The lineage of Rohai
Published: July 25, 2021
Rohai is a typical Tomari kata, which is practiced in several styles. It is often called Matsumora no Rohai, after Kosaku Matsumora (1829 – 1898), who presumably invented the kata. Matsumora was a student of Karyu Uku (1800 – 1850) and Kishin Teruya (1804 – 1864). Nowadays, there are a lot of schools and lineages claiming Rohai, also saying it was taught by Sokon Matsumura and Anko Itosu. But is this all true?
As it is often easier to trace back a lineage than trace it from the past to present, let’s start at the present with the facts. Fact: Rohai is part of the curriculum of Matsubayashi-Ryu.
Shoshin Nagamine (1907 – 1997), the founder of Matsubayashi-Ryu, stated that he learned Rohai (and also Chinto, Passai, Wankan and Wansū) from Kotatsu Iha in one of his books;
“The martial art of the venerable old gentleman (Kosaku Matsumora) was inherited by Giki Yamazato, Koho Kuba and Kotatsu Iha. In his role as the karate instructor of the Tomari Student Council, Iha Kōtatsu in particular handed down the martial arts of the venerable old gentleman (Matsumora Kōsaku) to many of Tomari’s youngsters. This author (Nagamine Shōshin), too, inherited such kata as Passai, Chintō, Wankan, Rōhai, and Wansū of Tomari-te from this teacher, and continues to preserve and research these kata in my current Matsubayashi-ryū Karate-dō Kōdōkan Dōjō.”
So, Shoshin Nagamine learned Rohai from Kotatsu Iha. He also says that Iha learned Rohai from Kosaku Matsumora:“Iha Kōtatsu in particular handed down the martial arts of the venerable old gentleman (Matsumora Kōsaku) to many of Tomari’s youngsters. This author (Nagamine Shōshin), too, inherited such kata as […] Rōhai, and Wansū of Tomari-te from this teacher […].”
So the lineage here is: Kosaku Matsomora -> Kotatsu Iha -> Shoshin Nagamine
Matsubayashi-Ryu Rohai by Tetsuo Makishi Sensei
Another student of Kotatsu Iha was Taro Shimabukuro (1905, 1906 or 1907 – 1975 or 1980). One of Shimabukuro’s students, Katsumi Murakami, published an article about the teachers of Taro Shimabukuro in 1991. (Source: ‘Shimabukuro Tarō and his Teachers’ by Andreas Quast - https://ryukyu-bugei.com/?p=7353)
In this article, you can read: “Afterwards, he learned Dōhai [Rōhai], Wansū and Wankan from ‘Iha-gwā no Nushi’ from Tomari…” Now, ‘Iha-gwā no Nushi’ was Kotatsu Iha.
Taro Shimabukuro taught Rohai, amongst others, to Joki Uema (1920 – 2011), the founder of the Shubukan dojo, Seitoku Ishikawa (1925 – 2013), the founder of the Ryubukan dojo and China Teikichi (1924 – 2003), the founder of Okinawa Shōrin-ryū Karate-dō Kyōkai Buseikan. Interesting thing is that both Seitoku Ishikawa and China Teikichi taught Yasuhiro Uema, Joki Uema’s son.
Rohai is part of the large kata curriculum of the Shubukan dojo and is almost identical to Matsubayashi-Ryu’s Rohai. This also applies to Ryubukan’s Rohai.
So the lineage here is: Kotatsu Iha -> Taro Shimabukuro -> Joki Uema, Teikichi China and Seitoku Ishikawa.
Rohai by Yasuhiro Uema Sensei – Shorin-Ryu Shubukan
Rohai by a student of Seitoku Ishikawa – Shorin-Ryu Ryubukan
Kenwa Mabuni and ‘Itosu no Rohai’
In 1939 Kenwa Mabuni registered Shitō-Ryū as an official ryūha-name with the Dai Nippon Butokukai. Later that year Mabuni established the Greater-Japan Karate Association (Dai Nippon Karate-dō Kai) as the national organization aiming at the education of karate teachers. (Source: ‘Mabuni Kenwa and the establishment of Shitō-ryū’ by Andreas Quast http://ryukyu-bugei.com/?p=5404)
It was in 1937 that Kenwa Mabuni for the first time published a list of his ‘current kata’. This list names a total of 33 kata roughly categorized according to the lineages they originated from.
23 kata came from the ‘Itosu lineage’:
• Naihanchi Shodan
• Naihanchi Nidan
• Naihanchi Sandan
• Pinan Shodan
• Pinan Nidan
• Pinan Sandan
• Pinan Yondan
• Pinan Godan
• Kosokun (Kusanku) Sho
• Kosokun (Kusanku) Dai
• Shiho Kosokun
• Bassai Sho
• Bassai Dai (Itosu no Passai)
• Rohai Shodan
• Rohai Nidan
• Rohai Sandan
As I also mentioned in ‘The lineage of Gojushiho’, being of the ‘Itosu lineage’, doesn’t necessarily have to mean that he learned it from Itosu. Mabuni also mentions kata like Saifa and Tensho being from the ‘Higaonna lineage’, but both kata were developed by Chojun Miyagi. Mabuni and Miyagi were both students of Kanryo Higaonna and they were good friends. Of course, it’s plausible that they exchanged kata, for example Saifa and Tensho.
When it comes to Rohai Shodan, Nidan and Sandan, there is an interesting thing. Nowadays, the three Rohai are often called ‘Itosu no Rohai’, as it is said by several sources they were developed by Anko Itosu. But, in Mabuni’s list, they are just called ‘Rohai Shodan, Nidan and Sandan’, so without ‘Itosu’.
Actually, there is no written evidence that Itosu developed and/or taught these kata. I personally wouldn’t be surprised if Kenwa Mabuni developed the three Rohai kata. Only Rohai Shodan has close resemblance to Matsumora no Rohai. Nidan and Sandan have almost none. (Except the opening of the kata.) As a matter of fact, if we look at Rohai Nidan, you can see similarities with Shito-Ryu’s Wansu. And in Rohai Sandan you can see similarities with Jiin, Chinte and Kusanku Sho.
(Note: There is also no written evidence that Kenwa Mabuni developed the three Rohai kata. It's just my thought.)
Shito-Ryu Rohai Shodan by Santiago Cerezo Sensei
Shito-Ryu Rohai Nidan by Santiago Cerezo Sensei
Shito-Ryu Rohai Sandan by Santiago Cerezo Sensei
Of course, it is possible that Anko Itosu díd know and practice the original Rohai. After all, it is confirmed by Gichin Funakoshi, in his book 'Karate-dō Kyōhan' (page 8), that Itosu studied with Gusukuma: "... masters Azato and Itosu were Students of Matsumura and Gusukuma respectively. Masters Azato and Itosu were the teachers who instructed the writer, and to whom the writer is greatly indebted."
It is possible that Gusukuma, who came from Tomari and was a contemporary of Kosaku Matsumora, knew Rohai and taught it to Anko Itosu. However, there is no written evidence for it.
If Anko Itosu díd know and practice the original Rohai, it is possible that he taught it to Kenwa Mabuni. But this is not sure or proven.
It is also possible that Kenwa Mabuni learned Rohai at the Okinawa Karate Kenkyukai, which was created in April 1918 by Kenwa Mabuni and other leading masters of that time, like Chomo Hanashiro, Choshin Chibana, Anbun Tokuda, Chojo Oshiro, Shinpan Gusukuma and others.
In 1924 the Okinawa Karate Research Club was formed. Choyu Motobu served as the president of the Club, and Chojun Miyagi as its full professor. Uehara Sensei had also participated as the youngest member under the appellation of Cha-wakasā (person responsible for tea). In addition, Sensei such as Chotoku Kyan, Kenwa Mabuni and Kamesuke Teruya participated.
(Source: 'Incident at the establishment of the Karate Club' by Naoki Motobu - https://amba.to/3l7N0K7)
Shito-Ryu's Matsumora no Rohai
Today, besides Rohai Shodan, Nidan and Sandan, 'Matsumora no Rohai' is also part of the Shito-Ryu curriculum. But as mentioned above, it was not part of the curriculum that Kenwa Mabuni published in 1937. So how did this kata get into the Shito-Ryu system?
The story goes that Teruo Hayashi, the founder of Hayashi-Ha Shito-Ryu, learned Matsumora no Rohai, Tomari Bassai (which is in fact Oyadomari no Passai), Chatan Yara Kusanku and Wankan from Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of Matsubayashi-Ryu, and added it to his curriculum. After that these four kata were added to the curriculum of other Shito-Ryu organizations.
(Also see: The original kata of Shotokan and Shito-Ryu)
The Hayashi-Ha Shito-Ryu version of (Matsumora no) Rohai
Gichin Funakoshi and Shotokan’s Meikyo
It is often said that Gichin Funakoshi learned the three Rohai kata from Anko Itosu and combined them to Meikyo. But when Gichin Funakoshi came to Tokyo in 1922, he taught no more than 15 kata:
• Tekki (Naihanchi) Shodan
• Tekki (Naihanchi) Nidan
• Tekki (Naihanchi) Sandan
• Heian (Pinan) Shodan
• Heian (Pinan) Nidan
• Heian (Pinan) Sandan
• Heian (Pinan) Yondan
• Heian (Pinan) Godan
• Kanku (Kusanku) Dai
• Bassai (Dai)
• Gangaku (Chinto)
• Empi (Wansu)
• Hangetsu (Seisan)
Current Shotokan kata like Nijushiho (Niseishi), Unsu, Gojushiho Sho, Jiin, Kanku (Kusanku) Sho, Bassai Sho and Chinte are believed to come from Kenwa Mabuni or his students. The late Shotokan authority Masatoshi Nakayama is quoted: “Master Funakoshi never stopped to study other forms of Karate. When we visited master Mabuni, he told me to learn the Gojushiho and Nijushiho Kata, so that we could address them more intensively later on. Right after that, Mabuni Kenwa taught me these Kata.”
Most likely, Unsu, Jiin, Kanku (Kusanku) Sho, Bassai Sho and Chinte are also taught during that time.
(Also see ‘Kenwa Mabuni - The founder of Shotokan?’ by Damian Chambers:
https://bit.ly/2xqvZ6Y and ‘Legends of Karate: Mabuni Kenwa and his Shitô-Ryû (pt. 4)’ by Jesse Enkamp: https://bit.ly/2wFjVyh
If Gichin Funakoshi and other Shotokan practitioners learned kata from Kenwa Mabuni, it is possible that they also learned the three Rohai kata from him. And then combined them to Meikyo.
(In the article 'Kenwa Mabuni - The founder of Shotokan?’ Damian Chambers actually writes that Rohai was among the kata that were taught by Mabuni to Funakoshi's senior instructors.) And again; there is no written evidence that Anko Itosu taught these three kata.
Meikyo by Hirokazu Kanazawa Sensei
Hironori Otsuka and Wado-Ryu’s Rohai
Hironori Otsuka, the founder of Wado-Ryu, started as a student of Gichin Funakoshi. Later, he also studied with Kenwa Mabuni. There is a Rohai in Wado-Ryu, which is actually identical to Shito-Ryu’s Rohai Shodan. But as there is only one Rohai in Wado-Ryu, it is just called Rohai. Hironori Otsuka most likely learned this kata from Kenwa Mabuni. If Otsuka did not learn Nidan and Sandan, or just did not make it part of his curriculum, is not known.
Wado-Ryu Rohai by Hironori Otsuka Sensei
It is often said that Sokon Matsumura knew and taught Rohai. But in my opinion, this is highly debatable. A lot of kata are attributed to Sokon Matsumura, while for the most of them there is no historical evidence.
As a matter of fact, in his book ‘My Art of Karate’ (‘Watachi no Karate-jutsu’ – 1932) Choki Motobu, who was a student of Sokon Matsumura, wrote: “… prior to the abolition of the Ryukyu Kingdom (between 1872 and 1879), Wanshū and Rohai were only practiced in Tomari village, while no one practiced them in Shiri or Naha. Following the establishment of Okinawa prefecture (in 1879), Wanshū and Rohai also came to be frequently taught in Shuri and Naha."
If this is true, it is unlikely that Sokon Matsumura practiced Rohai, as Matsumura was from Shuri. And as Choki Motobu studied with Matsumura, if Matsumura díd practice Rohai, Motobu probably would have known and wouldn’t have written that it was only practiced in Tomari.
Of course, Matsumura could have still learned and practiced it after the establishment of Okinawa prefecture in 1879, but he was already in his early 70's then.
Putting it all together
Based on the facts and assumptions above, we can conclude the following.
- The eldest written source for Rohai is Kosaku Matsumora, as confirmed by Shoshin Nagamine in one of his books
- Kosaku Matsumora taught Rohai to Kotatsu Iha
- Kotatsu Iha taught Rohai to Shoshin Nagamine and Taro Shimabukuro
- Shoshin Nagamine taught Rohai to Teruo Hayashi
- Taro Shimabukuro taught Rohai to Joki Uema, China Teikichi and Seitoku Ishikawa
- Anko Itosu might have known and taught Rohai, but that there is no written evidence for it
- It is possible that Kenwa Mabuni learned the original Rohai from Itosu, but there is no evidence for it
- Kenwa Mabuni could have developed the three Rohai kata, which are nowadays often called ‘Itosu no Rohai’
- Mabuni probably taught these kata to senior Shotokan instructors,
and there is a chance that Shotokan’s ‘Meikyo’ was based on it
- Hironori Otsuka most likely learned Rohai Shodan from Kenwa Mabuni and just called it Rohai
- Sokon Matsumura probably never practiced Rohai, as there is not only no evidence for it, but Choki Motobu, who was a student of Sokon Matsumura, wrote that “prior to the abolition of the Ryukyu Kingdom (between 1872 and 1879), Wanshū and Rohai were only practiced in Tomari village, while no one practiced them in Shiru or Naha".
Sokon Matsumura was from Shuri. And as Choki Motobu studied with Matsumura, if Matsumura did practice Rohai, Motobu probably would have known and wouldn’t have written that it was only practiced in Tomari.
Author: Olaf Steinbrecher