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A Very Brief History of Okinawa

Because karate (as we know it today) has its most immediate and most formative roots in Okinawa, one must know about the history of Okinawa to understand karate.

Okinawa is largest of the Ryukyu Islands, located several hundred miles east of southern China; several hundred miles south of the main islands of Japan; and several hundred miles north of the island of Taiwan.  Its population is now over 1.2 million people, though most Okinawans live in the southern half of the island.  The northern area is mountainous and sparsely populated; the south primarily urban and suburban.  Indeed, today the crowding on the southern half of Okinawa is obvious to any visitor, exacerbated by the presence of several large US military bases, which occupy 20 percent of the total island and perhaps as much as one third of the livable space.  This is a source of much resentment among contemporary Okinawans.

Okinawa and the entire Ryukyu chain is now a prefecture of Japan, but it was, until fairly recently, an independent kingdom, at least in name.  The Okinawan kingdom traced its roots to early 12th century, when independent, centralized kingdoms first appeared on the island.  Beginning in the 14th century, the kings of Ryukyu looked to the Emperor of China for official investiture, receiving a measure of legitimacy in return for "official" appointment as vassals to Beijing.  Tribute was sent to the Chinese capital at the coronation of each new king, and Chinese envoys visited Okinawa on many occasions over several hundred years on behalf of the Emperor of China.  These envoys had a great impact on Okinawan society and culture, including karate.

Shuri Castle in Okinawa
Politics in Japan also played a critical role in shaping Okinawan history and karate.  Following the establishment of the Tokugawa Shogunate in the 17th century, the Satsuma clan of Kyushu formally annexed the Ryukyu chain, mainly as means of capturing the Okinawan trade with China (which was officially forbidden by the Shogun).  Satsuma political control of Okinawa was indirect, however, and the Okinawan kingdom remained officially an independent nation.  Tribute missions to Kyoto were begun at this time as well, and Satusuma troops were stationed permanently in Naha and surrounding areas.  Satsuma overlords encourage the cultural distinctiveness of the Okinawans, requiring the Okinawan tribute bearers to dress in Chinese clothing and to play Chinese musical instruments during their visits to Japan.  This was meant to keep the Shogun from seeing the Satsuma conquest of Okinawa as expansion within Japan (at the expense of Shogun). Satsuma military presence on Okinawa was continuous from this time onward, significantly influencing local martial traditions.

Chinese-style Dragon Boat racing in Naha
Throughout this period, Okinawan merchants and members of the Okinawan royal family continued to trade extensively throughout Southeast Asia.  Historical records note trading from Korea to Sumatra and Siam.  Most of the overseas trade, however, continued to be directed toward Southern China.  Mercantile connections between Naha (the main trading port of Okinawa) and Fouzhou were extensive, and Okinawa became a node in a vast web of trade routes that reached as far as Europe.  In Naha, a Chinese village was established (the legendary ā€œ36 familiesā€ of Kume Village) in the 1300s to help establish Chinese standards in industrial manufacture and business administration. British, French and Dutch records of visits to Ryukyu (Loochoo in some spellings) are evidence of the fact that many trading ventures, regardless of origin or destination, traveled through Okinawa.
In 1879, following the restoration of the Emperor in Japan, Okinawa was annexed and made an official prefecture of modern Japan.  The King of Okinawa ā€œretiredā€ to Kyoto at the request of the Japanese Emperor and Japanese civic administration was put in place throughout the Ryukyus.  Many of the old, elite families of Okinawa lost their means of income (from hereditary rents or official offices), causing considerable social disruption. The Tokyo dialect of the Japanese language was required in all schools (as it was throughout Japan), and the very distinctive Okinawan dialect was discouraged.  Japanese nationalism became public policy and the Chinese roots of much Okinawan culture and society obscured, denied or derided.

Traditional Okinawan Dance

In the next several decades, many Okinawans were drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army as Japan expanded throughout East and Southeast Asia.  In response, some merchant families sent their sons to "study" in China to avoid military service.  Economic difficulties on the island also caused many Okinawans to move to mainland Japan, to seek work in the growing industrial manufacturing areas of Southern Japan, or to South America (where there remain large expatriate Okinawan communities).  The island of Okinawa remained primarily rural at this time, and most of those who stayed on the island continued to farm as they had for centuries.  Trade with China suffered, however, in part because Japanese aggression all over Asia disrupted old trading routes and relationships, and in part because Tokyo-based merchants had entered into the new colonial trade extensively, absorbing much that might previously have gone through Naha.

The Destruction Caused by WW II

World War 2 arrived on Okinawa in 1944 and turned the island into one of the bloodiest battlefields in human history.  As the American military ā€œisland hoppedā€ its way toward the Japanese mainland, the decision was made by the Japanese Army to fight a war of attrition on Okinawa, to delay the American invasion of the Main Islands of Japan.  The Japanese High Command thought that every day the Allied forces spent fighting in Okinawa created another day for preparation against invation on mainland Japan.  As a result, the Japanese Army on Okinawa fought a slow withdrawal from North to South, refusing to surrender even though it was obvious that defeat was inevitable.  In total, a Japanese Army contingent of approximately 110,000 troops faced an Allied force of more than 550,000, who had complete air and naval superiority.  Trapped between these two armies were a half million Okinawan civilians, many of whom remained only reluctantly Japanese and, at the same time, convinced by local propaganda that the American Army intended to exter,minate the Okinawan people. In the end the battle of Okinawa killed 30,000 Japanese troops, 10,000 American troops, and over 150,000 Okinawans.  Ninety percent of the buildings on the Island were completely destroyed, and the lush tropical landscape was turned into a vast field of mud, lead, decay and maggots.  The descriptions of this time are truly horrifying.

The Peace Memorial

Following the end of the War, the American military retained control over Okinawa until 1973, when the entire Ryukyu Chain was returned to Japan.  During this time large American military bases were created all over the island, both to support American wars in Korea and Vietnam, and as front line nuclear weapon air bases aimed at intimidating "Communist" China.  Most of these military bases remain today (despite their unwelcome presence in the eyes of Okinawan people), largely because the Japanese government has pursued a policy of continuing base leases on Okinawa as part of their ongoing cooperation with the United States.  This has caused many Okinawans to hold their own government partly to blame for the disruption caused by an unwanted American military presence.  Yet, in part because of the bases and the long American occupation, Okinawa is closer to the United States in culture and personality than any other part of Japan or Asia (with the exception of the Philippines and those islands in the Pacific that remain under American control, like Guam).  Many high ranking Okinawans were educated in the US as part of an Colonial policy of ā€œAmericanizingā€ Okinawa.  And even today a large portion Okinawans remain at least marginally bilingual and have considerable familiarity with Americans and their ways.  Indeed, while American pop music is popular all over Japan, many of the stars of the contemporary Japanese popular music scene are Okinawan.

Karate has been influenced by all of these currents.  Its roots are Chinese, and many of our oldest kata derive from the teachings of the Chinese military attachés that accompanied envoys from Beijing. The katas Kusanku, Wanshu, Passai, and perhaps Chinto have their roots in such teaching.  Famous Okinawan karate men like Matsumura of Shuri and Todi Sakugawa trained directly under Chinese masters.
Trade with southern China also exposed Okinawan merchant families with the martial traditions of the mainland.  In particular, White Crane Gung Fu (which flourished during the disruption caused by the advent of European Colonialism in China) had a major role on Okinawan karate.  The kata Naihanchi, Rohai, Gojushiho and many more in the Uechi Ryu and Goju Ryu system come directly from Fouzhou, where much of the trade with China was centered.  For this reason, the organizing logic of many kata are caught up with a view of human physiology drawn directly from traditional Chinese medicine.  Chinese holds and throws ( "chin na"or "karamite" in Okinawan) or vulnerable point ("kyusho") striking is deeply embedded in the movements and strategies of Okinawan karate.

Tegumi Wrestling
Likewise, as Shoshin Nagamine notes in his book on the myths and history of Okinawan karate, Satsuma grappling and sumo wresting had an impact on karate and prompted the development of a distinctive kind of Okinawan wrestling called "tegumi".   It is very clear that all of the ancient kata of karate contain grappling and tangling techniques, some with close parallels in Japanese Ju-jitsu.  Okinawan "te" (which later merged with Chinese White Crane Gung-fu to form "to-te" or "toudi" in Okinawan) very likely drew on traditional Japanese hand-to-hand martial training.  After many years, American karate practitioners are just beginning to realize the extent to which grappling and throwing (rather than just kicking and striking) are interwoven into the movements of the kata of Okinawa karate. Choki Motobu, a famous Okinawan karate teacher from the turn of the century used Naihanchi kata to teach close in fighting and grappling.

Choki Motobu
The advent of formal Japanese political hegemony influenced karate in other ways as well.  Motobu, for example, was the son of once powerful Okinawan family who was force by the changing economic times to move to Japan to seek work during the recession that followed the annexation of the Ryukyus. Like many Okinawans, his flight caused a considerable cultural vaccuum on the islands, the depth of which was realized by few at the time.

Other changes caused by the Japanese take-over were more positive. Ankoh Itosu, a student of Matsumura of Shuri, was instrumental in having karate introduced into the public school curriculum.  He created the Pinan Katas from more complex forms to make the movements of karate more suitable to young students.  A student of Itosu, Gichin Funakoshi, also moved to Japan (after receiving certification as a school teacher) and is credited with introducing Karate to Japan.  The system he taught, which had been called Shuri-te or Shorin Ryu came to be called "Shotokan" in Japan ("shoto" being the name of the first character in Funakoshi's name; "kan" meaning house or system).  Shotokan shares many kata with contemporary Shorin Ryu and is among the most popular karate systems in the world.  Several of Funakoshi's Korean students took his style back to Korea and from it formed the Tae Kwan Do and Tang Su Do systems, which in the past had more overlap with the ancestral Okinawan forms.

Gichin Funakoshi
Other changes were less dramatic but equally far reaching.  Japanese imperialism fostered strong anti-Chinese sentiments throughout Japan.  As a result, Funakoshi began using the term "karate" (meaning "empty hand") for his system, rather than "toudi" ("China hand" in Okinawan dialect) as it had been called on Okinawa, in order to disguise Chinese roots of the original art.  The term "Shorin Ryu" (the Okinawan pronunciation of Shaolin Lao) was also discouraged in Japan, though it remained popular in Okinawa.

Such was the power of Japanese ideological hegemony that many Okinawan masters were forced to go along with the changes being made in Japan by Funakoshi and his students.  Indeed several meetings were held on Okinawa to decide how to deal the changes that had been put in place in Tokyo, and it was through these meetings that modern karate emerged in Okinawa.  The use of rank belts and the "dan" and "kyu" system familiar to the public today, and even the karate uniform itself, were adapted from the judo system by Funakoshi, and later adopted in Okinawa as well.

Chotoku Kyan
During the years of Japanese expansion, many Okinawans served in the Imperial Army, and others traveled abroad in the newly conquered areas.  Chotoku Kyan visited Taiwan after Japanese invasion to learn about Chinese martial arts, and composed the kata Ananku after returning from the visit.  Kentsu Yabu served in the Japanese Army in combat and this shaped his understanding of Shorin Ryu.  Yabu was said to be a practical fighter, and one of the few who would stand up to Choki Motobu in an bare-knuckle contest.  The wars of Japanese expansion also influenced those in Okinawa who wished to avoid conscription.  Many merchant families sent their sons to Fouzhou as "exchange students" to avoid military service. Kanbun Uechi, the founder of Uechi Ryu, spent nine years in China, where he studied for a time at the Kinjo dojo in Fouzhou.

Kanbun Uechi
World War 2 and the American invasion also dramatically altered Okinawan karate as well.  To begin with, many of the older masters died in the desperate times of war and its aftermath. Kyan, Motobu, Funakoshi, Uechi, Miyagi (founder of Goju Ryu) and many other died either during or shortly after the war.  Their deaths left many junior teachers without the experience they would have gained had the older generation lived out their lives under ordinary times. Kanei Uechi, Hohan Soken, Chosin Chibana and Shoshin Nagamine were among the few well known karate teachers to survive the war and they were responsible for opening the few karate schools in its aftermath.

Shoshin Nagamine

For practitioners then, finding dojo space in the post war years was nearly impossible, and the few dojos that did open tended to house a mixture of students and teachers loosely arranged around convenience, shared interest, and shared background.  This led to significant variation in teaching within dojos.  At the Nagamine dojo, senior students like Ansei Ueshiro had learned karate form several sources, but became students of Shoshin Nagamine and even lived in the dojo.  While practitioners like Ueshiro taught only the official kata of the dojo/system in which they were involved, their other karate experience continued to influence their teaching.

Nagamine Dojo circa 1955

On mainland Japan, karate had been institutionalized in the University system, and remained there after the war. But the breach in communication caused by the war and its aftermath led Japanese and Okinawan karate in two very different directions.  Since this time, many Okinawans have been interested in reversing the changes imposed from Japan from the 20s through the 40s, and returning to the original karate of the island ("Uchinadi").  In Japan, the paucity of classically trained teachers caused the sport and tournament system to overshadow traditional kata training, and the emphasis on large "systems" like the Japan Karate Association has come to dominate much karate.

Ueshiro and American student

The presence of Americans on Okinawa had a significant impact, however.  As students, American presented the opportunity for the newly re-emerging dojos to achieve financial stability, and many karate teachers on Okinawa immediately accepted US students despite recent memories of War and mixed feelings about the ongoing American occupation.  Many Okinawan karate men also saw migration to America as an opportunity to achieve a life away from the destruction and depression that had engulfed their homeland.  These factors helped introduce Okinawan karate to the US very shortly after the War.  US servicemen like James Wax studied at the Nagamine dojo in the mid-1950s, and returned to the US to open a host of karate schools.  Ansei Ueshiro came to the United States in 1960 and remained here the rest of his life.

For Okinawans, American occupation meant a much greater oportunity to obtain a visa to visit or work in the United States.  Likewise, attendance at American colleges and graduate schools (often paid for by scholarships offered by the US State Department) allowed many Okinawans to visit the United States for extended periods, which greatly influenced their ability to deal with Americans in Okinawa.  Takayoshi Nagamine, son of Shoshin Nagamine, spent 7 or 8 years in college in the United States, and ran a dojo in Cincinnati Ohio at the time.

Takayoshi Nagamine

Together, this complex history has been woven into karate practice for Americans and Okinawans alike.  The kata (and the systems through with they are taught) continue to change.  Many ostensibly separate systems share similar kata and overlapping histories, yet find it difficult to reconcile their mutual mistrust because of the egos of those involved.  Many Okinawan masters blame this on the ranking system, which was never a part of traditional karate, and which has led to jealousy and competition where their should be cooperation and mutual interest.  Likewise, the temptation to turn karate into a source of income is always present, a reality of our market system that is as true of Okinawa as it is the United States.  Nevertheless, the hope remains that increased consciousness of the history of karate can help those involved to see the enormity of their common interest and the insignificance of their current divisions.

Further Reading on Okinawa is available in the resources and links section of this Web site.

Please note:  The author of this site is Kirk Dombrowski, and he is solely responsible for its contents.  It is intended as an educational resource only and we ask that you use it in this spirit.  Where mistakes have (inevitably) been made, apologies are offered.  Corrections are welcome.  Professor Dombrowski can be reached via the contact button on the menu at the top of this page.