Birth Of The Okinawan Symbol: The Tale Of The Three Unarmed Warriors
Have you ever seen this symbol etched into random things throughout Okinawa?
They’re like hidden Mickey’s you find in obscure and random places in Disneyland. Except not as magical. Well, okay, that’s not true. Okinawa is a pretty freaking magical place.
Today I wanted to drop a knowledge bomb on y’all regarding the meaning of the three-tear-swirly-sigil.
The three-tear-swirly-sigil is not the technical name, and in fact, it’s official name is called the Hidari Gomon which means “left-turning honorable crest”. (Personally, I think the “three-tear-swirly-sigil” has a little bit more of a ring to it, but my opinion wasn’t sought after when the name was given to the symbol.)
There is a couple of different folklore behind this sigil, but today I’m going to tell you about the most popular and my favorite one. Especially, because parts of this story (like Okinawa being taken over by the lord of Kagoshima) is true. Which makes me think this folklore wasn’t necessarily born out of thin air.
THE TALE OF THE THREE UNARMED WARRIORS
Our story takes us back to feudal Japan. During this time, feudal lords were in a constant fierce battle over land ownership throughout Japan. The lord of Kagoshima at the time, Shimazu Tadatsune of the Kagoshima prefecture, had his beady little eyes on the Ryukyu Islands.
Lord Shimazu ordered his most well-trained warriors to the Ryukyu islands, and although the Ryukyuans fought hard, they were no match for Lord Shimazus’ army.
After taking over control of the Ryukyu islands, Lord Shimazu put into place certain conditions that the Ryukyuans had to abide by. One of those conditions was that the Ryukyuans were not allowed any weapons. He took it one step further and declared that anyone caught with weapons would be executed on the spot.
On top of the ban on weapons, he ordered an annual tax of rice to be paid to the Kagoshima province.
For the most part, this wasn’t such a bad deal to the Ryukyuans. After all, rice was plentiful. And even if they couldn’t use weapons the people found a way to fight and defend themselves using their bare hands - which you will guess where this is going. That’s right. This is how Karate was said to be born.
Now, it went on like this for many years. The Ryukyu people continued to follow Lord Shimazus’ orders until one season when a great drought hit the Ryukyu Kingdoms. This caused a shortage of rice throughout the islands. This created a problem for the Ryukyuans because now they couldn’t send their payment of rice to the Kagoshima prefecture.
The Ryukyu Kingdom was riding up doody creek without a paddle. Not only did the Ryukyuans have no food for themselves, but now they had an angry Lord to contend with. The King of Ryukyu couldn’t bear to see his people suffer any longer, so he made the decision to send a delegation to Kagoshima in hopes that Lord Shimazu would find mercy on the sufferings of the Ryukyu people.
So, off the delegation went on their journey to Kagoshima, accompanied by three unarmed warriors (remember, Ryukyuans weren't allowed weapons).
But when the Ryukyu delegation arrived in Kagoshima and pleaded with Lord Shimazu to excuse them of their rice tax, he was outraged at such a plea. He ordered his men to kill the delegation and his three guards.
The Samurai’s attacked, but to everyone’s surprise, they were taken down by the three unarmed warriors of the Ryukyu islands.
This took Lord Shimazu by surprise. He couldn’t believe his highly trained Samurais’ went against three weaponless warriors and lost. This made Lord Shimazu even more angry.
He ordered the immediate execution of the three Ryukyu warriors - death by being boiled alive in a big cauldron of boiling liquid.
Even though death was upon them, the three warriors continued to plead - not for their lives - but for Lord Shimazu to see reason and to ease the suffering of the Ryukyu people.
Hearing the three warriors selfless pleas moved Lord Shimazus’ and his small heart grew three sizes that day. He realized the error of his decision to execute the three warriors as it finally dawned on him the extent of the suffering of the Ryukyu people. Lord Shimazu then turned to the delegation, who at this point was probably wishing they wore some brown pants, and was like, “Don’t worry about the rice you owe us, in fact, take some of ours back to your people and we’ll call it good. Oh, by the way, can you send some of your Karate masters to Kagoshima so they can teach those sickass moves to my Samurais?”
The delegation soon returned to the Ryukyu islands and recounted the story to the King of Ryukyu who in turn had the Hidari-Gomon symbol drawn up in honor of the three warriors that selflessly fought for the Ryukyu people.
The symbol is said to imagine three heads swirling in the cauldron to remind people of gruesome punishment the three warriors received in order to save the people of Ryukyu. The three tears themselves represent loyalty, heroism, and altruism - all of which were shown during the final moments of the three unarmed guards.
The courage of the three Ryukyuan warriors changed the relationship between the two prefectures, and now the sigil can be found in a lot of places throughout Okinawa. It has been incorporated very heavily into different Karate symbols to represent the ancient art of Karate.
At Ryukyu Rising, we honor this symbol as part of our logo because of the story behind it. We incorporate the meaning of loyalty, heroism, and altruism in our daily practice and use that as our motto behind our growing all-inclusive community of the Next Gen Okinawan. You don’t have to be Okinawan to live your life with these set of principles. But you can take these three principles, and through your action, try to help make this world a better place.
Next time you stumble upon this sigil through your adventure in Okinawa, we hope that this story will give you a newfound perspective on the deep meaning behind it and hope that it reminds you to incorporate the three principles in your daily life.