Anko Azato was the primary teacher of the world’s most famous Karate instructor, Gichin Funakoshi. But Azato Sensei’s life is largely undocumented. In this article Simon Keegan delves into the man’s history and arranges a realistic timeline for the great Bushi.
BACKGROUND AND EARLY YEARS
Anko Azato 安里 安恒 was born in Azato village in 1827. His given name Anko can be pronounced Yasutsune in Japanese but it is doubtful he used this pronunciation. According to Funakoshi, “he used the pen name Rinkakusai when signing the plethora of literary compositions he authored” and “Since his youth Azato has been referred to as the child prodigy because he excelled in both the fighting traditions and in literary studies.”
Azato’s father was the local village chieftain, or according to Funakoshi, “held an honorable rank of Keimochi, not unlike that of a lower Daimyo in Japanese society.”
A Keimochi nobleman like Azato and his father
It is likely Azato began his martial arts training in about 1840 aged 13 since this would seem to be the accepted age to begin study. We know of no other teacher of Azato in Karate, other than one Sokon Matsumura and so it would seem this is who taught him.
MARTIAL ARTS STUDY
Funakoshi writes that Azato, “had diligently studied the martial arts under the strict tutelage of Masumura Soken. An advocate of the Chinese ways. Instruction under that taskmaster was always conducted early in the morning before dawn until the sun came up, without change or observation of holidays. During these times, Azato Sensei was also studying at the National school where he was peerless. Particularly, in the study of the Chinese classics, Azato was an honour student and received financial scholarship amounting to more than his tuition.”
So what did Matsumura teach him? In previous articles I have constructed a rough timeline for Matsumura:
1798: Sokon Matsumura is born
1810: Sokon Matsumura studies under Sakugawa and learns Kushanku
1816: Matsumura become a bodyguard
1818: Matsumura marries Yonamine
1828: Sokon Matsumura travels to China and studies Seishan under the Chinese master Iwah
1829: Kosaku Matsumora is born in Tomari
1832: Yasutsune Itosu is born
1834: Matsumura trains in Satsuma
1840: Seisho Aragaki is born
1840: Matsumura begins teaching Azato
1846: Matsumura begins teaching Itosu
1850: Ason comes to Okinawa and teaches Naihanchi to Sakiyama, Gushi and Tomoyori
1854: Anan (also known as Chinto) arrives in Tomari. He teaches Kosaku Matsumora.
It is believed Matsumura knew the forms Naihanchi and Bassai, more than likely Kushanku and probably a few others. But the kata that history most strongly links him with are Seisan and Useishi (Gojushiho). It seems likely Matsumura learnt these forms from Iwah in around 1828 so when Azato came to study with him in around 1840 he was probably an experienced teacher of them.
In addition to the information already presented I would now like to refer to quotes by Dan Smith Sensei (9th Dan) of the Seibukan, who has researched Chotoku Kyan’s Karate at length:
During research for the book on Kyan’s Karate we found that Chotoku Kyan’s father, Chofu, was a Motanaga at birth and was adopted into the Kyan family to preserve the family name. The importance of this is that when Chotoku (Motanaga) Kyan wrote a self biography for the Ryukyu Shimpo in 1943 he gave the account of his karate training. His article revealed that he studied from an early age with his grandfather and father. He was taken to Sokon Matsumura at the age of 16 (1886) for further studies. The only kata he learned during a two year period was Gojushiho.
He gave a detailed account of his two year training with Matsumura at the garden dojo where Matsumura was conducting training. We also found during the research, conducted by the Kyan Research group of Kadena, that [Chotoku] Kyan’s father was a student of Matsumura (once we understood that Kyan had been a Motonaga we found the records of his training) and he was 25 years senior to Azato and 16 years senior to Itosu. The research assisted in our understanding that Chotoku Kyan had learned Seisan prior to his training with Matsumura and that this Seisan came from his father through Matsumura.
OTHER MARTIAL ARTS TRAINING: KENJUTSU, KYUDO AND BAJUTSU
Gichin Funakoshi writes: “Excelling in various martial arts, Sensei was particularly fond of horsemanship, which he studied under Megata Sensei, the trainer who groomed the Meiji Emperor himself. Sensei apparently decided to pursue Megata’s tutelage because his horsemanship was the trendy style being introduced from the West, which really appealed to a stalwart like Azato. Master Azato first observed Megata giving a lesson to a few students on the grounds next to the Hirakawa Emperor’s gate. Mr. Megata could tell that Sensei wanted to give the new saddle a try but was too modest to ask, so the trainer asked him instead. With some coaxing, Sensei finally accepted and was applauded by Megata for his brilliant performance and command over the reins. I think that Azato was a perfect example of the expression, “A person who excels in one thing can excel at everything.”
Kyujutsu and Kenjutsu
“Sensei also loved archery and diligently studied under Master Sekiguchi, and like his teacher (Matsumura Sokon) before him, so did Azato study Jigen Ryu swordsmanship directly under the noted Japanese instructor Ishuin Yashichiro. However, among all the combative disciplines, it was the swordsmanship of Jigenryu that Sensei most favored. I remember that whenever Sensei got excited he used to say to me, “I’m ready to compete anytime if the opponent is serious.” In my opinion, Sensei was peerless in karate but judging by his preoccupation with Jigen Ryu, swordsmanship was his real passion.”
PICTURES OF AZATO
No specified picture of Azato has survived or if one has, it hasn’t reached the wider public. However, an early picture of Gichin Funakoshi and students has inset pictures of two distinguished gentlemen on there. and I believe them to be Itosu and Azato. Let’s start with the picture which is from 1922:
I propose the instructor on the left is Azato and on the right, Itosu (Funakoshi is seated in the middle wearing a Judogi top).
Let’s compare the pic of Itosu to other images of the man:
Let’s compare once again:
I would suggest that this image is certainly Itosu and therefore it figures that Funakoshi would pay tribute to his other teacher on the other side. Therefore the other man could very well be Azato:
THE DESCENDANTS OF AZATO
Gichin Funakoshi told us that he and Azato’s son Anri would go and train with Itosu together. But what became of Azato’s son? If we imagine he was born between Azato’s 16th and 40th birthdays, he would have been born between 1843 and 1867 . Because Funakoshi was born in 1868, we suggest Azato’s son may have been born closer to that date. If Azato’s son was born in the 1860s, then his children would have been born in around the 1890s or early 1900s.
That grandson, named Yoriyuki, became a Karate teacher and moved to Japan. There the name Azato became Yorisato. He was close to Funakoshi and so probably taught in around the 1930s-1950s. In turn his son in law has taken the mantle of the school, which is known as Shobukan (not to be confused with the Shobukan of Bushinkai’s mentor Shihan Handyside).
A FAMILY RESEMBLANCE?
THE FIGHTING REPERTOIRE OF AZATO
“His home virtually looked like one big training facility. Both standing and hanging makiwara (impact training equipment) were located in various rooms of the Azato residence…”
…along with other training equipment, which included wooden cudgels (club) and swords of various configurations, a wooden-man, stone weights, iron balls for grip-strength development…”
“…shield and machete, flails, iron truncheons, and even a wooden horse for mounting practice and archery spotting. Master Azato had created a living environment where he could train at anytime and anywhere he liked.”
A SHORT STORY ABOUT MY TEACHER BY GICHIN FUNAKOSHI (TRANSLATER BY PATRICK McCARTHY)
“One night a burglar broke into Sensei’s residence, apparently not being aware of whose house it was. Had the burglar known that it was the home of Azato he would have never entered. Being awoken by noises in the house, Sensei knew that someone had broken into the house and jumped out of bed in an effort to apprehend the intruder. Coming face-to-face with the perpetrator in the living room it only took a moment to recognize that, in spite of dwarfing the man in size, Sensei was unable to capture the man. Moving with the agility of a gymnast, the man virtually bounced off the furniture, out the window, onto the wall surrounding the house and onto the roof of the house next door. Sensei gave chase but to no avail, as the man escaped without a trace. Later Sensei came to learn that a man well known for testing the skills of those considered masterful staged the incident. Such things often happened during Okinawa’s old Ryukyu kingdom.
“One day Sensei and his good friend, Itosu Ankoh, were confronted by a small throng of 20 or 30 young men. Seriously mismatched, and in a less than accommodating location, the two decided to bolt taking refuge in a nearby house. At least there they could wait until the throng decided to disperse and leave, or fight them on more equal terms. Wound up an set upon fighting, the young men swarmed over the house like bees to a hive. During their assault on the house Azato leaped out from the window and surprised the hoodlums when he began to dispatch them. Engaging the gang on the other side of the house, Master Itosu was able to quickly discourage anyone else from continuing to act foolishly.
“In spite of using only a single blow to dispatch each of the hoodlums that he confronted, Azato’s defense was brutally effective, leaving some of the young offenders seriously injured. In contrast to Azato’s confrontation, Itosu left more victims lying around the back of the house, but seriously injured no one. Judging by this anecdote one might be able to better understand the varying ways in which two experts might handle the same dangerous situation.
“Mister Azato was well known for his incredible strength. When he was just 17 years old he walked to his home from Kyozuka, a distance of 4 km, carrying two large stones weighing more than 30 kg each on his shoulders. Such tests of strength often took place on the moonlit footpaths of old Okinawa when young men sought to establish reputations for themselves performing various feats of strength and bravery. Sensei was one such man and his awesome reputation for strength and technique earned him so much respect that he was referred to as Bushi Azato.”