The Karate Tapestry – Part 2

Okinawa By Robert Hunt

It is impossible to understand karate without understanding Okinawa.

The island kingdom is the literal birthplace of karate and the art is imbued with Okinawan history, philosophy, religion, character and society. One of the most misleading periods of my karate training were the beginning years when I thought karate was Japanese and confused it with Japanese culture.

One transparent example. In Japan, women were second class citizens. In Okinawa, women have, since early times, been a driving force in the society. A Noro, a priestess, was the head of the Okinawan religion and had almost as much power as the king. One of Okinawa’s most ancient beliefs is onarigami, the spiritual superiority of women derived from the Goddess Amamikyo. This differs greatly from Japanese Shinto, where men are seen as the embodiment of purity (oh, come on…!).

Women abound in Okinawan martial history. A well known karate teacher named Higa admitted that he learned much of his karate from his big sister. Legend has it that Bushi Matsumura first had to defeat his girlfriend, Chiru, before she would agree to become his wife. When we first went to Japan, my own wife served drinks around the table to men years her junior in karate, just to play the game. Today she teaches kobudo to our grandchildren and is a Sensei in the dojo.

Called Uchinaa in its own language, Okinawa is the largest island in a chain called the Ryu Kyu Islands, strewn, like a handful of rocks from Amamikyo’s divine hand, across the East China Sea from southern Japan toward Fuchow, China.

Unante, from the same root word , is an early Okinawan name for the art we pursue (and also the name of John Sells’ book, which you should own). It’s location, at a matrix between Japan, China, Korea and Southeast Asia foreshadowed Okinawa’s destiny. That coincidental position gave the island trade and prosperity, but, not siding with Japan against Korea in one of their early wars doomed it.

From the 13th century, Okinawa was an independent kingdom, a tributary of China. China only traded with tributary countries and the relationship brought great wealth to the tiny island. Okinawa adopted the Chinese written language, governmental structure, cultural relationships and whatever else filtered through (like martial arts).

Okinawa has its own spoken language, which still exists to some extent today, much like minority languages still exist in the United States, Cajun or Apache, for instance, spoken by a few diehards intent on preserving the heritage.

The independent Okinawan Kingdom more or less paralleled the Ming Dynasty from the late 14th century until the 1600’s. This is why we believe that modern karate derives so much of its influence from the Ming. Okinawa was, during the karate introduction years, in essence, an extension of the Ming.

In 1392 the founding Ming emperor sent a contingent of emissaries called the “thirty-six families” to Okinawa to monitor the maritime trade. They also taught language and culture (and martial arts). The group (not really 36, that was just sort of a lucky number) is legendary in karate history. They created a village called Kume Village (Kumemura or Kuninda) from which sprang a wealth of knowledge. Some Okinawan martial artists today speak with pride of their Kumemura Chinese ancestry and the village still exists in a nook of the city of Naha, now just called Kume.

The Okinawan kingdom flourished for 300 years as a tributary to the Ming, with a strong economy and a fairly sophisticated society. It all came tumbling down in 1609 with the Japanese invasion. The independent kingdom and the flourishing economy disappeared in the face of the Japanese war machine, never to rise again.

What precipitated this?

In 1600 the most famous Japanese warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu, succeeded, through stealth, treachery and war, in bringing Japan under his personal banner. On the losing side sat a family clan from southern Japan – the Satsuma.

Nothing is ever forgotten in Japan, neither then nor now, and Tokugawa knew that the Satsuma would always be a threat. Their revenge, in fact, came 250 years later in the Boshin war (referenced somewhat in the movie Twilight Samurai), but that is jumping ahead.

In order to keep Shimazu misdirected, Tokugawa allowed him to “conquer” the Ryu Kyu islands. Tokugawa wanted to punish Okinawa, anyway, for not siding with Japan in that war with Korea 200 years before (nothing is ever forgotten in Japan).

The Satsuma gladly accepted the offer and descended on Okinawa with 3,000 seasoned warriors in 100 ships, defeating the un-defended island in days. The remainder of Okinawan history is framed by its subjugation at the hands of a ruthless, brutal conqueror and attempt to maintain its minuscule culture in the face of a militaristic Japan determined to obliterate it.

It is during this period, from 1609 to 1900 that karate, more or less as we know it, gradually entered the picture like an embryo slowly emerging into a living being. In the face of a prohibition of bladed weapons, Okinawans nurtured a martial art inherited from China which consisted of empty hand techniques and a few wooden weapons fashioned from non-threatening tools.

But the Okinawans were not a warlike people. When you live on an island 60 miles long and 20 miles wide, you don’t develop such ambitions. Instead, they became gentle and hospitable.

This graciousness inherent in the Okinawan culture imbues the Okinawans and their martial art with a gentle, introspective feel. Okinawan dojos are generally quiet places where students practice alone or with a partner under the gaze of a teacher ready to assist. Japanese dojos, in contrast, often feel like military camps with rows of students marching to the commands of a Sempai/ Sergeant.

Karate was a secret Okinawan art until the turn of the 19th century into the 20th. About that time, Japan discovered that the tiny island they had bullied for 300 years was home to a unique, deadly, fun martial art and Japan coveted it. They adapted various versions and systematically exported them throughout the world. Hence my introduction and early confusion.

But karate is not Japanese. It’s Okinawan by birth, character and heritage.

For a time, I spent evenings visiting with an Okinawan karate teacher, deadly and hospitable like the rest. He is Japanese by nationality, but adamant that he is actually Okinawan and that, when the mainland Japanese want to learn “real” karate, they seek out him or other Okinawans like him to teach them (just as I did).

Japan lost Okinawa at the end of WWII and it became an American protectorate. Okinawa had the option of reverting back to Japan, however, or remaining with the United States. After much heated debate, they chose Japan, but it was far from unanimous. An American friend of mine was studying in Okinawa at the time and remembers a vote to see if they would ever teach karate to the Japanese. They voted yes, but the vote itself tells the story.

Many Okinawans believed that Japan had sacrificed the island in a last ditch attempt to keep the Americans away from the Japanese homeland. Okinawa was obliterated in the final days of World War II and Japan surrendered just before the mainland attack materialized. It was primarily because of the atomic bomb that Japan surrendered, but it was also because Japan did not want an invasion of their own island and sacrificing Okinawa had bought them some time.

Today Okinawa is officially part of Japan but with a distinct and very proud identity of its own. The world has finally realized that Okinawa is the well spring of karate and every year foreign students visit there to study at the source. Tournament competitors scan videos of early Okinawan katas to come up with “new” competitive forms.

This meandering island history, from multicultural, independent, China leaning kingdom, to occupied island, to war time sacrifice, to martial arts font, is what forged our martial art out of one country’s very human story of survival and endurance.

My wife teaches karate and kobudo in the Okinawan way like Chiru Matsumura and Higa’s big sister. Okinawa lives on in the Chandler Martial Arts Center alongside the karate that we have learned from our Japanese instructors.

Come work out with us some time, the latch key always hangs out.