The history of karate is a murky place. Not a lot of it is written down. In addition, what
knowledge that has been passed down has been censored and changed over time. The legends that do exist are somewhat
larger than life. However some items are known. What’s more, because karate sometimes was the only difference
between life and death for the practitioner, it was in their best interest to create a highly secretive
atmosphere. The less that was known by the outside, the better it was for the practitioner.
Factors Influencing the Development of Karate in Okinawa
The physical location of Okinawa plays an important role in the development of karate. Okinawa is centrally located, being close to China, Japan, and Korea. Okinawa is also relatively poor in resources. Because of this and the central location, trade rapidly developed between
these countries. This trade was especially strong with China China’s influence on Okinawa rapidly increased after, in the year 1372, the Okinawan king pledged allegiance to the Ming emperor of China. This event greatly opened the door for cultural exchange between the
two countries. It also expand Okinawa’s contacts with other trading kingdoms.
This had two effects on the early development of the martial arts in Okinawa. First, Chinese families and individuals lived a good period of time in Okinawa. Certain of these individuals had Chinese martial arts backgrounds. In turn, Okinawans visited China, again getting exposure to the martial arts located there.
Second, as an island nation, Okinawa had seaports that were visited by sailors from the various nations with which Okinawa conducted trade. Most likely, some of these individuals possessed the martial arts skills of their homelands. The Okinawans watched and learned.
The next major event to impact the development of the martial arts occurred in 1477. That year, the ruler of Okinawa, Sho Shin banned the possession of all weapons. He also decreed that all the nobles live next to him in the royal capital. This made the knowledge of the empty hand arts like karate and it’s predecessors that much more valuable.
One of the most important events in the development of karate in Okinawa happened in 1609. The Satsuma clan of Japan’s southern most island of Kyushu invaded Okinawa resulting in the end of independence for the nation. As part of this invasion, even stricter bans on weapons were put in place. The owner of such weapons would be severely punished.
Moreover, once the subjugation of Okinawa was complete, the Satsuma samurai had no formal battles to fight. Also, the samurai expected total respect from the peasant class. With no formal enemy to fight, the samurai, having a quick temper, took it upon themselves
to use their skills to punish the Okinawan peasants, no matter how small the excuse. As a backdrop, it was in this environment that Okinawan martial arts start to come together.
Development of Different Styles
The various groups resisting the Japanese occupation were disunited. Realizing that this was getting them nowhere, they joined together in 1629. The result was the development of a new fighting style called Te, which is translated to mean hand. Te is believed to have been
originally developed in Okinawa. It may have been hundreds of years old by this time.
However, the written record of Te is extremely limited. The Japanese were determined to erase all forms of martial arts in Okinawa. Because of this, groups teaching Te had to go underground. These groups normally had to practice in secrecy, meeting in remote places and meeting at night or just before dawn. This meant that any knowledge of Te from this period is only recorded in oral form. Written documentation of Te simply does not exist.
Three main centers for the study of Te existed. They happened to coincide with the major population centers of Okinawa. Shuri-Te came from the town of Shuri, the ancient Okinawan capital. Naha-Te was practice in the main port of Naha. And Tomari-Te was from the town of
Tomari. Each of these centers, because of the clandestine nature in which the martial arts were being practiced, developed their own distinct style. The differences between them also are largely a result of having been influenced by different Chinese traditions. Shuri-Te is
believed to be heavily influenced by Shaolin Temple boxing. While Naha-Te incorporated more of the soft Taoist techniques.
Sometime between the years 1784 and 1903, the term karate replaced that of Te. This new name reflected the synthesis of the native Okinawan martial Arts of Te with the influence of the Chinese Martial Arts the Okinawans had been exposed to. Each of the different methods became Ryu or styles within karate. Each master would make their contribution to the Ryu, sometimes creating a new Ryu if
it was so deemed necessary.