Blog Post

(by Tom Ross)
(Introduction by Christopher Caile)

This is the first of a two articles exploring the truths and misconceptions about Choki Motobu who was arguably one of Okinawa's greatest early twentieth century karate masters, and the most colorful. He was also the least understood and probably the most maligned.

Motobu was the third son in a great Okinawan family that had enjoyed privilege and landed nobility (Motobu peninsula), but which was largely ended by Japanese annexation of the island, modernization and social reorganization. A strong ox of a man with a will and ego to match, Motobu preferred the tough and tumble, practical karate over the pure practice of kata. Like many of his day, Motobu was not raised speaking Japanese nor was he schooled in the mainland's sophisticated etiquette and ways.

When he traveled to Japan this worked to his detriment and contributed to misunderstanding about him. He was at a comparable disadvantage to the like of Gichen Funakoshi, an educator, who spoke Japanese and was well versed in Japanese social skills. The two could not have been more different, like oil and water, with no love lost among their adherents. Funakoshi had been selected to give the first official demonstration of karate in Japan and whose intellectual approach gained him notoriety and a dedicated following. In contrast Motobu was more concerned with effective technique and fighting skills. And while he influenced many karateka in Japan, he never developed a large karate organization around his teaching as did Funakoshi.

The Time Period

Twenty five years or so into the new twentieth century found Japan rising to the drumbeat of nationalism. Her victories over China in 1895 as well as Russia in 1905, followed by the official annexation of Korea in 1910, set the stage for militarism and pride in all things Japanese.

The Karatedo that Gichin Funakoshi had brought from Okinawa and had begun to teach in the Japanese capital was developing strong roots, and by April 12, 1924 he had awarded the first dan ranks in Karatedo (Sells 1996) to those who would serve as his cadre. It was a difficult task for this Okinawan gentleman, teaching what was essentially a foreign martial art on mainland Japanese soil. But with the aid and inspiration of Jigoro Kano (the founder of judo) and later the Dai Nippon Butokukai (Great Japan Martial Virtues Association founded in 1895 to preserve and promote the martial arts and ways), Karatedo would find its history carefully sanitized and the art repackaged in the image of Judo, Kendo and many other art forms. This was necessary for its acceptance into the Japan of the day. Karatedo would now be a gentleman's art whose ultimate purpose was self-cultivation. There was no room for the Bushi (samurai) of yesteryear, nor the heavy handed.

The Man

Choki Motobu was born on April 5, 1870. His father Choshin was a descendent of the sixth son of the Okinawan King, Sho Shitsu, namely Prince Sho Ko, also known as Motobu Chohei (Iwai 1994). Due to this lineage the male members of the family were permitted to retain the "CHO" character in their given names (Sells 1996). Young Choki, as third son to Choshin, was regarded by the Okinawan culture of the day as the rough equivalent to a feudal lord in social status. It has been stated by the noted historian Kinjo Hiroshi that although Choki was fathered by Choshin, Choki's mother was not his wife, but a courtesan. Choki was thus only a half brother to his elder Choyu, the eldest son in the family. It has been further suggested that he was consistently reminded of this fact as a child, and this may have contributed to his temperament.

Choki's eldest brother Choyu, in the Okinawan tradition, was given a fine education. He was also taught the family's secret "Ti" (fighting art) tradition that was only passed on to the eldest son. Young Choki was never allowed to participate. By some accounts, however, Choki secretly looked on at his elder brother's training and picked up many rudiments of the art.

Choki grew up with his mother. He was considered a strong child with a willful and fiery temperament, but athletically gifted and agile. His agility eventually earning him the name "Motobu no Saru Umei" (Monkey Motobu) for his ability to climb and swing in trees. At the age of four Choki was forced to begin attending school, but by his own account he hated studying and would often sneak off to play with friends. Contrary to popular myth the legacy of Karate jutsu (karate whose emphasis is focused on effective technique) left by Choki (as distinct from his family tradition passed down through his brother) is alive and well, having been preserved by his son Chosei. It is through the works of Tsukuo Iwai, a top student of Chosei and a historian in his own right, that we obtain further glimpses passed down about the early years of Choki Motobu. Choki and his two brothers would often hit the makiwara and practice karate by imitation beginning at a very early age. Initially his training came via a relative who frequently visited the home. This Kobujutsu Master known as Ufuchiku (an old term roughly equivalent to police superintendent) would be immediately greeted at the door by Choki, who would say "let's practice Ti!" (Iwai 1994).

Ufuchiku was none other than the legendary Sanda Kanagusuku, a very close friend of Bushi Matsumura (the best known karate master of his time and teacher of Itosu). It is perhaps through him and his vast experiences in law enforcement that gave the basis for Choki's appreciation of the practical side of Karate.

Upon reaching his teen years Choki and Choyu both began training under Itosu (the great karate teacher who first introduced karate into the Okinawan school system, although the karate historian Mark Bishop states that he was eventually asked to leave because of his attitude of always trying to prove himself. Some sources also say he was a student of Bushi Matsumura. But despite his training, Choki could never seem to best his brother at "hindi" (an older term for Kumite) which caused Choki to devote himself even more to training (Iwai 1994).

As reported in the 1934 journal, Karate no Kenkyu, Choki explained, "I was interested in the martial arts since I was a child and studied under many teachers. I studied under Itosu Sensei for seven to eight years." He went on to train with Matsumura Soken, Sakuma of Gibo and Kosaku Matsumora of Tomari (Iwai, 1994).

The common tales referring to Choki Motobu as a student of "no one," are thus less than accurate. If we take at face value that Choki spent two years living and training with Matsumora of Tomari (Sells 1996), then Motobu had nine to ten years of formal training without even considering the time spent with Kanagusuku (as a child) Sokon Matsumura and Sakuma of Gibo!

I have the impression however the greatest amount of time and the greatest impressions upon Motobu were made by Itosu, Sakuma and Kasoku Matsumora, for it is these men that he mentioned when asked during the 1936 meeting of the masters (Trans. McCarthy 1994).

The Search Begins

Having been exposed to so many brilliant masters of the day and at such a young age, Motobu's concepts of martial applications must have grown by leaps and bounds. It is through the research of Shoshin Nagamine in his book, "Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters," that we know that Motobu at the age of about seventeen approached a well known wrestler by the name of Komesu Magi (then thirty two and considered to be the biggest and strongest wrestler on Okinawa), asking him for a match.

Komesu was apparently very reluctant to engage someone of Motobu's high social standing, but relented when Choki insisted he merely wished to compare the differences between Karate and wrestling techniques. Motobu is said to have come away from this experience having learned about the strengths and limitations of Karate technique. If this account can be accepted as true, and there is no reason to doubt it, then Choki at the tender age of seventeen had a pretty fair knowledge of karate technique and was beginning his journey of self discovery.

Following his twentieth birthday, having gained confidence in his skills and perhaps motivated by his budding manhood, Choki visited the Tsuji Machi (known as the Red light district) to test his skills against those of similar ilk.

It is here where Motobu reputedly suffered perhaps his only real defeat, against Itarishiki (Iwai 1994), a fight that he would review night after night in his head. Nevertheless return Motobu did, and he would later recount, "I started having real fights at Tsuji when I was young and fought over a hundred of them, but I was never hit in the face". According to Nagamine, Motobu was never known to start a fight, but was also never known to run from one. From these matches Motobu gained tremendous experience and adopted many practical techniques into his repertoire of skills.

Perhaps we should not judge Motobu so harshly, for in the words of Kenei Mabunie (the son of the great karate master and founder of Shito-ry karate): "In his younger days many people would challenge my father to Kake-dameshi (challenge match) or an exchange of techniques after they heard he was practicing Te. He accepted these challenges and would choose a quiet corner of town for the match."

Kenwa Mabuni himself recalled, "A young man he taught himself to fight independently as he had no Sensei for this. He attempted to prove himself by challenging many famous Sensei. Of course the Sensei would all refused his challenge and he returned home proud that these teachers were all afraid of him, not realizing they refused for his sake!"

While these accounts are interesting and obviously designed to discourage violence, it appears that they may be less than totally honest. It would be slightly naive to believe that no Kake-dameshi between two men trying to prove themselves ever escalated or that blood was never drawn. While Motobu was certainly no saint he was perhaps unjustly vilified for failing to conceal a part of his past that perhaps many more are guilty of than care to admit! It is further interesting to note that if Motobu was truly the barbaric anomaly he is often portrayed to be, by 1918 he was a respected member of an informal study group comprised of his brother Choyu, Chojun Miyagi, Shinpan Gusukuma and Chotoku Kyan (Sells 1996).

The Kata Of Motobu

Although it is often alleged that Motobu knew only the katas Naihanchi Shodan and possibly Passai, in light of recent developments this appears to be a complete misinterpretation of Motobu's knowledge and method of teaching. It was quite a common practice in the old days to begin a student training with Naihanchi kata and only when he mastered it to a degree considered sufficient was a new form taught. This seems to be corroborated through the words of Konishi Yasuhiro (as told by Yamazaki Kiyoshi in an article on Konishi): "Konishi Sensei considered Motobu to be a martial genius and made every effort to train with him. Motobu Sensei's favorite Kata was the Naifanchin kata (another pronunciation of Niahanchi). As a teacher he knew many Kata, but would only teach them once the student had mastered Naifanchin."

Given Motobu's vast knowledge of Naihanchi, the applications of which were forged through actual altercations, it likely took a significant period of time to progress to another kata with him. Thus many of the modern stories which recount Motobu as knowing or having shown only the kata Naihanchi are told by those having trained for less than a year with him! Further proof of Motobu's knowledge of other Kata comes inadvertently from Motobu himself. Motobu is quoted by Nakasone Genwa as describing a visit to Itosu Sensei (Itosu was perhaps the most famous karate teacher of his time) as follows: "I visited him one day near the school, where we sat talking about the martial arts and current affairs. While I was there two to three students dropped by and sat talking with us. Itosu Sensei turned to the students and said 'Show us a kata!' The Kata they performed was very familiar to the Channan Kata that I knew but there were also some differences. Upon asking the students what the kata was, he replied, 'It is Pinan no Kata!'. The students left shortly after that, upon which I turned to Itosu Sensei and said 'I learned a Kata called Channan, but the Kata that those students just performed now was different, What is going on?" Itosu Sensei replied, "Yes, The kata is slightly different but the kata that you just saw is the kata that I have decided upon." (Nakasone 1934) While it has been speculated that Motobu never learned the Pinan kata (sometimes known as Heian), it appears now that this information may be correct. Motobu learned from Itosu before Itosu had fully developed the Pinans, a time when the katas were still practiced in their prototype form.

We further know that Choki Motobu passed on a significant array of kata which are part of the curriculum as maintained by his son Chosei. They include Naihanchi Shodan and Nidan, Channan (the predecessor of the pinan kata which within the Motobu system are called Shiraguma no Kata), Passai, Wanshu, Wankan, Chinto, Kusanku, Chinti and others. This demonstrates that Motobu was far more knowledgeable in terms of the kata than many have given him credit for.

Move To Japan

In 1923 (Iwai 1994; other sources say 1921), perhaps in an effort to find greener pastures, Motobu moved with his family to the city of Osaka on mainland Japan. Not long afterwards he returned briefly to Okinawa for three months which he spent training with his brother Choyu. This was when a nineteen year old student of Choyu by the name of Seikichi Uehara first met Choki. Uehara recalled having Choki for a training partner: "Every time I punched Choki hit my arm before I could touch him. He hit it so hard he almost broke my arm" (Uehara 1992). Soon after Choki returned to Osaka, he obtained a job as a security guard. This was no small feat for someone who reputedly never learned to speak Japanese in any fluent fashion. We must remember, however, that Motobu was nobility by birth and perhaps as an act of personal defiance (which was not unheard of in those days, something also done by the karate legend Hohan Soken), he refused to humble himself and learn what was to him a foreign tongue.

In November of 1924 (Iwai 1994) an event took place which brought Choki to the attention of many on mainland Japan. On his day off from work at the factory, Choki and his landlord saw a sign advertising a challenge match with boxers in Kyoto and decided to go. Having viewed several matches where the boxer (reputed to be a European boxing champion) defeated several judo people, Motobu accepted the challenge himself. He entered and felled the much larger boxer.

Motobu would later recount to students: "When I fought the foreign boxer in Kyoto, he was taller than me so I jumped up and punched him in the face. This is effective against people who are taller than you." This did much to stimulate Motobu's reputation (according to Iwai) and many began to seek him out for instruction.

Another source (Choso Nakama quoted in the book, "Okinawa Karate" by Mark Bishop) recounted that Motobu had at first just dodged the boxer. But in the second round the boxer came on strong. Motobu hit him (after jumping up) with a typical "Ti" (old term for karate) technique, a knuckle strike behind the ear.

At fifty-two years of age and after putting his honor and reputation on the line, Choki finally began to attract the attention he truly deserved. Choki formed the Society for the Promotion of Toudijutsu (an old term for karate).

It certainly must have been a shock to Motobu, however, when in the following September (1925) an article appeared in Kingu magazine describing his bout with the boxer.

The picture accompanying the article, however, was not of him. Instead it was a drawing of none other than Gichen Funakoshi, shown as felling the boxer.

It was rumored by those close to Motobu that he was angry about this misrepresentation but felt quite helpless against the resources of company the size of Kodansha (which owned Kingu). Perhaps he felt Funakoshi himself or one of his collage student Karateka (where many journalists began) was behind the error.

In any event there was certainly some bad blood between them and this incident may very well have played a part in Motobu's decision to go to Tokyo and seek out Funakoshi.

Although many stories exist about a confrontation between the two, I am unable to find any confirmed accounts giving specifics of the battle. David Chambers, however, in a Tsunami video tape, "Wado Ryu the way of peace and harmony," claims that: "Yasuhiro Koneshi reported that a newspaper carried the story of a fight that took place between the two in 1930. When Funakoshi finally faced his nemesis, his feet were instantly swept from beneath him and he suffered the indignity as he lay at Motobu's feet of having his face menaced with the latters enormous fist." Whatever the facts of this story, Motobu was beginning to attract attention. Several judoka and wrestlers sought him out to learn fighting skills. Two of Funakoshi's top students (Hironori Ohtsuka and Koyu Konishi) also left to train with Motobu. The defection further added to the deterioration of relations between the two teachers. Another karateka to seek out Motobu was Kose Kuniba (known as Kosei Kokuba in Okinawa). Interest in the testing of karate fighting skills was perhaps understandable since in Japan at that time, judo (a synthesis of old jujutsu self-defense systems) and kendo (old warrior sword arts modified into a sporting form) had been adopted into the Japanese education curriculum and were popular. Both offered competition formats. The attraction of practice fighting thus naturally bled over to many young karateka who sought to test their skills or develop effective technique in their own art.

The true feelings between Motobu and Funakoshi may never truly be known. But, it can be assumed that Funakoshi (a well educated school teacher who spoke Japanese and was well versed in Japanese social customs) may have regarded Motobu to be densely illiterate. He was also probably irritated by the fact that Motobu was higher placed in the old Okinawan class system. Motobu in turn probably regarded Funakoshi as a mere confidence man, someone who had learned only the most superficial aspects of karate and kata and was not a strong fighter. If Motobu's intent in traveling to Tokyo was to drive Funakoshi out, he didn't succeed. Funakoshi had been there a bit too long and Motobu's lack of linguistic ability surely limited his ability to communicate. To Motobu's credit he did manage to author two rather excellent books on Karate. It has been put forth by Chozo Nakama (a disciple of Chosin Chibana) that these works were dictated and translated into proper Japanese for publishing. This is only logical since Motobu didn't speak more than pigeon Japanese.

The first book, "Okinawa Kempo: Karate-Jutsu On Kumite" was published in 1926. It came just four years after Funakoshi choki kata2produced the first published book on karate. Funakoshi's book (1922 and updated with photos instead of drawings in 1924) illustrated mostly kata and formalized self-defense. The two books couldn't have been more different.

Funaksohi's book reflected his own personal preference of kata as a principal teaching method and his opposition to focusing on sparring. He considered it detrimental to karate practiced as a martial way. Motobu's book was just to opposite. Its focus was on fighting -- effective close-in skills as illustrated in this photo. Featured were a series of practical responses to variety of attacks. Utilized were a variety of punches, vital point and unbalancing techniques accompanied by grabs, blocks, knees and strikes using both arms. Kicks, it should be noted, were minimal.

In 1932 Motobu published a second book, "Watashi no Karatejutsu" ("My karatejutsu") which served as a natural complement to his first. This book focused on illustrating his favorite kata, Naihanchi, along with many applications, some of which had been adopted and illustrated in his first book. Notice that this photograph from his book illustrating a move from the kata Naihanchi (Tekki in some Japanese systems) illustrates the same stance and technique as used in a fighting technique (above photo) illustrated in his first book.

Coming Home

Choki Motobu returned to Okinawa several times, most notably for the 1936 meeting of the masters sponsored by the Ryukyu Shinposha (Okinawa newspaper company). The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the promotion and future development of Karate (McCarthy 1994).

Other attendees included such other karate masters as Chojun Miyagi, Choshin Chibana, Chomo Hanshiro, Shinpan Gusukuma, Juhatsu Kiyoda and Chotoku Kyan.

Motobu was respected both as a person and a martial artist during his lifetime. After his death, however, negative rumors and stories circulated (perhaps propagated by those who feared him in life). He is often described by those who actually knew him, however, as a quiet man who presented the very picture of dignity.

Choki Motobu passed from this life on August 1944.

Concepts of Toudi (karate)

The following are but a few of the noted concepts Choki Motobu expressed to his students and are recorded by Hashihiko Nakata as overseen by Kenji Marukawa (a direct student of Choki Motobu) from the 1978 essay "Motobu Choki Sensei Goroku" (Collection of sayings by Choki Motobu) as partially translated by Joe Swift.

"Everything is natural and changing."
"Kamae is in the heart, not a physical manifestation."
"One must develop the ability to deflect attack even from behind."
"In a real confrontation, more than anything else strike to the face first, as this is most effective."
"When punching to the face one must thrust as if punching through the head."
"Kicks are not all that effective in a real confrontation."
"When blocking kicks, one must block as if trying to break the opponents shin."
"One must try and block the attack at its source (Block not the attacking hand but deeper on the arm)."
"Karate IS Sente"
"One can not use continuous attacks against true Karate. That is because the blocks of Karate make it impossible to launch a second attack."

Motobu's Legacy

While Motobu never became as famous as Funakoshi, around whom Shotokan karate and its many offshoots developed, he did leave a rich karate heritage in the Osaka, Kyoto and Gunma areas of Japan. While he never organized his own system, he did play a positive role in the development of several karateka who went on to become famous in their own right. This included Yasuhiro Konishi (who also studied with Funakoshi) who founded Shindo Jinen Ryu in 1934 and Kose Kuniba who founded Seishinkai Karatedo in 1934. Another student was Hironori Ohtsuka (also a well known student of Funakoshi) who went on to found Wado-ryu karate with a curriculum that stressed practice fighting, something that reflected Motobu's influence.

Choki Motobu's son, Chosei, also continues to teach his father's tradition of karate. The style is known as Nihon Denryu Heiho Motobu Kempo and the name of his individual dojo is the "Daidokan."

Between the publication of his second book and his return to Okinawa in 1936, there is little information, but there is one fascinating reference. It is recorded that he traveled to Hawaii in March of 1932 and encountered visa problems. Refused entry, for about a month he was detained at Honolulu immigration station before being returned to Japan.

While in Hawaii Motobu began to instruct Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro, a resident who tried to help Motobu with his visa problems. This started a continuing relationship with Motobu, who is reported to have asked both Mizuho Mutsu and Kamesuke Higashionna to continue to help train Miyashiro when they traveled to the island the next year. This relationship was later continued by Choki's son. Chosei (along with Takeji Inaba) visited Hawaii Karate Seinenkai on April 25, 2001.

It is my sincere hope that in the future additional facts will come to light about this great man and that he will be given credit not only as a talented Karateka but as the Martial Genius I believe he truly was. It will only be through the objective observation of the facts and accounts of those who knew Choki Motobu that we will be able to see "Through the Myth to the Man."


Special Thanks to Joe Swift for his friendship, encouragement and translations as well as his intense dedication to Karate which allowed me to obtain the substance to back my thoughts and without whom this search for the truth would not have been possible. Thanks also to Christopher Caile whose editing, addition of pertinent historical facts and historical photo collection added much to this article series. Thanks also to Patrick McCarthy for the images from the 1925 King Magazine article which depicted Funakoshi, not Motobu, defeating a boxer in a challenge match and the picture of Motobu's 1932 book, "Watashi no Karatejutsu," which he is currently translating.


Koden Ryukyu Karatejutsu (Tokyo Airyudo 1994) by Iwai Tsukuo (partial translation by Joe Swift)
"Channan: The 'Lost' Kata of Itosu?" (Insights into the Martial Arts, NZ, in press) by Joe Swift. Also an article featured by
"Unante The Secrets of Karate," by John Sells (1996)
Motobu Choki Sensei Goroku (Collection of sayings by Choki Motobu) by Nakata Hashihiko, overseen by Marukawa Kenji 1978 (partial translation by Joe Swift) Tales of the great Okinawan Masters by Shoshin Nagamine (Translation by Patrick McCarthy)
The minutes of the 1936 meeting of the masters as translated by Patrick McCarthy 1994 and found in "The Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts: Koryu Uchinadi 2," by Patrick McCarthy
Bu No Mai : Ryukyu Oke hiden Bujutsu: Motobu ryu Udundi (Dance of the Martial arts: The secretly taught arts of the Okinawan Kings family:Motobu-ryu Udundi) by Uehara Seikichi (October 1, 1992) Tokyo: BAB, Japan Printing bureau

As noted in the text "Motobu Choki Sensei:Goroku" by Hashihiko Nakata 1978.
This brotherly competition was the most likely source of rumors in regard to fights between Choyu and Choki. There is nothing to corroborate them as being anything more serious and this was further regarded as Highly implausible By Seikichi Uehara as mentioned by Richard Florence in Vol 5 Number 3 1996 in his personal interview with Richard Florence M.A.

As noted in the text "Motobu Choki Sensei:Goroku" by Hashihiko akata 1978.
As recounted in a special article for Dragon times Vol. 9, The Origins of Karate-do, "Shindo Jinen Ryu Karate," Yasuhiro Konishi Sensei's contribution to Karate by Howard High (Note: The Dragon Times in its printed version of its publication erroneously attributed the authorship of this article to Kiyoshi Yamazaki, an error corrected in the Web version of the article).

In Nakata's 1978 book, which was overseen by Choki's direct student Kenji Marukawa, Motobu recounts the following statement: "When I came to Tokyo, there was another Okinawan there who was teaching Karate quite actively. When in Okinawa I hadn't even heard his name. Upon guidance of another Okinawan I went to the place where he was teaching youngsters, where he was running his mouth, bragging. Upon seeing this, I grabbed his hand, took up the position of Kake kumite and said "What will you do?" He was hesitant, and I thought to punch him would be too much ' so I threw him with Kote Gaeshi at which he fell to the ground with a thud. He got up, his face red and said "Once more" so we took up the position of Kake Kumite again, and again I threw him with Kote Gaeshi. He did not relent and asked for another bout, so he was thrown again for a third time."

It was at this meeting that the masters agreed to the change of the first character ("Kara") in the name karate to mean "empty," rather than "Chinese" (both characters are pronounced the same) which had been the most widely used meaning up to that time. This was an important change because "empty hand" was a much more acceptable meaning of the term karate in Japan than "Chinese hand. This change was an important factor in the widespread adoption of karate on the Japanese mainland.