History of Karate in Okinawa

 The Island that we now call Okinawa was traditionally known as the Kingdom of Ryukyu

which was finally centralized under the governance of a single king who lived in the 15th century C.E. having been previously divided into the regional rule of various warlords. This kingdom had many diplomatic and economic ties with southern China and so there was a constant exchange of people and ideas between Okinawa and China. As early as the 1300s we know that Chinese Chuan Fa (fist way) was being introduced into Okinawa where it was called Kempo (fist way) in the local language and that these Chinese methods were being added to the existing local techniques and fighting skills commonly referred to as Te (hand).

These cultural exchanges were occurring at all levels of society from laborers to diplomats and so many levels of the culture were being changed. During this early period the people of Okinawa were forbidden to posses weapons and only those in the service of the king were allowed to be armed. This state of disarmament for the common people led to a focus on refining unarmed techniques of self defense all across Okinawa leading to the development of a high level of unarmed defensive skill. At this time these skills were generally called either Te or Kempo with the different groups known generally by the town or regional name where they lived and practiced.

After the invasion of Okinawa by the Satsuma Clan in 1609 the Okinawan people came under the rule of Japan. During this time the general state of public disarmament remained in place. The Japanese started to identify the local martial practices under the name Ryukyu Kempo (Okinawan fist way) in keeping with the Japanese custom of referring to non-Japanese and Chinese influenced martial arts with the name kempo. It was during this period of Japanese occupation that the Okinawans found it necessary to develop defensive skills using many farm and fishing implements in place of more standard but unavailable weapons. Many Chinese weapons techniques were transferred and applied to items such as oars, hand plows, handles, shovels, hoes and other tools. This was in response to Japanese overlords who were well armed and who felt little inhibition to violent treatment of the locals and was a very practical solution to the problem.

In the 19th century a few teachers of what was variously called Te, Kempo or Kara Te (China hand) began to systemize and formalize their training and teaching methods. These men were known as the Chuko no so (revivalists) and they were responsible for formulating three major schools of Karate each based in a region and named for that town or area. There was the Shuri-te style of Sokon Matsumura, the Tomari-te style of Kosaku Matsumora and the Naha-Te style of Kanryo Higaonna.

In 1908 a karate instructor named Anko Itosu began to introduce karate to public school students. During this early 20th century period the traditional way of writing karate which originally used the characters for ‘China hand’ was changed to use the characters for ‘empty hand’ this change was in effect before 1938. In 1926 naha-te master teacher Chojun Miyagi founded a joint karate research project which had various masters visit and teach and designed to develop instructors it was also around this time that Goju-Ryu became the first recognized formal system and later became the first karate style to be recognized as a formal system of Budo and Miyagi became the first karateka awarded the title of Kyoshi, a formal Japanese Budo honorific and he became the first karateka recognized as a 10th dan. It was in 1938 that several of the independent Karate master instructors had a meeting to discuss their arts and the formation of a more formal community for Karateka and it was around this time that they began to adopt the belt ranking system designed for Judo in the 1880s.

As karate became more accessible and publicly known it moved out from Okinawa. The first introduction of karate to Japan was with demonstrations with the first classes in Japan being taught in 1923 by Gichen Funikoshi, with the first classes in the U.S.A. starting in 1946 by Robert Trias and karate classes in Korea starting in the mid to late 1940s.  

Karate is practiced widely in Okinawa today and has been exported around the world. From those original three primary regional systems have come many Ryu (style families), Ryuha (substyles) and Kaiha (factions). Karate continues to develop and grow in popularity in Okinawa and the rest of the world. 

The main Ryu (styles) of karate included with their founders names:

Goju-Ryu - Chojun Miyagi Sensei
Shorin-Ryu - Chosin Tomohana Sensei
Shorin-Ryu - Nagamine Shoshin Sensei
Uechi-Ryu - Uechi Kanbun Sensei

Shotokan - Gichin Funakoshi Sensei
Wado-Ryu - Hironori Otsuka Sensei
Shito-Ryu - Kenwa Mabuni Sensei 

Other traditional schools of karate are actually derivative of combinations of these primary systems or they are subsystems or factions of subsystems. 

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