Choki Motobu - A Real Fighter
Choki Motobu introduced karate to the world in 1925 when, in a prize fight in Kyoto, he knocked out a foreign boxer who was his superior in height, weight, and youth with a single blow.
Posterity has not treated all the old karate masters equally. Some have had their praises sung many times in print while others, equally accomplished, have been all but forgotten. It would be nice to turn the spotlight onto some of these little known figures but so much karate history has been lost that it is often impossible.
Karate was introduced into Japan in the 1920’s when several masters came from Okinawa to teach the art. The best known of these today are Gichin Funakoshi, who founded the Shotokan school; Chojun Miyagi (Goju style), and Kenwa Mabuni (Shito style). There were others however such as Kanken Toyama, Moden Yabiku, Kanbum Uechi; and Choki Motobu, who in many ways was the most interesting of them all. Unlike Funakoshi, Myagi and Mabuni, though, Choki Motobu did not leave behind him a major karate school. Perhaps he never organized his methods into a formal system, or maybe he was too much of an individualist.
Choki Motobu in Japan
Motobu was born in Shuri, the old capital of Okinawa, in 1871. He had considerable local fame in Okinawa as a fighter-strongman but it was only after he moved to Osaka in 1921 that he became known in Japanese martial art circles.
What brought Motobu to the attention of the Japanese was his victory over a western boxer in a kind of all-comers challenge match. In the earlier part of this century such bouts were occasionally held in Japan pitting western boxers against judo or jujutsu men, (karate was unknown in Japan around this time). These were not “official” bouts for any sort of legitimate title, but something more like sideshow attractions. The results of such bouts have even been recorded in a few cases. Boxing historians for example are fond of pointing out that, back in 1928 in Yokohama, top bantamweight Packy O’Gatty KO’d a Japanese jujutsu man named Shimakado in 14 seconds. That 14 seconds included the full count, by the way. E. J. Harrison also mentioned in passing a couple of boxing vs. judo shows in his book, The Fighting Spirit of Japan, first published in 1913. Few of the fighters in these events were champions in their sports, but the shows did arouse interest in a certain section of the populace.
Anyway, this was the background to Motobu’s victory which so delighted the people back in Okinawa when they heard about it. Soon after Motobu settled in Japan he went to watch a boxing vs. judo show in Kyoto. A boxer taking part beat several judomen rather easily and then issued an open challenge. Moreover, the challenge was issued in a boastful and derogatory way. Choki Motobu, who was sitting in the audience stepped up onto the stage (or ring) and in the ensuing battle he knocked the boxer out—probably with a punch, or series of punches, to the head. That is about as much as we can say about it since no contemporary reports of the fight exist.
Any student who is violent, displays the wrong conduct, or harms our reputation, will be removed from our kanyu list and expelled from the dojo.
—Rule 14, Daidokan Dojo
I knew that the Japanese magazine Kingu (King) had published a story on Motobu and the boxer back in 1925, but when I finally tracked this down and read the translation I found that it was a piece of imaginative, popular journalism rather than an accurate blow-by-blow report. However, the importance of this feature lay not in its accuracy as a fight report but in the publicity it gave to what had previously been an obscure event. King was the major general interest magazine at the time with a circulation of over a million and this is how Motobu’s exploits came to be widely reported. For the record, the King story states that Motobu knocked the boxer unconscious with a rising palm heel strike. On the other hand, Seiyu Oyata, a modern day Okinawan karate expert, states that Motobu won the fight by kicking the boxer in the solar plexus and finishing him off with a strike to the neck. Shoshin Nagamine (Shorin-ryu) says that the knockout came in the third round from a strike to the temple. Motobu hit the boxer so hard that he was knocked down and blood came from his ears. Nagamine was told by Motobu that he had won a hundred yen by betting on himself.
There is no doubt that Choki Motobu was a formidable fighter. Hironori Ohtsuka, the founder of Wado-ryu, knew Motobu in the 1930s and recalled that he was “definitely a very strong fighter.” Ohtsuka remembered seeing a fight, or maybe it was more of a sparring match, between Motobu and a boxer named Piston Horiguchi. Motobu blocked all the boxer’s attacks and Horiguchi was unable to land a single clean punch.
Choki Motobu was over 50 years old when he defeated the Western boxer! People on Okinawa used to say that he liked to fight more than anything else, and certainly he did not seem to mind a good brawl. In 1932, when he was 60 years old, a group of expatriate Okinawans brought him to Hawaii to face the fighters there, presumably boxers and judomen. However, no bouts took place because the Hawaiian immigration authorities considered him an undesirable and he had to leave almost immediately.
Motobu was born into a high ranking family at a time when education and privilege were reserved for the first born son. Consequently, as a third son, he was rather neglected. His elder brothers, however (and particularly Choyu Motobu, the eldest) were good karateka and he may have learned something of the art from them.
As a young man, Choki Motobu’s ambition was to become the strongest man in Okinawa. To fulfill this ambition he trained himself every day, lifting stone weights and hitting the makiwara (striking post). There are stories that he would hit the makiwara a thousand times a day, and even if this is an exaggeration it illustrates the importance he attached to this training drill. Nagamine recalls that Motobu would sometimes sleep outside, (when he slept inside the dojo he would lie on the hard wooden floor, without a mattress), and if he woke up during the night, rather than turning over and going back to sleep he would get up and hit the makiwara. Motobu was also very agile and quick and he got the nickname “Motobu-saru”(Monkey Motobu) not only because of his rough behavior but also because of his remarkable agility in climbing trees and moving from branch to branch as nimbly as a monkey. In his youth at least he seems to have been a good natural athlete.
He was a good runner too, and Japanese karate expert Hiroyasu Tamae writes of one occasion when Motobu was fighting attackers then ran off, jumped nimbly onto a roof and began tearing off the roofing tiles and throwing them at his assailants, beating them off in this way. Tamae makes the point that Okinawan roof tiles are secured very strongly to withstand typhoons, and it requires powerful hands and arms to tear them loose, but for a man reputed to be the best fighter on Okinawa it still seems a strange way to act. I guess Motobu’s behavior was just eccentric at times. Gichin Funakoshi used to say that he never knew what Motobu would get up to next.
Choki Motobu’s idea of a good training session was to go down to Naha’s entertainment district and pick fights. This area was well known for street fighting and Motobu picked up valuable experience in this way. Being bigger and stronger than the average Okinawan he usually won these fights but there was one occasion when he tackled a man called Itarashiki and was well beaten. This Itarashiki was a karate expert and the defeat only made Motobu more determined to train hard and learn more about karate.
At this time, around the turn of the century, karate was just beginning to emerge from generations of secrecy and the senior masters were sensitive about the image of the art. They looked upon karate as a physical art, building health, strength and character and they did not approve of Motobu’s exploits in the rough areas of town. Nevertheless he was able to get instruction from several leading experts. (Seikichi Toguchi has said that, because of Motobu’s upper-class birth, many karate masters found it difficult to refuse him instruction). Motobu originally studied karate with the famous Ankoh Itosu (1830-1915), the leading master of Shuri-te. However, he came to feel that he was not learning enough, and growing dissatisfied with Itosu’s teaching he later studied with Tomari-te’s Kosaku Matsumora (1829-1898) and with Master Sakuma. However, Motobu’s karate always seemed to bear his own distinctive stamp, arising no doubt from his independent nature and his fighting experiences. He always emphasized practicality, and in time many people came to regard him as the best fighter on Okinawa. True, he was beaten in a shiai (contest) by Kentsu Yabu (1863-1937), Itosu’s senior student and a tough character, but we don’t know the full circumstances surrounding this. Yabu was Choki Motobu’s senior in karate by several years, and at the time of the contest Motobu may have been a comparative novice. This is something that needs clarification, but anyway it is a fact that Motobu was famous in Okinawa for his fighting ability.
I first read about this colorful figure years ago in Peter Urban’s book Karate Dojo. Although this has remained one of my favorite karate books, it has little value as a historical source and Urban describes Choki Motobu as a giant of 7'–4" “with hands and feet like monstrous hams” . . . an early Okinawan version of the Incredible Hulk in fact, who was almost impossible to hurt and who “preferred to grab his enemies and chop them to death.” A couple of years later the American karateman, Robert Trias, trying to inject a note of reality (?) into the subject, told an interviewer that the accounts of Motobu’s size had been exaggerated and that actually he was “only 6 feet 8 inches” tall.
All this was rather hard to believe and at one time I wrote to Richard Kim, the famous authority on karate history, about it. He kindly replied, stating that Motobu was a little under 6 feet tall and solidly built, weighing around 200 lbs. This sounded reasonable, yet as I learned more about Choki Motobu I had to constantly revise the estimates of his height downwards. In fact the existing photographs, taken in the 1920s and 1930s, show him to be no bigger, and in some cases smaller, than his training partners. The article in the old King magazine gives his height as 5 feet 3 or 4 inches and I would think this is correct. He was thus only a little bigger than some of the other early pioneers of Japanese karate such as Funakoshi, Mabuni and Konishi, although of a much heavier build. The photos we have of Motobu show him in middle age when he had put on weight and thickened appreciably round the waist. He had a sturdy, robust appearance but for a reputed strongman, the muscular development of his arms chest and back does not look particularly impressive, at least by today’s standards.
Another myth about Motobu is that he only knew one kata, the Naihanchin (Tekki in the Shotokan version). This is incorrect. He also knew Passai—evidently there is a rarely seen Motobu version of this kata—and Gojushiho, and although he may not have practiced them he was aware of the major kata of each style—Shurite, Nahate, and Tomarite. (He provided a list of the major kata in his book). It would be true to say, however, that he did become attached to Naihanchin and for all the talk about him not being good at kata, the photographic record shows that technically his performance of Naihanchin was quite as good—if not better—than Gichin Funakoshi’s.
Choki Motobu was not against kata but he did require that they relate to combat. In Naihanchin, for instance, his students were taught to pay attention to various technical points. It seems that the nami-ashi (“wave returning” foot movement) in Naihanchin was originally interpreted as a stamping movement to attack the opponent’s leg (now it is usually taught as a foot block against a kick) and consequently many karateka would crash their foot down noisily on the floor while doing this technique. Motobu, however, although he did the movement strongly with a kiai, always kept good balance and put his foot down lightly. It wasn’t that his technique was weak, because he once broke an opponent’s leg with this stamping waza (technique). He explained to his students however that if the technique was done too heavily and the foot was brought down with a big crash then you might find it difficult to maintain your defense throughout the movement. According to Yasuhiro Konishi, Motobu thought about every detail in the kata in this kind of way.
However, where Choki Motobu really differed from other leading karate masters such as Funakoshi, Mabuni and Miyagi was in basing his style on the study of kumite.
Kata seemed to occupy a secondary position with him. His karate stressed alertness, sharpness, and practicality, and his experience in brawls and street fights showed through in his techniques which were straightforward and effective. Some of his kumite-waza were shown in his book Ryukyu Kempo Karatejutsu. Kumite, (The Okinawan boxing art of karate-jutsu. Sparring techniques), published in 1926. Incidentally, Motobu could not speak or write mainland Japanese at all well and it is thought that someone else must have written it under his direction, or possibly he dictated it. But at any rate the book’s philosophy is his and he posed for all the illustrations.
Judging from this book, Motobu used a natural stance and it is noticeable that when blocking or striking he did not pull his other hand back to the hip (the action of hikite) but held it across his body as a guard, where it could be brought into action more readily. He also stressed training the weaker side of the body to bring it up to the natural side. For instance, in hitting the makiwara he recommended doing more repetitions with the weaker, left hand, if you were right-handed. And he also frequently told his students to “Defend the center of the body and attack the center of the body”; an early form of center-line theory, in fact. Motobu also made full use of the lead hand for striking. This was rather advanced for that time, when the orthodox method was to block with the forward hand, and use the rear hand to counterattack. Motobu taught that the forward hand, being closer to the opponent is quicker in action and should be used for striking effectively.
Choki Motobu relied mainly on hand techniques, with the feet and knees being used in a supporting but effective role, aiming his kicks at the stomach, groin, and knee joints. He often liked to grab and he also used basic techniques of covering or checking the opponent’s hands and arms. His attacks were directed not only to the face and midsection, but also to the groin (striking with the knee or foot, or grabbing the testicles) and knees (with stamping kicks). The forefist, backfist, elbow, and one-knuckle fist seem to have been his favorite weapons. According to Shoshin Nagamine, Motobu attached some importance to the one knuckle fist (keikoken), and he would train this technique on the makiwara, striking with full force. Over the years he had found that at close quarters the orthodox forefist punch might be smothered or unable to generate sufficient power and that in such situations keikoken could be very effective. “No other karateman in the history of Okinawan karate,” wrote Nagamine, “has ever matched Motobu in the destructive power of keikoken.” As for training equipment, Motobu stressed the use of makiwara, and also recommended the use of the chishi and sashi, the traditional tools for building the strength of the hands and arms. He also used to practice a crude form of weight training, lifting a heavy stone weighing about 130 lbs. to his shoulders daily.
Motobu sensei was actually the first of the Okinawan karate masters to settle in Japan, preceding Gichin Funakoshi by a year or so. He came to Osaka in 1921, but his purpose in coming to Japan may not have been to teach karate. He may simply have moved because, like many Okinawans, he believed Japan offered greater opportunities to make a living. In 1879 the Ryukyu Islands were made a prefecture (Ken) of Japan, and from then until 1945 this Okinawa-ken was Japan’s poorest and most neglected prefecture. Consequently, many islanders emigrated to Japan and it was estimated that by 1940 over 80,000 Okinawans were living there. This was out of an Okinawan population of something over half a million.
Motobu had been living in Japan a couple of years when he made the acquaintance of a judo teacher named Doi, who encouraged him to try to teach karate in Japan. Motobu subsequently began giving demonstrations and teaching in the Kobe-Osaka area, but development of the art was slow. After a couple of years he thought of giving it all up, but then in the mid-1920s interest in the art slowly began to grow. In 1927 he moved to Tokyo where he probably saw greater potential.
When Motobu came up to Tokyo, Gichin Funakoshi had already been teaching there for several years, and a certain amount of ill-feeling arose between the two men, who had known each other back in Okinawa. It was something like a question of who was to assume the leadership of karate in Japan, but really, the two men were incompatible personalities. Gichin Funakoshi, for instance, seemed to feel that Motobu did not really understand the true nature of karate. Funakoshi, a man who valued propriety and culture, criticized Motobu’s lack of education—he called him an illiterate—and his rough behavior. For his part, Choki Motobu said that Funakoshi’s art was just an imitation karate, not much more than a dance. A Japanese karate teacher named Fujiwara has also pointed out that in the rigid social ranking system of Okinawa, Choki Motobu was two classes higher than Gichin Funakoshi and so it was impossible for him to regard Funakoshi as his superior in any way.
I don’t know if much ever came of all this, but there were rumors. Yasuhiro Konishi, who studied with both masters, heard that one time when the two men met, they began comparing techniques of attack and defense, as Okinawans often do. In demonstrating a movement Funakoshi was unable to block Motobu’s thrust completely and moreover was knocked back several feet by its force. Konishi heard that Funakoshi was resentful about this. There was also a rumor that Motobu had challenged Gichin Funakoshi to a match and when the two met, he swept Funakoshi to the floor and followed up with a punch to the face, which he stopped a couple of inches short—just to show who was boss, I guess. Konishi could not vouch for the truth of this and it may never have happened. Reading all the available material on Gichin Funakoshi, he does not come over as the type of person who went in for challenge matches; just the opposite, in fact. However, if the two men ever had met in a serious contest then (this is just my opinion) Motobu would probably have won rather easily. For one thing, Funakoshi, who was only 5 feet tall, was slightly built and would have been heavily outweighed. For another, Funakoshi never became involved in fights, whereas Motobu had the experience of numerous streetfights behind him and was a fighter by nature.
But anyway, the years rolled by and “the leadership of karate,” if it could be called such a thing, did pass to the Funakoshi school. The Motobu method does not seem to exist today as a distinctive style. Funakoshi organized his teaching well, he had energetic helpers (including his brilliant son, Yoshitaka), and influential friends such as Jigoro Kano, the famous founder of Judo. Funakoshi’s first book Ryukyu Kempo Karate (1922) contained forewords by such people as Marquis Hisamasa, the former Governor of Okinawa, Admiral Rakuro Yashiro, Vice Admiral Chosei Ogasawara, Count Shimpei Goto, and so on. Choki Motobu, however, never sought out such patrons, and in fact, according to Hironori Ohtsuka he was quite a solitary man. This agrees with the view of Konishi, who was quite close to Motobu for several years and never once saw him in an actual fight. Konishi felt that, although Motobu was obviously an exceptional fighter, he would never provoke trouble and was actually a very quiet person. So it sounds as if Choki Motobu calmed down quite a bit as he grew older. He seems to have been a straightforward, intelligent, but uncomplicated type of person who lacked Gichin Funakoshi’s education and knowledge of Japanese culture and etiquette. Motobu did not speak mainland Japanese very well—the Okinawans had their own dialect which was often incomprehensible to the Japanese—and even when he moved to Tokyo he had to use Yasuhiro Konishi as an interpreter. Choki Motobu spent 19 years in Japan, teaching karate for most of that time. In 1940 he returned to Okinawa and died there in 1944.
Motobu and the Boxer
The story of Choki Motobu’s contest with the boxer was featured in the Japanese magazine Kingu (King), in the September 1925 issue (No.9), pages 195-204. (See inset, following page.) It needed quite a bit of detective work to track this down and I must thank Mr. R. A. Scoales of the Japan Society of London, and Mr. Kenneth Gardiner of the British Library, for their help. It was Mr. Gardner who finally located a copy of the article for me. I am also deeply grateful to Kenji Tokitsu, the leading authority on Japanese karate history in Europe, who made a translation of the article.
A few observations on this old article might be worthwhile. As I said, when I first heard about it I thought it might give an accurate account of the contest, but although it obviously relates to the events which occurred, both the descriptions of the action and the dialogue are imaginative. The author, someone writing under the pseudonym Meigenro Shujin, does not give his sources, but he had obviously done some basic research and probably had talked to some of the spectators or even Motobu himself. He may have even been at the event, but somehow I get the impression that he was not an eyewitness. In any case the article appeared four years after the events described (if the date of 1921 is correct) and by then people’s memories may not have been too clear about what actually happened.
One point of interest is that the artist who did the accompanying illustrations confused the two karate masters teaching in Japan at that time—Choki Motobu and Gichin Funakoshi—and drew the illustrations as if it had been Funakoshi and not Motobu, who had defeated the boxer…I wonder what Choki Motobu thought about that when he saw the article?
For other source material the artist and author must have used Gichin Funakoshi’s Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu, published the same year (1925), since the illustration for “the guard of Pinan Yodan” is copied directly from that book. Of course the posture shown is not an en garde stance but an intermediate position of defense before a counterattack is launched. The writer probably chose this stance because it looked very “karate-ish” but it is hardly conceivable that Choki Motobu would use it. Kenji Tokitsu has pointed out it is unlikely that Motobu knew the Pinan kata, and even if he did (i.e. the order of the movements) he did not practice them sufficiently to apply the techniques in combat. Anyway, we know that Motobu’s fighting stance was much more natural and orthodox than this. One point that does emerge from the story, however, is that Motobu fought without the use of gloves and struck the knockout blow with his bare hands—whether with the palm or closed fist we can’t really be sure. It does not seem that Motobu used palm strikes much at other times.
The nationality of the boxer is not given but there is a tradition that he was German, or Russian. His identity will probably never be known, and even if it was, it probably wouldn’t mean very much to us. I mean, it is unlikely he was a well known professional whose record we could refer to. He was probably an itinerant boxer who found himself in Japan and was making some money knocking over judomen. That he was the German Heavyweight Champion on his way to the USA to fight for the (World) Championship, as has been suggested, is extremely unlikely. There simply was no German contender for the title at that time. The top European heavyweight was the Frenchman George Carpentier who did fight for the World title in July 1921 and was stopped by Jack Dempsey in four rounds. The first German boxer to make a name for himself was Max Schmeling, but he didn’t win the German title until 1928, when he beat Franz Diener.
As for him being the “Russian Heavyweight Boxing Champion” (per Bruce Haines in his Karate’s History and Traditions, the Russians did not even have organized boxing until after the second World War, when they began competing internationally in all sports. However, he may indeed have been a Russian (or German) who had picked up some boxing in his travels.
All this is not to put down Choki Motobu’s achievement but just to try and introduce some kind of perspective into the stories which have grown up about this contest. l think that, sitting there watching the action, Motobu must have realized he had the measure of the boxers, but it still took courage and confidence to step up in front of a skeptical crowd and accept the challenge. When the fight actually began, he did what had to be done; and he did it at an age—50—when most people today are happy to spend their time in front of the television or down at the pub. What a fascinating character he must have been.