The Karate Tapestry
Okinawa karate… It is impossible to understand karate and karate history, without understanding Okinawa.
One transparent example. In Japan, women were second class citizens. In Okinawa, women have, since early times, been a driving force. A Noro, a priestess, was the head of the religion and had almost as much power as the king. One of Okinawa’s most ancient beliefs is onarigami, the spiritual superiority of women derived from the Goddess Amamikyo. This differs greatly from Japanese Shinto, where men are seen as the embodiment of purity (whew).
Women abound in Okinawan martial history. A well-known teacher named Higa admitted that he learned much of his karate from his sister. Legend has it that Bushi Matsumura had to defeat his girlfriend, Chiru, before she would become his wife.
Called Uchinaa in its own language, Hogan, Okinawa is the largest island in the Ryu Kyu chain of islands, strewn, like a handful of rocks by Amamikyo’s divine hand, across the East China Sea from southern Japan toward Fuzhou, China.
Unante, from the same root word, is an early Okinawan name for our art.
It’s location, at a matrix between Japan, China, Korea and Southeast Asia foreshadowed Okinawa’s destiny. That coincidental position gave the island trade and prosperity, but, not siding with Japan against Korea in one of their early wars, ultimately doomed the island kingdom.
From the 13th century, Okinawa was an independent kingdom, a tributary of China. China only traded with tributary countries and the relationship brought great wealth to the tiny island. Okinawa adopted the Chinese written language, governmental structure, cultural relationships and whatever else filtered through.
Okinawa’s own spoken language still exists to some extent today, much like minority languages still exist in the United States – Cajun or Apache, for example – spoken by stalwarts, intent on preserving the heritage.
The independent Okinawan Kingdom more or less paralleled the Ming Dynasty from the late 14th century until the 1600’s. This is why we believe that modern karate derives much of its influence from the Ming. Okinawa was, during the karate introduction years, in essence, an extension of the Ming.
In 1392 the founding Ming emperor sent a contingent of emissaries called the thirty-six families to Okinawa to monitor the maritime trade. They also taught language, culture and martial arts.
The group is legendary in karate history. They created a village called Kume (Kumemura or Kuninda) from which sprang a wealth of knowledge. Some Okinawan martial artists today speak with pride of their Kumemura Chinese ancestry and the village still exists in a nook of the city of Naha, now just called Kume.
The Okinawan kingdom flourished for 300 years as a tributary to the Ming, with a strong economy and a fairly sophisticated society. It all came tumbling down in 1609 with the Japanese invasion. The independent kingdom and the flourishing economy disappeared in the face of the Japanese war machine, never to rise again.
What precipitated this?
In 1600 the most famous Japanese warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu, succeeded, through stealth, treachery and war, in bringing Japan under his personal banner. On the losing side was a family clan from southern Japan – the Satsuma.
Nothing is ever forgotten in Japan, neither then nor now, and Tokugawa knew that the Satsuma would always be a threat. Their revenge, in fact, came 250 years later in the Boshin war (referenced somewhat in the movie Twilight Samurai).
In order to keep Shimazu misdirected, Tokugawa allowed him to “conquer” the Ryu Kyu islands. Tokugawa wanted to punish Okinawa, anyway, for not siding with Japan in their war with Korea 200 years prior (nothing is ever forgotten in Japan).
The Satsuma gladly accepted the offer and descended on Okinawa with 3,000 seasoned warriors in 100 ships, defeating the un-defended island in days. The remainder of Okinawan history is framed by its subjugation at the hands of a ruthless, brutal conqueror and attempt to maintain its minuscule culture in the face of an overwhelming Japan.
It is during this period, from 1609 to 1900 that karate gradually entered the picture like an embryo slowly emerging. In the face of a prohibition of bladed weapons, Okinawans nurtured a martial art inherited from China which consisted of empty hand techniques and a few wooden weapons fashioned from non-threatening tools.
But the Okinawans were not a warlike people. When you live on an island 60 miles long and 20 miles wide, you don’t develop such ambitions. Instead, they became gentle and hospitable.
This graciousness inherent in the Okinawan culture imbues the Okinawans and their martial art with a gentle, introspective feel. Okinawan dojos are generally quiet places, where students practice alone or with a partner under the gaze of a teacher ready to assist. Japanese dojos, in contrast, often feel like military camps with rows of students marching to the commands of a Sempai/ Sergeant.
Karate was a secret Okinawan art until the turn of the 20th century. About that time, Japan discovered that the tiny island they had bullied for 300 years was home to a unique, deadly, fun martial art. They adapted various versions and systematically exported them throughout the world.
But karate is not Japanese. It’s Okinawan by birth, character and heritage.
For a time, I spent evenings visiting with an Okinawan karate teacher, deadly and hospitable like the rest. He is Japanese by nationality, but adamant about his Okinawan identity and that, when the mainland Japanese want to learn “real” karate, they seek him out or other Okinawans like him (just as I did).
Japan lost Okinawa at the end of WWII and it became an American protectorate. Okinawa had the option of reverting back to Japan, however, or remaining with the United States. In 1971, after much heated debate, they chose Japan, but it was far from unanimous. An American friend was studying in Okinawa at the time and remembers a vote to see if they should teach karate to Japanese. They voted yes, but the vote itself tells the story.
Many Okinawans believed that Japan had sacrificed the island in a last ditch attempt to keep the Americans away from the Japanese homeland. Okinawa was obliterated in the final days of World War II and Japan surrendered just before the mainland attack materialized. It was primarily because of the atomic bomb that Japan surrendered, but it was also because Japan did not want an invasion of their own island and sacrificing Okinawa had bought them wasted time.
Today Okinawa is officially part of Japan, but with a distinct and very proud identity of its own. The world has finally realized that Okinawa is the well spring of karate and every year foreign students visit there to study at the source. Tournament competitors scan videos of early Okinawan katas to come up with “new” competitive forms.
This meandering island history, from multicultural, independent, China leaning kingdom, to occupied island, to war time sacrifice, to martial arts font, is what forged our martial art out of one country’s very human story of survival and endurance.
This article was assembled from personal research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), various works of Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles), Benny Meng (Ving Tsun Museum), Earnest Estrada, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).
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