The development of karate was heavily influenced by the changes in the socio-political pressures of the last few centuries.
Early Days (1400-1800)
In 1429 the Okinawan king, Sho Hashi, unified the three kingdoms of Okinawa into one. In 1470 the king banned the possession of weapons (although this was relaxed a bit during the 16th century). This ban encouraged the development of ‘empty hand’ self-defence.
Prior to the development of early karate (tode) in the 18th century, the main Okinawan martial art was called Te (or Ti) meaning ‘hand’. Te flourished during the 15th century and as it developed it absorbed aspects of martial arts from other countries, especially China. It appears to have been a comprehensive art similar to aikido but including kicks and punches and mainly practised by the nobility. Karate is a mixture of indigenous Te and imported Chuan Fa (Chinese styles).
In 1603 the Japanese Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa took control of all Japan from the Emperor. In 1609 Ieyasu Tokugawa gave the Satsuma clan (who inhabited Japan’s southern province) permission to invade Okinawa. This kept them busy and ‘out of his hair’. They won the war and took over the island as a province of Japan. However, it was already a province of China, so the island had to pay taxes to both countries.
The Satsuma kept a low profile so as not to inflame the Chinese. The Chinese probably were fully aware of the takeover but didn’t want war with Japan, and both sides gained from trade.
The Satsuma strengthened the weapons ban and also banned empty hand practice.
The Okinawans had always traded with China and many Okinawans had learnt forms of Chuan Fa. The main style was White Crane which was developed in 1600 in Fujian province (the nearest Chinese province to Okinawa), and so was exciting and new at the time.
White Crane has many techniques that we see in our style although the Naha-te styles (e,g, Goju Ryu) have more. These include Ippon Ken, Nukite, pecking techniques, Tai Sabbaki (body evasion), and joint locks.
The Chinese styles included weapons but these were adapted so Kobudo could develop secretly (see later).
The only people who had the time and money to practice self defence were the nobles. They would practice secretly in a house, garden, or graveyard, mainly in the dark, in small groups, Students who wanted to train were rejected if they were too violent or not of sound character.
There was no standard curriculum. Kata were referred to as ‘Di’ (hand), so Seisan would be called Seisan di. The kata were modified to suit the individual student and would change over time in reaction to the research and growing understanding of the teacher. The students were also taught Confucianism, and its social and moral philosophy permeated karate training.
This Chinese influenced Okinawan martial art was called Tode meaning ‘Chinese hand’. The two Chinese written characters (called Kanji in Japanese) have various pronunciations. For the first character the Chinese (on) pronunciation was To, the Japanese (kun) was Kara, and the Korean was Tang. The second character was Chinese Shu (e.g. Wushu), Japanese Te or Korean Su, so we get Tode, Karate, and Tang Su (e.g. Tang Su Do) all meaning ‘Chinese hand’. At this time Tode was mainly used in Okinawa. The Tang refers to the Chinese Tang dynasty.
The first person we can find in our lineage is Peichin Takahara (1683-1761). Peichin is a title for an upper class noble. He was employed by the Okinawan king and was probably a bodyguard amongst other duties. He practised a Tode style which incorporated White Crane.
He taught Teruya Kanga, later known as Satunushi Sakugawa (1733-1815), who was nicknamed Tode Sakugawa. He was also taught by a Chinese military envoy, Kong Su Kung, aka Ko Shung Kun who we know as Kushanku (who was in Okinawa from 1756 to 1761).
Another early Chinese influence was Wang Ji aka Wanchu (Wansu) who was also a military envoy in Okinawa (Tomari) in 1683.
It was thought that Takuhura Sakugawa was a bodyguard to the king, but the next person in the lineage certainly was. Sokon Matsumura (1809-1899) had the nickname Bushi Matsumura. He commanded the Shuri castle (residence of the king) garrison for 50 years. He trained with Tode Sakugawa when Sakugawa was in his 80s.
He also trained under Kushanku (probably a different Kushanku) and maybe two Chinses Okinawan residents Ason (who taught him Naihanchi) and Iwah who came from Fuzhou (in Fujian).
He travelled to China (Shaolin temple, and Beijing) and Japan to study martial arts, and brought back Bassai, Seisan, and Gojushiho. He created Chinto from techniques he learnt from a Chinese martial artist in Tomari, and passed on Kushanku kata.
Sokon Matsumura developed linear karate, as opposed to circular forms of Chinese boxing. He developed high speed so that his techniques had high penetrative energy (energy is proportional to the square of the speed). The Chinese styles were generally developed by Buddhists who minimised damage to their opponents to protect their karma (future life of the spirit). They would naturally favour submission rather than destruction. But when you are a bodyguard you have to protect your patron, in this case the king, Your karma won’t be good if the king is damaged. When defending the king from a group attack he had to disable the attackers as quickly as possible, there was no time to apply locks.
This form of Tode became known as Shuri-te in about 1879. The other main form which maintained general more circular Crane style became known as Naha-te (developed in Naha city and which produced styles Goju-ryu and Uechi-Ryu. (The terminology Naha-te may not have been used until 1926). The third form, developed in Tomari city, became known as Tomari-te, although it was very similar to Shuri-te. However, in the early days there was very little difference between these three styles as the old masters trained with each other and copied techniques.
The Tokugawa rule had effectively closed Japan (including Okinawa) from the outside world. But the west had developed seafaring and wanted to open trade with Japan. Many American whaling ships were trying to put into port in Japan. In 1853 President Fillmore sent a naval fleet commanded by Commodore Matthew Perry to open up trade and diplomacy with Japan. He first visited Okinawa where he used military threat to enter the Shuri castle. He then went on to Japan and Japan was forced to open her doors to the rest of the world. This led to the Meiji restoration of 1868 where the Shogunate (set up by Tokugawa) was toppled and power was restored to the Emperor. Okinawa became an official province of Japan (no longer a vassal of China). The Okinawan king (Sho Tai) was deposed and moved to Tokyo (1879).
The samurai gradually lost their stipend, and many became business men. They could no longer carry swords as a mark of their status. In Okinawa the nobility became unemployed and had to seek other work. The army was reformed and national conscription instituted (1873). Japan became engaged with war with China (1894/95) and Russia (1904/05).
Japan embarked on a social and political program called ‘Kokutai’, meaning ‘national essence’. This had two objectives, ‘Nihonjinron’ (Japaneseness) which promoted cultural uniformity throughout the Japanese territories including Okinawa, and ‘Shugyo’ (austerity) which promoted the ideals of the samurai (loyalty, bravery, and sacrifice).
After Meiji (1870-1900)
The next master in our lineage is Chotoku Kyan (1870-1945). His father, Chofu Kyan (1835-1889), was a noble and a royal steward. He was probably trained by Sokon Matsumura. When the king was deposed and sent to Tokyo (1879), Chofu and his family followed him in 1882. Chotoku was trained in Japan by his father. After four years they returned to Okinawa. Chotoku was small and frail and had poor eyesight (he was nicknamed squinty-eyed Chan, Chan Migwa). His father thought that martial arts would make him stronger and encouraged him to train under several karate masters. These included Sokon Matsumura, Itosu Yasutsune (1831-1915, nicknamed Ankoh meaning iron horse), Kokan Oyadomari (1827-1905), and Kosaku Matsumora (1829-1898). Both Oyadomari and Matsumora were of Tomari.
Peichin Kokan Oyadomari was a clerk and guard at the royal court. He probably trained with Sokon Matsumura but also with Uku Giko (1800-1850, aka Yoshitaka Munehisa), who taught him three Naihanchi forms. After three years he trained with Kishin Teryu (1804-1864, aka Kizo) who taught him Bassai, Rohai, and Wansu.
Chikudon Peichin Kosaku Matsumora trained with the same people as Oyadomari. Both of them also trained with a mysterious Chinese man (Annan, Ason, or Chinto) who may have been the source of some of the katas. Matsumora trained with Gisei Maeda and may have helped create Arnunku kata. Matsumora taught Chinto, Bassai, and Wansu.
Chotoku spent some time in Taiwan (maybe several trips) during the 1890s. He trained with Chikudon Peichin Gisei Maeda (Chikudon Peichin is a noble title} who was a student Of Kosaku Matsumora. Here he learnt Arnunku kata.
Tomari-te was soft, light, and yielding unlike the hard styles of the Shuri and Naha. In Naihanchi, Tomar-ite uses a narrow version of horse stance. It also contains many grasping techniques. Although Tomari-te has almost died out, it remains as an important element in many Shorin styles.
Like others of the old noble class, the Kyans were a lot poorer than before and began to cultivate silk worms. Chotoku rented out services as a cart hauler. Chotoku trained with Yara of Chatan (Chatanyara) who had been taught Kushanku kata by the same Kushanku who had taught Tode Sakugawa. This version was slightly different to that passed on by Sokon Matsumura.
Because of his small size Chotoku developed techniques that would maximise his advantages and minimise his weaknesses. He developed a quick switch from horse stance to front stance while punching with a twisting and driving action, pivoting on the ball of the foot, adding considerably to the power of the punch. He put great emphasis on body movement, quickly closing the distance, and then quickly leaping back out of range. He had the idea that speed beats power. Even when attacked by a powerful technique, body evasion means it will do no harm. He developed the vertical rising fist (Tate Ken).
Chotoku Kyan studied many different versions of common kata and late in his life he reverted to older versions (i.e more Tomari, less Shuri). Other masters termed his kata ‘Inakei-de’ (primitive). His versions had strange additions and gestures which became a trade mark of his katas.
Kyan probably learnt the katas from the teachers shown in the table below:
|Arnunku||Gisei Maeda/Kosaku Matsumora|
He has a bad reputation as a libertine (which was probably not abnormal for his time), as compared to Gichin Funakoshi (the founder of Shotokan). However, although he was a poor man, he didn’t charge for his later teaching at the College of Agriculture.
He made a journey across Okinawa during the war in 1942 to support Shoshin Nagamine’s opening of a new dojo. This was a difficult wartime journey for a 73 year old. Nagamine says ‘watching the old master filled my eyes with tears because I was so deeply moved by his mastery of Budo and his determination to support me regardless of the distance’.
As war swept over Okinawa in 1945 there was enormous devastation. Finding food and shelter became a struggle. Kyan reportedly passed what little food he could find to hungry children. He died 20/9/1945 at the age of 76 from the complications of his privations.
End of Secrecy (1900-1920)
Itosu Yasutsune (1831-1915, aka Ankoh) is not in our direct lineage (although he taught Kyan), but he had a major influence on modern karate. He was trained by Sokon Matsumura, and he also trained with Shiroma Gusukuma of Tomari. He is credited with introducing the corkscrew punch (full rotation).
In 1890 the Japanese national conscription system was imposed on Okinawa and some of Itosu’s students passed the acceptance physical examination. The doctors were so impressed by their physical condition that Tode was considered for being added to the physical education of Okinawan schools. In the early 1890s a teacher at the Shuri primary school began to teach Tode. In April 1901 Tode became part of Shuri’s Jinjo elementary school curriculum taught by Itosu.
This introduction of karate into the school system meant that its days of secrecy were ended. It was also now being taught to most classes of society rather than just the nobility. As well as physical health, its purpose was to cultivate the principles of Kokutai. The classes were now much larger and to cope with this the students were lined up in ranks in a militaristic way. The old style individual instruction into the meaning of kata (Bunkai) was largely lost. Itosu modified many of the traditional kata removing dangerous techniques. He simplified katas and sparring by using mainly punching and blocking techniques (removing open hand techniques). Also, the pull-back fist (Hikite) was to the hip rather than to under the arm as was traditionally done.
Gichin Funaksohi (1868-1957 aka Shoto) was a student of Itosu and a contemporary of Kyan. He founded the Shotokan style which he took to Japan in 1922. He mainly used the Itosu teaching methods and kata.
Styles and Names (1920-1947)
Until 1927 virtually all Okinawan fighting arts were called Te, Tode, or Karate. In 1927 the martial art taught by Kanryo Higoshionna came to be called Naha-te after Naha city where he taught, as a way of distinguishing it from Shuri-te (the art of Shuri, the capital of Okinawa).
When Funakoshi took karate to Japan he found that, to the mainland Japanese, karate was uncultivated and lacking overall organization or ‘oneness’. Compared to the sword arts it was a primitive rural pursuit. The Japanese set about changing karate into a Japanese art. Also, the ant-Chinese feelings of the time meant karate lost its Chinese visage. Karate training was standardised and systemised. The karate gi and belt system were copied from Jigoro Kano’s judo.
Following the Sino-Japanese war of 1895 many Okinawans began to think of changing their martial art name from Tode for nationalistic reasons. In 1905 Chomo Hanashiro first used a different first character in the two characters for Tode which meant ‘empty’ rather than ‘Chinese’. Both ‘Chinese hand’ and ‘empty hand’ could be pronounced karate.
Gichin Funakoshi adopted the use of the name ‘karate’ in Japan and it quickly became the official name for Okinawan empty hand fighting. The adoption of the new ideograms for karate was in line with the anti-Chinese sentiment. Funakoshi favoured the ‘empty’ ideogram because he believed students of karate should aim at ‘perfecting their art and emptying their heart and mind of earthly desire and vanity’. In 1931 Japan invaded and seized Manchuria, then in 1937 a border incident started a full-scale war with China. Between 1931 and 1937 the tension between the two nations promoted patriotic sentiments in Okinawa and the name change from Chinese hand to empty hand avoided reference to their enemy.
The character for Do, meaning path or way (Tao in Chinese), was added, hence karate-do. This had been used by Jigoro Kano when he changed his art’s name from Jujitsu to Judo. ‘Do’ means a path leading to wisdom and self-cultivation. When the Okinawan masters adopted karate-do they wanted to show their loyalty to Japan but also that karate transcends the political environment. Through the practice of karate-do the participant empties the self of vanity and strives towards perfection of character. This had been an integral part of karate since the early days.
In order to be in line with indigenous Japanese martial arts, specific style names were adopted, General references to the originating city were dropped and specific style names were registered with the Dai Nippon Butokukai in the early 1930s (e.g. Shorin Ryu, Shito Ryu, Shotokan).
Funakoshi resisted the idea of distinct styles, but gradually his students adopted the name Shotokan (Shoto’s hall. Chosin Chibana, a student of Itosu, picked the name Shorin Ryu (Little forest style), named after the Shaolin temple (Shorin is the Okinawan pronunciation of Shaolin). Legend has it that Itosu chose the name Shorin Ryu. Itosu spelled Shorin using the characters for ‘bright/clear forest’ instead of the traditional ‘young forest’ used by the Shaolin temple. It can have referred to the Okinawan kings who were all Sho (i.e. Sho’s forest), but the first syllable of Sokon Matsumura’s name can be pronounced as Sho, again Sho’s forest. Shorin Ryu became a general term for all styles in the Sokon Matsumura lineage.
The style name Shorinji Ryu (Shaolin Temple – Ji means temple in Japanesee) was used by Joen Nakazato (a student of Kyan) when he opened his dojo in the village of Chinen in March 1947.
After the War (1947)
At the end of the second world war Okinawa was in ruins. Shuri castle had been destroyed (it was later rebuilt). A lot of the historical documents on Okinawa had been destroyed which makes researching the history of karate difficult.
The proponents of nationalism were blamed for the destruction and so Kokutai was abandoned. Dai Nippon Butokukai was temporarily abolished because it was viewed as having promoted militarism. There was a wholehearted turn to pacifism and attempts to copy the USA. The arts of judo and kendo were also suspended and many people turned away from the indigenous Japanese martial arts and began to practice karate which had somehow avoided the suspension. This led to a severe shortage of qualified instructors in Japan. Karate was relatively new before the war so there weren’t many instructors, but many of those had died. It takes years of in-depth training to properly learn kata and corresponding bunkai, but learning karate as a sport takes much less time.
Masatoshi Nakayama, a Shotokan teacher, said that competitive sports were flourishing, they were very American. He was worried that a deadly martial art would be rejected so he endeavoured to move karate in the direction of a competitive sport. In the early 1950s the first rules of sport karate were established in Japan (again dangerous techniques were removed from practice), and by 1957 the first championships were held in Tokyo.
Meanwhile in Okinawa the karate masters (e,g, Shoshin Nagamine) were less affected by the shortage of instructors and less inclined to teach karate as a sport. They believed karate could remain popular without losing its essence as a martial art and not as a sport.
The Kyan Lineage (1947 to date)
Our lineage now splits between two students of Chotoku Kyan.
Zenryu Shimabukuro (1904-1969) trained under Chotoku Kyan from 1932 to early 1945 and in 1947 after Kyan’s death he opened his own dojo, He built his own new dojo and in 1962 opened it as the Seibukan where he taught Naihanchi, Wansu, Bassai, Gojushiho, Chinto, Seisan, Kusanku
(Chatanyara) and Arnunku katas along with sparring developed by Choki Motobu. Zenryu emphasised hard sparring and the use of Bogu (protective clothing for sparring, see below). His son Zenpo (1943-) still teaches his father’s style of Chubu Shorin-Ryu.
Joen Nakazato (1922-2010) trained with Kyan from 1935 to 1942 when he was drafted into the army. When he returned to Okinawa he opened a dojo at Chinen. He named his style Shorinji-Ryu. He taught Arnunku, Seisan, Naihanchi, Wansu, Bassai, Chinto, Gojushiho, and Kushanku. He taught Seisan with breathing and dynamic tension (similar to but less than Goju-Ryu). He practiced sparring with and without bogu, and makiwara training.
Isamu Tamotsu (1919-2000) was born in Amami Ōshima in Kagoshima prefecture. He graduated from the “ Prison Police Officer Training School of Taiwan”. He studied Judo, Chinese Kempo, Daito-ryu – and Hakko-ryu (jujutsu and kenjutsu). Isamu Tamotsu stayed on Okinawa from February 1954 until spring 1955 training with Shimabukuro, where he learnt Arnunku and Chinto. He learnt Seisan, Wansu, Gojushiho and Bassai from Joen Nakazato. He learnt Kushanku from Yonaha. When he returned to Kagoshima he opened his first dojo, the Shōrin-ji-ryū Karate-dō Kenkyūkai Renshinkan in the Kōrai neighbourhood of Kagoshima City. Since the second half of the 1950s in Okinawa armoured sparring matches were carried out apparently with the Bogu developed by Tamotsu from Kendō protective gear. Tamotsu was the contact for Nakamura Shigeru, Nakazato Jōen, and Shimabukuro Zenryō for Bōgu-tsuki Karate.
On the death of Isamu, his son Iwao Tamotsu (1948-2016) lead the style until he passed away in 2016 and was succeeded by his brother Yuzo Tamotsu.
Shosaku Ueno (14/2/1955- date, Soke – founder Reiwaryu Ryushikan) trained under Isamu Tamotsu of Renshinkan. He began his training in Kagoshima and moved to Tokyo to develop his art. Soke Ueno wanted to reflect the values of ‘Rei’ respect and ‘Wa” harmony more deeply, naming his new school Reiwaryu Ryushinkan around 1984.
Peter Connolly (1952 – date, Kyoshi – founder Reiwaryu Ryushinkan UK) originally began training in 1974 in Wado Ryu with Katsuma Kobayashi and Tatsuo Suzuki. Following this he trained with Gary Swift (now Chief Instructor British Wado Kai). In 1981 Peter visited Japan and was introduced to Shosaku Ueno. This came about through his good friend Masumi Toyama. He stayed with Soke for a period of intensive training after which Shosaku Ueno requested that he introduce the style of Reiwaryu Ryushinkan to the UK. After another visit to Japan in August 1983, Peter agreed to introduce the style. Since then Peter has visited Japan on more than 12 occasions.
Article research and written by Kyoshi Rhys Williams