Okinawan Style Karate History

The history of the Okinawan Karate styles beginning with its Chinese origins and carrying through the Japanese occupation, weapons and present day name.

To trace the origins of the Okinawan martial arts, one has to travel back through time to the distant past of fifteen hundred years ago. It was during this time the founder of Zen Buddhism, Bodhiharma, also known as Daruma, traveled from India to China with the intention of giving lectures. His trip of several thousand miles was fraught with dangers from bandits and wild animals to the extremes in environment.

Eventually he reached the reached a Shaolin Temple in the Hunan Province of China and began his instructions in Zen Buddhism. Legends tell of how his followers fell out from exhaustion from the harshness of his training. Even though they had a fighting style that was based upon the movements of 5 animals, Bodhiharma felt these followers were weak and set out to create a method of training that would strengthen the monks both physically and mentally. This method incorporated radical breathing techniques and hand movements that the monks learned quickly. It also enabled the monks to gain the strength needed finish their Buddhism training.

This method eventually became known as Chinese or Shorin-Ji Kempo. The monks began to experiment with the style and soon, several variations were beginning to emerge. The styles themselves began to migrate to other areas like Korea and the Ryukya Islands some four hundred nautical miles east of China and three hundred miles south of Japan.

In these islands were the people of Okinawa who had their own martial arts style of fighting but soon enveloped the aspects of the Chinese style as well and the style Okinawa Te emerged.

About five hundred years ago Japan conquered Ryukya Islands and a national policy came about which forbade the possession of any and all weapons by the people of Okinawa. Over the next two hundred years, the Japanese government had eventually confiscated almost all of the weapons on the Ryukyu Islands. It was during this time the islands came under the scrutiny of the Satsuma Clan of Japan.

Since the people weren't allowed traditional weapons with which to defend themselves against armed bandits as well as the nobility and Samurai who could kill upon a whim. Realizing they needed a way to fight back, the Okinawan people trained in secret and began to use improvised weapons made from common farm implements while refining the art of unarmed combat.

When one enters a modern day karate school (dojo) they will inevitably see a wall of what are now called "traditional" martial arts weapons. These weapons are the same farming tools the Okinawans used centuries ago. A few of these weapons are Nunchaku, Bo, Tonfa Kama and Sai.

The Nunchaku is actually two sticks connected together by a piece of rope or a chain that used to be used as a flail to beat rice with. The rice would be placed on a large screen or piece of material, beat with the nunchaku and then tossed up for the wind to carry away the husks. Of all the weapons you see in martial arts, the nunchaku is probably the best known.

Today the nunchaku is used for striking, jabbing, choking and trapping an opponent.



The Bo is also often called the staff. It is a long wooden pole like staff that was used in ancient times for a variety of purposes from herding livestock to guiding boats.

A Bo is normally about six feet long and can be used for striking, blocking and sweeping the feet of an opponent.

The Tonfa was actually used as a grinder for both Japan and Okinawa. It is a favorite of contemporary police officers who use it as a nightstick. The Tonfa is about seventeen inches long. And has a handle near one end and is usually made of a hardwood such as oak.

The Sai is an instrument that was used for planting seeds. Often made of metal, it looks a little like the upper part of the devil's pitchfork except the side "guards" is shorter than the sixteen- inch middle blade. In martial arts, the Sai is used for blocking, stabbing as well as slashing an opponent.

The Kama is a sharp sickle whose blade is half-moon shaped and attached to what is usually a wooden handle. The farmers used the Kama to cut grass or rice and martial artists use it today to block punches, kicks or as a way to slash at an opponent. Few schools teach the use of the Kama because of its deadly nature and high chances of deadly accidents.

With these new "weapons" in hand, the Okinawans incorporated them into their martial arts. As with China, variations upon the original style began to spring up and three distinct styles were developed.

These were:

Shuri-Te that depended upon explosively hard and fast hand movements as well as low level kicks.

Naha-Te was the closest to the Chinese ancestry with its breathing techniques, stances and the use of both hand strikes and footwork.

The third style that was developed, Tomeri-Te was a combination style that used the best aspects of the other two.

A few years later, Tomeri-Te and Shrui-Te joined to become Shorin-Ryu Karate Do. Master Chojun Myagi took the Naha-Te system and developed it into Go-Ju Karate Do.

In the late 1800s a young Japanese Officer by the name of Funakosi began studying the Okinawan styles and developed his own style of Shotokan Karate Do.

As students began learning these styles and changing them as they saw fit to develop there own style, various names sprung up everywhere. In 1936, the Okinawan master met to decide upon a generalized term to cover all the Okinawan styles. They deliberated between To-Te and Kara-Te Do for some time but eventually decided on Kara-Te, which is now commonly called Karate.

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