One hundred years ago, the martial arts of Okinawa were taught very different from the way they are today. Many of the masters of that time began to change how they taught the martial arts as they became accepted by the Japanese, adjusting their art to the difference between Okinawan students and Japanese ones.
During that time a shift developed from what could be called “TE”, the art practiced by the Okinawan royalty, to a more common man’s form referred to simply as Karate. Tracing the change, one man is seen as central to the development of the modern art of Karate. That man was Yasutsune Itosu. Under his instruction and innovations, most of the modern Karate masters developed different ideas of teaching their Karate. There were those who were not his students, who upon his recommendation, modified their marital arts to fit modern perimeters.
For the most part, the old art of “TE” was lost as the modern art of Karate was developed, with one exception. Seikichi Uehara learned what is considered the last of the royal, Okinawan “TE” martial arts.
Born in 1904, Seikichi Uehara lived in a very different Okinawa from the one American military personal found in the 1960s. Karate was just being introduced in the school system in Okinawa and most martial arts practitioners were still those of the royal families. When Uehara was two years old, changes were being made to Karate that would eventually make it almost unrecognizable as the original Okinawan martial art.
In 1916 Seikichi Uehara met Choyu Motobu, the master of his family martial art, one of the old “TE” systems, known privately within the family as Goten-Te, the palace hand. By that time Karate taught within the school systems was very different from the royal family martial arts, and Choyu was afraid that the art would be lost to modern times.
At first, Choyu Motobu wanted his sons to learn the art and carry on the family tradition. However this was not to be. First of all, his eldest son died young, while his other son was just not interested in an archaic art, which was, he believed, useless to the new modern Japan. Uehara was a close friend of Choyu’s son, so Choyu agreed to teach him, if he promised to teach his son when he was older. Uehara readily agreed, though it was not to be since the son died in the bombing of Okinawa during World War II.
Seikichi Uehara was a devoted student and learned the depth of the Motobu family martial art. Unlike modern Karate, Goten-Te taught a full range of weapons including, Katana, Wakizashi, Naginata, Nagamaki, Yari, as well as Chinese style weapons, like the, To, Chien, and Okinawan martial arts weapons, including Suruchin, Nunchaku, and others.
While Gichin Funakoshi was adjusting Okinawan Karate into an art more acceptable to the Japanese, Uehara was learning the original art so that he could preserve the truly ancient martial art. In 1926, Choyu Motobu died, leaving Uehara as the last master of Goten-Te. With the oncoming war and the unrest in Japan, young Seikichi didn’t have a lot of time to consider what to do with the knowledge he possessed, instead he just dedicated himself to the practice of the martial arts and continued to develop his personal skill.After the war, he too felt as if the ancient Okinawan martial art was going to be lost to the modernization of the Okinawa martial art into the forms of Karatedo and Kobudo. Thus in 1947, in order to honor the family who passed the martial art on to him, Uehara named the art Motobu Ryu Kobujutsu. Little by little, he began to give demonstrations of his art and by 1962 had created a small following for the system.
Over the years many practitioners of the Okinawan martial arts sought out Uehara for more traditional training, yet sadly, most of them continued the more modern training, alongside the ancient training. This has led to a misunderstanding of what the ancient training was really like.
Motobu Ryu Kobujutsu not only contained weapon training, but also the full range of striking skills normally associated with Karate, though not exactly like the striking of modern Karate with it’s emphasis on tension and hardness, but rather a relaxed, Ki powered version. Then the next phase of Uehara’s art is an emphasis on what is commonly called Toide, or in proper Japanese, Torite. This is a grappling skill, that is very much like modern Aikido, or Aikijujutsu. Once again Uehara moves with an emphasis on Ki, in it’s most fluid state.
NOTE: Aiki-do and Aiki-jujutsu use circular movements and the backside of the hand whereas Motobu-ryu uses direct and palm hand techniques
Uehara emphasized that the Ki training of Motobu Ryu Kobujutsu is not the Chi Kung, that is Kiko, of Chinese martial arts, but is a unique Ki method more like the fluidity of Aiki.
Seikichi Uehara was a phenomenal martial artist who demonstrated the superiority of his art and training on many occasions. Once he demonstrated for a black belt in Judo who laughed saying that the gentle movements would be totally ineffective in a real grappling contest. Uehara then matched the Judoka and totally controlled and held the man helpless with his Toide skills.
In his mid nineties, Uehara taught an exhibition, in which he demonstrated his skills on a much larger American visitor. The American martial artist said that when he was grabbed by Uehara, it felt like vices were applied to him, while after being thrown, he was held helpless by one finger.
When Seikichi Uehara was around ninety-six he was asked to put on a demonstration in which he battled a young boxer. The boxer tried to hit Uehara for twenty minutes and was unable to strike the much older man. When the boxer lowered his hands from fatigue, Uehara hit him once and the bout was over.
Most of all, the principles that Uehara has preserved are the most important aspect of Motobu Ryu. According to Seikichi Uehara original Kata were formless, that means not prearranged. This is extremely important, in that formlessness allows a person to learn to be spontaneous and creative, which is what is needed for genuine self defense.
When the relationship is understood, the formlessness of Kata, known as either Jiyu Kata (free form) or Mukei (no form), promotes true spiritual development. Too often spiritual development is hampered by preconceived ideology, which can include prejudice, chauvinism, and negative thoughts. Through Mukei, formless Kata, the mind is cleared and allowed to freely express itself. With proper mental training, along with the Mukei method of Kata practice, ideology is freed from preconceived thought and allowed to develop a more spiritual content.
In regard to the technical side, the heart of the ancient form of training, as preserved by Seikichi Uehara, is Bunkai. This means analyzation or analysis. Each move, that is normally taught as a striking maneuver, is analyzed to see what else the movement can accomplish. This takes a great deal of knowledge and understanding, but once this is accomplished, the every block, strike, and kick, can be reinterpreted as locks, throws, and chokes. Uehara said once, ‘in every attack, there is defense; and in every defense an attack’, while many have failed to understand this statement, it refers to the process of Bunkai.