A Brief History of Okinawan Karate

I’ve studied Okinawan karate for nearly a decade, though interestingly enough, I’ve focused mainly on the movements. Only within the last several years have I made a pointed effort to start digging deeper to discover the roots of my art. The history and culture surrounding the martial arts, and especially Okinawan karate, are as interesting to me as the physical applications.

Karate’s roots can be traced back to roughly 500 A.D., according to Robert Trias, when an Indian abbot crossed the Himalayas into China. Bodhidharma’s purpose was to enlighten the Chinese monks at Shorinji Temple to teach them the way of Zen, but found them “lacking in physical and mental development and unable to endure the severity of the discipline required to bring them to satori, or enlightenment.” Within a few years, it is said Bodhidharma instituted a physical fitness program based on the Buddhist doctrine of the inseparability of the mind and body that transformed the monks into the most formidable fighters in China.

While I am sure it existed, none of my research has indicated much in the development of the martial arts until 1477, when Sho Shin, ruling the island from Shuri, banned the ownership of arms in large quantities. During this time, Trias states that the Chinese replaced civil emissaries with military personnel, some of whom were familiar with Chinese kempo (aka tode, or Chinese boxing). The Okinawans liked this form of unarmed combat, Trias says, and adapted it into Okinawa-te (Okinawan hand). In Okinawan Karate, Mark Bishop says the Okinawans would study Chinese boxing in China, or the Chinese (such as Kusanku) would teach it on Okinawa.

 Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura was among the Okinawans who received instruction in China. Matsumura studied Chuan-fa and Hsing-i in China, and when he returned, he was the personal bodyguard to two kings at Shuri Castle for more than 50 years, according to Bruce Clayton. Even in the 19th century, it’s reported that Matsumura lived well into his 90s, nearly twice the average lifespan during that time period (sources dispute his birth and death dates, though all suggest a long lifespan).

In 1609, members of the former Japanese province of Satsuma (now Kyushu) invaded the Ryukyu Islands, weakening the kingdom for decades. In 1699, Satsuma prohibited imports of all bladed weapons. While the Ryukyuan upper classes were allowed to trade or make farming instruments by 1724, peasants were not allowed to until 1879 when Japan annexed the Ryukyu Islands during the Meiji Restoration. (Note: Trias suggests the Shimazu clan could also be responsible for the weapons ban.)

This is a key point, as Bishop argues the martial arts didn’t develop as a result of weaponless peasants trying to overthrow their Satsuma overlords. In fact, prior to 1879, he says martial arts were limited to upper class families. Ti, tode’s predecessor, was practiced for self-defense and as a means of self-development by nobility. Karate, meanwhile, was practiced by others in the towns of Shuri, Naha and Tomari.

Okinawa-te developed tremendously over the centuries in secrecy with no written records until the 20th century. In 1901, Ankoh Itosu integrated karate as we know it into the curriculum at the Okinawa Normal School. Styles proliferated throughout the region as a result of Itosu and other masters such as Gichin Funakoshi and Choki Motobu, and as a result of World War 2, the financially hard-pressed Okinawan masters realized karate’s commercial value.

(As an aside, George Dillman states in his book, Kyushu-Jutsu, that the term “karate” wasn’t introduced until about 1930, when a nationalistic, pre-World War 2 imperial Japan wanted to eliminate the reference to the Chinese and began referring to tode as karate.)

One of the men who received karate instruction (specifically Shuri-ryu instruction) during this time was Robert Trias, who is credited as opening the first karate school in the United States. Trias trained a number of students (obviously), including my instructor, David Hawkey.

Trias received instruction from T’ung Gee Hsing (or Hsiang) while stationed in the British Solomon Islands in World War 2. Hsing, in turn, learned the Chinese art of Hsing-i from his uncle and adoptive father, Shang Tsao-Hsiang. Trias describes how during the 1800s many traveling monks were being robbed and killed on a road in China. Shang Tsao-Hsiang taught his martial skills to the monks to allow them to travel safely through the highway robbers.

Hsing settled in Kume Mura, a Chinese settlement in Okinawa, where he met Choki Motobu. Hsing and Motobu then incorporated their styles together, which “became the basis of modern Okinawan Shuri-te and the entirety of the Shuri-ryu system as taught today,” according to Trias.

I am by no means presenting a comprehensive history of Okinawan karate, as I am unfamiliar with the development of its other forms. I will be rereading Bishop’s book, Okinawan Karate, for the first time since I began practicing my art in order to better understand the differing styles.

Regardless of the style, I think Master Trias’s words speak volumes about karate in general:

Although the development of the science of karate over the centuries has been long and arduous, and even in danger of being lost to mankind by suppression or indifference, it has nevertheless persisted due to the devotion of its many students and masters, often in the face of great hardships. Karate must be considered in its final form and spirit as an expression of man’s indomitable will to survive adversity in the most direct and self-reliant manner possible, requiring only that which nature gave him – a mind and body rigorously disciplined as an inseparable entity.

Note: Two years ago, I began to practice tai chi chuan and Hsing-i chuan. It’s a great feeling to practice the art that Trias describes as a prototype to Shuri-ryu. In my mind, by complementing one art with the other, I am getting a more complete view.

Thanks to my brother for suggesting I write about this topic. I am open to writing other martial arts topics, too. Send me an email or leave a comment letting me know what you want to know more about. Other friends have suggested I discuss the benefits of kata and sparring, how to stay inspired after attaining a black belt, why you should learn more than one style, and what place the martial arts have in our society today. 

By Adam Bockler

Adam Bockler is a B2B marketing professional, a black belt martial arts instructor, DDP Yoga instructor, and a personal trainer.