Journal of Combative Sport, Aug 2000

Masters of the Shorin-ryu: Chotoku Kyan

By Graham Noble

Copyright Graham Noble © 1986, 2000. All rights reserved.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article appeared in Fighting Arts International and is reprinted by permission of Graham Noble. For additional information about Kyan and his methods, see Mark Bishop, Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles, and Secret Techniques (London: A. & C. Black, 1989), 79-82, and "The Karate of Chotoku Kyan: We Interview the Seibukan's Zenpo Shimabukuro Sensei," Dragon Times, 16 (2000), 13.

Chotoku Kyan
The Life and Times of Chotoku Kyan

Chotoku Kyan was born into a high-ranking family in Shuri in 1870. His father Chofu was a steward to Tai, the last king of the Ryukyus. According to Shoshin Nagamine, Chofu Kyan was such an able person that the king entrusted him with much of the business of the royal household.

In 1871 the Japanese government declared that the Ryukyu Kingdom was to become part of Japanese territory and renamed Ryukyu Han (fief). A few years later the islands were fully integrated into the Japanese local government system as Okinawa Prefecture. As a process of Japanisation began, the old Ryukyu Kingdom was swept away.

King Tai was deposed with the foundation of Ryukyu Han. In 1879 he was removed to Japan and kept there for five years. He took with him over 90 retainers. Chofu Kyan went with the king and took with him his young son, Chotoku.

Chofu Kyan, a cultivated man with knowledge of both Chinese and Japanese literature, had been opposed to Japan's takeover of Okinawa. Hoshu Ikeda has in his possession a petition against the Japanese measures, and one of the seven signatories is Kyan. He was a traditionalist who did not want the old ways to die out, and it seems that it was he who kindled Chotoku Kyan's enthusiasm for karate. According to Gichin Funakoshi in Karate-do Nyumon, Chofu Kyan himself had some knowledge of te, but although he trained his young son in wrestling (probably Okinawan sumo) to toughen him up, he entrusted the teaching of karate forms to others. Shoshin Nagamine believes that this was because he was too fond of Chotoku to train him the correct, severe way. Anyway, at age 20, Chotoku Kyan was put under the tutelage of famous experts: Kokan Oyadomari, Kosaku Matsumora, and Ankoh Itosu.

Chotoku Kyan's biographers all state that he was small and weak as a child and this we can believe, because even when fully grown he was slightly built and frail looking. He looked more like a retiring scholar than a karate master, and as Hiroyasu Tamae wrote, "You were amazed that such a small man was so great a bujin."

Kyan had a strong personality that belied his small physique, and by the age of 30 he was recognised as an expert in both Shuri-te and Tomari-te. He was challenged often, and as he was not a person to back down, he had to fight frequently. As far as Okinawan karate historians are aware, he was never beaten in these fights. Because of Kyan's size he did not train to trade punches with bigger men but would practice stepping and other evasive techniques by the banks of the Higa River, over and over again. His method of fighting was to defend and then counterattack immediately. He was known to be expert in kicking techniques, and altogether we can imagine him as a perfect example of the Shorin-ryu stylist as described by Gichin Funakoshi: a smaller, lighter man whose karate was marked by quickness and mobility.

"He excelled in practical fighting and had great confidence and power," wrote Hiroyasu Tamae. "We all know of the famous incident when he threw the wrestler over the parapet of the bridge."

Well, as it happens… I don't know about that incident, unless it is another version of the tale told by Shoshin Nagamine. This happened when Kyan was about 40 years old and working as a wagon driver. He crossed the path of Matsuda, a big, strong fellow who was bullying the younger men of the village. When Kyan reproached him for his behaviour, Matsuda turned on him and challenged him to fight. He was aware that Kyan knew karate but felt that he would be too small and slight to make use of this in a real fight. When the two men met on the banks of the Hija River, Kyan took up a natural stance with his back to the water. As Matsuda went for him Kyan evaded the attack and countered with a kick that sent the big man into the river.

The abdication of the king and the establishment of Okinawa Prefecture led to the abolition of the old social ranking system and the loss of privileges and financial support for aristocrats. Kyan's family suffered in this way, and Chotoku Kyan, whose father had been a retainer and friend of the king himself, found himself having to make ends meet by breeding silkworms and pulling a rickshaw. Yet throughout (or because of) all this, his enthusiasm for karate never diminished.

Kyan taught karate at the Okinawan College of Agriculture and the Kadena Police Station, and besides this he taught many other students directly. He and his students would demonstrate karate in the region around his home at Kadena. Apart from karate he would often teach his pupils the traditional dancing done at Okinawan festivals. Evidently he believed that these dances were related in some way to karate, and in this he was not alone. "If you go into the Okinawan countryside you will often see men performing a traditional dance to the music of the samisen," Gichin Funakoshi wrote in his first book, Ryukyu Kempo Karate (1922). "This dancing resembles karate and is different from the usual maikata dancing. I think it is related to traditional Okinawa-te."

Kyan Sensei had many students but according to Katsumi Murakami his two favourites were Ankichi Arakaki and Taro Shimabuku. Murakami's section on Kyan in his book Karate-do to Ryukyu Kobudo throws light on another side of the man's character. It is entitled "Sensei Chotoku Kyan: absorbing virtues as well as sins," meaning that here was someone who lived life to the full.

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According to Murakami, Kyan not only taught Arakaki and Shimabuku karate but also encouraged them to do many other things, including drinking and visiting the local brothel, on the grounds that an experience of everything is important for martial arts development. So it was that at times he would train these two students in the brothel.

Well, Gichin Funakoshi too had as one of his precepts, "Do not think karate is only in the dojo," but I don't think this was what he had in mind. Nevertheless, there was something behind Kyan's method. He stressed to his students that whatever they did they should keep in their minds the idea of busai, or correct martial way. I am not sure exactly what this involves perhaps it means that to some extent you should remain unattached to whatever you are doing and keep a clear mind and a strong spirit, whether drinking, visiting a brothel -- or even pulling a rickshaw.

Both Ankichi Arakaki and Taro Shimabuku would visit Kyan Sensei's home for training at night. They carried lanterns to light their way but Kyan told them to stop using the lanterns so that they could develop their night vision. When they trained at night he chose uneven terrain and sometimes even threw water on the ground to make a foothold difficult. In this way they developed their kata.

Chotoku Kyan was fond of cockfighting and would often carry a fighting cock around with him. On one such occasion Arakaki and Shimabuku, wanting to test their teacher's ability, started a quarrel with a gang of young men and then ran off, leaving Kyan to face the group alone. The men attacked Kyan who quickly proceeded to beat them, still holding the bird under one arm. Even Arakaki and Shimabuku, who watched from a distance, were surprised at how he fought using only his feet and one free arm.

Kyan's wife had to work hard as a dyer of cloth and pig breeder, but whenever a pig was ready for sale Kyan himself always insisted on taking it to the market. Murakami writes that Kyan would often cheat his wife of the money he received and use it to pay for women and travel. He liked to travel and on one occasion took Arakaki and Shimabuku to Hokkaido where they demonstrated karate in a large tent. When a local fighter named Sampu Taku challenged them Kyan counselled Arakaki to step back carefully to the walls of the tent, then knock the challenger down if he moved on him. Unfortunately, Murakami does not tell us if a fight actually ensued or, if it did, what was the result.

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It's too bad we don't have more information on this incident, but the story of another challenge match was given in a Japanese magazine. It occurred in Taiwan in 1930, when Kyan's demonstration of karate somehow resulted in a challenge from Shinzo Ishida, judo instructor of Taipei Police Headquarters.

Kyan would have been 60 years old at the time but he agreed to the match straightaway. The only thing that concerned him a little was that the judoka might be able to take a firm grip to apply his throwing techniques. Because of this Kyan wore a vest on his upper body rather than a judo jacket.

Ishida himself was wary of karate's striking techniques and when the two men faced each other they kept their distance for some time, sizing each other up. Then suddenly Kyan closed in, thrusting his thumb into the side of Ishida's mouth and fiercely gripping his cheek. With a kick to the knee he knocked Ishida to the ground and followed him down. Kneeling astride the judoka he delivered a tsuki (thrust) to the solar plexus, just stopping short of full contact. Ishida immediately conceded the match.

All in all Chotoku Kyan comes across to us as one of the most attractive karate masters, an interesting mixture of vices and virtues. No doubt he had his faults but he also had personal qualities which earned him the loyalty of his students and the respect of other experts and he remains one of the most important figures in Okinawan karate history. Even Katsumi Murakami, who tells us of Kyan visiting brothels and cheating his wife out of money, does not do so out of any desire to put him down. In fact he describes Kyan as one of the greatest karate experts.

Like Choshin Chibana, Kyan Sensei stressed that the way to success in karate was found through constant practice. He continued to train and teach throughout his life. Hiroyasu Tamae remembered him giving a demonstration when he was in his late sixties:

In Showa 13 (1938) there was a demonstration of karate in which many famous experts were invited to display their kata. I was there, and many of the experts did not perform themselves -- they let their students do it. Only Kyan Sensei, in spite of the fact that he was nearly 70 years old, performed his own kata.

At that time people over 60 were considered to be old and infirm but Kyan Sensei performed the kata at full power without displaying any infirmity. Only when he stepped down from the platform did he stumble slightly. The audience was impressed.

When Shoshin Nagamine opened his karate dojo in 1942 Chotoku Kyan gave a demonstration of passai and a bo [staff] kata. [EN1] "His beautiful performance at the age of 73 could still exalt his audience to the quintessence of karate-do," Nagamine recalled.

In April 1945 the Americans invaded Okinawa and during the next two months of heavy fighting at least 60,000 Okinawan civilians died. Master Kyan survived all this but at 75 his body was too weak to withstand the following privations and he died in September 1945.

Kyan's Kata

Kyan concentrated his teaching on seven (or perhaps eight) kata. These kata and the teachers from whom he is believed to have learned them are as follows: [EN2]

Kata Teacher
Ananku Unnamed Taiwanese
Wanshu Saneida Maeda
Chinto Kosaku Matsumora
Passai Kokan Oyadomari
Kusanku Chatan Yara
Seisan Sokon Matsumura
Gojushiho Sokon Matsumura

Clearly, if these attributions are correct, Kyan studied with a variety of masters, most of them famous during their day. I have no information on Maeda, but since wanshu is always regarded as a Tomari kata we can be fairly sure that he was an expert in Tomari-te. The most famous Tomari-te master was Kosaku Matsumora, and he was one of Kyan's teachers. Kokan Oyadomari is less well known but in the opinion of Hoshu Ikeda he was equally as great as Matsumora. He was an officer on the staff of the Ryukyu Royal Family and was often called Oyadomari Pechin. (Pechin was a rank in the middle aristocracy, and as a group, men of this rank often worked in civil administration or domestic law enforcement.)

Chirkata Yara, better known as Chatan Yara, was one of the teachers of what became Shuri-te karate. He was born in 1816, but I do not know his date of death. Sokon Matsumura I have written about elsewhere. Both these masters would have been in their seventies or eighties when Kyan began studying karate, and we cannot be sure they were even teaching at that time. Rather than learning direct, Kyan may have learned from their senior students.

There are two accounts of how Kyan learned ananku. I have never felt particularly happy about the story that he learned it from a Taiwanese expert in Chinese boxing, mainly because the kata does not look Chinese. Still, in February 1941 the Japan Times published a photo of some men doing what looked like karate above this caption: "A new form of defense has been worked out by Mr. Choko Sai, of Formosa, combining points of judo and a kind of boxing perfected in the Loochoo Islands." So perhaps Kyan learned the kata from some Okinawan who lived in Taiwan. An alternative version is that his father taught him the kata. Another possibility, of course, is that Kyan developed the kata himself.

Kyan also may have taught naihanchin, and if he did he would have learned it from Ankoh Itosu. Kyan is usually given in karate genealogies as a student of Itosu but generally his kata are quite different from the Itosu versions so I don't think the teaching here can have been very extensive. It is notable that Choshin Chibana, in listing Itosu's students, did not name Kyan. Instead Chibana referred to Kyan as a student of Oyadomari.

Kyan's favourite kata, which he often performed at demonstrations, were chinto, passai, and kusanku. They are distinctive kata with significant variations in technique from the more widely practiced forms such as those of the Japanese Shotokan, Wado, or Shito schools. For instance, rather than the sequence of forearm blocks at the beginning of passai, the Kyan (Oyadomari) passai has a quite different sequence of sharper, open handed techniques. In chinto (gankaku in Shotokan), the two turns at the start of the kata are done in the opposite direction to those in the Itosu version. In the kicking techniques, rather than bringing the foot to the knee before kicking from a one-legged stance, it is brought behind the other foot into a kosa-dachi (crossed stance) and the kick is launched from this position. Hoshu Ikeda refers to these forms as koryu, or old style, and although Kyan may have made his own changes to the kata, much of the old style must have remained.

In his short memoir of Chotoku Kyan, Hiroyasu Tamae mentioned an interesting thing. He wrote that other Shuri karate experts referred to Kyan's kata as inaka-de, or primitive. (In his translation Professor Karasawa explained that the words have something of a "country yokel" implication.) As I said, his kata do have their own character, but there are several reasons why such a view could have arisen.

First, to anyone who was used to the more widespread Itosu versions of the kata, Kyan's forms may well have looked a little strange; but this was mainly a question of unfamiliarity.

Second, Kyan's kata showed strong Tomari-te influences and Shuri karateka tended to look down on Tomari kata as in some way inelegant or unrefined. Apart from any technical considerations this may have been part of a general feeling on the part of Shuri people that their culture was superior to that of the rest of Okinawa. George Kerr, an authority on Okinawan history, wrote: "The pre-eminence of Shuri families and the privileges and advantages conferred automatically through residence at the king's capital, created a tradition of prestige which has persisted into the 20th century, for wherever Okinawans assemble for the first time, in Ryukyu, in Japan, or in overseas communities, it is quickly but tactfully established if a man has been born in Shuri, educated in Shuri, or has married a woman of Shuri, in that order of precedence.

Third, it seemed that Kyan did make his own changes to the kata. As Tamae noted: "Even when the kata was a well known one Kyan Sensei's version had strange additions and gestures. So an expert, even if he only glimpsed part of the kata could identify it as one of Kyan's.

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Well, if some other experts did refer to Kyan's kata in a rather negative way I think it was mainly a question of style prejudice -- a case of his kata differing from the prevailing form. Personally I can't see that his kata are in any way inferior to other forms. In fact, in the case of passai and chinto I prefer his kata to more widely practiced versions. The opening defensive sequences in Kyan's passai for example seem less cumbersome than the series of forearm blocks in the Itosu passai dai and his chinto in particular is light, sharp, and full of vitality. I guess it all boils down to personal tastes.

One last question: Why was Kyan called Chan Mi-gua, "small-eyed Kyan"? Katsumi Murakami says it was because he had narrow eyes and Hiroyasu Tamae says that he was blind, or poorly sighted, in one eye. These seem sufficient explanation but Hoshu Ikeda gives another reason for the name:

His method of training was never to wear a top while training. This was to allow the air to temper the skin and allowed detailed observation of the muscles. This was considered to be a sophisticated attitude to training at that time. This half-naked method allowed him to make detailed observations of the movement and tension of the students' muscles, and his habit of fixing his eyes rigidly on the student to see if he was using his muscles correctly earned him the name 'Mi-gua.' Editor's Notes

EN1. The staff kata would have been Tokumine no kun, which Kyan viewed as useful for preserving traditional Ryukyuan culture and improving physical development.

EN2. According to an interview with Choshin Chibana conducted on October 16, 1966 by the Okinawa Karate Do Association, Kyan's chinto and passai kata were distinctive, and based on extensive personal knowledge of te. His kusanku kata was learned from a direct descendent of Chatan Yara, and is today called passai-no-sho. Kyan brought ananku to Okinawa from Taiwan during the early 1930s, and then taught it at the College of Agriculture and Forestry. Joen Nakazato was a student at the College of Agriculture and Forestry at the time, and is one of the few modern teachers to have learned this kata directly from Kyan. My thanks to Jim Kass for this information.

JCS Aug 2000