The beauty of Okinawa karate
An interview with Tomoyose Ryukō sensei, asset holder for Okinawa Prefecture recognized intangible cultural asset Okinawa “Karate and kobujustu”.
Interviewer: As you are a doyen of karate, it is extremely valuable to listen directly to your experience. Going straight to the point, we have heard that you have taught thoroughly the equivalent of 5-6 years of karate training in one year to enthusiast American soldiers and that this brought blossoming results. Please tell us about it. When it comes to the beauty of Okinawa karate, it is important to hear directly from those who taught Okinawa karate. Your experience is for sure a valuable record. Please tell us about it.
Tomoyose sensei: I see. Around 1955 or 1956, the Uechi-ryū dōjō located in Nodake Ginowan City was quite famous and foreigners started to come there. Since there was no interpreter in this small dojo, Uechi Kanei sensei asked me to help as I could understand some English. This is how I started giving explanations on his side. After a while, people who came from Torī Station in Yomitan were the most enthusiastic. Once 7 or 8 of them came. Since it was difficult for Uechi sensei to cope with them, he told me to instruct them. I then started teaching them from my home. These people didn’t come a few times a week; they came to train 365 days a year, every day from PM5:00 to 8:00. One of them who was particularly zealous was George Mattson. As I thought he could become an important figure, I thoroughly trained him.
What I thought at the time is that these men could only come for one year thus I thought of teaching them all what I knew in one year. It was only a test for me and I instructed them painstakingly. As a result, Mattson became really strong. Once every year, there was a Uechi-ryū promotion examination at the Futenma Dojo. I sent Mattson to pass his Shodan – 1st dan black belt; above all in Okinawa, he received the highest score.
No doubt it was a source of great self-confidence for him. He especially trained himself in kotekitae, the daily forearm tempering in which partners mutually receive each other’s attack and pound each others arms. One time, he got into a brawl in a bar with a fellow soldier. As Mattson rejected the attack, he broke the arm of his opponent. That created a big fuss in the corps. As it was not the one who received but the one who attacked who was beaten, many candidates showed up. However, I couldn’t handle them. As I could only care for 12 people, I sent the others to train in related dōjō. The one who was drilled in one year was this George Mattson.
When it was time to go home, I asked George: “What will you do when you return to America?” He said “I first want to go to university.” I then advised him saying “Ok, I understand. When you go to university, select 5 or 6 young men with very good heart among your fellow classmates and teach them. By doing so, you will be able to continue without interruption. First of all, try to teach.”
About the 6 or 7 men who Mattson trained, their parents said “My son has changed. His spirit and physique have seen a great transformation. Okinawa karate is fantastic.” Because of this, the parents clubbed together to buy and provide for a dōjō on Hancock Street, Boston, the equivalent of Ginza in Tōkyō. The people who gathered and trained there were school fellows, many of whom were doctors and lawyers.
Later, George Mattson published “The Way of Karate” (1), a book that became a best seller. With this, karate became instantly famous. I believe that this was the beginning of the promotion of Uechi-ryū karate in the USA.
In 1966, together with Uechi Kanei sensei we were invited and demonstrated in various locations. Through this, Uechi-ryū became famous in the New England area. In 1968, a student of George Mattson, Walter Mattson (2) and others contacted me and asked that I stay there for ever to teach them.
Since I was going there, I thought why not see Hawaii on the way and so stayed 2-3 days in Hawaii. There, during the visa procedure, the immigration officer asked me: “Mr. Tomoyose, are you going to work in the States?” If I knew nothing of English there would have been no problem, but since I knew a little I answered: “Yes, if there is any possibility, I want to”. At that instant, my visa became invalid. Usually, I should have been deported back to Japan but I was told “Since your final destination is Boston, I will let you go there. But in exchange, as soon as you reach Boston, present yourself at the Immigration office.” I thought I was in deep trouble but there was nothing I could do about it.
When I arrived in Boston, there were many people who came to welcome me, but they all knew what had happened. I thought about what to do, but the next day I went straight to the Boston immigration bureau to be told “You’ve got nicely hooked, haven’t you?” I was told that since it was a violation of immigration law, I was supposed to go back. However, I was also told that if I would appeal, I could stay 3 months. My sponsor appealed right away and I was automatically granted a 3 month time stay permission. We started consulting immediately and decided to go to the State of Rhode Island’s immigration bureau, which was the head office of Boston immigration bureau. We invited the immigration bureau’s chief to a huge welcome party for Tomoyose sensei. My leading members appealed to him and he answered “Leave it to me!” which pleased everyone. However, since there were some documents needed, I was told to submit them. When I received these documents, I saw there was a section that needed to be filled by multiple sponsors.
The first one to become sponsor was Edward Kennedy (4). The other ones were Senator Brooke (5), GE General Electric Corporation CEO, the CEO of Texas Oil Corporation, University professors and so on. Altogether, 8 famous persons had signed. When I submitted the documents, the immigration bureau chief was astonished. With the leaders of the political and economic circles supporting me, if he acted carelessly, his neck was on the line! At that moment, he sent the case to Washington. Since there were some similar cases in the past there, they were sent back to Boston attached as examples.
Summoned again in Boston, I was welcomed by the bureau chief who bowing down said “Mr. Tomoyose, I beg you not to ask anything and to please go back to Okinawa!” I was told not to say anything even if questioned. And then he said, “In exchange, as soon as you reach Okinawa, apply for a working visa. A visa to work in America. I will definitely approve 100%.” Taking this conversation to Kennedy, he said “Don’t worry, leave it to me. If needed, I’ll go talk to Nixon (6)”. Everybody was delighted and decided to leave it in the hands of Kennedy.
Then, I was told to finally go to the East coast New England region immigration highest agency located in Vermont. As I took my passport there, there was a tumult and the immigration bureau reception staff member came to greet me. I didn’t know why but later the chief came out and explained that “Mr. Tomoyose, in the immigration bureau, there is no one who doesn’t know your name!” Later, entering the office, I found out that the son of the head of the Vermont immigration bureau was a student of Uechi-ryū. Eventually, without any problem, I stayed 10 months in America.
However, I was contacted by my wife regarding my son’s senior high school examination and decided to go back home temporarily. Called by Kennedy, I was told “You’re going home? Then, invite your children and entire family. We have a house for you here!” But I went back to Okinawa.
One day before going back, after finishing instructing in a dōjō in New York, I received a phone call from an unknown person. I was told “Please come to the New York heliport”. Going there by taxi, I was welcomed by a student of David Finkelstein, a graduated from Harvard who was teaching Uechi-ryū at the office of the United Nations. A helicopter pilot, he said, “Sensei, please get it”. And then we went flying 15 minutes above New York! After this, we landed in front of the gate of an old castle on Rhode Island where I was welcomed by an unknown lady who guided me. “Mr. Tomoyose, you haven’t eaten yet, have you?” And right away, I was treated to lunch. Later on, I strolled for 2 hours in an oriental (Japanese) garden part of a 5 area botanical garden managed by the 2nd generation owner of the Texas Oil Corporation.
Anyway, the standards of these people was completely different. One day, a man who would go to a party in a jet asked me, “Tomoyose sensei, you also do calligraphy, don’t you? Would you mind writing something for me?” As I had only a ball pen on me I though I was in deep trouble, but I was brought the entire equipment: a huge antique Chinese inkstone, ink, writing brushes and paper. As I couldn’t escape, I wrote the characters水急不流月. Asked the meaning, I answered, “Philip san, try to imagine. There is a huge waterfall like the Niagara one and the moon is reflecting in it. No matter how fast is the water flowing, the moon cannot be washed away. The meaning is everlasting friendship.” As I had no seal, I just signed with my name but he was very delighted!
Believe it or not, I met some unbelievable people in America. Edward Kennedy, the CEO of GE, the king of Texas Oil. When President Bush was mayor, I even received an honorary citizen letter with his signature. If I had not done karate, for sure I wouldn’t have lived such experiences.
Interviewer: The virtue of karate is that it is not a fighting sport nor a competition but about character building. And about a non-fighting spirit seeking for peace.
Tomoyose sensei: That’s it. That is why karate was so well received by Americans. Doctors also understood the virtue of Okinawa karate and they incorporated this physical training into their therapy. For example, realizing that in time of delivery for women, abdominal muscles play an important role, they concluded that karate is ideal to condition such muscles. All practitioners had easy deliveries which helped promote karate. In Okinawa it was the opposite: it is because women give birth that they should not be taught karate. However, for women to condition their abdominal muscles, karate is the best way and today, the number of women practicing karate has increased.
Interviewer: It is essential that the value of Okinawa be academically clarified by the Okinawa Prefecture. This is one of the reasons why we are pushing for the creation of a karate division (8). It shall be made known that the virtue and charm of Okinawa karate is not about winning or losing.
Tomoyose sensei: That is very important. Whenever new foreigners come, I ask them “Why do you want to learn karate?” As they are earnest, they answer to win fights. To this I tell them: “If it is to put down your opponent, you should stop right now. Rather, you should learn how to shoot a gun. That would be faster. In this atomic era, it is not a time to put down an opponent with karate. More importantly, through karate, you should condition your body, temper your spirit; those are the important points. If the aim is to knock down your opponent, stop right now.”
Interviewer: Today what the world is looking for is a heart that seeks peace, tempering the mind and body, not fighting with others. This is the purpose of Okinawa karate. In this world, there is no other thing like Okinawa karate.
Tomoyose sensei: That is exactly that. For example, Chanmī-gwa (9) in his last years said “Personally, my greatest happiness is that I have lived a life without putting down anyone.” I think he was truly a Bujin (10).
Interviewer: Thank you very much for these wonderful stories today.
- First published in 1963 by Charles E. Tuttle Publishing。The 2nd edition was in 1993.
- Born in 1939, Walter Mattson is a 10th dan black belt American who stands as a high ranking member under Takara Shintoku sensei.
- Edward Moore “Ted” Kennedy （1932- 2009）
- Edward William Brooke, III （1919- 2015）
- Richard Nixon（1913- 1994）, 37th President of the United States
- In order the kanji characters mean: water, fast, un- (as in unable), wash away, moon
- At the time of this interview, Tomoyose sensei and a party of cultural asset holders were actively promoting the creation of an Okinawa karate division within the Okinawa Prefecture Government. The division was officially established on April 1st, 2016.
- Kyan Chōtoku (1870- 1945)
- Bujin literally means a man of war or a warrior. In Okinawa, a Bujin should be interpreted as a man who excels in martial art.
Supplementary explanations: This interview was done on January 26, 2016 at the Okinawa Prefectural Comprehensive Education Center. On February 12 of the same year, it was handed to the Okinawa Prefecture Governor Onaga Takeshi as part of petition documents for the “request of the establishment of a Karate promotion division”. The interviewer was Kamekawa Takashi, advisor to the Okinawa Prefecture designated intangible cultural asset “Okinawa Karate and Kobujutsu” preservation society. The recorder was Miguel Da Luz, present PR for the Okinawa Karate Information Center. This interview is being reproduced and translated with the approval of Tomoyose sensei.