The Curious Case of Kinjo Sanda

The Curious Case of Kinjo Sanda
Photo Courtesy of James Moy

In print and online, Western readers are learning more and more about the characters who populated the early modern history of karate. While martial artists might know something of the lives of the famous Okinawan masters, other practitioners are just now emerging from the shadows. Very often they were amazing individuals who were eccentric, multitalented and fascinating.

Kanakushiku Sanda (c. 1841–1920) certainly fit that description. His Okinawan name was rendered as Kinjo Sanda in Japanese, but he’s better-known by the nickname Ufuchiku and the art he created, a fighting method that stressed the use of several traditional Okinawan weapons as well as empty-hand techniques. That fighting method goes by the name Ufuchiku ryu.

“Ufuchiku” is actually a title, one given to the top ranks of the police force of Shuri, the royal capital of Okinawa during Kinjo’s day. The city during that era was filled with native Okinawans, as well as Chinese, Japanese and Westerners, making it a bustling place of freewheeling markets and, not surprisingly, crime.

Fights were common. Police were frequently called to break up disturbances or prevent them from escalating. Kinjo, tall for an Okinawan and skilled in karate and his island’s weapon traditions, was a common figure in those disputes.

Kinjo specialized in the art of the sai. Probably in imitation of the Japanese police custom of carrying a jutte, many Okinawan cops carried a sai. It’s reasonable to assume that just the appearance of an officer like Kinjo, with his heavy metal sai, was enough to stop a lot of the brawling. (Both jutte and sai were symbols of law enforcement. Simply carrying one in one’s belt could be a deterrent to violence.)Kinjo’s family connections, along with his success as a policeman, earned him a job ensuring the security of Okinawa’s last king, Sho Tai. We often hear of such things, of martial artists who were bodyguards for royalty, but what did it really mean?

In Kinjo’s case, it meant that he, like the numerous servants in a British Edwardian house, was more a status symbol for the royal leader. The king had presided over an Okinawa that was increasingly attractive to foreign interests, much like the last emperor in China ruled in name only in the early 20th century. The king was a figurehead, and in 1879, after Japan annexed Okinawa, he was deposed and forced to live in exile in Tokyo. Kinjo was among those who accompanied him on the trip.

The most famous story of Kinjo’s life occurred on this voyage. The king took one of the renowned Ryukyuan horses from his stable, and Kinjo was assigned to care for it. The horse became seasick and stopped eating, and Kinjo, as a show of loyalty, elected not to eat for the remainder of the trip.

After returning from Tokyo, Kinjo resumed his career as a police official in Shuri. He also began teaching. At this point, it’s as if a fog descended on his life, one that let only stories and legends be discerned.

None of his five sons survived into adulthood. As a result, his students were those who came from outside his family and sought him out. No designated successor to his system was obvious because none was named by Kinjo.

His fighting methods were never actually codified into a coherent system. He taught in his yard in a relaxed, informal fashion. Different students specialized in what interested them. Some focused on the empty-hand techniques Kinjo used, others on the weapons.

There are questions regarding whether Kinjo actually developed his own methods for those weapons. Aside from his fondness for the sai, some have suggested that his interest in weaponry primarily revolved around those fighting tools he would have encountered during his police work and in how to deal with them.

One of Kinjo’s students may be partially or entirely fictional: a supposedly rough brawler named Takashiki. Another — Kina Shosei (1882–1981) — is known to have existed and taught the art he learned to many people, some of whom have carried on the tradition until today. Even so, the name of the system taught by Kinjo, Ufuchiku ryu, is entirely modern. Kinjo appeared never to have been interested in creating a school or formal art.

Among the things Kinjo taught was a particular technique that involved flipping the sai, and this still can be seen in some lineages. With the sai held in the “reverse” position, the shaft laid along the forearm, it’s usually flipped by letting the length of the weapon drop as the tip comes around in a circular motion.

Kinjo, however, kept the sai’s shaft completely horizontal as it rotated. His method makes the sai appear to be “cutting” as it spins. It’s an effective way of striking with the sai, though difficult to perform properly.

Perhaps it’s fitting that even the date and cause of Kinjo’s death are in some doubt. According to one account, Kinjo committed junshi, or ritual self-disembowelment performed to show loyalty to a leader by following him into death. But King Sho Tai died in 1901, while Kinjo lived until at least 1920. According to the story, Kinjo put off this suicide at the urging of fellow martial artists who asked him to remain alive long enough to pass on his art.

Kinjo’s granddaughter, however, insisted that he died of pneumonia around 1920.The man known as Ufuchiku lived an extraordinary life, one that spanned the history of karate as it morphed from a closely guarded secret of Okinawa into the art we know today. He seems to have had little enthusiasm for being known as a master, little more for passing along what he knew.

He was, as I said, a character.
Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit blackbeltmag.com and type his name into the search box.

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