Misunderstandings in karate history - The difficulty of research

Published: April 18, 2020

There are a lot of misunderstandings in karate history. Since everybody can publish content on the internet, and everybody can copy and paste this content, a lot of information that can be found on the internet is wrong. But it is taken for truth. Where does it go wrong? In my humble opinion, people just copy and paste without thinking: ‘Is it even possible and does it make sense?’ In this article I give a few examples.

Sokon ‘Bushi’ Matsumura
If we take a look at Sokon Matsumura, we immediately have a good example;

On Wikipedia and in a lot of articles, his living years vary from 1798 - 1890, 1800 - 1892, 1809 - 1896 and 1809 - 1901. So his year of birth varies from 1798 till 1809. That’s a bandwidth of 11 years. If we take a look at his year of death, it varies from 1890 - 1901. That’s also a bandwidth of 11 years.
In the first (1798 - 1890) and second case (1800 - 1892) Sokon Matsumura died at age 92. In the third case (1809 - 1896) he died at age 87. And in the fourth case he also died at age 92. But when was he really born and when did he die? Another quick search on Google says Sokon Matsumura was born in 1828. That’s not gonna help....
Well, lucky enough there is a biography written on the ‘boshi' ('tomb marker') of Sokon Matsumura’s tomb in Naha.
This biography says:

“Originator of Shuri-te Okinawa-Karate
Here at this place rests Matsumura Sôkon (1809-1899), the saint of boxing.
He saw the light of day in Yamagawa, a part of the city of Shuri.
His Chinese name was Wŭ Chéngdá, as an artist name he chose Unyû (cloud of prowess) and Buchô (leader of warriors).
He excelled in the martial arts since his childhood. As a result of his devotion he achieved unity of the literary and the martial arts – Bunbu ichinyo.
As a warrior he possessed both wisdom and courage and his famous name resounded already during his lifetime.
In the Ryukyu Dynasty founded by King Shô En (i.e. the 2nd Shô-Dynasty – he served three consecutive kings as a bodyguard: King Shô Kô (17th generation), King Shô Iku (18th generation), and King Shô Tai (19th generation).
12th month of Heisei 20 (December 2000)
The descendants of the Matsumura family”
(This translation comes from: https://worldbudokan.com/worlbudokanhome/articles-2/sokon-matsumura)

Wait a minute. This biography says that he died in 1899. That year can not be found in any of the four cases that are found on Wikipedia*. As you can see, this biography is written by the descendants of the Matsumura family. Are his descendants a reliable source? Well, personally I say yes. So to me Sokon Matsumura’s living years were 1809 - 1899.

* Since this article is written, the Wikipedia article about Sokon Matsumura has been adjusted:
"However, the dates on the plaque at Matsumura's tomb, put there by Matsumura's family, clearly state that he was born in 1809 and died in 1899."

Sokon Matsumura's tomb in Naha (Photo taken by the author in January 2018)

Kanga ‘Tode’ Sakugawa

Most of the times, Kanga Sagukawa is mentioned as the most important teacher of Sokon ‘Bushi’ Matsumura. And his living years are mostly mentioned as 1733 - 1815.
Wait another minute... We just found out that Sokon Matsumura was born in 1809. And Kanga Sakugawa died in 1815? So that means that Kanga Sakugawa was already 76 when Sokon Matsumura was born? And Sokon Matsumura was 6 years old when his most important teacher died? 6 years old? That’s strange, isn’t it?
Well, lets take a look at the karate and kobujutsu monument in Sakiyama Park, Shuri.
The name of Kanga Sakugawa is on the monument. And his living years are 1786 - 1867.
What? That means that Kanga Sakugawa was 23 years old when Sokon Matsumura was born. And Sokon Matsumura was 58 when Kanga Sakugawa died. Now that’s more logical to me. (By the way; on this monument Sokon Matsumura’s living years are also 1809 - 1899.)
But where do the years 1733 - 1815 come from? I understood that Kanga Sakugawa’s father was Kangi Sakugawa (born as Kangi Teruya), and his living years were 1733 - 1815. So that means that Kangi Sakugawa was 53 years old when his son Kanga was born. That seems possible and logical to me.


The karate and kobujutsu monument in Sakiyama Park, Shuri (Photo taken by the author in January 2019)


Matsu Higa
Matsu Higa was the Royal Bodyguard prior to Sokon Matsumura. His year of birth is mentioned as 1780 and 1790. The year he passed away is mentioned as 1861 and 1870.
But in several articles he is mentioned as the teacher of Pechin Takahara, who in turn taught Kanga Sakugawa. The living years of Pechin Takahara are mostly mentioned as 1683 - 1760. Yes, 1760. That’s 20 years before 1780 and even 30 years before 1790. How can Matsu Higa have taught someone who died 20 or 30 years before Matsu Higa himself was even born....?
Well, as you can read in the third edition of Mark Bishop’s book ‘Okinawan Karate (Kobudo & Te) Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques’ there was another Matsu Higa (also called Hama Higa), who was born in 1663 and passed away in 1738. It is said that he was a student of Wang Ji, a Chinese envoy who came to Okinawa in 1683 and who is known as the source of the kata Wansu.
This Matsu Higa could have been a teacher of Pechin Takahara, as he was 20 years old when Pechin Takahara was born and Pechin Takahara was 55 years old when Matsu Higa passed away.

Pechin Takahara
Now let’s take a closer look at Pechin Takahara. It is often said that he taught Kanga Sakugawa. Pechin Takahara passed away in 1760. And we just found out that the Kanga Sakugawa who is said to be the teacher of Sokon Matsumura, was born in 1786. So that is 26 years after Pechin Takahara passed away.... We also found out that it was probably Kanga Sakugawa’s father Kangi who was born in 1733 and passed away in 1815. So Pechin Takahara was 50 years old when Kangi Sakugawa was born and Kangi Sakugawa was 27 years old when Pechin Takahara passed away at age 77. So could Pechin Takahara have been the teacher of Kangi Sakugawa instead of Kanga Sakugawa? Yes, that’s possible and more logical.

What is the main problem?
In my humble opinion, the main problem is that a lot of people just copy/paste information they have found on the web, without cross-checking and even thinking for themselves ‘Is this logical and is this even possible?’.
If you just think about the fact that a ‘teacher’ passed away before his student was even born, would you even publish that? Or even more difficult; that a ‘teacher’ was born after his student passed away...?
And without judging any specific person, I can imagine that information is adjusted to to fit the story that has been told. For example: ‘Well, if Sokon Matsumura was born in 1809 and Kanga Sakugawa passed away in 1815, Matsumura was just 6 years old. But someone else says that he was born in 1798, so that would mean that he was 17 years old when Kanga Sakugawa passed away. Well, that must be it.”
But as you can read on the boshi at Matsumura’s tomb, he was born in 1809. And we found out that Kanga Sakugawa, who is said to be his teacher, passed away in 1867, as you can read on the the karate and kobujutsu monument in Sakiyama Park, Shuri.
So first of all, there is no need to adjust information if you link the right information. But even more important; you can’t just adjust the past, the past happened as it happened. We can not change it afterwards.

Which are the real living years for the people mentioned above?
Based on the information as I mentioned above, I think the right living years are:
The first Matsu Higa (also called Hama Higa): 1663 - 1738
Pechin Takahara: 1683 - 1760
Kangi Sakugawa: 1733 - 1815
Kanga Sakugawa: 1786 - 1867
The second Matsu Higa: 1780 or 1790 - 1861 or 1870
Sokon Matsumura: 1809 - 1899

Of course; there is still a possibility that the information you find on tombs and monuments is not accurate. But personally I think that, as I said before, for example descendants of Sokon Matsumura himself are a reliable source.

Author: Olaf Steinbrecher