Matsumora’s Hara Story

When Okinawa was absorbed into Imperial Japan in 1879 the Okinawan men were conscripted as laborers, the women and children were abused. All were intimidated, forced to abandon their native language and way of life.

The new leaders did not believe they were taking Okinawa from the Okinawans. They thought they were taking Okinawa from the Satsuma clan, to whom the Japanese samurai government had ‘given’ it, centuries before.

Okinawan culture was in crisis. The Ryukyuan king was deposed. The elite lost their status and wealth.  The Okinawans did not have the power to resist. Their former benefactors in China were not in a position to help them anymore.

This was the era in which the founders of our styles of karate came of age. A time when Okinawan karate was infused with new energy in response to the injustice, humiliation and threat of violence that poisoned the lives of the people.

Nagamine Shoshin, founder of Matsubayashi-ryu, recounts the rage and frustration the people of Okinawa felt during the later days of the Satsuma occupation, as stories of rape and abuse by the occupiers reached the men of the villages. The Okinawan people were few, they were unarmed, they had no recourse to the rule of law. There was no power to whom they could appeal.

Someone had to do something.

At that time Matsumora Kosaku was training intensely in karate. He practiced daily since he was a boy, and now he was coming into manhood. He could not tolerate the treatment of his people. Since the Okinawans had no weapons, Matsumora made one. He trained with it until he was proficient.

Matsumora is remembered now as a teacher of Choki Motobu and Chotoku Kyan. These events occurred before those great teachers were born…

Matsumora armed himself with folded cloth and a fistful of rocks.  He hid the cloth inside his jacket. He practiced snapping the weighted cloth from its hiding place, snapping it so it could instantly loop around the hilt of a sword, trapping it.

He practiced endlessly, thousands of times. Months went by. Soon Matsumora was able to catch a sword in mid-swing and, whipping the cloth back, pull the swordsman off balance and disarm him.  He would use his karate from there.

It worked with his training partners in the dojo.

To make this technique work in real life Matsumora had to get within killing range of a samurai’s three-foot long, razor-sharp blade, when it was unsheathed and poised to strike.

Any samurai could tell you it is difficult to stop a sword – even if you are armed, armored and trained.  Catching a sword with rocks in a towel is pretty much impossible. But, Matsumora said to himself, someone has to do something…

One day Matsumora was walking along a road when he came to a bridge. There he saw a crowd of unarmed Okinawan people standing still, frozen with fear, as a swaggering Satsuma samurai, holding his sword high above them, insulted and threatened them. These people were not cowards. They were not stupid. They were regular people who were terrified and did not know what to do.

Matsumora made his way through the crowd. He was not intimidated. He was absolutely sincere. He stepped close to this samurai, entering his kill zone, standing just beneath his sword.

He told the samurai to show these decent people some respect.

Then the people standing nearby heard a sound like a samurai’s sword cutting through the air. But it wasn’t a sword, it was Matsumora snapping his homemade weapon. It worked. The sword was caught, frozen, locked in mid-air. The samurai was shocked. He could not understand what happened. He struggled to wrench his weapon free.

Matsumora yanked the cloth, grabbed the sword away from the samurai, and threw the sword down into the river far below. As he did, one of his own fingers was severed by the blade, and dropped to the ground at his feet.

Matsumora became a wanted man. A fugitive with nine fingers would not be hard to spot. He disappeared into the countryside till things cooled off. The samurai disappeared too – too humiliated at the loss of his weapon to an unarmed native to seek revenge.

This act – and others later in his life – inspired many people, including Kyan and Motobu, to look to Matsumora not only as a teacher but as a leader, in times of crisis. They turned to him many times in the turbulent years to come.


Training the Will

It is not hard to get strong. Work out hard and our bodies will develop. It is not hard to get skill. Push yourself and challenge your partners and your skills will get sharper day by day. But to take on the demands of training, to use that training for the good of the people around you, without regard for your comfort, your safety, your life, takes a powerful will. The will can be trained too.

Karate was sometimes referred to as “hara wo neru” – training the hara. The hara is the center of the physical body, the central reservoir of ki in our lower abdomen. It was considered the center and the essence of the person. It also refers to “guts” “courage” or “will.”

Nowadays the will is often the weak link in training. Hara training itself is very much a part of Okinawan karate kata and kumite. It is expressly built in to most of our advanced kata and into two of the Pinan kata. It is often overlooked. It can be recovered. It is needed.

The power of our will is being degraded by modern conditions. The power of our bodies is being undermined by comfort and convenience. The power of our mind is degraded by constant stimulation and low demands on our attention. The power of our will hardly has a chance to develop – in a world where we delegate so much work and responsibility to others – someone else grows our food, heats our homes, takes care of our machines, our health, our defense, our ideas, our life. The more we tolerate that, the weaker we get.

It is sometimes hard to get people, even people who join a dojo, to understand why they need to train hard.

If you are a teacher you may notice weakness in others. We cannot let that discourage us, or keep us from encouraging people and making good demands on them. It should not cause us to judge them or write them off. It should inspire us to find a way to reach them and lift them up.

We need to fight the enemies that surround us right now – the apathy, complacency, weakness of body, mind and character – that comfort and convenience, distraction, confusion and resentment create in our lives. Those conditions are our enemies. They are as intolerable as the ones Matsumora refused to accept – and risked his life to defeat.

We can be like him. Prepare like he did. Fight like he did. Take the risk. Win. And inspire generations to come with your example.





This post is adapted from The Good Fight, the essential martial arts book, by Jeffrey Brooks.


Post text © 2018 and 2019 by Jeffrey Brooks and Mountain Karate LLC

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