Saturday, January 27, 2018

History of Okinawa Karate

Although, most think of karate as Japanese, this is misleading. Karate originated on Okinawa when the island chain was an independent nation separate from Japan with strong ties to China. It only became Japanese because samurai conquered Okinawa in the 17th century.  Karate was kept secret from the Japanese people until 1922, and Okinawa remained a separate nation until 1879. Many karate techniques, traditions, forms & weapons were indigenous to Okinawa or borrowed from China or other southeast Asian nations. The Japanese had little influence on karate until it branched from a combat discipline to competitive art. Still, the original Okinawa karate, such as Shorin-Ryu remain mostly sport-free. The Japanese hybrid (sport) karate has taken a separate path, even though both have similarities. 

Legend states a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma traveled from India to northern Henan province of China where he taught Zen at the Shaolin Temple around 525 AD. When Bodhidharma arrived at Shaolin-si (small forest temple), he began lectures but found most monks unfit & lazy. If you examine the kanji in our copyrighted icon on the above left side of the title at the top of this page, the 3rd and 4th kanji from the top refer to the 'small forest temple' or 'Shaolin Si' to indicate Shorin-Ryu has roots at the Shaolin Temple. Bodhidharma realized the solution was to improve physical conditioning of the monks in order to improve their minds; thus, he began teaching physical exercises with meditation known as 'Shi Po Lohan Sho' (18 hands of Lohan) reputed to be a fighting system. The blending of Lohan with Zen evolved into the first martial art. To be a martial 'art' there must be intrinsic value for the spirit, body and soul. 

One of the earliest known forms of martial fighting was Kalarippayattu. This ancient art from southern India may be similar to Shi Po Lohan Sho. There is no way of dating the art, but it is a fascinating concept and the art shows circular open hand strikes, blocks and kicks with acrobatic maneuvers similar to Kung FuBodhidharma's teachings became the basis for Chinese martial art which was later introduced to Okinawa, including Hakutsuru (white crane) of the Shaolin Temple in southeastern China. White Crane was developed by a woman who mimicked crane movements. In its earliest stages, karate was an indigenous form of fighting developed in Okinawa called Te, or 'hand'. Weapons bans imposed on Okinawa encouraged refinement of Te techniques & development of kobudo (peasant weapons). 

Karate developed in three villages: Shuri, Naha & Tomari. Each was a center for a different sect of society: kings and nobles, merchants, farmers and fishermen, respectively. For this reason, different styles of Te developed in each village and became known as Shuri-teNaha-te and Tomari-teCollectively these were called Okinawa-TeTode (Chinese hand) or Kara-te. The Chinese character used to write Tode could be pronounced 'karathus the name Te was replaced with kara te or 'Chinese hand art'. This was later changed to karate-do to adopt an alternate meaning for the Chinese character for kara, meaning 'empty'. Thus, the karate came to mean 'empty hand'. The 'do' in karate-do implies 'way' or 'path' emphasizing moral and spiritual philosophy. 

Shorin-Ryu Karate evolved from Okinawa-Te as a combination of a native Okinawa fighting arts and Chinese martial arts. It is known as a hard style or 'external' martial art. One notable martial artist was Anko Itosu often referred to as the Grandfather of modern karate. Some of his students were instrumental in the popularization of karate on Okinawa and its introduction to mainland Japan. His students carried on his teachings using the name of Shorin-Ryu. Since Itosu's passing (1915), Shorin-Ryu branched into variations. 

Branches of Shorin-Ryu include Shobayashi Shorin-Ryu ('small forest style'), Koybayashi Shorin-Ryu ('young forest style'), Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu ('pine forest style'), Matsumura Seito Shorin-Ryu ('orthodox' style), Sukunaihayashi (Seibukan), Ryukyu Hon Kenpo (Okinawan Kempo), Kodokai Shorin-ryuSeidokanKobayashi Shorin-Ryu (Shidokan, Shorinkan, Kyudokan), Chubu Shorin-RyuRyukyu Shorin-Ryu and Seiyo Shorin-Ryu. So, to say Shorin-Ryu Karate, is to almost the same as saying traditional Okinawan karate, as there are several varieties.

Grandfather of Modern Karate
Many know Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) as the Father of Modern Karate. Funakoshi was a master of Shorin-Ryu Karate, although his students renamed his Shorin-Ryu martial art as Shotokan to honor the great instructor. His teacher was Anko Itosu. When we search for information on Itosu (and other Okinawan martial artists) we are confronted with a variety of names for some individuals. This is because Okinawan names were complicated by social status: some maintained names for different occasions, while others changed names. As a result, Okinawan martial artists often had more than one name.  


Gichin Funakoshi
Itosu is credited with creating the five Pinan kata (referred to as Heian in Japanese) that were extracted and modified from the long and complex Kusanku kata (known as Kanku in Japanese). He is also thought to have taken a complex Naihanchi kata (Tekki in Japanese) and split it into the three (Naihanchi shodannidan and sandan). Some believe he also authored Kusanku Sho and Passai Sho katas.


Itosu was born near Gibo station (26°13’28"N; 127°43’8”E - see Google Earth) in the village of Shuri, Okinawa in 1831. Shuri is now a district of Naha City, but was a separate village. Shuri village is where the art referred to as Shuri-te was developed and later renamed Shorin-Ryu karate in 1933 to honor its roots. The kanji that describe Shorin-Ryu translates as “Pine Forest Style” in Japanese, and translates as “Shaolin Style” in Chinese indicating ties to Kung Fu practiced by the Shaolin monks. 


Itosu’s first name was Anko (the kanji can be alternately read as Yasutsune, and his last name Shishu can be read as Itosu), but he is commonly known as Anko Itosu. Itosu was born to a prominent family on Okinawa and educated in Chinese literature. At approximately 5-feet-tall, Itosu was nearly average height for Okinawa and many described him as stocky, barrel-chested, and very strong with considerable discipline. As a child, Itosu was shy and introverted - karate gave him confidence like it has for so many of us.


Itosu trained under the great karate practitioner Sokon ‘Bushi’ Matsumura who in turn was a student of Tode Sakagawa (1733-1815). Tode Sakagawa in turn studied under Kusanku (for whom the famous Kusanku-Dai kata derived its namesake). Itosu also trained under other martial artists including Sensei NagahamaNagahama was known to be very diligent and stressed strengthening the body. It is likely this influenced karate which is a method to develop physical and mental strength and as well as self-defense.


Itosu began training under Matsumura of Shuri, later trained with Nagahama of Naha City, and upon Nagahama's death, became a disciple of Gusukuma of Tomari village. Thus, he trained in all three-principal styles of Okinawa Karate we refer to as Shuri-TeNaha-Te and Tomari-Te. Because of his influence, Seiyo Kai (our style of Shorin-Ryu) has kata from each primary system of Okinawa karate.


Another interesting aspect of Itosu was described in a book "Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles And Secret Techniques," by Mark Bishop. Bishop contrasted the karate of Azato, which had Matsumura heritage mixed with a swordsmanship perspective and Itosu's karate. "While Azato believed hands and feet should be like bladed weapons and one should avoid all contact of an opponent's strike, Itosu held the idea that the body did not have to be so mobile and should be able to take the hardest blows”. This is why our Shorin-Ryu includes the practice shitai kori or body hardening.


Part of Itosu's karate training included makiwara. He once tied a leather sandal to a stone wall to build a makiwara. After several strikes, some stones fell from the wall. He relocated the sandal several times before completely destroying the wall. This is similar to Sensei Scofield’s father at the Arizona Hombu Dojo, who studied Shorin-Ryu as a US Marine on OkinawaPatrick reported his father knocked down a cinder block wall with a back kick.


In 1901 Itosu began teaching karate at the Shuri Jinjo Primary school and taught at the Dai Ichi middle school and the Okinawa prefectural Men's Normal School in 1905 (Bishop 1999). In 1905, Itosu was a part-time teacher of karate at Okinawa's First Junior Prefectural High School. It was there he developed the teaching methods that are still practiced today. 

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