Discover Lua, Hawaii’s Martial Art

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 …