The Martial Traditions of Okinawa

Discussion in 'Karate' started by Anth, Mar 27, 2008.

  1. Anth

    Anth Daft. Supporter

    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 defence 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 defence 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, neglecting bunkai, the application of techniques in fighting situations. By not teaching the hidden self defence 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 Butoku-den, 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 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 defence techniques and fighting strategies form the core of the training and little emphasis is placed on the sporting elements. 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 to self discovery and a profound sense of purpose.

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    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 16, 2010
  2. procombat

    procombat New Member


    Most oriental martial arts,in their endeavour to "expand"(read commerce!)have quite irrevocably lost the DO element,whether as part of a process of globalisation,or mostly due to discarding of tradition by the occidental practitioners who didn't and couldn't possibly relate to them.This has had the sad effect of a respected DO like Karate being relegated to either a flimsy sport at one end,or the so-called gory "blood-sport" bouts at the other,neither of which even remotely understand the DO and the self-perfection philosophy underlying it.Yes,martial arts should ultimately be about effective combat,but it should neither degenerate into limp sport,nor be a mere voyeuristic spectacle for crowds who would equally bet on a cockfight.The traditional Okinawan masters were quite right in abstaining from sport Karate and sticking to the DO.But today,sadly enough,while we have technically excellent combat performers,the subtle character that set apart a traditional Budoka from a mere mercenary is apparently and sorely missing.For while traditions do not make the DO,they do sustain it,down the ages!
  3. Haohmaru

    Haohmaru New Member

    Goju-ryu, Very beautiful style...
  4. cejames

    cejames Valued Member

    Shrouded in secrecy ... NOT ... lack of historical documentation ... yea :argue:
  5. bamboo sheets

    bamboo sheets New Member


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  6. 47MartialMan

    47MartialMan Valued Member

    Kudos! I like your post. (Thanks button not working at this moment)
  7. cejames

    cejames Valued Member

    Hi, 47MartialMan: My comments on your post if you will:

    I took the liberty of extracting excerpts that I would like to question or comment on:

    47MartialMan: " ... the discarding of tradition by the occidental practitioners who didn't and couldn't possibly relate to them."

    I would pose the possibility that this occurred due to both parties, the Okinawan's and the Military, because the locals needed funds to live during those years as Okinawa, who relies heavily of export/import businesses, after the war had almost ceased trade except for military occupation and the strained relations between Japan and Okinawa.

    In addition the short term of military time as driven by their primary desire to attain black belts at the fastest manner possible the local masters adjusted training to meet the demand and gain the very lucrative contracts with military special services, etc.

    In Isshinryu this occurred yet the founder still attempted as best as possible with communication difficulties to covey the need to go beyond the watered down stuff he taught in short time spans by presentation of the ken-po goku-i on silk in English and Kanji.

    In addition the Okinawan's themselves in their fervor to get martial systems watered down to acceptable and safe levels for their need to implement into school systems promoted the loss as well. This actually started early 1900's before military occupations, etc.

    47MartialMan: "This has had the sad effect of a respected "DO" like Karate being relegated to either a flimsy sport at one end or the so-called gory "blood-sport" bouts at the other; neither of which even remotely understand the "DO" and the self-perfection philosophy underlying it."

    Ok, this one comes from my research and study of the more esoteric aspects of my training and practice. The "way or DO" did NOT EXIST with the indigenous civil fighting art of Okinawa called Ti or Toudi, names that came about very late 1800's and early 1900's, which became "shuri, tomari, and naha Te" systems and in the early 1900's became such names as Goju, Shorin, etc.

    Do, or way, came from Japan. Military, like my Sensei, were exposed to Japanese martial systems before Okinawan, in some cases like my Sensei, and that exposure presented this "way" philosophy. Even the "bushido" concept was not actually an ancient one but didn't come to light as some code until the author who wrote a book on it around maybe 1800's long after the death of Tsunetomo Yamamoto who had his dying thoughts recorded by a close friend who loosely found his notes put into "Hagakure" which influenced this cultural basis for Bushido.

    We American military liked the code as it met the codes, unwritten, we as military try to live by in combative, etc. so it fit, like rank and belts, so it was assimilated into what we taught. In that light most of them had no clue and decided to put their own twists, patching the missing parts, on it and said this is what it takes to be a warrior in karate and yadda yadda yadda and life goes on.

    47MartialMan: "The traditional Okinawan masters were quite right in abstaining from sport Karate and sticking to the DO."

    This is just not true. There are recorded meetings of Okinawan masters who met, discussed, and decided on changes that were specifically geared toward the lucrative and commercially viable "sport aspects" of martial systems. [Note: karate is not a martial art or system yet I use this to help in explanations because most "think" it is, it ain't]

    Even the guy who founded my system of Isshinryu, I feel with no real proof, geared it toward sport with a bit of hard knocks left in. He actually promoted some to black belt because of the success in "matches" between dojo and in tournaments. Most of the leaders in my system actually spent a good deal of time assisting him in demo's and tournaments, etc. Their success against smaller Okinawans made him famous among military folks and also made him a lot of money not to mention lucrative contracts, etc.

    So, Okinawa embraced sporting aspects and only in the last decade have the current masters embraced the "DO" concept simply to take it back to what was before sport, a balanced fighting system that incorporated a moral way so it was not perceived simply as a brutal fighting system.

    I really do like your comment and feel it is applicable in general but do take a bit of consideration as to these comments. Thanks!

    Charles J. :hammer:
  8. Moosey

    Moosey invariably, a moose Supporter

    You can see how people might make this mistake given that it teaches fighting (martial) techniques (arts)...
  9. cejames

    cejames Valued Member

    Actually fighting has nothing to do with martial. Martial refers to those ancient Japanese skills used in combat. [also, where do you get techniques as art?] 武 - arm oneself, equip oneself, militarize

    Combat skills are different than fighting ergo why Okinawan karate is actually a civil fighting system for defense on village streets.

    Okinawans may have had disputes between villages where a karate man might arbitrate but the stories of fights to resolve village issues in not accurate.

    Most karate experts during those times either worked as police types or were guards for the King and/or those upper class folks, etc.

    Charles J. :)
  10. Moosey

    Moosey invariably, a moose Supporter

    I see what you're getting at, but I think most people would interpret "martial arts" as meaning arts of fighting rather than necessarily military arts.

    As for my definition of "arts", I wasn't trying to directly translate "budo", I was taking the term "martial arts" as a western phrase describing the arts/crafts/techniques of fighting.

    I wouldn't differentiate civil from military fighting systems within this category unless it was relevant.
  11. belltoller

    belltoller OffTopic MonstreOrdinaire Supporter

    I think it might have something to do with the differences in perception between East and West. The visual, auditory associations combined with cultural "memories" handed down to us, or that we pick up as a natural byproduct of living in any particular country or culture.

    For instance, the emotions and 'feel' of what we think when we hear the terms " earning money, success, taking care of the family " have a subtle different "feel" in Asia ( and probably within the different Asian subcultures ) than the same terms produce in the minds of those here in the West. A different 'taste' or something.

    I'd been married and had long dealings with my Cantonese in-laws and culture for many years before I really started becoming aware of this.

    Its been a bit unnerving, to tell the truth, its like finding out that there's a colour or sound spectrum in your world that you've been totally unaware of and canna quite perceive it correctly, yet you know its there. Its unnerving because you begin to understand this is where belief - cultural belief, " absolutely-right-Its-blatantly-obvious" belief in an idea, or way of doing things comes into it.

    Anyroad, there could be a similar kind of difference when it comes to what we in the West think of, and the expectations that follow what we think of, as martial arts, or a particular martial art.

    Interesting posts you have here.
  12. 47MartialMan

    47MartialMan Valued Member

    I agree. Dare I say for some time, I stumbled upon these new (actually old) "colour or sound spectrum in my world that I've been totally unaware of.."

    This was along the lines of many martial art related research such as Kenpo/Kempo, Shaolin, TKD, Chinese Quan, etc.

    The info is out there, the better one comes to terms within to have a open mind, the more clearer things become upon obtaining these "colour or sound spectrum(s)" :cool:
  13. koryuhoka

    koryuhoka New Member

    I was under the impression that "Ti" was the Indigenous Art of Okinawa and that it was a Grappling Art. And by "grappling", I don't mean it as is used in today's context - merely "ground grappling".

    When Chinese Boxing Concepts were introduced in Okinawa and fused with Ti, the term used was Toudijutsu.

    When the Okinawans began to change their art it was called "do", a Japanese concept, but it also lost its original intent. So "do" lead to the art becoming more competition centered. Toudijutsu could not be practiced as a sport. Karate became kick/punch/block.

    The term "block" does not even exist in Karate terminology. Uke are not "blocks". They are multifaceted techniques that come from Ti.

    From what I understand, the change in the art was what was to be introduced into the Japanese structured school system and to the Japanese. The Okinawans purposely left out the inner teachings and only a few kept them. This is how we have people like Masters Seiyu Oyata, Hohan Soken and his student Kosei Nishihira; Master Tetsuhiro Hokama, the Higa Family, Kishaba Brothers... These practitioners kept the Old teachings... Jutsu.

    Also, the term we use as "martial" is a misinterpretation of the term "Bu". It does not mean "war" or "military". It means Stop-Fight. The Ideogram implies the stopping of harm, violence, hostility to yourself.

    The above article showcases some possible theories, some in unison with what I learned. There are things there that I disagree with and maybe they are just things that I have not discovered yet. So I'll disagree because I can. :D

    But we all know what we know from "word of mouth", however, some have attained the word through the mouths of those who would know.

    "Shrouded in secrecy" is an understatement and everyone has their version of secrecy.
  14. Moosey

    Moosey invariably, a moose Supporter

    Is there any evidence for this? I thought that the "do" concept was more an attempt to make karate into part of a broader philosophical discipline - quite the opposite of "sportifying" it.

    I don't have the research to back this up, but I strongly suspect that the term "martial arts" predates the popularity of Asian martial arts in the English speaking world. I don't think it's even an attempt to "translate" the term "budo" - I think it's just a plain English description of the disciplines of combat.
  15. koryuhoka

    koryuhoka New Member

    It did not instantly become sport. As I stated, "do" lead to it becoming a sport. "do" made it to be acceptable in the school system. It also made it more conducive to sparring competition. Though not like the tournament sparring we know today, it was being promoted like this for the younger generation by people like Miyagi, Mabuni and such.

    As far as the term "wu" is concerned, this explanation was given to me by my Teacher, who is Chinese from Taiwan with over 65 years of experience in the Internal and External Chinese Arts. He broke down the Character to us in a class. He showed the components that make up the ideogram "wu". He says the other interpretations are "lazy meanings". In other words, no one wants to take out the time to break it down and show what the real translation is, so they just say what is popular.

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