A Glimpse Of Old Karate From Hohan Soken
By Christopher Caile
Suenaka executes an elbow technique to Christopher
Caile’s jaw in demonstrating a close quarter technique that
Hohan Soken taught him.
I am a student of Seido Karate under Kaicho Tadashi Nakamura in New York
City. But I am a karate historical buff too, so I am always interested
in the karate practiced in Okinawa before modern influences, when karate
was practiced for self-defense.
One of my portals into this world is through my aikido instructor Roy
Suenaka Sensei, who was also a long time student of the great Okinawan
karate master Hohan Soken. Soken traced his techniques to one of the most
famous and influential Suri (capital of Okinawa) masters Bushi (Sokon)
Matsumura (1762-1843) from which much of modern Okinawan Shorin-ryu karate
was influenced. (1) He
was body guard to the King of Okinawa and martial arts instructor and
official of the Ryukyu Kingdom. From his teaching a whole generation of
Alternative follow ups to the above
technique include a punch to the ribs as shown here, or to the face.
A variety of knee techniques and kicks are other options. The key
to this technique is that you get outside the opponent and control
the attacking arm to give you a position of advantage (your opponent
also being off balanced) from which many follow up techniques can
be launched. A key principle here is controlling the attacker’s
arm from the outside toward his middle, also known as “closing
down” an attack.
Roy Suenaka also demonstrates a
useful drill that stems from this initial capture. Christopher Caile
is his partner. After the right hand captures and pulls the punch
down as in the sequence above, the left arm parries the punching
arm down while the right hand counters with a punch to the head.
The opponent now parries that punch with his left palm and moves
his right forearm under the punch as in the initial block. This
parry/capture, right counter as you down parry with your left continues
back and forth. With practice speed increases until the technique
becomes just a blur to any observer. These type of two man drills
can be very useful since they ingrain responses into muscle memory
and reflexive action so they will come out naturally when, and if,
Suenaka studied directly with Hohan Soken as a private student for eight
years while based on Okinawa with the US military. So when I visit with
him to study aikido, I always prompt him to demonstrate techniques that
Soken himself used. Since Suenaka also teaches Soken’s karate heritage,
he usually obliges. I’ve been doing this for 18 years.
I find Soken’s teachings especially interesting because they provide
a look back to old style Okinawan karate that was both practical and effective.
“Soken himself always used soft blocks, and flowing techniques,”
says Suenaka “ although he taught us hard blocks too.” Hard
blocks were for youth and they toughened you up, he would say, but as
you got older, ”Soken would say, ”you should do softer techniques.”
This reflected I think Soken’s own teaching.
Students of Soken began with hard style Shorin Ryu karate and then after
lengthy training they would be introduced to his family art within an
art, or White Crane. White Crane’s techniques, especially blocks
are often soft, and the techniques are flowing. Movement is angled and
combined blocking, trapping and counters. Most often the hand were open,
and fingertip techniques were often used,.
As Hohan Soken often said with these techniques “Uki Ti Boom.”
“Uki Ti” means block in Okinawan dialect (Hogan) and “Boom”
is an English expression Soken picked up somewhere from Americans. It
signified a single technique counter that ended an attack.
Left: The photo shows a hand position
that Soken often used. Notice the two first fingers are held slightly
separated to be used in a follow up counter.
Center: The photo demonstrates one of Soken’s
typical guard postions.
Right: Here the follow-up technique is a finger
technique against the attacker’s shoulder area (in the crease
of the shoulder). If the finger counter is done with power it strikes
a vulnerable point and can paralyze the arm. But the most important
effect is that it (when combined with a pull of the left arm) pulls
the opponent off balance to the side and back.
In the two self-defense sequences demonstrated above, the initial goal
is to avoid getting hit, but also to control the initial attack .It also
avoids the problem of a continued attack. This requires quick decisive
action against the initial move. Just a defensive block, parry or other
move is not enough. Thus in many ways Soken’s White Crane strategy
(and that found in much of traditional karate kata) parallels that of
aikido -- control of the initial attack, although in aikido the goal is
not to hurt the attacker.
These illustrations also highlight trapping and grabbing techniques drawn
from White Crane, something little practiced today. In fact most modern
karate, especially sports karate, often limit or bar the use of grabs
and traps. Of course, the necessity of wearing hand protectors and gloves
makes these techniques very difficult to do. I think this is a great loss
and this changes the very nature of karate self-defense. Instead of physically
controlling the opponent, the karate practitioner is left with a more
difficult effort – controlling the space between himself and his
opponent. This is what a boxer does and it is much more difficult to limit
continuous attacks. If you don’t capture/grab or control an attack
the opponent’s balance isn’t broken or his position is physically
controlled. This makes countering more difficult, Sure you can angle,
move back and forth, but your options are more limited.
These same trapping, grabbing and off-balancing techniques are also seen
in many kata. In fact they are one key to understanding kata applications
and their self-defense strategies and principles. (2)
Soken’s soft techniques are also quite practical. If an attacker
is close and you don’t know what attack is coming it is virtually
impossible to do a hard block (if the attacker has to step forward to
attack you have more time and a hard block is possible). In boxing, for
example, when an opponent throws a jab at your head the defender can slip
the punch (moving his head out of the way) or use the palm of his hand
to parry the punch to the inside. Since the punch is so fast, little strength
can be put into the parry. Interestingly this same type of parry is used
in the Soken techniques illustrated above. But instead of a counter jab
which a boxer might use, Soken fires out the same arm (as a boxer’s
counter jab), open handed to stop and capture the attacking arm.
Another aspect of Soken’s karate which can be traced back to his
White Crane is the use of koshi (the hips, upper thigh and lower abdomen
There are a few videos out there of Hohan Soken doing kata in his later
years, but you don’t really see his footwork or koshi movement.
Perhaps it had internalized to the extent that it was unnoticeable, or
Soken at his age wasn’t able to ably perform these movements well,
or perhaps he just didn’t care to show this on film.
In any case when you look at Suenaka’s techniques you see a distinct
type of power generation, not the sequential rotation of body segments
that characterize most of Japanese karate, but instead a koshi twitch
that whips out techniques. This parallels similar action as shown by White
Crane Kung Fu exponents and some styles of old Okinawan Shorin-ryu karate
Hohan Soken (1889-1982)
was born into a noble family that lost wealth and position with
the abolishment of the Okinawan feudal system. His lineage traced
back to the famous Bushi Matsumura, the famous Suri (Okinawa’s
capital) karate master and body guard to the King of Okinawa. Even
as a child Soken was forced to work menial jobs to subsist. At the
age of 13 he began his karate training. He worked the fields during
the day. At night he trained under his uncle Nabe Matsumura (grandson
of Bushi Matsumura). Ten years later and hardened by training, Nabe
told Soken that he was ready to learn the secret family system within
the outer hard system he had been studying -- Hakutsuru or “White
Crane,” a system distinctly Chinese with flowing soft movements.
During this time Soken also studied weapons under Chikin Kraka and
eventually became one of the top Kobudo practitioners on Okinawa.
Unhappy with the Japanese absorption of Okinawa into the mainland,
and refusing to learn Japanese (preferring the Okinawan dialect
he spoke), Soken moved to Argentina in 1920 where there was an active
Okinawan community. He returned to Okinawa in 1946. Away from Okinawan
karate, Soken’s karate retained its original form away from
modernizing influences, a sort of time capsule revealing older ways.
He became one of the oldest and most respected Shorin-ryu teachers
on Okinawa teaching out of his home dojo.
Roy Suenaka Sensei
Suenaka Sensei while stationed in the US armed forces on Okinawa
was a direct private student of Grandmaster Hohan Soken Sensei for
eight years on Okinawa. He continues Hohan Soken’s legacy
through his karate organization, Matsumura Seito Hakutsuru Shorin-ryu
Karate-do and Kobudo. The last living direct teacher of this style
was Soken, who during his life was considered the greatest karate
teacher on Okinawa. Suenaka was also a student of aikido under Koichi
Tohei (the great student of the art’s founder) starting in
1953 in Hawaii and later with Morihei Uyeshiba, O-Sensei, the founder
of aikido in Japan at the Aikikai Hombu for eight years, beginning
in 1961. Suenaka was the first to open a successful aikido dojo
in Okinawa. Soken too was interested in the art, having found its
moves similar in many ways to the White Crane that he taught. Suenaka
holds an 8th dan in both aikido and karate, as well as a 3rd dan
in judo and a 2nd dan in kendo. He now resides in Charleston, S.C.,
He is the author of the best-selling Complete Aikido, and in 2003
celebrated his 50th year of martial arts study.
About The Author:
Christopher Caile is the founder and Editor of FightingArts.com