Karate-ka who were dancers

Motobu Naoki
Translation by Aaron Meldahl
Photograph showing the use of the leg by Tokashiki Shuryo in the onna-odori known as Shudun. Before the war, onna-odori, or "women's dance" was performed entirely by men.
Photograph showing the use of the leg by Tokashiki Shuryo in the onna-odori known as Shudun. Before the war, onna-odori, or "women's dance" was performed entirely by men.

These days, ryūkyū buyō is performed by women, but in the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, the dancers were solely men. For the "women's dances", men would be costumed as women, like the onnagata of kabuki theater. In the records of Chinese envoys, dancers are referred to as "young men of the aristocracy" (Ka Shiyo, 1606) and "young men of the court" (Oshu, 1683). Therefore, it is a definite fact that they were adolescent sons of important udun and tunchi families of Shuri. It is only since the Meiji and, especially, post-war periods that women have danced ryūkyū buyō.

For example, in the records of the inu no ukanshin-udui of 1838, a couple of dozen of people are listed as dancing kumi-odori and onna-odori. Almost all of those people were young men of udun and tunchi rank. Only a few people were from lower-ranking military families of the chikudun rank. However, all of them came from Shuri.

There were also people who were known to have participated in the ukanshin-udui and later became karate-ka. For example, in Motobu Choki's Watashi no karate-jutsu, there is a section titled "Tomigusuku Satonushi, who bested village sumo." This Tomigusuku Uēkata Seiko (1829-93) danced in the inu no ukanshin-udui and in 1839 went to Edo as a gakudōshi. Gakudōshi was a special position for dancers and musicians who would perform at Edo Castle or the Satsuma estate in Edo.

Chibana Chosho (1847-1927), who taught Toyama Kanken sensei (1888-1966) the Chibana kōsōkun kata, danced in the tora no ukanshin-udui held for the investiture of King Sho Tai in 1866. He was also the head of the family of the founder of Shorin-ryu, Chibana Choshin sensei (1885-1969). Chibana Chosho later gave a verbal statement regarding the circumstances of the ukanshin-udui titled Kanshin-torai to odori (The Crown Ship Visits and Dance).

Why exactly was the Shuri aristocracy so dedicated to ryūkyū buyō? It is true that even in Japan buyō was a favored pastime of the privileged classes, as the example of Oda Nobunaga dancing kōwaka-mai shows. However, in Japan the dancing of buyō was considered an occupation and the dancers were generally professionals. In addition, they were sometimes even of humble origins, as in the shirabyōshi dance of the Heian and Kamakura periods.

Chibana Chosho
Chibana Chosho

Chibana Chosho addressed this very topic: "Those who danced (ukanshin-udui) were honored for their service with rank or a stipend. This was a way for noble youths to build up their merit, so there were many aspirants." In other words, ryūkyū buyō was a shortcut to promotion in rank and status.

The Ryukyu Kingdom was a small and relatively poor state. In particular, after the Satsuma invasion its finances deteriorated. However, while military families accounted for about a quarter of the population, only a small portion of them were able to gain the rewards of service inside Shuri Castle. The sons of udun and tunchi families had to work hard to protect their privileges and social standing, or risk falling into ruin. One of the few chances to gain favor and secure success and promotion was by dancing ryūkyū buyō before the Chinese envoys. That is to say, being able to dance ryūkyū buyō or not was not a matter of taste, but of being able to maintain one's livelihood--a fork in the road that determined an entire family's fate. At that time, the heads of military families were responsible for supporting not only their immediate family, but those of their siblings as well.

Tokashiki Shuryo (1880-1953), a dancer of ryūkyū buyō before the war, had this to say: "In the past--the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom--when a baby would be born to a familiy of udun or tunchi rank such as lords of magiri (domains), lords of manors, aji, or uēkata, the relatives and neighbors would gather at the residence and perform kumi-odori in their pre-arranged roles accompanied by songs and sanshin through the night. Why did they do this? One reason was to provide solace for the mother (who had been through the difficulties of childbirth) and second, to instill in the child the inclination to become a dancer of ukanshi-udui at the once-in-a-lifetime investiture of the king.

In other words, like today's education-mad parents who make their children listen to English tapes seeking to improve the chances of their entering top universities, the Ryukyuan aristocracy would make their children listen to performances of kumi-odori.

Shimabukuro Koyu sensei
Shimabukuro Koyu sensei

Among the Motobu Udun as well, Motobu Choyu was passionate about ryūkyū buyō, and is described by Uehara sensei in his memoir as dancing like a heavenly being. Motobu Choki was also very fond of ryūkyū buyō. According to Shimabukuro Koyu sensei (1893-1987), before the war Choki would often go to the theater to see dance performances, even venturing backstage. It also seems he coached dancers in fighting choreography. By Shimabukuro sensei's account, Motobu Choki was responsible for great service towards the development of ryūkyū buyō in the prewar period (communication from Miyagi Takao).

If this is the case, it may be because of Motobu Choyu and Choki's childhood education in ukanshin-udui that they developed such good posture. According to Tokashiki Shuryo, in the past if a student's posture was bad, the teacher would correct it by fastening a rokushaku bō to his back. Uehara sensei also said that would be tied to his knees in practice in order to learn the particular stance of udundi. This could be seen as a continuation of the old teaching practices of ryūkyū buyō.