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Karate and Okinawan Sumo

By Charles C. Goodin

Seishin Uehara referees an Okinawan sumo match in Honolulu on October 17, 1948. Photo courtesy of his family.

For almost two years now, I have been searching for information about the early Karate teachers and students in Hawaii. Since Karate was practiced almost exclusively in private -- very few people let it be known that they knew Karate and some were actually very secretive about the matter -- it is very difficult to find these Karate pioneers. Before World War Two, Karate was largely limited to the Okinawan community. Many isei learned the art in Okinawa before emigrating to Hawaii, and some continued practicing here.

Through the course of my research I have learned that Karate was part of the Okinawan culture: it was not studied in isolation from other cultural activities. Thus, many of the early Karate practitioners were also proficient in Okinawan music (particularly the sanshin), dance, calligraphy, poetry, and other martial arts such as kenjutsu or iaido, kobujutsu (various weapons arts using the bo, sai, tonfa, nunchanku, etc.), kendo, ju jutsu, judo and sumo. In fact, several of the Karate
teachers I have located were also teachers of one or more of these other arts.

There is a particularly high correlation between the practice of Okinawan sumo and Karate. Many of those who were active in sumo also studied Karate, and vice versa. This was a very helpful discovery because while early Karate was a "hidden" art, Okinawan sumo was a public sport,practiced openly and with well-known champions. Okinawan sumo was covered by the Japanese language newspapers and even by the Advertiser, Star-Bulletin and neighbor island newspapers.

Okinawan vs. Japanese Sumo.

For many of us, the only images of sumo we have seen are of giants like Akebono, Musashimaru, and Konishiki on NGN. There are several differences, however, between Japanese and Okinawan sumo. Okinawan sumo arose from the grappling tradition known as tegumi (the same characters as in kumite, but in reverse order) or motou. In the forthcoming Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters, Shoshin Nagamine (hanshi, 10th dan, founder of the Matsubayashi-Ryu form of karate) writes:

"Because Okinawan sumo had never been promoted in the same spectacular way as its Japanese counterpart on Japan's mainland, islanders never bothered building permanent sumo rings or venues to host such local events or championships. To the Okinawans of yesteryear, sumo wrestling had been an exciting cultural recreation for everyone to enjoy. It was not a commodity to be exploited in such grandeur. That is simply not the Okinawan way. In the old days, any open space, field, or mountainside where people could freely gather and watch in their own comfort was sufficient. During that time there were no special rules or regulations about the size or configuration of the ring. The only condition was that the grappling surface had to be free of small stones or anything else that might be of danger to the grapplers. Usually, such bouts took place on a lawn, or surface covered by sand or sawdust to ensure safety for the athletes."

The participants in Okinawan sumo typically wore shorts with a thick cloth, or mawashi, tied around the waist. In Okinawa, participants sometimes wore a judo gi, with the mawashi.

The rules for Okinawan sumo also differ from the Japanese sport. Going outside of the ring or merely touching or falling on the ground does not end the match. Instead, the winner must cause his opponent's back to touch the ground while inside the ring. This requires a high degree of grappling ability, speed and dexterity, rather than mere size or brute strength. In this respect, Okinawan sumo may be compared to certain aspects of judo and ju jutsu.

Tegumi Lead to Karate.

When practiced as a sport, tegumi became Okinawan sumo. When practiced for self-defense, and with the addition of the Chinese techniques of striking (particularly vital point and nerve attacks known as kyosho jutsu), blocking and kicking, tegumi became karate. In fact, the characters for the old name "karate" or "tote," meant "China" (for the Chinese arts) and "Hand" (for "tegumi").

Before 1900, karate included a strong emphasis on tegumi, or grappling, which includes such techniques as throws, sweeps, trips, joint locks, chokes, holds, traps and parries. Older karate kata such as Wanshu, Wankan, Rohai, and Passai reflect these movements in certain seemingly elaborate open-handed techniques. In Passai, for example, there is sequence in which the opponent throws a left punch. Parrying the punch with his right hand, the defender catches the wrist with his left and applies a joint lock, which causes the attacker to twist in pain and go down on one knee. The defender next raises his right knee, breaking the attacker's arm in the process, and throws a right side kick to the left knee. Already in a vulnerable position, the attacker is completely disabled. This short sequence illustrates the integration of tegumi and striking/kicking techniques which was characteristic of traditional karate.

When karate was introduced to the public school system at the turn of the century, however, it underwent a process of simplification to make it safer for younger students. The emphasis in modern kata such as the five Pinan kata which were developed abound 1905, shifted to closed-handed punching and blocking techniques and open-handed (shuto) strikes. The grappling or tegumi element was minimized or removed completely, as were nerve attacks and vital point techniques. Tegumi remained an integral aspect of the art in the private classes conducted by karate sensei outside of the public schools. It is interesting to note that when karate was introduced to mainland Japan in the early 1920's, several students who were already experts at ju jutsu, immediately combined the two arts. This was not because karate in Okinawa lacked grappling techniques, but rather because this aspect was simply not being emphasized at the time by the early teachers on mainland Japan.

Okinawan Sumo's Karate Men.

Two of the prominent karate sensei in Okinawa who were also very active in promoting Okinawan sumo were Yabu Kentsu and Hanashiro Chomo. Both were distinguished military officers and senior students of Matsumura Sokon and Itosu Anko. Yabu "Gunso" visited Hawaii in 1927 and possibly earlier in 1921. Yabu was famous for several reasons, one of which was for defeating the legendary fighter Chokki Motobu (Motobu No Saru) in a match. While karate instructors occasionally engaged in karate matches, these tended to be very dangerous and serious injuries or even death could result. When a friendly challenge was intended, the participants usually resorted to tegumi or sumo. Yabu's encounter with Motobu is thought to have been such a tegumi contest and in later years, Motobu returned to Yabu to learn the finer points of the ancient karate kata.

Here in Hawaii, Yabu met with former karate and sumo students who had emigrated to Hawaii. He also taught karate and promoted sumo among the younger generation here. On Maui (during a visit accompanying retired Admiral Kenwa Kanna, Okinawa's most senior military officer), Yabu meet with a group of sumo enthusiasts including Oki Shikina, one of the leading young Okinawan sumotori in Hawaii. Shikina also studied ju jutsu and karate (with Yabu and Miyagi Chojun) and became a well-known professional western style wrestler. Although Shikina appears to be a giant in many photographs, a 1938 article listed his height at a mere 5 foot 8 inches and his weight at 218 pounds. During his lengthy career, Shikina excited Hawaii audiences by defeating much larger opponents.

Yabu also met with karate and sumo enthusiasts in Honolulu. One of his former students from Okinawa was Kitatsu Kawamae. Born in Heian-za, Nakagami district, Kawamae was fluent in Japanese, English and Chinese. When he came to Hawaii, Kawamae first drove a taxi on Oahu and later worked at a Chinese wholesale store in Honolulu's Chinatown. Tall and with a muscular build, he also became one of Hawaii's sumo champions. In 1935 he returned to Okinawa and had a sumo match with Masayuki Kinjo. The match was billed as Hawaii's champion versus Okinawa's champion. Hanashiro sensei was one of the referees for the match, which regrettably ended when Kawamae suffered a shoulder injury. The exciting match, nevertheless, brought fame to Kawamae and much credit to Hawaii. Returning to Okinawa the next year, Kawamae later worked as an interpreter for the military and eventually became the mayor of Yonashiro village.

The first Okinawan sumo tournament after the war in Hawaii was held on July 18, 1948. Some of the referees and participants included Seishin Uehara (karate sensei), Sadao Asato (studied Karate with Yabu in 1927), Oki Shikina, Heizo Arakaki, Noboru Kamiya, Charley Shiranuhi, Stan Miyashiro and Ansei Ueshiro.

Ansei Ueshiro was born in Hawaii but was sent to Okinawa at the age of 4. There he learned karate from his uncle, Anho Ueshiro, who was known as "Chin Kami." He trained with his cousin, also named Ansei Ueshiro, who is a well-known karate (Shorin-Ryu) teacher in New York. In addition, he is the brother-in-law of Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro, Hawaii's first nisei karate sensei.

Ueshiro told me that he did not practice or teach karate in Hawaii, but that once when he was driving a taxi, he was held up. Convincing the robber that his money was in the trunk, he stepped out of the car and walked around to the back. There he subdued the robber until the police arrived. I wonder whether he used karate or his Okinawan sumo!

It may be impossible to find all the early karate instructors who lived in Hawaii. Fortunately, many of these usually shy experts, may be found in photographs, articles and stories about Okinawan sumo.

Note: This article originally appeared in the Hawaii Pacific Press, October 1, 1999, and has been posted on Charles Goodin’s Hawaii Karate Seinenkai web site It is posted here with permission of Charles Goodin.

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About The Author:

Charles C. Goodin is an instructor of Kishaba Juku Shorin-Ryu Karate and Yamani-Ryu Bojutsu at the Hikari Dojo in Hawaii. He is a well known historian and prolific writer on Karate in Hawaii and its history and was responsible for the reestablishment of the Hawaii Karate Seinenkai and the formation of the Hawaii Karate Museum and its rare karate book collection. He is also a member of the Hawaii Karate Kenkyukai. Goodin is a Contributing Editor to the “Classical Martial Arts Magazine,” formally known as the Dragon Times, as well as being the former editor of “Furyu: The Budo Journal.” In his private life Goodin in an attorney. Several of his articles appear on

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

sumo, Okinawan sumo, tegumi, karate, Okinwan karate, Okinawan culture

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