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By Master Donald Bohan
November 1, 1978
Since the 1950’s, the practice of karate and other Oriental martial arts has become more widespread than at any other time in history. In America, as in numerous other western countries, many thousands of karate enthusiasts have undertaken a discipline that, only a few decades ago, had been largely restricted to servicemen in Asia who had access to dojos in Okinawa and Japan. Most of the men who pioneered American karate are veterans of the Marine Corps who were stationed in Okinawa. Thus a sport and way of life that has been rapidly subsumed by American culture has close ties with an exclusively Asian tradition. This tradition extends back ultimately thousands of years in ancient India and China.
The history of the Okinawan way of unarmed combat, originally called Te (hand), is very poorly documented. Not only was the art kept in strict secrecy during the centuries when its perfection was attained, but also any old documents that might have shed some light on its early stages might have been destroyed when the archives of the Ryukyuan Kingdom burned in 1945. However, the rich oral history of karate, handed down from generation to generation, is highly informative. This “book of the people” has been the primary source for historians such as Richard Kim, whose book, “The Weaponless Warriors”, portrays legendary karate masters in a manner as entertaining as the folklore from which the book was derived. This folk history is expanded and explained by the well-documented details of Okinawan social, political and military history. Indeed, the broader picture of Okinawan history provides the context in which the very development of karate may be understood.
Okinawa is the largest island of the Ryukyu island chain, an archipelago formed by an underwater mountain range that stretches from southern Japan to Taiwan. Okinawa rises in the center of the Ryukyus, facing the East China Sea to the west, and the Pacific Ocean to the east. With its advantageous location and good harbors, Okinawa gained an important position in the maritime trade of East and Southeast Asia. From the 10th century to the 12th century, numerous regional rulers enriched themselves with overseas trade, organized governments, built villages and strongholds, and engaged in strenuous commercial and military rivalry. During the 12th and 13th centuries, power was concentrated as the stronger rulers demanded the allegiance of the weaker, and dynastic kingdoms were established. By the 14th century, Okinawa was divided into three kingdoms: Hocusing in the north, Chuan in the center, and Nana in the south. The most powerful of these was Chuan, whose capital was Shuri.
In 1372, King Satto of Chuan established a tributary relationship between Chuan and the Ming Dynasty of China. In return for acknowledging China’s dominance and authority, Chuan gained valuable trade privileges, gifts and cultural exchange that greatly enhanced the abilities and self-esteem of the small kingdom. The Ming emperor sent the colony known as Thirty-Six families to his new tributary. This colony was established nearShuri and included Chinese diplomats, interpreters, scholars, artisans, shipwrights, navigators, soldiers and priest, all of who were to instruct and assist the Okinawans. Satto also sent the first of many Okinawan students and tribute missions to China in process of exchange that would last for five centuries.
In 1406, a certain Hashi seized power in Chuan, and made his father, ShiShi, king, establishing the first Sho Dynasty. Hashi then conducted military campaigns against the northern and southern kingdoms until they both fell under control of Chuan. When Hashi succeeded his father in 1422, he built the port at Naha and imposed a royal monopoly on Ryukyuan trade. During the next fifty years, Hashi and successive 1st and 2nd Sho Dynasty kings developed a far-flung and enormously profitable trade network, from Siam to Pataki, Malacca, Sumatra, Java, Formosa, China, Korea, and Japan. Indeed, with the cooperation and support of China, the Ryukyuan kingdom came to predominate on these trade routes, providing the people with a new outlet for their energies, and providing the kings with unprecedented economic power.
By 1477, profits from trade has so strengthened the central authority of the Sho Dynasty against Ryukyuan territorial lords on Okinawa and outlying islands, that King Sho Shin was able to order the lords to leave their ancestral castles and take up residence in his capital at Shuri. Furthermore, Sho Shin issued an edict that banned the private possession of weapons. Thus the king disarmed not only the general populace, but the once autonomous regional rulers as well. The king’s power was sufficient to enforce the weapon ban.
By the mid 1500’s, the Sho kings ruled all four major Ryukyuan island groups: Ammo, Okinawa, Myakka and Gautama. A social class system was established, a strong royal guard was maintained, and royal patronage was given to Buddhism. But the end of that century saw the decline of Ryukyuan trade. The Chinese curtailed their financial support. Pirate fleets from Japan and other nation’s ravaged ports and sea-going vessels. The Portuguese strove to dominate trade in Southeast Asia. All of this cut drastically into the profits forthcoming to the Ryukyuan Kings, who were nonetheless obliged to support domestic affairs as well as the expensive biyearly tributary missions to China, which required elaborate gifts for the emperor’s family and officials, as well as months of room, board and entertainment for Ryukyuan officials, staff, seamen and servants.
At the turn of the 17th century, a new Shogun emerged from the political turmoil in Japan, and the Ryukyuan king, Sho Neil, was asked to send delegates to pay his respects. When Sho Neil declined, he unwittingly offered Japan a pretext for military action against Ryukyu. The Shogun granted permission to the Satsuma clan of southern Japan to chastise the Okinawans, ostensibly for their lack of respect, but also because the Ryukyu archipelago appeared to have increasing strategic importance. Satsuma sailed against Okinawa in February 1609, with three thousand samurai in a fleet of over one hundred war-junks. The Okinawans had not fought a war since the days of King Hashi, two centuries before. Most of them had been disarmed, and what soldiers there were at Shuri were no match for the veteran samurai. After a brave defense, on April 5, Shuri Castle was taken; the city was looted. The king and more than one hundred of his officials were taken back to Kagoshima, the Satsuma capital in Japan.
Within the next three years, the northern Ryukyus were directly annexed to Satsuma territory. Okinawa and the southern islands were made a vassal state of Satsuma. King Sho Nei and his officials were made to swear oaths of allegiance to Japan, which were binding on their decedents. Ryukyu retained its royal family and a façade of independence, including its tributary relationship with China. But the Satsuma clan Strictly controlled all trade and much internal policy, disarmed the king’s retainers while maintaining the weapons ban, and imposed a burdensome tax on one third of all Okinawan production. Japan would increasingly dominate Okinawa until modem times. Okinawa would never again know independence or prosperity.
© 2005 Wayland's Isshin-Ryu Karate-Do, LLC
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