The Chibana Project

A blog where I post my research on a certain Okinawan named Chibana Choshin.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


Was Chibana an uneducated man? Chibana’s formal education ended when he dropped out of an Okinawa prefectural junior high school – Okinawa Kenritsu Dai-ichi Chugakko – at age fifteen and became a student of Ankoh Itosu in 1900. Karate historian John Sells notes in his book, Unante, “Although Chibana was highly regarded as a karate senior, he was also a very blunt, essentially uneducated man” (1). Chibana did have a way of being direct – a popular story circulates that while teaching a group of students about uchi-waza during an examination, he asked one of them to strike at him. When the student moved to strike Chibana did nothing, complaining that the strike was not worth blocking if the student was not going to attack him seriously. While there is no record of Chibana’s return to school to complete a formal education, there are mitigating factors to suggest that in spite of his perceived bluntness, Chibana was not as uneducated as is commonly believed.

First, Chibana’s teacher, Itosu, was a scholar and bureaucrat. As a youth from a reputable and well-to-do family, Itosu was schooled in the Chinese classics, Confucianism, and calligraphy. His writing abilities, scholarship, and character earned him the position as soushi koori, Secretary for the Ryukyu Kingdom – the highest administrative position in the kingdom (2). Itosu served directly under the king as a scribe until the Ryukyu Kingdom was disbanded in 1879 by the Meiji emperor - or, depending one's interpretation of events, when King Shotai abdicated. Shoshin Nagamine suggests that Itosu’s duties as soushi koori also included overseeing the wealthiest landowners in the kingdom (3). Itosu also held positions as a karate instructor at a prefectural college and at a teacher’s training school.

Having been schooled in Confucian thought, Itosu would naturally be respectful but demanding of his relationship as a teacher with his students. In researching Itosu’s character, karate historian Mark Bishop notes, “[Itosu] had been a kind but stern father figure to his students” (4). Shinpan Shiroma reports that Itosu was cautious and strict (5).

Given these characteristics of Itosu – an educated, classically trained scholar and bureaucrat who devoutly subscribed to Confucian thought, and was thus a strict father figure to his disciples – it is very difficult to accept that in the fifteen years Chibana spent with him as his disciple that Itosu would not have somehow completed Chibana’s schooling at least informally. As a product of a well-to-do family, Itosu was raised on the mantra of bun bu ryodo – culture/philosophy, martial arts, calligraphy. He would have likely passed this on to the fifteen-year-old Chibana. While possibly unrelated, some evidence of this can be seen in Chibana’s fondness for practicing calligraphy.

Second, John Sells notes that Toyama Kanken claimed to have been awarded the privilege of bestowing rank in any martial art by the Ministry of Education, and the only other person to share the privilege was Chibana (6). If this is so, it may be reasonable to posit that the ministry responsible for the education of Japanese children would not want to honor or elevate an individual who had not at least demonstrated some competence in a basic Japanese education; in his dealings with the ministry, Chibana must have shown that he had at least the equivalent of a high school education. Even if his influence was restricted purely to physical education, it is not logical for a school system to honor a junior high school dropout if that is as far as his education appeared to have gone.

Third, for an uneducated man, Chibana seemed to have a very academic perspective on karate. According to Chibana, Itosu did not just train karate. “Sensei Itosu studied very hard at karate” he remarked to Katsumi Murakami, author of Karate-do to Ryukyu Kobudo (7). Chibana was a principal member of the Ryukyu Tode Kenkyukai, or the Ryukyu Tode Research Club. In 1929, he christened the dojo he opened at Baron Nakijin’s courtyard in Gibo Village as “Tode Kenkyu Sho”, or Tode Research Hall (8). Chibana and other early karate legends collaborated with Genwa Nakasone, a scholar and schoolteacher, in the publication of Karate-do Taikan in 1938, a veritable karate encyclopedia. In November 1963, Chibana said, “When you train you have to devote yourself only to the way of karate - think of nothing else.... You must not only learn body movements but also research and study the art.” (9) Commenting on kata, Chibana remarked, “The study of kata is kata training” (10). His affinity for research and study in his diction and his association with early karate organizations suggests that Chibana, while not a man of letters, must certainly have been a non-traditionally learned man.

Was Chibana an uneducated man? Formally, yes. However, given these three factors, it becomes increasingly difficult to blindly embrace the concept. It is troublesome to envision a disciple of a learned scholar, a darling of the Ministry of Education, and a man with a hunger for study and learning as a crude simpleton who spoke his mind and thought nothing of it.

(1) John Sells, Unante, 2nd Edition (Hollywood: W.M. Hawley Library, 2000), pg. 189
(2) Shoshin Nagamine, Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters, (Boston: Tuttle Martial Arts, 2000), pg. 47
(3) Ibid
(4) Mark Bishop, Okinawan Karate, 2nd Edition, (Boston: Tuttle Martial Arts, 1999), pg. 90
(5) Ibid
(6) Sells, pg. 109
(7) Graham Noble, "Masters of the Shorin-Ryu: Part II", Fighting Arts International (Issue 51, Volume 9, No. 3 pg. 32-35), available online (, par. 23
(8) Bishop, pg. 91
(9) Noble, par. 32
(10) Patrick Nakata, "Okinawa Shorin-Ryu Karate", (introductory handout), pg. 1


Blogger John Vesia said...

I liked your notes on Ankoh Itosu. If I'm not mistaken, he created the Pinan katas, and was in favor of introducing Karate into the public school system. It's also interesting to note that both Itosu and Chibana lived into their 80s...a testament to the Karate lifestyle.


10:18 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home