Ueshiro NoVA Mission
History of Okinawan Karate
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.
Global Expansion of Okinawan Karate
Modern karate was introduced to Japan in 1923 by Gichin Funokoshi. Karate then made its way to Korea in the later part of the 1940’s where the pinan kata (composed by Anko Itosu) were assimilated as well as various advanced kata. The transition of karate to modern times was greatly facilitated by Shoshin Nagamine who in 1947 formalized the techniques and philosophies of masters from around Tomari and Shuri. The style, which he named Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, synthesized the teachings of Ankichi Arakaki (Ansei Ueshiro’s uncle), Chotoku Kyan, Choki Motobu, and a long line of their predecessors, all renowned karate men of their day.
In the 1950’s karate came to America by way of the returning US marines who paved the way for Grand Master Ansei Ueshiro’s arrival in 1962. Europe and Russia both embraced karate in the 1960’s and many representatives of Okinawan karate may be found in South and Central America.
Global expansion of karate has come at a price. Popularity and the drive for commercial success have led many schools to neglect the traditional emphasis on kata and personal development in favor of tournaments and free-style fighting. This trend will only be countered if students explore the humble origins and rich history of karate-do. Although such inquiries often lead to more questions and debate, they invariably produce a formidable weapon: perspective.