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Okinawa Karate History


Karate-do (空手道), or karate for short, literally means “The Empty Hand Way” in Japanese. It is a form of unarmed combat which employs a wide repertoire of techniques such as strikes, joint-locks, throws, take-downs and ground-fighting techniques to overcome an opponent. Practical and effective, karate has evolved from its origins as an art practised by the nobility in the Ryukyu Kingdom before the 20th Century, into one of the most widely practiced martial arts in the world today.

Okinawa, the birthplace of karate, is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands. Karate was derived from a form of unarmed combat known phonetically as "Te" or "Di", which meant "Hand" (手) in the Okinawan language.

Ryukyu islands image

Ryukyu islands - click image to enlarge

It was a combat system practiced by the Shizoku, or nobility within the Ryukyu Kingdom. Contrary to the popular myth in which Karate was created because a weapons ban imposed upon the Okinawans deprived them of their weapons, the Shizoku practiced "Di" in conjunction with weapon-based fighting systems for the sword or saber, the spear and the bow until the 19th Century.

With more than six centuries of economic and cultural interaction between the Ryukyu Kingdom and its neighbors, Ryukyu martial arts were hybrid systems comprising of a mixture of indigenous and imported fighting techniques and concepts. The chief amongst those foreign influences upon Okinawan "Di" came from South East Asia, China and Japan.

The most pervasive influence on Okinawan martial arts came from China. The Chinese exerted major economic and political influence on the Ryukyu Kingdom between the 16th and early 19th Century. Historical records about the Okinawan "Di" master Sakugawa Kanga (1786-1867) indicated that he traveled to China frequently on official business on behalf of the Ryukyu kingdom. In the course of his travels he studied Chinese Boxing and merged it with Okinawan "Di" to produce a hybrid system. He became known as "Toudi" Sakugawa, whereby "Tou-di" meant "Chinese Hand" (唐手) in the Okinawan tongue. The art he taught was named "Toudi" in recognition that it was different from the indigenous Okinawan "Di". Many other masters subsequently studied Chinese Boxing in China and brought their knowledge and skills back to the Ryukyu Kingdom. Notably, these masters were almost exclusively members of the nobility who traveled to China as officials or traders, and "Toudi" remained an art practiced by the nobility.

RyuKyu stamp depicting a Shizoku and his helper

The development of "Te" continued over many years and was mostly practiced in secret by only a few individuals. Development was centered primarily in the three Okinawan villages of Shuri, Naha, and Tomari and each village had a master who is credited with developing the style unique to that area.

The most famous student of Sakugawa was Matsumura Sokon (born 1805) who was sent by the royal family of Okinawa, Sho Shi, to study at the Shaolin Temple in China in 1815. He returned to Okinawa and was appointed the chief bodyguard for the King Sho Ko. Since he lived in the royal village of Shuri, his style became known as Shuri-te.

Ankoh Itosu (1830-1915), was the most famous student of Matsumura. He is credited with introducing Karate into the Okinawan public school system in 1903. Prior to this the practice of Karate had been done privately in the homes of the masters and in many instances, was done in secret.

In the aftermath of political reforms in Japan, the Ryukyu Shizoku (nobility) class system was abolished altogether in 1879. Their traditional way of living was further compromised by land reforms which were implemented after the local peasant uprising of 1903. Concerns that traditional Okinawan Toudi may eventually be lost in the changing times moved several leading masters of the art to begin a movement to modernize and spread Toudi to the general populace. In a process which took several decades, Toudi incorporated Japanese Budo concepts and was later renamed "Karate-do" (the Empty Handed Way) in 1936.

In around 1930, Chojun Miyagi became the first Toudi (Karate) master to give his style a name. Taking it from a phrase in an old martial arts manual called the Bubishi, he named his style "GOJU-RYU TOUDI". Following his lead, other masters began to name their own styles or "Ryu". This move complied with the requirements of the Japanese Martial Arts governing body, and it paved the way for Toudi (Karate) to be accepted by the Japanese Martial-Arts establishment.

Between 1933 and 1934, Goju Ryu became the first style to be formally registered as a form of budo with the official Japanese Martial Arts Association, known as the Dai-Nippon Butoku Kai (At around the same time the Dai-Nippon Butoku Kai established a branch organization in Okinawa to administer to the newly named Okinawan Toudi styles). This development allowed Toudi (karate) to gain wider acceptance within the Japanese society and allowed Toudi (karate) to be taught with official endorsement in Japanese schools.

In 1936, due to the rising tension between Japan and China which would eventually lead to war between these two countries, the Japanese martial arts establishment decided that the name "Toudi" implied a close association with China and it had to be changed. The word “Chinese” (唐) which was pronounced "Tou" in the Okinawan language was pronounced as "Kara" in Japanese; at the same time, another word meaning "Empty"; (空) was also pronounced as "Kara" in Japanese. Therefore, upon the proposal from some karate pioneers such as Giichin Funakoshi, Toudi (唐手) was officially re-named Karate-Do (空手道, meaning the Empty-Handed Way).

Master Chojun Miyagi

Master Chojun Miyagi

Ryukyu karateka image

Koichi Nakasone, 9th Dan Ryukyu Kingdom Sui-di Bujutsu

By the last two years of the Second World War, karate instruction had come to a halt. In the aftermath of the Second World War, a few Okinawan karate dojo began to teach karate again by 1946. By 1948 Karate training was resumed within the Okinawan law-enforcement personnel training centers (such as the Naha and Shuri Police Academy). As society normalized again under the American Administration, karate became popular again in Japan and Okinawa. Due to the efforts of a new generation of karate masters who traveled widely around the world to teach karate and many foreign students who learnt karate in Japan or Okinawa who returned home to propagate the art in their own countries, karate became a widely practiced martial art.

However, karate also became a multi-faceted entity as many practitioners taught and practiced a simplified version of karate as a competitive sport, and others, merely as a form of exercise to maintain health .

By the 1960s and 1970s a handful of world renowned Okinawan masters, were concerned that traditional Okinawan karate as a fighting art and as an intrinsic part of Okinawan culture, was disappearing. They therefore formed organizations, with the express objective of preserving and propagating traditional Okinawan Karate as a fighting art in the way it was intended by Okinawan masters of old.

In 1990, with the support of the Okinawan government, the first World Okinawan Karate and Kobudo Budosai was held in Naha, whereby for the first time, all the major Okinawan styles were represented by their most senior masters and presented to the public in its authentic form. Thereafter the efforts to introduce the raw power and deadly effectiveness of Okinawan Karate and its wealth of content resulted in the increase in awareness and the recognition by karate practitioners across the world that at its roots, karate as the Okinawan masters had developed it, is a deadly discipline with an invaluable philosophical core and it should never be transformed into a sport.

Today, Okinawan Karate is once again influential in the preservation and development of traditional karate worldwide.

Some of the information here provided by the IOGKF
Koichi Nakasone image by Travel67 Chris Wilson Photography

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