Motobu Choyu Sensei

Motobu Choyu sensei
Motobu Choyu sensei

Motobu Choyu Sensei was born in 1865, the eldest son of Motobu Aji Choshin. During the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, his formal name was Inoha Aji Choyu. The title “Inoha Aji” denoted that he was the Motobu heir, with "Inoha" coming from the name of the capital of the Motobu domain of Motobu Magiri (prefecture) in the northern part of the main island of Okinawa. He received this title from the king at his genpuku, or coming of age ceremony. His wife was named Umimuta and was the fourth daughter of Oroku Uēkata Ryochu.1


From a young age, Choyu sensei was taught Motobu udundi by his father. In order to broaden his learning, he also studied various kinds of karate from instructors called to his home, such as Matsumura Sokon sensei and Itosu Anko sensei. Along with his younger brother Choki sensei and friend Yabu Kentsu sensei, he studied Tomari-te (tomai-di) at the home of Matsumora Kosaku.2

The last great actor of the Ryukyuan theater, Tamagusuku Seiju. He studied the dances called ukanshin-udui under Matsushima Pēchin Choto3.

Choyu sensei knew up to 30 kata and, of course, the use of weapons. He was also a talented horseman and was known to go on long rides from Shuri to the village of Yomitan. At that time, there was no one whose knowledge of the martial arts was as wide and deep as his. In addition, he loved cultured pursuits such as Ryukyuan dance (ryūkyū buyō) and poetry (ryūka). He was close friends with the ryūkyū buyō master Tamagusuku Seiju (1868 -1945), with whom he would discuss the use of the hands in dance. Choyu sensei was also talented at the sanshin, and was fond of singing the old song called Ufubushi.


Choyu sensei remained proud of his noble upbringing until the end of his life. He continued to wear his hair long, as he did while in the service of the Ryukyuan monarchy. In his hair, he wore a gold hairpin as proof of his aji status. In praise of his noble beauty, it was said "His Highness Motobu is the most beautiful of noble men!"

1. Oroku Uēkata Ryochu (1819 - ?) was the 12th head of the Oroku familiy, the head family of the Ba clan, which was one of five prestigious clans in the Ryukyu Kingdom. He was also a member of the sanshikan--a group of three ministers who managed government affairs alongside the king--from 1857 to 1859.


2. "Choki Motobu: The Lost Interviews of 1936." Classical Fighting Arts, 2 no. 11, (2007), 52-53.


3. Matsushima Pēchin Choto (? -1900) was the head of the Matsushima familiy and a 9th-generation member of the Motobu clan. He was the eldest son of Matsushima Uēkata Chochin and Kadekaru Ōshu (the 7th daughter of King Sho Ko, 1820-1861). The Matsuhima family is a branch of the Motobu clan whose founder, Matsushima Uēkata Chojo, was the second son of Motobu Aji Chokyu. After the Meiji reforms, Matsushima Pēchin Choto taught dance and theater at the Nakamo Theater in Naha. There he trained Tamagusuku Seiju and Tokashiki Shuryo, who went on to become famous actors.

Establishment of the Okinawa Karate Kenkyu Club

Article of Okinawa Karate Research Club, Okinawa Times, 31 January, 1926
Article of Okinawa Karate Research Club, Okinawa Times, 31 January, 1926

Around the 12th or 13th year of the Taisho Period (1923-1924), Choyu sensei established the Okinawa Karate Kenkyu (Research) Club (also known as “Club Gwaa”) east of the Naminoue Shrine at the base of a hill known as Nanminmou.1 Sensei such as Kyan Chotoku, Teruya Kamesuke, Mabuni Kenwa, Miyagi Chojun, and Gusukuma Shinpan came and received instruction directly from Choyu sensei. Uehara sensei, the youngest member of the club, was officially charged with serving tea. As president of the club and the most senior member of the world of Okinawan karate, Choyu sensei gave instruction in everything from karate theory to practical skills. For example, he would instruct Miyagi sensei in kata bunkai and Mabuni sensei in hojō-jutsu, or rope binding.


Because of Choyu sensei’s noble blood, he was not addressed by name. Instead, people like Kyan sensei and Miyagi sensei would address him as “aji ganashi-mē", or "Your Highness, Aji" an honorific from the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Because Okinawans maintained a sense of independence into the middle of the Meiji Period, even in the following Taisho Period people kept alive such old traditions. Choyu sensei was also nicknamed “Motobu Leg” and “Motobu Kick” because of his facility with ashi-waza and was adept at neutralizing attacks from opponents using tai-sabaki and ashi-sabaki.


According to Uehara sensei, “During my time at Club Gwaa, I saw with my own eyes how other advanced practitioners moved. There was no one as good as Choyu sensei at tai-sabaki or ashi-sabaki. At that time, almost no one practiced against opponents. Even people who were called advanced did almost nothing but kata practice. Free kumite did not exist except for kakedameshi (actual fights) in Tsuji-machi (a red-light district in Naha). Anyone who says it did is exaggerating.”


Advanced tai-sabaki and ashi-sabaki techniques that could be used in an actual confrontation had already been lost by the Taisho Period. What is known as kumite today is a Showa-period--particularly, post-war--invention, not from the Ryukyu Kingdom. Only Choyu sensei and Choki sensei inherited traditional kumite techniques.


1. Naminmou is in the present Asahigaoka area of Naha city. "Mou" means "field" or "open area." The area to the east of Naminoue Shrine is now a park, but in Choyu sensei's time was a wide area of hills.

Latter years

South palace of Shuri Castle
South palace of Shuri Castle

In 1923, Choyu sensei--along with his student Uehara Seikichi--took part in an enbu held in the south palace of Shuri Castle, perfoming the kata known as ufukun, or kōshōkun-dai. The following year, he took part in an enbu held in the Naha Theater, performing the same kata again.

Choyu sensei had decided against appearing in public performing udundi, which he still referred to as ushu-ganashi-mē no bugei, or "his majesty's martial art." Because of this, at a public enbu he would choose a kata from "regular" karate to perform. This meant that the average person would have had no way of seeing the waza Choyu sensei actually used.


Choyu sensei passed on Motobu udundi to his son Chomo sensei through his student Uehara sensei. In 1928, while returning with his younger brother Choki sensei from an enbu in Kumejima, he fell ill, passing away on March 21.