Chosin Chibana Sensei
Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Karate-Do
Currently, the Martial Art of Karate-Do is practiced by over 40 million people in 140 countries. Karate, which stands out among all Japanese Bushido(Martial Arts) is often called the greatest art of self defense by it's practitioners. Karate which originated in Okinawa, is part of the proud heritage of the Okinawan people. Okinawa, which consists of many small islands surrounded by a beautiful emerald green ocean and blessed year round with subtropical weather is a pleasant habitat for humans. But it is also famous for the fierce typhoons which lash through the Pacific in the summer time. These natural and geographical features have molded the island culture over the centuries.
In the 12th century there lived a ruler Aji who built castles and organized the villages in the area under his control. Eventually, three powerful centers - Hokuzan, Chuzan, and Nanzan evolved. Their rulers started overseas trade with overseas regions in Southeast Asia, China, and Japan.
In the 15th century a king called Sho Hashi was born in Sashiki's Baten Harbor area. Eventually Sho Hashi took over and united the three kingdoms of Okinawa into one. The first Sho Hashi dynasty lasted for 50 years. The last king of the Sho Hashi dynasty, King Sho Tokuoh, died in 1470. He was followed by King Sho En who ruled the second dynasty --- The Ryukyu Kingdom which lasted for 400 years --- before it was conquered by the Japanese Samurai. The kingdom then became known as Okinawa, Japan's southern most prefecture.
In 1372 the Ming Dynasty rulers sent envoys to Ryukyu's and entered into a trade agreement which had established the area now known as Urasoe as the capital city. The agreement led to active trade between the two kingdoms. The flourishing trade made Naha the busiest harbor in the region exchanging goods between China, Southeast Asia, Korea, and Japan.
In 1458, the main hall in Shuri castle was decorated with a bell dedicated to the international trade and industry. The bell's inscription said "Ryukyu has the most suitable location for trades in the south, I bring the greatest books from Korea, through ships mediating trade between China and Japan, and it is a bridge between the worlds. Therefore there are vast treasures in the Ryukyu's."
As this ancient script describes, Okinawa was a trading nation which mediated goods between other Pacific nations. But, this lucrative trading which flourished in the 15th and 16th centuries also attracted pirates to the region who preyed on the trading ships. The most famous pirate stronghold was called Yarazamori, located south of Naha harbor. The pirate attacks prompted the need for the largely unarmed ship crews to defend themselves. The traders introduced Chinese and other Southeast Asian forms of self defense which evolved into Karate. As the Ryukyu Kingdom prospered, a distinctive "Shuri-Style of Karate evolved. Two other dominant styles practiced in the commercial hubs of Naha and Tomari village respectively were Naha-style and Tomari-style. Each style had it's own famous masters who passed their skills from generation to generation.
In 1609, after the Samurai from Satsuma, in Kyushu, took over the Ryukyu Kingdom, Karate became a secret for 250 years, taught only to ruling members of the "Samurai" class. This secrecy also explains why there are so few written records and relics of Karate. This is also why the history of Karate is mostly hearsay and tales.
After the Meiji revolution, the rise of Japanese militarism brought Karate into the school curriculum. It also meant that it became possible for the general public to learn karate as a Martial Art. By the time of the Taisho era, the Okinawan public was learning Karate skills. The art then began spreading to the outside world through Okinawan emigrants during the Showa era.
After the war, Okinawan Karate Associations recognized four different styles; Shorin-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, Uechi-Ryu, and Matsubayashi-Ryu which all have their own active followers.
Recently, many associations promoting their own styles have sprung up. But traditional Karate has a basic style organized as a system of self defense techniques based on solid theories. It takes a long time to master the techniques and develop ones body, both physically and mentally to master these arts. These same skills help young people to become confident and strong in order to be successful in everyday life.
In Many way's, Karate is Okinawa's gift to the world.
Reprinted and edited from the Okinawa Karate "Kobudo" Graph 1995.
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