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
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
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
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 www.seinenkai.com.
It is posted here with permission of Charles Goodin.
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 FightingArts.com.