Sunday, July 09, 2006

Street Fighting Man

The late Lyle Alzado, the football legend from the 70s, once quipped to an interviewer that he never met a man he didn't want to fight. The same could be said for another legend - one who didn't hone his skills on the gridiron, but initially on the streets of Okinawa. His name was Choki Motobu. Motobu (b. 1871) was not your ordinary karate-ka; he liked to field test his learned abilities in Tsujimachi - Okinawa's infamous red light district, against thugs and anyone else who had the misfortune to cross his path. Because of his reputation as a troublemaker, he resorted to using an assumed name to gain entry into prominent dojos, only to be thrown out once his real identity was learned. He would often pay his tuition with the unlikely offering of awamori (rice liqueur) when he couldn't afford any other means. Money was something he had no real understanding or appreciation for - a common trait for men of Motobu's ilk.

Motobu defeated a European prizefighter in a boxing ring when he was in his fifties, bringing him much popularity, and eventually students. Some of his disciples went on to create their own ryu (feudal term for school), but Motobu himself was never affiliated with any particular style, as he himself was never anyone's disciple - truly a modern day ronin. Motobu's approach to karate flew in the face of the conventional wisdom of the day, and like Sinatra, he did it his way.

Labels: , , , , ,


Blogger Dr. Augustus Dayafter said...

A modern day ronin... what an awesome analogy! Another great article John!

3:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the new profile picture with the sai!

10:37 PM  
Blogger Mathieu said...

I don't know if there were little blue pills in those days?


There's a goju-ryu student near where I live that's presently 1st kyu. He's been 1st kyu for now 3 years. He trains with lots of different teachers, going out of the style's syllabus. He attends about 3 weeks in Goju-Ryu then heads off to a different style, comes back a bit and so on.

His karate is so personal, it's wonderful to see. I could watch him perform karate for a very long while without getting bored. He'll probably remain a 1st kyu for a long while again, because of the lack of commitment to one style. But I wouldn't dare confront him.

Stories like that of Motobu's are very inspirational and can help us acheive something more .


10:10 AM  
Blogger Mathieu said...

And yes, great pic!

10:10 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

3 years at ikkyu... they're probably trying to get rid of him!

Did Chitose train under Motobu? I know he was definitely from that generation.

12:27 AM  
Blogger Rick Matz said...

Nice blog. Great links!

6:15 AM  
Blogger Mir said...

Interesting how so many martial artists would go test their skills by purposely going into the "dangerous" parts of town to get into a fight. Isn't that totally against the whole "self defense" concept?

So since Choki Motobu really didn't identify with a martial art "style", he was more like a street fighter, right?

8:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I enjoy these posts of yours--I always pick up something interesting. What intrigued me most about Motobu was (if I'm reading correctly) his continuous desire to improve. It seems so easy to say "Enough! I have nothing left to prove." Yet, rarely is this actually the case.

Anyway, you gave me something to think about, and that's something I always appreciate!

9:35 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Motobu's forte was kumite. When students sought him out, it was to learn fighting, period. Motobu felt karate had to be real for the student to benefit. This was a philosophy that Mas Oyama certainly embraced. I believe their intentions were sincere, albeit misunderstood (some of those stories about Oyama actually eclipse Motobu's).
You said it; Motobu always had to prove himself. That's why he got kicked out of so many dojos during his formitive years. Sometimes the distinction between "improving yourself" and "proving yourself" can be blurred, especially in Motobu's case.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Mathieu said...

Hey John,
he did. In Shuri he studied under Motobu Chotoku gaining knowledge in Unsu and Wansu. Between 1922 to 1929. But I'm not sure which years precisely.

Those kata did not make it in the Chito-Ryu curriculum.

I don't know of any precise influence Chotoku had in Chito-Ryu. And I must confess to not having made that much research on the subject.


And believe me, that brown belt is greatly appreciated. As much for is input as the way he helps his dojo in all aspects (maintenance and stuff) even if he doesn't participate in all classes. To each his own, I guess.

8:08 AM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

I think you encountered a typo; it's Choki Motobu, not Chotoku (as in Kiyan).

For the most part, Motobu was a fighting coach, although he acknowledged kata as important later on (especially Naihanchi).

Details can be sketchy regarding history, you never know what you're researching is accurate. (Like the misspelling of a name of an important contributor to Okinwan karate - this is actually very common.) Thanks for looking into this.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Mathieu said...


Sorry about that. My mistake.
So... No I didn't find any link to him training with Choki Motobu.

It is mentionned that he saw Choki Motobu start his own practice but I could not find a mention that he did train directly under him. I'll look into it some more.

Here's a nice link you might like. It's a Isshin-Ryu practicionner :

2:31 PM  
Blogger Mathieu said...

Ok, I've done my homework:

Motobu Choyu (also chotoku) did teach O'Sensei Unsu and Wansu. It's unknown if Chitose Sensei received any other training from the Motobu.

Choyu was Choki's older brother. The Motobus were known to be considered adjunct members of the royal family and had special privileges such as being taught the Gotende "palace hand" which was only taught to the first child of the family.

Choyu also was the first to break that rule - to have the art taught to non-members of the royal family. Because of the early death of his son and his second boy was not interested in the art. He taught Uehara Seikichi- the tea boy- the art which in turn teached the second son the art(kind of ironic). Chitose Sensei trained with Choyu and Seikichi.

Motobu Ryu is still being taught to this day and is said to be as such : "The art looks almost dance like, with soft, circular, flowing movements more reminiscent of Aikido than karate with many grappling and throwing techniques. Along with the dance like kata, Motobu Ryu includes a well developed kobudo curriculum passed along with the rest of the art"

Sources : Bishop, Mark: "Okinawan Karate - Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques", A&C Black Ltd. London, 1989.
Powell, Michael "The Fighting Art of Okinawan Royalty", Steve Grayston's Martial Arts, no. 41.

Cheers! and sorry for the mistake - again.

2:51 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Until now, my knowledge of the Motobus, style and lineage was cursory at best. I appreciate the time and effort you put into all of this.

4:35 PM  
Blogger Mathieu said...

My pleasure.

I stumbled upon this also, you might find it interesting.

It's on Isshin-Ryu karate Do. You might have already read it.

On the same website, there's an article by Travis Cottreau that tells about the same thing that I found out.


11:07 AM  
Blogger gijoe said...

An interesting side-note about Motobu that my teacher and I read in a karate history book we bought in Okinawa:

Apparently, when Motobu went to mainland Japan and he was first getting started teaching karate, he asked Chibana Choshin if he could come with him and help setup schools and teach. For whatever reason, Chibana politely refused. We cannot help but wonder how the annals of karate history would have been changed had Motobu and Chibana teamed up on the mainland.

5:04 PM  
Blogger John Vesia said...

Very interesting. Actually this might clear things up: It was Chibana's principal instructor who years earlier refused to instruct Motobu: Itosu Anko.

9:05 PM  

<< Home