Chotoku Kyan: Of Vice & Virtue - A profile of this Karate pioneer

One of the most influential Martial Artists during the early part of this Century was Chotoku Kyan of the Shorinji Ryu. He was born in 1870 into a high ranking Okinawan family and was the third son of Chofu Kyan, a steward to Sho Tai, the King of the Ryukyus at that time. In 1871, the Japanese Government annexed the Ryukyu kingdom and re-named the archipelago "Ryukyu-han", after which there was a systematic change to the culture in Ryukyu and in 1879 King Sho Tai was exiled to Tokyo. Chofu Kyan accompanied the King to Japan and took with him the now nine year old Chotoku, where he was to receive his academic schooling. Some time later Chotoku Kyan returned to his native Okinawa where following an introduction from his father, he began his Karate training when 20 years old under the watchful guidance of Ankoh Itosu1, Kosaku Matsumora and Kokan Oyadomori. According to Shoshin Nagamine, Kyan's father had a knowledge of Karate or Ti and taught his son the rudiments of wrestling when he was young, but rather than try to teach his son Karate himself, he entrusted this task to others. Nagamine believes the reason for this is that he (Chofu) was reluctant to teach his son Karate as he was too attached to Chotoku to teach him in the severe manner that Karate demanded.

Under these renowned Karate Masters he learned both Tomari-te and Shuri-te reaching a degree of expertise by the time he turned 30. It is thought that in Shuri-te, he learned from Sokon Matsumura the kata Sesan, Naifuanchi and Gojushiho and from Yara Chatan he learned Kushanku (Kanku/Kosokun). In Tomari-te he learned Passai kata from Kokan Oyadomari, Wanshu from Maeda (Saneida) and Chinto from Kosaku Matsumora. He also learned the kata Annanku from an anonymous Taiwanese who is supposed to have visited Okinawa. Another version of how he came by this kata is that Kyan brought the kata back with him after a trip to Taiwan In "Fighting Arts International" (No 52), Graham Noble in his excellent study of the Shorin Ryu Masters offers an additional opinion: He (Graham ) states that he is not happy with the theory that Kyan learned it from a Taiwanese, mainly because the kata does not look Chinese, an opinion I too share. He goes on to propose that another version of events whereby Kyan learned the kata from his father or alternatively presents the possiblitity that Kyan may have developed the kata himself. In addition to these Karate Kata, it is said that Kyan also learned the Bo kata Tokumine no Kon , from Tokumine in Yaeyama. Chozo Nakama however, says that by the time Kyan visited Yaeyama, Tokumine had already died and it was Tokumine's landlord who taught him the Bo kata having learned this from Tokumine previously.

As a child, it is reported by various sources that Kyan was small, thin and somewhat weak - characteristics which seem to be common amongst some of the early Karate Masters. Kyan is also said to have been an asthma sufferer and frequently bed-ridden. Even when fully grown, he was of very slight build and looked positively fragile. He carried a nickname of Chan Mi-Gwa (Small-eyed Kyan) although the reason for this too is unclear. Some say it is because he had a squint, others say it was because he had narrow eyes or was poorly sighted or blind in one eye, but Hoshu Ikeda offers another explanation for Kyan's Nom de Guerre.

"His method of training was never to wear a gi top. This was to allow the air to temper the skin and allowed detailed observation of the muscles. This was considered to be a sophisticated attitude to training at that time. This half-naked method allowed him to make detailed observations of the movement and tension of the students' muscles and his habit of fixing his eyes rigidly on the student to see if he was using his muscles correctly earned him the name of "Mi-gwa"

According to Shoshin Nagamine, Kyan lived in poverty throughout his adult life although this may have been in part due to his reputation for travelling2, frequenting houses of ill-repute and engaging in drinking sessions. Choshin Chibana is reported as saying that Kyan used to visit brothels and was keen on travelling, often going on excursions with his two favourite students Ankichi Aragaki and Taro Shimabuku. In his book "Karate Do to Ryukyu Kobudo", Katsumi Murakami maintains that Kyan taught Aragaki and Shimabuku more than just Karate saying that Karate practice was not enough and they should engage in bouts of drinking and associate with prostitutes to complete their training!! I leave it to you to muse over the reasons for this advice!

As well as teaching his students at his home at night (when Kyan would insist that Aragaki and Shimabuku should not use lanterns to light their way but should try to develop their night vision), Kyan also taught Karate at the Okinawan School for Agriculture and at Kadena Police Station. Kyan's two main students would often accompany their teacher to cock-fights of which Kyan was most fond. On one occasion, the two disciples decided to test their teacher and started an argument with a number of village youths, promptly running off to leave Kyan to fend for himself. Kyan fought his attackers off whilst still clutching his precious bird, using just one arm to defend himself!

Amongst Kyan's other students were Shoshin Nagamine, Joen Nakazato, Tatsuo Shimabuku and Eizo Shimabuku. Occasionally he would give a demonstration of Karate with Choshin Chibana, performing "Passai" and Bo Kata (presumably the aforementioned Tokumine No Kon), and at the opening of Shoshin Nagamine's dojo in 1942, he performed Karate before Admiral Kenwa Kanna. At this time Kyan was 73 years old and Nagamine is credited with having said, "His beautiful performance at the age of 73 could still exalt his audience to the quintessence of karate-do"

Kyan's Karate must have been effective as there are more than a few instances of his being challenged and according to the Okinawans, he was never beaten in a fight. Due to his build, Kyan chose not to try to win by brute force, but would defend using evasive tactics and then counterattack quickly. On one occasion when Kyan and his two disciples were on a trip to Hokkaido in northern Japan, they were challenged by a local fighter, Sampu Taku. Kyan's advice to Aragaki was for him to use a one-strike knockout punch after having stepped back carefully to the edge of the arena, should the protagonist make a move against him. It is not recorded whether there was any outcome to this particular challenge.

Colourful though his life was, what with the womanising and drinking, Kyan is viewed in his native Okinawa as one of the most important figures in the history of Karate. It is without question that he has had an influence on the development of the Shorin styles such as Matsubayashi Ryu, Chuba Shorin Ryu, Isshin Ryu, (Shaolin) Shorin Ryu and Ryukyu Shorin Ryu. Even though he was clearly a most resourceful and resilient character, managing to survive the Battle of Okinawa during which nearly 60,000 Okinawan civilians were killed, he died shortly afterwards in September of 1945 at the age of 76, from fatigue and malnutrition.


1. In a number of sources Kyan is listed as being a student of Ankoh Itosu but his versions of kata differ markedly from the Itosu forms. Choshin Chibana does not list Kyan as one of Itosu's students but attributes his teaching to Kokan Oyadomori. If there was any influence from Itosu , it is conceivable therefore that this influence was not extensive.

2. An interesting side to Kyan's character is that portrayed by the account told by Katsumi Murakami in Karate Do to Ryukyu Kobujutsu, wherein he says that Choshin Chibana had told him that Kyan used to go the brothels at Tsuji and was keen to travel. In order to fund these sojourns, it was not unknown for Kyan to mislead his wife. His wife had to work as a pig breeder and dyer of cloth. Each time a pig produced a litter or became ready to sell, Kyan would insist on taking the pigs to the market himself where he would sell the piglets. He would only give his wife a proportion of the money he had earned, keeping the rest for himself to pay for his excursions and womanising.

Copyright Phil Snewin 1998. All Rights reserved