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Okinawa is uniquely located to be influenced by many Asian and Polynesian cultures
The earliest forms of karate may be as much as 1,000 years old
Chinese martial arts influence is well established by AD 1400
Another 200 years of development
A ban on weapons foments interest in empty-hand fighting and karate is born
The great 19th century karate masters arise
Karate reaches the
The history of karate-do is inextricably entwined with the history of the Ryukyu Islands, and the island of Okinawa in particular. The art of karate-do is unique, and its development was the result of the the unique character and history of Okinawa and its people.
Okinawa lies about 400 miles off the coast of China, almost due east of the city of Fuchou. It also lies about the same distance directly south of the Japanese island of Kyushu, and about 500 miles northeast of the island of Taiwan. It is in the direct path of the prevailing easterly currents which carried the trading vessels into Chinese ports in ancient times. If history ever recorded the exact origins of the Okinawan people, the records have been lost for centuries. So there remains naught but oral tradition to explain much of Okinawa's past.
Archeological evidence suggests that the Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa is the largest, have been inhabited for more than 2,000 years. It is likely that the Okinawan people were a mixture of Chinese, Polynesian, Japanese, and other Asians who blundered into the islands at various times. Records of the Sui Dynasty in China indicate that by AD 600 there was an organized government of sorts in the Ryukyu Islands. There is strong evidence that an empty-handed fighting art that heavily emphasized pummeling an opponent with the fists was developing in Okinawa at least 1,000 years ago. This native pugilistic system is often referred to simply as Te ("Hand[s]"), or sometimes as Okinawa-te ("Hand[s] of Okinawa"). In addition, the Ryukyu Islands were a frequent refuge for vanquished samurai fleeing the many wars and local uprisings of Japan's early feudal period, and these warriors brought their skills in martial arts with them to the island kingdom.
In 1373, Okinawa developed treaties with China under which it would pay tribute in exchange for the Chinese instructing them in architecture, writing, methods of governance, and other topics of value to the developing Okinawan culture. In 1393, a group of Chinese emissaries were sent to Okinawa to set up permanent residence there as representatives of the Chinese court. This enclave is commonly known as The 36 Families, but including their servants, assistants, military attaches and others, were probably a large contingent of highly skilled artisans and educators. If Chinese ch'uan fa -- the martial art we usually call "kung fu" in the West, and which is pronounced kenpo in Japanese -- had not already been introduced by unofficial means in Okinawa, it certainly arrived with The 36 Families in the late 14th century. In 1429, probably assisted by the knowledge gained from his Chinese mentors, Okinawan king Sho Hashi was able to unify the three previously separate kingdoms of Okinawa into a single kingdom under his rule. To help solidify his power, he issued an edict that banned the private ownership of any bladed weapon. This weapons ban is generally credited with spurring interest in empty-handed fighting arts as a means of self-defense, particularly among the shizoku -- the descendants of samurai -- who had grown accustomed to wearing swords for protection.
For the next 200 years, the martial arts of Okinawa continued to develop on a number of fronts. For the safety of the king, weapons of any kind were forbidden inside the palace and castles, so royal bodyguards developed an empty-hand fighting system, probably similar to jujutsu, called Gotende ("Palace Hand[s]"). The port of Naha was one of the busiest trading centers of ancient Asia, so its docks and taverns saw the frequent exchange of fighting techniques through the impromptu forum of savage brawls. Native fighting arts were combined with the techniques of Chinese ch'uan fa to produce Okinawa Kenpo or Ryukyu Kenpo. In outlying farm villages like Tomari and Chibana, peasants developed high levels of skill in the use of everyday tools for their personal defense -- tools which evolved into the many forms of Okinawa Kobudo we know today: such as the bo, kama, tonfa, and nunchaku. In fishing villages common implements like oars, gaffs, and tortoise shells were adapted to the same purposes, producing the eku, timbe, suruchin, and other forms of Ryukyu Kobudo.
In 1609, the Satsuma clan of Kyushu invaded and conquered Okinawa. It is widely held that a secret conference of karate masters was held in 1629 to organize an underground resistance movement against the Satsuma, but there are no records now extant to suggest that any organized resistance to Satsuma rule actually occurred. In 1699, the Satsuma instituted a complete ban on private ownership of weapons, along with rigorous enforcement of this edict. Once again, this kindled interest in empty-hand martial arts among the Okinawans. It also served to force its practice and instruction into secrecy, resulting in a proliferation of styles of Te and Kenpo, most of which were maintained as family secrets -- passed down only from father to eldest son for generations. So, it was over 100 years after the Satsuma invasion until the first widely-known karate master emerged. His name was Sakugawa Kanga, but he has been nicknamed "Karate" Sakugawa, because he is generally considered the father of the system we know today as karate-do. He was a royal bodyguard, and studied ch'uan fa for many years in China. Combining the techniques of ch'uan fa with those of Te, or possibly Gotende, he created a hybrid art in the late 18th century that he called Kara-te ("Chinese Hand[s]").
In 1803 Sakugawa adopted a young orphan named Matsumura Sokon and passed the art of karate on to him. A contemporary of Matsumura's was Matsumora Kosaku, who was the foremost karate-ka in the village of Tomari. It was also during the early 1800's that the first historically verified karate masters from the Naha area appeared. As a result, throughout the 19th century styles of karate became generally classified by the regions in which they were practiced: Shuri-te was the style practiced around the capitol city of Shuri, Naha-te was the style from the district surrounding the port of Naha, and Tomari-te was the style from the farming region of Tomari. Each of these styles had its own distinct characteristics: Shuri-te tends to be light and quick, Naha-te emphasizes strong, immovable stances and alternating tension and relaxation of muscle groups, while Tomari-te features darting, ducking, and dodging movements.
In the mid-19th century, the Shuri-Te of Matsumura Sokon was passed on to Itosu Yasutsune (see also "What is Shito-Ryu?", who also learned much of Tomari-te from Matsumora Kosaku, and Higaonna Kanryo (also in "What is Shito-Ryu?" emerged as the leading exponent of Naha-te. Following the deaths of Itosu and Higaonna in 1915 and 1916, Tomari-te all but disappeared as a distinct style of karate, while Shuri-te and Naha-te were splintered into more than a dozen named styles by their successors. Click here to see a chart of these styles and their origins.
Mabuni Kenwa trained almost equally in Shuri-te under Itosu Yasutsune and Naha-te under Higaonna Kanryo. Visit our section entitled "What is Shito-Ryu?" to see how Mabuni Sensei combined these systems to create the most complete and comprehensive style of traditional karate-do.
© 2003 Leonard J. Pellman
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