31. Aoinagi: The Name

Jason Adler of the UCSD dojo asks the following question:

“I have been training at the UCSD dojo for approximately six years (on and off due to school) and was wondering why you chose Aoinagi to be the basis of your school. Also, what is the history of this kata?”

The answer to the first question, “why you chose Aoinagi to be the basis of your school,” lies in the fabulous tenacity of the green willow trees. I have explained this more fully in “Nuggets” pages 52 and 90.

“Aoi” means green. “Nagi” or “yagi” means willow tree. Put together the meaning of the name is “Green Willow” or “Green Willow Tree.” The kata may also be pronounced Seiryu. “Sei” is the Chinese way of saying “aoi” or green. “Ryu” is the Chinese way of saying “yagi” or willow tree. Thus you may hear the kata referred to as “Aoinagi”, “Aoyagi”, or “Seiryu.”

Our schools are not generally referred to as Seiryu Karate because Americans use a phonetic writing system. It is difficult for Americans to understand how Aoinagi and Seiryu are the same word. In Japan the names are equivalent so Aoinagi Karate is Seiryu Karate also.

The idea of the persistence to life that the willow exhibits appealed to me when I was looking for a name for our schools. The restraint of a persistently green, living non-violent willow tree was so much more appealing to me than a name like Flaming Dragon Karate, or American Karate or even Big Bear Karate. I liked the tenacity, persistence, non-violence, and will-to-live. So I chose the name.

Aoinagi kata had existed for more than 50 years when I selected the name. I knew the kata and I liked its simple means of expression of persistence. Choosing the name from among one of the 54 kata in the system just seemed right for me and so I did it, rather than create an altogether new name for our schools.

This is what I have been told of the history of the kata: In 1915 Kenwa Mabuni went on a musha-shugyo, sent on it by his instructor Yasutsune Itosu. During this musha-shugyo he was required to do a considerable amount of rowing in a boat. One evening he put ashore with his boat and pitched a camp. During the night he was attacked by a fairly large group of scoundrels. He dispatched the leaders quickly and the rest escaped. Knowing they would return he took refuge further inland where there was a large stand of willow bushes. During the night the scoundrels returned, this time quite heavily armed. Mabuni quietly hid in the willows. Some accounts say he took the scoundrels out one by one but they could never find him. Other accounts say he just remained hidden in the willows until the morning. I guess it really doesn’t matter much which he did that one night more than 80 years ago other than that he gained a real appreciation for the willows which hid him.

He returned home and asked people about willow trees. He soon found many of their qualities admirable. They grow everywhere and are persistent. If you dig them out they come back. If you burn them to the ground, they come back. There appeared to be no good way to destroy them permanently. He studied the willows of Okinawa. He lived among them. He learned all he could.

Then in a minute of inspiration he put together the kata we now call Aoinagi or Seiryu. That was in the first part of this century, sometime between 1915 and 1935.

Other stories exist. One which Mr. Miyaji has shared with me recently is that Mr. Konishi (a student of Mr. Mabuni’s) and Mr. Uyeshiba (the developer of the modern aikido) collaborated in the creation of the kata.

Still another story of the origin involves Mr. Mabuni’s creation of the kata for teaching martial arts to a group of young girls at an all-girls school. I think this story of the origin of the kata Aoinagi has been mixed up with the origin of another kata of Mr. Mabuni’s called Myojo. Mr. Mabuni created Myojo specifically for teaching defensive moves to girls. Aoinagi was not the kata created for young girls although some people still retain the misconception that Aoinagi is a kata only for females. It is probably for this reason and the reason that there are no really fancy turns in Aoinagi that we do not see the kata in tournaments.

I favor the story of the musha-shugyo in 1915 by Kenwa Mabuni and the desperate fights that occurred there. It just fits into the message of karate. What the truth is can never be known without H.G. Wells time machine. Perhaps the musha-shugyo story is a myth, but then again, the message in the myth is often more important than the myth.

What happened? I don’t really know. But when I perform the kata I feel the persistence of the willows and the violent confrontations with a single opponent as he appears from the willow stems. I feel the flowing movements of the graceful willow branches giving sway in the evening on-shore breeze. I sense the waiting patiently for my opponent to make his move and as he does the explosive counter I execute from out of the peaceful willow. I feel this in the kata. How could the message of the kata be so obvious if it were not created with that message?

I think whoever created the kata had had a night of terror and fighting in the willows on a beach. The myth of Kenwa Mabuni may have been a myth of Konishi or of any other karate master but the message in the myth is still the same:

Aoyagi, Aoinagi, Seiryu: Persistence in the face of overwhelming odds.

So the next time you do the kata Aoinagi let yourself feel the swooshing of the pliable limbs with their leaves and the sudden forays flashing out in the night against the enemy. Project yourself backwards in time and thousands of miles away to where a band of scoundrels attacked a solitary camper on a beach, only to be defeated by the strategy of silent patience in the willows, waiting like the lioness crouched for the right time and the right movement. Then flash…and back to hidden stillness.