Master Chotoku Kiyan – Okinawan Karate Legend

by George W. Alexander

Okinawa, Japan is the birthplace of karate and this small island has produced many karate legends. One of these karate legends was Chotoku Kiyan. Kiyan was born in Shuri, Okinawa in December 1870 as the third son of Chofu  Kiyan. His father was a descendent of the Ryukyu King Shosei  and served as a retainer to the last Ryukyu King-King Sho Tai. Kiyan, also pronounced Kiyabu, was born a frail child but through martial arts training he developed a strong constitution and improved his health. Kiyan began training in karate under his father when he was eight years old.  He was known in Okinawa as Mi-gwa Chan or “small-eyed Kiyan” because his eyes were small and weak.  Despite this handicap, he became a great master.  In fact, he was one of the most knowledgeable masters of his time.  When he was twenty years old he studied Shuri-Te (Shuri hands) from Sokon Matsumura (1797-1889) and Anko Itosu (1830-1915); and Tomari-Te (Tomari hands) with Oyadomari Peichin (1831-1905), Maeda Peichin (1842-1909) and Kosaku Matsumora (1820-1898).

The two distinct genre of Shuri-Te and Tomari-Tethat Kiyan studied differed both in style as well as in geographical classification; however, the differences of style  were actually only surface differences since bothShuri-Te and Tomari-Te are derived from the same Chinese martial arts traditions and indigenous Okinawan fighting techniques (see Okinawa Island of Karate, Yamazato Publications, p. 32.).  Shuri-Te was the style of karate practiced in and around the city of Shuri where the king and members of the nobility lived. Sokon Matsumura was responsible for organizing the Shuri-Tesystem and carrying on the teachings of the this martial art. Tomari-Te was practiced in Tomari village and was closely related to Shuri-Te. This village is located near the ancient capital of Shuri and was mostly populated by farmers and fisherman. Tomari-Te was an offshoot ofShuri-Te and was propagated by Chokun Makabe (b.1785) and Kosaku Matsumora (1820-1898). Eventually these systems became stylized.  Shuri-Teand Tomari-Te combined to form the Shorin Ryu (young forest) style.

 By the time he was thirty years old Kiyan had garnered a reputation as an accomplished karate man and was well known throughout Okinawa.  Kiyan’s teachings combined elements of both the Shuri-Te and Tomari-Te styles. The Shorin Ryu system he passed on to his students reflected this mixture. Kiyan’s teaching influenced many modern Shorin Ryu masters.  This makes him an important transitional figure in the history ofShuri-Te and Tomari-Te. He is mainly responsible for blending Tomari-Te back with Shuri-Te. His students originally called his teachings Mi-gwa-Te but later his style  became known as the Sukunaihayashi branch ofShorin Ryu.

Kiyan traveled a good deal. During his martial arts career he journeyed to Japan and Taiwan. He also visited one of Okinawa’s off-lying islands and learned the Tokumine Bo Kata there. Tokumine Peichin was an Okinawan lord who had been banished from Okinawa and developed this kata. Although some authorities believe the Tokumine No Kon kata to be simply another version of Chatan Yara No Kon.

Kiyan lived in Shuri until he was about thirty years old and than moved to Kadena where he opened his dojo. At one time in his life, Kiyan lived in the village of Yomitan where a karate man named Yara taught him the Kusanku Kata. Yara of Yomitan was a descendent of Chatan Yara who developed the Chatan Yara sai, bo and tonfa kata. An interesting  legend passed on about Yara is that one of  his training methods was to run down wild boar and after an exhausting chase he would then kill them by kicking them to death.

 In addition to Kusanku kata, which was his favorite, Kiyan learned other kata.  From Sokon Matsumura he learned Seisan, Naihanchi and Gojushiho.  From Kosaku Matsumora he learned Chinto and Oyadomari taught him Passai.  Also, Maeda Peichin taught him Wansu and Ananku meaning light from the south he learned while in Taiwan.  Kiyan later developed his own versions of Chinto and Passai and his way of performing Ananku is considered the orthodox version.  He even learned tree fighting which is linked to the Okinawan monkey dance Saru Mai.

Even though Kiyan was very slim, he excelled in the use of the bo or Okinawan staff and kicking techniques, especially jump kicking.  The kicking techniques of Okinawan Shorin Ryu karate favor low level targets.  From a combative standpoint, kicks to the torso, groin and legs have proven to be most effective.  The kicking techniques occur in the kata primarily as short range attacks used when close to the opponent.  However, Chotoku Kiyan was  noted as a kicking specialist in Okinawa. He is known to have successfully used jumping or aerial kicks.  One anecdote which mentions his jumping ability tells how he would jump from a barge floating on a river up to the bridge overhead. One of  his training methods was to put on a pair of wooden geta, the traditional wooden shoes of Japan, and jump in the air inside his dojo and split the geta in half by kicking a beam in the ceiling. It is also said that Kiyan could sit in seiza, the Japanese formal sitting position, and then leap straight up from this position and kick the ceiling.  He had his students practice their kata in the dark to get their eyes used to fighting in the dark.  He had them practice on uneven slippery terrain to achieve better balance.

Because of his reputation, Kiyan was often challenged by others.  He fought many actual fights but was never defeated.  Kiyan was highly adept at body shifting.  Since he was a small man, he used this type of evasive maneuver known as taisabaki to defeat his opponents.  His technique was to never backup but rather to surprise his opponents by rapidly moving forward or side stepping to block and counterattack immediately.

Several stories about Kiyan’s martial exploits have been handed down. One story indicates that he supposedly killed a famous strongman from Gushikawa village by the name of Taira (Tairaguwa). It is said that he accomplished the feat by jumping from a tree and killed him by breaking his neck. Taira was  no mere peasant. He was known as an expert with the kama, a sickle used in the harvesting of rice.  Stories of his feats of strength are legendary in Okinawa. He was unusually strong for his size and was known as the Samurai of Gushikawa. A student of Sokon Matsumura, Taira never propagated a school of his own and some say he was a bully. He concentrated instead on perfecting his own technique.

  Another story proposes that Kiyan killed or at least subdued  four outlaws in a fight. The reason this occurred was because the outlaws were  robbing people at night along a road between Shuri and Naha known as Saka Shicha. The townspeople asked Kiyan to deal with the outlaws since the local police could not control them. Kiyan agreed and patrolled the road every night. Finally one night the outlaws appeared and said to Kiyan “Do you want your money or  your life”. Kiyan handed the outlaws some change he had and then hit the outlaw in front of him with a double nukite (spearhand) dropping him to the ground. He then turned around and kicked the man behind him also knocking him to the ground. The other two outlaws became afraid and ran away. Kiyan told the outlaws laying on the ground who he was and that he would fight them anytime. The outlaws said they had had enough and that they would give up their lawless pursuits. Saka Shicha, the road to Shuri,  became a safe road to travel again. Many people were fearful of Kiyan after this but he was also highly respected for dealing with the outlaws. It should be kept in mind that often in a village, the karate man functioned as a police officer and an enforcer of justice.

Early in his career, Kiyan had two top students.  They were Ankichi Arakaki (1899-1927) and  Taro Shimabukuro (b.1906).  Arakaki was born in Shuri, Okinawa at the turn of the century.  He began studying karate at a very early age.  His first instructors were Chomo Hanashiro and Shinpan Gusukuma.  He later studied with Chosin Chibana and Kiyan.  Arakaki was enthusiastic about karate and dedicated to training.  He was blessed with a natural athletic ability.  His excellent coordination allowed him to master the kata and many difficult techniques.  One of his training methods was to walk on his toes to develop himself in kicking with the toes. He was known to have killed a sumo wrestler by kicking him in the stomach.  Taro Shimabukuro was from Tomari village and a boyhood friend of Arakaki’s.

Arakaki and Shimabukuro accompanied Kiyan almost everywhere and were inseparable from their teacher. Kiyan enjoyed rooster fighting very much. In fact, he often entered his own roosters in these fights. Another anecdote reveals more of  Kiyan’s abilities as a martial artist. On one occasion he attended a cock fight and carried his own rooster under his arm. His students, Arakaki and Shimabukuro decided to use the occasion to test their master’s skill. While at the cock fights, both Arakaki and Shimabukuro created a commotion and started a fight with several men there. As soon as it started they ran off and hid in some nearby bushes. Kiyan came over to see what was happening and where Arakaki and Shimabukuro were. The enraged men then attacked Kiyan. Kiyan fought with the men and defeated them all. What was unique about the engagement was that all the while Kiyan was fighting, he maintained a firm grip on his rooster with one arm and consequently used only the other arm and his feet to defend himself. Arakaki and Shimabukuro watched the whole fight from their hiding place and were amazed at his composure and fighting skill.

Kiyan was smart and he was able to expand on what he had been taught. He  experimented with various strategies and training methods.  He contributed much to the development of Shorin Ryu karate. He learned that “speed enhances power” and emphasized the use of speed in his personal training thus tailoring his techniques to suit his own physique. He believed that if attacked one must dodge (taisabaki) the attack at the precise moment the blow is about to strike. At this moment the opponent’s defenses are down and his vital points are exposed. He suggested that by using this principle a smaller man could defeat a larger man. He also believed that no matter how powerful a strike is if it does not hit the target it will be ineffective. Thus evasion and counterattack and the use of accuracy in striking were Kiyan’s foremost strategies.

Chotoku Kiyan was also noted as a specialist in makiwara training. In ancient Okinawa, martial artists used various makeshift training devices to polish the skills developed through kata practice. The makiwara or straw-padded post is one such training device. This most ubiquitous and essential training device is unique to Okinawan karate. Kiyan is said to have developed over fifty ways of punching and kicking the makiwara. The makiwara was a simple device used for developing atemi or striking power in the various techniques of karate. This included such techniques as the backfist, elbow strike and knifehand as well as front kicks and round kicks. An added benefit of this type of training was the hardening and toughening of the body parts used in the various techniques of karate.

Kiyan used two types of makiwara in his training, a standing wooden post embedded in the ground which stood about chest height for punching and a hanging makiwara for kicking. The standing makiwara was covered with rope padding made out of native materials i.e., sheaved rice straw. Kiyan would  strike this makiwara to develop strength and accuracy and to toughen his body parts such as his fists, feet, shins and forearms. Kiyan would also kick the hanging makiwara repeatedly to develop his leg strength. This type of makiwara also used a sheaf or a bundle of cut rice stalks bound together. He also emphasized in his makiwara training the development of both sides of the body equally.

A major point in the modern history of Okinawa is the devastation which occurred on the island in 1945 during World War II. The last large scale amphibious operation of World War II was carried out on Okinawa. This operation began on April 1, 1945 and after 82 days of  bitter fighting American forces gained control of the island.

The Japanese forces were concentrated mainly on the southern end of the island. The 100,000 Japanese troops there were commanded by Lt. General Mitsuru Ushijima. The northern half of the island was cleared by US Marines with relatively little resistance. However, as marine units advanced to the south, heavy Japanese resistance was encountered. Those Okinawan civilians who were not conscripted into military service by the Japanese were trapped between advancing American forces and the defending Japanese Army. Finally on June 19th, the marines who had distinguished themselves in other battles throughout the pacific, reached the southern coast in conjunction with US Army units and the island was secured.

Unfortunately, many karate masters died as a result of this fighting. Among them was Chotoku Kiyan. It is said that he died of starvation as a result of a food shortage created by the disruption of the war. An interesting story passed on to us from this time tells us something of the sensei/deshi (teacher/student) relationship and the dedication of  Zenryo Shimabukuro to his teacher, Chotoku Kiyan.

Zenryo Shimabukuro was another one of Kiyan’s top students. Zenryo originally called his style of  karate Shorinji Ryu, named after the famed Shaolin Temple of China. Although, it later became known as Seibukan which was the name of the dojo he established in Jaguro, Okinawa in 1962. During the battle of Okinawa in 1945, Kiyan was in a weakened condition due to lack of food. He was starving, emaciated and could not walk. Zenryo Shimabukuro kept him alive and ahead of the advancing troops by carrying Kiyan on his back. They would hide in the daytime in caves and only move at night in order to avoid detection. In this way they survived the battle. However, Kiyan finally died on September 20, 1945.

Kiyan felt strongly about the code of Bushido, the way of the samurai. He felt that every martial artist must follow it totally and the ultimate goal was to master the samurai’s philosophy. He was a perfectionist and disciplinarian in both his own training and his teaching.  He believed that self discipline and social order and justice went hand in hand.  He was quoted as saying             “ Mastery of karate does not depend on the learners physical constitution, but mainly on constant practice”. He believed that effort to continue practicing was the most significant element necessary to succeed in the mastery of the martial arts. However, his most famous expression was “Fight with your back straight”. This meant not only to maintain a good fighting posture but implied  that a strong mental constitution is necessary in the martial arts.  His many students included: Taro Shimabukuro, Ankichi Arakaki, Zenryo Shimabukuro, Shoshin Nagamine, Zyoen Nakazato, Chosin Chibana, Tsuyoshi Chitose, Tatsuo Shimabuku and Eizo Shimabuku.

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