Secret Oath

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Secret Oath

Postby HanshiClayton » Sat Apr 09, 2011 8:04 pm

This is a section from Shotokan's Secret, the First Edition. Someone asked about this subject, so I'm posting it here.

By the way, there is a lot of material in the first edition that was struck from the second edition. The best policy is to own both books.

10.5 Oath of Secrecy
During the height of the Shuri crucible, Matsumura’s agents acted like a resistance group or an organized crime ring. They lived double lives. They met in secret in the middle of the night. They kept their karate hidden from public view (and doubly hidden from the Satsuma overlords). If their activities had been discovered, they might have paid with their lives.243

In his thirty years with Matsumura, and the twenty years following, Itosu must have attended or led about 15,000 karate practice sessions. People who train together for years usually become good friends with many shared experiences. They have many stories to tell about one another. I could show you wonderful dojo stories from the Shoto-kan,244 for instance, but karate historians can tell us next to nothing about the 20 years of training conducted in Itosu’s home. We know the Shuri masters practiced in secret, but why were their students still silent about the training half a lifetime later?

Wouldn’t Matsumura have sworn his agents to silence? Severe vows of silence were a part of Okinawan karate tradition.245 “I swear on my family honor to protect the house of Sho and to keep all its secrets.” The oath would affirm fealty to the king. They would have sworn never to reveal their security plans, and never to let their secret techniques become public. It would have been a binding oath and a blood oath, and they would have kept it. That explains most of the silence. The bodyguards promised not to talk about their work, and they didn’t.

In this context, let’s return to the story of Itosu and Choki Motobu. Every time Itosu taught Motobu a new technique, Motobu would pick a fight with someone on the street to try it out. Itosu expelled Motobu from his class. The usual explanation is that Itosu would not tolerate an irresponsible brawler. The question is, was Motobu expelled for brawling, or was he cast out for disregarding the vow of secrecy? Itosu’s other students were very careful not to demonstrate Shuri-te in public, even if it meant walking away from a fight.246

Why, then, did Itosu suddenly start teaching karate in public in 1902? Doesn’t that contradict the whole idea of a secret oath? He went from secret practices to public classes almost overnight. Here’s an abbreviated timeline of events following the end of the Sho dynasty:

  • 1879 – King Sho Tai forced to abdicate.
  • 1880-1900 – Itosu teaches secretly for 20 years.
  • 1902-1906 – Itosu teaches karate in public schools.

For twenty years after Sho Tai left, Itosu treated karate as a secret art to be practiced only in the dead of night with just a dozen hand-picked students. Then suddenly in 1902 Itosu reversed this policy and went public, teaching karate in broad daylight to large classes of public-school students. This was a stunning reversal of policy that demands an explanation.

What does this have to do with a secret oath? Let me reissue the timeline with one more date inserted.

  • 1879 – King Sho Tai forced to abdicate.
  • 1880-1900 – Itosu teaches secretly for 20 years.
  • 1901 – King Sho Tai dies in exile.
  • 1902-1906 – Itosu teaches karate in public schools.

Itosu kept his oath of secrecy until the king he swore to defend had died. Then he went public. That coincidence is too forceful to ignore. The death of the king changed the rules. Itosu acted differently afterwards. I think he was released from his oath.

243 Funakoshi, 1975, p. 4.
244 Nicol, C.W., Moving Zen, William Morrow & Co., 1975.
245 Haines, 1995, p. 90-91.
246 Funakoshi, 1975, p. 49-51. After the moon-viewing party, Itosu and his students retraced their steps and took the long way home to avoid the gang that wanted to fight them.

This section was superseded in the second edition by a much stronger theory, that the Heian applications were so obviously anti-Japanese that revealing them would have killed karate and quite a few of its practitioners. Once you see the Heian applications, the danger of revealing them becomes very clear. However, this in no way invalidates the above section. it simply supplies the reason behind the secrecy.
Bruce D. Clayton, Ph.D.
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