Bugeikan : An Okinawan Martial Arts Dojo

Higa Seitoku

The Bugeikan dojo was founded in 1952 by Higa Seitoku, a public notary and key figure in the popularisation of Okinawan martial arts after the Second World War.

His intention was to preserve a number of rare and unique fighting traditions of the island from the rising wave of sport karate that was sweeping the country. This mission was furthered by his son, and my teacher, Higa Kiyohiko. Today his eldest son, Higa Kiyotomo, is Kancho of the dojo and instruction to newcomers is usually referred either to his brother Higa Kiyohiro, or to myself in UK and Europe.

In 2016, as part of the London Okinawa Day celebrations that year, Higa sensei wrote an introduction for my public demonstration of Ryukyu Bujutsu:

Of all the foreign apprentices I have, the one who has studied the technique of Bugeikan for the longest time, over ten years, is Joel Reeves.

Joel did not only study his art in the UK but came to Okinawa and trained for a long time at the Bugeikan and shared his skill. He is a dedicated and exceptional person and I wish him all the best for his activities in the UK.
比嘉清彦 Higa Kiyohiko 10th dan Bugeikan, Shuri

Due to Higa Kiyohiko’s ancestral connections he received a martial arts education second to none. Throughout his childhood a number of noted bujin were regularly invited to the house and consequently he received exposure to their teachings. He holds master grade ranks in eight distinct styles in addition to the Menkyo Kaiden (successor certificates) of several now deceased masters.

In my opinion, based on all the teachers I’ve met over the past thirty years, Higa Kiyohiko is a genius of martial arts in every sense. His footwork and technique is sublime and he has an uncanny ability to teach content either from a ‘specific’ style or present a mixture of several depending on how open the trainee is.

Thus the Bugeikan syllabus is an eclectic mix of old karate kata, kobudo weapon forms and Ti.

In addition to martial arts there is Seido, a form of natural exercise, distinct to Okinawa that has many benefits to health.

2011 5th Dan, Okinawa

During a 2011 visit Higa Kiyohiko awarded me with a 5th dan. Under the All Okinawa Karate & Kobujutsu Association a 5th dan is equivalent to a Shihan rank.

Joel Reeves 5th dan Bugeikan

Joel Reeves (centre) receives 5th dan 2011

By the time I first met Higa Kiyohiko in the flesh, the building where the Bugeikan dojo once stood had long since closed. Instead I received private, often one-to-one, instruction at my teacher’s house six evenings a week for several hours a night.

However I would like to recount the experiences of another valuable mentor I’ve had the good fortune to know for over twenty years. During the 1970’s Mark Bishop spent several years training in at the Bugeikan whilst living on the island.

Originally published in Okinawan Karate, Teachers, Styles & Secret Techniques, the following excerpt presents an accurate picture of how group training sessions are conducted.

Bugeikan training

Higa Seitoku with Mark Bishop (right)

At the Bugeikan, karate, kobudo and ti are taught on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (children from 6pm -8pm, adults from 8:30pm to 10:30pm). Because Seitoku Higa is not always present, his son Kiyohiko Higa, who also teaches Aikido on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, is usually in charge of the adult practice sessions.

Lessons are divided into six stages:

1. Karate kata practice

The karate kata taught at the Bugeikan are: Naihanchi, Pinan Shodan, Pinan Nidan, Pinan Sandan, Pinan Yondan, Pinan Godan, Sesan, Sochin, Jitti, Niseshi, Chinto, Passai Dai, Passai Sho, Passai Chu, Jion, Ananku, Kusanku (old type), Kusanku (Takemura type), Gojushiho, Moto-te Sanchin, Matsu Sanchin, Jichin, Suchin, Rufua, Nidanbu Dai, Nidanbu Sho, Sanpabu Ichi and Sanpabu Ni.

Of these katas Seitoku Higa learned Naihanchi and Kusanku (Takemura-type) as well as Nidanbu and Sanpabu from Soko Kishimoto; all four having been passed down from Takemura. Although Nidanbu and Sanpabu katas are like normal karate kata in appearance and structure they are actually made up of ti techniques and incorporate ti footwork.

The Pinan katas come from Kanzo Nakadankari (Hanashiro Chomo lineage. ed) and are distinguished from the Pinan of other Shorin styles in that they consist of block and punch techniques in one action rather than two.

Sesan, which Higa describes as an old Naha-te kata based on a Chinese prototype, came from both Arakaki no TANMEI of Naha and Kyochoku Chitose of Chito-ryu on the Japanese mainland. Higa also learnt Chinto from Chomo Hanashiro and Gojushio from Chozo Nakama of Shoorin-ryu (Kobayashi).

At the Bugeikan, karate kata practice is considered essential for beginners and children, but as exponents mature in their ability they may discontinue the practice of these. Katas may be performed with soft or snappy movements, depending on the student.

2. Basic ti punches and kicks

The ti basics are almost identical to Motobu-ryu; however, Higa emphasises greater body mobility which necessitates a lighter, springer type of footwork. For kicking, the ball of the foot, the tip of the big toe or the outer side of the foot may be used.

3. Ti body manipulation

Ti body manipulation exercises are based on the idea that the first and foremost important thing to do when attacked is get out of the way. To help students understand the importance of this aspect a type of fixed-sparring (against one or several attackers) has been developed in which the attacker or attackers uses either his foot, fist or a rubber knife/ The opponent has to avoid all contact with the attacker\s implement by learning to flow in the direction of the oncoming force and then to guide the attacker into a submissive state without causing him any harm. Rubber knives allow for complete safety whilst illustrating the essential reality to those karate-ka who have transferred from other schools and have been brought up on the slogan I can take a blow on any body surface.

4. Ti techniques practice, both with and without weapons

All the previous exercises help the student to gain an in-depth understanding of the ti techniques which, in Higa’s words, use pressure on vital points, wrist locks, grappling, strikes and kicks in a gentle manner to neutralise an attack. Maiming and killing techniques are taught, but never resorted to; safe simplified versions of these are practised in the dojo.

The throwing techniques, which are said to be uncountable, enable the thrower to be in complete control of his victim and, although graceful in appearance, can actually be quite nasty.

Unlike karate katas, Higa told me, ti takes a long time to master. True softness cannot be found in rigid karate forms, so the practice of flowing ti techniques gives the student an idea of this aspect. Breathing should be natural and done with the tanden, but the abdomen should not be moved.

Higa summed it up like this: When you move, be like running water so that the soft overwhelms the hard. The empty hand ti techniques are used to disarm assailants armed with traditional implements and the principles behind the empty hand forms are incorporated in weapon v. weapon combinations – e.g. staff v. staff, staff v. kai, said v. sword combinations.

5. Kobujutsu katas practice

Kobujutsu katas form the basis of weapons practice. These are namely: the Bo katas, Suji no Kun, Sunakaki no Kun Dai, Sunakaki no Kun Sho, Sakugawa no Kun, Ufugushiku no Bo, Tsuken Bo and Tsuken Dai Kun. Other katas are: Tonfua no Kata, Sai Dai, Sai Sho, Nunchaku Dai, Nunchaku Sho. Other weapons taught are katana, naginata, yard, kama, jo, nijo tanbo, tanto, kai and suruchin.

The techniques found in the kobujutsu katas are actually quite different from ti weapons techniques and the katas are taught to help students get used to handling the weapons, as well as for their historical and cultural value. Higa told me that the kobujutsu katas are based on Chinese forms and the oldest date back only 200 years, whereas ti weapons training has been practiced on Okinawa for over 1000 years.

Also, although the wearing of bladed weapons was banned by the Satsuma overlords, the king, princes and lords were in fact permitted to keep and practise with such weapons in their homes.

6. Free practice

Free practice at the Bugeiakan takes many forms, including one-punch free, or fixed-sparring (without protectors), sport type free-sparring with full protectors (helmet, breastplate and gloves) and practice with the punch bag. Makiwara training is not encouraged.

Meditation at the Bugeikan is encouraged. Before each lesson commences the students perform a breathing exercise that, I am assured, is good for health. This consists of two types of breathing performed in a kneeling position with the back held straight. When doing the first, inhale from the lower abdomen. As inhale expand the abdomen, then, as you slowly exhale, depress the chest hollow your abdomen and expand your chest. Next, as you slowly exhale, depress your chest and expand the abdomen. Perform this exercise ten times a day.

I was able to join the small group of students at the Bugeikan, where I eventually remained for several years. Although the training seemed easy to grasp at first, I only began to realise the complexity and depth of ti after several months of hard work. Indeed, having previously trained in karate, judo, aikido and internal forms of Chinese Boxing, I can safely say that ti opened up a whole new vista in my understanding of martial arts and I regret that, due to the secrecy in which ti has been enshrouded, it has not yet been taught as an independent system outside of Okinawa.