The Birth of Uechi-Ryu Karate Do
by Michael Banchick
Okinawa is the primary island of a large island chain known as the Ryukyu (pronounced ryoo' kyoo) Archipelago. With an area of 1176 sq. km (454 sq. mi.), it is the largest of the Ryukyu islands. The terrain of the northern two-thirds of the island is mountainous and forested. The southern third is hilly, rolling country and contains most of the population."1 Okinawa is located in the middle of the East China Sea, between Japan and China. It lies within the Kuroshio (koo-roo shee-oh) jet stream that flows northward from the Philippines, through the Ryukyu's, and finally past Japan. Ryukyu is of Chinese derivation, composed of two Chinese characters: ryu meaning flow, and kyu meaning seek. The assumption is that the archipelago was named Ryukyu because in order to find it one had to follow the tide."2 The Kuroshio ocean current (also known as the Japan or Black Current) acts in the same way as the Gulf Stream, in that it's strong winds carry warm air, resulting great sailing conditions. The ocean current and geographic location made Okinawa a prosperous business in trade during the fourteenth century. At that time Okinawa became the crossroads for many Asian cultures and martial art systems for hundreds of years. Okinawa is sometimes referred to as the, "birthplace of modern Karate.
Many Okinawans, throughout history, found that the practice of Karate was a way of carrying a feeling of security from their homeland, of developing a way to organize against discrimination, of protecting themselves from violence, and of inspiring a sense of pride into their environment. The life and teachings of Kanbun Uechi (1887- 1948) illustrate these points.
Kanbun Uechi's (kan' boon way'chee) ancestors were among a group of samurai who were force to retire in the early seventeenth century, who latter settled in Izumi (ee-zoo-me), a small community on the Motobu (moh-toh'boo) Peninsula in northern Okinawa. They began a life of peasant farming for many years and took part in a life where Karate was an element of rural village life, particularly in preparation for festive celebrations. As a teenager Kanbun became accomplished with the use of a bo (staff) and led demonstrations at local festivals. on these occasions the seniors in the local village told stories about masters of technique and skill, with superior fighting abilities. Fascinated, Kanbun listened to the stories and became excited about learning Karate.
A few years later an international conflict occurred. Japan announced a mandatory draft, but resistance to the draft was strong in Kanbun's native area of Motobu. Attempts were made to evade the draft and some Okinawans inflicted injuries upon themselves or faked disability, others fled to China. Kanbun talked the situation over with his parents and they decided that he would flee to China, even though he neither spoke the language, knew the customs, or knew any people there. It was the most desperate of the options for him to take, but an escape to China was the surest way to avoid the Japanese draft, and the best opportunity for him to study the roots of Okinawan Karate.
In the middle of march 1897, at the age of nineteen, Kanbun departed the northern mountain village of Izumi. He traveled lightly from Kadena on a ten-day sea voyage and arrived in Foochow City at the end of the month. In the Summer of 1897 Kanbun and Matsuda Tokusaburo (mat-su-dah, toe-koo-sah boo-roe), another young Okinawan from Izumi who had escaped the Japanese draft by going to China, joined the Kugusuku (koo-goo-soo-koo) Karate school. After a conflict with one of the senior students, Kanbun left the school. Soon after he began studying a form of Chinese Kenpo. The Chinese name for the system he studied is Pangainoon (pwang-gay-noon)."3 Pangainoon means half hard - half soft. this is indicative of the Chinese concept of yin yang or hardness and softness."4
At the time Kanbun went to southern China the sino-Japanese war had recently ended and official relations were still tense. Japan had not only gained power over Okinawa, but was moving to exercise control in South East Asia, Taiwan, Fukien Province, Korea, and Northern China. Chinese peasants were struggling for survival while the Ch'ing Dynasty was falling apart in China. Kanbun arrived in China to see ordinary people, poor and destitute like himself, begin to resist their stifling government. Secret groups of nationalist reformers such as the White Lotus Society were operating to overthrow the Chinese court. The Boxer Faction had developed violently anti-foreign and anti-modernization beliefs. For the next ten years Kanbun involved himself in the study of Pangainoon. He learned not only the physical art, which included Chinese medicine, but also the underlying philosophy of the art which made such a lasting impression on him. 5 In that time, he became fluent and literate in Chinese. Kanbun was a strong student and in 1904 he received official certification in Pangainoon. Kanbun continued his studies as well as assisting with the teaching of classes.
In 1907 at the age of thirty, after ten years of study, Kanbun obtained permission to open his own school 6. Kanbun became one of the few non-Chinese ever to have taught Karate in China. The early years of his professional career passed uneventfully. In the Summer and Autumn of 1909 Fukien was struck by a severe drought. one of Kanbun's pupils became involved in a quarrel over irrigation of the rice fields and called upon his Kenpo skills to kill a neighbor. The local community then accused Kanbun of failing to teach the proper spirit of Kenpo. He accepted responsibility for his student. Kanbun had been teaching in China for three years, when he left for Okinawa, vowing never to teach Karate again or ever speak about it. 7
In early march 1910 Kanbun Uechi returned home for the first time in thirteen years. However, there were still unsettled problems to be dealt with in Okinawa. Eight years earlier in 1902 Matsuda Tokusaburo, Shingaki Kamedunchu, and some others with whom Kanbun had escaped to China returned to Okinawa. They were arrested immediately upon arrival, charged for evading the Japanese draft, and sentenced to one year in prison. He was concerned about his status and knew he would have to be careful and avoid the same fortune as the others. Fortunately. he had adapted well to Fukien living that he looked Chinese and was able to disguise himself when returning to the port of Naha. He wore manchu clothing, spoke Chinese, and tied his hair in a queuq, which was in striking contrast to the military whiffle instituted by Japan after the Sino-Japanese War. The disguise was successful and Kanbun returned to Izumi. Kanbun was thirty-three years of age, and unmarried. In Izumi he met Toyama Seiko's fourth daughter Gozei by means of a formal introduction. They married in may 1910 and their first child, Kanei, was born on June 26 of the following year. Gozei bore them three more children: two daughters, Tsuru and Kame, and a second son, Kansei. The Uechi family once again became peasant farmers in Izumi.
Kanbun kept to himself as he was still fearful of going to jail and embarrassed about his disgrace in China. However, rumors spread that a Karate expert lived in northern Okinawa and Gokenki, an acquaintance from China, identified Kanbun. People who heard of Kanbun's reputation as a Karate man visited him with requests to teach in the local schools, of which Kanbun refused. He tended to his fields and acted as if he had forgotten about China and his expertise. He refused to demonstrate Karate and taught only staff techniques at village gatherings and festivals, as he had done as a teenager.
One year, a large ceremony was planned for the Motobu Police Headquarters. To be included in the ceremony was Karate, Kendo, and Judo demonstrations. Karate practitioners of the area who had heard of Kanbun's skill from Gokenki secretly plotted a way to see the now famous expert in action. Kanbun attended the festivities and it was announced he would demonstrate. Kanbun resisted, but they pushed him on stage and he finally gave in. Immediately afterwards they requested Kanbun to teach in public schools, but again he refused.
After world war one, the world was gripped by an economic depression. Japan also was affected by the crisis, and poverty in Okinawa was especially severe. As a result large numbers of Okinawans migrated to Japan. Most went to the industrialized kansai region in search of employment. Kanbun Uechi realized this was an opportunity to provide a better support for himself and his family. Moreover, he felt uncomfortable about the pressure applied on him to teach Karate. In 1924, due to the unemployment problem on Okinawa, Kanbun Uechi took his family to the Japanese mainland and found work in a clothing factory at Wakayama. 8
Methods of transportation were not well developed and travel between Japan and Okinawa was limited, so these foreign workers felt isolated from their homeland. In Wakayama the poverty stricken Okinawans were reminded daily of their plight. The local Japanese treated them as a foreign minority and discriminated against them socially. To make the matters worse, they were l also preyed upon by the Wabodan, a hoodlum group who threatened, bullied, beat, extracted money, and victimized other Okinawans. Most Okinawans were defenseless against the Wabodan and fearful of complaining to the authorities. Their only consolation came from the establishment of a migrant community and an Okinawa Kenjinkai (Okinawa Citizens Association). Kanbun arrived at this migrant community in Wakayama and soon found employment at a spinning mill. It was the first time he and the majority of his compatriots worked under someone else's employ and lived in tenement housing. Tomoyose Ryuyu from Iejima, an island close to Kanbun's home on the Motobu Peninsula, lived next door and they soon became good friends. He was twenty-four and full of youthful energy. Later Tomoyose would remark that his only entertainment was to scuffle with local Japanese youths. One evening when Ryuyu described the day's fight, Kanbun became excited, stood up, and showed his young friend how he should have moved his arms and placed his legs. This informal advise continued for some time until Ryuyu was able to glean that Kanbun was a Karate expert. He also heard rumors about Kanbun's reputation in Izumi, despite efforts to keep his identity a secret. Consequently, he applied formally to Kanbun for instruction in Karate. He argued that if Kanbun refused, his art would die out. Finally, Kanbun agreed to teach only Ryuyu.
Not long afterwards, Nakamura Bungoro, an especially successful Okinawan who had graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo, decided to initiate a response to the Wabodan problem. In 1926 he and a few other Okinawans approached Kanbun, whose reputation had been growing, Ryuyu, and a man named Motobu Chomo, eldest son of the founder of the Motobu Style of Okinwana Karate, about the situation. At the same time another group of migrant Okinawan Karate men decided to do something about the situation. A confrontation ensued in which it became clear the two vigilante groups would no longer tolerate the crimes of the Wabodan. Thereafter, the violence against Okinawans ceased.
Sometime later, Tomoyose, Nakamura, and the Okinawan citizens association joined in requesting Kanbun to teach Karate publicly. At first he refused, but they persisted by appealing to his sense of social responsibility and community organization. Kanbun was reminded of his youth when Karate was a fabric of village society in Izumi. Finally, he consented to teach. Ryuyu recruited and screened prospective students from among the migrant community and in the april of 1926 Kanbun Uechi began teaching his Karate at the spinning mill's company housing. The school was named Shataku Dojo and for the first time Pangainoon was taught outside of China. Tomoyose Ryuyu was Kanbun's senior student and right hand man. It was a time when Kanbun concentrated on producing only a few students, so he limited enrollment in the dojo (school "the place of the way" 9). Prospective students were strictly screened and had to be introduced by one of the five original seniors, who in turn acted as guarantors for the nominee's behavior. Students were forbidden to perform outside the dojo.
In April of 1932, twenty-five years after opening a school in Nanching City, Kanbun moved his group to a nearby hall and established a full-fledged dojo. The Pangainoon-ryu Karate-jutsu Kenkyu-jo (Pangainoon style Karate study hall) was located at Tebira-cho, Kiyo-dori. The dojo prospered and eventually Kanbun quit the spinning mill. He opened a small miscellany shop, but concentrated on Karate training, which he conducted mornings, evenings, and sometimes privately during the day. The number of those who studied under Kanbun grew to several hundred, forty-four of which became senior members. He taught them only two forms, one conditioning exercise, and the Chinese medicine he had learned in China.
The need for some sort of organization became apparent as the Pangainoon-ryu Karate-jutsu Kenkyu-jo grew. In 1933 they formed Shubukai (organization of martial training) with by laws, which have been updated recently to:
Chapter I. Name of the Federation.
Article 1. This organization is hereby named All Okinawa Karate Do Federation.
Chapter II. The Location.
Article 2. The headquarters of this Federation will be set at the house of appointed chairman or as may be necessary. Branch office will be set at the appropriate location.
Chapter III. The purpose of the Federation.
Article 3. The purpose of the Federation is to acquaint all members and to progress and popularize Karate Do.
Chapter IV. Projects.
Article 4. This Federation will execute the following projects to accomplish the above article 3.
Item 1. The study and preservation of Karate Do and other old Martial arts techniques. Item 2. Rational study of Karate to be adopted as one of the regular courses in schools. Item 3. All necessary works in cooperation with personnel related to the Karate Do in foreign countries. Item 4. Execution of the degrees, and Dan-Kyu testings. Item 5. Administration of Karate Do Demonstrations. Item 6. The commendation of members and officials of this Federation Item 7. Other projects as considered necessary to accomplish the purpose of this Federation.
Chapter V. Membership
Article 5. Membership of this Federation are classified as follows:
Item 1. Regular Member: The regular member of this Federation must be the person who is teaching Karate Do in Okinawa and who is actually studying Karate under the aforementioned person. Item 2. Special Member: Special membership will be admitted upon recommendation made by the Board Members as it is necessary to do so to accomplish the purpose of this Federation.
Chapter VI. Officials.
Article 6. The officials of this Federation are as follows:
Item 1. Chairman - 1 Item 2. Vice Chairman - 3 Item 3. Director of the Board - 1 Item 4. Board Members - 20 Item 5. Secretary - 1 Item 6. Auditors - 2
Article 7. The Chairman should represent this Federation and assume the full responsibility of the administration of this Federation. The Vice Chairman should assist the Chairman and in the absence of him, the eldest of the three should assume responsibility.
Item 1. The Director of the Board will be selected and appointed by the Chairman out of the Board members. Item 2. The Director of the Board will execute the projects determined by the Board members in close coordination with the chairman. Item 3. The Board members and the secretary will administer the duties as designed by the Chairman.
Article 8. The Chairman an Vice Chairman are selected among the Board members at the General Meeting. The Secretary and Auditors are appointed by the Chairman.
Article 9. The official's term of office is two years, the number of re-appointments are not limited.
Article 10. The number of Board members, Secretary and Auditors are twenty and two who are selected among the regular members which is described in Article 5, Item 1. and are to be recognized at the general meeting.
Chapter VII. Counselor and Advisor.
Article 11. The counselor and advisor will be appointed for this Federation.
Article 12. The appointed counselor and advisor will be able to state his opinion whenever he has been asked by the Chairman concerning the important problems.
Chapter VIII. Meetings.
Article 13. The meetings of this federation are as follows:
Item 1. General meetings. Item 2. The Board members meeting. Item 3. The testing committee meeting.
Article 14. The General Meeting is composed of the officials and the individual members of this Federation and will be held on the designated date in February annually. However, the meeting will be called as necessitated and when more than half of the Board members request it.
Article 15. The General Meeting, the Board member's meeting and the testing committed meeting are effected upon the attendants of more than half of the members and the decisions thereof are effected upon the attendance of more than half of the members and the decisions thereof are effected upon more than half of the attended members respectively.
Article 16. The General Meeting, the Board member's meeting decides the problems brought up by the Board members.
Article 17. The Board member's meeting is called by the Director of the committee by order of the Chairman as necessitated.
Article 18. The testing committee meeting is called by the Director of the committee by order of the Chairman.
Article 19. The testing committee is composed of the members selected as representatives of each association and administer the testing of Degrees and Dan - Kyu as prescribed in the All Okinawan Karate Do Federation Promotional Regulations.
Item 1. The regulations concerning the committee is set separately.
Article 20. The Board member's meeting is composed of the Chairman, Vice Chairman, and board members and executed the following items:
Item 1. The things commissioned by the General Meetings. Item 2. The things pertinent to the enrollment and withdrawal of members. Item 3. Annual projects and plannings. Item 4. Revision and / or abolishment of regulations and procedures. Item 5. Concerning the discussion over budgeting. Item 6. Concerning the disciplinary actions of members.
Chapter IX. Accounting. Article 21. The fiscal accounting year of this federation is 1 January to 31 December annually.
Article 22. All expenses generated by this federation are paid off with the fund accumulated by membership fees, registration fees, testing fees, and contributions. The fees members.
Article 23. The secretary must administer all necessary duties as directed by the Chairman and must report the financial standing of the federation at the general meeting annually.
Article 24. The Auditors must supervise the accounting and when necessary can audit the accounting books maintained by the secretary - accountant.
Chapter X. Disqualification of officials and members. Article 25. The officials and members of this federation will be disqualified and will lose his rite of membership whenever he commits any of the following:
Item 1. Upon his death. Item 2. Upon his submission of withdrawal. Item 3. Failure to pay dues for more than two years. Item 4. When determined by the board member's meeting. Item 5. Whenever he cannot perform his responsibility assigned to him as an official.
Article 26. All other necessary agreements will be established as required. 10
The Shubukai continued to prosper until Japans entrance into World War Two drew all but a few students away to battle. After the war Kanbun, who had gone to China in search of stable employment returned to Okinawa in 1946. Before leaving he placed control of his school under Ryuyu who too after it until his death in 1970. Kanbun again left Japan, with two of his senior students, and set a course for Okinawa. Earlier Kanbun's son, Kanei, had built a dojo in Nago, which was closed during the war. Kanbun re-opened the Nago dojo and started teaching again. After returning home to Okinawa Kanbun demonstrated Karate in publicly a few more times. Three days after his last performance in 1948 he became ill with nephritis. He fought the disease for eleven months, but finally died at age seventy-one on November 25, 1948, known as the master of Panguinoon. In later years after his death his students re-named the style Uechi-Ryu in honor or his son Kanei and in memory of Kanbun Uechi. To this day Kanbun's teachings are referred to by not only Okinawan students of Uechi-Ruy, but students of the world.
Bibliography and Footnotes ...