Motobu Palace Tradition

Dr. William Durbin

One of the most influential martial artist of the twentieth century was Choki Motobu. Yet unfortunately many people do not recognize that name, or if they do they have a warped image of the great Okinawan Kempo Karate master.

Choki Motobu came from an aristocratic family and this is what hurt the man’s image for many people. What is little known is that Motobu inherited a vast and rich martial tradition which goes far beyond what is thought of as typical Karate.

In example, there are many who believe that Motobu was only a punching master, who engaged in a series of free style battles similar to some of the full contact fights of today. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

In his own way, Motobu was a hero, both of a fighting type and as a teacher. When Motobu taught, he inspired students to greatness. In example, Choki Motobu taught, according to most sources, some of the greatest teachers of the past generation. These include: Shoshin Nagamine, founder of Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu; Tatsuo Shimabuku, founder of Isshin Ryu; Yasuhiro Konishi, founder of Shinto Shizen Ryu; Shigeru Nakamura, founder of the Okinawan Kempo Kai; Tsuyoshi Chitose founder of Chito Ryu; and Eizo Shimabuku, headmaster of Shobayashi Shorin Ryu. The most important from American’s point of view is James Masayoshi Mitose, the master of Kosho Ryu.

Most of the Kempo taught in the United States, ranging from the styles of William Chow and Ed Parker, to the many branches that have broken off from them, owe much to Mitose and hence Choki Motobu’s Kempo mastery.

When Motobu taught, he inspired students to greatness.
Much of what has been written about Choki Motobu has been filled with hyperbole. When Peter Urban wrote his The Karate Dojo, he told some wild tales about Motobu, even describing him as a giant. The legendary and infamous Count Dante, John Keehan, use to tell stories of how Motobu would sneak out at night and kill Samurai and bury their bodies on the beach. These stories were funny when one considers that the era of the Samurai was over and that Choki Motobu became close friends with many Japanese martial artist, such as, Yasuhiro Konishi, Tatsuo Yamada, and Seiko Fujita, just to name a few.

According to Konishi some other people who personally knew him, thought of Choki Motobu as a nice, generous, and mirthful man. It was his sense of humor that seemed to get him into much trouble and which helped create his bad image. He liked to play practical jokes and was very physically teasing. Sometimes in his teasing he would trip people up, or ‘help’ them stagger to get laughs. These were seldom enjoyed by those who were the brunt of his humor.

Another aspect of his bad image was his aristocratic birth. He was very aware of his royal heritage and even though the feudal era was over, he still felt that he should be treated with respect. At that time, the Japanese tended to treat their Okinawan brethren as second class citizens and poor, country cousins, who were uneducated by their sophisticated standards.

While many Okinawans just accepted this condition, Choki Motobu found it intolerable, especially since so many Japanese were treating him with respect, due to his Kempo Karate knowledge. Thus if things were going well, Motobu was nice, polite, and courteous. However, if someone tried to insult him, defame the Okinawan culture, or offend his family, then Choki Motobu became cold, abrupt, and distant.

Yasuhiro Konishi, one of the greatest martial artist of all time, said that Choki Motobu was not only a consummate martial artist, but also a noble human being. Yet of greatest interest to practitioners of the martial arts is his actual skill and training. According to most sources, Motobu received formal training under three main teachers. Once he became famous, many people claimed to have either taught him, defeated him, or been taught by him falsely.

Those which can be verified begin with Yasutsune Itosu. However, it must be understood that Motobu came to Itosu with well developed Karate skills. This will be dealt with later.

In the practice of Karate under Itosu, the main emphasis was Kata, the prearranged variety in which Motobu had little interest. He did learn Naihanchi, which he seemed to practice quite well, so much so that he did a little known book called Watashi no Karatejutsu, My Karatejutsu, in which he performed Naihanchi and gave Bunkai to some of the moves.

Because Motobu was more interested in Kumite, he did not enjoy training under Itosu, nor did Itosu enjoy training him, since he constantly wanted to work on Kumite, whereas Itosu wanted him to work on Kata. Thus Motobu moved on.

His second instructor was Kosaku Matsumora, who was believed to be on a par with Sokon Matsumura. Matsumora learned the indigenous art of Bushi Te, but also studied Chinese Kempo as well. It is believed that Motobu spent more time with Matsumora because this instructor spent more time on Kumite, some of which was Chinese based, giving a new dimension to the techniques Motobu already knew.

Motobu’s Kumite was greatly influenced by what appeared to be Chinese Kempo Embu, which would have been part of what he studied with Matsumora. Motobu’s Kumite was of a give and take nature, where he would defend against an attack, have his partner block his defense and counterattack, then he would counter this second attack and finish him off. This is much the same as the Embu of Shorinji Kempo.

Another aspect of Motobu’s Kumite was in the use of grabs and holds. However, he did not reveal all his secrets when he wrote his books, so that people didn’t know that the grabs were actually preludes to other skills, which will be mentioned later.

Since we know that there were three instructors that Motobu studied under, plus since we know that Motobu came to Itosu, already trained, who was the third instructor, and what did Motobu learn from him?

We have to go back to Motobu’s childhood, when his father Choshin would have been teaching his elder brother Choyu the secret family style of Bushi Te. It has been said that Choki used to sneak out of bed at night and watch his brother training in the backyard.

There have been many stories of Choki Motobu training on his own, hitting the Makiwara, and developing his own form of Kumite, but no one seemed to stop and ask, from where did this initial martial arts training come?

It came from watching his brother and copying his movements. James Masayoshi Mitose used to tell his students to visit schools and act like interested prospects. He would admonish them to carefully watch the moves used in the classes, analyze them, and then ‘steal’ those which were worthwhile. This is a concept he would have learned while under Motobu during his years in Japan.

Yet his training under his brother did not stop with him only learning from him while a youth watching furtively in the dark. Years later, after winning a fight against a professional boxer who was taking on all comers, he returned to Okinawa for a visit with his brother. His brother and he had a traditional ‘friendly’ bout, which was more of a wrestling contest. Choyu handled Choki so easily that the younger brother humbled himself and asked for further lessons.

What then did Choki Motobu actually teach? There have been many who felt that Motobu only taught typical Kumite. Most people are familiar with Ryukyu Kempo Karatejutsu: Kumite, but are unfamiliar with the total volume, or the follow-up book, Watashi no Karatejutsu.

Choki not only knew the fighting skills of his Kempo, but also the healing skills. In his book, Ryukyu Kempo Karatejutsu: Kumite, he wrote about the healing art he called Soseijutsu, the resuscitation art. But what were the fighting skills? They can be thought of as three distinct sets in regard to his three teachers.

Itosu was famous for being incredibly strong. It is said that he could nearly break a man’s arm just by gripping it. It is known that he did break an attacker’s arm with a Shuto. There were many who said that Itosu was the strongest martial artist on the island, which might be why Motobu wanted to achieve that same level. Many had heard of Motobu’s desire to become the strongest man alive, yet this was during his youth, as he matured he came to understand the importance of skill over strength.

Motobu encouraged his students to be strong individuals. He wanted them to develop strong and healthy bodies. Thus the training was not just geared towards general physical fitness, but also towards strength development.

Under Kosaku Matsumora, Motobu developed the continuous fist concept, of not merely hitting an opponent once, or of considering an opponent as only throwing one punch, but rather Motobu developed Kumite based on multiple attacks and multiple responses, as seen in ancient two man forms (Embu) of Chinese Kempo.

Finally, Choki Motobu also knew what have been very secret techniques of the Ryukyu Oke, Okinawan royal families. In general the royal families all had special skills generally called Bushi Te, but also known as Ryukyu Oke Hiden Bujutsu, that is, Okinawan royal family secret tradition martial arts. Choki’s family art was generally called the Motobu Goten Den, the Motobu palace tradition.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Ryukyu Oke Hiden Bujutsu became known outside of Okinawa. There were a couple of books, prior to the 80s, that mentioned the Bushi Te, but as one author put it, ‘we don’t know of what it really consisted’.

Many people consider the last true master of a form of Bushi Te as Seikichi Uehara. He was trained by Choyu Motobu, the elder brother of Choki. Choyu had learned the family Goten Den, palace tradition, and at first was keeping it secret, to only be taught to the eldest son, as it was taught to him and passed on for many generations.

But the feudal era was over, so he decided to teach the art to his sons. Unfortunately one died young, while another had little interest in learning what he perceived as an archaic art, not needed in the modern world. However, there was a tea boy who was a close friend of this son. Choyu agreed to teach this boy, if his son would train, or if the boy would share the art with his son when he eventually developed an interest.

This tea boy was Seikichi Uehara. He went on to master the Motobu Oke Hiden Bujutsu. Eventually, Uehara decided to teach the art publicly, and called what he taught Gotente, the palace hand. It was in the 1980s that he allowed one of his students, Shian Toma, to begin sharing this special art outside of Okinawa.

It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Ryukyu Oke Hiden Bujutsu became known outside of Okinawa.
What are the skills of Oke Hiden Bujutsu? First of all, if we look at the history of Okinawan martial arts we find that the first real noticeable martial tradition is from Japan. Tametomo Minamoto came to Okinawa after loosing a battle to the Taira and being exiled to Oshima Island. He befriended some of the Okinawan families and while preparing to return to Japan, taught them the Minamoto martial arts. He also married an Okinawan woman and sired a son whose name was Shunten. It is also believed that Tametomo left a guardian to take care of his son and fully indoctrinate him into the Minamoto Bujutsu.

After Tametomo returned to Okinawa, Shunten grew up and became the first king of Okinawa. It is believed that he achieved this goal through the martial arts shared with the select Okinawans who assisted the Minamoto Samurai who lived on Okinawa with Tametomo.

Over the generations, the martial arts were passed on in total secrecy within the royal families of Okinawa. Most of the kings were of the direct lineage of Shunten, though there were a few exceptions throughout the years.

In particular the Sho dynasties were of the lineage of Shunten. Within the Oke, the royal families, the martial arts were the secret that kept the kings in control. Not so much from dissenters to the royal families, but because they provided for the security of the people on the island. There were always dangers from pirates based on both Japan and China, as well as, other threats that came to the island periodically.

When Okinawa became a vassal state of China, the Okinawans were required to send envoys each year, as well as, on special occasions. There were times, especially during times of unrest in China, that the envoys were in great danger, yet the Okinawan martial skills were always up to the test.

Especially during the Ching Dynasty in China, when Ming rebels did as much as they could to disrupt any official government proceedings, the Okinawans were required to battle their way to the capital. There are records which say that the Okinawans never failed to get through.

Ryukyu Oke Hiden Bujutsu consisted of three sets of influences. First of all, there was the Minamoto Bujutsu, which outside of the weaponry, was much like Aiki Jujutsu. According to practitioners of Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu, Yoshimitsu Minamoto created the Minamoto Bujutsu, doing so based on a little known principle referred to as Aiki Inyo Odori. This is pertinent, in that one of the ancient principles of Ryukyu Oke Hiden Bujutsu is Odori Te.

The second influence on the royal family martial arts is the Chinese Kempo that arrived in Okinawa over many centuries. According to most Okinawan tradition, Shorinji Ryu and Shoreiji Ryu, were terms applied to two specific sources of temple boxing which came to Okinawa during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Purportedly, Shorinji Ryu was applied to Northern Shaolin influences, while Shoreiji Ryu applied to southern Shaolin influences. This is why some Okinawan masters did practice high kicks, since this would have been learned from the Northern influences.

Another very important Chinese influence was during more modern times when Okinawans during the late eighteenth century visited China and learned the styles in vogue at that time. Also martial artists from China came to live on Okinawa. However, these were minor influences, since the Okinawans had a well developed martial art by this time. Still, such arts as Hung Chuan, Tai Chi Chuan, Pa Kua Chang, Hsing I Chuan, and Pai Ho Chuan, all served to add ideas, concepts, and techniques to the already sophisticated martial arts of the royal families.

The third influence is the most important, and that is the genius of the Okinawa martial artists themselves. This should not be overlooked. Too many think of Okinawa as being a place where the martial arts were imported by Japanese and Chinese martial arts masters, and where the people just learned the arts of the bigger countries and merely passed them on to posterity, but nothing could be further from the truth.

While it is easy to look at the skills of Okinawan styles and see Chinese and Japanese influences, at the same time, the Okinawan arts are extremely unique. The Kata taught on Okinawa, while owning much to Chinese influences are not the same forms as practiced by the Chinese. While the joint locks and throws look much like Japanese Jujutsu techniques, there is a unique method of application which is very different than what is seen in Japan.

The unique aspects of Ryukyu Oke Hiden Bujutsu are those crested by the Okinawan people themselves. All too often this is downplayed as a minor influence, but the very spirit of the Okinawan people is what makes Karate so special.

In a study of the history of Okinawa, one finds the study of a peaceful people. There is a very special nature about the Okinawan people. As one Christian missionary lamented when talking about meeting and preaching to the islanders, ‘How can one preach salvation from sin to people who already live in a manner consistent with Christian compassion.’

Now this is not to say that the Okinawan people are not human or with their own foibles, but it is to say that on a whole, they are an exceptionally peaceful and compassionate people. It has been expressed that the Okinawan people are a naturally spiritual people who do not need a specific religion to guide them along the way to the Great Spirit.

They were such people of peace that under the impetus to create a method of self defense, they sought the most peaceful method of protection. The concepts of, ‘there is no first attack in Karate’ and ‘Karate is only for defense’, are the foundation of the real martial arts of Okinawa, and have been since the beginning of the Ryukyu Oke Hiden Bujutsu.

The Okinawan spirit of peace permeates the whole of the martial arts of the island. Whether using one of the old names; Bushi Te, Kempo, Tode, Gotente, or Oke Hiden Bujutsu; or the more modern name of Karate, the essence of Okinawan martial arts is inherent in an atmosphere of peace.

This is why the Okinawans themselves did not have a form of sparring in the original art. Actual fighting was a serious business, not a game, and this is the way the Okinawans felt. Kumite, as originally practiced by the Okinawans was a training exercise, cooperative between two people striving to master the martial arts. This was the original Kumite of Choki Motobu’s Kempo Karate.

Neither did the Okinawans in the practice of Ryukyu Oke Hiden Bujutsu have prearranged Kata. Whether this is because of the influence of the Aiki Inyo Odori of the Japanese, or the original Chinese Kempo practice of learning individual forms and combining them into spontaneous sets. But as the rest of the martial arts world moved to prearranged sets, in Chinese Hsing and in Japanese Kata, the Okinawans resisted until under the later Chinese influence and the impetus of the Japanese martial arts authorities.

Even today, there are no prearranged Kata in the Motobu Ryu of Okinawa. This is the method of Ryukyu Oke Hiden Bujutsu which allows for complete creativity and spontaneity, which is so essential for real combat and self defense.

Thus when we look at what Choki Motobu knew, we first see that he was trained in the modernized Karate of Yasutsune Itosu, with an emphasis on strength development and prearranged Kata, using Chinese Kempo as a foundation. He then knew the skills of Kosaku Matsumora, once again with an emphasis on Chinese Kempo and it’s focus on effective combinations. These were the skills he knew when he faced the boxer in Tokyo.

Finally, Choki Motobu learned the Goten Den of his family martial art under his brother, Choyu. This would have been the special skills he would have learned when visiting his brother after the boxer fight. When Choyu defeated him so easily in the Tegumi match, Choki wanted to learn more of what his brother had been taught.

Keep in mind too that Choki also possessed a genius in regard to the martial arts. Later as he taught his style of Kempo Karate, much of the Kumite was of his own insight. He used the principles that he had been taught by his instructors, but added his own unique brilliance.

One point needs to be addressed. Choki Motobu did not teach prearranged Kumite, but rather the principles of Kumite and a freestyle method of training. He would create scenarios and then work them out in Kumite, using the process of Bunkai (analyzation) so important to Ryukyu Oke Hiden Bujutsu.

This is why those who studied under Choki Motobu, such as Tatsuo Shimabuku, Shoshin Nagamine, Eizo Shimabuku, and others, all have such different forms of Kumite in their own styles. They were taught free style and then organized their own prearranged sets from their own experience.

Still in his book, Motobu preserved a set of Kumite which became set due to the fact that they were photographed. It has been said that he actually did a series of free style Kumite for the photographs, but they have been regarded as prearranged sets he used at the time.

While Choki’s own son is now developing and perpetuating a school in honor of his father, prior to this, there was no direct school from Choki Motobu’s lineage. Yet many own much to the teachings of Choki Motobu, both in the Orient and in the United States.

If you practice the styles of Shobayashi Shorin Ryu, Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, Shorei Ryu, Kosho Ryu, Isshin Ryu, Okinawan Kempo Kai, Motobu Ha Shito Ryu, or any of the modern styles that derive from these, you own a great debt to Choki Motobu and the Motobu Goten Den (palace tradition).

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