by Michael Clayton
Kobudo is the Okinawan martial art of traditional weapons and is considered the brother/sister art of Karate. For those who do not know, Okinawa is an island 450 miles south of Japan and is considered to be the birthplace of Karate. It is where the father of modern Karate (Gichin Funakoshi) is from and is home to some of the most respected martial artists of all time.
Prior to the twentieth century, the Japanese mainland had never seen Okinawan martial arts. That was until a momentous event in 1917, when Gichin Funakoshi (pseudonym ‘Shoto’) was invited to travel from Okinawa in order to give a demonstration of Okinawan martial arts in the Japanese city of Kyoto. He did not travel alone, he was joined by his friend and fellow martial artist and weapons expert Matayoshi Shinko. The two of them were leading experts and researchers of martial arts on the island of Okinawa and though they were not teacher and student, they trained together as friends often. Although Matayoshi Shinko was twenty years younger than Funakoshi, he was not a student of his. Shinko was taken to Japan because he was a well respected and famous demonstrator of martial arts and had learned how to fight with dozens of different weapons.
The date was May 25th and the event was called the Butokukai Butokusai (Martial Arts Association, Martial Arts Celebration) and was organised by the Imperial government’s official body for organising and regulating Japanese martial arts (Dai Nippon Butokai). The 59-year-old Funakoshi and the 29-year-old Matayoshi put on one of the most important demonstrations in martial arts history, one that would change the face of martial arts forever.
In Okinawa, the separation of Karate and Kobudo had not really taken place and all martial artists were trained in both weapons and non-weapons techniques alike. Funakoshi was primarily an empty-handed (Karate) expert and Matayoshi was primarily a weapons (Kobudo) expert and so whilst Funakoshi demonstrated empty handed techniques, Matayoshi demonstrated Kama (sickles) and Tonfa (wooden batons). The success of this demonstration was remarkable and it was said that the Japanese were very excited to see and hear more about Okinawan martial arts (which since Okinawa was a part of Japan, were also Japanese).
Kobudo was not adopted into the education system for several reasons. Firstly, because the sword art of Kendo was already being taught. Secondly because there was not a formal method for grading and testing Kobudo students as there was for Karate (Karate had already been taught in schools in Okinawa since 1904 and so there was some precedence for having a curriculum). Thirdly Kobudo was too dangerous for children and young people to learn safely and so was never formalised in the same way.
Gichin Funakoshi would teach elements of Kobudo to his adult students and was known to have continued sharing Kobudo techniques with his seniors. However, Kobudo never became as popularised as Karate did, since it was not being institutionally taught.
Shinko Matayoshi continued to work on the formalisation of Kobudo into an organised martial art and he went on to have numerous students in Okinawa. His son Shinpo Matayoshi later became the foremost weapons expert in Okinawa during the second half of the twentieth century and he had students from many different countries. In the 1950s, one of Funakoshi’s students (Taira) was the first to start a Kobudo organisation and then in the 1970s Shinpo Matayoshi set up his own organisation and formalised a syllabus to help spread Kobudo around the world. As in Karate, there are now different styles of Kobudo, but the Matayoshi school is perhaps the most distinctive with its black tops and white trousers.
In Britain, we have a rapidly growing association of Matayoshi Kobudo practitioners in the MKAGB (Matayoshi Kobudo Association of Great Britain) and we hold regular events and training nationwide. For any Karate-Ka who love their martial arts and would like to learn Kobudo as demonstrated by Matayoshi Shinko during those early days of Karate, the MKAGB association would welcome your interest. Unlike some groups, we are not a profit-making business and are a responsible body with an amateur ethos (as it should be) and we are always ready to support beginners looking to take up the art.
Though not yet an widely known sport in the UK, the British Matayoshi Kobudo Championships are held each year in June. So, if you would like to become a British Champion of Kobudo as well as Karate? Get in touch and get involved. Teaching is available nationwide and instructor’s courses are available.
The attraction and draw of the Okinawan martial arts following Shinko’s and Funakoshi’s 1917 demonstration were such that in 1921, the Crown Prince Hirohito wanted to see a further demonstration during his visit to Okinawa. Once again Shinko Matayoshi performed. This demonstration is perhaps the most famous of all the demonstrations in Okinawan martial arts history. Following this performance Shinko was presented with a special recognition award by the Crown Prince. In 1922 Funakoshi was invited to Tokyo to present karate to the Japanese Ministry of Education and in 1924 Karate was formally adopted in the Japanese Education system.
As portrayed in films such as ‘The Last Samurai’ The Japanese of the Meiji restoration period (1868-1912) were fully embracing western methods of education and military training. This continued during the Taisho period (1912-1926) and the increasingly militarised Imperial nation of Japan were looking for a comparative art to western boxing to be taught in their universities and schools. They had experimented with boxing but it was considered too undisciplined and non-Japanese. As such there was a drive amongst government officials to find or create a Japanese equivalent that could be introduced to young men. When Funakoshi demonstrated the concept of Karate before the Imperial court, it was eagerly accepted. Not only did it include punching techniques, but also kicking techniques. As such in addition to Kendo (fighting with bamboo swords) and Judo (wrestling and throwing and tripping), Karate also joined the formal education system.
Early Karate and Kobudo Demonstartion Team
Photos: Gichin Funakoshi and Shinko Matayoshi. Friends and Pioneering Demonstrators of Okinawan Martial Arts