Okinawan Martial Art for Self Defense


The name “Okinawa” means “rope in the offing”. It is a fitting name for a rough and beautiful island in the Ryukyuan chain. It is thin and knotted, and looks like a rope that has been carelessly tossed into the sea. Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyuan islands and possesses a martial arts history which reflects world-wide. Okiawan combat techniques are a significant stepping stone in the geographical distribution of the fighting arts all over Asia.

Until about the first century B.C., Okinawan culture was, what can be described as Stone Age,and so were their weapons and martial. application. The development of Okinawan martial arts was largely due to Chinese influence. The seventh and eighth centuries were full of warfare and some improvement was made in martial warring techniques. At that time, Okinawa was not unified. The island swarmed with petty chieftains who used all means necessary to gain power. The Japanese possessed superior weapons,experience in warfare, and technical skills. They were given welcome and honorable positions with the chieftains. The tenth century brought terrible conflict in Japan. The north and the south of Japan were engaged in bloody conflict. This brought survivors, important Japanese weapons and martial skills pouring into Okinawa(sword, spear, bow and arrow, etc.).

In the thirteenth century, Shunten, the first king of Okinawa, put emphasis on military matters. There was an increase informal relations with China, Japan, Korea, etc., and martial arts from these countries made major inroads. Around 1470 the private ownership of arms was restricted and swords were no longer permitted as personal equipment. This was a direct influence upon the development and stimulation of empty-hand fighting. Okinawa was invaded and defeated by Japan in the early seventeenth century. Okinawans were forbidden from developing martial arts practices. All weapons and martial arts were banned. Okinawa gave great tribute to China and they secretly studied and practiced Chinese combat methods which involved empty-hand technique. Gradually, these combat forms took on very distinct Okinawan influences. These styles became known as Okinawan te, or simply “te”, which meant “hand”. Okinawan te developed into three distinct styles. The te developed in the region of Shuri was strongly influenced by the external system of China. The style developed at Shuri was mostly of the internal system. Te which was prevalent in Tomari was a mixture of both. The Shuri te was primarily offensive, while the Naha te was more defensive and included grappling and throwing tactics.

Ingeniously, even with the ban on martial arts and. implements, te managed to incorporate five basic weapons into it’s systems: the bo, the sai, the kama the tui-fa and the nunchaku. These weapons were used, as a result of the ban on weapons by the Japanese. For the most part, these weapons were fashioned from farm tools and implements. All of these weapons were of Southeast Asian origin and not indigenous to Okinawa, however with time and the methods of employment by Okinawans, they took on distinctive Okinawan characteristics. Thus, to parallel the Japanese martial arts systems in effectiveness, even though less exhaustive in scope and mental discipline. Restricted. as they were by law, the Okinawans had to content themselves with emphasis on empty-hand fighting and the use of weapons which could pass as everyday farm implements and tools.

At the turn of the twentieth century, an alert Japanese doctor noticed the splendid physiques of certain Okinawan conscripts. These were ascribed to the practice of te. Being very impressed, the Japanese government authorized the inclusion of to as physical education in Okinawan schools in 1903. The Okinawans chose the name of karate-jutsu to replace the word te. The Chinese ideogram which represented “kara” was chosen to give honor to the Tang dynasty from which the basic ideas for the development of  te came. “Kara”, in Chinese, meant “China” or “Chinese”.  The Okinawans kept the word “te” because it meant “hand” in their language and also gave tribute to their own art. They added the word “jutsu” because that word meant “art” in Japanese. Thus, “karate-jutsu” meant “China hand art”. The Okinawans thus cleverly respected three cultures,
the Chinese, their own, and the Japanese.

The Japanese found much in karate-jutsu by which they could strengthen their military. Crown Prince Hirohito was very impressed with an exhibition and arranged for a demonstration in Japan. In 1922, Gichin Funikoshi, a karate-jutsu master, demonstrated the art in Japanese universities and by 1924 it was included in the curriculum of that country. It was not long before there was a larger student membership in Japan then there was in Okinawa. In 1930, Mabuni, another famous Okinawan karate-jutsu master, joined Funikoshi in Japan. Mabuni, however, went to Osaka while Funikoshi was in Tokyo. Both Funikoshi and Mabuni studied under Master Itosu. Later, Funikoshi studied with Azato and Mabuni with Higaonna. Funikoshi developed his own system, calling it Shotokan. Mabuni developed the Shito style. On Okinawa, in the absence of Funikoshi and Mabuni, Ghogyun Niyagi became the leader of karate-jutsu. He had been a student of Higaonna but had branched off into his own style which he called Goju.(Goju resembled the Shito style closely) Other styles developed on Okinawa were the Kobayashi style (which was based on northern Chinese boxing); the Shoroiji  style(based on southern Chinese boxing); and the Jodo style which was based on both northern and southern styles. Other styles such as Isshin Shorinji, Tomari, Motojo, Mitsubayashi, Nagamine, Itato, Taido and Okinawan Kempo developed to greatly diversify the teachings. By 1932, all Japanese universities had dojos for the practice of karate-jutsu. About that time, the Japanese shortened the term “karate-jutsu” to simply “karate”. They had stylized karate-jutsu into an art with definite Japanese
characteristics and they determined to give it a Japanese name. They changed the Chinese ideogram “kara” to a Japanese ideogram which was pronounced the same way.
It’s meaning changed, however, from “China” to “empty”. Thus the new name “karate” meant simply “empty hand”. This angered many Okinawans because they
considered it a slight against China. Also, the new “karate” had no complete union with te, which had not limited the art to empty-hand fighting. Under extreme pressure from the Japanese, however, Okinawan masters came to accept the change.

Animal fighting forms are not favored in Okinawan karate as they are in Chinese fighting systems. However, circular movements are used in stepping body-turning, blocking and parrying. Light and quick body maneuvers to avoid the attacker are Chinese characteristics, which contrast with the harsher and more angular Korean and Japanese modern karate styles. These maneuvers are practiced in prearranged exercises called “kata”. “Sanchin”, an exercise which places emphasis on the correct use of eyes, breathing and posture, is karate for the master. Proceeding from the sanchin stance, in which the toes and knees are turned inward, the eyes never leave the attacker. Breathing is slow and natural, as if smelling the air. The sanchin teaches the trainee to develop a “soft-hard” type of movement so as to develop maximum speed and power. The body is taught to act as a whole, unified in concentrated efforts. The sanchin stepping movement is circlar and gives protection to the groin when closing with an opponent. 

Other stances are used from which linear movement can be made easily. Body weight is shared evenly between the two feet. Okinawan styles make great use of the closed hand, and the delivery of the fist centers mainly on the straight thrust method. Literally all karate forms incorporate the twist fist method of striking. The corkscrewing is done in the belief that it creates shock waves that make the blow more penetrating. The target is literally “sucked” toward the source of the blow. Some forms of te and kempo use the standing fist (tate), palm-inward as the target is hit. The to master knows that the correct use of the body fundamentals is the bridge over which the trainee must pass to achieve skill. Hard kempo also ascribes to this ideal. The use of hands is of paramount importance in these arts. Great physical strength is emphasized and the development of maximum strength for each trainee is sought.

Kumite is not overly emphisized in te and kempo. Proper training in basics followed by constant attention to form is considered sufficient for the trainee.These arts were never sports, but combat forms, and competition is either not permitted or is severely curtailed and monitored directly by the master. Prior to 1940,no actual combat or sparring was permitted. Only in recent times under Japanese influence did Okinawan karate permit sparring and sport applications. Rigid rules defining proper attack and defense manners as well as prohibited acts brought karate into the sporting sphere. Sport requires that the trainee deliver a properly executed attack or defense technique rather than that he score over his opponent by any means. So, it was by this one influence of Japan during it’s era of military might in 1940, that Okinawan karate suffered a major blow to it’s effectiveness as a combat form. it does, however, possess the reputation as one of the most disciplined and effective forms of karate on earth.