Karate, which is said to have 50 million enthusiasts around the world, was born here in Okinawa and has been refined over the years, spreading to mainland Japan and the rest of the world.
The dawn of kobudo (ancient martial art using traditional tools for fighting) is believed to date back to the Sanzan Period, before the Ryukyu Kingdom was founded.
During that period people started to learn how to punch and kick, influenced by those who had learned bujutsu (martial arts) while trading and studying in China, and they pursued it and incorporated it into the distinctive sense of Uchinanchu (Okinawan) martial arts. This very unique fighting style, which uses no weapons, continued to develop and helped establish “ti” (an early version of karate) when Shimazu-han invaded Ryukyu and there was enforced weaponry control around the island.
Since then, our ancestors—who were interested in honing their martial arts skills—used farming tools such as poles and reaping hooks, and also employed Chinese martial arts weapons to create kobujutsu. “Ti” (written as “hand” in kanji) was later called “toudi” (written as “Tang hand” from the Tang Dynasty of China), until it eventually came to be called “karate” (written as “empty hand”).
Karate might have changed its name over time but the importance of the karate spirit, courtesy, and kata (movement) has been passed down from masters to students over the generations. So, here in Okinawa, we still have “the essence of karate” that has never changed. On the other hand, different versions of Okinawan karate have also been established and developed as ryu-ha (styles), demonstrating the other characteristic of karate: the acceptance of diversity.
As Japan entered the Meiji Period, the Japanese government annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom as part of its establishment of prefectures, and modernization proceeded gradually. Karate was only handed down to a select few groups, such as shizoku (samurai descendants) in Shuri (called “Sui-de”—written in kanji as ‘Shuri’ and ‘hand’) or shizoku-related families in Naha (called “Nafa-de”) and Tomari (called “Tomai-de”). Then, from around the mid-Meiji Period, the idea of karate as being something that could only be passed on from fathers to sons started to fade away, and karate came to be open to whoever was interested.
From the late Meiji Period to the pre-war era, Soukon Matsumura, Ankou Itosu, and Kousaku Matsumora became students of musa (written as bushi, meaning “samurai”), which pursued the essence of ti. This “new karate generation” grew and many talented karate practitioners flourished in this period. These students trained under the same master and inspired each other, later creating various ryu-ha of karate.
Furthermore, karate was taught in the public school system from the late Meiji Period, and in 1937 Karate-do Kihongata 12 Dan (the first ranking system in the history of karate) was established. The masters of the “new karate generation,” such as Chojun Miyagi, Choumo Hanashiro, Kentsu Yabu, Chotoku Kyan, Genwa Nakasone, Choshin Chibana, Choryou Maeshiro, and Shinpan Shiroma, contributed to form the dan system. These people worked as founders of various ryu-ha of karate, owners/instructors of dojo (training schools), school instructors, army instructors, and authors and researchers of karate-related documents. They were chosen because of their wide recognition for contributions to karate and its promotion.