History of Uechi-Ryu Karate
Excerpted from UECHIRYU KARATE DO by George Mattson
Kanbun Uechi

This book has been written primarily for teachers and students of Uechi-ryu Karate. However, the fact that it goes into great detail in analyzing one of the major systems of Karate in Okinawa today should be of interest to students of all Karate styles. The major objective of the book is the description of the physical art of Uechi-ryu Karate. The detailed photographs of Master Uechi will be excellent reference in helping the reader to obtain the correct method of teaching and performing the physical movements of this unique system of Karate. A secondary objective of the book is to describe Kanei Uechi’s views regarding the spiritual and psychological aspects of Karate in general.

Every book on Karate, regardless of the style, attempts to set down some sort of history of their style specifically, and karate in general. Usually these efforts are in vain, since records pertaining to the ancient martial arts in China and Okinawa are hazy at best. This lack of documentation results in much confusion among the proponents of Karate, and creates a credibility gap between that which is certain and that which is supposed. Therefore, this book will try to be as accurate as is possible in separating fact from legend. Some legends will be included, as these anecdotes are an interesting way of calling the student’s attention to the moral lessons of Karate.

Kanbun Uechi, in whose honor the Karate system presented in this book is named, studied in China at the Central Temple in the (Fukien) Province during the years of 1897-1910. The Chinese name for the system he studied is Pangai-Noon (Pwang-gay-noon.) When Kanbun died in 1948, his students renamed the style Uechi-ryu (ryu is the Japanese word for style). Kanbun studied under the tutelage of Chou-tzu-ho, whose reputation even today is known in Taiwan by the old masters, and who is regarded by them to be a very famous teacher.

Kanbun’s reasons for leaving Okinawa were twofold. Probably the main reason was to learn the superior art of Chinese fighting (sometimes call Kenpo.) During the 18th and 19th centuries, most of the great Okinawan teachers went to China to study.

Since 1879, under Japan’s rule, Okinawan youth were forced to serve in the Japanese army. The older generation, which included Kanbun’s parents, fearful of inviting invasion from Japan’s enemies should an armed force be maintained on Okinawa, strongly opposed this military conscription. Women prayed daily at the Shinto shrine and Buddhist temples that their husbands and sons would be unfit for military service. Encouraged by his parents Kanbun quietly left the Island of Okinawa, bound for unknown adventures in China, early in 1897.

shushiwaAlthough little is known of Kanbun’s ten years in China, he did occasionally tell his students stories relating to his travels and study of Karate. His son Kanei did say that Kanbun directed all his energies toward the mastery of Karate. He learned not only the physical art, which included Chinese medicine, but also the underlying philosophy of the art which made such a lasting impression on him.

After ten years of study, Kanbun obtained permission to open his own school. With great initial difficulty, Kanbun set up a school in the province of Nansoue. Mr. Gokenkein, a Chinese tea merchant and student of Kingai, (a form of Karate similar to Okinawan Goju-ryu) warned Kanbun not to open a school in the district as others had tried and failed. Kanbun replied that he liked the area and wished to test his Karate ability by teaching there. In time, despite a few run-ins, his reputation grew until he finally had a successful school with many students, including Mr. Gokenkein, the very man who had warned him not to open there. Kanbun Uechi had the distinction of being the only Okinawan to have actually taught in China and to be accepted as a teacher.

Kanbun was quite happy in this village and was doing well as a teacher when unfortunately one of his students, who by nature was quiet and unassuming, was provoked into an argument over a boundary dispute. His opponent viciously attacked the student who instinctively defended himself and accidentally struck his attacker with a fatal blow. The village people blamed this death on Kanbun, since he had instructed this student, and the respect of the village turned to distrust and hatred. Kanbun had been teaching in China for about three years, when he left for Okinawa, vowing never to teach Karate again or ever speak about it.

There are many versions to the story of how Kanbun Uechi began his teaching career once again; most are partially true. The following story was told by Kanei Uechi (Kanbun’s son) and confirmed by Kanbun’s first student, Ryuyu Tomoyose:

Kanbun Uechi returned to Okinawa in 1910, married, and began farming in the northern part of the island near Naha. Life was uneventful for Kanbun during these years. Then, about two years after Kanbun’s return to Okinawa, Mr. Gokenkein, the Chinese tea merchant and former student of Kanbun, visited Okinawa on business. Mr. Gokenkein urged Kanbun to resume teaching but with no success. Gokenkein became involved in a fight with a Naha Karate teacher. When Gokenkein defeated the teacher, many other teachers challenged him, but none were able to defeat Gokenkein. Then many young men visited him, asking that he instruct them in his style of Karate. Gokenkein would tell then that there lived in Okinawa a truly great Karate expert who had been his teacher in China. Soon Kanbun’s reputation grew and spread, even though no one had ever seen him perform. Many young men visited Kanbun, asking that he teach, but he would reply that they must have mistaken him for someone else. Finally, the townspeople confronted Kanbun with Gokenkein. After that, he was unable to deny the stories but still refused to discuss Karate or demonstrate a Kata.

Every year the Motobu police department had a large celebration and all the Karate schools demonstrated their skills. The other teachers who were anxious to see proof of Kanbun’s ability, asked the mayor of Motobu to request that he demonstrate at the celebration. They would see that Kanbun attended and was seated so near the stage that if he refused the Mayor’s request he would lose face. The plot worked, for when the mayor asked Kanbun to demonstrate, the other teachers who were standing close by, playfully pushed Kanbun onto the stage. Eyes glaring, Kanbun performed the Kata Seisan very fast and beautifully, with such strength and power that after he had finished, jumped down from the stage and proceeded home, the Karate part of the program had ended, for no one else wished to follow Kanbun’s demonstration.

From that time on, he was respected throughout Okinawa as a truly great expert. Itosu Anko, a great Karate expert from the Shorin system and a Karate professor at the teacher’s college in Okinawa, asked Kanbun to accept a position. There was so much pressure from different sources that Kanbun Uechi finally left Okinawa for Japan in 1924.

While in Japan, Kanbun lived in a housing compound in Wakiyama prefecture near Osaka. There he met an alert and aggressive young Okinawan, a neighbor by the name of Ryuyu Tomoyose. Purely by accident, Ryuyu suspected that Kanbun knew Karate. One evening he fabricated a story about being in a fight, described a fictitious attack, and then said that he did not know what he should have done. After hearing this, Kanbun became very excited and explained to Ryuyu what he should have done. Each night for a week, Ryuyu came to Kanbun with a different attacking situation and each night Kanbun would explain in detail what should have been done. After realizing that he could not continue this ruse for very long, Ryuyu confronted Kanbun with the fact that he knew of Kanbun’s ability and implored that Kanbun give him lessons. Kanbun refused at first, but finally agreed because of their friendship on the condition that Ryuyu never tell anyone else.

Two years later, Ryuyu asked Kanbun to teach the public, saying that if he did not teach, the art would die out and something so good should be given to other people. Finally, Kanbun consented. Ryuyu recruited many students, mostly Okinawans like himself. Kanbun continued to teach in Wakiyama prefecture until 1947.

Kanei UechiKanei Uechi began his study of Karate in 1927 under his father’s guidance in Japan, and studied for ten years, then opened his own school in Osaka for two years. He then returned to Okinawa, married, and settled down as a farmer for a short time in Nago. Ryuko Tomoyose, son of Ryuyu, was living in Futenma, Okinawa, when he learned from his father that Kanei was in Okinawa. Ryuko found Kanei and convinced him to teach. Ryuko and a group of Karate students then built a dojo for Kanei and brought him to Futenma to teach. This was the first time Okinawa actually had a teacher of Pangainoon. Kanei has been actively teaching Karate at the same site ever since. Visitors to this Island cannot miss seeing his new dojo situated on top of the highest hill in Futenma.

As of this time, 1973, Uechi-ryu Karate in Okinawa has grown from one small dojo to fifteen. Uechi-ryu Karate since 1942 has grown faster than any other art of Karate in Okinawa.

Kanei Uechi has 3 sons and 3 daughters. His oldest son is a graduate of Tokyo University. Currently he holds the rank of 3rd degree and his form in Uechi-ryu Karate is excellent. He works as a TV and Radio announcer on Ya Yama Island, one of the small islands in the Ryukyuan chain.

The two other sons occasionally work out in the dojo, however, emphasis is being placed on their education at this time. Kanei’s brother teaches in Nago, Okinawa. He studied from Kanei when he returned from Japan.