O'Sensei Hohan Soken

Hohan Soken was born in Okinawa in 1889, the Great Grandson of Soken "Bushi" Matsumura.  The Imperial Court's removal of Japan's king and the destruction of the feudal system caused hardships on Soken's family.  Even though they were born samurais, his family had very little money after the purge and had to work in the fields.  Soken's uncle, Nabe Matsumura, "Bushi's" Grandson,  was one of the top karate masters at the time.  He offered to tutor Soken in Bushido, "the way of the warrior," if he could demonstrate patience and control benefiting the samurai heritage.  He began training with Nabe Matsumura at age 13.  He was instructed in the arts of karate and kobojitsu (use of weapons).  He would work in the fields during the day and study karate and kobojitsu in the evening.  As he grew, the training intensified.  

When Hohan Soken was 23, his sensei told him that he was ready to learn "real" karate.  He had been drilled in fundamentals for ten years.  Now Nabe Matsumura decided Hohan Soken was finally ready to learn the ancient secret of Hakutsuru, the White Swan.  Many men coveted the knowledge of this technique.  But Nabe Matsumura refused to teach them because of the deadly potential of this technique in the hands of careless men.  Even Gichin Funakoshi, who introduced karate to Japan, was refused by Matsumura after he asked to be taught the White Swan.  It is believed Matsumura declined because he wanted to confine the knowledge of this deadly technique to his family. 

To practice the control of the White Swan, Hohan Soken would mount a board and then push the board out onto a pond.  After much practice, he was able to perform kata on the board.  And later, kumite (sparring) with his sensei, who balanced on another board on the pond.  He practiced on the board in all kinds of weather.

Hohan Soken left Okinawa in the 1920's and lived in Argentina until the end of World War II.  While there he became fluent in Spanish.  After returning to Okinawa, he continued conducting demonstrations to the public.  The public demonstrations were frowned on by Okinawan traditionalists.  There were few groups who thought the art should be hidden from the public and kept secret. 

 

A scroll of rules occupied a place of honor in Hohan Soken's dojo.  The rules were known as the Code of Soken.  The last rule states, "Step by step, study by study, and one day in the future you will undoubtedly enter the Temple of the Shaolin."  

O'Sensei Hohan Soken passed away in November of 1982 at the age of 93.

 

More About Hohan Soken

 

Possibly nowhere else in all the world are there so many 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th dan of karate; All of them authentic as in the Ryukyu Island's chain that sweeps southeastward from Japan to China, separating the Pacific Ocean from the East China Sea.

 
Here, in this long necklace of islands, of which Okinawa is the principal jewel, is where modern karate was born-developed and refined from a Chinese foot fighting system first introduced four hundred years ago. And a fertile seedbed for karate the islands proved to be. There seemed to sprout almost as many different systems as islands, systems such as Shorin-ryu, Shaolin-ryu, Goju-ryu, Uechi-ryu, Okinawa-Te, Okinawan Kenpo, etc.

But even with all these systems and all these authentic experts, little is known outside the islands of Okinawan karate, which is the basis of all modern Japanese and Korean karate styles as well. Even in Japan, virtually everyone learning the art today is learning it not from Okinawans, but from other Japanese. And Koreans learned their karate not from Okinawans, but usually from Japanese sensei.

Thus, the outside world has gained knowledge of Okinawan karate mainly through teachers from Korea and Japan, two countries which have been aggressive in exporting their karate styles around the world.
 

Except for Gichin Funakoshi, who first introduced karate to Japan in 1917, Okinawa has sent very few of its masters abroad.

 

Interestingly enough, Americans are the only non-Okinawan group today to be studying the original karate arts of these islands directly under Okinawans on any kind of extensive scale. That's because of the number of big American military bases set up in Okinawa. Ever since the end of World War II, many thousands of young American servicemen have studied Okinawan karate while stationed in these islands. Some of the top U.S. karatemen, are of the Okinawan style.
 

One of the Okinawans who has had a lot to do with the karate training of Americans is a still-spry 78-year-old master named Hohan Soken. The almond-eyed Soken, who still retains a good thatch of silver-white hair, lives not far from the big Kaneda Air Base. Airmen studying the art there the past few years have been learning his particular brand of Shorin-ryu karate, though they may not have known personally much about Soken himself. Actually, Soken does not teach at the base, but his prize pupil, Fuse Kise, does. Kise will be the successor to Soken's school when the latter retires. The karate they teach would be classified as a strong "hard" style.

 
The story of Soken's mastery of karate and the ancient weapons has seldom been told except on a limited basis in his native Ryukyus. But it is instructive, for his life spans both the old and the newer elements in Okinawan karate and gives a glimpse of a society long gone. We talked with him at length at his picturesque home near the site of Shuri, once the capital of the old kingdom. Crumbling battlements and grass-grown moats are all that remain now of the old palace where samurai once strode defiantly and the last of the Okinawan kings sat in rule over his feudal domain.
 

Soken says he practices and teaches some of the same type of techniques of armed and unarmed defense his samurai warrior ancestors learned and employed hundreds of years ago at this same place. He is liberal and open-minded about his methods and does not propose his to be the only true path to karate mastery. He readily agrees that there are many other fine systems.
 

Soken was born in 1889 during a period of great upheaval and political unrest in the Ryukyus. The removal of the king by the imperial court of Japan and the destruction of the feudal system imposed many hardships on Soken's family. Although they were born samurais, he and his family had very little money after the purge and had to work in the fields to earn their living. As a young boy, Soken was ridiculed by the peasants because he was forced to work side by side with them despite his noble birth.
 

But young Hohan Soken had one big advantage that was eventually to lift him out of the field forever. His uncle, Nabe Matsumura, was one of the top karate masters in the Ryukyus at that time. Matsumura told the wiry lad that if he could demonstrate the patience and control befitting his samurai heritage, he would tutor him in Bushido, "the way of the warrior." Soken accepted gladly.

 

Throughout his younger years, Soken had heard of the exploits of his samurai predecessors. For instance, his uncle's grandfather and teacher, Hohan "Bushi" Matsumura, was well known. Bushi Matsumura had been a master in the Okinawan style of hand-to-hand combat and in the use of traditional weapons. Soken says the elder Matsumura had been sent by Sho Tai, king of the Ryukyus, to the famous Shaolin temple on the China mainland to increase his knowledge of the martial arts. (Whether Bushi ever found the temple is not known. Even today, the site of this famous temple, where Chinese foot fighting and hence all major karate styles are said to have been born, is still not definitely known.) Upon his return, he was appointed personal bodyguard to the king, according to Soken.
 

With the death of the grizzled old warrior, his grandson, Nabe, was designated to carry on the teachings. In keeping with the samurai family tradition, young Hohan Soken was chosen to be the next successor to the secrets of his ancestors.
 

At the age of 13, his training with his uncle began. Soken was instructed in the arts of karate and kobujitsu (use of weapons). Working in the fields during the day and studying karate and kobujitsu in the evening constituted a rigorous training schedule which developed physical strength and mental discipline in the stripling samurai.

 

As the lad grew to manhood, the training was intensified. When Hohan Soken was 23, his sensei told him he was ready to begin learning "real" karate. For ten years Nabe Matsumura had been drilling Soken in fundamentals; now he decided his student was finally ready to learn the ancient secret of Hakutsuru, the White Swan. According to Soken, many men coveted the knowledge of this technique. But Matsumura supposedly refused to reveal it because of the White Swan's deadly potential in the hands of unscrupulous men. The now white-mained Soken says that even the venerable master, Gichin Funakoshi, who introduced karate to Japan, asked to be taught the White Swan, but was refused by Matsumura. Soken says he believes Matsumura declined because he wanted to confine the knowledge of the deadly art to his family.
 

Because the White Swan is still cloaked in secrecy, according to Soken, attempts at explaining even his rare demonstrations of the technique become difficult. Soken himself will only volunteer an Oriental aphorism as an illustrative explanation. He tells of seeing a slender, swan-like bird perched on a large rock in a roaring wind. Despite the force of the wind, and sudden changes in its speed and direction, the bird maintained perfect balance and control. Perfect control of the body and mind in any situation, then, is one of the keys not only to the White Swan, but to all of Soken's karate.
 

To practice this control. Soken recalls, he was instructed to mount a board just large enough to support his weight and then push the board out into a pond. After much practice and concentration, Soken was able to perform kata (formal exercise) on his precarious water-borne perch, and later he would participate in kumite (free sparring) with his sensei, who balanced on another such board on the pond. To reinforce his mastery of this control in virtually any situation, Soken says, the practice on the boards was conducted in all kinds of weather.
 

Among the few other characteristics Soken will reveal of the White Swan techniques is the importance of chi (ki), or intrinsic energy-that much-discussed but seldom achieved abstraction in the mastery of unarmed combat. Another important element, according to Soken, is breath control, which he contends should be practiced every day, but not to the point of exhaustion. A strong point of the White Swan is the effectiveness of the method in using a more powerful opponent's strength against himself. However, it is the chi which is the single most emphasized element of this technique, and mastery of the chi is essential to learning the White Swan.
 

Soken has admitted teaching some of the principles of the White Swan to contemporary karate colleagues, but only one man, Fusei Kise, has been told them in full.

 

Soken's only profession is the teaching of his life's work karate and kobujitsu. At an age when most men would ordinarily bemoan their aged, aching joints, Hohan Soken practices two hours each day and devotes two more hours to teaching. The students of his rigidly run dojo are distinguished by only two kinds of belts other than the distinctive red obi (belt) denoting Soken's 10th dan proficiency. Novices wear a white belt until they earn promotion to first dan black belt.
 

The old master also teaches other instructors. Occasionally there are communication problems since the students speak many different languages, but Soken using his native Japanese, a limited amount of English, and a perfect command of Spanish, manages to make his meaning clear. Soken has traveled extensively throughout the Far East and South America. He left the Ryukyus in the 1920's and lived in Argentina until the end of World War II, and it was there that he became fluent in Spanish.
 

Although his duties at his dojo consume much of his time. Soken visits other dojo to give advanced training throughout the island. One of his favorite stops during the week is the Kadena Karate Club at sprawling Kadena Air Base in central Okinawa. The old gentleman admits he is fascinated by the complex modern war planes and the teeming activity at the base. He views the rolling meadows he knew as a boy when the air was disturbed only by soaring sea birds and marvels at the supersonic jets which are not thunder overhead. Fusei Kise, a seventh dan, is the chief instructor at the Kadena dojo and rigidly follows his master's principles in the teaching of his students.
 

Despite his heavy schedule, Soken still manages to find time to participate in many Ryukyuan cultural activities, such as the Okinawan Historical Society. In addition, he is the president of the Okinawa Kobojutsu Association.
 

He conducts karate demonstrations regularly to promote better understanding of the art by the public. Hohan Soken disagrees with the Okinawan traditionalists who frown on public demonstrations. There are still a few groups which contend the art should be hidden from the public view and kept strictly secret. Soken, however, thinks this is an outmoded view which might have been appropriate hundreds of years ago during the Sho Dynasty. At that time, the people of the islands were forbidden to possess weapons. Karate was a secret art, to be used only in defense of one's life. Some of the techniques of unarmed combat, like Hakutsuru, are still kept secret, but the general practice of karate is known around the globe. Soken believes that if a demonstration is conducted properly, with its sole object being education of the audience in the true art and meaning of karate, there is no harm done.
 

The rules for Soken's pupils are strict ones and are spelled out in an ornate scroll which occupies a place of honor in his Spartan dojo. To begin with, the karateka is told he must always act in a courteous manner. During training he must concentrate to the limit of his mental endurance, and he must give his all mentally and physically, as training without mental concentration prevents advancement. The technical and mental training of karate should be combined into one; the heart, mind and body should be in unison at all times. The karateka is told he must heed the advice of his master and of more advanced people from other schools, and listen to and never forget their advice. Listening and watching are key points of advancement. In order to advance, he is told to strive to obtain the true spirit of karate. Training is on a continuous basis and one learns a little at a time; the karateka must not take breaks in training as it will result in a step backward. He should always strive for advancement, and when he does advance, must not brag or boast. Self-praise and over-confidence is a sickness which corrupts training, according to the code of Soken. The karateka is to refrain from over-eating, drinking and smoking, for these bad habits hinder the effectiveness of his training.
 

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the scroll states: "Karate training has no limits; step by step, study by study, and one day in the future you will undoubtedly enter the temple (of shaolin)." That certainly is Hohan Soken's goal.

By Don Lucas
Black Belt, May, 1967

Following is an rare interview with Hohan Soken (1889-1982) held in 1978 by Ernest C. Estrada. Hohan Soken was the next in line following the lineage from Sokon 'Bushi' Matsumura to his grandson Nabe (Nabi) Matsumura (dates not sure, but born in the 1850's and died in the 1930's), who was Hohan Soken's uncle. After the death of Bushi Matsumura (probably in 1889) his grandson Nabe was designated as his successor. Hohan Soken started training in karate with his uncle Nabe at age 13. After 10 years of fundamentals he started learning 'real' karate by learning the Hakutsuru (White Crane) form. He left Okinawa in 1924 and lived in Argentina until 1952. He hated to see the changes in the so called 'modern' karate styles and in 1956 he called his style of karate Shorin Ryu Matsumura Orthodox Karate-do. The following interview is, I believe, very important, because, during his thirties years absence, Hohan Soken didn't undergo the changes in karate as occured under Japanese influence.

 

Interview with Hohan Soken

by Ernest C. Estrada

 

This is the first of a series of interviews with Hohan Soken one of the most famous and most respected karate masters of the 20th century.  The interview was conducted at the Kadena NCO Club located at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa. Present were Soken Hohan and one of his senior student, Kisei Fusi. Soken was a Shihan 10-Dan in Shorin-ryu Matsumura Seito Karate-do. His honbu dojo was located at 104 Gaja, Nishihara City, Okinawa Prefecture, Japan.  Since his death in 1982 several organizations have sprung up teaching karate founded on his teachings.

The date of the interview was September 10, 1978. The interview was conducted in Spanish to the great annoyance of Kisei. Soken spoke excellent Spanish due to the fact that he had lived in Argentina for over twenty-five years. I should also make mentioned that I was a Spanish language translator for the Pentagon for two plus years and worked in Washington, D.C., hence, I am familiar with the language.

Interviewer: Sensei, can you please identify yourself.

Soken-sensei: My name is Soken Hohan and I was born on May 25, 1889. I come from (I live in) Gaja Village, Nishihara City, Okinawa Prefecture. I am a native Okinawan. My style is officially called the Matsumura Orthodox Shorin-ryu Karate-do and I am a Shihan 10-Dan. My honbu dojo is presently located at Gaja Village, Nishihara City. My style comes from Kiyo Soken. To mark the occasion when Kiyo was appointed the chief body-guard to King Sho Ko (and later to Sho Iku and then Sho Tai), he was allowed to change his name. This was a custom back then, especially if something important or notable happened to you; he changed his name to Matsumura -- Matsumura Soken. It was later that King Sho Tai officially gave Matsumura the title of "Bushi" {The term "bushi" is different from the Japanese meaning. In Japan a "bushi," in simplistic terms, is a warrior. In Okinawa, the term "bushi" also refers to the individual being a martial-man/warrior but with a strong slant to also being a true gentleman -- hence, the meaning, "a gentleman warrior." - ed} and to this day he is, with affection, referred to as Bushi Matsumura.

When Bushi Matsumura died he left the "hands" of his teachings to my uncle, who was his grandson, Matsumura Nabe. My mother was Nabe-tanmei's sister. Tanmei means "respected senior or respected old man," this was and still is a title of much respect in Okinawa. I became a student of my uncle around 1902 or 1903 and learned the original methods of Uchinan Sui-di, as it was then called. Back then, there weren't large followings of students for a master of the warrior arts. Itosu Ankoh had less than a dozen students and he was one of the greatest of teachers at the time. My uncle had only one student, and that was me. He was still a practitioner with an "old mind" and would only teach or demonstrate for family members. Since I was the most interested, he allowed me to become his student. I should also state that Matsumura Orthodox is not the only authentic shorin-ryu style. This style, my style, was passed on from Matsumura Soken to my uncle, Nabe-tanmei but Nabe-tanmei was not Bushi Matsumura's only student. Matsumura had a good dozen or so dedicated students. Each one learned his methods and then expanded on them. My uncle only learned from Bushi Matsumura and only taught me what he had learned. So, it can be said that it an "old version" with no updates. By studying my Matsumura Orthodox you walk back into ancient times when karate was more forceful and challenging.

Interviewer: Sensei, can you tell me something about your training methods?

Sensei: Old training was always done in secret so that others would not steal your techniques. Nabe initially taught me stepping before anything. He would cut the leaves off the banana tree and place them on the ground. He would then have me do exercises to develop balance. If the balance was not good you would fall and since the exercises were always vigorous, a fall could seriously hurt you.

Text Box:  
We would also use the pine trees that were found throughout Okinawa. We would slap or kick the trees and develop our gripping methods for close in fighting. This kind of training was very hard and severe on a person who had to work hard all day and then train hard at night. Life was very hard back then. We would train twice a day. Early in the morning we would train on striking objects and conditioning to prepare one for the day. After working hard in the fields, we would have nightly training in two person techniques and conditioning like present-day kotekitai. We had to toughen our legs and hands - like iron, then they became true weapons. During the late hours we would practice the kata of Matsumura.

Interviewer: Can you tell me something about the kata you teach.

Soken demonstrating a position from the Hakutsure (White Crane) kata.1

Sensei: Well, kata, yes, the most important Matsumura Seito kata is the Kusanku. Sometimes we would practice the Kusanku with Kanzashi (hairpins) held in the hands - this was a common method of fighting. The hairpins were symbols of rank and many Okinawans carried them for decoration and also for protection.

Interviewer: I understand that you teach a white crane form. Is this the hakucho kata?

Sensei: No, Hakucho is another kata that, I believe, came from the Chinese tea seller, Go Kenki. He moved to Japan but my kata is much different. I call it Hakutsuru. It was about... no, it was after ten years of training my uncle taught me the most secret kata of Matsumura Seito Shorin-ryu, the Hakutsuru (white crane) kata. This form stressed the balance -- all the Matsumura kata stressed balance but this form was the most dangerous in training. The practice of the Hakutsuru form forced me to learn better balance by performing the techniques while balanced on a pine log. Initially I learned the form on the ground and then I had to perform it on a log laying on the ground. For the advanced training the log was put into the river and tied down so as not to float away. I was then instructed to perform the kata while balanced on the log. It was very difficult and I almost drowned several times by falling and bouncing my head off the log.

Interviewer: You are recognized as a leading practitioner of traditional weaponry. Can you tell something about your weapons training?

Sensei: I studied traditional weaponry under Komesu Ushi-no-tanmei and later under Tsuken Mantaka. Tsuken is known for the bo form called Tsuken-nu-kun or Tsuken-bo. It is very famous. 

Interviewer: Sensei, you speak excellent Spanish. Where did you learn to speak Spanish?

Sensei: Yes, Spanish. In 1924 I moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to find my fortune. I apprentice myself as a photographer and later I worked in the clothes cleaning business. I learned Spanish there and I taught karate after they found out who I was. Most of my students in Argentina came from the Okinawan community - some Japanese. All in all, in Argentina, I only had a small handful of students but we gave numerous demonstrations throughout the country. There were many, many Okinawans and Japanese living in Argentina. I returned to Okinawa in 1952.

Interviewer: What happened when you returned to Okinawa?

Sensei: I did not teach karate at first. Yes, not to the public but I began to teach a few family members which then opened up to a small dojo. I initially called it by the "hogen" name - Machimura sui-de or in Japanese, Matsumura Shuri-te. Around 1956 I changed the name of my teachings to Matsumura Orthodox Shorin-ryu karate-do. I still trained in the old ways and did not understand the new methods that were being taught. It appeared to be softer and more commercial. Because of this, I did not join the new organizations that were being formed at the time. My old ways of karate was not readily accepted by everyone. They thought it too old and too crude -- I think it was just too hard or maybe my training methods were too severe. Whatever it was, it was the way I learned and the way I taught. It was later, when the Americans came to learn, that I changed my ways.

I found that there were two kinds of students - one was a dedicated and motivated student who wants to learn the Okinawan martial arts. The other is an individual who only wants to say he is learning karate. There are more of the latter. It is the latter that you see everywhere. They say that they "know" karate or that they "use to" practice karate - these are worthless individuals. 

Interviewer: Can you tell me some more about your kata.

Sensei: I teach the Matsumura kata. The kata that I teach now are pinan shodan, pinan nidan, naihanchi shodan, naihanchi nidan, patsai-sho and dai, chinto, gojushiho, kusanku, rohai ichi-ni-san, and last, the hakutsuru. The last one is my favorite kata that I demonstrate - because it is easier to do. When I was young, the best kata was the kusanku. This is the Matsumura kusanku -- the older version that is not done much now. I also teach bo, sai, tuifa, kama, nunchaku, kusarigama and suruchin. My favorite weapons form is tsuken-bo (I learned that from Kemesu Ushi) but in the old days it was the furi-gama or kusari-gama. We, on Okinawa, use a hand made rope to tie the kama to the hand or wrist. In Japan they use an iron chain but this is too cumbersome and can damage the student that practices that method.

I knew Taira Shinken very well before he died. I taught him some of my older forms. In 1970 I formed the All Okinawa Kobujutsu Association. I hope that this will spread all over the U.S. and mainland Japan. I am also a member of the Ryukyu Historical Society. We are trying to preserve the "hogen" dialect. Many young Okinawans no longer understand or even speak the old Okinawan language anymore. It is shameful.

[It should also be noted that Soken preferred to speak in his native dialect of Hogen. He often stated that he did not care for the Japanese language that much. -- Editor]

This is the end of the first interview and the start of the second interview.

Interviewer: Sensei, you say that Shorin-ryu Matsumura Seito Karate-do is an old style with many secrets. Since you also say that you are getting old, what do you feel needs to be passed on to modern day students of Okinawan karate?

Sensei: There are many secrets in karate that people will never know and will never understand. These ideas are really not secret if you train in Okinawa under a good teacher. You will see the teacher use these so called secret techniques over and over again until they will become common knowledge to you. Others will look at it and marvel that it is an advanced or secret technique to them. That is because they do not have good teachers or their teachers have not researched their respective styles. Karate is much more than simple punching and kicking and blocking. It is the study of weaponry and of grappling. Weaponry and empty hand fighting go together. How can you learn about defending against a weapon unless you are familiar with what the weapon can do?
 

[Soken-sensei used the Spanish word for wrestling when describing this art-form but I felt that a more apt term would be grappling - much like Japanese-style jujutsu. He stated that many people often referred to the Okinawan grappling arts as Okinawan-style wrestling mainly because it was never systematized and looked like a free-for-all form of fighting.]
 

Soken-sensei continued by stating that as a youngster on Okinawa, that grappling was taken very seriously and it was not uncommon for individuals to suffer broken arms and legs as a result of taking part in this light form of entertainment. Soken-sensei would use the terms "te-kumi" or "gyaku-te" as identifying this old Okinawan art form. 
 

The danger of reminding Soken-sensei of the "old methods of playing" was that he would often stand up, grab you, and then apply one of these painful methods of common people entertainment - he enjoyed watching Americans "squeaking like a mouse who had been stepped on." -- Editor]
 

Grappling is an old Okinawan custom that is commonly practiced in all villages. In America, the children played at "cowboys and Indians." In Okinawa we played by grappling with each other. We would have contests for grapplers in every village and one village would pit their best grapplers against all comers. It was very exciting. Some people see the grappling and call it Okinawan jujutsu but this is incorrect. It is the old method called "ti." Ti {this is pronounced in the old dialect of Okinawa -- it sounds like the word "tea" -- ed.} practice was very common during the turn of the century but with the Japanese influences, these methods have almost disappear. 

Interviewer: Sensei, any recommendations for us -- Americans?

Sensei: Yes, but you won't like it! Americans want to learn too much, too fast. You want more this and more that. You have a life time to learn. Learn slowly. Learn correctly. Look. Listen. Practice, practice, practice. Don't be a rash American, but a smart American. Never be in a hurry to learn, OK? Learning in a hurry can cause pain. Do you know about pain? Let me show you!
 

DEMONSTRATION: At this time, Soken demonstrated basic "ti" methods involving the use of the "sharp forearm bone" and the "thumbing" methods. All of them hurt - a lot! He had an uncanny command of the human anatomy and would use the thumb to hit the various nerves in the shoulder, the forearm and the sides of the body. He laughed a lot when doing this - he really enjoyed grappling. 
 

A number of techniques resembled aikijutsu movements and instead of moving in on the opponent, he would step backwards and would use his body weight to increase the power of the technique. He would always block using what he called a "double bone block" and counter with a thumb technique or a grappling technique that took you to the ground. Soken stated that he could drive an individual through the ground or just simply throw him on the ground - either way, the opponent was at a distinct disadvantage. He could then subdue you with techniques like kicks or move away from the confrontation.

Interviewer: Sensei, your kata is very distinct and beautiful to see. I have a question that has been bothering me since the Okinawan Expo. Remember when we saw the bo fighters in Nago. They used the names of many of the kata that are practiced today but they are very different. The only thing that appears to be the same is the name.

A photo from the street of the Soken family residence where Hohan conducted classes for a small group of private students. The next photo is a close up of the outside of the porch area. The wooden structure is typical of pre-war urban style residences. The house was subsequently rebuilt of masonry, shown lower left. At lower right is Sokenís family shrine that includes family photos of the master and his wife.3

Sensei: Yes, they are the same and they are not the same. You say you lived on Okinawa for five years but you cannot understand the Okinawan people. In the old days, when we were really Okinawan and not Japanese, many of the old people were not smart -- or as smart as they are today. They did not travel, they did not watch TV, many never left their villages unless they had to. What we did have was festivals... village festivals. Everyone would come and watch and learn. These village people would watch the other fancy city people practice their ti or their methods of weaponry. Say, like... well, ... Yes, a kata that they knew or practice had a number of movements. They come to the city and see and city kata with some of the same movements. The city kata had a name... and maybe their kata did not have a name. So, they would go back and ... yes, you now understand. They would name their kata after the city kata because they had a few of the same movements. Some of their kata had five or maybe ten movements. Taira, my friend, would go to the village and learn these kata. He says that he learn 500 kata this way! Wah! This is true but he also like to tell stories. Some of these kata had only 3 or maybe 5 movements. 500 kata, yes, now that is funny but he was a history collector. He knew them but he didn't understand them.

Interviewer: Was Taira a friend or student? He is very famous for his weaponry in Japan.

Sensei: Yes, Taira... he knew a lot of kata, huh. Huh, huh, huh... Yes, he is dead, you know that. He would watch my kata all the time and try to learn my tsuken style stick. But I would trick him and change the kata, wah!! ... just like that. He would still come back and look some more in the hopes of being able to take it back. When we both were young -- our karate was very good. When we both got old, our weaponry was good. Why do you want to know these things -- these old ideas, these old ways. Their old value was to survive a challenge match. You punch me and I will show you ... good karate means you also test yourself through pain. Like pain... in good karate... movements are quick, like a mongoose. If you are slow, you can die. If you are quick, then there is a chance that you and your family (???) will live.

Interviewer: Yes, fighting must have been very different at the beginning of this century.

Sensei: Yes, you don't know these old days. In a fight... if you would lose, the lost would be suffered by your family. They could die. You would work hard to support the family working all day. If you were injured or killed while fighting, then your family would starve... maybe even die. Okinawa life was very hard. Now, the young people want to be Japanese. They don't speak the Okinawan language. They are lazy. They do not respect old people, they have no pride in being Okinawan. Yes, we are a poor country but that is no excuse in putting our culture in the dark and saying we are someone that we are not. This is no good.

NOTE: The second interview ends here. Sensei's mind begins to wander and he begins to get angry. I believe it has to do with painful, old memories that are brought up by the questions.

A previously unpublished 1952

photo of Soken demonstrating

 a sickle and rope kata at the

Japanese-Okinawan Benevolence

Society located in the city of

Cordoba, outside of Buenos Aires,

 Argentina. Soken often participated

in these annual demonstrations.4

A previously unpublished photo

 of training in Sokenís home in

the early 1970s. Soken taught a

small number of private students

in an enclosed porch area of his

home, but would also visit military

bases where classes were he

taught to US military personnel.

 Teaching in the home or backyard

 was typical of early karate.5

1  Courtesy of Charles Garrett

 

This photo and other family photos were photographed (photos of photos) by Christopher Caile in Sokenís family home on Okinawa in December 1994 with permission of Hohanís son who was living there at the time.

 

3  In 1994 only Sokenís son still lived in the family home. At the time he was not well and has since passed away. Roy Suenaka, a long time student of Soken, had trouble finding the location since streets and buildings had changed so much since he had trained in Sokenís home. Sokenís son remembered Suenaka and welcomed him, Christopher Caile and others. Because of this Caile was allowed to photograph some family photos of Soken, several of which appear above. Soken also had a second son who is reportedly still alive. Neither son, however, was much interested in karate and did not inherit their fatherís teachings.

 

4  This and a few other photos were given to Estrada by Soken during an interview in 1978. The small, 2Ē x 4Ē black and white images are difficult to see. FightingArts.com would like to thank Bill Heaps of Pigpen Studios Inc. for his work in digitally enhancing this image. Soken at this time was virtually unknown. He has been a private student of Nabe Matsumura. At that time there were no traditional uniforms, ranking or titles. He was one of a number of Okinawan martial artists who had immigrated to Argentina where there was a small Okinawan community. Many, including Soken, taught in a shared community dojo, each developing his own small following. Soken was also known as much for his weapons as his karate technique.

 

5  Courtesy of Charles Garrett