Karate Origins

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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.  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.

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To-De: In Okinawa, the chinese influence in the development of the Okinawan martial arts led to their martial art, originally only known as “Te” (Hands), to be referred to as To-De, “Chinese Hands”.

Interestingly, in three different villages only few miles apart from each other, three different styles of Te or To-De developed. Naha was a port town south of the river, with an emerging style called Naha-Te. North of the river was Shuri, the ancient capital of Okinawa, which produced Shuri-Te. Further north, another village named Tomari, entertained Tomari-Te, however their style was not further developed and eventually Tomari-Te was assimilated by the more active Naha-Te and Shuri-Te development.

One of the early Okinawan masters, Master Sakugawa, was known by his nickname, To-De Sakugawa. He is credited as being one of the initial importers of Chinese martial arts to Okinawa, in particular to Shuri, where Shuri-Te manifested.

Naha-Te: Naha-Te is the name of the particular type of Okinawan martial art that developed in the port town of Naha, the modern-day capital of Okinawa. The martial art that indigenously developed in Okinawa was called Te (”Hands”), and the continuous chinese influences that incorporated Chinese Boxing (Chuan Fa, nowadays known as Kung Fu) were eventually reflected by nameing the Okinawan martial arts To-De, “Chinese Hands”.

Credited for the early development of Naha-Te is Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1915). Kanryo Higaonna’s students include Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953), the founder of Goju-Ryu Karate and Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952), the founder of Shito-Ryu Karate.

Shuri-Te: Shuri-Te is the name of the particular type of Okinawan martial art that developed in the Shuri, the ancient capital of Okinawa. One of the early Okinawan masters, To-De Sakugawa (1733-1815) is credited as being one of the initial importers of Chinese martial arts to Okinawa, in particular to Shuri, where he started the development of the Shuri-Te style of Okinawan martial arts.

Sakugawa had a student named Sokon Matsumura, who in turn taught Ankoh Itosu, who was destined to become a great martial artist and teacher in the 19th century, who introduced the practice of To-De, as the Okinawan martial arts were called, to the Okinawan school system. Ankoh Itosu’s contribution to To-De was the emphasis of Kata and its practical application, called Bunkai.

Many students of Ankoh Itosu became significant figures in the early development of Karate. Amongst Itosu’s students are Gichin Funakoshi (1867-1957), who later moved to Japan and founded Shotokan Karate, and Kenwa Mabuni (1890-1954), combined aspects of Naha-Te and Shuri-Te, also moved to Japan, and founded Shito-Ryu Karate.