni or Konishi gave a date for the meeting, although Mabuni wrote that it took place in ”the early Showa era.” As both referred in their accounts to “Pangainoon style” it was probably between 1932, since that was the year Uechi opened his Pangainoon Karate Jutsu dojo, and 1934, as Mabuni’s article appeared in “Karate Kenkyu” of December 1934. There seems to have been no further contact between Uechi and the other two experts after this as in his account Konishi wrote that “More than likely Uechi has now passed away.”

Konishi wrote that in the early years of the Showa era he and his friend Mabuni had travelled to Wakayama to visit the founder of Pangainoon Ryu, Kanbum Uechi. “I distinctly remember his young and powerful students demonstrating Pangainoon Ryu on the floor of his home. It was a very enlightening experience for both Kenwa Mabuni and myself. Unfortunately because Kanbum Uechi had spent most of his younger years living in Southern China he could not speak Japanese very well. He appeared to have withdrawn completely from society and saw few visitors. My impression of him was that he was a very thoughtful and passionate man. I had thought that I would have had more chances to meet and talk with him but unfortunately I was only able to meet him once. Later Kenwa Mabuni and I created the kata Shimpa from our meeting with Kanbum Uechi.”

Mabuni’s account differs a little from Konishi’s as he states that he and “his student” (Konishi presumably) were travelling on business when on the last day of their trip they visited Higashi Kawagan-machi in Wakayama City. Mabuni wrote that “On the way there what caught my eye was a signboard which read ‘Pangainoon Ryu Karate. Teacher Kanbum Uechi.’

“Mr. Uechi travelled to China at the age of twenty. There he studied the native genuine Chinese Kempo for thirteen years before returning to Japan (Okinawa). Mr. Uechi is indeed an expert in the art. I was impressed by the signboard which looked like an authentic Chinese style sign. I then decided to put off my own business and visit Mr. Uechi’s dojo instead.” During their meeting Mabuni asked Uechi about Chinese martial arts but didn’t seem to have been told much in the way of detailed facts, or anything which might shed light on Uechi’s training in China. It’s quite possible that Mabuni was told more than he later wrote down, although the meeting seems to have been rather short. Konishi’s account reads as if he and Mabuni had travelled to Wakayama specifically to see Uechi whereas Mabuni’s version makes it sound as though they happened to meet Uechi on a business trip to the area, and Mabuni’s recollection of the signboard being in Chinese style is not quite correct: in his article he reproduces the characters and “Pangainoon” is written in katakana – as it is in the 1936 (?) group photograph of Uechi and students taken outside the Wakayama dojo. It is because Pangainoon was written in this way that Mabuni had to ask Uechi the meaning of the name. Incidentally, Mabuni’s article reproduces the writing of karate with the old characters for “Chinese Hand” while the signboard on the group photograph uses the characters “Empty Hand.” Presumably the writing on the signboard was changed to reflect the current trend towards renaming karate as “Empty Hand” – which shows some awareness of what was going on in the rest of the karate world. It also seems noteworthy that even from these early days Uechi called his art Karate, and not Kempo – although he claimed that his art was a style of Chinese kempo, and not Okinawan karate.

The kata Shinpa, mentioned by Konishi and which he said was influenced by the practice that he and Mabuni had seen at Uechi’s dojo, still exists in Mabuni’s Shito Ryu, but it is a very basic form made up of simple block-punch techniques which on the face of it seems to have little to link it with Uechi Ryu beyond the use of sanchin stance and kuri-uke – basically the same as Uechi Ryu’s basic circular block, wa-uke. Although Mabuni and Konishi saw kata practiced by Uechi’s students they would have been unfamiliar with the forms and in the short time available would have had no time to assimilate the teaching or study the techniques in any depth. It appears that they came away with only the most rudimentary idea of Uechi’s teaching.

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“Old minds are like old horses; you must exercise them if you wish to keep them in working order.”
- John Adams
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