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History

of Karate
The Role of 
Master Hohan Soken
in Hakutsuru
(White Swan),
the Most Coveted
of Okinawa’s Karate
Techniques

by Don Lucas

 Above:
Hohan Soken
enjoys the serenity 
of a garden in Shuri,
Okinawa, where
he often goes to
meditate.

Right:
The master works
out with his karate
heir, Fusei
Fusei Kise.
Kis e.
Possibly nowhere else in the world are
there so many seventh-, eighth-, ninth- and 10th-degree
black belts in karate — all o them authentic — as in the
Ryukyu Island chain that sweeps southeastward rom
Japan to China.
Here, in this long necklace o islands, o which Oki-
nawa is the principal jewel, modern karate was born and
rened rom a Chinese oot-ghting system rst intro-
duced 400 years ago. And a ertile seedbed or karate the
islands proved to be, with shorin-ryu, goju-ryu, uechi-ryu,
Okinawa-te, Okinawan kenpo and other systems sprout-
ing and thriving.
But even with all those arts and experts, little is
known elsewhere o Okinawan k arate, which ormed the
Hohan Soken has mastered many tradi-
basis or all modern Japanese and Korean karate styles,
tional karate weapons.
as well. Even in Japan, virtually everyone who learns the
art today is training not under Okinawans but under
other Japanese. And Koreans learned their karate not Interestingly enough, Americans orm the only non-
rom Okinawans but rom Japanese sensei. Okinawan group today to be studying the original ka-
 Thus, the outside world has gained knowledge o  rate arts o the islands directly under Okinawans on any
Okinawan karate mainly through teachers rom Korea kind o scale. That’s because o the number o big Amer-
and Japan, two countries that have been aggressive in ican military bases set up here. Ever since the end o 
exporting their styles around the world. Okinawa, on World War II, thousands o young American servicemen
the other hand, has sent very ew o its masters abroad. have studied Okinawan karate while stationed here, and
(Notable exceptions include Gichin Funakoshi, who in- some o the top U.S. karate men, like Mike Stone and Joe
troduced karate to Japan in 1917 and thus opened the Lewis, have been ollowers o the Okinawan style.
eyes o the world to this great ghting art.) One Okinawan who has had a lot to do with the karate

1 2 3 4

Hohan Soken assumes the ready position (1). He then executes a fnger strike with his right hand while protecting himsel with his let (2).
Next, he does the naihanchi kata block (3) and assumes a stance rom the white swan (4).

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training o Americans is a still-spry 78-year-old
master named Hohan Soken. * The almond-
eyed Soken, who still retains a good thatch o 
silver-white hair, lives not ar rom Kadena Air
Base. Airmen studying the ar t here during the
past ew years have been learning his brand
o shorin-ryu karate, though they may not
know much about Soken himsel. Actually, he
doesn’t teach at the base, but his prize pupil,
Fusei Kise, does. Kise will be the successor to
Soken’s school when the master retires.
 The story o Soken’s mastery o karate and
ancient weapons has seldom been told out-
side his native Ryukyu. But it’s instructive, or
his lie spans both the old and the new ele-
ments o Okinawan karate and provides a
glimpse o a society long gone. I talked with
him at length at his picturesque Okinawan
home near the site o Shuri, the ormer capital
o the old kingdom. Crumbling battlements
Hohan Soken and Fusei Kise use a white-swan technique while sparring.
and grass-grown moats are all that remain o 
the old palace where samurai once strode de-
antly and the last o the Okinawan kings sat
in rule over his eudal domain. ago. He’s liberal and open-minded about his methods
Soken says he practices and teaches some o the and doesn’t claim his is the only true path to karate mas-
same techniques o armed and unarmed deense his tery. Instead, he readily concedes that there are many
samurai-warrior ancestors employed hundreds o years ne systems.
He was born in 1889 during a period o great up-
heaval and political unrest in the Ryukyu. The removal o 
the king by the imperial court o Japan and the destruc-
tion o the eudal system imposed many hardships on
his amily.
Although they were born samurai, he and his amily
had very little money ater the purge and had to work in
the elds to earn a living. As a boy, Soken was ridiculed
by peasants because he was orced to work side by side
with them despite his noble birth.
But the youth had one big advantage that would
eventually lit him out o the eld orever. His uncle,
Nabe Matsumura, was one o the top karate masters in
the Ryukyu. Matsumura told the wiry lad that i  he could
demonstrate the patience and control betting his sam-
urai heritage, he would tutor him in bushido, the way o 
the warrior. Soken gladly accepted.
Nabe Matsumura, Hohan Soken’s teacher.  Throughout his younger years, Soken had heard o 

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ing in the elds during the day and studying the two arts
in the evening constituted a rigorous training schedule
that developed physical strength and mental discipline.
As the lad grew to manhood, his training was intensi-
ed. When he was 23, his sensei said he was ready to be-
gin learning “real” karate. For 10 years, Nabe Matsumura
had been drilling Soken in undamentals; now he de-
cided his student was nally ready to learn the ancient
secret o hakutsuru, the white swan. According to Soken,
many men coveted the knowledge o this technique,
but Matsumura reused to reveal it because o i ts deadly
potential were it to all into the hands o unscrupulous
men. Soken says that even Gichin Funakoshi had asked
to be taught the white swan but was reused by Matsu-
mura. He believes that Matsumura declined because he
 An old Okinawan karateka with modern ideas, Hohan wanted to conne the knowledge o the deadly art to
Soken learned karate when it was still a closely  his amily.
guarded secret. He now teaches not only Okinawans How much validity there is in all this talk o the white
but also an ever-widening audience o Americans.
swan is a matter o speculation. Okinawans, like many
Asians, tend to revere their ancestors and endow them
with seemingly superhuman qualities. However, it also
the exploits o his samurai predecessors. For instance, should be noted that karate systems, and specic as-
his uncle’s grandather and teacher, Hohan “Bushi” Mat- pects o these systems, have in act been k ept secret or
sumura, was well-known. Matsumura had been a mas- hundreds o years.
ter in the Okinawan style o hand-to-hand combat and Because the white swan is still cloaked in secrecy, at-
the use o traditional weapons. Soken says Matsumura tempts at explaining even Soken’s rare demonstrations
was sent by Sho Tai, king o the Ryukyu, to the amous o the technique become dicult. He only volunteers an
Shaolin Temple in China to increase his knowledge o  Oriental aphorism as an illustrative explanation. He tells o 
the martial ar ts. (Whether he ever ound the temple isn’t seeing a slender swanlike bird perched on a large rock in
known.) Upon his return, he became a personal body- a roaring wind. Despite the orce o the wind and sudden
guard to the king. changes in its speed and direction, the bird maintained
Soken, warming to his tale, even claims that Matsu- perect balance and control. Perect control o the body
mura ought a number o lethal contests to protect his and mind in any situation, then, is one o the keys not only
sovereign. Although challenged requently because o  to the white swan but also to all Soken’s karate.
his high position, he would never oblige his antagonists  To develop this control, Soken was instructed to
except in absolute sel-deense, according to Soken. He mount a board just large enough to support his weight
says Matsumura was never deeated and died a natural and then push it out into a pond. Ater much practice
death. Today, more than a century later, the name o this and concentration, he was able to perorm kata on his
samurai is still known in the Ryukyu. precarious water-borne perch, and later he par ticipated
With the death o the grizzled old warrior, his grand- in kumite (ree sparring) with his sensei, who was bal-
son, Nabe, was designated to carry on the teachings. In anced on another such board. To reinorce his mastery
keeping with the samurai tradition, young Soken was o this control in virtually any situation, he trained in all
chosen to be the next successor to the secrets o his kinds o weather.
ancestors. Among the ew other characteristics Soken will re-
At age 13, his training with his uncle began. Soken was veal about the white-swan technique is the impor tance
instructed in karate and kobujutsu (use o weapons). Work- o  ki, the intrinsic energy that’s much discussed but

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seldom achieved. Another essential element, he says, is using his native Japanese, a limited amount o English
breath control, which should be practiced every day but and a perect command o Spanish, manages to make
never to exhaustion. A strong point o the white swan is his meaning clear. (He let the Ryukyu in the 1920s and
the eectiveness o this method when it’s used to turn lived in Argentina until the end o World War II, and it
a more powerul opponent’s strength against him. How- was there that he became fuent in Spanish.)
ever, it’s ki that is the single most emphasized element, Although his duties at his dojo consume much o his
and mastery o it is essential and requisite to learning time, he visits other schools to give advanced training
the white swan. throughout the island. One o his avorite stops during
Soken has admitted to teaching some o these eso- the week is the Kadena Karate Club in central Okinawa.
teric principles to contemporary karate colleagues, but  The old gentleman admits he’s ascinated by modern
only one man, Fusei Kise, has been told them in ull. warplanes and the teeming activity at the base. Kise,
Soken’s only proession is the teaching o his lie’s chie instructor at the Kadena dojo, rigidly ollows his
work: karate and kobujutsu. At an age when most men master’s principles in the teaching o his students.
would ordinarily bemoan their aching joints, he practices Despite his heavy schedule, Soken still manages to
two hours a day and devotes two more hours to teach- participate in many Ryukyuan cultural activities, such as
ing. The students o his rigidly run dojo are distinguished those sponsored by the Okinawan Historical Society. In
by only two kinds o belts other than the distinctive red addition, he serves as president o the Okinawa Kobu-
obi  (belt) denoting Soken’s 10th-dan prociency. Nov-  jutsu Association.
ices wear a white belt until they earn promotion to rst- Soken conducts karate demonstrations regularly to
degree black. promote understanding o the art. He disagrees with the
 The old master also teaches other instructors. Oc- traditionalists who rown on demos and who still believe
casionally, there are communication problems because the art should be kept secret. However, he thinks this is
the students speak many dierent languages; but Soken, an outmoded view that might have been true hundreds
o years ago during the Sho dynasty. At
that time, the people o the islands were
orbidden to possess weapons; karate was
indeed a secret not to be displayed and
was only used in deense o one’s lie. Some
o the techniques o unarmed combat, like
hakutsuru, are still kept secret, but karate is
known around the globe. Soken believes
that i a demonstration is conducted prop-
erly, with its sole objective being the edu-
cation o the audience in the true art and
meaning o karate, no harm is done.

* Note From the Editors: The original 


version of this article appeared in the
May 1967 issue of Black Belt. Hohan So-
ken was born in 1889 and was 78 years
old at the time of that issue’s publica-
tion. He died in 1982.
Fusei Kise wields a bo against Hohan Soken’s tona.

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