Part 1 of 6. Footnotes, references, and demonstration video clips will be posted in the last entry. Update: See bottom of this post for links to parts 2, 3, 4, 5 & 6.
The makiwara is a familiar sight to most that practice “traditional karate” of some form or another. A simple plank tapered to provide springy feedback for striking techniques is relatively common in the karate world. It is an aspect of Okinawan karate culture that has survived quite well amidst the cultural transitions and subsequent transformations of the art over the last century. In fact, its ubiquity is interesting in an age wherein stylistic boundaries, commercialism and political bickering often redefine what “is” and “isn’t” karate in a seemingly arbitrary fashion. Politics aside, the need to hit things is a happy universal.
Although the makiwara itself has made it to present day practice, the existence and specific histories of several variant designs are not so well known among modern exponents. The language barrier itself is probably one of the most significant causes of this gap in information, as there may well be detailed references that are simply unavailable outside of Japanese, and thus unknown to English readers. From the available writings, we can see that the majority of the karate men writing in the early 20th century mention the makiwara and emphasize it as a necessity for correct development of karate striking techniques.1 Several works, such as Gichin Funakoshi’s Karate-do Kyohan, also include diagrams for reference and suggestions for usage. In at least one of these sources the standard makiwara shares mention with a round variety described variously as a pole or ude makiwara. However, compared to other information published on the makiwara in general, the reference is brief, which leads one to wonder at the reasons for the lack of equal mention. In this article, we will explore the background of this somewhat lesser known variety (based on the available source information), methods of construction for the modern training space, and some observations on its usage. For purposes of clarity, the standard variety will be referred to hereafter as a tachi makiwara, and the round as ude.
The only available “classical” work that mentions an ude makiwara and includes specifications for construction is Motobu Choki’s 1932 Watashi no Karate Jutsu. In the section “How to Make & Use a Makiwara”, Motobu mentions that there are two varieties, the sage (hanging) and tachi (standing).2 He notes here that the tachi is “usually referred to as ‘The Makiwara’” and was in common use among many people. Following some notes on the construction of the sage variety, he introduces “another kind of tachi makiwara that is not so popular but used for developing both arms.” It’s referred to simply as a makiwara made from a round pole. He goes on to describe this version in some detail:
“…A round shaped pole 210 cm in length with a 9 cm diameter, with 75 cm buried firmly in the ground, leaving 135 cm above exposed ground …the top should be 3 cm thick with about 30 cm length wrapped with rope. This makiwara can be struck from the front and sides by either hand to develop power.”
Sadly, no diagram of this design or any pictures of one being used are included. By the description given, we can envision the pole as tapering to a smaller diameter at its top to provide a springy target, but with equal give from all sides. Motobu points out that either hand may be used to strike this makiwara, which may at first seem entirely obvious, and something that one can do on the tachi as well. However, if interpreted to mean that it may be struck by either hand from any position, i.e. an elliptical forearm smash followed by a reverse punch, the statement makes more sense and hints at the practice of more dynamic exercises, which we’ll explore later. Given the diameter that is prescribed, it may also be likely that it was intended more for use as a tool for arm conditioning and forearm/hand/elbow strikes.
Seeing as how Motobu trained under an eclectic variety of teachers from the Shuri and Tomari areas (Anko Itosu, Sokon Matsumura, Kosaku Matsumora and Tokumine Shitsunen Pechin), the historical origin of these plans can only be speculated upon.3 He was probably introduced to this makiwara by one or more of the men he trained with, who in themselves constitute an impressive pedigree of teachers. Judging by the fact that he regarded it as important enough to include in a book, it is reasonable to assume that Motobu made use of it in his own training, and it is further possible that he passed knowledge of this makiwara on to his students, who may then have disseminated it to their own; this record seems to be lacking, though. However, based on his learning from several prominent teachers as well as his exposure to the Motobu family ti tradition (via his older brother, Choyu), it is highly probable that this ude makiwara has a significant history in pre-twentieth century training in one or more of the major centers of karate/ti practice and development. Motobu sensei’s enthusiasm for makiwara training can be attested to by contemporary descriptions of his hands.4
There is another 1930’s publication that mentions yet another variation on this variation. In kobudo preservationist Taira Shinken’s Encyclopedia of Okinawan Weapons, a makiwara specifically for training with the bo is shown in the Bojutsu section. The detailed illustration shows a solid round post with a crosspiece set horizontally through it near the top, and a hole bored through the center. Straw padding is wrapped around these “arms” and the top and lower surfaces of the makiwara.5 Taira notes that the makiwara should be of “average human height.” Although this version is for weapons training rather than empty hand, it does demonstrate the adaptability of the basic “striking post” concept. Functionally speaking, it is reminiscent of the pell, a medieval European weapons training post of Roman extraction.6