The Journey… Part Two

Western New York Karate Center

Shihan Bill

May 16, 2016

The Journey… Part Two

Last week we explored the history of Isshin-ryu up to 1609 when the Japanese conquered the Ryukyu Kingdom and made it into a vassal state of Japan.  The Japanese maintained the ban on the open training of To-de as well as Ryukyu Kobudo.  We now jump ahead over one hundred years and examine the two men honored with being major contributors to the establishment of Te but also, by extension, major contributors to the modern roots of Isshin-ryu. 

Sakugawa Kanga

While generally ascribed as a major contributor to Okinawan Te, the root martial art of Okinawa, given that Te has its roots in the 14th century and that Sakugawa was born in the 18th century Akata village, it is my opinion for what it is worth that he is more accurately described as a practitioner of Shuri-te who had a profound influence on Tomari-te and Naha-te.

1750 – Sakugawa began his training in To-de, presumably in secret, with a revered Ryukyu peichin, Takahara.  Peichin (meaning scholar-warrior, similar to the Japanese Samurai) Takahara is attributed as being the first to explain the principles of “do,” martial arts as a way of life. Takahara instilled in Sakugawa that a martial artist should, first, be compassionate and have humility, second, strive for a complete understanding of all techniques and systems of karate, and third, dedicated to the seriousness of karate by engaging in actual combat.

1756 – Sakugawa is referred by Takahara to study with Shifu Kwang Shang Fu, also known as Shifu Kusanku, a Chinese ambassador residing in the village of Kanemura (the area of Okinawa formerly known as Naha).  Kusanku was a Chinese master of Ch’uan Fa or “Fist Law,” having studied with a Shaolin monk in Fukien province.  It is interesting to note that in Japanese the same kanji used for Ch’uan Fa are pronounced, “Kenpo.” Sakugawa studied with Kusanku until his death in 1762 and developed the kata Kusanku in his honor.

Matsumura Sokon

The year that Matsumura first started training with Master Sakugawa is unclear other than to indicate that Matsumura was young and Sakugawa was very old.  Sakugawa reportedly died in 1815 around 81 years old. Given that Matsumura is reported to have trained for five years with Sakugawa, if that corresponds with the year of Sakugawa’s death, this would mean that Matsumura started training with Sakugawa around 1810. Matsumura is reported to have been born in Yamakawa village in the Shuri region of Okinawa.  But his birth year is reported as early as 1798 and as late as 1809. Using the earliest birth year for Matsumura, 1798, would make him 12-years-old when he first started training with Sakugawa.  This is believable but also then fascinating as Matsumura reportedly had then developed, by twelve years of age, such a reputation for disobedience that Sakugawa trained him only out of an obligation to Matsumura’s father.

1836 – Matsumura, possibly around the age of 38, is recruited into the service of the Ryukyu vassal lord, King Sho Ko, and given a peichin title.

Matsumura would eventually become the chief martial arts instructor for the vassal state of Ryukyu and also the bodyguard of King Sho Ko as well as the last two vassal lords, King Sho Iku and King Sho Tai. It was reportedly during this time as the champion of Ryukyu that Matsumura was directed to deal with a Chinese sailor, possibly a pirate, named Chinto. Chinto had taken refuge in a cemetery of the mountains of Tomari after he was shipwrecked. Chinto was stealing from the local Okinawans and generally acting like a shipwrecked pirate. Matsumura has been described as blindingly fast and deceptively strong and possessing a pair of unsettling eyes; he reportedly was never defeated in a duel although he fought many. Legend has it that while Matsumura was not defeated, he was at least equally matched by Chinto.  Matsumura went on to train with Chinto for some time and eventually created Chinto kata in his honor.

In addition to creating Chinto kata, Matsumura is credited with installing Seisan, Naihanchi, and Kunsanku kata in the Shorin-ryu system.  He is also credited with teaching several major martial artists of the 20th century including Kyan Chotoku and Motobu Choki.

With the end of the 19th century, we can see how, through Sakugawa and his legendary student Matsumura, the foundation of Isshin-ryu has heavy influences of Chinese martial arts particularly in the influence of Shifu Kusanku on Sakugawa and the dread pirate, Chinto, upon Matsumura.  Next time, we will look at the 20th century instructors of Master Shimabuku: Kyan Chotoku, Miyagi Chojun, Motobu Choki, and Taira Shinken.

Upcoming Black Belt Test

WNY Karate Center is having an adult black belt test this coming Saturday, May 21, 2016 from 12PM to 7PM.

The following candidates are grading for:

  • SHO-DAN (1st Degree Black Belt)
    • Sempai Don Seel
  • SAN-DAN (3rd Degree Black Belt)
    • Sensei Matt Hout
    • Sensei Rick Potvin
  • YON-DAN (4th Degree Black Belt)
    • Sense Jim Ando
    • Sensei Alicia Hargadon

This will be the first time in over 23 years that a female candidate will be testing for Yon-Dan (4th degree Black Belt) so come by and support Sensei Alicia in this historic event!

Meeting Sifu Donnie Yen

This past Saturday, Hanshi Jim and some other members of Western New York Karate Center were fortunate enough to take a trip to Toronto, Canada to see a screening of Wu Xia. The screening was followed by a question and answer session by Sifu Donnie Yen. Hanshi Jim was even able to get an autograph and some pictures with Sifu!

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The Origin of Isshin-ryu, Part 1

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
May 6, 2016

The Journey… Part One

The origin of martial arts is truly lost in time as it likely is as old as humankind.  It therefore predates any of the currently understandable recorded languages. Thus, what we can discern with any certainty is from the written records that have survived and from oral history and these accounts have their political biases.  Specifically with regard to Isshin-ryu, many seem to trace the origins of this martial art to Sakugawa in 18th century Okinawa, but, in order to better understand Isshin-ryu, I feel the story goes back further.

From what is available currently, I have pieced together a timeline that I feel will provide a more comprehensive insight into the basis and development of Isshin-ryu.  Respectfully, this timeline differs from many of the histories I have found maintained by many Isshin-ryu dojos.  Thus, safe to say, this is just one possible interpretation of the history of Isshin-ryu. This first part will take us from the 6th century up through much of the 17th century.

Shaolin Kung Fu – the origin of modern institutionalized martial arts

Although legend has it that the Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor of the Xia Dynasty, introduced the earliest martial arts in 2698 BCE (Before Christian Era), the earliest written accounts of Chinese martial arts do not appear until the 5th century BCE.  But, it is the Shaolin style of martial arts that is credited with being the first institutionalized system for the training and development of martial artists.

527 (Christian Era) – The “Blue-eyed Barbarian” Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, brings Chan Buddhism to China and during his travels encounters the monks at the Buddhist temple in the Shao Forest (Shaolin).  Reportedly concerned about the lack of health of the Shaolin monks,Bodhidharma developed two systems which he recorded in two separate manuscripts:

Yijin Jing – this is a manuscript on how to build qi to an abundant level and use it to improve health and strengthen the body.  Copies of this manuscript survive to the modern day.  These teachings are at the foundation of Shaolin Kung Fu but could therefore also be considered at the foundation of all martial arts that followed from that tradition.

Xisui Jing – this manuscript reportedly instructed one on how to use qi to cleanse bone marrow, strengthen the immune system, and energize the mind. Bodhidharma claimed to have lived over 150 years and one would imagine that was due to the techniques he described in the Xisui Jing. Unfortunately, that manuscript reportedly is not currently obtainable in modern times.

621 – The Battle of Hulao.  Thirteen Shaolin monks assist Qin king Li Shi-Ming in his warfare and in return the monks are awarded 600 acres of land and permitted and encouraged to train people in Shaolin martial arts. The Tang Dynasty supports the Shaolin Temple and its legal right to own and conduct a martial arts training organization for almost 300 years (until the year 907).

960 – 1278 – the Shaolin monks become less centralized and begin traveling around
Southeast Asia. They spend this time focused on gathering martial arts knowledge from Asia and recording what they find in the Shaolin Temple.

Shaolin Kung Fu arrives in Okinawa

1324 – Japanese Buddhist monk, Da Zhi, studied with the Shaolin for twelve years
before returning to Japan to spread Shaolin Chan Buddhist teachings which likely also included Shaolin Kung Fu.  Da Zhi’s route to return to Japan would very likely take him through Okinawa to get to the Japanese main islands and it is possible he would’ve demonstrated Kung Fu to the Okinawans.

Shortly after the time when Da Zhi would’ve likely travelled through Okinawa, the many small and scattered domains across Okinawa unified into three tribal federations that came to be known as the Three Kingdoms: Hokuzan, Chuzan, and Nanzan.

1347 – Shao Yuan, another Japanese monk, who had studied with the Shaolin monks for twelve years, returns to Japan to share what he learned at the temple, likely including Shaolin wushu. Like Da Zhi before him, Shao Yuan would likely return to Japan through the Three Kingdoms.

Ryukyu Kobudo (Okinawan weapons-based martial arts) could have had its origin prior to the 14th century. But, while popular history has it that Master Sakugawa founded Okinawa martial arts in the 1700s, given the timing of the missionary work of both Da Zhi and Shao Yuan, the name given to Ryukyu martial arts, “to-de” (pronounced “toe-day” meaning “Chinese hand”), and the history of Okinawa between 1324 and 1609, I feel the evidence strongly supports the start of Ryukyu martial arts as being between 1324 and 1347.

Development of To-de and the establishment of the Ryukyu Kingdom

The three kingdoms of Ryukyu eventually went to war and in 1416 the kingdom of Chuzan (“Central Mountain”) conquered Hokuzan.  And, in 1429, Chuzan defeated Nanzan and the First Sho Dynasty of the Ryukyu Kingdom was established. The Ryukyu Kingdom was shortly thereafter officially recognized by the Chinese Ming dynasty as the official government of Okinawa.

1470 – Kanamaru overthrows the First Sho Dynasty and establishes the Second
Sho Dynasty and takes on the honorary surname to rename himself, Sho En. He ruled for about seven years and died at 60. He was succeeded by his brother, Sho Sen’i, but the high priestess, daughter of Sho En, received a divine message that Sho Sen’i should abdicate the throne to Sho En’s son.  Thus, Sho Shin came to rule.

1477 – Ryukyu king Sho Shin, to strengthen central control over the kingdom and
prevent further insurrection, bans To-de as well as Ryukyu kobudo. Ryukyu families go from open training in To-de to secretly continuing training. To-de in the three islands of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Shuri, Tomari, and Naha, over time, will drift from each other and and take on their own distinct natures, that will come to be known as Shuri-te, Tomari-te, and Naha-te respectively.

Shuri-te would develop over time into several systems that include Shorin-ryu , Shorinjiryu, Shito-ryu, Motobu-ryu, and Shotokan. Tomari-te would develop, among other systems, into Motobu-ryu and Shorinji-ryu. Naha-te would develop, among other
systems, into Goju-ryu, Uechi-ryu, and Ryuei-ryu. While there is some overlap between
these three systems, Isshin-ryu has in its roots elements of Shorin-ryu, Shorinji-ryu, and Goju-ryu.

1609 – The Japanese Shimazu family was given permission by the Japanese shogunate to invade the Ryukyu kingdom.  The Shimazu defeat the forces of the Ryukyu Kingdom with reportedly little effort. Ryukyu ceased at that point being an independent kingdom and became a vassal state of Japan (and remained a Chinese tributary state until 1874). The ban on To-de and Ryukyu kobudo that King Sho Shin had established over 125 years earlier was maintained by the Japanese.

In summary, Isshin-ryu can reasonably trace its origins to at least the 14th century as Shaolin teachings started to spread to Japan and a martial art known as “Chinese Hand” came into being.  At the least, there is ample evidence to indicate that the Okinawans were developing martial arts in the three major areas of Okinawa in the 15th century as they were actively banned at that time.  Furthermore, the Imperial Japanese would declare that they would maintain that ban when they took over in the early 17th century.  Next week, we will look at the developments in Okinawan Te as it moved from the 17th century and into modern times.

The Qi to Health and Beyond

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
April 29, 2016

The Qi to Health and Beyond

I presented this week at the 16th Annual Healthy Alternatives through Healing Arts (Ha-HA) Conference.  Some of the workshops offered at this year’s HA-HA conference included Qigong, Reiki, and Aikido.  A similar sound is common within all of these workshop titles. “Chee” or “key.”  And, as it turns out, this similar sound refers fairly consistently to the same concept, “life energy.”

Life energy, also known as ch’i in Chinese culture, is known as “gi” in Korean and “ki” in Japanese.  The concept of life energy, using a different sounding word or phrase, is also found in other cultures: the Indians call it, “prana” (pron. pray-nah). It is “ruah” (pron. ru-ahhh) in Hebrew culture. And, near and dear to my heart, it is called “The Force” in Western culture’s Star Wars mythos.  But, regardless of the culture, the importance of this concept in the various holistics alternatives presented at today’s conference was clear.  Connecting with and even manipulating life energy is an important holistic approach to physical and mental health.

While the phrase, life energy, may lead you to only consider what keeps your own heart beating, that your life energy is only regarding your physical health, like in the Star Wars mythos, life energy can be said to be “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Students of life energy consider that it not only exists within our bodies but also as a field that extends into the world beneath our feet as well as in the heavens above our head.  And that it flows in and out of our bodies to and from the world around us.  Life energy is thought to available to be used to heal not only our own bodies or our own minds but also the minds and bodies of others.

Often seen as at odds with enthusiasts of life energy relevant holistic practices is the concept of the “placebo effect.”  The placebo effect is how Western medicine describes health benefits experienced while engaging in activities that are believed by Western medicine to be medically ineffectual. But, while adherents of Western medicine may believe that the so called placebo effect challenges the validity of holistic approaches, I say it validates them.  While Western medicine can find no explanation for why certain practices have a significant and observable positive effect on an individual’s health, the concept of life energy manipulation does provide use with an understanding of how t’ai chi ch’uan, reiki, qigong and other such practices should work as they do.  With this in mind, placebo effect literature suggests to me that we may all have an innate ability to engage in life energy manipulation but perhaps some people are perhaps instinctively better able to positively engage life energy than others.

And, if one considers the placebo effect to be part of the “yang” of life energy, there is also a “yin” called, the nocebo effect. The nocebo effect is the observation of health consequences when there is no medical reason an intervention should have a negative outcome.  If we accept that the placebo effect may be the result of an unconscious and instinctive positive manipulation of life energy, could it that the nocebo effect, the observation of health consequences when none should otherwise occur, be connected to an unconscious manipulation of one’s life energy based on the belief that the treatment should cause harm? The implication for incorporating the manipulation of life energy into one’s training and efforts for achieving and maintaining health should be clear. If one trains in life energy manipulation and then consciously applies, one could take control of the placebo effect to improve the health benefits of our healthy activities and reduce or even eliminate unwanted negative side effects.  A workout not only could result in greater benefits but also come without consequences.  There could be gain with no pain!

But, it doesn’t end there.  Considering the value that has been found in holistic alternatives and their manipulation of life energy for physical and mental health, one should be aware that this is only a fraction of what is believed to be possible. Since at least the creation of the Yijin Jing and Xisui Jing manuscripts in the 6th century BCE people have been studying and reporting on a broad range of life energy manipulation effects.  Practitioners within this field of study report that a person can be trained to manipulate life energy with regard not only to health but also with regard to thought, behavior, and even the space-time continuum.  And, that one could focus any specific life energy manipulation on not only one’s own mind and body but also on the minds and bodies of other people.  One could even focus life energy manipulation on the world around us.  While we might relegate their list of “powers” to fantasy or comic books, these practitioners list telepathy, astral projection, flight, telekinesis, aura reading, animal control, and laying on hands as only some of the powers that are believed possible through the manipulation of life energy.

Regardless of what you believe is possible, the genuine benefits of yoga and t’ai chi are scientifically supported and the occurrence of the so-called placebo effect is undisputed.  So what potentially yet remains to be “discovered” by Western science with regard to life energy manipulation and how one could apply it to one’s martial arts is nevertheless an exciting concept. Beyond the manipulation of life energy to achieve serenity of our minds and longevity of our bodies, what else might the future hold for the use of this qi?

It’s All in Your Imagination

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
April 22, 2016

It’s All In Your Imagination

Last week we considered the social-emotional aspect of training emphasizing that it is not only the physical component of martial arts that is important but also the spiritual component. This week, we shall consider an aspect of third and quite possibly most significant component of training: the mental component.  There are many aspects of the mental component of training; today we will touch on the aspect called imagination.

If you have trained at the Western New York Karate Center, I know you have heard Hanshi Ed or Hanshi Jim say “your instructor should be able to see your opponent” when you are training in kata.  I dare say that extends beyond the practice of kata to the practice of kihon as well. As one trains, one should be visualizing the opponent and the action the opponent is taking that one is initially responding to and then visualizing how the opponent would react to each action one takes in response.  One’s imagination of the opponent should be so strong that it can almost truly be seen by others watching you as you train.  Proper imagination of one’s opponents not only helps instructors better evaluate your progress in training, it will definitely improve the quality of your technique; taking wooden or robotic replication of action to a level of visceral and evocative performance.

The importance of imagination in training is not restricted to imagining an opponent.  One should also focus one’s imagination in training solely upon oneself.  As Sensei Jesse Enkamp ( relates in his “25 Scientific Karate Hacks,” mental visualization, or imagination, appears scientifically supported as a method for improving one’s performance overall. He cited a study reportedly conducted at the University of Chicago where visualization of free throws, without actually physically performing them, was as effective in improving free throws as physically practicing free throws for a month.  That is to say, if we can strongly, clearly imagine how we want to do a technique; we can significantly improve how we actually perform it.

If one has ever attempted to determine a bunkai for a portion of a kata or develop an ippon, often the biggest stumbling block when performing it is first imagining it.  If we cannot first imagine the bunkai or ippon as it is to be performed and the reasons for it, it is almost guaranteed that it will fail to feel realistic; that the bunkai or ippon will be without spirit. Certainly with repetition, one can still find the heart of the technique.  But, employing imagination as a part of this aspect of training will help you find that sense of spirit far faster than through physical repetition alone. 

Certainly the trick here is being confident it what we are imagining. Believing that one is visualizing the best way to perform a technique. I challenge the worrisome to consider that imagining how best to perform a technique, “correct” or not, will nevertheless enhance one’s progress in training far more than not using one’s imagination at all.