HISTORY OF KARATE

(Revised 12-15-99)

The Okinawan islands run from Japan to Taiwan in a crescent shape. They are also called the Ru Kyu Islands. In the past, many Chinese, Filipino and Japanese ships would follow this chain of islands in order to trade food and supplies. Okinawa prospered because it was right in the middle of this chain of islands.

There were two main cities in Okinawa and from them sprang the two main styles of what would eventually be called Kara-te.

 

SHURI-TE STYLES

The king lived in his castle on the East Side of the main island in a city called Shuri. The city was the political center of the island. The Karate from this city has long been called Shuri-te (The hand of Shuri or Shuri hand in English). During a period from 600 A.D. to 1400 A.D., Chinese emissaries would visit Okinawa and while visiting, sometimes for a year or more at a time, would share their knowledge of Kung Fu with the castle guards. Many of the katas in the Shuri-te system are named after these Chinese emissaries, for example Kusanku. The original Okinawan guards also had a traditional fighting system that was somewhat like Aikido or Jujutsu but they also used a closed fist to do a unique corkscrew fist punch that was popularized with Karate. The Shuri-te systems tend to use more closed fist techniques because of this cultural influence. This system was later called Shorin Ryu (which means Shaolin School in English). This reflects the influence of the Shaolin Buddhist Monk from China, who was influential in spreading Kung fu throughout Asia. Other names of this system are Shorin-ji Ryu, Ryukyu Shorin Ryu, Matsumura Shorin Ryu, Matwubayashi Shorin ryu, Kobayashi Shorin Ryu, Chubu Shorin Ryu, Ishimine Ryu, Okinawan Kempo and others but they all have somewhat the same set of katas. There was also a nearby village called Tomari that had a unique set of kata commonly called Tomari-te. The Tomari-te katas have been absorbed into many of the Shuri-te styles.

Two very famous teachers in this system who then started their own styles were Funikoshi, the founder of Shotokan who was later called the "Father of Karate". The other was Kenwa Mabuni who studied another system called Naha-te and mixed the two systems and started a style he called Shito-Ryu. These two styles have become two of the most popular styles in Japan.

Around 1922 Funikoshi was invited to Japan to demonstrate this fighting system which was then called Okinawan Kempo. It was sometimes also called To-te (which meant Hand of the Tang Dynasty. The Tang Dynasty was a famous period in Chinese history that was characterized by the spread of Kung Fu throughout Asia by the Buddhist Monks from the Shaolin monastery). The Japanese had done Jujutsu for over 500 years so this Kung-Fu style of fighting was new to them. Funikoshi later renamed this system Karate (Karate meant empty hand, but used the same Chinese letters as To-te). Since the Japanese hated the Chinese he did not to offend the Japanese with the Chinese name. He also renamed his many of his katas, for example Kusanku, the name of a Chinese emissary was renamed Kanku, which means view the sky. At one time Shotokan was the world’s most popular styles from the 1950’s up until the 1970’s when it was surpassed by the Korean Tae Kwon Do styles. Many Karate styles such as Wado-Ryu and Robu-Kai all sprang forth from the Shotokan style.

 

SHURI-TE AND NAHA-TE MIXTURE STYLES

There are several styles that have mixed the Shuri-te styles with the Naha-te styles. The most famous of these styles is called Shito Ryu. Kenwa Mabuni studied under the Shuri Master Anko Itosu and the Naha Master Kanryo Higaonna. He initially called his style Hanko Ryu (Half-Hard School) and later in remembrance of his two teachers he combined the Chinese characters from their names to form the name "shito". Mabuni was among a handful of Okinawans along with Funikoshi that introduced Karate to Japan. Today Shito Ryu is one of the most popular styles in Japan. One of Kenwa Mabuni’s best friends, Shinpan Shiroma, started his own style with was similar to Mabuni’s it is called Shiroma Shito Ryu.

Another famous style that mixed the kata from Shuri-te and Naha-te was Isshin Ryu. Tatsuo Shimabuku had studied Goju-Ryu under Chojun Miyagi’s at age 13. He later studied Shuri-te under Chotoku Kyan. He combined the two and now has over 336 branches throughout the world.

Another famous Karate pioneer named Mas Oyama, mixed the katas from Shotokan (Funikoshi’s variation of Shuri-te) and Goju-Kai (Yamaguchi’s Japanese variation of the Okinawan Naha-te Goju-Ryu style that he learned from Chojun Miyagi during his visits to Japan). Mas Oyama called his style Kyoshiku-Kai.

Martial arts in Korea were outlawed by the Japanese from 1905 until the end of World War II. During that time General Choi, the founder of Tae Kwon Do studied Shotokan in Japan. He later incorporated many aspects of Shotokan when he reintroduced martial arts into Korea in the late 1940’s. Another Korean style Tang-So Do, is actually another off shoot mixture of Shuri-te and Naha-te katas. They do all the same katas though they pronounce the kata names in Korean.

 

NAHA-TE STYLES

On the other side of the island is a city of Naha. Naha was on the west side of the island and closer to China. It was a commerce center of the island because most commercial shipping came to the Naha port on the West Side of the Island.

In the 14th century China sent a group of families to Okinawa in order to introduce Chinese culture to the inhabitants of the island. One of the things they introduced to the Naha residence was Southern Chinese Kempo (Kung Fu). During the next four hundred years many Okinawans would travel to the Fuken province of Southern China to learn Kung Fu in China. They would then return and teach others in Naha City. The four famous Naha styles are the Kojo families’ Kojo-Ryu, Norisato Nakaima’s Ryuei Ryu and the more commonly know styles of Kanryo Higashionna which his student Chojun Miyagi later named Goju-Ryu and Kanbun Uechi’s style Uechi-Ryu.

The Kojo family can trace their roots back to the original families that migrated to Naha from China and brought the family Kempo style with them. This style is probably the most original Chinese Kempo style in Okinawa. They have three main katas called White Dragon, White Tiger and White Crane. They also have 12 kamae postures. They have maintained contact with family in Fuchou City in Southern China. All the Naha styles have direct ties to Fuchou Kempo.

Norisato Nakaima had gone to Fuchou at age 19 and studied with Ru Ru Ko. He received his certificate of graduation after five to six years of practice. He then traveled throughout the Fukien, Canton and Peking areas where he collected many weapons and brought them back to Okinawa with him. When he returned to Okinawa he had learned Chinese boxing and Chinese weaponry. He introduced his style to Okinawa sometime between 1870 and 1880. He passed his style on to his son Kenchu Nakaima who was the president of the Ryuei Ryu Karate and Kobudo Preservation Society. He died at age 98 but passed the art on to Kenko Nakaima. One of his students Tsuguo Sakumoto, teaches Ryuei Ryu on a public basis.

Kanryo Higashionna went to Fuken City, China in 1856 and spent 13 years learning Chinese Kung Fu with a famous teacher named Ru Ru Ko or also pronounced Rui Ru (the same teacher that Nakaima studied under). After returning to Okinawa he taught many students. His most famous student was Chogan Miyagi. Miyagi later went to Japan with Funikoshi to demonstrate the Naha-te style when Funikoshi was demonstrating his Shuri-te style for the Prince of Japan. During the exhibition the Japanese Prince asked Miyagi what his style was called. After thinking a minute Miyagi said "Goju-Ryu" (Hard-Soft School) since the style was derived from Tiger Fist and Crane Fist boxing style which is sometimes also called Hard-Soft Fist in Southern China. While in Japan, Miyagi taught a student named Yamaguchi, who started his own style called Goju-Kai (Hard-Soft Organization), which is also called Japanese Goju-Ryu. Yamaguchi was influenced by the very popular Shotokan style, so Goju-Kai has some Shotokan overtones that are not found in Okinawan Goju-Ryu.

Kanbun Uechi left his home in Okinawa and went to Fuken Province, China, in 1898. He spent 13 years learning Chinese Kung Fu under a famous Fuken teacher named Tzu Ho Cho (pronounced Shiwa Sho in Japanese). Master Cho was a master of three animal styles, tiger, dragon and crane. It was very rare to be a master of more than one animal style at that time. Master Cho’s system of kung fu was called Pai Gai Noon Chuan Fa. Pai Gai Noon means half-hard and half-soft and very similar to the style that became Goju-Ryu.

Kanban Uechi mastered the style after ten years of study and became a Non-Chinese Kung Fu instructor, which was very uncommon in China. After 13 years of living in China, one of his students got into a dispute and killed a man. Kanban Uechi left China and swore he would never teach again.

Years later during poor economic times many Okinawans moved to Japan to find work. Japanese gangsters that hated Okinawans always beat up one of Kanbun’s friends. Many Japanese felt Okinawans were taking jobs away from Japanese workers at the time so there were some hard feelings between the two groups. Kanban’s friend begged him to teach him Pai Gai Noon Kempo. Shortly afterwards, in the early 1920’s Kanban Uechi opened the very first Okinawan Kempo Dojo in Japan. (He actually started teaching about year before Funikoshi opened his Karate Dojo). Kanbun Uechi was the last of the famous Karate masters in Okinawa to change the name of his art from Pai Gai Noon Kempo to Pai Gai Noon Karate-Do in the late 1930’s.

After Kanban Uechi’s death in 1948, his son Kanei Uechi renamed the style Uechi Ryu, The school of Uechi, in honor of his father. He added five additional kata to supplement the original three kata that his father brought back from China. Kanei Uechi taught Uechi-Ryu Karate-Do up until 1991. After his death, his son Kanmei Uechi took over as the Grandmaster of Uechi-Ryu Karate-Do. This style had stayed a family style and never became quite as popular as other style but it is one of the main three original Okinawan Karate styles today.

Almost all Karate styles in the world today can be traced back to Shuri-te or Naha-te styles.