Okinawa Karate Dō no Rekishi − History of Okinawa Karate Dō
Written by Jimmy Mora
Nowadays, there are millions of people who practice Karate around the world and there probably hundreds or even thousands of Karate styles. However, most of them practice "Karate as a sport" rather than "Karate as a martial art". Karate Dō originated in the Ryūkyū culture, as a secret martial art. Hence, the term Okinawa Karate Dō, is more accurate for those Schools who claim to preserve and promote the Okinawa roots of Karate.
Most martial arts authors and so called "historians" speak of Okinawan Karate by mixing facts, culture and legend without the proper historical context. All early historical accounts of the Ryūkyū or Liuqiu (OKinawa) came from China, Japan, other Asian sources and early European travellers. Therefore, it is necessary to study the evolution of Okinawa Karate Dō within the context of its time. Historicity requires that we distinguish the true historical facts from fiction.
For reference, see our:
Based on this premise, I believe we should break the evolution of Okinawa Karate Dō into four eras parallel to the Okinawan historical periods:
Okinawa Karate Dō — General Background
The evolution of martial arts is parallel to human civilizations worldwide. There are no direct historical records about its development. Most of what we know comes from indirect sources, but here are a few facts: Martial arts literally mean “military arts”. From ancient times, civilizations developed fighting techniques, which included both armed & unarmed combat. Ancient fighting arts were not exclusive to Asian cultures. They developed through every civilization from Ancient Greece to Rome, Egypt, Africa, India, European Knights, American Indians and Asia.
Since the middle ages, as warfare technology developed, most unarmed fighting arts became less relevant. But in the Far East, fighting arts (Jutsu) developed into Martial Arts (Budō), which were passed down secretly for centuries.
The historcal record indicates that the Ryūkyū culture also experienced an intense warfare during its early history:
From the mid 1800’s, Asian nations were exposed to western powers, resulting in social changes, trade, political unrest and eventually wars:
Out of these cultural clashes, Karate and Martial Arts in general became known worldwide through books, articles, fiction, sport competitions, movies and pop culture:
For centuries, Okinawan Martial Arts were practiced and taught in secret. Therefore, any accounts of the ancient Ti Masters were based on oral tradition and other general historical records. However, the practice of Kata could provide historical references, because they were used as a living textbook and tradition.
According to Onaga Yoshimitsu Sensei, a Kata is an ancient letter from the Okinawan Masters, which has been preserved & passed down from generation through generation. However, this process was designed for a small number of students. As Karate became open to the world and hundreds of styles were created, the process of using katas was broken, because the key was lost & forgotten by most teachers. Today, only a few teachers know how to use this key of knowledge: Ti.
Ti practitioners, known as Tichikayā were only concerned with the full understanding of their art, by keeping what worked and throwing away what didn’t, by discovering new techniques and by bringing their art to a higher level with each generation. Tiyigaya do not look back in time to their art like an archeological discovery, but look to the future for new developments. According to Onaga Sensei: “If ancient martial arts were better than today’s, then we should all go home. But in fact, today's Ti is the best…”
手 The Ti Era: The Early Ryūkyū Period (1429 ~ 1609)
In 1429, King Shō Hashi unified three separate Okinawan kingdoms and founded the Ryūkyū Kingdom with Shuri as its capital. For historical reference, see the timeline on the Early Ryūkyū Period. Probably, Ti originated around this period; or the name Ti was given to an already ancient indigenous fighting art. Based on tradition, we only know that Okinawa Ti was developed by the Shuri warrior class and it was passed down secretly for many generations.
Ti as a martial art is based on short deadly fighting techniques and intense physical training without the use of Katas or forms. It combined hand & foot strikes, grips, throws, locks and intense physical training. Some of the ancient Ti training methods still around today are:
ABOVE: Shuri Jo - The Shuri Castle in Okinawa.
唐手 The Tōde Era: The Late Ryūkyū Period (1609 ~ 1879)
In 1609, the Shimazu Clan of Satsuma invaded the Ryūkyū Kingdom as a punitive action against King Shō Nei for his refusals of support towards the Japanese Shogun. The Satsuma Shimazu invasion was the result of series of events dating back to 1592, when the Shogun Toyotomi Hideyoshi launched the first of two invasions of Korea. The Satsuma clan sent requests to King Shō Nei to provide warriors in support of the invasion of Korea, and to temporarily suspend all Ryūkyū tributary missions to China. All these requests were refused or ignored by King Shō Nei.
Finally in 1598, King Shō Nei refused the formal request from the Shimazu Satsuma Clan to submit to the new shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. In 1606, the Shimazu Clan was given permission by the Shogun to launch a punitive mission against the Ryūkyū Kingdom, forcing them to remain as a vassal state. However, the Ryūkyū Kingdom were also allowed to maintain their tributary relationship with China. Since Japan and China did not have a formal diplomatic or trade relationships, the Ryūkyū played an important role as a trading and cultural bridge between them. This status quo was maintained from 1609 until 1879 when the Ryūkyū Kingdom was formally annexed by Japan and became Okinawa Ken (Okinawa Prefecture).
For historical reference, see the timeline on the Late Ryūkyū Period.
Many authors claim that Okinawan Karate and Kobudō originated to resist the Satsuma invasion of 1609, and that afterwards they were kept underground to fight agains the Japanese Samurai. This claim has no basis on any historical record. By 1609, Okinawan martial arts (Ryūkyū Ti) had already been in existance for centuries. And furthermore, from its beginning Okinawan martial arts were taught and practiced in secret. There are a few historical accounts from Chinese and other European sources that describe the Ryūkyū sailors and merchants who were skilled fighters. In additon, there were also a strong cultural exchange with China dating back to 1383, when the first Chinese families settled in Kume Mura (Naha, Okinawa).
It was probably during this period, that the indigenous Ryūkyū Ti formally incorporated martial arts training elements and concepts from outside of Okinawa:
— Kata, which originated in China, were used without the emphasis on animal forms.
By the 19th century, the term Tōde or Tōdi was the generic name given to the Okinawan Martial Art. This terminoly survived well into the beginning of the 20th century. The most well know historical source is the Tōde Jukun (Ten Precepts of Tōde), which is a letter written in 1908 by the famous teacher Itosu Ankō.
Many Karate historians also claim that originally Okinawan Karate was divided into different styles of Ti: Shuri Ti , Naha Ti and Tomari Ti. However, this is also big misunderstanding and has no historical basis. In fact, during the late 19th century and early 20th century, it was normal to use the names: Shuri Ti or Naha Ti, instead of Shōrin Ryū or Gōjū Ryū, as way of describing your Karate style based on the location of the main teacher.
According to Onaga Sensei: "There are no styles in Ti, because Ti is the beginning of all styles".
空手 The Early Karate Era: The Meiji Period (1879 ~ 1945)
In 1879, Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture and initiated a process of assimilation. This was part of the radical cultural and political changes that occurred in Japan during the Meiji Period (1868 — 1912). At this time, modern Japanese Martial Arts like Judō & Kendō were developed and standarized. This was part of process designed to create a strong national identity, breaking away from any regional or clan identity.
At the same time, a new trend started in Okinawan Martial Arts, which intended to replace the name Tōde or Tōdi by Karate in order to break apart from any Chinese connection. However, this was a gradual process of cultural change, since the term Tōde remain in use well into the begining of the 20th century.
In 1901, Tōde was first included into the curriculum of the Dai Ichi Junior High School and teacher's school. In 1904, Tōde was also adopted at Shuri Elementary School, and the name Karate with the modern Chinese character was used for the first time. In 1908, Ankō Itosu, a Master of Shuri Ti, wrote his famous letter Ten Articles of Tōde, using the old Chinese characters. This letter was written and published to officially request to introduce Tōde (Karate) into the physical education curriculum. It was originally written to the Japanese Ministry of Education and the Ministry of War. Hence, the tone and character reflects the Japanese spirit and ultra nationalism typical of the Meiji Period (1868 — 1912) and later, the Shōwa Period (1912 — 1989).
Itosu Ankō taught some of the most important teachers of this period, who later founded both Okinawan & Japanese Karate styles: Chibana Chōshin, Chotoku Kyan, Funakoshi Gichin, Mabuni Kenwa and others. During this period, the original Okinawan Karate styles, also known as Ryūha, were:
ABOVE: Karate Kenkyukai. Shuri, 1918.
Karate was formally introduced to mainland Japan in 1917 during a public demonstration in Kyoto. Soon after, it became a a national sport in Japan. However, Okinawan Karate remained separate from the development of Japanese Karate. During this period, the most popular Karate styles that originated in Japan were:
— Shotokan, founded by Funakoshi Gichin
空手 The Modern Karate Era (1945 ~ present)
During World War II, and especially during The Battle of Okinawa (Okinawa Sen), many Okinawan Karate figures perished. After the war, all martial arts were banned in Japan. Eventually, martial arts training was re-estabkished openly, and in subsequent years, Karate became the most popular martial art around the world. However, it was not unitl 1956, when an International Okinawan Karate organization was created: The Okinawa Karate Dō Renmei, also known as Okikuren. In 1967, it was renamed, as the Zen Okinawa Karate Dō Renmei (All Okinawa Karate Dō Federation), also known as Zen Oki Ku Ren.
Most Karate styles in the world can trace their roots to the three original Okinawan styles: Shōrin Ryū (divided in three lineages: Kobayashi Ryū, Shorinji Ryū & Matsubayashi Ryū), Gōjū Ryū & Uechi Ryū. However, the current trend in Okinawa is moving towards Sports Karate rather than Karate as Budō or Martial Arts.
Today, the Shinjinbukan school, founded by Onaga Yoshimitsu Sensei, maintains the ancient Okinawan training traditions, which are based on Ti, the ancient Okinawan Martial Art. According to Onaga Sensei:
"KARATE AS BUJUTSU REQUIRES US TO TRAIN TO BE STRONG ENOUGH TO KILL WITH A SINGLE TECHNIQUE,
"I PERSONALLY CONSIDER TI AS THE TECHNIQUE
Sources about Okinawa's History, Culture and Current Events.
Pref.okinawa.jp — The Okinawa Ken (Okinawa Prefecture) Official website.
Okinawa.com — Okinawan historical and cultural resource center.
Niraikanai.wwma.net — Articles about Okinawan History and Culture written by John Michael Purves.
okibukan.over-blog.com — A blog about Okinawa and Karate in French, written by Lionel Lebigot.
ONAGA KAICHŌ'S TEACHINGS:
OUR SCHOOL IN OKINAWA:
OUR SHIBU / NORTH AMERICA:
NEW YORK, NEW YORK − USA:
OUR SHIBU / ASIA:
OUR SHIBU / EUROPE:
RYŪKYŪ MARTIAL ARTS:
NIHONGO − JAPANESE LANGUAGE:
神人武館ニューヨーク支部道場、アメリカ合衆国 / Shinjinbukan New York Shibu Dōjō — United States
Shibu Chō: Jimmy Mora, Renshi, Roku Dan (6th Dan) ∙ © 2016 Shinjinbukan Foundation
Shinjinbukan.com is a free resource sponsored by the Shinjinbukan Foundation. The statements on this site represent my own personal understanding of Onaga Yoshimitsu Kaichō's teachings. Therefore, I do not claim to speak on his behalf. As one more of his students, I am eager to share his living and oral traditions. Jimmy Mora