2 Famous Traditional Karate Stories

Now and then, the kids in our Karate classes ask me if I can tell them any cool Karate stories.

Barely resisting their cute puppy faces, I usually reply something along the lines of “Umm… well… we don’t really have time for that, maybe next time, ok?” and then, luckily, they somehow forget it as soon as they walk out of the dojo.

Because, truthfully, most Karate stories are quite horrible and/or boring for kids!

This is what kids like.

I mean, they’re either about Karate masters beating up other people (often in unjust ways), avoiding trouble in some clever (read: unexciting) way, or doing some kind of stunt (jumping, balancing, punching holes in stuff etc…). And they’re always pretty short.

That’s not what kids want.

And I’m definitely not the right man to make up a new child-friendly story. But… I know other people have done that better than me, so I guess I’m going to have to memorize some of those one day.

Anyway, children aside, stories are fun for adults too. You can’t deny it. Tell a great story, and people are bound to listen.

And hopefully learn.

So, without further ado, I want to share two of the most famous Karate stories I’ve come across with you. You might have heard/read them before – they are featured in many books on Karate (in slightly different versions of course).

But a great story can be told countless times.

You can use these two stories how ever you want to – share them with other members at your dojo (will give you a nice boost in your story-telling-wise-guy status!), to random kids in the street or just keep them for yourself. Hopefully they’ll give you something.

The first story, and perhaps the most famous of the older ones, is a story concerning Karate legend Bushi Matsumura:

Legend tells that the Ryukyuan king had always wanted to know whether a man could fight and win against an angry bull or not.

Sure, bullfighting was (and is, to some extent) popular in Okinawa, but rarely did men participate in these events, as it was always bull vs. bull. Ushi-zumo (bull sumo) it is called.

Anyway, to test how a man would do, the king chose his closest bodyguard Matsumura to fight the bull. As a bonus he also got to see how well Matsumura could handle himself in a life or death confrontation, proving if he really was worthy of his “chief bodyguard” title.

Of course, the other Okinawan Karate masters advised him that he would be killed if he took up the challenge, but Matsumura accepted the challenge –  he could never say no to the king.

After Matsumura had accepted the challenge, the king ordered fifteen men to construct a special bull-fighting ring for the fight. The news spread quickly throughout all of Okinawa that the great Matsumura would fight the king’s favorite fighting bull.

In turn, Matsumura asked the king for three weeks to prepare for the match.

The king gave his permission to this request, and Matsumura began his preparations to ensure his win and survival.

The next day, early in the morning, Matsumura took a short bamboo spear and headed to the stables where the bull was corralled. He told the keeper of the stable that he needed to be alone with the bull in order to make peace with it so as the bull’s spirit would not haunt him after he killed it. The Okinawans are big fans of the “every thing [animal, human, plant, house, tree etc] has a spirit” theory, so this was nothing strange. The keeper honored Matsumura’s wish and left him alone with the bull.

Matsumura then took off his cloak and rubbed it on the bull, to give the bull his scent. He then poked the bull’s privates with the bamboo spear, over and over again. (Sounds kind of perverse, I know, but bear with me.)

The bull became very angry, of course, but could not get at Matsumura because of the strong corral! Matsumura simply smiled and continued to terrorize the bull like this for half an hour or so.

Day after day.

Every day for three weeks Matsumura visited the bull and jabbed its “crown jewels” until the mere sight and scent of Matsumura caused the bull to cry with fright!

Mission accomplished.

On the day of the fight, Matsumura wore his oldest and dirtiest fighting clothes that had not been washed. The dirty clothes carried more than flies though – they had his body odor, his scent, and his hopes for survival.

The arena, which had been built on the beach, was crowded when Matsumura arrived at the appointed hour.

Almost all of Okinawa was there to watch “Bushi” Matsumura fight the king’s favorite fighting bull.

Matsumura approached the arena carrying his favorite bamboo fan and nothing else.

Not even a weapon.

As Matsumura entered the bull-ring, the bull was released. The bull began hitting the sides of the ring until it suddenly noticed that it was not alone.

Matsumura showed no fear and walked slowly toward the animal.

As the bull turned to meet him, it immediately recognized Matsumura’ s scent, his clothes, and what appeared to be a sharp bamboo spear in his hands [the fan]. And just like Russian researcher Pavlov showed with his famous dogs in 1927 (how animals can be trained to respond in a certain way to a particular stimulus) the bull quickly turned and ran away, giving a loud cry!

The king, upon seeing this, said it was truly so, that Bushi Matsumura was the greatest of all Bushi (warrior) of Okinawa!

The end.

True story?

I don’t know.

Does it have to be? As long as a story is consistent and feels authentic, that’s enough for me. It serves its purpose in either case.

But imagine telling this to the kids at the dojo! They would probably run around the rest of the year trying to poke my privates with sharp sticks!

Tha’st just… weird.

And if you really need to know, there are other versions of this story too. For example, one involves Matsumura beating the bull over the nose (instead of the poking…) and flashing his fan before hitting the bull, so that the bull learned to connect the color of the fan with the pain. So when the fight came, Matsumura merely flipped open his fan, making the bull run away.

But the principle is the same.

Okay, over to the next story.

This one is more modern, and 99% true. It was in a Japanese magazine, after all. But details may have been twisted…

In 1921, in Kyoto, a series of contests were held between boxers and judoka (judo practitioners). These gave rise to much discussion and drew many enthusiastic spectators. The fights were often extremely violent and surprised even those onlookers who regularly attended the annual contests at the Butokuden.

One day, during the action, someone with the appearance of an old countryman went over to the organisers and asked if a late entry to the fighting would be allowed. The following conversation occurred.

“Mmm. Who is it you wish to enter?”

“Myself.”

“What? You? . . . Are you a judoka then, or a boxer?

“No.”

“Well what have you trained in then?”

“Nothing special. But I think I could manage this type of contest – So will you let me enter?”

“Yes, let him enter!” cried some of the onlookers who had been following all this with interest. “Everybody would want to see a surprise entrant.”

“But he says he doesn’t do judo or boxing. I wonder if he does some form of provincial wrestling.”

“It doesn’t matter. Since he wants to enter he must have learned something – if not he’s an idiot. Let him enter!”

“Well OK,” said the promoter. “Do you know the rules?”

“Rules?” replied Motobu. “What rules?”

As you now see, the contestant was none other than Motobu Choki, legendary Okinawan Karate fist fighter.

Motobu's kumite.

“It’s forbidden to strike with the bare fists and feet.”

“Mmhm… What about an attack with the open hand?”

“That’s alright.”

“Fine, let’s get on with it.”

“Wait a minute. What uniform are you going to wear!”

“I’ll just wear my ordinary clothes”.

“Those you’re wearing now? You can’t do that! I’ll lend you a judo jacket.”

The promoter brought a judogi, and looked at Motobu, still trying to make him out. Motobu’s Japanese wasn’t really perfect either, since he talked with a thick Okinawan accent. However, as he stripped a murmur of surprise arose from the onlookers. Although his face was that of a man well over fifty, the muscular development of his arms and shoulders was impressive and his hips and thighs looked extremely powerful.

Motobu was asked who he wanted to fight; a boxer or a judoka.

He replied “Whoever you like,” and the organisers decided to send him against a newly arrived foreign boxer named George. [No family name or nationality is given in the article. The name may even be invented].

As the contestants entered the arena a cry rose from the crowd.

“Look! A surprise entry” . . . “Who is this Motobu? I’ve never heard of him” . . . “He looks like an old man. What’s someone like him entering a contest like this for?!” the crowd shouted.

The contrast between the two men was striking.

Here was a boxer seemingly brimming with vitality, against a man of fifty who stood only 5 feet 3. As the bell rang, George [who some researchers believe was actually a Russian] took up a traditional boxing guard and moved about looking for an opening.

Motobu lowered his hips, raising his left hand high with his right hand close to his cheek. The spectators thought this looked like some kind of sword dance, (karate was more or less unknown in Japan at this time) but actually it was the opening position of the ‘Pinan Yondan’ kata.

It was Motobu’s trap.

George, the expert boxer, seemed surprised by the ability of his opponent whose guard presented few weak spots. He contented himself with searching for an opening, continually moving his fists around and feinting in the air.

George. Allegedly.

Motobu kept his position.

George’s breathing grew less steady and, realizing that he might tire himself out if he didn’t strike soon, he edged forward and sent out a flurry of blows to Motobu’s face. Everyone expected to see the end of Motobu – but, without moving his position he parried the blows with his open hands and forced his opponent to back away again.

Growing more and more frustrated as the fight went on, George steeled himself for an all out attack. He finally drew back his right hand and threw a haymaker punch with all his strength at Choki Motobu’s head.

But just at the moment when it seemed as if Motobu’s face would be smashed to pieces he warded off the punch with his left hand – and at that instant struck George in the face with the palm of his right hand. George, struck on the vital point just below the nose with the rising palm strike, fell to the ground like a block of wood.

Everyone was shouting!

“What had happened?! It’s already over?”

The organisers went to look for someone to help George who was still unconscious. “What a formidable old man!”

Various people who went to talk to Motobu were astonished by his hands, calloused and almost as hard as stone. Even a blow with the open hand would be terrible, they thought.

“Ryukyu Karate,” said one. “Hmm. I didn’t know such an art existed. In fact, you have such trained hands that you don’t need to be armed. The hands themselves are terrible weapons.”

Spectators and contestants continued to talk for hours about the events which had taken place.

The end.

Now, even though the above story appeared in a popular Japanese magazine, it is probably pretty exaggarated. And strangely enough, the article featured a picture of Funakoshi Gichin (Motobu’s biggest rival, remember?) which probably didn’t make Motobu happy.

Here’s the original King Magazine article (of 1925):

Some of Motobu’s students (like Nagamine Shoshin) have later written that he actually jumped up and struck the boxer on the temple instead. But that’s just details.

Anyway, that’s it!

These were two famous traditional Karate stories that I felt like sharing today.

And stories have little value unless shared.

6 Comments

  • Espiga san
    Nice stories and very nice narrated!!
  • Jesse, the story about Matsumura is told in a little shorter way in Shoshin Nagamine's Book "Tales of Okinawan Karate Masters" It also relates things about Choki Motobu, but I have not read this part yet.
  • Lenny
    Just wondering what part of Mr. Motobu's fight was actually described in an article/ interview? I am mainly wondering about the Pinan Yondan position. It seems the writer of that article used some old-school copy & paste here, so I think it's quite possible he simply took a photo of Mr. Funakoshi doing Heian Yondan and drew what he saw on that image into the boxring.Just wondering :)
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  • DANISH KHAN
    THE HISTORY AND OKINAWA MASTERS STORIES OTHER MAIN THINGS BUT YOU ARE REALLY AWSOME GREAT DICTATOR AS WELL AS RESEARCHER, GOOD GOING.

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