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What is Matayoshi Kobudo? (Part 1)

F. Lohse & Michael Clayton, 3rd Dan

With illustrations by G. Wong

Matayoshi Kobudo is a globally recognised martial art, yet there is no real global consensus about what the art constitutes, when it was named or how it should be practised. Though many are able (or at least claim to be able) to recognise what is Matayoshi Kobudo and what is not, the term is confusing and not without controversy. Matayoshi Shinpo did not introduce the term to refer to his art, and some students of Matayoshi Shinpo from the 1960s and the early days of the ZOKR take umbrage with the term Matayoshi Kobudo itself. They feel strongly that while Matayoshi Shinpo was the leader, material, information, and technique were gathered from a variety of sources and brought together to constitute the Kobudo of both the Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei and his Kodokan dojo. Therefore, labelling it Matayoshi Kobudo is considered by some to be disrespectful to the contributions made by others. At the same time, various groups around the globe who now practice Matayoshi Kobudo slightly differently, sometimes claim they have the sole “real” or “authentic” Matayoshi Kobudo. As a result, the term itself is somewhat fraught, particularly for those without knowledge of its historical development.

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Origins and Circumstance of the Term ‘Matayoshi Kobudo’?

 

Shinko Matayoshi was a famous Okinawan martial artist who died in 1948. He had an excellent reputation and many people wanted to learn kobujutsu from him. After his death, his son Shinpo became regarded as the best source of his kobujutsu. Matayoshi Shinpo worked in Japan immediately after the war and returned to Okinawa around 1960. He started teaching soon after and opened his dojo, the Kodokan, in the 1970s. According to first hand testimony, the term ‘Matayoshi Kobudo’ was not used before the 1960s and it is possible the first use of the term was by American soldiers who began training with Matayoshi Shinpo in those days. Matayoshi Shinpo referred to his own martial arts style in various ways- Ryukyu Kobujutsu, Okinawa Kobudo, “my kobudo”, Kingai Ryu, and Kingai Ryu Tode Kobujutsu. He referred to the weapons arts he practised simply as Kobujutsu in the early days and as Okinawan Kobudo after 1970. Some western sources indicate that in later years (1990s) Matayoshi Shinpo would occasionally use the term Matayoshi Kobudo to refer to the Kobujutsu he learned from his father. Other sources including Matayoshi Shinpo’s Okinawan students say the term ‘Matayoshi Kobudo’ was not commonly used until after his death in 1997. It was used on the banner at the memorial celebration for his passing and this may have been the first formal use in Okinawa.

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It therefore appears the term ‘Matayoshi Kobudo’ was probably introduced by others (including westerners) who wished to find a short hand way of referring to the kobudo/kobujutsu taught under the direction of Matayoshi Shinpo. It seems to have been adopted in a haphazard fashion on Okinawa, and various groups currently either use it or reject it, for their own reasons. Internationally the term is well recognised in martial arts circles and its colloquial meaning is the kobudo taught by Matayoshi Shinpo. At the same time, while it is used informally on Okinawa and globally to refer to the general art virtually none of the former senior students of Matayoshi Shinpo have used it to formally name their organization or dojo. It seems to act then more as an informal reference than an actual title. Since it has risen colloquially and its meaning is poorly defined that is not surprising. However, this lack of clear definition, used informally or not, has resulted in numerous different opinions about what constitutes Matayoshi Kobudo what does not.

The purpose of this paper is to try and offer some insights into what possible definitions exist for the term and in so doing provide practitioners of Matayoshi Kobudo a reference point for locating their own practice within the global kobudo diaspora. This paper is only interested in investigating possible definitions through the evidence available, and is intended to be bias neutral. It is not intended to provide a definition that the larger kobudo community ”should” adopt, and thereby define others’ practice or lineage as inside or outside “Matayoshi Kobudo”, however that is to be defined.

 

Instead, the goal is to provide some context for examining various viewpoints on what is and what is not Matayoshi Kobudo by looking at various possible definitions for the term and how these definitions could be applied to what is currently an amorphous, ambiguous, and on occasion a highly politicised term. The researchers understand that their own experiences may generate bias and as such both researchers, who come from different backgrounds, countries and instructors, have taken the role of scrutinising each other’s sources and perspectives. This short essay in this way claims neutrality.

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While from various historical and political viewpoints the definition of Matayoshi Kobudo may seem obvious, the competing definitions espoused by different organizations make it clear this is not the case. Therefore, to start the discussion we would like to present some possible definitions of Matayoshi Kobudo and take a brief look at their strengths and weaknesses.

‘Matayoshi Kobudo’ is the Kobujutsu Passed Down in the Matayoshi Family

 

This definition begins with the assertion that kobujutsu has been associated with the Matayoshi family for many generations. It further suggests that there was a continuous transmission of technique from one Matayoshi generation to the next. Matayoshi Shinpo, as well as Matayoshi Shinko, asserted this, and it seems reasonable to take it as fact. However, this does not provide a very good definition of Matayoshi Kobudo for the present day. It implies a limitation- that the content of Matayoshi Kobudo is what the Matayoshi family passed down. Given Matayoshi Shinko’s extensive instruction from people outside the family this definition would then have to exclude all the Kingai and Gokenki material, the sai, tonfa, nunchiyaku, kama, all of the bo kata taught as the main syllabus now, and in fact the bulk of the rest of the weaponry of the system.

 

Furthermore, Matayoshi Shinpo added to the system with the help of students and training partners, and this material would also have to be excluded. It appears from what documentation is available that regardless of what principles may be contained in the kata the main concrete element currently practiced originally coming from the family may solely be Tsuken Akachu no Eku Di.

 

Matayoshi Shinpo was proud of his ancestry and made his descent from the famous Shinjo Gima well known (he even owned a bo that is said to have belonged to Gima and has been passed down in the family). He felt equally proud of the long association between the martial arts and his family. This pride in ancestry was a key feature of Shinpo’s identity, but whilst the phrase ‘Matayoshi Kobudo’ links a name with a martial art it is important to understand exactly to what extent the Kobudo and the family are connected. As noted above, many of the techniques and kata currently practised did not come from Shinko, Shinpo, or indeed anyone else in the family. And finally, though Matayoshi Yasushi is now the leader of the family and recognised Soke of the Kodokan dojo he has never been a practicing martial artist and has described himself to the researchers as “only the son and the grandson and no master”.

 

Therefore, defining Matayoshi Kobudo as solely the kobudo passed down in the Matayoshi family over multiple generations eliminates most of what is currently practiced as Matayoshi Kobudo. It also implies that there may be no longer any continuation of the art, since no current living Matayoshi practices Kobudo. If Matayoshi Kobudo contains a great deal of material that came from outside the family and also currently exists primarily through the practice and propagation of those outside of the family, then it is hard to see defining it as something solely passed down in the family as a viable definition, despite the importance of the family influence. It has simply become bigger than them, which in itself is a credit to the work they have done.

 

'Matayoshi Kobudo’ is the Kobujutsu of Matayoshi Shinko

 

Matayoshi Shinko was a very famous martial artist during the early twentieth century in Okinawa. In addition to the family material passed down by his father Matayoshi Shinchin, he studied with Shishi Ryoko, Agena Chokuho, Ire Okina, Yamane Chinen, Kingai Roshi, Go Kenki, and several other Okinawan and Chinese experts. Many people learned kobujutsu from Matayoshi Shinko and he taught in several dojo on Okinawa. While there is a reasonable claim to be made that the root of current day Matayoshi Kobudo is the kobudo of Matayoshi Shinko there are some obvious problems with this definition.

 

Many martial artists today can trace some of their kobujutsu heritage back to Shinko Matayoshi and his students. Since a few did not train with Shinpo this does potentially break any monopoly on the term Shinpo and his students might claim. However, the majority of those, people like Maeshiro Shusei, at one point or another actually did train with Matayoshi Shinpo or were members of the Zen Okinawa Kobudo Renmei. This filters most all of Shinko’s teachings through his son Shinpo in one way or another, in essence diluting the primacy of Shinko’s teaching vis-à-vis this definition.

More relevantly this definition also implies that any changes or additions to the system made by Matayoshi Shinpo are not Matayoshi Kobudo, therefore placing Shinpo and all his students outside the rubric of Matayoshi Kobudo..

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This seems unreasonable to say the least. One of Matayoshi Shinpo’s most important contributions to the Okinawan martial arts was to pass on the kobujutsu of his father. The material and concepts that came from Shinko and his various teachers are the core of the art. For that reason, Shinko can be considered the primary source of the art and in that way his contributions could constitute a definition of Matayoshi Kobujutsu. However as Matayoshi Shinpo matured and his own reputation and possibly skills surpassed that of his father then what was Shinko’s kobujutsu gave way gradually to Shinpo. For this reason, limiting the term Matayoshi Kobudo to that material which came directly from Matayoshi Shinko does not seem to work as a definition.