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Kentsu Yabu

Kentsu Yabu

     Kentsu Yabu was commonly knows as "Gunso", or sergeant, a reference to his career in the Japanese Imperial Army.  Apparently he went past the rank of sergeant to become a 2nd lieutenant, and the ability to make his way in the Japanese Army suggests a certain strength of character and aptitude for military life. The Okinawans had never been a military people and the older generation opposed all forms of military service. The conscription laws enforced throughout the rest of Japan in 1873 were not extended to Okinawa till 1898. Even then the proportion of islanders rejected for service because of illiteracy, shortness, and so on, was the highest of any Japanese prefecture. Those few who had served under the harsh discipline of Japanese army life were generally much tougher than the average Okinawan.

     It is said that Yabu saw action on the Chinese battlefront during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894/5. He would have been 27 years old at the time, so that is quite possible. Unfortunately it may now be too late to dig out any details on this part of his life.

     Mitsusuke Harada told me that he had talked to a Mr. Tamashiro an Okinawan who had been a lieutenant in the Japanese army in the same regiment as Yabu had served in as a matter of fact. Tamashiro said that in Yabu's time the Okinawans serving in the Army had been a lowly regarded minority. They would often be victimised and beaten. Kentsu Yabu would not stand for this and fought back. Incidents occurred which led to an official investigation. Yabu was cleared of all blame and became a hero to his fellow Okinawans.

     According to Hiroyasu Tamae, when Yabu was a sergeant he was challenged to fight by another soldier. When the man attacked, Yabu struck him - killing him instantly. There was an enquiry and the investigating officer, who had heard of Okinawa's karate, asked Yabu if he had used that technique. Yabu replied that he had struck with the open palm, not the fist. If he had used his fist, he explained, the opponent's ribs would have been smashed. He was ordered to strike a nearby tree using his fist. The tree split where he had struck it, greatly surprising the investigating officer. The outcome of all this was that the cause of death was never made clear in the official report and Yabu's career was unaffected.

     Tamae could not have had any personal knowledge of this story. It must have been circulating in the Okinawan karate world for some years and no doubt it grew in the telling. What the truth actually was, and whether Yabu ever did kill anyone using karate, would now be impossible to establish.

     The reference to Yabu's palm strike is interesting though, because he was supposed to be an expert in open handed techniques. His favourite kata was 'Gojushiho' which contains a variety of open-hand waza: Shinken Gima recalled: "When I was a student in Okinawa my karate teacher was master Kentsu Yabu. Master Yabu showed us nukite (finger thrusts) techniques, in which he was an exceptional expert. But he told us, 'For you it is too difficult and dangerous to do as I do, so in place of nukite you are much better using the closed fist'."

     Yabu, big and broad shouldered, was regarded throughout Okinawa as a powerful karateka and genuine expert. He once defeated Choki Motobu - "the feared Choki Motobu" as Shinken Gima called him - although again, the details are not clear. The American martial artist and author Dave Lowry has written that this was not in a karate contest but rather in a bout of tegumi - an Okinawan form of wrestling. In Lowry's account Yabu was able to pin Motobu after a contest lasting twenty minutes.

     When he retired from the Army, Yabu Sensei became a teacher for the Cadet Force at the Okinawa School for Teachers. He taught karate to students for many years and his army experience in handling large bodies of men must have been useful in organizing classes. For generations before this karate had been taught in secret and a master would have only a few students, sometimes only one. With the introduction of karate into the educational system a means had to be found of instructing larger classes, and in fact Harada Sensei suggested to me that the "militarization" of karate teaching might be traced back to Gunso Yabu. "Militarization" is not meant in a negative sense but rather refers to the training of large classes by repeating techniques to a count.

     At any rate, Yabu's teaching was disciplined and testing. He stressed repetition and mastery of one kata before moving onto the next. Shinken Gima, who entered the school for teachers in 1911 remembered that, although he knew the order of several kata, he trained only in 'Nai-hanchi' during the five years he was there. Yabu told the students that they should do 10,000 kata per year, or almost 30 kata every day!

     There should be photos of Kentsu Yabu in his prime, but so far I have not been able to trace any. He does appear in a well known group portrait taken in the 1930s, but his clothes hang loosely on his once powerful frame and he is only a shell of his former self. He was seriously ill, but here too his self-discipline and strength of character were evident.

     "He retired from the teachers' school with tuberculosis," wrote Hiroyasu Tamae, "yet strangely I used to see him every morning at the same time. I say strangely because at that time tuberculosis was a virulent disease and 99% of the people who contracted it died. People who suffered from it were depressed not only physically but spiritually too. This did not happen with Yabu Sensei. Every morning he would get up and enjoy a walk. Sometimes he would have to stop to cough up blood and phlegm, and on such occasions he would shout "go to hell!" before turning back for home. I was very impressed by Yabu Sensei and how he fought this disease."

     "His appearance was so lamentable at this time - he looked just like a corpse. It was so sad to see him like this, but looking back, maybe I shouldn't have felt that way. I think that in his silent walks taken the same time every morning, Yabu Sensei achieved Satori (enlightenment)."

Master Yabu died in 1937 at the age of 74.

* from Seinenkai


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