The History of Okinawan Karate
The art of Karate (kara - Chinese/empty, te - hand) emerged over 500 years ago in the Ryukyu Islands located in the East China Sea. The need for self-defense arose from the banning of weapons placed by successive rulers, starting with King Hashi of the First Sho Dynasty in the 1420's and continuing with King Sho-En, Second Okinawan Sho Dynasty in 1469.
The Ryukyu Islands, particularly the main island of Okinawa, were a vital stop-over for vessels trading between China and Japan. Both feudal empires vied for control of the sub-tropical islands. Continuing the ban on weapons, either by pressuring local rulers or through open military occupation, Japan and China created a climate ripe for the convergence of empty-handed fighting styles derived from many lands.
During the Sho-Shin reign (1477-1527) and continuing through 1609, Okinawa enjoyed relative peace from its superpower neighbors. Asia was embroiled in war and Japan had fallen into a state of anarchy. The Okinawans continued to forego weapons and karate flourished throughout the islands nurtured by emissaries from Korea, Tibet, Laos, Cambodia and numerous other Asian island cultures.
In 1609 Japan invaded Okinawa with 13 ships bearing 2,500 samurai. The ban on weapons was tightened; ceremonial swords were confiscated. The Japanese granted China minor representation in the Okinawan political system, but for nearly three centuries (until 1879) the kings and royal courts of Okinawa were puppet regimes. Soldiers of the occupying Japanese army had little respect for the local people, and methods of empty-handed defense became essential for survival.
By the end of the 1800's two predominant styles of karate emerged: Shorin-ryu (or Shuri-te), centered around the towns of Shuri and Tomari, and Shorei-ryu (Naha-te), based in Naha located to the south. Practice continued in secret and was limited to members of Okinawa's samurai class. Such training fostered an ingenuity that has become legendary: catacombs turned into training halls, karate techniques concealed in royal folk dances, and farm implements transformed into lethal weapons.
1879 marked the abrupt annexing of Okinawa by the Japanese Meiji government and the deposing of the Okinawan King Sho Thi. China withdrew from the political arena despite appeals from the Ryukyu leadership. Karate's veil of secrecy was lifted and in 1904 its popularity began reaching all Okinawans through its introduction into the public school system. Japan maintained subjugation of the Okinawan people, outlawing the native language Hogen, until its brutal stand against American forces in World War II. Post-war Okinawa came under the military control of the United States until 1972 at which time sovereignty was returned to Japan.
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