On Karate Dance (1927)

Hikimori (引きこもり) is a Japanese word usually reserved for young adults who lock themselves away for months or years at a time to avoid the stress of social contact. Although not self-imposed, I’m sure all of us are feeling the stress of being cooped up at home and anxiety about the future. It is certainly a hard time for everyone, and I consider myself fortunate that I am healthy and secure unlike others during this pandemic.

As I mentioned in my previous posts, since I have extra time I have temporarily restarted this blog to add a bit of light reading on Okinawa Karate-do and Kobudo. This week’s post is a translation of a short article entitled “On Karate Dance” that was originally published in “An Ethnography of Amami Oshima” in 1927. It does not reveal any great insights about the history of Karate, but certainly provides a bit of flavour regarding the then fledgling art. Particularly the author equates Karate as a kind of Ryukyu Dance and differentiates from it’s predecessor art of Karate-jutsu. It’s an interesting perspective and one that modern authors still debate (for example, read part 3 of the article “A Thousand Years of Traditional Okinawa Karate”.


Karate dance is one of the classical Ryukyu dances. It is the dance version of karate (pugilism), which is a widely known martial arts of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The origins of karate dance are around the 14th century during the time of King Sato of Chuzan who established ties with China and the Ming court during the reign of Hongwu. Martial arts similar to boxing (pugilism) were reportedly transmitted from China.

Usually karate is performed by pulling the right leg back slightly, bending the waist, and holding the left had in front of the face to defend against an attacker’s fist. The right elbow is pulled back with the right fist held at the side of the waist. Thus he is ready to defend against a punch.

As they glare at each other, he will measure the rhythm and breath of his opponent in front of him. The opponent will let out a yell and punch at the defender who will, with his left hand, deflect the attack and within a hair’s breadth counter-attack with his right fist. Although you may think that this is a simple martial art, it contains a wide variety of secret techniques and ways of forming the fist and using the legs that give  you the upper hand.

Karate practitioners wrap a rope around a round piece of wood that is sunk into the ground and when they have free time during the morning and evenings they strike it with a spirited yell to harden their fists and improve their strength. After many years of training like this a man becomes a so-called Karate master with fists seemingly like iron and lightening. If someone is unlucky enough to be punched on vital point by a master of this frightening martial art, he would stop breathing and collapse.

Some of the unique methods of Karate include Sanchin, Bassai, Naihanchin, Kusanku, Pinan, and free-fighting with many of the kata named after the Chinese men who created them, but among these kata only the Pinan kata was created by a Ryukyuan in the modern era. Free-fighting is the application of boxing methods in real-life circumstances. 

Long ago, during the time of King Shoshin, warriors were forbidden to wear swords and therefore karate began to flourish among them. This is similar to what happened to the warriors on the Japanese mainland during the Shogunate era who would sometimes have to face an adversary wanting to test his blade. The warriors of Okinawa would be attacked from out of no-where by someone on a whim who would then runaway.

Today, Karate is taught to students at the prefectural middle schools and the Teachers’ College as a martial art. Among the famous masters of Karate-jutsu are the author Tominakoshi Gichin; Motobu Choki, who knocked-out a Russian boxer in Kyoto in 1925, and others.

Just as the Japanese art of the sword gave birth to the dance of the sword as a form of Western physical education, from the bygone art of Karate-jutsu of the Ryukyu Kingdom emerged Karate dance. Through struggle they were encouraged to develop a method of self-defense.

In the spring of 1920 I traveled from Honolulu to San Francisco by boat I sometimes observed Chinese Boxing which resembled Ryukyu Karate dance. On the evening of the 5th day after departing from Honolulu, all the people gathered in a circle on deck to watch a group of Chinese demonstrate Chinese boxing. A large man in the centre closed both his fists and with a loud countenance began his boxing dance. In a brave voice he yelled “ho, ho, ya!” as he performed different postures. It was a beautiful demonstration of fighting and I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it.

Originally published in An Ethnography of Amami Oshima 1927 Oka Shoin, 1927 Shigeno Yuko