Early history

Kanbun Uechi studied Pangai-noon (half-hard, half-soft) under Shu Shiwa (ja:周子和) in the Fujian (also romanized as Fukien) province of mainland China in the late 19th century and early 20th century. After studying 10 years under Shushiwa, Kanbun Uechi opened his own school in Nanjing. Three years later, Kanbun Uechi returned to Okinawa, determined never to teach again because one of his Chinese students had killed a neighbor with an open-hand technique in a dispute over land irrigation.

After Kanbun’s return to Okinawa, Mr. Gokenki, the Chinese tea merchant, and former friend and student, often visited Okinawa on business.[5] He soon located his friend and teacher, and tried to persuade him to teach again. With the possibility that his recent connections with Chinese training might help to identify him as a draft-evader, Kanbun refused to teach.[5]

In 1912, Gokenki set up a tea shop.[5] Mr. Gokenki made no secret of his preference for Chinese-style training and its superiority over other Okinawan methods.[5]He got into a brawl with another karate teacher from Naha, and defeated him.[5] After this defeat, the reputation of several other teachers and systems were at stake to save face and challenged Gokenki, but none were able to beat him.[5] Prospective students began to show up asking Gokenki for instruction. Gokenki made it known that his teacher in China was actually an Okinawan after all, and lived on the northern end of the island.[5]

Martial artists would visit Kanbun in Izumi with a letter of introduction from Gokenki looking for instruction.[5] Kanbun would reply to the prospective students that they must have mistaken him for someone else.[5] These men in turn disclosed Gokenki’s whereabouts and Kanbun then sometimes visited Gokenki at the Eiko Tea Store located in Naha.[5] Gokenki highly praised Kanbun’s consummate skills in Kung-Fu technique to his customers.[6] Uechi was consequently known as a Chinese Kung-Fu expert to the martial artists in the Naha vicinity.[5]

Finally, the townspeople with Mr. Gokenki confronted Kanbun, and Kanbun could not deny his identity any longer. Kanbun still denied showing anyone karate and offered no explanation.[5] The question of draft-evasion never came up, and Kanbun was never indicted.[5] He continued to farm his land as if he had never been away,[5] and taught bo-staff technique at village gatherings and festivals but no karate.[7]

Every year in Okinawa, the Motobu police department held a large celebration.[5] It was customary for all the local schools to demonstrate their skills.[5] Tricking Kanbun into attending this demonstration, the idea came up to have the mayor of Motobu announce that Kanbun Uechi would demonstrate by performing a Kata.[5]They were anxious to see proof of his ability, and so saw to it that he was seated so near to the stage, that if he refused the mayor’s request, he would lose face.[5]The plot worked, for when the mayor asked Kanbun to demonstrate, the other teachers who were standing close by playfully pushed Kanbun onto the stage.[5] With so many people watching there was no escape for Kanbun.[5] There was applause, then silence. Kanbun was furious, but quiet. He hesitated for just a moment, then, with eyes glaring, he performed his favorite kata Seisan, fast and beautifully, with strength and power.[5] Knowing he had been tricked, he jumped from the stage and stormed out of the building. The karate portion of the day’s festivities had come to an unscheduled end—no one else wished to follow Kanbun’s demonstration.[5]The incident confirmed his standing as a highly respected instructor. Consequently, he was offered an immediate post at the teacher’s training college by Itosu Anko (1813 – 1915), a great karate expert from the Shorin-Ryu system and a karate professor at the teacher’s college in Okinawa. Kanbun politely refused.[5][8]

Kanbun Uechi then left for Japan to find employment. While he was working as a janitor he was persuaded by a co-worker, Ryuyu Tomoyose, to teach again after having been first convinced to show Tomoyose ways of defending himself against different attacks. When his confidence as a teacher was restored, Uechi, with the help of Ryuyu Tomoyose, moved to Wakayama City, Wakayama Prefecture, where, in 1925, he established the Institute of Pangainun-ryū Todi-jutsu (パンガイヌーン流唐手術), and opened a dojo to the public. Eventually, in 1940, his Okinawan students renamed the system as “Uechi-Ryū Karate-jutsu” (上地流空手術) in his honor.

Grandmaster Kanbun Uechi

Kanbun Uechi’s son, Kanei Uechi, taught the style at the Futenma City Dojo, Okinawa, and was considered the first Okinawan to sanction teaching foreigners. One of Kanbun’s students, Ryuko Tomoyose, taught a young American serviceman namedGeorge Mattson who authored several books on the subject and is largely responsible for popularizing the style in America. Uechi-Ryū emphasizes toughness of body with quick blows and kicks. Some of the more distinctive weapons of Uechi practitioners are the one-knuckle punch (shoken), spearhand (nukite), and the toe kick (sokusen geri). On account of this emphasis on simplicity, stability, and a combination of linear and circular movements, proponents claim the style is more practical for self-defense than most other martial arts.

In contrast to the more linear styles of karate based on Okinawan Shuri-te or Tomari-te, Uechi-Ryū’s connection with Chinese Nanpa Shorin-ken means the former shares a similar foundation with Naha-Te (and thus with Goju-Ryū) despite their separate development.[9] Thus, Uechi-Ryū is also heavily influenced by the circular motions which belong to the kung fu from Fujian province. Uechi-Ryū is principally based on the movements of 3 animals: the Tiger, the Dragon, and the Crane.