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Early Karate History: Okinawa

Okinawa is an island south of Japan, situated in near equal distance between China and Japan. A secret indigenous weaponless martial art developed (called Te, “Hands”) that experienced strong chinese influences. Chinese sailors, traders and businessmen brought their martial art to Okinawa during their import/export business travels. In addition, many original Okinawan masters travelled to China to learn Chinese boxing (Ch’uan Fa, “The fist way”) directly from Chinese masters.

Having aquired new skills, in particular what is nowadays referred to as White Crane Kung Fu, these masters would return to Okinawa and begin to teach an art that had both original Okinawan and also Chinese heritage. This new way of fighting was called To-De, “Chinese Hands”, to indicate the Chinese origin of many of the techniques.

Map showing the location of Okinawa

In Okinawa, there were three villages that, although only few miles apart, each developed their own style of To-De. In the port town of Naha, Naha-Te developed. In the more aristocratic Shuri, the ancient capital of Okinawa, Shuri-Te developed, and further north in Tomari, Tomari-Te developed.

This seemingly unlikely isolation has its foundation partly in the geographical location of these villages, with a river separating Naha in the south from Shuri and Tomari in the North, but also by its very different social classes, with business and commercial trade enterprises in Naha, the King and aristocracy in Shuri, and farmers and country people in Tomari.

Okinawa has a long history of both chinese and japanese suppression that outlawed the possession of conventional weapons (such as swords). Thus, Okinawan martial arts developed a unique range of substitute weapons that in many cases were derived from farming tools. The use of these weapons is still practiced today in many Karate styles of Okinawan origin.

26 comments about “Okinawa”

  1. Annie Crowe said:

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  16. Brian M. said:

    Very informative site, I’m a black belt in the World Yoshukai Karate Kobudo Organization, I have had the great honor of not only meeting, but working out with our Grand Master, who I’m sure you are familiar with, Katsuoh Yamamoto. We are a very traditional style, and the article on the history of Okinawa was very enjoyable reading to me. On another note, I scored perfect on the Karate quiz, lol. It was pretty easy, I think things like that are what will bring Karate enthusiasts back to this site. Thanks, I really enjoy this site..

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  21. Karate Overview | Karate said:

    [...] The development of Karate began in Okinawa, an island south of Japan. Okinawans travelled to China, where they learnt the Chinese martial arts. On their return to Okinawa they set about blending their own martial arts (initially simply called Te, “Hands”) with what they had learnt in China and called it To-De, Chinese Hands. [...]

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  30. Abdullah said:

    My style is my instrouctor was Jim Kelly. Lately I have notice the many of the okinawate dojo I have checked out are all different.
    Why is it that okinawate becomes so different from sensi to sensi and is their an okinawate dojo in okinawa I can write an letter to. (not e mail).

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