By: Stephen Whiffen, 5th degree black belt, Okinawa Seito Karate-do Yoshinkan Dojo

The early history of the Okinawan fighting arts of te, karatedo, and kobudo (ancient weapons practice) is shrouded in secrecy, and most of what is known of their development is based on speculation and oral tradition due to the lack of written records, a situation which existed until the start of the 20th century. Compiled here is a brief history of these martial traditions with a particular focus on the fighting art of karatedo.

Okinawa, or the Ryukyu Islands as it is also known, is actually composed of a long stretch of approximately 105 islands connecting Japan to the north and Taiwan to the south. Throughout its history, Okinawa was considered a center for trading and commerce in East Asia and has a unique culture of its own, distinct from both Japan and China yet influenced tremendously by both.

Some of the earlier external influences on the development of martial arts in Okinawa undoubtedly came from the Japanese, who had a highly developed martial culture and a history of battles between clans vying for power. During the Heian period in Japan (794-1185), many aristocrats sought refuge in Okinawa from the numerous wars plaguing the country, and brought with them the standard Japanese combative methodologies of the period, including grappling, naginata-jutsu (halberd), yari-jutsu (spear), and kenjutsu (swordsmanship). One Japanese warrior noted for his remarkable fighting skills, Minamoto Tametomo, married into the ruling family in Okinawa sometime after 1156 AD, and some historians believe that Japanese martial skills were subsequently taught to the Okinawan warriors in his clan. These weapon and empty-hand traditions, which became known as “Te” (literally, hand), were jealously guarded through the centuries and kept strictly within certain aristocratic families, called Shizoku, being passed down from father to son. Commoners were not generally privy to the secrets of Te until the 20th century, so the common notion that Okinawan farmers practised martial arts is, for the most part, erroneous. They most likely had neither the time nor the energy to do so, even if a teacher was available to them.

The empty hand techniques of Te were characterized by soft, circular movements and included grappling skills and atemi (vital-point striking). These systems, based mainly on ancient Japanese martial traditions, pre-date the Chinese-influenced combative systems (known as Tode or karate) which were introduced later in Okinawan history. Unfortunately, quite a few of the pure Te traditions were lost forever when many experts died without passing on their skills to a disciple. Most of the Te traditions that have survived into the 20th century are the result of the melding of Te with the Chinese-influenced system of Tode (which later became known as karate), particularly by legendary masters such as Sokon Matsumura in the 19th century. This would explain why there are very few dojos in Okinawa today where Te is taught as a whole system, complete with the Japanese-style weapons of katana (sword), naginata (halberd), and yari (spear). Despite the fact that it has not spread outside Okinawa and is virtually unknown in the Western world, Te is generally recognized by historians as the first true organized system of personal combat of the Ryukyu Islands.

The most prominent martial art practised outside the public school system in Okinawa today is, of course, karate. The following paragraphs explore several theories on the origin and development of Chinese-based karate on the Ryukyu Islands.

One theory relates to a large group of Chinese diplomats and their families that settled in Okinawa in 1393 AD. They brought with them knowledge of ship-building, administration, architecture, paper and books, and very likely Chinese Kempo. This launched an era of large-scale trade with China, and many missions were sent between each country until 1870 when Okinawa formally became a part of Japan. Also during this period, exchange students made extended pilgrimages to various parts of China to receive an education. The numerous envoys and international students sent to China were composed solely of the upper classes of Okinawan society, and only these persons were privy to the fighting arts of Beijing, Nanjing, Shanghai, and Fuzhou. The Pechin in Okinawa, who were the equivalent of the Samurai in Japanese society, also studied with the security experts who accompanied the special envoys of the Chinese emperor. It is likely that the martial skills of these Okinawan warriors were based mostly on the Chinese fighting arts of Kempo, with some mingling of Te empty hand techniques occurring through the centuries. The former name of karate, “Tode”, pays tribute to this mostly Chinese influence; Tode translates as “Tang hand”, Tang being an old Okinawan reference to China (specifically the Tang dynasty of 618-907 AD).

Another major influence on the development of martial arts in Okinawa was the banning of all weapons sometime in the 1470’s by King Sho Shin. All swords, spears, and weapons of war were stockpiled in a warehouse in Shuri, the former capital of Okinawa. Undoubtedly, this would have greatly increased any interest in empty hand training which was taught by Chinese diplomats and traders based in Okinawa as well as Okinawans who had studied abroad. It is around this time that martial artists likely started training intensely in weapons that would not have been banned by the government. These included the bo (6 foot staff), the sai (a short forked metal instrument), the kama (sickle), the tonfa (an agricultural device used as a handle for a millstone), and the nunchaku (a wooden flail). Although all of the foregoing weapons were found in Okinawa, training in their martial applications came mostly from China, where fighting systems encompassing these weapons were highly developed and had been practised for centuries. This type of weapons training is what is now usually referred to as kobudo, and is practised either as a separate art or has been incorporated into karate styles to complement the empty hand techniques. Kobudo was also influenced by the Satsuma (a clan from the southern part of Japan) invasion of 1609. Some of the Pechin of Okinawa traveled to Satsuma and learned the Japanese art of the bo, as well as kenjutsu, the art of fighting with the katana, the preferred weapon of the Samurai. Weapons masters from Satsuma were also documented as being sent to Okinawa to teach farmers and peasants self defense tactics in case of a foreign invasion. This is one of the few instances where commoners may have had the opportunity to learn combative arts. These techniques were reportedly disguised in traditional dances which have been preserved and are still currently practised on the islands as part of the heritage and tradition of Okinawa. The vast number of karate styles present in Okinawa and Japan today attest to the variety of sources of inspiration and influence which contributed to the development of this ancient combative art.

Until the 20th century, the practice of Te and karate in Okinawa was still done in secret, handed down through the generations within families, or taught to a select group of students who were handpicked by the master and completely devoted to their training. Karate was never considered to be a sport at this time as it was practised almost exclusively by Okinawan warriors or security experts whose very lives were clearly dependent on their martial abilities. Thus, the philosophy behind this fighting style resembled “jutsu” (an “art”, techniques designed primarily for combat) more so than “do” (the “way”, a path traveled to achieve self perfection). Karate first started to come out into the open in the early 1900’s, when karate legend Itosu Anko campaigned to introduce the discipline into the school system as a form of physical education. This lead to a radical revision of the way karate was practised. Most of the more dangerous techniques were removed for schoolchildren, making the shift from a secret self defense art to a form of physical fitness and recreational activity which could be widely practised by all. During this transformation, the emphasis in training was on kata practice as a form of self expression, neglecting bunkai, the application of kata techniques in fighting situations. By not teaching the hidden self defense moves, the actual intention of kata (e.g., to disable, maim, or even kill by traumatizing anatomically vulnerable areas if necessary) became so obscured that a new tradition developed. This new creation was introduced to mainland Japan, where it conformed to the forces of Japanese martial sports and evolved even further in that direction.

Karate was first formally introduced to the Japanese mainland in 1917 by the famous “Father of Modern Karate”, Funakoshi Gichin, at a martial arts demonstration in the Butokuden, the grand martial arts hall in Kyoto. Funakoshi and other Okinawan masters soon started teaching karate en masse, initially at universities and makeshift dojos around the country. Karate was formally recognized as Budo (a martial tradition which focused on self development more so than pure combative strategy) by the Dai Nippon Butokukai, Japan’s national governing body for the combative traditions, in 1933, and the adoption of a standard training uniform and the dan-kyu system (degree-level system of rank) occurred around that time. Subtle changes were occurring, however, in the approach of the Japanese towards karate. Rules for competition were developed, and techniques which won points in tournaments soon became the focus in training, comparable to the martial sports of Kendo and Judo. Many of the effective techniques which had survived the transition from “jutsu” to “do” were becoming even more diluted due to the new emphasis by the Japanese on competitions and freestyle sparring. These changes may have appealed to a larger group of followers, who were interested in the sporting aspects of the art, but more than likely also compromised karate’s effectiveness both as a form of combat and as a vehicle for personal development. It is interesting to note that while many of the Japanese practitioners favoured this emphasis on “sports karate”, most of the competent Okinawan masters who were active during this transitional period resisted the trend to turn karate into a sport and retained the old style values of Budo in their teachings. The concept of “sports karate” is basically a Japanese invention that has spread to the West and popularized to the point that many practitioners have forgotten the true meaning of traditional Budo.

In the last 40 years, karate has spread to all corners of the earth and is one of the most popular martial arts. Generally speaking, the vast number of schools can be classified in three ways.

  1. Most styles place emphasis on karate as a sport and form of recreation and physical fitness. Many of the practitioners participate in competitions and tournaments, with secondary emphasis being placed on spiritual development and combat effectiveness.
  2. A smaller group of proponents practice karate as a “jutsu”, where self defense techniques and fighting strategies form the core of the training and little emphasis is placed on the sporting elements or spiritual dimension.
  3. Finally there are dojos that can be considered true Budo, where the martial applications have not been lost, and seishin tanren (spiritual forging) is the key to the practitioner’s constant efforts to reach inner peace, self perfection, and harmony with society. The masters of these dojos have continued to resist the lure of competition and strive to maintain the century’s old values and integrity of traditional martial arts. The goal is neither to win trophies, as in sporting styles, nor to become a mere human killing machine, as in the “jutsu” styles. The practice of karatedo as a form of Budo is truly a way of life that eventually leads the practitioner, through the vehicle of effective combat techniques and spiritual discipline, to self discovery and a profound sense of purpose.