History: Early Okinawan karate


Okinawa, the largest and most important island of the Ryukyu Island chain lies in the East China sea some 550km south of the main southern island of Japan, 550 km north of Taiwan and 740km east of the Chinese mainland. It is a small island, 108 km long and varying between 5 and 24 km wide. Today it supports a population of one million people who mainly live in the south as northern Okinawa is heavily forested. It is regarded that the original inhabitants of the Ryukyus arrived from Japan around 300BC.

The islanders lived a simple existence based on fishing and crude agriculture with little outside interference until around the 5th century when Japanese and Chinese traders began to use Okinawa as a staging post for trade with each other, South East Asia and Korea.
As early as the 7th century a crude home-grown martial art had developed on Okinawa. Over time this was influenced in no small part by the foreign fighting methods exported to the islands by traders and visitors. This rudimentary martial art became known as Ti in Okinawan or Te in Japanese (literally - "hand"). By the 11th century, the Taira-Minamoto wars in Japan led to a large number of Taira clan refugees settling in Okinawa. As many of these were skilled in Japanese martial arts, particularly in weapons arts, it is not unreasonable to assume that this knowledge was absorbed into the "melting-pot" and specifically influenced the development of Okinawan Kobujutsu/Kobudo.

Okinawa's relationship with China

In 1372, one of the three kingdoms of Okinawa entered into a formal relationship with China and thus began a period of cultural and social change as the Okinawans availed themselves of the more sophisticated culture of their feudal overlord. A natural consequence was the further development of Te as Okinawans journeyed to China and Chinese officials and professionals relocated to Okinawa.

By 1429, Okinawa, now united under one King, Sho-Hashi and entirely involved in a subordinate relationship with China, entered into a golden era. The people of the Ryukyus became accomplished sailors, travelling throughout Asia in their small boats and trading with far off countries. Okinawa became the great trading post of the region and established a network of trade links that encompassed not only Japan and China but also Taiwan, Indo-China, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. This obviously proved highly beneficial for the development of the Okinawan empty-handed and weapons-based martial arts.

During these times many fighting traditions were combined with existent Okinawan self-defence methods. Some Okinawans, captivated by the lure of martial arts mastery, vigorously studied the various fist-fighting, grappling and weapons techniques either from visitors to Okinawa or by journeying to China themselves.
Most important was Okinawa's proximity and links to the Fujian (Fuzhou) province of Southern China, a community rich in fighting traditions and the birthplace of the Southern Shaolin Temple Boxing. There is much evidence that many styles of Chinese Boxing flourished in and around the Southern Chinese Fujian/Fujian province - such as the Monk Fist, Ancestor Fist and Crane Fist boxing systems. However, many of these fighting traditions have either vanished into the annals of time, been absorbed by other systems, or have found homes in neighbouring provinces or other lands such as Okinawa.

In fact it was this ancestry that made the most significant contribution to the development of Okinawan martial arts and established their reputation for combat effectiveness. In particular, it was Crane Fist Boxing, one of the Fujian district's most prominent fighting styles, that was a major contributor to the development of Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate.

Banning of weapons

Around 1477, a new King, Sho-Shin, in dealing with rebellious war-lords first banned the carrying of swords by anyone and later banned weapons altogether. (This was seen as an act of oppression at the time but it is interesting to note that most people today would see this as an act of sublime wisdom).

A natural consequence of this action was to further stimulate the interest in the weaponless fighting arts of China and other Asian lands. The Okinawans, being traders and sailors, particularly needed to be able to defend themselves from the Wa-Ko, pirates that terrorized the towns and cities of the South China coast as well as the seas surrounding the Ryukyus.

The Japanese invasion

Okinawa's golden age came to an end when in 1609, the dominant Satsuma Clan from Kyushu (Japan's south island) invaded with a fleet of one hundred ships and three thousand men. Weaponless and inexperienced in fighting wars, the Okinawans fought valiantly but were easily overwhelmed by the sword and firearm wielding invaders. The victorious Japanese continued to enforce the total ban on weapons and introduced new and severe levels of taxation. They did however, continue to encourage trade with China so as to be able to reap the benefits and better exploit the Okinawans.

The Japanese occupation made the islanders even more determined to develop their weaponless fighting skills. Some Okinawans journeyed to China to study Chinese martial arts which they incorporated into their indigenous fighting art Okinawa-te or as it became known later Bushi-no-te ("Warriors hands").

Naha-te, Shuri-te and Tomari Te

In 1669, the ban on weapons was joined by a further edict banning the practice of martial arts. Okinawa-te was forced to become an "underground" activity and began to be practised in great secrecy, usually late at night or before dawn. Over the next two centuries the techniques of the both the empty-handed art and the weapons art of Kobujutsu were refined and systematized. Three main centres became known for the teaching of Te and this gave rise to three styles; Naha-te, Shuri-te and Tomari-te, each named after the village in which they were taught. It is important to note that the three villages were only a few kilometres apart and any differences in their arts would have been only in emphasis, the methods and aims being one and the same.

Curiously enough, there is no record of any organized resistance by the Ryukyu islanders to the Satsuma clan occupation of Okinawa. Nor is there anything to suggest that either Te or Kobujutsu was developed for this purpose. In fact, it appears that the arts were practised and used purely as a means of self-defence and self-development, primarily by the upper classes and certainly not by the bulk of the population. In addition it may have been a point of national pride to nurture and maintain their secret arts under the noses of their Japanese overlords.

Te becomes Tode

In 1761, the first recorded demonstration of Chinese martial arts or Tode took place on Okinawa when a expatriate Chinese by the name of Ku Shanku (who spent six years in Okinawa) performed his boxing and grappling skills in front of a delighted audience. This served to elevate Chinese arts above Okinawa-te in the eyes of many Okinawans so that those known to have the "Chinese hand(s)" attained legendary status overnight (much in the same way as those who claimed to know "Kung-fu" would become legends in the Western world over 100 years later!).

By the mid-nineteen century, the distinction between the various Te taught in particular areas became blurred and Okinawan martial arts became known by the style of the teacher(s), rather than the location in which they taught. Chinese boxing was now well and truly integrated into the native arts and the term Te had fallen into disuse, being replaced by Tode. Tode had been introduced and was now being taught by either Chinese expatriates like Ku Shanku or Okinawans who had studied Chinese boxing in China (mostly from the Fujian province).

Tode becomes Karate

In 1879, with Japan united under the new Meiji government and the power of the Satsuma clan broken, Okinawa was made a province of Japan and became subject to the system of law governing all of Japan (this fortunately meant that the practice of martial arts was no longer illegal). However, the authorities set about "Japanizing" the Okinawan culture and way of life and although this met with some resistance, it also inevitably led to many changes. With the education system now conforming to the Japanese system, Chinese and Okinawan words began to be replaced with Japanese pronunciations. Since Tode was pronounced Karate in Japanese, from this point on, there was an increasing trend to use the Japanese pronunciation. Notwithstanding this, the term Tode continued to be used until just before World War II and was still used by some styles well into the 1960's.


Sokon Matsumura

By the end of the nineteenth century, the arts of Shuri-te and Tomari-te had more or less unified in terms of their curriculum. This was due to the work and expertise of one man, Sokon Matsumura (1809-1901), who systematized and standardized Okinawa-te techniques and training methods to an extent never before achieved. Every one of the Shuri and Tomari te styles taught today can trace their lineage back to Bushi Matsumura.  For the purposes of this website we have called these arts the Shorin-ryu schools.  ("Shorin" is the Japanese word for "Shaolin".)

Matsumura, along with other Shuri youths from upper class backgrounds had learned Ti from an early age. In addition he was fortunate to have studied the use of the staff or kon (bo in Japanese) from the famous master, Satunushi Sakagawa who had learned the art in China and was then living in Shuri. Whilst working as a bodyguard and martial arts instructor to the last three Ryukyuan kings Matsumura had many opportunities to travel overseas on affairs of state.

He twice visited the Fujian province in China and was able to train at several Boxing schools including the re-built Fujian Shaolin temple. He also visited the Satsuma clan headquarters in Kyushu and is reputed to have been initiated into the Jigen-ryu sword fighting system. After retiring, Matsumura taught Tode at an open space in Shuri and among his students were Anko Itosu and Anko Asato who were later to be the teachers of the famous Karate master Gichin Funakoshi - the "father" of Japanese Karate.

Yasatsune (Anko) Itosu

After Matsumura, the most important master of Shorin-ryu karate was Yasatsune (Anko) Itosu (1832-1916). Itosu, it is widely claimed, was the originator of what we know as "modern karate". Also from a well-to-do family, Itosu had studied Tode under Sokon Matsumura from an early age and also with a Chinese who was living in Tomari.

Itosu contributed directly to the Academy's Muidokan karate system in the following ways: 1) He developed the Chinese corkscrew punch into its present form. 2) He simplified the kata we now know as Naifunchin (also known as Naihanchi or Naihanchin) from the original version taught to him by Matsumura. 3) At around 1900, he also developed a series of 5 beginner's kata called Pinan by simplifying a form called Chiang Nan he had learned from his Chinese teacher in Tomari and combining it with elements of an Okinawan form, Kusanku. Note that the Pinan kata were developed with a view to being taught in schools to prepare the youth of Okinawa for military service.

They were designed to build discipline and fighting ability, Itosu quoting Napoleon in a letter to the Okinawan education department: "tomorrow's victory will come from today's playground". In the same letter, Itosu states: "Within ten years Tode will spread all over Okinawa and to the Japanese mainland. This will be a great asset to our militaristic society." Had Itosu known of the suffering that this "militaristic society" would inflict upon the world it is doubtful that he ever would have written this letter.  The Muidokan kata Fukyugata ichi is partly based on the first of the Pinan kata, Pinan shodan.
Gichin Funakoshi

Itosu's students went on to create many of the modern styles of Karate we know today. Gichin Funakoshi (1868 -1957) introduced karate to Japan and created Japanese Shotokan Karate. His son Yoshitaka modified this to include extended leg high kicks, inventing the now famous jodan mawashi-geri. Yoshitaka was also instrumental in Karate becoming a sport after the war.

Another of Itosu's students, Kenwa Mabuni (1889 -1952) went on to combine Shorin-ryu with elements of Shorei-ryu to create Shito-ryu. Shito-ryu remains in essence more similar to the Itosu's Shorin-ryu than Shotokan which has had much influence from the Japanese Samurai tradition.

Other modern styles that trace their lineage back to Sokon Matsumura are: Shorinji-ryu, Isshin-ryu, Ishimine-ryu, Matsubayashi-ryu, Okinawa kempo, Wado-ryu, Shukokai, Shotokai (a breakaway of Shotokan) and Tae-kwon-do.

Gichin Funakoshi died in 1957, but his work was carried on by his son Yoshitaka.

Yoshitaka was in turn succeeded by his most senior student Masatoshi Nakayama.  It was Nakayama who would lead Funakoshi's organisation, now known as the Japan Karate Association (JKA), to become one of the most respected and widespread karate schools in the world.

In 1936, a group of Okinawan masters decided to change the kanji (Chinese characters) for the first part of the name karate. This was first suggested by the famous karate master Gichin Funakoshi who believed that in order for the art to be fully accepted into Japanese culture it first needed to be seen as an indigenous art. At a time when Japan was swept up by nationalist fervour and in particular, about to go to war against China, he felt that it was time to change the Kanji (Chinese character) for kara from   referring to China (or more correctly - the Tang dynasty) to another  with the same pronunciation but meaning "empty" . At the same time it was decided to adopt the suffix -do (hence Karate-do), which not only allowed the art to become registered as a Japanese cultural icon but for the first time formally acknowledged Karate as an art of self-perfection rather than simply as a means of self-defence. In Gichin Funakoshi's own words:
"Karate-do strives internally to train the mind to develop a clear conscience enabling one to face the world truthfully...mind and technique are to become one in true Karate".


Shorei-ryu is one of the Okinawan Tode styles that lays claim to being based on a "complete" Chinese boxing system along with Jukendo, Ryuei-ryu, Uechi-ryu and Kojo-ryu (collectively known as Naha-te meaning "hands of Naha"). Shorei-ryu was the name of the system brought back from from the Fujian/Fujian province of China by Kanryo Higaonna (1853 - 1917).

Kanryo Higaonna

Despite being descended from the upper class, Kanryo Higaonna's family were poor and made a living transporting firewood to Naha from nearby islands in a small junk. Naha was a port and the centre for trade between Okinawa and Fuzhou in the Fujian province of Southern China. (This is why the martial arts practised in Naha have always been considered more Chinese-based than those practised in Shuri or Tomari).

Kanryo learned the basics of Ti from an early age and then studied Tode in Naha. Despite living in Naha, Kanryo was unable to find a teacher that had the philosophical attitude and superhuman ability that he associated with Chinese Boxing. Thus at around 1867, at age 15, Higaonna decided to journey to China, a move supposedly prompted by his father's death in a fight. It seems that Higaonna may have travelled to China several times between the age of 15 and 23, as an aide to a diplomat called Udun Yoshimura and apparently trained on-and-off with a master called Wan Shin San whenever he was in China. Wan Shin San, a military attaché, apparently had another seven Okinawan students in addition to Higaonna.

Xie Zhonghxiang

After a number of visits to China Kanryo Higaonna become a live-in disciple of a master known as Ryu Ru Ko by the Okinawans (his Chinese name was either Liu Lu Kung or Xie Zhonghxiang depending on the dialect/spelling used). Little is known about Ryu Ru Ko but it is generally accepted that like Wan Shin San, he was a highly skilled boxer in the Crane Fist and Ancestor Fist boxing systems. There can be no doubt however that his teachings provided the basis of the fighting tradition of Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karate.

After being accepted by Ryu Ru Ko, Kanryo worked in his teacher's cane furniture business and trained for five to six hours a day, much of it spent in the practice of Sanchin kata and what we now call Hojo undo. Apparently, Higaonna often became despondent with his life and wanted to leave, but the words of a song: "Anyone can put up with a little, but it takes a man to put up with a lot" - kept him going.

Once he had come to trust Higaonna, Ryu Ru Ko taught him the kaishu ('open hand') kata: Sanseiru,  Seisan,  and Suparinpei as well as Chinese weaponry. According to orthodox history1 he was also taught Saifa, Seiunchin, Shisochin, Seipai and Kururunfa however other writers2, 3 postulate that these kata were introduced later by his student Chojun Miyagi.

The training was reportedly so hard that it was almost beyond comprehension and Kanryo often passed blood with his urine. Higaonna continued to train hard however so that after a few years he bettered all of the other students and became an assistant instructor - well known in boxing circles as "Higaonna of Okinawa".

Upon his return to Okinawa, around 1881, Higaonna became a respected Tode master in Naha and was given the nick-name "Ashi-no-Higaonna" ("Legs" Higaonna) because of his lightning fast kicks. Higaonna taught his art in the courtyard of his family home, with very few students surviving the first three or four years of practising only Sanchin kata. He named his art "Shorei-ryu" ("Enlightened Spirit Style") to distinguish it from the Shorin-ryu being taught at Shuri and Tomari, however it became commonly known as Naha-te.

Only three of Kanryo Higaonna's students persisted beyond the Sanchin stage: Chojun Miyagi, Koki Shiroma and Juhatsu Kyoda and to these Higaonna taught much.

The differences between Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu

The Shorin-ryu style Anko Itosu taught was essentially Okinawan in character even though as its name suggested, it was influenced by "hard" Shaolin Chinese methods. In comparison to the Shorei-ryu style being taught in Naha at about the same time, it was said that Shorin-ryu was better suited to people with smaller frames and less strength. Shorin-ryu was developed earlier than Shorei-ryu and thus reflects a time when the Fujian province Shaolin temple was still using some of the older, northern Shaolin methods. As a result Shorin-ryu is a more mobile, longer range art, reliant on fast "in and out" movements, fast leaps and turns and more kicking techniques than Shorei-ryu. It is also a very precise martial art with great emphasis on clean, neat and aesthetic technique.

By contrast, Shorei-ryu as taught by Kanryo Higaonna, placed much emphasis of body conditioning, strength training and practicality of technique. Shorei-ryu, as even the Shorin master Gichin Funakoshi acknowledged, taught a more effective form of self-defence even though it lacked the mobility of the Shorin styles. Being essentially a Southern Chinese system with Okinawan modifications, the comments written in the Chinese fighting arts section describing the Southern Shaolin system can fairly be applied to Shorei-ryu.
Being the final product of a long process of evolution, present day Muidokan karatejutsu has hopefully adopted the best qualities of both Shorin and Shorei schools.

Next: Goju-ryu