The teachers of Chotoku Kyan (1)

Published: August 31, 2023

Earlier, I wrote the article ‘Who was Maeda Pechin? (1)’, about the person who is said to have taught the kata Wansu to Chotoku Kyan. In this article I mentioned the period that Kyan lived in Tokyo. This is an interesting and important period in relation to the masters Chotoku Kyan studied with.

Studying with Sokon Matsumura
As you can read in Andreas Quast’s article ‘Kata taught by Matsumura Sokon (2)’, Kyan was 15 or 16 years old, depending on the method of age calculation, when he started his study with Sokon Matsumura:
“I never forgot when I went to Shikina-en together with my father in the spring of my 16th year. My father took me to Matsumura Sōkon Sensei, the restorer of Okinawa Karate of whom I had heard tales of. (In his way) I was able for the first time to meet with and to receive instruction from Matsumura Sōkon Sensei through my father. I remember Sensei was 80 years old at that time. The Kata of Karate that I was taught was Gojūshiho and I still have not forgotten it.”
As Chotoku Kyan was born in December 1870, this was in 1886, if Kyan used the traditional kazoe method of age calculation. Kyan also said: “I received instruction from Matsumura Sōkon Sensei for two years.” So that means until 1888. Sokon Matsumura is said to be Kyan’s first teacher, besides his father and grandfather.

Moving to Tokyo
In the same article you can read that Chotoku Kyan moved to Tokyo in 1888 or 1889. And that he lived in Tokyo for 9 years: “Thanks to that, my previously weak body became strong and I did not catch a cold for even one day during the 9 years that I lived in Tokyo, and was able to spend a pleasant adolescence.” This means Chotoku Kyan lived in Tokyo until 1897 or 1898.
However, it is also said in the article that “Due to the circumstances of my family affairs, I returned home (to Okinawa) at the age of 26.” So this would mean 1896, as he was born in 1870.

Studying with Kosaku Matsumora
Now why is it important when Chotoku Kyan came back to Okinawa? Because it is often said that Kyan studied with Kosaku Matsumora after he trained with Sokon Matsumura. From Matsumora he learned the kata Chinto.
As he studied with Matsumura until 1888 and he moved to Tokyo in 1888 or 1889, it’s most assumable that he trained with Kosaku Matsumora after he returned to Okinawa.
But Kosaku Matsumora is said to have passed away in 1898. If Chotoku Kyan returned to Okinawa in 1899, Matsumora had already passed away. If Kyan returned in 1898, he could have studied with Matsumora for only a short time. And if he returned in 1896, he could have studied with Matsumora for a maximum of 2 years, depending on which month in 1896 he returned and in which month in 1898 Matsumora passed away.
So the claim that ‘Kyan studied with Kosaku Matsumora for many years’ is probably not true.

Studying with Kokan Oyadomari
It is said that Chotoku Kyan learned the kata Passai from Kokan Oyadomari. Oyadomari was good friends with Kosaku Matsumora. It is also mostly said Chotoku Kyan studied with Oyadomari after he studied with Sokon Matsumura. Kokan Oyadomari was born in 1827 and passed away in 1905. So no matter if Chotoku Kyan returned to Okinawa in 1896, 1898 or 1899, Kyan could at least have studied with Oyadomari for 5 to 6 years, depending on which month Kyan returned and in which month in 1905 Oyadomari passed away.

But, recently I got some interesting information from Dan Smith, who is a long-time student of Zenpo Shimabukuro, the current head of Seibukan. Dan started training in Seibukan in 1968 under Zenpo’s father Zenryo, who was a student of Chotoku Kyan. Zenryo Shimabukuro started training with Kyan in 1932 and trained with him until Chotoku Kyan passed away.
According to Dan Smith, Kyan returned married in 1898 and moved to a smaller island where he remained for approximately 10 years before returning to the big island. That means he stayed there until 1908. Of course, it’s possible that Chotoku Kyan traveled between the two islands and studied with Oyadomari, but it’s probably not that extensively as is often said.

Dan also comments: “It was not uncommon to study from a teacher for shorter periods of time than today and to study kata from other teachers. Kyan wrote that he only studied Gojushiho for two years with Matsumura. We do not know how often he visited Matsumura during this two year time period. Perhaps Kyan’s father and grandfather knew Gojushiho from their studies with Matsumura or did not and wanted Chotoku to go to Matsumura for what many consider the most difficult kata of Shorin Ryu.

Our current karate culture is training with a teacher for many years on a regular basis. I believe during the era of Kyan the culture was much different. Shoshin Nagamine studied with Kyan for two six-month periods of time during his assignments at the Kadena Police Station. Kyan’s tanren kata was Seisan but Nagamine sensei did not learn Seisan. I asked Nagamine sensei why he did not learn Seisan and his response was: “I was not a beginner.”.  I took this to mean that he specifically wanted to learn other kata and not Kyan’s tanren kata.

During this time it was possible to go to a teacher to learn a certain kata without becoming attached to that teacher for their entire curriculum. I believe this is one of the reason that there are many variations of kata kihon. Patterns were learned without adapting the kihon of a teacher.

I am confident Kyan studied Chinto with Matsumora, but we do not know for how long. The Chinto of Matsumora had the forty-five degree embusen and neiko ashi dachi versus naifanchi dachi in the opening movements.

Understanding the culture of those times versus the culture of our times where studying from several teachers is not readily accepted in my opinion has narrowed exposure to potentially valuable methods. The isolation from one teacher to another is also the culture on Okinawa today. When I first arrived on Okinawa in 1969 there was no problem for me to visit other teachers and receive instruction. I do not know when the change occurred but by the mid 1980s I began noticing the difficulty in visiting other teachers. Perhaps it was the influx of visitors to Okinawa.

Many American military members studied karate on Okinawa in the 1960's for short periods of time and never returned to Okinawa. This limited their exposure to the wide range of methods and details of Okinawan karate and did not allow Okinawan karate to be developed  broadly.

Today, due to ease of travel and modern technology Okinawa is available for those who want to study. We have the ability to view karate as it was on Okinawa in the late 19th and early 20th century and try various methods of performance of the kata with the same name, pattern but different kihon."

Studying with Chatan Yara
As there are, as far as I know, no living years known for Chatan Yara, who taught Chotoku Kyan the kata Kusanku, for now it is not possible to analyze this further.

Author: Olaf Steinbrecher