Anko Itosu belongs to the founding fathers of Karate on Okinawa. However, little is known about the man from Shuri. A new biography about the life and Karate of Anko Itosu tries to fill this gap. Thomas Feldmann conducted extensive research about the man, who found the martial art from Okinawa, for more than three years. His research even brought him to Okinawa in 2019.
The results of his work have been published recently. In “Anko Itosu. The Man. The Myth. The Master.” gives Thomas Feldmann a detailed account about the socio-economic, cultural, and geopolitical circumstances, who coined Anko Itosus life and made him one of the founders of Karate. Stricking about the Feldmann´s depiction is the contextualization of Itosu´s biography. He analysis the life of the Karate master with a sharp sense for the social structure of the Ryukyu Islands in the middle of the 19th century. This approach does not only enlightens us about the life of Anko Itosu. It also helps to get a better understanding of the factors that coined the emergence of Karate in general.
The Dojo is happy to exclusively publish a few extractions from Thomas Feldmann´s new book. For all Karate enthusiasts, who want to reflect about their art, it will be an invaluable must read.
EPISODE I: STEPPPING INTO A DIFFICULT LIFE (1831–1845), pp. 43-50
“In 1831, a baby boy named Ankō Itosu saw the light of day. The place of his birth is debated. However, all the sources agree that he was born in the immediate vicinity of Shuri, the royal capital of then independent kingdom of Ryūkyū. …
The Ryūkyū Islands are a chain of more than 150 islands and reefs that stretch southwest from the Japanese island of Kyūshū to Taiwan. Because of its unique location parting the East China Sea from the Pacific Ocean and in the immediate proximity to the large Chinese mainland and the Japanese islands, it has always been an important geopolitical and economic hot spot in North East Asia.
… Times were rough on these small subtropical islands … The environment haggard and marked by the catastrophic occurrences of the past years – with even more to come. The islands too frequently had to suffer from severe economic disasters in the early years of the 19th century. Typhoons, tidal waves, and droughts had been bothering the land and the people again and again for more decades since 1800.
In a mainly agrarian economy, such events have immediate effects on the whole society, and they were numerous in the Ryūkyū Kingdom especially between 1824 and 1832. Storms and the following famines caused the death of more than 5,500 islanders between only these years alone, and that at a time when the total Ryūkyūan population on the island of Okinawa did not surpass 150,000 human beings as the maximum. Hundreds of fishing ships, crafts and thousands of houses had also been lost when the disaster forced its way through the islands in these shattering times. … Parents, without doubt, could imagine a better environment to bring a child into this world.”
EPISODE II: THE TWO PATHS HE FOLLOWED (1846–1871), pp. 113-117
“Besides Naha … Tomari was another important seaport at that time. It lies at the northern side of the river Asatogawa, which in olden times had been the harbor for the royal district of Shuri before Naha became more and more important. In this function, Tomari port was mainly used for ships traveling within the Ryūkyū Islands to dock and to engage in loading and unloading of their cargo. The harbor, before it was silted up so that only small boats at high tide could reach the land, was also the main entrance spot for foreign visitors and their elements of cultural life they brought there.
It was also where tribute-bearing ships from the Amami archipelago located between Kyūshū and Okinawa landed. A branch of the royal tax authorities under responsibility of an administrative official was in charge of taking delivery of annual tributes, which were stored in warehouses located here. The neighborhood was mainly a town of fishermen and farmers.
Tomari was also known to having had another important function. As a tributary of the Chinese Qing Dynasty, the Ryūkyū Kingdom was obliged to rescue and protect any Chinese citizens and nationals affiliated with them and safely return them home. As a consequence, measures were officially put in place concerning a policy in particular what to do about incidents involving castaways being cast adrift in Ryūkyūan waters and shores. By order of the King, there had even been established a facility to shelter shipwrecked people from friendly trading partner nations like China and Korea. When stranded, they usually were isolated in temporary compounds with guards at the entrances. …
As many Chinese came into Tomari, it eventually became known as a popular place for the martial arts. The people of Ryūkyū welcomed Chinese castaways in particular and seeked instruction by martial arts experts under them. According to Gichin Funakoshi, who was recollecting the words of his master and Itosu friend Ankō Asato, many martial artists used to gather around Tomari in the direct vicinity of Naha because the public administration formally supported this for preparing unexpected matters such as situations of emergency.
It was in these quarters where Itosu met Gusukuma, his new master who he is going to follow next as a devoted disciple. A southern Chinese who drifted ashore at Okinawa is said to have once taught Gusukuma in the fighting arts, which he passed on to selected students. Not much is known today about this seasoned master, who when retired moved from Tomari to the North in order to reside in the Kyōzuka district of Urasoe village.”
EPISODE III: MOVING TIMES (1872–1898), pp. 145-153
“The year 1879 was finally the year in which the history of Ryūkyū would radically change forever. No one could have predicted the incisive events of the weeks and months ahead. After that nothing will ever be the same again. … These drastic changes, which despite everything were actually tried to be implemented with minimal disruption by the Japanese, have influenced the lives of many Ryūkyūan families. Just after the Ryūkyū Domain was abolished and transformed into a prefecture, the Japanese dispatched officials from the central government occupying the nucleus of the prefectural administration. …
No doubt, Ankō Itosu and his family were also immensely affected by all this. But it did not make sense to just bury their heads in the sand and give up. Although it was certainly difficult, Itosu and his fellow countrymen had to accept the new situation ahead. These traumatic events, however, finally left the local elite paralyzed by fear and uncertainty in regard to the true extent of the change which was expected to occur on the islands. In particular, it was not only the disagreement of the administrative changes but also the loss of their social status and their financial foundation that was lost from one day to the next. …
The former lower-ranking officials were considered as the “main losers” of this arrangement. After the abolition of the established system many of them even moved to the outer islands as clerks, teachers or merchants. In this context, it has been assumed that Itosu retired from his position as a government official in order to practice and teach tōdī at his home directly after the abolition of the Ryūkyū Kingdom in 1879. That the date is not quite correct can now be set right with new information available.”
About the author:
Thomas Feldmann was born in Germany in 1976. He studied East Asian Studies in Duisburg (Germany) and Sōka, Saitama Prefecture (Japan). Besides his devotion to the martial arts, he works as a freelance public relations consultant and interim manager. Thomas had been to Okinawa in 2001, 2008 and lastly in 2019 for his research about Ankō Itosu.