“Sometimes I practise karate like dancing Hamachidori”

Martial arts and dance are the same | Article by Higa Kiyohiko, 10th dan

I believe I was about a 2nd grader in an elementary school when I took my first lesson from my father [Seitoku Higa, Chairperson All Okinawa Karate Kobudo Federation]. At that time, along with working for the government, my father taught karate in a village square; however, it didn’t even come to my young mind to think of what training he had been through or what kind of bujin [martial artist] my father was.  I didn’t realise how splendid a bujin he was until I was in high school and my father taught us Yamane ryu bojutsu.

It was about this time he founded the Okinawa Kobudo Kyokai and became actively involved as Chairperson.  

Even today I still enjoy performing the enbu of Yamane ryu bojutsu.

Then, when I passed the entrance exam for the University of Ryukyu I began a serious study of karate. I was made to do many kata and perform countless tsuki, and keri [strikes and kicks]. I especially practised keri of which there are various forms including nidangeri and sandangeri [double and triple kick].  

One year later, my life of being thrown to tatami mats began.  I punched, kicked, and grabbed but each time I was thrown to the air.  I did not know at the time, but this was “Tuiti” the secret striking and grappling method of Ryukyu Bujutsu.  Thanks to my basic training, whenever I engaged in kumite I was able to move somewhat in response to my opponent or partner’s movements and, at the Okinawa Cultural exhibition in Kumamoto prefecture, in the 39th year of Showa  (1964), I was able to perform as an uke to my father and several other bujin.  

In “Tuiti” you start with the basic practice of tsuki, keri and body changes, then “kaeshi-waza”, reversal techniques, “urakaeshi-waza”, returning or reversing technique.  Above these techniques is the hidden principles of “Ajikata no Maekata” known as the ‘secret technique’.

In one of the short poems of Kensei (a title that was given upon the death of Motobu Choyu Aji, who was the mentor for the instructors of the karate world, from the Meiji to Taisho eras), there is the verse “Do not just observe Anjikata no Maekata dance performed by the master of the castle without contemplating technique layered upon technique of intensive secret methods. Before the opponent’s attack, the technique is defenceless and is sure to lead to death.”

“The purpose of bu [martial arts] is to protect oneself from an opponent’s attack; at the same time, the ideal is to have ability of not causing injury to your opponent.  I think you could say that the bu with such capability is the ultimate bu.”

Bu & Mai – Martial arts & dance

Higa Seitoku demonstrates a soft takedown
Higa Seitoku c1978

My father dances at various functions.  In the eyes of most, his dance is just ordinary; however, for him dance performance is enbu of bu [movement of martial technique]. I dance as frequent as my father but his dance is intense and differs from mine.  Everybody laughs when I start dancing.  Some of them are in tears of laughing too hard!

My dance is like kachashi or “festival dance”, circling around in balletic style like Swan Lake, mixed with praying mantis movements! At other times like the leader of the male cheering squad we see at high school.  

The whole audience becomes captivated when I dance my own free-form way, which strangely fits a variety of music.  My father smiles when he sees me dance.  

The next picture [edit: not included] shows my father’s enbu at Nakagusuku Park; he positions his body spontaneously to the attacks as if dancing softly.  Indeed it is the soft way of Mai no Ti that does not exist in the regular karate kata.   

“In karate there are hard techniques and soft techniques, and generally speaking, karate possesses both elements of hard and soft techniques but is considered as being mostly hard.”

If I were to explain the feeling of receiving soft techniques it is like your own energy is reflected back at you and your power has no effect on the opponent; there is an unpleasant sensation of your strength being drained.  

Higa Seitoku throwing a student using soft technique

It is not like being blocked or swept away, which actually feels better because it gives you a sure sense of having an opponent.  On top of that, your balance is broken, caught in the blast, and thrown in the air!  You may think of soft and flaccidness when you hear the technique being soft, but it is not the case.  It’s soft and not forcefully strong but contains a natural spring to it ever changing into various forms.

From old times it has been said that “There is a common ground in karate and the dance of Okinawa.”  But how could they be similar?  The majority of people would say that karate kata and Nisē/ Nisai Odori [young male dance] are similar with the kime [quick movement and sharp stops] as in karate. 

This is the main purpose for the dancers to come learn karate.  The reason is that the major part of karate kata consists of the hard techniques; whereas when you put a wider focus on the soft techniques, they appear more like the Onna Odori [Female Dances] which have a deep connection to soft techniques. 

The slow movement of flowing Onna Odori resembles Chinese taichi, and that indeed is soft technique.  Dancers must have a strong back and legs when slowly stretching up from the low position; they indisputably have solid “hip joints” and strong “lower back”.  Controlling of ankles and knees produces soft body movements as well as utilizing the reserved natural spring in the legs that enable them to move naturally.

Furthermore, in Ryubu [Ryukyu dance], there are motions that put together a thumb and a middle finger, or a thumb and index; either way doesn’t matter as both are acceptable in Ryubu.  

Matsu Kinjo – the dancing Old Man

When you ask me of bu and mai, let me share a memorable story told by my father.  

Once upon a time, there was a bushi, whose name was Machā Buntoku (Matsu Kinjo). He lived in Itoman and was born in the third year of Keiō (1867).   Since he trained karate in Fuzhou, China and knew the most secret techniques; the founder of Gojuryu, Chojun Miyagi and his students, Jinan Shinzato, Seikō Higa, and some students visited him and asked to see the secret techniques.   

Matsu Kinjo of Itoman, Okinawa. Walking along the road.
Macha Buntoku c1930

Machā Buntoku wore a towel around his head and began to dance.  After a while Seikō Higa thought that this Ōld man was going mad in old age.  At the same time, the hot-tempered Jin-an Shinzato yelled “Enough of this! Fight me!” and attacked the  venerable Ōld man.  In the next instance Jin-an Shinzato was thrown in the air in and crashed painfully into the garden bruising his hips. Feeling awkward at what Shinzato’s behaviour and the strange outcome of the attack everyone immediately went home.  On the way no one spoke a word.  

Seikō Higa, who was among them, told the story to my father.  Although the Ōld man sincerely showed the secret techniques, no one thought of the soft dance being a ti!

In kumite one must keep the stances according to your opponents ever changing postures; whereas in the fixed kata mai must be expressed and the feelings hidden in one’s heart without use of obvious expressions. But the dancer must maintain a suitable posture in order to be able to express one’s hidden state of mind. There, I think that we can find differences between bu and mai.

When I teach bu, I throw or control my partners/opponents while I dance like “Hamachidori”. Yet during lessons I give a definite rhythm of “1-2 and 3” or “1-2-3”.  In other words, I think there are varieties of rhythms in bu.  

From now on it is imperative to analyse bu from various points of view while looking into aikido, kendo, judo, naginata, Chinese kenpo, and so on.  I believe it is important to preserve cultures that should be remained for the future generations, yet it is also important to develop what should be progressed according to the generation.  

Furthermore, I feel proud and fortunate to be a part of wonderful Okinawa and wish these amazing traditions to be accurately spread to people across the world. 

[Edit: This article was written around 1976 by Higa Kiyohiko of the Bugeikan dojo in Gibo, Shuri. ‘Bu no Mai’ was a series of collaborated demonstrations by Higa Seitoku and Uehara Seikichi of Motobu Udundi. Together they highlighted and promoted the rarely seen ‘soft techniques’ of Ryukyuan Bujutsu (Ti) for prosperity.

Before now only a small segment of this piece has appeared in English (the part relating to Matsu Kinjo. I felt the full article has more to offer us in karate.]

Photographs: M. Bishop