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Memoirs of a Karate Man

~by Miyagi Hisateru (Translated by Mario McKenna, M.Sc.)

Introduction:

Miyagi Hisateru is not a name commonly heard in karate circles. In fact most people would not recognize the name all. Yet this man published one of the most interesting, but little known books on karate in 1953 entitles simply Karate-do. A student of Yabu Kentsu and Itosu Anko who graduated from the Okinawa Prefectural Norman School in 1916, Miyagi’s book provides little technical insight into karate. Indeed, there are far better books on the technical aspects of Karate such as Nakasone Genwa’s Karatedo taikan, Itoman Seijin’s Karate no Kinkyu, Mabuni Kenwa’s Karate Nyumon and Mizuho Mutsu’s Karate Kenpo. Although lacking in technical insight, Miyagi provides a firsthand account of the development of karate in the early 20th century and in this sense his book is invaluable. Among some of the more interesting points are Miyagi’s discussions of karate training in the Okinawa school system, the visits of Itosu Anko, and the importance of the Okinawa Teachers’ College in the spread of karate throughout the island.

What follows is a translation of some of Miyagi’s recollections about his early training days on Okinawa. Although the organization and prose of the section are lacking in some areas, and at times ramble, I have tried to stay as close as possible to the original text. I hope that the reader enjoys the insights that Miyagi Hisateru provides.


Kentsu Yabu

Kentsu Yabu with three of his sons

Karate began in China and was later adapted to become a uniquely Okinawan martial art. In Okinawa, the possession of weapons was forbidden and this gave rise to the development of a specialized for of self-defense.

For hundreds of years on Okinawa, Shuri and Naha were considered the cosmopolitan centers. These areas encompassed the capital where many people had a large amount of free time, but also where there was a considerable dangerous element. As a result, people must have felt a strong necessity to develop the art of self-defense. During the dangerous post-war days, people’s interests were unchanged and they continued to practice karate along with jukendo (bayonet training).
When we were students during the beginning of the Taisho era, it had been fifty years since the beginning of the Meiji government hand Japan was at peace. On Okinawa, karate was gaining more and more interest and had become part of the regular curriculum in the Junior High Schools, emphasizing physical education. All students had to practice karate for about two hours per week. The Teachers’ College was instrumental in promoting karate, since after graduation students would be sent to different areas around Okinawa. There they would teach karate at Elementary schools as well as boys’ and girls’ associations.

The author’s teacher was Yabu Sensei, a full-tie military instructor. Yabu Sensei was in charge of military education on Okinawa. He was known to everyone and to speak his name would stop a crying child. When we were taught by Yabu, he had been promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, but the people still called him “Sergeant Yabu”. Yabe was not of your run-of-the-mill sergeants of the Showa era. He was part of the Narashino instructional corps, and during the Sino-Japan War at the Battle of Matenrei, he received a special commendation for his bravery. Everyone knew his name in the Komati 13th Regiment. He was an outstanding soldier.
We enlisted for short-term active service and were placed under the direction of Colonel Sada, the brother of the President of Hitobashi University. We quickly inquired about Yabu Sensei who, more than a pioneer, was a leader of Okinawan military thought. Yabu Sensei’s name appeared in a Ryukyu jazz song and even though we were born in the north, in the Sangaku Mountains, as children we knew the name of “Yabu the Sergeant”. The first time I saw Yabu Sensei was when I entered school for the first time with my wicker backpack, about 150 kilometers from my home. He was gigantic with piercing eyes, and his thinking was far-sighted and clear. Yabu Sensei combined the best of these elements and we students hoped to be like him.

Yabu Sensei had learned karate from Itosu Sensei in addition to learning from other teachers as a child. When we were students, any teachers were absent or sick from school, and much of the regular curriculum was replaced with endless military training. We hated handling the rifles. Yabu Sensei would sense this, and we were eventually able to convince him to teach us karate instead. We were broken up into groups of four or five and allowed to practice karate freely. Yabu Sensei would then come around and correct our mistakes. Naturally the students enjoyed this much more than training with rifles. In fact, most of the students felt the karate training would be much more useful to them than the military training in our futures, and almost everyone enjoyed practice.

I remember that twice a week students would go out to the school yard and be taught karate b Itosu Sensei. If I am not mistaken, Yabu Sensei would also teach us as well. Itosu Sensei would correct our mistakes individually, and we gave all our effort and concentration when we were being taught for that one hour. I honestly felt that Yabu Sense was more of a Karate teacher than a military drill instructor.

In the summer of 1927 I accidentally run into Yabu Sensei in Honolulu. Yabu Sensei had retired shortly after we graduated and was traveling to Los Angeles to visit his oldest son. I was working as a magazine editor and journalist in Hawaii and remember unexpectedly meeting Yabu Sensei on his return trip to Okinawa. Yabu Sensei had been requested by Okinawans living in Hawaii to teach karate. He stayed nearly a year and there are still many people who remember learning from him. Yabu Sensei participated in a Karate demonstration and I was able to attend it. It was a great success and many Okinawan and foreigners alike came to watch. Yabu Sensei performed the kata Kusanku which combined Sho and Dai which we had learned. In Yabu Sensei’s version all of the shuto-uke were replaced by tsuki-uke. I think this was Yabe Sensei’s way of improving the kata and that it was a good idea. Researching the combining (kata) has its place. Using the fist is better, as the usual shuto-uke runs the risk of having fingers broken, which is quite frightening.

There are many anecdotes about the famous modern master Itosu Sensei, and few would doubt his incredible strength. Almost all the boys in Shuri practiced karate as it was considered required study. This was the same as well in Naha. Shuri was the King’s city, and the privileged aristocratic and warrior families both had free time and money to train as much as they desired. Young men in Shuri would secretly walk a five kilometer long road to visit the brothels in Naha. Similarly, in the brothels and red light district of the port town of Naha, people would gather from around the prefecture, including some of the rougher Naha upper class, people outside of Naha prod of their wealth and strength, and of course the educated and cultured Shuri upper class trained in fighting technique. It was a society of martial arts where hot-blooded men would incessantly challenge each other, neither knowing the other’s name nor having any particular reason to fight. Often the rougher types would challenge those trained in karate. Suffice it to say that in Shuri and Naha there were many duels which were more like serious fights.

Sensei Chojun Miaygi

Chojun Miyagi (left) observes a training session.

The marriage of Itosu Sensei has become the stuff of legend, but there is some truth contained in it. Itosu Sensei’s marriage took place before the start of the Meiji era. There were very few commoners in Shuri as this was an era of the privileged aristocratic and warrior families. Young people would study the arts, but only the warrior families of Shuri were employed by the King’s government. However young people, as they had done for ages, would be inexplicably attracted to the brothels of Naha and secretly made their way there. Shuri was located high on hills and to get to Naha meant going down a hillside road close to Kannondo Palace. This road was used by the Chinese Sappushi and located in front of the King’s castle. A rumor began to spread around town that a beautiful young woman would appear at night half-way down the hill and would hurl young men about as they made their way towards the red light district. No one seemed to be able to stand against her.

Eventually Itosu Sensei himself took the road when, without warning, he was attacked. Although young, Itosu Sensei ad already had a reputation as a noted karate master and he instinctively parried the blow. “How the hell attacked me?” declared Itosu. Suddenly a young woman leapt forward, put her arms around Itosu Sensei and said, “You are the man who will be my husband.” I heard that she was an outstanding, beautiful woman from a distinguished family who had refused many suitors. So it was through karate that Itosu Sensei was married. Itosu’s sons said that even at the age of seventy, she could a 54 liter sack of rice with her left hand as she swept under it. At any rate, it seems there is no doubt that Itosu Sensei’s wife was both skilled at karate and a beautiful woman.

Higaonna Tanme was the foremost practitioner of Nahate, and Shito-ryu of Osaka is founded on this teachings. Higaonna’s best student was Miyagi Shihan who escaped the ravages of World War II and who now lives and instructs in Naha. I was told several detailed accounts of Higaonna Sensei’s phenomenal strength by one of Miyagi Sensei’s students, Yasagi Houhei. Higaonna Tanme had incredibly strong fingers and could crush an everyday tea cup in his hand.

I heard that even pas the age of seventy. Higaonna would have a rope tied around his angles and stand on the tips of his big does while ten or more students would pull on the rope to see if they could make him fall. They never could. This is not so strange when you consider that Higaonna had conditioned his body though San Chin and did not have the body of a regular an. If Higaonna had struck someone with his fist, that person would have stopped breathing on the spot. Itosu Sensei had both expert technique in addition to phenomenal power, while Higaonna Sensei had also forged his indomitable strength through severe training. It is no exaggeration to say that modern karate indebted to these two men.

Higaonna Kanryo

Higaonna Kanryo (front row, second from the right) with students circa 1910. Miyagi Chojun stands in the centre of the back row, to his left is Kyoda Juhatsu.

Long ago there was an Oyakata named Chohabun who possessed incredible strength and was nicknamed Chiyabo (“Birdman” Makabe), who although small in build, excelled n fighting technique. Looking at these two men it is important to understand that victory cannot be gained through strength alone. Similarly, no matter how skillful your punches and kicks are, technique is not enough. Naturally, it is only through the combination of both that success is achieved.

Sensei Chojun Miyagi

Chojun Miyagi supervises training.

In another chapter I wrote of the legendary fighter Motobu Tanme, nicknamed “Saru”, who died shortly after the war. Motobu was so famous that everyone on Okinawa knew his name. Funakoshi Sensei had told me that he had known Motobu Tanme from child-hood. I remember that Motobu Sensei was the same age as Funakoshi Sensei or one year younger. Motubu was from an aristocratic family, but it was rumored that he excelled in his karate to the detriment of his scholastic studies. Kingu magazine had reported that Motobu Tanme had killed a Russian boxer in a match, but whether this is true or not, I do not know. If this is true, then it proves that karate is not something for meaningless display, but that karate is meant for serious confrontations and the Motobu Tanme was blameless. It shows that one of karate’s strongest points is it use in serious confrontations. Wearing boxing gloves and striking at each other defeats the real purpose of karate.
There are many people who say that among the karate men of old, Motubu Tanme and Yabu Sensei killed many people, but I believe Yabe Sensei never did anything like this. There is no doubt that Motobu Tanme was skilled and often fought in his youth, but there is no way to know if he killed anyone.

Choki Motobu

Choki Motobu Inscriptions read: (left) Motobu Choki; (right) Karate (To-de) Shihan

I have heard that Mabuni Sensei is highly respected among karate en in Osaka. About two years before his seventieth birthday Mabuni Sensei passed away. This is quite young for a karate man. Mabuni Sensei’s funeral service held in the narrow hall of the Osaka Kokaido. So many people came to the service that people had to stand on the street outside the hall. Mabuni Sensei’s contribution to karate and his character will long be remembered.

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