Sometime in the mid-to-late 18th century, a tribute ship sets sail from Okinawa to China, carrying Okinawa’s taxes to the Chinese government. Late at night as the ship approached China’s Fuzhou harbour, another ship approaches under cover of darkness and attacks. These are ruthless pirates, intent on killing the crew and stealing the whole ship complete with cargo. Neither ship has cannons, so the pirates board the Okinawan ship and desperate hand to hand combat ensues.
But unbeknown to the pirates, this ship carries a special passenger who is very significant to the development of Karate, Tae Kwon Do & Tang Soo Do; the great Karate master, Satunushi “Tode” Sakugawa.
Sakugawa had been trained in what is now a largely lost art of night fighting, and try as they might, the pirates were unable to get a good hold of him. Sakugawa single-handedly threw most of the pirates into the sea. However, being outnumbered, he grabbed the last few pirates and jumped overboard, taking them with him and saving the ship.
Chinese harbour patrols picked them out of the water and arrested the pirates and mistook Sakugawa for one of them, thereby arresting him too. Fortunately, Sakugawa was able to learn enough Chinese to explain and is later released.
So apart from being a good story over a pint of beer, why is this of interest to us today? Well, firstly Sakugawa was the teacher to the great Okinawan Karate master, Sokon Matsumura. Matsumura was the prime mover in developing linear power, which is so prevalent in Karate, and TKD/TSD today.
So did Sakugawa have a role in developing linear power? No, historians indicate. Apparently not!
Rewind to several years earlier: Sakugawa was trained in the Okinawan art of Tode (which he included into his own name) and later (more importantly for us) he learned White Crane Kung Fu.
As a younger man of age 23, Sakugawa, confident in knowledge of Tode, thought it would be funny to throw a visiting Chinese dignitary, Kong Su Kung into a stream. Kong Su Kung however, being a master of White Crane Kung Fu easily outmanoeuvred his youthful attacker and Sakugawa was forced to apologize.
Kong Su Kung was a forgiving man and offered to train the spirited young Sakugawa. At that time, White Crane was an exciting new art, not really known to the Okinawans. This is where we come to the important part for us; Kong Su Kung introduced to Sakugawa (and hence to Okinawa) to the White Crane principle of “hikite.”
So what’s hikite, Charlie?
I’m glad you asked me that. Hikite is Japanese for the pull back hand, which is the hand that comes back to the hip whilst a technique is being executed with the other hand. It is hard to imagine how Karate, TKD and TSD would look today without hikite. Being of Chinese origin, it is of course also present in many Chinese martial arts. It is, however, quite unique to traditional Oriental martial arts and is not really seen in martial arts from other parts of the world.
Hikite is often derided by many people from other fighting systems who feel that these traditional Oriental arts are stylistic and not very practical. They ask why we leave such a big hole in our guard by pulling the hikite hand back to the hip, rather than leaving it up as a guard like a boxer does. Many traditionalists answer that it is to gain maximum power from the technique. This is never a convincing answer, especially when so many other fighting forms (boxing, kickboxing, Krav Maga etc) can generate a lot of power without pulling back to the hip. Unfortunately, most people miss the point that boxers, kickboxers; or surprisingly, the same traditional martial artists, do actually practice hikite.
So what is the point, Charlie?
I’m glad you asked me that. In Sakugawa’s day, most military tactics were based on daytime encounters, yet personal self defence would often be based on night encounters (as that’s when most muggers, robbers, etc. would attack). With lack of street lighting back then, night encounters would generally be much darker than today, as we mostly live in towns/cities with street lights and lights from nearby buildings. Night fighting tactics would need to be different back then because it is hard to hit a target you cannot see properly. Therefore, grappling techniques would be far more valuable.
Many Chinese styles include sensitively training with what they call “push hands” or “sticky hands.” Imagine that you have to feel for an opponent in the dark. As soon as you contact an arm, you grab it, twist it and pull back to your hip, pulling your opponent off balance (hikite). At the same time, you strike with the other hand, as now you know exactly where he is, even if you can’t see him properly.
Sakugawa was taught night fighting by Kong Su Kung and was introduced to the (then new) principle of hikite. Is it effective? Well I don’t know about hikite in isolation, but obviously White Crane Kung Fu was effective by the way that Sakugawa defeated a crew of pirates practically single-handed.
As an aside, many Chinese styles primarily use circular technique (using centrifugal force to generate power), which is good for grappling/throwing. And this would have been the way that Kong Su Kung taught Sakugawa. Sakugawa’s student, Matsumura developed linear technique (powered by forward body momentum) which is not quite so good for grappling.
Why would Matsumura make these changes? As Matsumura was chief bodyguard to the King of Okinawa, his main “battlefield” would have been the well lit Shuri Palace, where night fighting techniques would have been less important. As Matsumura and his men could be outnumbered, he would have been mainly interested in releases from grabs/holds/controls and in being able to put the opponents down as quickly as possible.
This means less emphasis on grappling (which can be a bit slow for multiple opponents who can all clearly see you) and more emphasis on powerful strikes that can incapacitate opponents very quickly. However, even with this change of requirements and the very fundamental shift in underlying principles (which really sets Karate styles derived from Matsumura’s lineage apart from its Kung Fu roots), he still kept the hikite intact. So he must have seen a lot value in it, even outside of the night fighting scenario.
[Note: Just out of interest, Goju Ryu Karate and its derivatives are not from Matsumura’s lineage and are more akin to Kung Fu with emphasis on circular technique.]
So why do so many people have so much trouble recognizing hikite’s “grappling” applications in traditional Oriental martial arts?
It’s because we usually look through the lens of sport martial arts. In most traditional systems, we are actually banned from grabbing in competition, so we look at our arts mainly from a striking, punching, and kicking point of view. Most traditionalists are not used to looking for grappling applications. However, for night fighting when you really cannot see your opponent very well, grappling would be the cornerstone of self defence!
Back to Sakugawa. He made up a kata in honour of his teacher and named it after him. But in the Okinawan language, the characters for which made up Kong Su Kung’s name are pronounced Kusanku. When Gichin Funikoshi took Karate to Japan generations later, he used the Japanese pronunciation of Kanku (hence the katas Kanku Dai & Kanku Sho).
To this day, Kusanku/Kanku is still a very central kata in many styles of karate. When people first learn it, they often comment on how close it is to many of the basic Heian set of katas (also known as Pinan in some styles). The Heian/Pinan katas were created by Master Itosu, who was Matsumura’s student, so Itosu would have learnt Kusanku.
So Sakugawa’s legacy is very strong even today, not only in the beautiful kata that he created, but also its influence on the now very standard basic learning katas (Heian/Pinan) and the all important inclusion of hikite, which has over time been included in every other kata and almost every hand technique.
[Note: Having looked at the historical development of Hikite, in Part 2, we'll look more closely at the the technique itself and different ways in which it can be applied.]