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
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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