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PASmith's picture

After recently doing a seminar with Iain on karate gripping and ground fighting I was wondering whether tegumi still exists in Okinawa? What's it like? What sources do we have on what tegumi was like when karate was being formed? How does it differ now?

A google search of tegumi mostly brings up modern karateka doing lots of tegumi inspired drills but not much on tegumi itself as far as I can see.

Wastelander's picture

As I understand it, from people who have been to Okinawa frequently, and even lived there, tegumi is still practiced here and there, usually in rural towns, and they rarely call it "tegumi"--the term "muto" is apparently much more common. I'm guessing "tegumi" might have been a more modern term, or more "proper." It seems like it is still pretty much as-described by Funakoshi and Nagamine, so basically a no-gi, folkstyle submission wrestling contest, although it didn't sound like teaching it is a very formal thing. I get the impression it's kind of like your uncle teaching you how to do a sleeper hold when you're a kid so you can pull it out when you're wrestling with your friends. I doubt I'll see it on my upcoming trip to Okinawa, since we have a very precise itinerary, but hopefully the next time I go, I can explore more widely.

As for the "tegumi" that comes up in searches, you are likely seeing Patrick McCarthy's tegumi drills which, honestly, as far as I can tell, have nothing to do with the tegumi described by Funakoshi and Nagamine, and much more in common with kakidi/kakie practices.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

PASmith wrote:
What sources do we have on what tegumi was like when karate was being formed? How does it differ now?

Funakoshi describes the tegumi of his youth as being a “primitive sport” with “few rules”. This section from Karate-Do: My Way of Life describes it:

I should like to say a few words about another local Okinawan sport, not only because it provided me with many hours of fun when I was young but also because I believe it helped me develop that muscular strength that is so useful in karate.

The sport I am talking about is wrestling. But, you will say, people wrestle all over the world. Children begin to play at wrestling almost as soon as they are old enough to play at anything. Ah, but Okinawan wrestling has certain unique features. As with karate, its origins are unknown, and many Okinawans suppose that there must have been a relationship of sorts between the two.

The Okinawan name for our style of wrestling is tegumi, and should you write the word, you would use the same two Chinese characters that are used to write karate’s kumite, except that they are reversed. Tegumi is, of course, a far simpler and more primitive sport than karate. In fact, there are few rules except for certain prohibitions: the use of fists, for example, to strike an opponent, or the use of the feet and the legs to kick him. Nor are opponents permitted to grab each other’s hair or pinch one another. Prohibited also are the sword hand and the elbow blow used in karate.

Unlike most forms of wrestling, in which the participants are lightly clad, entrants in tegumi bouts remain fully clothed. Further, there is no special ring; the bout may be held anywhere—inside the house or in some nearby field. I should note that when I was young the outdoors was generally the scene for tegumi bouts because they tend to get rather lively and our parents did not like to see sliding paper doors and tatami mats damaged. Of course, when we held a bout in a field, we first had to remove all the rocks and stones that are a prevailing feature of the Okinawan rural scene.

The bout begins, as sumo does, with the two opponents pushing against each other. Then, as it proceeds, grappling and throwing techniques are used. One that I recall well was very similar to the ebigatama [“shrimp-hold” aka “Boston crab”] of today’s professional wrestling. When I watch wrestling on television nowadays, I am often reminder of the tegumi of my Okinawan youth.

The referees were usually boys who acted also as seconds to the opponents, their principal role being to ensure that neither participant was seriously injured or knocked unconscious. To stop the fight, all that any boy who felt he had had enough needed to do was to pat his opponent’s body. Some boys, however, were so dauntless that they would go on fighting until they were knocked out. In such cases, it would be the duty of the referee to try to stop the bout before that happened.

Like every other Okinawan boy, I spent many happy hours engaging in or watching tegumi bouts, but it was after I had taken up karate seriously that I came to realize that tegumi offers a unique opportunity for training, in that it need not be limited to two participants. One (usually, of course, an older and stronger boy) may take on two or three opponents or as many as he feels up to.

Such bouts begin with the lone wrestler lying down flat on his back, his opponents pinning down his arms and legs. Once I had determined to become a karateka, I used to get four or five younger boys to wrestle with me, believing that such bouts would strengthen my arm and leg muscles as well as those of the stomach and the hips. I cannot now say how much tegumi actually contributed to my mastery of karate, but I am certain that it helped fortify my will.

For example, I seldom had any great difficulty thrusting back a single opponent, but my difficulties increased greatly as the number of my opponents increased. Then, if I attacked one opponent, the other would find an opening in which to attack me. It is hard to think of a better way than this to learn how to defend oneself against more than one opponent, and if it sounds like nothing but a children’s game, I can assure you that those of us who engaged in it took it very seriously.

From what I hear, tegumi is once again becoming popular with the children of Okinawa—and the thought does not make me happy at all. The reason is that where we used to casually chuck rocks and stones out of the way to make an arena for ourselves, the children in today’s Okinawa may instead encounter shells or unexploded bombs left over on that bloody battlefield of the Pacific War. That possibility is a very heart-breaking thing to ponder.

Shoshin Nagamine’s book Tales of Okinanwa’s Great Masters has a section where specifically talks about renown practitioners of Tegumi. He discusses the evolution of the sport and while taking about post-war tegumi he states:

“It is true that the development of weight divisions has revolutionised the native Okinawan wrestling tradition of Tegumi … However, I wonder what might happen to the discipline if weight divisions were to be eliminated all together? Would there be resurgence of classical grappling? Would the athletes of today be forced to cumulate their techniques like those who walked before them … the stalwarts of old-style Okinawan Tegumi?”

He also includes some writing from an article written by a Kushino Taro called Post-War Sumo in Okinawa:

“Sumo in post war Okinawa seems to lack the technique when compared to wrestling before the war. However, there can be no question that the attitude of the athletes has greatly improved.”

Nagamine himself also comments on the post war development of Tegumi, including:

“it’s rules and regulations were in need of revision … Moreover, the old Chinese characters were replaced with modern characters in an effort to enhance its image.”

It seems that Tegumi underwent a name change just as karate did (“Chinese-hand” to “empty-hand”). So, Tegumi lost a lot of its techniques, had standardised rules introduced, and evolved into today’s “Shima” or “Okinawan Sumo”. You can see that here:


Here is some more footage from just a few years ago:


It, therefore, seems it has followed a very similar path to karate in that its modern sporting incarnation is quite different from the more “all in” system it developed from. It now looks to be a throwing only sport from a fixed grip. However, the older descriptions point to something much more open with striking, hairpulling and pinching being the main things that were prohibited. Old Tegumi did allow submissions and locks such that the win was determined by tapping out; whereas modern Shima determines the winner by getting the opponent’s back to touch the floor. Funakoshi pointing to multiple opponent variants also shows that Tegumi was much wider in scope than its modern expression.

All the best,


deltabluesman's picture

That is very interesting.  It also makes me wonder if this had an impact on kata design.  After I started exploring the fundamentals of wrestling, I discovered that it really helped the kata bunkai come to life for me.  The applications were easier to see and I also had a better idea of how to set them up.  If it was historically common for Okinawan youths of a certain social class to have exposure to wrestling (or even significant experience with it), that might be a useful piece of information to keep in mind when exploring kata bunkai.  If I were a teacher and I knew that 70 to 80% of my class had at least rudimentary wrestling skills, that would definitely skew the way I structured my curriculum and solo drills.

I've commented on this before, but I've also seen evidence in kata bunkai of the creators possessing what I would consider to be a substantial level of wrestling skill.  For example, the powerful throw at the end of Kanku-Dai (a variation of the fireman's carry).  If Kushanku (who I understand to be of Chinese origin) had a strong background in shuai jiao, it would be interesting to think of how that might have influenced his teachings and syllabus.

I also wonder whether standing armbars were a common feature of old-style tegumi.  If so, perhaps that's why we see defenses against them included in the kata (i.e., Heian Sandan and Ji'in).  Similarly, if there were some relationship between tegumi and karate, perhaps that's why we see such an emphasis on wrist grab defense and lapel grab defense in the kata.  Those are useful skills outside the context of jacket wrestling, but they take on an entirely new level of importance when you are fighting someone who has some awareness of using your lapel or wrist to set up a takedown or hold.         

Just a few speculative considerations.  I confess that I don't know much about the history of karate.

Marc's picture

deltabluesman wrote:

Similarly, if there were some relationship between tegumi and karate, perhaps that's why we see such an emphasis on wrist grab defense and lapel grab defense in the kata.  Those are useful skills outside the context of jacket wrestling, but they take on an entirely new level of importance when you are fighting someone who has some awareness of using your lapel or wrist to set up a takedown or hold.

It's an intereseting thought. If tegumi wrestling was broadly practiced, one would expect assailants ("villains and ruffians") to fall back on this kind of grappling when under stress, i.e. when victims defend themselves. It then makes sense for the defender to have action plans ready against typical grappling attempts. Maybe a few more than might seem necessary for us today where experience in wresting is not so common. I agree that katas are full of (anti-)grappling (anti-)takedown methods.

All the best,


Anf's picture

This is a very interesting topic. From what I can gather from the posts herein, tegumi is in fact, play fighting. And by that I mean no disrespect at all. According to Iain's post above, Funakoshi noted that kids have been wrestling for as long as they could play anything. This is true. I wrestle my kids and they wrestle each other. No rules except that nothing that is likely to deliberately hurt. That's play fighting.

I'd be interested to know which edition of karate do kyohan that description is in though. I've read the version I have from cover to cover but not seen that section. I think my edition is pretty recent. Perhaps it's an older edition that describes it?