Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, is located south of mainland Japan, near China and Taiwan. The Okinawans had their own indigenous fighting art called Okinawa-te, or simply, te (hand). Eventually by the 13th century, as trade was expanding in Okinawa and more foreigners began visiting, the Chinese art of chuan fa began to influence the development of te and it became known as tode (China hand). The evolution of the Okinawan martial arts occurred mostly in the cities of Naha, Shuri, and Tomari.
Although empty hand martial arts have long been native to Okinawa, it was the edicts on weapon bans that truly fanned the flames of karate. In 1429, a decree was issued when the three kingdoms of Okinawa were united under King Sho Hashi, beginning the first Sho Dynasty. All weapons were banned so as not to provoke disunity. In 1470, the new Sho Dynasty came into power, again prohibiting the carrying of weapons. However, the greatest catalyst occurred in 1609, when the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan permitted the Satsuma clan to invade the island. Okinawa was quickly conquered and the Satsuma samurai renewed the ban on all weapons. The Sho king became nothing more than a figurehead of the Satsuma clan, forbidden even to bear arms. The Okinawan royal nobility, the keimochi, were in a very precarious position. They had to be extremely careful in their dealings with the brutal Satsuma samurai, but they also had to contend with western sailors demanding entry into Okinawa, which was forbidden. The slightest mistake could mean instant death at the hands of the Satsuma clan. It was under these pressures that the art of karate truly began to be forged. The keimochi had to develop methods of protection to ensure their own safety as well as that of the Sho king.
Practicing karate at Shuri Castle
One of the first recognized karate masters of old was Santunuku Sakugawa. Born in Shuri in 1733, Sakugawa was known to have studied tode under a Buddhist monk named Peichin Takahara. Takahara was a surveyor and mapmaker at Shuri Castle. Sakugawa became his apprentice, earning him a place at the castle. Later on, Sakugawa studied white crane chuan fa under Kong Su Kung, a Chinese dignitary. In honor of Kung, he created the kata Kusanku, which is the Okinawan translation of Kung's name. This kata eventually developed into Kanku Dai. When Sakugawa's first teacher, Peichin Takahara, was dying, he asked Sakugawa to take the name of Tode, in honor of his art. From then on, he became known as "Tode" Sakugawa. Sakugawa died in 1815 at the age of 82. He is credited with writing the first dojo kun, or rules of behaviour of the karateka. However, his greatest contribution to the art of karate was teaching Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura.
Born in Shuri in 1796, Sokon Matsumura served as close advisor and bodyguard to three Sho kings. He was the chief military commander of Shuri Castle. Many stories abound of the great martial skills of Matsumura. Through his adventures, he received the name "Bushi," meaning "warrior." Matsumura made trips to China and Japan to study the martial arts. It is believed that he even studied at the Shaolin Temple in China. The fruit of his journeys were kata such as Naihanchi (Tekki), Seisan (Hangetsu), and Gojushiho. Matsumura is also the alleged creator of Chinto (Gankaku), Heian Nidan, and Patsai (Bassai).
As the royal bodyguard, it was Matsumura who had to respond to the pressures facing the Okinawan king. He needed to devise effective measures to protect the unarmed king against potential threats. Matsumura developed a different approach to fighting, using very fast linear techniques to maximize impact power and devastate an opponent with one hit. The idea of destroying an opponent with one attack was essential in situations involving several opponents, especially if they were Satsuma samurai armed with deadly katana. This concept of linear impact power was a radically different method from the softer, more circular techniques of chuanfa and tode. Matsumura also took measures to ensure the king's safety by surrounding the king with an array of karate masters who performed basic official duties, all of whom could act as potential bodyguards. Most of these karate masters were trained by him, and it is likely that much of their training consisted of extensive kata bunkai. Matsumura's most famous students included Yasutsune Azato and Yasutsune Itosu.
Gathering of Satsuma samurai
Boshin War period 1860's
Yasutsune Azato, born in 1828, was one of Matsumura's pupils. Azato was the royal advisor and military officer to the Sho king. Azato was also Gichin Funakoshi's first teacher, known for his strict teaching style, especially kata repetition. Although a trained swordsman, his unarmed combat ability was unrivalled, even against an armed opponent. Azato is considered as one of the great masters of tai sabaki (body shifting). It was Azato who said, "Think of the hands and feet as swords. They can kill with a touch."
Yasutsune (Anko) Itosu was born in 1830 and he was the apprentice bodyguard studying under Matsumura. Eventually, Itosu became the king's personal secretary; another example of a legendary karate master whose duties placed him in the presence of King Sho at Shuri Castle. Itosu's punch was legendary. Stories describe him winning matches with a single blow. He was known for his quick and decisive fighting techniques. When the Sho Dynasty ended in 1879, Itosu remained in Shuri and began teaching karate in secret to a very select group of students at his house in the middle of the night. However, Itosu's greatest achievement occurred in 1902, when he decided to end karate's secrecy. He began teaching karate at public schools in Shuri. By 1905, he was teaching at colleges. Since it was Itosu who introduced karate into the Okinawan school system, he is responsible for much of the karate that we practice today. He modified Matsumura's Heian Nidan and Naihanchi kata, creating the five Heian kata and the three Tekki kata. The Heian kata were first taught to junior high school students in 1905. Itosu is also assumed to have revised Kanku, Bassai, and Gojushiho, creating two versions for each kata. He is also believed to be the creator of Chinte as well as the Rohai kata, from which Meikyo was taken. Even Empi can be traced to Itosu. Many of Itosu's students went on to become founders of the various karate styles of today. One of the most famous of these students was Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate.
Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura
Also deserving of mention, Seisho Aragaki (known as Aragaki the Cat), born in 1840, was a very prominent tode teacher and kobudo master. Another employee at Shuri Castle, he was a Chinese interpreter and envoy to China. Much of his learning took place in China as his duties brought him there often. Many of the kata practiced today descend from him such as Niseishi (Nijushiho), Sochin, and Unsu. His most famous students include Chotoku Kyan and Kanryo Higaonna, the founder of Goju Ryu karate.