Ryukyu Martial Arts
an historical overview
published January 10, 2020

Okinawa means a “rope in the offing” and is the general name given to a chain of approximately 140 islands and reefs, situated south of Japan and north of Taiwan in the East China Sea. The islands are divided into three separate geographical regions, known as the Northern, Central, and Southern Ryu̅kyu̅s. Okinawa itself is the largest island in the chain and is located in the Central Ryu̅kyu̅ region. The Southern Ryu̅kyu̅s are separated from the Central and Northern Ryu̅kyu̅s by a large expanse of open sea. Miyako Island, at the northernmost part of the southern region, is some 282 kilometers away from Okinawa Island, in the central region.This oceanic divide and the Black Current, which runs from below the Philippines in the south and sweeps northward past Japan, effectively separated the Ryu̅kyu̅s into two cultural units, one formed by the northern and central regions and the other formed by the islands in the south. The Sakishima Islands in the south are believed to have been inhabited as early as 6000 B.C., but their culture appears to have been uninfluenced by their northern neighbors for roughly 7,000 years. Japanese and Chinese artifacts from the region date only to A. D. 1000. Habitation of the Northern and Central Ryu̅kyu̅s occurred some 30,000 years ago and was undertaken by the Yamashita do̅kutsujin (Yamashita cavemen), who crossed the land bridges that then existed between the Ryu̅kyu̅s and Japan.The Okinawan Shell Mound Era lasted from 2000 B.C. to A.D. 616, when the Yamato (Wa people of the Yayoi culture) of Kyu̅shu̅, the southernmost island of Japan, sent thirty Ryu̅kyu̅ islanders to the court at Nara (Japan), ostensibly to learn about the advanced culture of Prince Sho̅toku Taishi. The Yayoi culture had been acquainted with the use of iron and bronze tools and weapons since their social formation, about 300 B.C. And while there does exist some evidence that the Northern Ryu̅kyu̅ islanders of Yakushima had knowledge of martial weaponry in A. D. 608, when some1,000 were captured and enslaved by Sui Chinese explorers seeking the Land of Happy Immortals, the Central Ryu̅kyu̅s remained effectively demilitarized until expansion by the Yamato after 616.

Shortly after A. D. 616, the Kami jidai (Age of the Gods) was established in the Central Ryu̅kyu̅s with the arrival of a group of Yamato on Seifa Utaki on the Chinen Peninsula. The exact nature of the Yamato mission is unknown, but it is obvious that they had planned an extended occupation. The Yamato from Nara brought with them a rice-based agricultural system, as well as iron implements to both farm and defend themselves. Folk history declares that it was on Seifa Utaki that the first rice was planted in the Ryu̅kyu̅s by the kami (gods) Shinerikyo and Amamikyo, who had descended from Heaven. That Heaven was probably Nara is evidenced in the Yamato chronicles by Sho̅toku Taishi’s appellation as Tenno̅ (Ruler of Heaven). Amamikyo was impregnated by a divine wind and gave birth to two boys and a girl, who defined the Ryu̅kyu̅an social hierarchy into rulers (first son), priestesses (daughter), and farmers (second son), and began the Kami jidai. The sister or daughter of the king at Shuri, on Okinawa, served as the chief noro priestess (the chief priestess was called “kikoe-o̅gimi”) for the royal family until Sho̅ Tai’s abdication to the Japanese in 1879. Together with the divine gifts of iron tools and weapons came the quasi–Zen Buddhist teachings promulgated by the pious Sho̅toku during his reign. Both the weapons and the religiosity influence Ryu̅kyu̅an martial arts to this day. And it is most probable that the martial art known as te was brought to Okinawa at this time.

Although te literally means “hand,” the art has always been intimately associated with the use of weapons, so much so that the advanced empty-hand forms precisely correspond to applications with weapons. The primary weapons of te are the sword (katana), spear (yari),and halberd (naginata), which were also the principal weapons of the Japanese bushi (warrior). Te footwork and taijutsu (techniques for maneuvering the body) also suggest a Japanese origin of the art.

The belief that the Ryu̅kyu̅an martial arts were divinely influenced and intimately associated with royalty, itself of divine origin and establishment, is evidenced in the oral history of the art of te. The first mention of te occurs after the Satsuma invasion and subjugation of Okinawa in 1609.The Satsuma domain was based in Kagoshima, that is, Satsuma. They launched their invasion and subsequent conquest of the Ryu̅kyu̅s from their home in southern Kyu̅shu̅. King Sho̅ Nei sent Jana Ueekata (counselor) to negotiate the occupation treaty with the Japanese. Appalled by the terms set forth in the document and the general treatment of the Okinawans, Jana refused to ratify the agreement and was subsequently exiled to Kagoshima, home of the Satsuma, where he was sentenced to be boiled alive in oil. On the day of his execution, Jana requested that as a bushi of the Ryu̅kyu̅s, he be allowed to practice te before his death. His request was granted, and he was released from his bonds, whereupon Jana performed a series of te exercises. When he had completed his forms, two executioners approached him to fulfill the death sentence, but before they could bind him, Jana grabbed the guards and plunged them into the vat of boiling oil. The bodies of the men floated to the top of the vat and, resembling three linked commas, began to swirl in a counterclockwise direction. The linked comma symbol is known as the hidari gomon (outside karate systems, this symbol is commonly labeled tomoemon or tomoe), and it was adopted as the crest of the Ryu̅kyu̅ royal family out of admiration for Jana Ueekata’s act of loyalty to the king and devotion to Okinawa.

The close relationship between Ryu̅kyu̅ royalty and the art of te is also evidenced in the position of the Motobu Udun government as te instructors of the royal court. The Motobu Udun lineage traces its roots to Prince Sho̅ Koshin, sixth son to King Sho̅ Shitsu, who ruled under the Satsuma from 1648 until 1668. Eleven successive generations of the Motobu Udun inherited the art of te and passed that knowledge on to the Ryu̅kyu̅ royal line.

Motobu Cho̅yu̅, who died in 1926, was the last in the Motobu Udun line and te instructor of the Marquis Sho̅ Ten. It is also interesting to note that the epitome of te is contained in the Anji Kata no Me (Dance Form of the Lords), thus furthering the association between the nobility (anji) and te.

The consideration that the divine progenitors of Ryu̅kyu̅an genesis myths were probably Japanese missionaries who came from the court of Sho̅toku Taishi at Nara about A. D. 616, together with the association between te and successive generations of Ryu̅kyu̅an royalty and the fact that the principal weaponry of te was also the principal weaponry of the Japanese bushi, lends support to the idea that te itself is of Japanese origin.

The Japanese arts also influenced the development of karate on Okinawa. Karate should not be confused with te. The original name for karate was Toudi, or To̅te (Tang hand), denoting its roots in the Chinese martial arts. The name was later changed to karate, meaning “empty hand. Kanga Teruya, also known as Sakugawa Toudi (Tang Hand), studied combative forms in Satsuma, which he combined with forms he learned in Fuzhou and Beijing. Sakugawa’s student, Matsumura So̅kon (1809–1901), traveled to Fuzhou and also to Kagoshima, where he studied the art of Jigen-ryu̅ Kenjutsu, the sword style of the Satsuma samurai. On his return to Okinawa, Matsumura combined this knowledge of Jigen-ryu̅ with the Chinese-based systems he learned in Fuzhou and Okinawa to form the basis of Shuri-di.

Chinese martial arts (wuyi) entered Ryu̅kyu̅ culture through interaction with Chinese immigrants who settled in Okinawa, and through Okinawans who traveled abroad. The Thirty-Six Families who settled at Kume Village in Kuninda, Naha, in 1392 undoubtedly brought combative disciplines with them. And in 1762, the Chinese kenpo̅ expert, Kusanku, arrived in Okinawa with several of his students and began to disseminate his art.

Fuzhou, in the province of Fujian, was a major trading port between Okinawa and China. Fuzhou was also the home of many renowned Chinese martial artists, several of whom were reported to have studied at the famed Southern Shaolin Temple, and many young Uchinachu (Okinawans) traveled to Fuzhou to study the martial arts. Sakugawa Toudiand Matsumura So̅kon studied in Fuzhou. Higashionna (Higaonna) Kan-ryo̅ (1853–1915) studied go no kenpo̅ ju̅ no kenpo̅ (hard-fist method/soft-fist method) in Fuzhou with the Chinese master Xie Zhongxiang, as did Nakaima Norisato. Higashionna returned to Okinawa and laid the foundation for Naha-di and, subsequently, the Go̅ju̅-ryu̅. Nakaima founded the Ryu̅ei-ryu̅. Uechi Kanbun (1877–1948) also studied in Fuzhou. He learned the art of Pangai-Noon (also PanYing Jen,banyingruan, or Pan Ying Gut), which later became known in Okinawa as Uechi-ryu̅, from Zhou Zihe (Shu Shi Wa). The Kojo̅ family was one of the original Thirty-Six Families who came from Fuzhou and settled in the Kume village. The family continues to be a prominent martial arts source in Okinawa. The family operated its own do̅jo̅ in Fuzhou, where many young Uchinachu trained while in China. Until the 1970s, the Kojo̅ family retained their close association with mainland China.

In 1936, Miyagi Cho̅jun, the founder of the Go̅ju̅-ryu̅, presented an outline of karate in which he observed that the age of secrecy in karate had ended, and he predicted the internationalization of the art. The effects of World War II saw Miyagi proved correct. Okinawa underwent a change from the age of Japan to the age of America. And with this change came many changes for the martial arts community, both in Okinawa and Japan. Allied servicemen began to train in and disseminate karate throughout Europe, America, and the world. With a ready market, many unqualified, and some simply bogus, instructors began to teach various “styles” of karate to an eager public. The effects of these charlatans are still felt throughout the martial arts community. The traditional Okinawan concept of the genkoki (village training hall), where the deepest secrets of the art were studied and passed on solely for the continuation of the system, was virtually abandoned and lost. And although the postwar commercialization greatly contributed to this effect, the trend began with the public teaching of karate.

Well-meaning instructors who felt that karate had much to offer the public attempted to disseminate karate for the benefit of the masses, rather than for the perpetuation of the classical system that was the cause from which those benefits sprang. Many new styles came into existence that utilized the forms of the old styles but were devoid of the spirit that made them worthwhile treasures. Rather than act in a synergistic system, mental and spiritual training took a backseat to the physical perpetuation of empty technique. In some cases, Okinawan karate kata were usurped by other styles, which claimed the forms originated with them. The advent of presenting kata and training methods on videotape, and more recently the Internet, has further diluted the essence of the art but has furthered the spread of karate’s popularity. (Ron Mottern)

 Martial Arts of the World: An encyclopedia Volume 1: A-Q, edited by Thomas A. Green
 Bishop, Mark. 1999. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques. 2d ed. Boston: Tuttle.
 Zen Kobudô: Mysteries of Okinawan Weaponry and Te. 1996. Rutland, VT: Tuttle.
 Higashionna, Morio. 1996. The History of Karate: Gôjû Ryû. Dragon.
 Kerr, George. 1960. Okinawa: The History of an Island People. Rutland,VT: Tuttle.
 McCarthy, Patrick. 1995. The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. Rutland, VT: Tuttle.
 Sandoval, Anthony. n.d. “The Traditional Genko Ki (Village Hall) Dojo.”Unpublished paper.

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