Kicking Okinawan Style

Dr. William Durbin

When Karate was first introduced to the movies, at first it was the smashing ability of the art that caught the interest of the directors, many times leading them to having scenes where the Karateka smashed furniture in the process of fighting an opponent. Who can forget the scene of Bruce Lee smashing the furniture in the movie Marlowe. But with the coming of the movie Billy Jack, a whole new and exciting aspect was introduced to the public. This was the skill of kicking. As Billy Jack fought his opponents, particularly in the park scene, it was his flashing kicks that made people take notice. These kicks were choreographed and stunt doubled by the great master Bong Soo Han.

Bruce Lee himself added to the interest in kicks, performing some spectacular ones in the aforementioned Marlowe, as well as, in his other movies. It was the series of kicks flashed against Chuck Norris in the coliseum scene of Return of the Dragon, and the multiple attack scene in Enter the Dragon, that captured the imagination of the American public. Before videos were available, so that people could see these movies at home, flipbooks were made showing Lee do the kicks against his many opponents in Enter the Dragon.

However, as the years have passed by, many have come to believe that Karate specializes in punching skills, and that to see excellence in kicking, one must turn to the arts of Tae Kwon Do or Northern Shaolin Chuanfa. This situation has not been helped by the fact that most scoring kicks of Japanese Karate tend to be front kicks and that some Okinawan stylists have made the statement that Okinawan Karate does not kick above the waist, but these are only indicative of what is emphasized in specific types of competition, or of specific individuals.

One has but to look at the curriculum of most styles of Japanese and Okinawan martial arts to see that the complete range of kicks are taught. Both the arts of Karate and Kempo, whether they be Japanese or Okinawan, tend to have a full range of kicking, meaning they kick from stomps to an opponents feet to kicks which strike the head. Some people say that high kicks are only used for training, in order to develop strength and flexibility, but one must ask themselves, what would be the purpose of developing such superior dexterity, if not to use it? Did the martial arts masters waste time developing skills which they did not intent to use? One would think not.

By looking at some of the historical figures of Okinawa, it is possible to get a much better idea of what kind of kicking skills were possessed by the Okinawan masters, and what is to be considered the actual fighting kicks of Karate and Kempo. Bushi Takemura is one of the oldest Okinawan masters we know of who was famous for having great kicks. It is said that he was a tax collector, which was not an appreciated position among the common people. He, of course, was a member of the gentry, and as such would have had training in the martial art of the warrior class, which was originally called Bushi Te. Many were the times that he entered a village to collect the tax, and was attacked on the way out by irate citizens who resented the levy.

It is said that he could use nothing but kicks and literally defeat multiple opponents. His most famous technique has been passed down today as the scalping kick. It has been regarded by many as a type of lead roundhouse kick, originally known as a side snap instep kick, but what allowed it to slice the scalp so strategically that the flap of skin and hair was cut loose, is not known, though there are a couple of theories. It seems that Shaolin martial arts always relied on special nail hardening substances to enhance the weapon ability of fingernails, and it is believed that Takemura applied one to his toenails making it an extremely hard surface. It is then believed that he trimmed it in such a way as to give an effective cutting angle to the nail when applied in a certain way with a kick. Some say that any adult toenail, trimmed correctly would have this capability, without any additional hardening. It is known that in sparring and tournaments, people have been accidentally cut by toenails in the past. In one of Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace’s title defenses, he cut an opponent’s face with his toenail.

Another theory regarding Takemura’s scalping kick is based on the use of a Ninjutsu devise. It is said that many of the Okinawan Bushi made close friends with the Satsuma warriors and that they shared with them much of their martial arts training. This would be especially true of a tax collector, which would benefit the Satsuma particularly. The Satsuma were famous for their Nimpo skills which was a part of their Jigen Ryu. One of the devices used by Ninjutsu practitioners was known as Tettsume, or iron claws, which would attach to fingernails or toenails like a sharp metal sheath. It is possible that he acquired Tettsume and wore them on his feet to perform the scalping kick.

Whatever way Takemura cut an opponent, his kicking skill was phenomenal. Regardless of what caused the cut, it was the warrior’s skill which could snap the kick into place exactly at the hairline of an opponent. This might be an unbelievable ability were it not for the present day kicking skill of Bill ‘Superfoot’ Wallace. Anyone who has witnessed Wallace’s skill and his ability to put his foot anywhere he wants it, even when an opponent thinks he’s ready to defend against it, gives credence to the legendary skill of Takemura.

The next great master kicker of Okinawa is the founder of the Shorin Ryu lineage, Chotoku Kyan. While many call Sokon ‘Bushi’ Matsumura the founder of Shorin Ryu, this does not hold true in the light of history. According to records, the Ryu of Okinawa were established sometime during the 1930s. Some say that the first system to be formally named was Goju Ryu, while others argue for Shorin Ryu. If we hold the statement that Okinawan Ryu were established in the 1930s as true, then when we realize that Matsumura lived from 1796 to 1893 it is impossible for him to have been the founder of the system.

What has led to much confusion in this regard is the use of the terms Shorin Ryu and Shorei Ryu by Gichin Funakoshi. In moving to Japan, he ran into the Japanese attitudes of respect for ancient Chinese knowledge and the respect for systems of martial skill. Thus he used the legend of two main temple martial arts which were suppose to have influenced Okinawa Te, and used the term Ryu to mean style rather than the typical Japanese meaning of system, and coined the terms Shorin Ryu and Shorei Ryu. Some say that the Shorin refers to the northern Shaolin temple, while Shorei refers to the southern Shaolin temple. However, it is said that some Okinawans journeyed to China to find the Shorei temple, only it did not exist.

It is also believed that Choki Motobu actually founded the Shorei Ryu system, but since he and Funakoshi did not get along, Funakoshi continued to refer to the Shorei temple in his writings, not wanting to acknowledge Motobu’s contributions to the Okinawan martial arts. Regardless, Kyan is regarded as the founder of the main branch of Shorin Ryu, with Chosin Chibana and Shoshin Nagamine founders of other branches. On a historical note, there are still arguments as to who first coined the term Shorin Ryu, Chibana or Kyan, most consider the point mute, in that both happened during the 1930s.

Chotoku Kyan was extremely famous for his kicks, which included not only standing kicks, but also aerial ones as well. It is said that he practiced leaping front snap kicks, striking the beams of the roof of his house. It is said he practiced jumping techniques up onto the guard rail of bridges. But most of all he is famous for a couple of incidents in his life, where he took on multiple attackers with nothing but kicks. It is said that after a visit to a festival, where he competed two of his prize fighting roosters, as he walked home carrying his fowl, he was attacked by a gang who didn’t like losing to him. For fear of dropping his roosters, he fought and drove off the entire gang with his kicks alone. Most impressive is that he did not hurt his fowl by hugging them too tightly, which is a considerable feat, when he was fighting a serious battle.

The second story revolves around a gang of bandits who were attacking and robbing people on a particular road. Kyan was asked to help stop the robbers, and so took to walking the road each night, carrying two chickens, so that he would just look like a farmer out on business. After a few days, the bandits attacked. They were armed with swords. He threw the chickens at them and then launched into a series of kicks which defeated the gang easily. Thus we can see how the founder of Okinawan Shorin Ryu was a truly great kicker.

Another great kicker of the Okinawan martial arts was Zenryo Shimabuku. Shimabuku was among the top ten students under Chotoku Kyan himself. When he first founded his system, he called it Shorinji Ryu but this has since been changed to Chubu Shorin Ryu, to avoid confusion with Nakazato’s Shorinji Ryu. Having learned to kick under the great kicking master, Kyan, himself, he wanted to expand his knowledge, and so studied Northern Shaolin Chuanfa, which had a very complete range of kicking. He then adapted the Shaolin kicks into his style and passed the ability on to his many students. There are those who say that Zenryo was a better kicker than Kyan, though some say that Kyan’s kicking skill was unsurpassable.

Okinawan kicking, while in modern times having been categorized very thoroughly according to type, originally had a very unique aspect to it. Instead of being regarded as just front kicks, side kicks, and the such, the kicks were initially designated by the part of the foot used to strike with. Thus there were ball of foot kicks, foot sword kicks, and heel kicks. While the modern tendency today is to name the method of delivery, it is believed that in the old days of Okinawa, the idea was to take each weapon of the foot and deliver it as many different ways as possible.

Kicking Okinawan style thus uses a quick action in the execution of movement, focuses on using the specific weapon of the foot used to hit with, and develops full range of motion, meaning kicks are directed from the foot to the head.
When one does this, vast arrays of kicks and many highly unusual angles of delivery can be developed. By telling their students that Okinawan Karate does not kick above the waste and limiting the kicks to the designations of front, side, and back, Karate instructors are limiting the development of superior kicking skills in their students. While kicks may not be the forte of everyone, instructors have a responsibility to encourage their students to develop the widest range of ability possible. Many excellent martial artists who specialize in self defense, or who have actually had the misfortune to use their skills in actual confrontations, can testify that kicks do work in reality. Kicking, Okinawan style, majors on one very important aspect. This is the snap, that is, continuous movement out and back, of a kick. Many Japanese and Korean stylists lock their kicks for a moment at the extension of their kicks. This is not a healthy practice for the knee and gives a good opponent an opening to counterattack. But when a kick is quickly snapped back, as Choki Motobu advocated to his students and as seen in the kicks of Takemura, Kyan, and Shimabuku, then their is no weakness to the kicking strategy and no damage done to the knee.

Most of all, Okinawan kicking follows the basic Okinawan premise, ‘In Karate, there is no first attack’. Many people who decry kicks say how the leg can be grabbed when executed or the groin attacked who the leg is extended. Both these assertions are true, if a person is foolish enough to attack.

However, as a counterattack, which is the basic concept of Okinawan martial arts, kicks are excellent. It is possible to stay out of hand range and as the assailant seeks to close the gap, intercept them as they begin to close. This is the stop kick of Bruce Lee and a main kicking tenant of Okinawan martial arts.

Kicking Okinawan style thus uses a quick action in the execution of movement, focuses on using the specific weapon of the foot used to hit with, and develops full range of motion, meaning kicks are directed from the foot to the head. Kicks are used as counterattacks and follow the principles of defense typical to all Okinawan martial arts.

Dr. William Durbin is the founder of Kiyojute Ryu Kempo Bugei. He teaches at the Hombu dojo in Frankfurt, Kentucky.