Thursday, September 15, 2011

Early mention of Martial Arts in the Ryu Kyu Islands.

In 1816 the ships Alceste and Lyra made the first known British government contacts with both the Koreans and the Ryukyu Islanders. Captain Basil Hall was captain of the Lyra and he left us an interesting journal of this trip.  (Captain Basil Hall : Voyage to Loo Choo and other places in the Eastern Seas in the year 1816.)

I was mostly trying to find information about the practice of Martial Arts in the Ryu Kyu islands (Okinawa is the biggest Island of the Ryu Kyu archipelago, in these times named Loo Choo. Leu Cheu, or Lew Chew by the Brits.)

The Brits recorded the great gentleness of the very peaceful natives, and the fact that there were no weapons to be found anywhere on the islands.
However, after describing the amazing dancing abilities of Maddera – the highest ranking official in charge of the communication with the Brits - Captain Basil describes the following incident : 

... Maddera, who, to use a common phrase, was up to everything, ran amongst them, seized one of the dancers by the shoulders, and pushing him on one side, took his place, and kept up the reel with the same spirit, and exactly in the same style and step as the sailors. The other dances were left off, the music played with double spirit, and the whole ship's company assembled around Maddera, cheering and clapping hands till the reel was over. The chiefs joined in the applause, not less surprised than we were at this singular fellow's skill; for his imitation of the sailors' peculiar steps and gestures was so exact as if he had lived on board ship all his life. The officers and midshipmen then danced together, after which the chiefs, unasked, and with a sort of intuitive politeness, which rendered everything they did appropriate, instantly stepped forward, and danced, as they had before done in the cabin, several times round the quarter-deck, to the unspeakable delight of the sailors.

On returning to the cabin to tea, the chiefs amused themselves with a sort of wrestling game; Ookooma, who had seen us placing ourselves in sparring attitudes, threw himself suddenly into the boxer's position of defense, assuming at the same time a fierceness of look which we had never before seen in any of them. The gentleman to whom he addressed himself happening to be a boxer, and thinking that Ookooma really wished to spar, prepared to indulge him with a round. Maddera's quick eye, however, saw what was going on, and by a word or two made the chief instantly resume his wonted sedateness. We tried in vain to make Maddera explain what were the magical words which he had used; but he seemed anxious to turn our thoughts from the subject, by saying, '' Loo-Choo man no fight; Loo-Choo man write, No fight, no good fight; Ingerish very good; Loo-Choo man no fight." Possibly he considered Ookooma was taking too great a liberty; or perhaps be thought even the semblance of a battle inconsistent with the strict amity subsisting between us.

So here we have several interesting facts : 

  • The head of the delegation was very good at dancing. Okinawan Kata of a long time ago were practiced and demonstrated at public celebrations as dances – a way to fool the Satsuma samurai occupying the Ryukyu, who could not openly tolerate the practice of martial arts. (This tactic was also used by Karate Masters at the beginning of the US occupation in 1945-46 when Martial Arts had been banned). Dr Tsuyoshi Chitose - founder of Chito Ryu Karate was himself a very good dancer (Note 1)

  • Wrestling was openly practiced by the natives of Ryu Kyu.  When Ookooma,  under the influence of Sake, proposed to box against one of the sailors, he naturally put himself in a boxing position, and took a very fierce look. A little strange for one of the Natives deemed so peaceful by the Brits. It seems to me that this guy had been training before...  
  • When this happened, the head of the delegation immediately stopped everything and explained that the sailor was very good, and the Native did not need to fight him. Was this an other instance of trying to keep actual fighting abilities hidden from the general public, and even more so from foreigners ?
  • The Brits had absolutely no clue of what had been going on.

Note 1 - Mr. Van Horne had been in Japan training in 1971 and one day he was watching a local television program depicting a group of dancers going through an old dance routine. As he was watching this program he happened to notice others in the room looking toward the doorway and, there, going through the same movements, was Chitose, and as Mr. Van Horne stated, "with more grace and fluidity than those on the program". He spoke with Chitose concerning what he had just seen and was told "this is one method we used to cover some of our early training sessions when the occupation was being enforced". The American Military had banned most martial training and to get around the rules some other format had to be presented to hide what was actually taking place. Chitose said that in this manner, dance, kata could be practiced without the foreigners understanding what was happening.  

Extract from an article in the Dragon Times about Tsuyoshi Chitose - Founder of Chito Ryu Karate

1 comment:

Charles C. Goodin said...


Yes, this indeed is one of the earliest references to martial art in the Ryukyu Kingdom. If only there was an accompanying lithograph! Congratulations!