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  • Writer's pictureKyoshi Wayne Dean

History of Shorin-Ryu Karate Matsumura Shorin-Ryu




George W. Alexander

Okinawa, Japan is the birthplace of karate. This small island is also the birthplace of Sokon Matsumura, Okinawan warrior and founder of karate. Sokon Matsumura (1797-1889), also known as Bushi (warrior) Matsumura and Shuri Matsumura, was one of the most renowned and colorful martial artists of his time.  He was known as a master par excellence of karate and kobujutsu (weaponry).  Matsumura was of noble birth and he was as skilled at literature and the Chinese classics as he was at military arts.  He is considered the founder of the Shorin Ryu school of Okinawan Karate.  He organized the Shuri-Te style (native Okinawan martial art and prototype of Shorin Ryu) into a more refined system of the martial arts.  This system, Matsumura Shorin Ryu karate has endured to the present day.

Matsumura was born in Yamagawa Village,  Shuri,  Okinawa in 1797.  There are some contradictions as to Matsumura’s exact birth date.  Some authorities claim 1798 or as late as 1809, but for the purposes of this writing the 1797 date will be accepted as the correct one.  In 1810,  as a young boy, Matsumura began the study of karate under the guidance of Tode Sakugawa (1733-1815).  Sakugawa was an old man at the time and reluctant to teach the young Matsumura.  However, Sakugawa had promisedSofuku Matsumura, Sokon Matsumura’s father, that he would teach the boy.  The venerable Sakugawa was seventy eight years old at the time.  Matsumura spent four years studying underSakugawa. Eventually, Matsumura’s skill as a warrior became widely known throughout Okinawa and even in China.  As a young man, Matsumura had already garnered a reputation as an expert in the martial arts.  Many legendary stories are told about him in Okinawan folklore.  In fact,  in addition to being a “daijo” or major figure in karate’s history,  Bushi Matsumura is an Okinawan folk hero as well.

Matsumura was recruited into the service of the Royal OkinawanSho family in 1816 and received the title Shikudon,  a gentry rank. He began his career by serving the 17th King of the Ryukyu Shodynasty,  King Sho Ko.  In 1818 he married Yonamine Chiru,  who was a martial arts expert as well.  Matsumura eventually became the chief martial arts instructor “Shihan Yaku” and bodyguard for the Okinawan King Sho Ko.  He subsequently served in this capacity for two other Okinawan Kings, They were the 18th and 19th Kings of Ryukyu, King Sho Iku and King Sho Tai,  respectively. Bushi Matsumura not only became the chief martial arts instructor but an official of the Ryukyu Kingdom.  As such, Matsumura traveled as an envoy to China and Japan in the service of the Okinawan King.  On these sojourns,  he sought out other martial artists and trained with them.

Around 1839 he went to China and studied the Shaolin style of Chinese boxing and weaponry.  Legend has it that he actually trained at the famed “Shoreiji” or Southern Shaolin Temple at this time.  It is not known how long Matsumura remained in China but tradition has it that he stayed for some time.  In 1832 he went to Satsuma,  Japan and stayed there for two years.  While in Japan it is believed that he studied the Jigen Ryu style of swordsmanship.  This is a very aggressive style practiced by the Satsuma samurai.  His sensei in Jigen Ryu was a samurai by the name of Yashichiro Ijuin.  It is perhaps at this time when Matsumura’s ideas about Bushido, the way of the warrior,  and martial ethos were formed.

Is also known that around 1860 Matsumura traveled to Foochow in Fukien Province,  China,  on a diplomatic mission for the Okinawan King.  In the 1860’s he brought back the Chinese KenpoMaster Iwah and together they taught many Okinawans.  He is also thought to have studied with the Chinese warrior Wai Shin Zan while in China.  After his return from China he organized and refined Shuri-Te.  His organizational efforts would eventually serve as the basis for the Shorin Ryu System of Okinawan Karate.  Some authorities credit Matsumura with adopting the name“Shorin Ryu” while others say Anko Itosu (1830-1915), Matsumura’s student, is actually responsible for adopting this terminology.  Shorin is the Japanese pronunciation of Shaolin.  Even though this style is a blend of native Okinawan techniques and Chinese kenpo, it is named after the famed Shaolin Temple of China, renowned for its fighters.

Matsumura is credited with passing on the kata or formal exercises known as Passai Dai (Matsumura No Passai),  Naihanchi,  Chinto, Seisan,  Gojushiho (Fifty Four Steps of the Black Tiger) and Kusanku.  A set of Chinese kata known as Chanan in Matsumura’s time are said to have been modified by Matsumura and were the basis for Pinan I & II.  These kata are the essential forms of allShorin Ryu styles today. He is also said to have brought back theHakutsuru or White Crane system of Chinese boxing back to Okinawa.

Aunique feature of the Matsumura Shorin Ryu style is the teaching of the White Crane or Hakutsuru kata, although white crane techniques are woven throughout most of the kata of the style and are especially evident in Gojushiho and Kusanku. However,  the Hakutsuru kata is one of those elusive and esoterickata of karate.  According to the late Hohan Soken (1889-1982),  the White Crane style was learned by Bushi Matsumura while he was in China.  He then brought the style back to Okinawa in the 1860’s.  From then on,  the system was a secret style only taught to immediate members of the Matsumura family.  The White Crane style was passed on from Bushi Matsumura to Nabe Matsumura,  his grandson, and then to Hohan Soken,  Nabe’s nephew (Nabe’s sister’s son).  Hohan Soken did teach the White Crane to some members of the Ryu.  These people were not family members but were a chosen few.  Keep in mind the concept of a hereditary Ryuis a closed social nexus,  like a family or a clan.  Its membership is restricted to blood relatives, whereas a Kai or association is a group that practically anyone can get into,  like a bowling league or a “self defense” studio. The family blood lineage of MatsumuraShorin Ryu seems to have been broken though and has become what is known as a Ryu Ha. It is my understanding that Hohan Soken’s grandson  now lives in New York City and has no interest in karate.  The White Crane system is still in existence and being taught today,  but it is rare and still underground.

The White Crane style is of Chinese origin and its techniques imitate the delicate movements of the crane or white heron.  TheHakutsuru technique manifests the Chinese concept of the soft fist as opposed to the power-oriented native Okinawan techniques.  The soft fist is defensive and relies on speed and evasion as its primary tactic. Therefore the Matsumura family style has both the power oriented linear Okinawan technique as well as soft circular Chinese techniques. A perfect combination!  Actually there are a set ofHakutsuru kata handed down that are the jewel of the system.  The more fundamental Hakutsuru Kata are sanchin-like training forms called Hakutsuru So & Ton.  There is another one calledRyuken or dragon fist Sanchin.  Finally there is the Matsumura No Hakutsuru Kata itself.  The kata is taught in two forms,  a sort ofsho (minor) and dai (major) format. The sho version of the katahas the same embusen (pattern) as the dai version but it is simplistic in its techniques.  The dai version of the Hakutsuru kata is very elaborate with many intricate hand techniques which make use of the wing (hane) of the crane.  The wing is used in blocking to either trap,  cover or repel a blow.  Spearfinger thrusting to vital points is the main means of attack and counterattack taught within the framework of the kata as well.  TheMatsumura Hakutsuru kata also features a unique low level kicking sequence and its embusen relies on footwork from the Kusankuand Naihanchi kata.  Its intricate and complex movements make the performance of the Matsumura No Hakutsuru kata unique among karate kata. It certainly deserves to be the secret kata of the Ryu. However, other versions of the Hakutsuru kata exist. These include Shito Ryu’s Hakucho, a fragment of the original kata, the Matayoshi version and the rare and beautiful Kumemura Hakutsuru. This version is derived from Kume Village, a Chinese settlement which was a suburb of Naha and home of the sanjuroku seito, the thirty six families from Fukien Province, China.  These families came from China with the purpose of enhancing the cultural and economic development of Okinawa. Although the transmission of Chinese martial arts to the Okinawans was also accomplished here.

Bushi Matsumura was tall and thin with deep-set eyes.  He was also extremely fast because of his constant practice.  He believed that speed was essential in order to develop power.  Matsumura was an innovator and he practiced every technique so that it could be performed as fast as possible.  Legend has it that he was able to generate enormous power in his techniques even though he was slender and wiry.  The reason for this was that he followed a scientific theory with respect to martial arts i.e.,“torque plus speed equals true power”.  The concept of twisting and rotating the hips when delivering a technique is the method he used.  Matsumura is credited with developing this concept in karate.  Matsumura simply knew that the basic elements of physics apply to and enhance karate technique.  He was known to have superb kicking skills and a great jumping ability.  His expression was “as a warrior one must developthe speed of a bird and the power of a tiger”.

Matsumura was given the title “Bushi” meaning warrior by the Okinawan King in recognition of his abilities and accomplishments in the martial arts.This was a title reserved only for those possessing the highest martial skill and the samurai qualities of honor and loyalty.  This elevated him to full samurai status.  In fact,  Matsumura was the last person ever to be granted this title by the Okinawan king. After this,  Matsumura referred to himself as Bucho, military leader.  He was extremely clever and an excellent military strategist.  He accepted challenges from the top martial artists of his time. According to legend he fought many times but was never defeated,  Among his many exploits,  he was even known to have fought and defeated a wild bull.

The most often told story about Matsumura is the tale ofMatsumura defeating a wild bull. In the time of King Sho Ko, whose reign began in 1804, the King’s soldiers were violent and showed no mercy to the local people. They were lawless and no more than robbers and murderers. When the King found out about the improprieties of the soldiers, he ordered an “Uta Kai” or poem meeting. The King filled out part of a scroll and he wanted the soldiers to fill out the rest. None of the soldiers would try so the King got angry. He drew his sword and chased everyone out of the room except forMatsumura.

The King asked why Matsumura did not flee and was not afraid like the others. Matsumura answered by saying: ” You are my King and I am your servant. If you wish to kill me or do anything else to me you wish, I don’t mind.”  Even though Matsumura’s answer was profound, the King was still angry. He said: “I am going to kill you anyway. You will be killed by a wild bull.” The King then set the date for the bull fight.

Matsumura found out that the King had selected the strongest bull for him to fight. Everyday, Matsumura visited the barn where the bull was kept. On each visit, he would strike the creature soundly in the temple. After a while, the bull would anticipate Matsumura’sarrival and it became fearful of him.

Finally, the day of the contest arrived. Matsumura stood in the middle of the ring. When the bull was let into the ring it immediately charged him. Matsumura sidestepped using taisabaki (body shifting) and struck the bull in the temple as he had done in the barn. The bull stared at Matsumura for a brief moment and then turned around and ran away. Matsumura said to the King. “I’ll fight the bull again if someone can catch him and bring him back.“ The King was convinced that Matsumura had fought and defeated the strongest bull in Okinawa. Because of this feat, the King gaveMatsumura the title “Bushi, meaning warrior, and Matsumurabecame the “Shihan Yaku” (martial art instructor) at Shuri Castle and bodyguard to the King.   

In another famous encounter preserved in Okinawan folklore,Matsumura fought another samurai by the name of BushiKushigawa Uehara. Uehara was known to be a highly skilled karateman and very dangerous.  It is not exactly clear why the challenge was issued by Uehara.  One version of the story states that they fought in front of the king to determine who would be the King’s Chief Bodyguard. Yet another version of the story,  and probably the correct one, implies Uehara was jealous of the young Matsumura’s outstanding martial arts abilities and his position as Shihan Yaku or martial arts instructor to the king.  Therefore,  Uehara sought to defeat Matsumura and discredit his reputation.  Uehara  was in his forties at the time and Matsumura was still in his twenties.  In any case, Matsumura accepted the challenge.  When they fought,  both men threw only one punch.  Matsumura won the bout by adeptly punching Uehara’s punching hand and breaking it,  thus ending the contest.

Matsumura’s martial arts endeavors,  specifically the organization of Okinawan Shorin Ryu Karate have had far reaching effects.  The Shorin Ryu system has been the progenitor of many contemporary martial arts styles,  Shotokan Ryu and Shito Ryu, for example.  Ultimately,  all modern styles of karate that evolved from the Shuri-Te lineage can be traced back to the teachings of BushiMatsumura. This includes Taekwon Do (Korean Karate) whose original kata syllabus was derived from Shotokan Karate, the Japanese version of Shorin Ryu. (see Okinawa Island of Karate, p. 45.).

As a teacher,  Matsumura was without equal.  His fame attracted many students and he produced and abundance of skilled martial artists.  His most notable students included Anko Itosu (1830-1915),  Yasutsune Azato (1827-1906),  Yabu Kentsu (1863-1937), Chomo Hanashiro (1871-1945) [Hanagusuku Nagashige inHogan,  the ancient Okinawan dialect], Chotoku Kiyan (1870-1945),  Megantou Tawada, Peichin Kiyuna,  Chinen Yamanne,  Ishimine (b.1826), and Nabe Matsumura as well as others.

Inhis later years,  Matsumura wrote a letter or makimono (hand written scroll) expounding on the elements of Bushido,the way of the warrior,  and martial ethos.  The letter was written to his student Ryosei Kuwae on May 13, 1882.  This was the only surviving document in Matsumura’s own hand. The document has been handed down by the Kuwae family of Okinawa. In this letter, Matsumura’s writings relate warrior ethics to social science and Confucian ethics (see Okinawa: Island of Karate,  p.43).  He states that knowledge and martial arts have the same theory.  In the area of knowledge,  Matsumura indicated that poetry,  or creative writing and reading, hence literature,  as well as teaching others along with an understanding of Confucianism constitutes Bun(knowledge). This knowledge helps one to understand the matters of life and to make the mind pure and true.  Therefore,  the ability to govern the family well and administer the nation well are gained from this knowledge.  These are no doubt Confucian ethics typical of Matsumura’s time.  Remember,  Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands had always been under the cultural influence of China. Therefore,  the ethical framework and teachings of Confucius were borrowed from China.

Regarding the martial arts, Matsumura states that there are three main areas of understanding.  The three areas are Gukushi No Bugei (martial arts of intelligence),  Meimoko No Bugei (martial arts without self-control) and Budo No Bugei (true martial way).  Gukushi No Bugei refers to having a technical knowledge of the martial arts but with no real substance.  It is only a superficial understanding with no depth.  He also makes a comment that I think is as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago when he wrote it.  Matsumura said “a style is only as good as the man who practices”.  Meimoko No Bugei refers to a person who has a physical understanding of the martial arts and can defeat other men.  They are violent and dangerous and have no self control.  Budo No Bugei refers to the true way of the warrior.  In this true martial way,  a person has the physical understanding of the martial arts and is powerful.  He has a strong sense of loyalty and would do nothing that is unnatural or contrary to nature.  According to Matsumura,  the true way of the warrior is characterized by seven virtues of Bu (military mind). They are as follows:

Bu prohibits violence.Bu keeps discipline in soldiers.Bu keeps control among the population.Bu spreads virtue.Bu gives a peaceful heart.Bu helps keep peace between people.Bu makes people or a nation prosperous.

Matsumura’s letter continues with the idea that a warrior who follows the way of Budo No Bugei waits for the enemy to defeat himself.  He says this is what he admires the most.  He says “you must deal with your own mind well and wait for others to fall apart mentally.  Win the battle by remaining calm and steal the mind of your opponent”. This certainly sounds like Japanese samurai philosophy and the fighting strategy of Go No Sen,  i.e.,  waiting for the opponent to commit himself and make a mistake and then counterattack.  He goes on to say that “maturity promotes harmony and that a master of the martial arts should stay away from violence,  deal well with people,  be self confident,  keep peace with people and accrue wealth”.  Finally,  Matsumura concludes the letter with a message to his student Kuwae to promote Budo No Bugei, adapt to change and keep training with these principles in mind. Quite a letter!  It certainly provides numerous bits of wisdom and some thought-provoking ideas for today’s martial artists as well as insight intoMatsumura’s philosophy.  The letter was written late in life,  perhaps just before his death,  a time for reflecting and philosophical thinking.

Matsumura also wrote a book about the sai  which included hiskata, Matsumura No Sai.  By the time Matsumura retired, his son had died,  so his grandson,  Nabe Matsumura (1860-1930) succeeded him.  Matsumura gave his menkyo kaiden (certificate of proficiency) to him,  which entitled Nabe Matsumura to carry on the teaching of Bushi Matsumura and Matsumura Shorin Ryu.

Hohan Soken(1889-1982),  who was Nabe Matsumura’s nephew,  wasselected to carry on the teaching of the Ryu.  He was a highly respected karate master and the third generation successor in the lineage of Matsumura Shorin Ryu Karate.  He was instrumental in passing on a martial arts legacy from Bushi Matsumura and Nabe Matsumura to his students.  When Soken began his training underNabe Matsumura karate practice was still done in secret.  All thekata and techniques he learned were inherited from BushiMatsumura.  The style lives on today and is preserved by theInternational Shorin Ryu Karate Kobudo Federation.  Its followers are keeping alive the traditions and philosophy of “Bushi”Sokon Matsumura,  ancient warrior of Okinawa.


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