Brief History of Karate

Okinawa, located in the Ryu-Kyu Island Chain, is the birthplace of modern karatedo and kobudo. Historians believe that the art of Okinawa Te originated independently of any other combat system. It is also believed this system of unarmed combat can be traced back over 1,000 years. Because the islanders were not of wealthy status, weapons were scarce. The island's lack of unification gave rise to many aggressive warlords, each battling for supremacy. These circumstances rendered a strong incentive for the evolution of unarmed combat.

In the mid 1340's Okinawa entered into a trade relationship with China. This trade and political friendship allowed the Okinawan people to observe the different aspects of China, and they were exposed to Chinese boxing systems. Furthermore, by the late 1300's, in a tributary relationship, 36 Chinese families and businessmen settled on Okinawa. These families brought with them a variety of skills, including Chinese martial arts.

Through the 1400's the island experienced much turmoil. At first the island was unified by King Sho Hashi in 1429. At the time Okinawans were still able to possess weapons. In 1470 King Sho Hashi destroyed the former dynasty and established his own. Soon all arms were banned on the island, in fear that the reign might be overthrown. As a result, emphasis on the fighting arts further progressed. The main villages of Okinawa are credited with the main styles that emerged from Okinawa Te. From the village of Shuri, came Shuri Te. From the village of Naha, came Naha Te. From the village of Tomari, came Tomari Te.


Hidari Gomon

The Hidari Gomon, once the royal crest of the Ryukyu Kingdom, is the primary traditional symbol of Okinawa.

Beside empty hand combat, the Okinawans also began the practice of Kobudo (weapons). Because of King Sho Hashi's ban on the traditional weapons (such as the samurai sword), the Okinawans began using their everyday farming implements as weapons. From this practice the most commonly thought of weapons became known as the: Bo (six foot staff); the Eku (six foot oar); the Kama (grass or cain sickle); the Tonfa (utility handle); and the Nunchaku (horse bit, and even rice flail). It is conceivable that these particular weapons were not the only weapons practiced. Zen Okinawan Kobudo Renmei (Matayoshi Kobudo) makes use of the Kuwa (Japanese Hoe), the Timbei and Rochin (shield and dagger), as well as the Nunti (Japanese like spear).

These styles of unarmed and armed combat were practiced in secrecy for years. Differences between Te styles suggest the different influences of various Chinese styles. Shuri-Te seems to utilize the external system of Shaolin boxing. Naha-Te incorporates the use of internal Taoist techniques. Tomari-Te appears to be a mix of both internal and external fighting systems. These variances alone are responsible for the evolution of the different systems into distinct martial art styles they are today.

In 1609 Okinawa was seized by the Japanese Satsuma Samurai clan for refusing to recognize Japan's newest Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. As a result the Shogunate banned the Okinawan people from carrying weapons. This only further fueled the importance of developing the martial arts as a means of survival. By now the Japanese had banned all trade relationships with other countries, yet Okinawa was allowed to trade with China. Around the mid to late 1700's a Chinese diplomat named Kusanku moved to Okinawa for 6 years. During his stay he began teaching the Chinese system of Ch'uan-Fa. Those influences became known as Tode (or Chinese Hand).

By the 1800's these styles were again re-named. Shuri and Tomari-Te formed the basis for Okinawan Shorin Ryu, while Naha-Te formed Goju Ryu and Uechi Ryu. Tode Sakugawa began studying under Kusanku-sensei. The teachings of Kusanku enabled Sakugawa to combine the essence of both Te and Chinese Boxing principles. These principles form the basis of modern day Shorin Ryu.