7 Facts about karate master Hanashiro Chomo

In the world of Okinawan karate there are styles derived from the townships of Shuri, Tomari and Naha. Hanashiro Chomo was of the Shuri tradition and played a key role in bringing karate into the public sphere at the turn of the twentieth century.

Here are seven facts about this little known karate master.

  • Trained under Matsumura Sokon
  • The first (1 of 3 Okinawans) to successfully enlist in the army
  • Served as an officer in the First Sino Japanese War
  • First to write karate with the kanji for ‘empty hand’
  • Mayor of Mawashi village
  • Tomb still exists on Okinawa
  • Handed down eighteen karate kata of the Shuri-ti tradition

Early training

Hanashiro Chomo kata techniques
Hanashiro Chomo 1869-1945

Hanashiro’s life transcends the exact moment when ‘old’ karate was becoming ‘new’. His teachings, preserved in eighteen kata, offer the karate enthusiast today a view of a karate that has remained unchanged since the Taisho Era.

Hanashiro Chomo began training in karate at the age of ten under the famous Shuri master Matsumura Sokon. This introduction likely came from his lifelong friend Yabu Kentsu whose family were closely associated with the former royal bodyguard.

Later, in his early twenties, Hanashiro, along with Yabu and another karate-ka, briefly trained with Itosu Anko before enlisting in the Imperial Japanese Army. At this time the relatively newly formed ‘Okinawa Prefecture’ was exempt from conscription drafts so only volunteers could apply to join the military.

Together they were the only three accepted from fifty applicants. Each were noted for their strong physiques resulting from karate training. This incident was also referenced in Funakoshi’s autobiography ‘Karate-Do, My Way of Life’ when he reflects on the art of karate being considered for basic training in the Japanese military.

Karate as ‘empty-hand’

Hanashiro Chomo was the first to write karate with the kanji meaning ‘empty-hand’. In 1905 Hanashiro published a text titled ‘Karate Kumite’ which was an instructional manual for teaching karate in the Okinawa Prefectural schools.

Many believe that Funaksohi Gichin changed the writing of ’karate’, originally written with the ideograms meaning ‘Chinese Hand’ (Toudi), for his 1935 publication of Karate Kyohan, but Hanashiro’s ‘Karate Kumite’ was written some thirty years earlier. 

Karate was brought from semi-secrecy on Okinawa when Itosu Anko introduced it’s practise to the Okinawan Teacher’s Training Colleges in 1901. At the time Itosu was over seventy years old and so, after returning from serving in the First Sino Japanese War, Hanashiro and Yabu led the training sessions. 

Although many today refer to this ‘schoolyard karate’ approach as a ‘softening’ or ‘watering down’ of karate, the reality is that the ‘school program’ was for conscript aged males. Consequently it focussed on improving fitness and equipping Okinawan’s with a  rudimentary form of boxing prior to basic military training.

Most of this training utilised closed fist methods over open hand strikes, thus stripped of the advanced methods of karate. But a glance at a Shuri Middle School yearbook in the 1930’s reveals ‘karate club’ members with impressive physiques from solid training.

karate members of Shuri Middle School c1920

Mayor of Mawashi village

Hanashiro Chomo served as Mayor of Mawashi village. This district was once a valuable part of the Crown Estate producing rice for the palace. Mawashi is situated in view of Shuri-jo Castle and is just two stops away using the monorail.  

Hanashiro’s tomb can still be found on Okinawa. The original family tomb was situated in the village of his birth but during WWII the site was badly bombed. Although the family tomb had survived destruction the original site was reallocated for housing after the war and so a new tomb has been rebuilt and situated in Mawashi. In this same cemetery rests the karate masters Itosu and Matsumura; all three tombs having been constructed with contributions from the former Sho Family. Curiously, Hanashiro Chomo’s tomb is the only one that faces north. 

Hanashiro Chomo’s Karate

Hanashiro Chomo c1935

Although the karate world rarely celebrates the life of Hanashiro Chomo it is clear that he was held in high regard on Okinawa for his contributions to society and the art. 

Today eighteen kata of Hanashiro Chomo’s karate have been preserved. They comprise a mix of that passed from Matsumura Sokon and those taught at Shuri First Middle School.

Simplicity and economy of motion are key principles of Hanashiro Chomo’s karate. Techniques include striking, kicking, grappling and throwing.

As with other early Shuri styles there is a distinct lack of blocking methods with the basic premise being to simultaneously ‘enter and counter-attack’ an opponent early on. Students learn a fluid form of boxing supported on a lighter footwork rarely seen in other karate styles.

Hanashiro’s karate is little known, even on its native Okinawa, but it is one that likely holds significant interest from those wishing to explore the origins of a Shuri-te style that has remained unaltered since the Taisho Era.

[Cover image c1915 karate practise at Shuri First Middle School.]