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Choki Motobu - A Lesser-Known Master?

This article has been prompted following a further read of ‘Karate Jutsu: Kumite,’ by Choki Motobu, and teaching the 12 sets of kumite covered in the book over Zoom/face to face (in solo form) in the build up to Christmas to brown and black belts. I for one had not heard of Motobu Sensei until I attended a seminar with Iain Abernethy which is now 4/5 years ago. Since then, he has been a Sensei I have researched and, yes, there is a lot of information out there about him but it seems that his influence on the karate we know today is sometimes overlooked.

Choki Motobu was born in 1871 in Shuri, Okinawa. His family were of Okinawan nobility and he was taught parts of Ti (a grappling art) but, as he was the third child, it was only traditional for the eldest son to be taught the families system in full, so Motobu went elsewhere to learn.

Much of his training included hitting a makiwara and this can be seen in ‘Karate Jutsu.’ On top of this he did weight training and gained the nickname Motobu the Monkey due to his speed and agility. Motobu started going to the rougher parts of Okinawa in order to test his abilities; as a result he got into many fights which worked in 2 ways. His fighting prowess grew but so did his reputation as a ruffian.

After a while he retained techniques and pieced bits together before he eventually he found instructors who would teach him.

Motobu was taught in part by Itosu Anko (like many masters of the time), Tokumini Pechin and Matsumora Kosaku. His training under Itosu was short as he was apparently expelled due to his attitude. Under Matsumora, Motobu learned many kata but he still got into fights due to his desire to better himself as a fighter. When he asked Matsumora to teach him kumite, he was told it best for him to continue his learning on his own.

Unlike other masters of the time such as Funakoshi, Ohstuka, Mabuni and Miyagi Sensei who focused on kata, Motobu focused on kumite. Despite this focus he did learn several kata such as Naihanchi (Tekki), Passai (Bassai), Chinto (Gankaku) and Gojushiho. He even devised his own kata, Shiro Kuma (White Bear) although there doesn’t appear to be any evidence of this kata being passed down. While the aforementioned Sensei left behind their own styles which are well known, Motobu did leave behind his own lesser known style, Motobu Ryu which is taught by his son Chosei. Regarding kata, Motobu did teach them to his students; however, he required they be related to combat and he paid particular attention to the technical details of the kata themselves. This was done to ensure the practitioner was able to defend themselves while performing the movement.

It is thought that the main kata he taught to his students was Naihanchi (Tekki) along with his own techniques, grappling methods and throws.

Motobu’s Principles and Methods

Motobu Sensei did have a lot of principles and methods but these are the ones which I found interesting and more relative to the way in which we train

From Karate Jutsu you can see that Motobu did use our traditional stances albeit slightly shorter and used shizentai (natural stance) as a starting point. We can also see that he rarely used the hikite (pulling hand) returning to the hip as we do in our own practice. He used the hand to cover, check, grab or control an opponents hand/arm. This was done in various ways and there will be pictures to follow.

Another principle Motobu taught was to ‘defend the centre line and attack the centre line’ something we focus on in our own training. Vulnerable parts to the body are on the centre line. Our techniques travel through the centre line; blocks travel through the centre line emphasising this idea.

Motobu focused on using the lead hand from either a kamae or using the blocking hand to strike. ‘The blocking hand must be able to become the attacking hand in an instant.’ He did this as the blocking hand is closer to an opponent. This is not to say he did not make use of the back hand for striking, as in his kumite drills this can still be seen. This is something that we do in our own kihon and kumite drills, for example uchi uke, kizami zuki in the kihon for green belts and above, as well as set 3 or soto uke combinations for orange belts and above where the soto uke becomes either uraken or yoko empi, and for brown belts and above the age uke combinations for these grades.

An interesting thought of Motobu’s is ‘kicks are not all that effective in a real confrontation.’ Following this he did not use many kicks; he tended to use knee strikes/stamps instead. Motobu used his stances mainly used to support his hand/arm techniques. This is not to say he did not kick but, like many masters of the time, they were always done chudan at most.

One must always try and block the attack at its source (i.e. block not the attacking hand, but deeper on the arm). This is an interesting point which can be seen in elements of what we do, especially with weapons work. In Karate Jutsu, Motobu Sensei can be seen blocking high up the arm towards the elbow yet at times is parrying the fist whilst simultaneously striking.

Motobu and the Boxer

As mentioned previously, it is thought that Motobu liked to fight and in 1925 an article was published about a bout he had with a boxer. The nationality of the boxer is not known; however, looking at different sources, it is thought he was German or Russian. During the bout Motobu fought without gloves and after a few rounds he moved in and managed to knock his opponent out with a single strike to the head. Different sources say different things, be it an open handed strike or a single knuckle fist strike, or even a punch.

Following this victory, Motobu and karate became increasingly popular in Japan to the extent that he opened his own dojo which he taught in until Japan joined the Second World War in 1941. Despite him being a full time teacher in Japan he had issues surrounding language as he could not speak or read mainland Japanese. Regardless of this, many senseis of the time encouraged their students to train under Motobu due to his kumite ability and to learn his techniques.

He returned to Okinawa in 1942/3 before passing away in 1944.

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