To the casual observer, Hawaii seems to be an unlikely place for fierce arts of self-defense to have originated. The mental picture of the Hawaii of olden times is one of peaceful Polynesians lazing under a warm sun, virtually isolated in the mid-Pacific and thus safe and secure from outside enemies. But this stereotype doesn’t fit the facts. Hawaii has had its share of invaders and war. And these lush tropical islands, cut off from the mainstream of the martial arts, produced one of the deadliest—some say the deadliest—form of unarmed self-defense systems ever invented.
The Origin of Lua Martial Arts
The art was called lua, a bone-breaking form of personal defense that bears a surprising resemblance to modern Japanese martial arts. Lua is something of a big, economy-sized art, incorporating elements similar to those of karate, judo, jujutsu, aikido and kendo. Every Hawaiian youngster has grown up hearing tales of it terrible power. And each generation has embellished those tales, so that it’s difficult now to distinguish fact from fancy.
Lua has come to mean different things over the years. To some, it refers to the whole range of exotic defensive arts that seemed to grow with profusion in ancient Hawaii. They included various forms of boxing, wrestling, spear throwing and staff combat. A narrower version of lua refers to one specific art, a dreaded and secret method of defense that had many elements in common with the lawless forms of roughhouse jujutsu that flourished in Japan at the end of the 19th century.
The secret art of lua was taught only to a select few, and what’s known has come down mainly by word of mouth, since the ancient Hawaiian language was spoken but not written. But what we do know provides a fascinating insight into the ways of the ancient Hawaiian warrior and the society in which he lived. For one thing, that society liked to hold competitions in the martial arts and sports, especially during the period known as Makahiki. That was the time of thanksgiving held each year in honor of Lono, the god of the farmer. But the old Hawaiians really knew how to celebrate, so instead of Makahiki being held for just one day, the festivities were spread out over three months—roughly from October 15 to January 15. During that period, all labor ceased, and the time was given over to feasting and merrymaking.
Lau Martial Arts Competition
As part of the merrymaking, the young bloods of the different villages gathered on the kahua, or playground, to compete in martial sports. The playing area was marked off by spears stuck into the ground. On the sidelines, the men of the village engaged in heavy betting on their favorites. Everything from property to wives might be staked on the outcome of a single match.
A favorite sport was mokomo, a form of boxing in which we have a rare firsthand description written by a Westerner who was an on-the-scenes observer. One of the officers aboard the ship of Capt. Cook, the explorer who opened up the islands, writes about a mokomo match he witnessed in the late 18th century: “When the sports were ready to begin, the signal was given by the judges, and immediately two combatants appeared. As they approached, they frequently eyed each [other] from head to foot in a contemptuous manner … straining their muscles and using a variety of affected gestures. [Having] advanced within reach of each other, they stood with both arms held out straight before their faces, at which part their blows were aimed. They struck, in what appeared to be an awkward manner, with a full swing of the arm; made no attempt at parry, but eluded their adversary’s attack by an inclination of the body or by retreating. The battle was quickly decided; for if either of them was knocked down, or even fell by accident, he was considered as vanquished. … During the fight, the opponents generally hurled names at one another. Even the spectators often joined in by hurling taunts at the opponents of their favorites. The contestants depended heavily on their aumaka, or guardian angel, for victory. While engaged in the struggle, it was not unusual for the kahuna (priest) of one of the contestants to run to his side, especially if he appeared to be weakening, and try to encourage him by chanting aloud the records of his ancestors, and how it would be such an insult for them if he lost.”
The bouts could be quite rough, and one blow could kill a man. The young Hawaiians were contemptuous of wearing any sort of protective clothing, and they engaged each other draped only in loincloths. The secret forms of lua were never performed at those gatherings. Written accounts of them came much later. And what we have is skimpy. The first definition of lua appears in Lorrin Andrews’ Dictionary of the Hawaiian Language, published in 1865. He defines lua as “bone-breaking … (and) much practiced in ancient times.” Its self-defense techniques were taught only to those who could control their tempers and supposedly was never to be used except in defense of life. According to legend, lua martial arts required a good knowledge of anatomy, physiology, and even a form of hypnotism and telepathy. A chilling feature of it, according to Lorrin Andrews, was that it also employed “noosing,” by which he probably meant garroting or strangling with a cord.
Hawaiian Martial Arts History
A better authority is John Papa Ii, who as a child was sent to King Kamehameha’s court in Honolulu. Kamehameha, called the “Napoleon of the Pacific,” united the Hawaiian Islands under one rule in a series of spectacular battles between 1790 and 1810. Kamehameha is known to have established three schools for lua martial arts, and smaller ones may have existed as well. A school was under the direction of a kahuna, a combination of priest, wizard and medicine man. However, there were various classes of kahuna, and each tended to specialize in a given field such as praying, healing, prophecy or lua.
The kahuna adept at lua had a knowledge of anatomy, especially nerve and muscle centers. He also believed that the stomach was the “basis of strength, shrine of good health and seat of learning,” a view that disciples of aikido would find hard to quarrel with today. The Pacific Napoleon thought well enough of these martial art technique to select 24 boys from his court, including his son, to attend a lua martial arts school. One of those trained went on to become the father of two more Hawaiian kings, Kamehameha III and IV. In 1819 Kamehameha I returned to his original home on the island of Hawaii, and the schools were closed.
Later in the 19th century, the colorful Kalahaua became king and began the restoration of Hawaiian culture, including its fighting arts. Kalahaua was called the “Merry Monarch” and with good reason, for he would often slip out of the palace at night to shoot pool and hoist a few with the boys. On a visit to Japan, he noticed the similarity between the various exhibitions of athletic skill put on in his honor and the contests he knew or heard about as a child. On his return home, he undertook to revive lua martial arts.
The modern tourist to Hawaii is probably most grateful to him for reviving the hula, but a less homicidal form of lua was also restored. Among its adepts was Prince Kuhio, the popular and effective delegate who represented the islands in Congress after Hawaii became an American territory in 1898. From this point on, we begin to find more written material on the subject of lua. The late Professor Henry S. Okazaki, whose Nikko Restoration Sanatorium still flourishes in downtown Honolulu, studied diet, physical therapy, training methods and jujutsu at six Japanese schools. He was quoted as saying that while lua martial arts had many similarities to jujutsu, the Hawaiian martial arts techniques was more effective.
But lua is still a lost art, and we have no specific descriptions of actual techniques. However, that has not stopped Hawaiians from talking about it and making observations down through the generations. The following is what one modern judo practitioner thinks: “Lua in its most savage form was developed to be used by a king’s or chief’s personal bodyguards. Hawaiian battles were fast, fierce and nasty. For instance, in one invasion of the island of Maui by the finest warriors of Oahu, only two out of 800 survived.”
Known Techniques of Lua Martial Arts
In battles relying on spears, slings, clubs and rocks, weapons were easily lost or made useless by grappling. The trained Hawaiian bodyguards, like the samurai, were ready to provide the ultimate protection for a chief. That would include training in savage hand-to-hand combat. Through the years, lua was apparently used for purposes ranging from the homicidal to the diversionary. At times it was a military art whose ultimate purpose was death, and at other times it was a regimen for self-discipline, self-protection and physical development.
For example, the ancient Hawaiians came naturally to any contest involving grappling. They lived in one of the world’s most gentle climates and could practice or play by day or night. They dressed scantily and had no need to change to sports attire when they had hundreds of square miles of sandy beaches and tall grass and weeds, all of which lessened the chances of injury when thrown.
At an early age, Hawaiian children played loulou, which consisted of hooking fingers or forearms and attempting to pull an adversary off-balance. In another version, two contestants sat facing each other with their legs intertwined and hands on each other’s shoulders or bodies. The object was to tip the opponent over sideways.
In honuhonu, two opponents sat face to face, hands on each other’s shoulders and knees touching. Then an attempt was made to rock each other off-balance. In kahau, wrestling was done on stilts.
Hakoko was a rugged form of wrestling in which the adversary was grabbed, then tripped with a foot. In this sport, brute strength counted most. Another form of lua martial arts, kaala, was described as “rough wrestling … rough-and-tumble tossing and gripping.”
Out of the variety of trials for supremacy by bodily contact, there evolved something resembling judo. Kuialua was one version of it. Whereas a simple bow suffices for the beginning of a modern judo match, the Hawaiians had an elaborate ritual called hoopapa. The two contestants exchanged repartee before engaging, shouting insults at each other as if entering into a kind of oratorical contest. Kulakulai was a sport that combined elements of boxing and wrestling. The antagonists pushed each other around, striking their palms against the chest of the opponent. The first one knocked down was the loser. Incidentally, an almost identical slapping technique is used today in sumo.
There are other marked similarities between Japanese and Hawaiian arts, one of which is kakalaau. It’s the Hawaiian art of stick fighting, and in many ways it is similar to kendo and bojutsu. In ancient Hawaii, kakalaau opponents used sticks 6 feet long, but unlike kendo, protective clothing was shunned. This similarity to the Japanese arts has not escaped the attention of others who have studied the Hawaiian self-defense methods. Charles W. Kenn, who comes from Hawaiian-Japanese ancestry, wrote a series of articles in the 1930s on the subject.
Charles W. Kenn found parallels between bushido, the code of chivalry in feudal Japan, and aloha. The latter word now brings to mind pretty Hawaiian girls draping lei around the necks of tourists, but in ancient Hawaii, it also meant fierce loyalty and unswerving obedience to the island king or clan chief. Charles W. Kenn subscribes to the theory that at some time prior to the discovery of Hawaii by Capt. Cook, one or more Japanese ships, or survivors of shipwrecks, reached Hawaii. If so, such arrivals may have passed on certain aspects of their own culture, including these martial arts techniques.
That line of reasoning, when followed to its utmost, leads to some intriguing conclusions. For instance, it’s pointed out that Buddhism, with its attendant mental and physical discipline, spread north from India through China and eventually to Japan. Some ethnologists believe that the Polynesian ethnic group also originated in India, perhaps around the Bay of Bengal. The Polynesians, however, spread east to Easter Island and Hawaii. It’s interesting to speculate that judo, jujutsu, karate, aikido, kendo—and lua—all had a common source.
The Lost Art of Lua
The decline and gradual extinction of lua and other local martial arts is often attributed to the influence of Christian missionaries, who arrived in 1820 bearing a more peaceful message. As a matter of fact, much of the old Hawaiian culture went into decline after their arrival. However, the cause of the decline is a little more complicated than that. Just before the arrival of the missionaries, the widow and son of Kamehameha I had abolished the taboo system. This bewildering system of prohibitions was so closely interwoven with idol worship and belief in multiple gods that the missionaries merely dealt the coup de grace to a dying culture.
True to their Yankee heritage, the missionaries laid great stress on education, and the Hawaiians took to literacy as they previously took to playing. Even old people enrolled in kindergartens, and between learning and making a living, there was little time left to devote to the martial sports. In any event, we may be assured that the missionaries who abolished infanticide and the hula wouldn’t take kindly to any contest that might entail maiming, bone-breaking or the dislocation of limbs. One final factor undoubtedly contributed to the fall of lua. That was the introduction of firearms. With guns, the Hawaiian kings found they had a substitute for the old hand-to-hand methods of defense.
But while lua martial arts and its related arts gradually died out, the legacy of violent defensive forms still hangs on. A recent example was the famous—or infamous, depending upon how you look at it—Emporado school of karate, which was so prominent only a short time ago. This type of lawless karate was so rugged that some students were reported to have fortified themselves with several stiff belts of liquor before class so they could endure the rough going-over they got from their instructors. With this type of background, it’s little wonder that today’s Hawaiians are so proficient in the modern—and more disciplined—Japanese martial arts.