Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Okinawa, the Origin of Karate

According to historical events, we can say that the isalnd of Okinawa, was the most important of these group of islands between China and Japan, these islands were known as RYU-KYU. It is located to south of Japan and it counts with a surface of 1.220 square Kilometers. Through history, both Japan and China contributed in a great way to the development of the island.

The society of Okinawa stays in hermetism until approximately the 9th century. This made its evolution slower but not less important. Okinawa’s development starts with the 9th century in the period known as the age of iron, being this time when they made their first contacts with the outside. Towards the 11th century the leaders of the tribes called AJI, established their positions in the different regions due to the use of iron introduced by Japan.

The technical and cultural convergences between Japan and Okinawa made possible the increase of Okinawa’s economical productivity and better horizons of the relations between them despite their differences.

During this period the inhabitants of the Okinawa island lived principally on the base of agriculture and fishing, they used elements made of stone until they discovered iron. Regarding their language, they used what was considered a japanese dialect, but the okinawan dialect extinguished between the third and the sixth century.

During the YAYOI period the relations between China and Japan started to deteriorate for basically two reasons, in the first place because China’s importance was growing to Okinwa and in second place because Japan enters the iron period, suffering radical transformations, and leaving Okinawa behind this evolution.

Nonetheless the chinese culture is of great influence to Japan. Japan grows considerably in comparison to its previous evolution and even the government is constructed on the base of the chinese model. In this era, from the 12th to the 14th century, was also the apogee in Okinawa, increasing the number of contacts with the outside being always the most beneficial those with China. Approximately until the 11th century, tools made of wood and bone were used in the island. The importance of the iron form Japan gave a great impulse to the cultural development of Okinawa, adding not only agricultural knowledge, also writing and philosophical religious ideas, like Zen Buddhism.

During the rest of the centuries, XII y XIII, many hostilities had place between the local chiefs and the alliances of the region, this brought as a consequence in the XIV century, the division of the island in three kingdoms or federal states conformed by tribal communities and divide by mountains, these were CHUZAN (mountain of the middle), NANZAN (south mountain), HOKUZAN (north mountain). This period was known as the SAN-ZAN, period of the three mountains.

An agrarian revolution took place in this period due to the use of iron, it is in the XV century when the historical era starts on the island. As a consequence of the chiefs individual contacts with the state of China, both SATTO King of Chuzan, ONFU SATTO king of Nanzan and HASY King of Hokuzan tried to achieve independent relations with China.

Despite these conflicts the Okinawan society progressed quickly, certain chinese letters speak with surprise of how natives from Okinawa, in their commercial relations, refused luxury articles and preferred those more useful. With the use of iron as a material for the manufacturing of working tools the productivity increased in many areas like agriculture and fishing, both were the base of the islands economy. At the same time of this prosperity, the internal conflicts finished which helped the union of the island and to the creation of one unique and organized state leaded by a King.

Despite that king SATTO was under Chinas domain he maintained his own political power in the island and all the official documents were written in the islands own language, but with time China decides that the chinese residents should realize this labor and with this grows the responsibility of the chinese residents in RYU-KYU.

The first relation that the island had with any chinese combat art was in 1372, year in which the Chinese emperor gave titles to the kings of RYU-KYU island and on this purpose a chinese embassy traveled to the island. It was conformed by about five hundred people with civilians, government employees, and military troops. Every time a new king attained the crown the embassy traveled to Okinawa, this act was repeated 23 times between 1372 and 1866. The ceremony was very expensive because it meant that the kingdom had to provide everything that was necessary to 500 hundred people for about 3 to 10 months, so many times the government tried to delay it intentionally to avoid the expense.

But anyway the presence of this delegation brought benefits to the island, such as our area of interest that is the transmission of the combat art without weapons.

Part of the request done in 1392 by the authorities of the island, was to send chinese experts of all areas. In response, the chinese sent a group of people to the region of NAHA, specifically 36 families arrived to the town of KUME. These families were al related to the Confucian and Taoist ideas.

KUMEMURA (The town of Kumé)

Since 1392, a chinese community lived in Kume where they practiced the chines combat art. This art was practiced in secret and was a privilege of these families mostly from the south of china that maintained regular contact with the delegations of the Chines emperor.

The chinese forbidded the possession of weapons to the natives, but the people of okinawa developed secretly a martial art with the influence of chinese kempo: the TO DE or "Hand of China". This art was mainly was introduced by the chines monks. This prohibition for weapons was maintained when in the XVII century, Okinawa was occupied by a Japanese Lord. In the 19th this the chinese combat art of Kume started to be known as Naha-Te (te = hand, technique)

In this era, other than Naha-Te, there existed two styles in Okinawa, Shuri-Te from the city of Shuri and Tomari-Te from the town of Tomari (very close to Shuri). All these styles received the okinawan term TO-DE and sometimes OKINAWA-TE


To-De, Okinawa-te or even simpler "TE", was practiced more and more everyday and always secretly during the night. The term "karate" started to be used at about the end of the 1880 decade and in 1905, Chomo Hanashiro definitely broke the tradition and wrote a book where he used the term and associated it to the "empty hand" concept.

The first one to use the KARA symbol was master HANAG in 1936 at a meeting in NAHA the capital of the island with all of the most important masters of Okinawa. In this meeting they decided to change TO for KARA, thereby abandoning the chinese conception. The masters that assisted to this meeting are in the picture below. From left to right

CHOTUKU KYAN, Shorin Ryu - KENTSU YABU, Shorin Ryu

Despite this, most of the credit to this new denomination was given to the Japanese master Gichin Funakoshi whom did not really originate the term but indeed made it popular; Master Funakoshi, was born in Shuri, in the district of Yamakawa-cho, Okinawa, in 1868. We can see him in the picture below:


The first name that the history of karate remembers is Sakugawa, called "To-de", he combined several styles of Okinawa with the chinese techniques. Many of his students are considered the fathers of karate. Sokon Bushi Matsumura was with no doubt the most the most important one. He started to practice at a very early age and at the age of 20 he entered the emperors service, becoming his instructor.

In 1878 a social and political revolution gives origin to modern Japan. The ancient feudal structure disappeared. The samurais swords were put on the walls and Japan opens up to the west and to modern industry. Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture.

Only then Karate could be taught publicly and the students of Bushi Matsumara, converted in excellent masters, took karate to the first line in martial arts: Anko Itosu, in Shuri and Kanryo Higaonna, in Naha.

The Origin of Goju - Ryu

The history of the Goju school, is started by the master Chojun Miyagi, who was born in 1887 in Naha, Okinawa. In those there were two karate styles in Okinawa: Naha-te from Kanryo Higaonna and Shuri-te from Soshu Matsumura. Master Higaonna, had studied the traditional Te of Okinawa and the chinese Kempo of Ryu Ryo Ko, from Fuchou, China. When he came back from China he united all his knowledge and create his own style, whicha made him very famous and respectable in all the island.

Miyagi started to learn Naha-te with master Higaonna when he was 14 years old. Higaonna recognized his excellent conditions fom the beggining, and after two years of intensive practice he recommended him to travel to Fuchou, China, to learn Kempo.

Miyagi finally travelled en 1915, and he stayed there for two years. During this time, Miyagi learned the tecniques of chinese boxing, and a very effective breathing and concentration method based on the Zen philosophy. When he came back nobody in Okinawa could compete with him because he had become a great master in this art.

Later on, Miyagi creates kata Tensho, based on the structure of kata sanchin and the ancient chinese form called Hakutsuru (the white crane) that was taught to him by a chinese friend called Gokenki. Afterwards he organized the GoJu karate school, based on the harmony of opposite elements: Go = hard; Ju = soft and of course on his own ideas.

Master Miyagi taught Karate in the police department of Okinawa and in 1929 he was invited to Japan to teach in the most important Universities, like the Imperial University of Kyoto, the Kansai University and the Ritsumeikan University.

He also received an invitation from the Yokoku Shimpu Press, to teach during one year in Hawai, in this way he helped the expansion of karate throughout the world.

In another ocasion, during a karate demonstration done in Japan (1937), in the Butokukai (Japanese Martial Arts Association), they asked Jinan Shinzato, one of his most important students, what was the name of his senseis karate style. He didn't know what to answer so he went to ask master Miyagi, who answered with one of his favorite sentences taken from the Kempo Haku (ancient book of chinese boxing) "go-ju, don-tosu" (hard-soft, inhalate-exhalate). In this way his style was known as Goju-Ryu.

When the war finished, Sensei Miyagi got very depressive due to the loss of part of his family. Three of his sons had died and his nation had been destroyed and was now under the military rules of the United States. Despite this he kept teaching Karate to the Ryukyu police and opens a dojo in his home in Tsuboya, Naha, where he would later die of a brain hemorrhage at Octuber 8th of 1953, at the age of 65.

Article extracted from the magazine «Historia y Filosofía del Ken-Shin-Kan», by Sensei Roberto Fernández de la Reguera.


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