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Fighting Arts of the Pacific Islands


Wave Man Pacific Islands Martial Arts
Santa Cruz Kickboxing Academy
Confluence Aikido



The Pacific Ocean is the largest single body of water on the face of the planet, and is the location a wide variety of small islands ranging from Hawaii off the West coast of the Americas to the Philippines and its location tangential to South East Asia (where it is often placed geopolitically). In between we have Samoa, Guam, the Cook Islands, Tonga and others. Most of these are classified as part of the Polynesian Triangle which stretches from Hawaii to Easter Island to New Zealand. Historically, these islands have been home to tribal cultures and as such have birthed some of the most effective war arts ever conceived. Most interestingly, many of these arts evolved in a vacuum – untouched by other Eastern cultures that have profoundly influenced the Asian martial arts for centuries – and contain unique tactics, weapons and methodology. Sadly today, many of these native islander arts have been lost, the perceived savagery of their practitioners erased over time by the gradual influx of Western cultures and the dominant force of Christianity.

However, if one digs deep enough one can find many aspects of the Pacific Island Fighting Arts concealed within existing systems practiced today, chiefly as a result of the integration of Hawaii as a state of the USA which permitted a form of cross fertilisation of both cultures and martial arts. During the early part of the 20th century (essentially pre World War 2) Hawaii was a lawless place, with places like the Palomas settlements considered to be extremely violent, and fighting was a necessity. The integration of the Japanese and Chinese into Hawaiian culture brought their own arts, resulting in a melting pot of fighting systems. This proved useful, given that Hawaii’s indigenous martial art Lua (of which more later) was kept highly secretive and rarely if ever taught to non-islanders.

Chinese Boxing, Karate, Jujitsu and Judo as well as the Filipino arts of Arnis (which had existed for hundreds of years) all made their presence known on Hawaii, and in the 19340s this resulted in the creation of an art called Kajukenbo. Standing for Karate, Jujitsu, Kenpo and Boxing (both Chinese & Western), the name Kajukenbo maintained a distinctive Hawaiian cultural bias despite is eclectic origins, and gained great respect due to its streetfighting effectiveness – it was frequently ‘pressure tested’ by its creators on the streets of Palomas Settlements where it quickly became apparent what was useful and what was not. One of the founders of Kajukenbo, a man named Adriano Emperado, was an expert in Kenpo and Eskrima. The latter as mentioned above is a Pacific Island art in and of itself, whereas Kenpo has a slightly more complex history.

Originally brought to Hawaii by a Japanese named named Mitose which had studied the art (which had originated in China but like Karate had become Japan-icised) in his homeland, Kenpo was adopted by Hawaii and rapidly evolved and changed. Mitose taught a man named Chow who began to evolve the system by reintegrating the fluid principles of Chinese Martial Arts, the chief effect of which was to create a fluid fast moving systems of linear and circular striking. One of Chow’s student’s, Ed Parker, further refined Kenpo with scientific concepts and took it to the American mainland, where the rest as they say is history. Although Kenpo today is largely regarded as an American art, its roots as a modern fighting system lie in Hawaii and reflect a blending of arts &cultures of that time & the place. Jujitsu, while Japanese in origin, made a strong showing in Hawaii.

One system in particular, the Danzen Ryu art developed by Professor Henry Ozaki, another Japanese man who relocated to Hawaii, is heavily influenced by the Island arts, and specifically contains secretly concealed techniques of the art of Lua. Lua (meaning ‘pit’ as in ‘to pit against’) is a bone breaking art specialising in the dislocation of joints that uses many destructive empty hand grappling / hitting combination techniques and unique weapons. It dates back centuries along the royal bloodline of Hawaii, and even up to the mid 20th century was not taught outside that bloodline, and at the very most only to Hawaiian warriors. Outsiders were not taught, under pain of death. Used by tribal warriors to defend Hawaii against other tribal invaders, Lua evolved from the need to combat armed mass attacks, and thus used a blend of native weaponry with the type of tactics that would render an opponent helpless (and preferably dead) quickly & easily. Thus, joints were targeted as was soft tissue such as the eyes, muscles, and groin – in fact although Lua evolved by itself many tactics resemble other arts, lending credence to the hoplogical theory of ‘parallel development’. Legend tells as that Lua warriors would destroy their attackers, and subsequently break each of their joints in turn such that they could be ‘bundled up’ and carried off. Nasty stuff, but remember this was brutal tribal warfare. The loser often got eaten! Today, Lua can be found if you look hard enough. In California Solomon Kailewahu teaches his family Lua (which has its roots in Samoan martial culture) and is primarily responsible for perpetuating the art today. In addition the Danzan Ryu Jujitsu system taught in Hawaii by Henry Ozaki’s lineage contains many Lua techniques. There is also possibility – through Parker’s Royal bloodline – that there may be Lua contained within American Kenpo although nobody has ever categorically stated this.

The art of Limalama (a short form of a Polynesian phrase meaning ‘Hand Of Wisdom’) also evolved from a blend of Pacific Island arts during the mid 20th century. Although additional influenced by Japanese martial arts and Kenpo, Limalama is at its heart a combination of tactics from 13 native Polynesian arts including Hawaiian and Samoan fighting methods (which stress hammering techniques and methods designed to break limbs), distinctive whipping hand techniques, fluid grappling and throwing methods and more. The creation of Limalama is credited to a man named Tino Tuiolosega, a Boxer and streetfighter who was a respected contemporary of the founders of Kajukenbo. At the core of Limalama’s flowing tactics lie a series of forms which encode ancient tribal bonelocking & breaking, vital point and killing techniques derived from Samoan and other Polynesian arts – many of these are representative of the methods used by Pacific Island warriors centuries ago.

Arnis, the art of the Filipino also called Kali or Eskrima, is considered by most to be of South East Asian origin although geographically the Philippines are part of the Pacific Islands. The historical background of these methods is best left to the experts – however with its strong emphasis on weapons tactics supported by fast, explosive empty hand methods that target limbs, joints and vulnerable areas along with distinctive weapon-supporting grappling strategies, Arnis very much fits into the mould of the Pacific combat system. The use of weapons is very much to the fore in training as is the case in any battlefield system, often in the form of sticks, canes and clubs reflective of the use of naturally occurring materials. Other arms such as the spear are less widely practiced today but vital in tribal conflicts centuries ago. The Filipino arts also employ metal daggers and utility blades such as the bolo which are also feature of everyday existence in that country. Knife carrying is a fact of life, leading to the Philippines being considered a blade culture and a home for effective practical blade fighting systems. This emphasis on stick and blade has also transferred into modern incarnations and interbred systems such as Kenpo and Limalama.

Weaponry is a major feature of Pacific fighting arts, and often these weapons are unique. The reason is simple – the odds of survival increase when faced by armed attackers if one is armed oneself. In addition to the more common club and spear fighting methods, each Pacific Island culture developed arms dependant on easily available and convertible materials. A good example is the Hawaiian warriors weapons. Hawaiian arts employ a range of unique wood and cord based weapons which include harpoon like spears, spikes (based on the swordfish sword) and stabbing implements often made out of native Koa wood, and often adorned with razor sharp shark’s teeth and cord woven from oloha fibres. Different from the Filipinos with their greater use of bladed metal armaments, but still dictated by available materials and cultural heritage.

Another key aspect of all the Pacific Island arts is their primary focus on defending against multiple attackers with the assumption that they were a) armed and b) skilled. This reflects the tribal conflicts where legions of warriors would engage of mass combat. Thus the emphasis had to be on weaponry, fast and destructive hitting skills, and the ability to ensure that when an attacker went down in combat he was at least disabled enough to prevent him from continuing. Often, older or less experienced warriors would follow the carnage and finish off survivors who could not continue, often will specialised weapons for the task. Groundfighting methods, complicated tie-ups and other tactics that expose the warrior to attack from others were and are clearly useless in this sort of melee situation, and in any scenario involving anything than other than one on one unarmed combat. Tribal conflicts involved numbers of people, not generally individuals. Generally, only the dead end up on the floor ! Clearly, this does not mean groundfighting is to be ignored. Rather, ground based methods are considered in terms of getting up quickly, as opposed to engaging in combat while prone. As time has passed so has the time of these mass conflicts, and rule of law and government supercedes all. Thus today, many Pacific systems have faded away to greater or lesser extent as the cultures they evolved in have changed. However in both the remaining Pacific arts, such as Arnis & Lua, and later systems that use these arts as a base, including Kenpo, the mentality of the multiple armed attacker is still reflected. Today’s streets are of course a world way from tribal battlefields. Today it is just as likely we will be attacked by an unarmed individual as it is by an armed gang. The assailant may be a fighter or hopelessly unskilled. Things have changed, but the Pacific arts still have much to offer.

Kenpo and Arnis are popular all around the world and their effectiveness is proven time and again. When they can be found the surviving indigenous arts such as Lua still have potent combat value, although their original savagery is necessarily diluted by the need for less than lethal defence options. Indeed such is the respect that these arts have engendered, world renowned combat tactics specialist W Hock Hochheim teaches a programme called Pacific Archipelago Combatives, which incorporates much from the Pacific island systems in term of both empty hand and weaponry. (NB: This writer has no affiliation to Hochheim, but his material is highly recommended and he conducts seminars from time to time). Additionally, in Guam, world famous master Frank Sanchez has evolved that Pacific Island’s own indigenous martial art called Sanjitsu, which is particularly well known for its effectiveness in multiple attacker situations in a direct reflection of the essential nature of mass conflict. In the present day, the mentality of combat shared by these systems reflects the tribal cultures that originally evolved their fighting arts to protect their shores and defend the lives of their families. And in the final analysis, isn’t the same thing necessary today ?

END WORD This article represents only the briefest of introductions. Like any martial art, these methods have to be experienced to be fully appreciated. Find a good Kenpo instructor or a good Arnis instructor, and you can experience a flavour of the brutal mentality of these systems. Harder to find are arts such as Limalama and Lua but if they can be found the experience of ancient tribal combat they encapsulate is priceless.

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