The Life of a Grand Master
BY George W. Alexander, Ph.D.
Grand Master Hohan Soken (1889-1982) was born on May 25, 1889 and was the founder of the Matsumura Seito (Orthodox) style of Okinawan Shorin Ryu Karate. He was born in Gaja Village, Nishihara City, Okinawa Prefecture. According to Master Soken, in an interview conducted on September 10, 1978, his style is derived from Bushi or Warrior Matsumura (1809-1889). Bushi Matsumura was one of the most renowned martial artists of his time. King Sho Tai gave him the title “Bushi” meaning warrior in recognition of his abilities and accomplishments in the martial arts. He eventually became the chief martial arts instructor and bodyguard of the Okinawan King.
According to Hohan Soken Sensei, Matsumura Orthodox is not the only authentic Shorin Ryu style. Bushi Matsumura had more than a dozen dedicated students. Each one learned his methods and expanded on them. However, Matsumura autudi or the Matsumura family lineage of Shorin Ryu was passed on from Matsumura Sensei to Nabe Matsumura his grandson, who lived from (1860-1920).
Master Soken began training in karate at age thirteen in 1902 under his Uncle Nabe Matsumura. According to Hohan Soken, “ When Bushi Matsumura died he left the ‘hands’ of his teachings to my uncle, Nabe Matsumura who was also known as Nabe Tanmei or old man Nabe.” Tanmei is a title that means respected old man in Okinawa.
Soken sensei had to work in the fields as a youth despite his samurai heritage. This was due to a political reorganization in the Ryukyu Islands and all of Japan as a result of the Meiji restoration. The reorganization did away with the age-old feudal system that existed in Okinawa for hundreds of years. The Emperor Meiji instituted this change in 1871 and forced the daimyo (feudal lords) to give up their estates in favor of a geo-political organization based on the prefecture system. Therefore, young Soken received his martial arts training at night or early in the morning. All of his training was conducted secretly. According to Soken Sensei, “In the old days training was always done in secret so that others would not steal your techniques.”
Back then, a master of the martial arts did not have a large following of students.
According to Soken sensei, “Ankoh Itosu (1830-1915) 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.” Master Soken has also been quoted a saying, “According to my uncle he only learned from Bushi Matsumura and only taught me what he had learned. So it can be said that Matsumura Orthodox is an ‘old version’ with no modern influences or sport applications.”
After ten years of basic training under Nabe Matsumura, Soken began learning the secret techniques of the white crane or hakutsuru. This was in 1912 when he was twenty-three years old. According to Soken, this was a secret technique or training methodology that was confined to the Matsumura family.
Master Soken also trained for a while with Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1953), the founder of Shito Ryu Karate and Gokenki, a Chinese tea merchant living in Okinawa. Gokenki, Soken and Mabuni along with several other Okinawans all trained together as a group. Gokenki’s style was hakutsuru kenpo (white crane fist style) and he was from the Fukien coast of China. Master Soken also studied traditional weaponry under Komesu Ushi-no-Tanmei and later under Mantaka Tsuken. Tsuken is known for the bo form called Tsuken-bo, which was Soken sensei’s favorite weapons form. Tsuken is also pronounced Chikin in the Okinawan Hogan dialect. Master Soken also learned the sai, tuifa, kama, nunchaku, kusarigama and suruchin.
In 1924 Hohan Soken moved to Buenos Aires, Argentina to find his fortune. He learned to speak Spanish fluently and worked as a photographer and later worked in the dry cleaning business. He taught a few students in Argentina and gave numerous demonstrations throughout the country. Master Soken then returned to Okinawa in 1952. At first he did not teach karate. But eventually, he began to teach a few family members and then opened up a small dojo. Master Soken initially called his karate by the Okinawan dialect or Hogan name Machimura Sui-de or in Japanese, Matsumura Shuri-Te.
In 1956 he officially changed the name of his teachings to Matsumura Orthodox Shorin Ryu Karate-do. However, he still maintained and trained in the old ways. Because of this, he did not join the new organizations that were being formed at the time. Soken taught many Americans. However, his most senior Okinawan student was Fusei Kise. Soken Sensei taught other Okinawans such as Seiki Arakaki (c.1922-1987), Yuichi Kuda (1928-1999), Chojun Makabe, Isamu Teruya, Kosei Nishihira, etc.
THE MATSUMURA KATA
The kata that Soken Sensei taught were pinan shodan, pinan nidan, naihanchi
shodan, naihanchi nidan, patsai-sho and dai, chinto, gojushiho, kusanku,
rohai ichi-ni-san, and the hakutsuru. According to Master Soken, “Hakutsuru 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.”
Master Soken also commented that the most important Matsumura kata is the kusanku kata. According to Soken sensei, “Sometimes we would practice the kusanku withkanzashi (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 [to hold their topknots in place] and for protection. Therefore, they were expedient as self-defense weapons.
A unique feature of the Matsumura Shorin Ryu style is the teaching of the white crane or hakutsuru kata, although white crane techniques are woven throughout most of the kata of the style and are especially evident in gojushiho and kusanku. However, the hakutsuru kata is one of those elusive and esoteric kata of karate. According to the Hohan Soken, the white crane style was learned by Bushi Matsumura while he was in China. He then brought the style back to Okinawa in the 1860’s. From then on, the system was a secret style only taught to immediate members of the Matsumura family. The white crane style was passed on from Bushi Matsumura to Nabe Matsumura, his grandson, and then to Hohan Soken, Nabe’s nephew [his sister’s son]. Hohan Soken did teach the white crane to some members of the ryu. These people were not family members but were a chosen few. Keep in mind the concept of a hereditary ryuis a closed social nexus, like a family or a clan. Its membership is restricted to blood relatives, whereas a ryu ha is a group that practices the same style but its members are not necessarily related. Usually anyone can get into this social group, like a bowling league or a “self-defense” studio. The family blood lineage of Matsumura Shorin Ryu seems to have been broken though. It is my understanding that Hohan Soken’s son was a “Sake Joe” and his grandson now lives in New York City and has no interest in karate. The Matsumura white crane system is still in existence and being taught today, but it is rare and still underground.
The hakutsuru technique manifests the Chinese concept of the soft fist as opposed to the power-oriented native Okinawan techniques. The soft fist is defensive and relies on speed and evasion as its primary tactic. Therefore, the Matsumura family style has both the power-oriented linear Okinawan technique as well as soft circular Chinese techniques. A perfect combination! Finally, there is the Matsumura no hakutsuru kata itself. The kata is taught in two forms, a sort of sho (minor) and dai(major) format. The sho version of the kata has the same embusen (pattern) as the daiversion but it is simplistic in its techniques. The dai version of the hakutsuru kata is very elaborate with many intricate hand techniques that make use of the wing (hane) of the crane. The wing is used in blocking to trap, cover or repel a blow. This evasive soft-blocking maneuver takes the form of a crane posture in the kata. This crane posture features an outstretched arm position (White Crane Spreads its Wings) used mainly for blocking. In conjunction with this maneuver, a crane stance is assumed, with one leg raised off the ground. This is where balance becomes essential. Thehakutsuru kata features a unique low level kicking sequence delivered from this posture and many of its movements are based on the naihanchi, rohai, chinto, gojushiho and kusanku kata. From this one-legged crane position two rapid-fire kicks are delivered to an opponent’s groin and knee consecutively with the same leg. In addition, spearfinger thrusting to vital points is the main means of attack and counterattack taught within the framework of the kata. Its intricate and complex movements make the performance of the Matsumura no hakutsuru kata unique among karate kata. It certainly deserves to be the secret kata of the ryu. However, a source of confusion with regard to the orthodoxy of the performance of the kata has contemporary practitioners of this style in a quandary. The confusion arises in that there is limited source material [8mm-film footage] depicting Soken Sensei’s version of the kata and the fact that Soken taught his art differently to his various students. In fact, he often tailored his teachings to his student’s biotype and personality.
MASTER SOKEN’S TRAINING METHODS
Soken’s instruction in the white crane technique emphasized balance training. One training method that he practiced was to perform the hakutsuru kata on a pine log in a river. In Master Soken’s own words, “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.” He further stated, “We would cut the leaves off the banana tree and place them on the ground. He [Nabe Matsumura] would then have me do exercises to develop balance. If the balance was not good, I would fall and since the exercises were always vigorous, a fall could seriously hurt you. 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 (arm pounding). 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.”
In October 1999 the author conducted an interview and trained with Nishihira sensei, one of Soken’s top students. Nishihira is a virtual clone of Hohan Soken both in physical characteristics and techniques. Nishihira sensei said Soken always emphasized blocking with the fleshy portion of the arm [sometimes referred to as a double bone block] so that both bones of the forearm, the radius and the ulna, were used in blocking. During our training session Nishihira kicked me in the groin at least eight times to get his point across about the effectiveness of the Matsumura style (See: Okinawan Karate Voyage). It was painful and humiliating but the information we were looking for was obtained first hand so to speak. Training with Nishihira sensei was like looking through a window into the past and seeing what Okinawan “village” karate looked like a hundred years ago. It’s totally different then the karate taught in Naha today, which is becoming much more sport oriented.
Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito Karate-do, as Soken Sensei stated, is an old style
with many secrets. As Soken sensei got older he felt that it was important to pass on these “secrets” to the dedicated students or they would be lost. According to Soken 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 under a good teacher who knows his style.”
Hohan Soken was a highly respected Grand Master in Okinawa. He retired from teaching in 1978. However, for many years he was the oldest living karate master actively teaching. He has been quoted as saying, “Karate training has no limits.” His legacy was to bring karate from a bygone age into the modern era. He helped pass on the legacy of Matsumura Shorin Ryu. Perhaps his life is reflected best in his own words. The following death poem is his final conversation with one of his students in November of 1982.
I have taught you all I know. There is no more I can teach you. I am a candle whose light has traveled far. You are my candles to whom I have passed on my light. It is you who will light the path for others. Today I see around me the lights of Shaolin.
The flame of tomorrow. My task is done, soon my flame will end. Teach the true spirit of karate-do and one day you may enter the Temple of Shaolin.
Hohan Soken’s light was most certainly passed on to a candle to help light the way for others. Soken Sensei was instrumental in passing on a martial arts legacy from Bushi Matsumura and Nabe Matsumura to his students and to future generations. The legacy of Matsumura Shorin Ryu continues.
Nishihira Sensei (R) and George Alexander
with the sign from Hohan Soken’s dojo.