Who was Matsumura Sōkon?

The origin of Karate can be traced to Okinawa, an island in Japan, where Chinese settlers brought in the art of Kempo. Okinawa is also where Sokon Matsumura was born, circa 1809. The legendary warrior is said to have been the true founder of the karate we know and love today. Matsumura Sokon was born Kiyo Sokon, but he became known as Matsumura.

During his martial arts career, he came to be regarded as the absolute best at karate and kobujutsu, or weaponry. Born into an aristocratic family, Matsumura was equally adept in martial arts and intellectual pursuits.  He is credited with founding the Okinawan Karate ShorinRyuschool. He structured the Shuri-Te style, an indigenous Okinawan martial art and the forerunner of Shorin Ryu, into a more complex martial arts system. Shorin Ryu karate has persisted to the present day thanks to this method.

From 1821 until 1825, Matsumura began learning a form of karate that had been developed at the time by his father. He also mastered kumite and bojutsu. Matsumura picked up on the importance of a concept known as ‘Bun Bu Ryo Do,’ which means the capacity to balance both the physical and mental aspects of training.

Matsumura’s prowess as a fighter brought him fame across Okinawa. Matsumura had established himself as a martial arts master even at a young age. He was hired by the Royal family of Okinawa and given a gentry title.  As per the custom of the time for those who served as Royal Guards, Matsumura’s surname was altered from Kiyo to Matsumura. He started off by working for King Sho Ko and lasted through the reigns of King Sho Iku and King Sho Tai as well. During Sho Iku’s time, Matsumura rose to become his personal bodyguard as well as the primary martial arts instructor of the area.

He is the subject of several epic tales in Okinawan history. It might be challenging to distinguish reality from fiction when it comes to the vivid stories of the numerous adventures that are credited to him. Matsumura’s title was “bushi”, which means warrior, and this is where he is said to have gotten it:

The best-known tale involving Matsumura is during the rule of King Sho Ko. According to legend, the monarch created a yearly celebration that featured bullfights as well as martial arts to amuse the people. It quickly rose to the list of the year’s most significant occasions. It was before one such celebration that the monarch decided that he wanted Matsumura, already an established and well-known fighter, to engage in combat with a splendid bull he had acquired from the Japanese Emperor. The fight would take place at Aizo Shuri, and the townspeople were excited about it.

When Matsumura learned of the king’s proclamation, he immediately proceeded to the royal stables to find the bull keeper. The bull keeper was completely astounded to see Matsumura, a legendary figure, in his home. Right away, Matsumura asked him to see the bull. Starstruck, the bull keeper began to lead Matsumura to the stable. It was then that the fighter asked him two things: one, to not tell anyone of his visit, and two, to make sure the bull was tightly bound. The bull keeper agreed to Matsumura’s terms and watched the warrior don his combat gear, mask, and helmet. 

He cautiously entered the corral before approaching the bull, making sure that it was properly restrained. Seeing that the bull could barely move, Matsumura pulled out a long, thin needle from his pocket. Aiming for the bull’s delicate nose, he pushed the needle into its skin. The bull bellowed loudly, and its rage had it tossing and turning, trying desperately to attack Matsumura. Its efforts were in vain: Matsumura had him bound and helpless. He returned every day with his uniform and mask on, using the needle on the bull each time.

Finally, the day of the annual festivities arrived. People gathered to Aizo-Shuri from all across Okinawa, and even beyond. Everyone was having a good time, and nobody was thinking about their daily troubles. They were all ready and riled up for Matsumura’s battle with the magnificent bull of the monarch. Which was sure to be the most amazing spectacle ever seen. A moment of anticipatory stillness was broken by a shout of approval as the bull entered the arena. It was a gorgeous beast in every way. So much so that it seemed like an impossible feat to overcome it.

The crowd started cheering as the bull scratched the earth and bellowed viciously. Then, Matsumura made his entrance into one of the corners of the arena. He approached the bull gently while wearing his helmet mask, full combat gear, and other protective accessories. The general crowd watched in total quiet waiting eagerly for him to make his move. The bull’s eyes were blazing as he prepared to charge; however, as soon as he got a whiff of Matsumura’s scent, he screamed, turning and running away as fast as he had charged in.

The audience couldn’t get enough, and the entire arena burst into applause. It was an unmatched performance. Even the monarch was astounded and wondered how Matsumura had managed to make the bull flee without even raising a hand. When he was able to gather himself, he announced that by royal decree, Matsumura would now be referred to as ‘Bushi’ in acknowledgment of his exceptional martial arts prowess.

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