Simple Answers Are Hard to Find

In the martial arts people get very attached to their understanding of history. I find it particularly interesting that this history is often based on next to no concrete evidence. Nevertheless instead of accepting new information as it comes in or trying to look more closely at the stories and legends passed down people seem most attached to simply believing and defending their lineage’s view of the past. Why? Well one reason may be that historical research into our arts is difficult. There is a paucity of clear documentation. There is also conflicting information passed down orally. That is then compounded by the fact that most of the investigators have little training in just how to do that investigation. While you don’t need a degree to do good work, the skills that come with research training are valuable. Look at it in relation to karate: is someone who has never had a teacher, or who has perhaps trained for a little bit at some point, going to have the skills of someone with a decade of training under an excellent teacher, surrounded by other dedicated and skilled students and teachers? In much the same way, having academic training can make doing historical research more valuable. It can also make it much more complex.

Let’s take an example from our kobudo. One of, if not the, most common bo kata in Okinawa is Shushi/Suji no kon. (周氏の棍). It is in Matayoshi kobudo, in Ryukyu kobudo in a variety of forms, including sho, dai, chu, and koryu depending on specific lineage, in Yamane Ryu, even in Maeda bo and other smaller systems. Many dojo that teach just a few kobudo kata also use it. Stylistic differences aside, these kata are clearly variations of the same form. It is often the first, or one of the first, kata taught and therefore forms a base for a huge portion of the kobudo in Okinawa.

Since it is so common, such a core piece of Okinawa’s martial heritage, you would think that its history would either be really well known, or a simple matter to research. That doesn’t seem to be the case however, leaving some with a desire to know the “real” history of the form. So how would one go about finding that out?

For most the first stop would be their teachers. Just ask, right? Ok, but this may lead to some conflicting and sometimes strange answers. I have heard that it is a village name from Okinawa. I have also heard it credited to Soeishi, a noble from Shuri, as well as to Chinen Sanda, and Soeishi’s son Soeishi Ryoshu. I have also heard it credited to a Chinese immigrant named Shu (Zhou), and to the Shu (Zhou) family from Kumemura. The lesson here, it seems, is that asking one teacher, even a well respected one, may not result in a clear answer. Or to be more precise, asking one teacher is only going to get one answer, while there are some other equally reasonable answers around. If you are interested in supporting your lineage’s claims, one answer is fine. If you are interested in discovering the “truth” that single answer is probably not enough.

Let me be clear here, I don’t think any of these people lied. Well, except perhaps for the village answer which seems like a “I don’t know so I will make something up that sounds plausible to other non-Japanese speaking Westerners” answer to me. But the rest, they are probably what these folks were told by their teachers or thought for some other perfectly good reason. You don’t need dishonesty to have different oral histories. You do need time, lack of documentation, maybe some lack of real interest in history, and perhaps some partisanship. These create confusion. But how then do we figure out what is the right answer? Working with oral histories there are methods for recording, filtering, and analyzing them. They require some training and require a non-partisan approach, but in many ways they boil down to not taking them at face value and looking for data outside the actual story that may tell us more about it.

Working from the oral histories, the next step would be to look at written sources. The benefit of good training would be that you could go to original source material, in the native language. There is a lot written in Japanese on the Okinawan martial arts. Like anything else some good and some bad, but it is a far better resource than most all English language sources.

So looking at the written information we still find variation. Here are the examples I know of:

  • Nakamoto Masahiro, a student of Taira Shinken and a very well known kobudo teacher who has published a number of books on Okinawa kobudo writes in his Okinawa Dento Kobudo on p. 95 and 172 that Soeishi sensei was the architect of the bo kata that bears his name and it is quite possible he was the creator of Shushi no kon, as it possesses many similarities to Soeishi no kon.
  • In the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten, 1978, p. 911 it says Shushi no kon was made by Soeishi.
  • Ryukyu Kobudo Jokan by Inoue Motokatsu says that Soeishi was a noble from Shuri and a master of bojutusu; Choun (not the same as the Matayoshi one), Shushi and Soeishi are his product.
  • Patrick McCarthy, the well known karate and kobudo researcher, writes on his website ( that Suji no kon was developed by Chinen Sanda.
  • In his Timeline of Karate History, trns Joe Swift, p. 29, well known karate researcher Hokama Tetsuhiro writes that it is said that in 1831 a bojutsu master from Shanghai named Shu (Zhou) came to Okinawa and lived behind the Sogenji temple in the Asato area of Naha. His bojutsu became known as Shushi no kon.
  • Both the book handed out at the memorial demonstration for Matayoshi Shinpo in 1999 and the liner notes for the video the Kodokan dojo did in the 1990s say the kata was passed down by Mr. Shu (Zhou), a Chinese man who lived in Asato, Naha.
  • In Okinawa Kobudo Kyohon the tje n Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei writes in the section on Shushi no kon, between pages 14 and 15, that Shushi no kon is named after Shu (Zhou), a Chinese man who lived in the area of the Sogenji temple in the Asato area of Naha after the war (most likely referring to WWII). (Thanks to Mike for pointing this out.)

So we have a number of different possible answers, many coming from very reputable sources. What do we do next? If we look closer, as standard research methodology would require, it gets a little simpler. We start with sources. Nakamoto, Inoue, and the Bugei Ryuha Daijiten all say the same thing. That would imply three sources. However, the BRD information is credited to Inoue and Murakami Katsumi, both students of the Taira line, as is Nakamoto. That traces all three sources back to one likely origin, Taira. The two direct Matayoshi sources agree with Hokama, who was also a student of Matayoshi Shinpo, and the ZOKR is made up of Matayoshi’s students, possibly creating a single source for those three as well, though there are some slight differences between them. I have seen no other sources for the Chinen origin, but that does not mean they are not out there.

So what does this mean? To me it looks like two oral histories- Soeishi and Zhou- that stem from two lineages that now have multiple teachers, and then some outlying theories or oral histories passed down in specific dojo. In short, no perfect clarification from the written sources. When we look at the documentary background of the sources this is not surprising- they all consist of oral histories written down in the late 20th century. So how might we address this?

Well first we could look at the interesting difference in dates two of the Matayoshi related sources give us. Records for the 1800s are sparse so it is unlikely we could positively determine if there was or was not an expatriate Chinese living in Asato in the 1830s. In the post-war era it is much more likely that either US occupation records or local Okinawan records could confirm the presence of an expatriate Chinese living in Asato and a search of the relevant records – residence, medical, tax, mail, death certificates, etc.- would be possible and something a trained historian or anthropologist would be able to do. (I have not, just to be clear!) It would probably not prove anything if there was no record, unless there is very clear data suggesting the records are complete, but finding something would probably end the search. However, if the search is inconclusive what else may we do?

We look at the words themselves, and how they are used. The character Shu (周) is indeed a Chinese name, Zhou. By itself that lends a little credence to the idea that the kata is Shu’s bo kata. Additional support is added when we look at how the term is used. That naming tradition is very common in Okinawa- Sakugawa no kon, Chatanyara no kon, the Matayoshi lineage Choun no kon, Soeishi/Shiishi no kon, are all named after people the same way. The second character (氏) can mean Mr./Mrs or can refer to a clan, so together it could mean Mr. Shu  (Zhou) or the Shu (Zhou) clan. Either of these readings lends credence to the idea that it is the kata of a fellow named Shu, possibly a form associated with his family or clan. Since Zhou has been, according to Wikipedia, one of the 10 most common Chinese surnames since the Yuan dynasty (1271) there is no way to connect it to any specific Shu (Zhou) family, but it is easy to include the possible connection to the Shu clan from Kumemura as opposed to only one individual living in Asato (though of course that individual could be connected to the Kumemura clan).

To be thorough we should also probably check into what other relevant connotations the characters have. While the character Shu can refer to a cycle or circular idea, this is not a primary use of the character and attaching that to the movements or meaning of the kata seems quite the stretch. However Zhou is the name of a Chinese dynasty and as such would be commonly recognized. It is also the surname of a number of famous military leaders in Chinese history. Any of these connections could stand as a reason to name a kata Shu (Zhou). A native would recognize the connotation, and the implied direct connection to any of these backgrounds would add some cultural weight to the form.  But while these connections are interesting, they do not answer the original question: where did Shushi no kon come from. Neither does the fact it is a name, unfortunately. So where do we go next?

We can look at the incentives of the various sources to try to eliminate one or more due to obvious partisan influences. Does anyone have an incentive to promote their version; does it give them influence, validity, or make their lineage somehow more “real”? In the Taira sources the history ties Shushi closely to other forms in the system which is nice but doesn’t seem to be enough reason for anyone to create that story since bo forms not tied into that loop are also passed down with equal validity. In the Matayoshi version it draws on a variety of cultural connotations and martial arts tropes around Chinese masters and Chinese knowledge but since the forms in the system also come from a variety of sources this doesn’t seem enough to warrant making up that story either. The Chinen Sanda story does connect the most common Okinawan kata to Yamane Ryu, but again that doesn’t seem to have enough value for anyone to create the story. Looking at incentives there is not enough to point clearly to one source and none of the stories are so clearly partisan as to eliminate them.

So where does that leave us? This is where past experience with problems like these can be helpful, though it can be tricky and somewhat subjective. These stories all boil down to two ideas- the kata is a local creation built on existing traditions by a known teacher or the kata is an import named after the guy who imported it. Does either of these patterns conform to other patterns in the local historical or cultural landscape, in a way that weights one over the other? To me the local development, while more prosaic, seems more likely. It feels less “legendy” and there is certainly a vast amount of similar development that we can clearly document. That said, I get stuck on the name. If it were a local development the name seems really unlikely. Unless there is a connation I am unaware of (certainly possible) it is hard to see why any Okinawan would name the kata Shushi and attach it to a common naming convention.

It seems we just don’t have the information we need to verifiably answer this question, at least now. That is what research into tiny elements of local history like this can often lead to. I think that is one reason people often just take their teachers’ stories at face value (or make stuff up). Even though we come up with a much better informed understanding of the problem the effort that can go into coming up with a non-answer is often just not worth it. Of course we can dig even deeper. Period linguistics, period political and social movements, naming conventions from other art forms, comparing the structure and surroundings of the name to other elements of a larger web of multi-style and multi-generational training environments, searching multiple kinds of historical records in a variety of places, all may help create a clearer answer. To a historian or anthropologist this stuff may all fit into a larger framework in a very interesting way. But to a martial artist curious about the origins of a piece of his or her art it certainly is unsatisfying.

So in the end, we seem to be left where we started, with the stories our teachers pass down. Some can be collaborated, some cannot, others can be proved incorrect. In my opinion this process of educated investigation is valuable in itself as it gives us context and understanding simple stories do not. But it doesn’t often give simple answers. In this case, until more evidence comes to light  I can’t see a way to prove either of the main versions, though eliminating some of the nonsense seems nice to me. All said I find the kata being named after the creator, in accordance with a standard Okinawan naming tradition, the most plausible answer. But not by much. And I am a Matayoshi practitioner, so maybe some partisanship is showing through after all. With cognitive bias being what it is, who knows?

2 thoughts on “Simple Answers Are Hard to Find

  1. Fred Sensei, I enjoyed your article and I am so proud of your scholarship and the way you have preserved and shared the histories. My take as a guy who is not a scholar, is it makes perfect sense the history is lost and we will never conclusively know.

    When we think of the way these arts were handed down, father to son, teacher to student, or teacher to small groups of students, it becomes apparent how quickly knowledge or history can be lost.
    If for example, a teacher has 5 students and only one thinks to record the knowledge which was passed down, or if that student is not someone who does not have an ability to record and convey information effectively, different interpretations can arise. What happens when all of a teachers students place no emphasis on history, but focus only on passing down the art itself through practice? The art lives but the information and origins of the art become obfuscated.

    From a practical perspective if you are living in a feudal period, you would want to spend your time learning an art that would increase odds of survival, rather than spending time documenting where a kata or technique developed . It amazes me that we are able to reconstruct as much as we can.


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