Uechi Ryu History
Kanbun Uechi was born on May 5th, 1877 in Izumi, a small farming village on the northern part of Okinawa. He was the eldest son of Satsuma Samurai decedents Kantoku and Tsuru Uechi. His ancestors had lost their Samurai rights in the 1600’s when the Satsuma clan had been sent to Okinawa by the Japanese Empire to subjugate the island.
It appears that these ancestors didn’t wholly agree with the harsh edicts meted out to the peaceful Okinawans and forfeited all rights as and became peasants themselves. However, through all succeeding generations, the family retained their heritage of Samurai dignity, integrity and honor.
Through his youth, Kanbun mainly farmed the land of his ancestors, and studied some of the Okinawan martial arts. Kanbun became proficient with the bo staff, and often led demonstrations for local festivals.
In 1897, at the age of 19, Kanbun left for China. He had two reasons for traveling to China: to study the superior fighting forms of China, and to avoid being drafted into the Japanese Army. China being the birthplace of many great fighting systems was the best place to go for intensive training.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, most of the great Okinawa Martial Arts Instructors went to China to study. Many of the Chinese styles taught today have only superficial resemblance to the practical fighting forms of that age. The main difference between now and then is the serious attitude involved in teaching and studying martial arts. Severe restrictions were place on who may study, and what might be taught.
Social pressures, economics, religion, and politics all played a vital role in such matters. Once accepted, the student would find unparalleled instruction. The students’ abilities would be challenged, but he would experience the finest instruction ever available. The study of martial arts was a lifestyle, not a “hobby” as it is today in many Dojo’s and for many people.
Kanbun Uechi’s other reason for going to China was to avoid being drafted into the Japanese Army. Okinawan youths were being forced into military service. This force-feeding of Japanese political ideology through military indoctrination didn’t work. Neither did the militarization of Okinawa’s educational system, control of youth groups and other citizen’s societies, and even attempts to eradicate the Okinawan language by making it illegal to be taught in the schools or used on public signs.
The Okinawans strongly opposed the presence of Japanese officials at every opportunity. The Japanese were attempting to erase the Okinawan culture and subjugate Okinawa to Japanese laws and customs.
Conscripting young, able-bodied men from the Okinawan peasantry left fewer farmers to work the land. The entire local economy was always on the verge of total collapse. The ever-increasing six of the Japanese Army called for increases in already enormous taxes levied on the Okinawan people. Most of Okinawa was left in extreme poverty.
Most of all, the Okinawans were afraid that the presence of a standing army on Okinawa would invite invasion of the island by Japan’s many enemies. Long before the Sipo-Japanese War of the mid 1890’s, relations between Japan and China (and other Asian countries) had been strained, and the feeling in the Imperial Government was that Japan should prepare for a war on the continent. This was something the tiny Okinawan kingdom wanted no part of.
Eventually, in 1897, Okinawa was formally claimed by the Meiji Government of Japan as a Japanese prefecture, breaking all the Chinese ties and claims on the island. Okinawa was decreed subject to Japan’s Universal Male Conscription Act of 1873, which became effective on the island beginning 1898. The Japanese military draft was referred to as the “Blood Tax”. One could either become subject to the draft law, or pay and enormous exemption fee, hire a proxy to fill the open slot, go to prison, or escape from the island.
At the urging of his families elders, Kanbun Uechi quietly left for China in March 1897. One of the many draft resistance groups assisted with this ten day passage to mainland China. Many such groups existed, plotting secret routes and alternate travel methods out of the new prefecture.
Kanbun Uechi arrived in China just west of Taiwan, at the city of Fuchow, in the Fukien Province. In the early summer of 1897, he began to study at the Kugusuku Karate School with Matsuda Tokusaburo, an Okinawan from Izumi who had also escaped to China. While Kanbun became friends with other Okinawans at the school, he had a personality clash with one arrogant senior student and soon left to study a form of Chinese boxing called Pangainoon, under a master named Shushiwa.
Shushiwa has been described by various martial arts historians as either a merchant or a thief. All in all, he apparently had a somewhat colorful history.
Shushiwa (the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese name Chou-Tzu Ho) was a master of a combination form a Tiger-style Chinese boxing, one of the five “Five Fists of Fukien” (the five fists being the Dragon, Tiger, Leopard, Snake and Crane styles of Kung-Fu). (A visit to Fuchow by Master Kanei Uechi determined that Shushiwa was the last instructor of Pangainoon in China. Not much more is known about him at this time.)
The Chinese symbols for Pangainoon mean “half-hard, half-soft”, or “Heaven and Earth” style. The present Japanese symbols for Uechi Ryu Karate have the same meaning. A Chinese pronouncing the Japanese symbols would say “Shang-te Liu” and would explain this meant “hard-soft fist-way”. It is possible that Kanbun saw the calligraphy for Shushiwa’s system of fighting, and nothing the similarity of the ideograms to those of his own name, used that as a reference point to seek him out.