Matsumura Sokon – The Last Warrior

The Last Warrior – Matsumura Sokon

By Robert Hunt

             The Okinawan sun shone warm on the brown sand.  In the distance, heavy rain clouds were building, but the crowd didn’t notice. All gazes were fixed on a wooden gate at the far side of the arena. The afternoon hovered, still, expectant, the crowd and King Sho Ko silently waiting.

With a crash, the gate exploded open and, what one person described as the “bull from hell”, charged out. It pawed the ground, dazed by the sunlight, and scanned the arena for a victim…any victim.

There was none.  The ring was empty

But not for long.

A gong sounded and a wooden door on the opposite side of the arena slowly creaked open.  A tall man strolled into the ring – a warrior.  He wore bamboo armor with a helmet of bone and animal skin. He strode into the center, slowly, almost casually.

The crowd watched, mesmerized. Silent. Entranced.

The bull faced the warrior and examined his approach, digging his hoof into the ground, exasperation building.

The warrior sauntered calmly toward the bull.

The warrior paused a few paces from the bull and removed his helmet.  He glared fiercely, with demon eyes that penetrated even the hot sun of the day.

The crowd gasped.

The bull hesitated, as if contemplating his foe, then, like a frightened puppy, cowered, turned and ran back through the gate to haven.

The crowd burst into cheer. King Sho Ko, in his center seat, stared blankly at the warrior for a few seconds, incredulous at what he had Matsumura Sokonseen, then joined the cheer. The great Matsumura had beaten a bull without even touching it.  It was plain that his legendary demon eyes were enough to convince even a wild bull that there was no chance at victory.

The King that day awarded Matsumura the title of “Bushi”, a “Gentleman Warrior” for the incredible deed. He had never awarded another person the title.

Matsumura deserved it. Not for the fact the he had stared down a bull, he hadn’t, but because he was a cunning warrior who never left the outcome of a battle, even one with a bull, to chance. Although karate, in the mid 19th century was still largely secret, the great Matsumura Sokon, karate master and palace guard, was renowned throughout the tiny island of Okinawa for his martial prowess, a superstar of the day.

King Sho Ko, allegedly an arrogant narcissist who overtaxed his people, was always proclaiming fiesta days in order to divert the attention of the people he was overtaxing. When the King of Satsuma gifted him a prize bull, the Okinawan King recognized an opportunity and seized it. The King proclaimed another festival and proclaimed that Matsumura would fight the bull, to boot.

Matsumura could not refuse his King but also knew he couldn’t defeat a bull in fair combat, at least he didn’t think so. With that in mind, a week before the event and after the bull had been chosen, he went to see the bull’s keeper. The man recognized the great Matsumura and when the warrior asked to see the bull, the keeper allowed it.

The bull was tethered. As Matsumura moved close, he drew a hairpin weapon, the kanzashi, that all Okinawan warriors wore and stabbed the bull in the soft tissue of its nose. The bull yanked at the tether and tried to retreat, but Matsumura repeated the jab.

Each evening he returned to the pen, dressed in his armor and always wearing the same clothes so the bull would remember his scent and each night he tormented the bull.

The day of the event all he need do was draw close enough for the bull to catch his scent and the poor animal recoiled in fright. Removing the helmet and glaring were added theatrics.

We know very little about most of the early Okinawan karate masters due to two facts; 1) karate was kept secret so it wouldn’t be recognized by the Satsuma garrison; and 2) most written records were destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa at the end of the Second World War.

But we know Matsumura.

Karate, for all intents and purposes, lost its martial reason for existing at the end of the 19th century with the modernization of Japan, the annexing of Okinawa as a province and the fading need for an empty handed self defense art.

But Bushi Matsumura’s life spanned the century prior to that and he was an authentic warrior, not a “polished floor” teacher.  There were people still alive in the 20th century who remembered him and his exploits. A grandson, Chitose Tsuyoshi, founded the Chito Ryu karate style and Soken Hohan, the nephew of another grandson founded the style called Matsumura Seito Shorin Ryu Karate.Shorin Ryu

We know the reality of Matsumura, not just tattered legends centuries old. According to his students, he was truly a great warrior, tall, fierce and strong, with a demon gaze that could freeze an opponent in his tracks.

There is a story about a shopkeeper, a pipe maker, who was also a martial artist and who challenged Matsumura to a dual at daybreak by a cemetery. Okinawans were very superstitious, and the choice of the cemetery was meant to intimidate. The pipe maker planned to show up early and set up an attack. But when he arrived at the cemetery, Matsumura came gliding out of the morning mist, eyes ablaze, shouting his challenge. The pipe maker simply fell to his feet in supplication.

The moral is, if you want to win, take control of the situation and finish it quickly and with as little conflict as possible.  That’s the story of Matsumura. Win the battle before it begins. Intimidate the opponent sufficiently to overwhelm.

A study of Mixed Martial Artists showed that the one who smiled the least before the match was most likely to win.  Matsumura would be proud.

Matsumura was born Kayo Sokon somewhere around 1800 and died somewhere before 1900 at the age of 92.  He changed his name to Matsumura when he was appointed chief bodyguard to king. The actual dates of his life are less important than the century his life spanned. It was the last century that karate was used as a martial art. After him the world changed and karate became the sport, spiritual pursuit and hobby at which we dabble.

Matsumura studied from the legendary Sakugawa, traveled to China to further his martial art, became a palace guard at an early age, served the last three Okinawan Kings and, per the book “Shotokan’s Secret,…” by Bruce Clayton, may have faced the forces of the American Admiral Perry on that American’s quest of trade with Japan.

Matsumura also organized most of the kata that form the core of today’s Shorin based karate – kata like Bassai, Kushanku. Chinto, Naifanchin, the first two Pinan’s and a host of others. He taught these katas to a cadre of students among whom was Itosu, the person who opened Matsumura’s karate, in a watered down form, to the world.

But Matsumura was possibly the last person, at least the last well known person, to practice karate for its martial effectiveness. To him the katas weren’t vehicles for belt rank.

There was no belt rank.

There were no tests.

No Certificates.

Only battles.

The kata were vehicles to forge warriors and fighters…defenders of the realm.

Matsumura referred to his style as Shorin from the Chinese word Shaolin, the Chinese monastery that gave birth to much of the Okinawan martial arts.  No one is sure with whom he studied in China, but it is obvious that whoever it was had a connection to that Shaolin Monastery.  Otherwise, why the name?

It is also evident that Matsumura was renowned. There were other warriors in 19th century Okinawa, but none as famous. Being awarded a title like “Bushi” is akin to being knighted. Matsumura wasn’t simply a karate teacher or bodyguard.  He was the premier karate master of the time, of any time.

Before him, karate was passed on generally from one teacher to a couple students in utmost secrecy.  Matsumura had as many as 14 students and each one passed on Matsumura’s teaching in his own way.

Because he was the first historical figure of whom we know who brought the kata together in one system – Shorin – and passed them on to that early group of students, he is the person most responsible for bequeathing to us the karate flotsam and jetsam we rummage through in our modern mirrored dojos. For that he could easily be called the “father of karate”. He was a pivotal person in karate history, probably the most important one ever, and we owe him our art.  Without him, we wouldn’t have it.

And he was also the last person to spend his entire life dedicated to the mastery of karate as a deadly weapon – truly the last warrior.

Robert Hunt

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