Famous Masters 5th - 19th Centuries
Taishi Bodhidharma (470 - 543 AD)
A fifth-century Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma is credited with bringing Zen to China, by travelling several thousand miles from western India via the Himalayas. He travelled to the Shaolin (Shorin-ji) Temple in Hunan Province and taught a method (the Ekkin Kyo or Sutra) "by which you can develop your physical strength enough to enable yourselves to attain the essence of the way of Buddha".
Although the tradition that traces its ancestry back to him did not flourish until nearly two hundred years after his death, today millions of Zen Buddhists and students of kung fu claim him as their spiritual father. While others viewed Zen practice as a purification of the mind or a stage on the way to perfect enlightenment, Bodhidharma equated Zen with buddhahood and believed that it had a place in everyday life. Instead of telling his disciples to purify their minds, he pointed them to rock walls, to the movements of tigers and cranes, to a hollow reed floating across the Yangtze. Founder of Shaolin Ch’uan Fa (Kung Fu) and Zen Buddhism.
Wong Chung-Yoh (born 1630?)
Very little is known about Wong Chung-Yoh. He taught a style of martial arts known as XingYi (Hsing-I) and Chi Kung in China in the late 1600s. His school was located in Fuzhou, in the Fukien province of China. His most notable student was Yara of Chatan (a town in Okinawa).
Yara of Chatan (also Chatan Yara, (1668 - 1756))
Chatan Yara is a legendary figure in the Okinawan Martial Arts legacy. At age 12, his uncle took him from Okinawa to Fukien in China in order to learn Chinese Kempo and weaponry from Wong Chung-Yoh. He returned to Okinawa 20 years later, killing a samurai in self-defence. He created the sai and tonfa kata which carry his name.
Chang Kushanku (Kusanku or Kong Su Kung)) (1700s)
Kūsankū was a Chinese martial artist who had a significant influence on all karate-derived martial arts. He learned the art of Ch’uan Fa in China and between 1756 and 1762, he was sent to Okinawa as a Chinese ambassador as part of Okinawa’s tributary relationship with China. He lived in the village of Kumemura (near Naha), which had been home to many Chinese people since the late 1300s.
He is credited with the creation of the "chambered position" of the fist by the side of the body (and hiki-te). From this position, Kusanku taught his students to corkscrew the fist on impact creating more power and a more devastating blow to one's opponent.
He taught Takahara Peichin, who regarded him as one of the most skilful of all the martial artists who had come from China, and Sukagawa.
The Kusanku kata (from which other Kanku kata are derived) was named after him by Sukagawa (see below).
Takahara Peichin (1683 - 1760)
Takahara was born in Akata-Cho in Southern Shuri. He was an Okinawan noble who worked as a surveyor and map maker at Shuri Castle. He was an expert in To-de, the Okinawan version of Ch’uan fa.
The Shuri government made a policy of employing very skilful martial artists to fill routine staff positions in the vicinity of the king, but who acted bodyguards. Takahara may have been one of these bodyguards.
He emphasized ethical principles of the Way, "do" such as "Ijo" (compassion, humility and love), "Fo" (seriousness, devotion and dedication) and "Katsu" (deep understanding and essence of techniques). Takahara attributed a major importance to Kata and its significance. He saw Kata as an efficient instrument to understand and improve fighting techniques.
Takahara regarded martial arts as way of life and some consider him to be the "Father of Okinawan Karate".
His most famous student was "To-de" Sakugawa. It was Takahara who encouraged Sakugawa to train with Kushaku during the latter’s 6 year posting to Kunemura in Okinawa.
Kanga Sakugawa (1733 - 1815)
Sakugawa was a major contributor to the development of To-de and Okinawan Te, into a unified style. In 1750 (aged 12) Sakugawa began training under Takahara and Kusanku.
At Takahara’s request just before he died, Sukugawa took the name "To-de" or "Kara-te" ("Chinese Hand") Sakugawa. and some consider him to be the "First Teacher of Okinawan Karate". He was a junior diplomat, spending time in China, and a bodyguard at Shuri Castle.
He became famous as a teacher and is claimed by many modern systems of Karate-do as a progenitor.
From Sakugawa, we inherit the kata Kanku Dai and Sakugawa no Kon, the dojo style of teaching and the philosophy of the Dojo Kun.
Sakugawa's most significant student was "Bushi" Matsumura, who began training in 1811 at the age of 14 years, when Matsumura was 78. Sakugawa died four years later at the age of 82, more than twice the average lifespan in Okinawa at the time.
"Bushi" Matsumura Sokon (c.1798 - c.1890)
"Bushi" means warrior, which was bestowed upon him by the King Sho Ko of Okinawa, after winning a bullfight, by frightening the bull.
Early in his career, he enrolled on a Samurai program in Japan and emerged with a certificate of absolute mastery in the samurai fighting arts (menkyo kaiden) strongly suggesting he was trained in battlefield wresting as well as the weapon arts of the sword, spear, bayonet, dagger and gunnery.
His wife Yonamine was also extremely proficient in martial art.
When only in his 20s, he became chief of security to the royal family and became commander of the Shuri Castle for 50 years, serving three Okinawan kings throughout that time.
During his travels in China and Japan (c. 1860s), Matsumura studied Shaolin Kung fu and brought back several kata including early forms of tekki, hangetsu and gojushiho. He is credited with creating kata gankaku, using techniques he learnt from a shipwrecked Chinese martial artist in Tomari. Furthermore, his mastery or the bo, sai and ekubo enabled him to create kata for all three weapons.
His methodology was very linear and thus different from the circular moves associated with Chinese methods: this devastating style became known as Shuri-te.
All branches of modern linear karate descend from Matsumura via his protégé, Yasutsune ("Anko") Itosu.
He also became the teacher to Yasatsune ("Anko") Azato and on occasion to Funakoshi Gichin. He died aged 97, almost three times the lifespan in Okinawa at that time.
Masters Itosu, Azato, & Arakaki
Yasutsune Azato (c. 1827 - 1906)
Born c.1827, "Anko" Azato was one of Matsumura's pupils. Azato was the royal advisor and military officer to the King Sho. Azato was also Gichin Funakoshi's first teacher, known for his strict teaching style, especially kata repetition. Although a trained swordsman, his unarmed combat ability was unrivalled, even against an armed opponent. Azato is considered as one of the great masters of tai sabaki (body shifting).
It was Azato who said, "Think of the hands and feet as swords. They can kill with a touch."
Yasutsune Itosu (1830/2 - 1916)
Born c.1830 "Anko" Itosu was the apprentice bodyguard, studying under Matsumura from 16 to 24 years of age. Eventually, Itosu became the king's personal secretary and worked alongside Matsumura for 30 years. Yet another example of a legendary karate master whose duties placed him in the presence of royalty at Shuri Castle.
Itosu's punch was legendary. Stories describe him winning matches with a single blow. He was known for his quick and decisive fighting techniques: even aged 75, he defeated a judoka who was half his age. This destruction of an opponent very quickly was a new development in Shuri-te.
When the Sho Dynasty ended in 1879, Itosu remained in Shuri and began teaching karate in secret to a very select group of students at his house in the middle of the night. The group included Gichin Funakoshi.
However, Itosu's greatest achievement occurred in 1902, when he decided to end karate's secrecy. He began teaching karate at public schools in Shuri. By 1905, he was teaching at colleges. The Heian kata were first taught to junior high school students at this time.
Since it was Itosu who introduced karate into the Okinawan school system, he is responsible for much of the karate that we practice today. He modified Matsumura's Heian Nidan and Naihanchi (tekki) kata, creating the five Heian kata and the three Tekki kata. Itosu is also assumed to have revised Kanku, Bassai, and Gojushiho, creating two versions for each kata. He is also believed to be the creator of Chinte as well as the Rohai kata, from which Meikyo was taken. Even Empi can be traced to Itosu.
Many of Itosu's students went on to become founders of the various karate styles of today, for example Shito-ryu, Shorin-Ryu (Kobayashi) and of course, Shotokan.
He is credited with saying "karate is not a sport, but rather a killing art. It should only be used for self-defence and as a last resort." He died aged 85.
Seisho Aragaki (known as "the Cat", 1840 - 1918)
He was a very prominent To-de teacher and kobudo master. Another employee at Shuri Castle, he was a Chinese interpreter and envoy to China. Much of his learning took place in China as his duties brought him there often. Many of the kata practiced today descend from him such as Niseishi (Nijushiho), Sochin, and Unsu.
His most famous students include Chotoku Kyan and Kanryo Higaonna, the founder of Goju Ryu karate.