The widely cited but baseless myth regarding the origins of karate essentially claims that after the Satsuma Clan from Japan conquered the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1609, they imposed a harsh ban on weapons upon the Okinawans. In order to resist the occupation of the sword-wielding Satsuma Samurai, the Okinawan peasants developed empty-handed fighting methods, which became the forerunner of karate.
The first of several flawed assertions within the aforementioned myth pertains to the harsh ban on weapons imposed by the Satsuma Clan after they conquered the Ryukyus in 1609. An examination of historical records will show that the universal ban on weapons referred to firearms. The following is a summary of the “ban” on the ownership of weapons:
- Fire-arms are banned.
- Members of the Royal family and Shizoku (nobility and warrior caste) may carry personal weapons (These include swords, spears and bows). Commoners may not own any weapons.
- The magistrate’s office representing the Satsuma overlords must be informed of any repairs made on existing weapons.
- Those seeking to own new weapons or those seeking to own weapons for the first time should seek permission from magistrate’s office representing the Satsuma overlords.
In feudal Japanese and Ryukyu society, warfare was the remit of the nobility or warrior-caste (the Japanese Samurai or Ryukyu Shizoku). Disallowing peasants the ownership of weapons wasn’t a particularly harsh or extreme measure. It reflected an earlier edict issued in 1469 by the Ryukyu King Sho-en which also disallowed the peasantry from owning war-making weapons. It was simply a standard practice that kept law and order. In Medieval Japan, only the samurai were allowed to carry certain types of weapons. Weapons control in medieval times, as it does now, worked to maintain civil order.
In any case the Ryukyu warrior-caste which comprised of about a quarter of the population, and formed the bulk of the Ryukyu forces, did retain their weapons (apart from firearms), and this amounted to a significant number of weapons still available in Okinawa after the Satsuma conquest.
While the Okinawans were banned from teaching the martial-arts in an open and organized manner, this policy was meant to prevent the Okinawans from using these activites as a cover to marshal their forces for open rebellion, it had nothing to do with training in private in one’s own homes. The Okinawans were obviously not banned from martial-arts practise, as long as it was not public. For example we know that the famed Okinawan Toudi (Karate) master Asato Anko was not only an expert in unarmed combat, he also excelled in the handling of the sword, the spear and in archery. He did not train in a specific part of his house but had training tools and weapons scattered throughout the rooms, and when he felt like it he would train with whatever was at-hand. Witness accounts describe how he had a large mock-up of a horse placed in his home so that he could practise mounted archery. There was nothing secret about his martial arts practises, though he kept his activities private.
There is a difference between teaching or practising in private and practising in secret. While there is a tendency for training to take place in the odd hours of the day away from prying eyes, this had less to do with the law than with the masters’ desire to keep their training methods out of the sight of the general public. This inclination to keep training methods secret is common throughout ancient and medieval martial-arts communities throughout the world. It was simply a way to not allow a rival or enemy to learn of one’s methods. Even today, in most martial arts organisations, gassuku and grading events are not open to public viewing, and many organisations would not let junior students view the training or grading of the senior students.
The other misleading aspect of this myth pertains to how the Japanese Samurai made war. By the end of the 16th Century firearms dominated the Japanese military landscape. The 3000 Satsuma who invaded the Ryukyu in 1609 were armed with more than 500 arquebus and though out-numbered, they outgunned and overcame the Okinawan defenders with ease. The firearms ban they subsequently imposed upon the Okinawans kept in check any attempts at rebellion on the part of the Shizoku.
The fact that the Satsuma did not ban non-firearm weapons is an indication of how obsolete these weapons had become by the 17th Century as far as battlefield tactics were concerned. While the Okinawan warrior caste kept their swords and spears, these weapons were useless against firearms in open revolt. In any case, they never formed an armed resistance against their conquerors. Hence it is therefore highly unlikely that the Okinawan Shizoku set aside what weapons they had and regressed into unarmed combat in order to resist the Japanese Samurai.
The only people in the Ryukyu Kingdom who did not own weapons of any sort were the peasants.
However, the peasants did not develop karate at all. Lately, many historians have pointed out that the martial-arts that evolved into karate were practised amongst the Shizoku, not the peasants. The following paragraphs gives a few examples of early Ryukyu Te, Tode and Kobudo masters and the social caste that they belonged to.
According to Ryukyu custom, the names and tittles of the nobility were often recorded together, and hence Kojo Uekata Shosai (1655-1737) as his name suggested, belonged to the Uekata caste. Likewise, Hamahiga Pēchin the great master of kobudo whose legacy includes kata like “Hamahiga no sai” and “Hamahiga no tonfa” was a Pēchin. The Kobudo master Machu Higa (1790-1870) was also a Pēchin.
The famed Ryuku warrior Takahara Pēchin and his famous student “Tode” Sakugawa Kanga (1786-1867) were from the Pēchin and Chikudun Pēchin castes respectively. Sakugawa’s students were essentially from the nobility, as one can see from the tittles attached to their names: Chokun Satunku Macabe, Satunuku Ukuda, Chikuntooshinunjo Matsumoto. And the most famed of Sakugawa’s students, Matsumura Sokon(1809-1899) was from the Chikudun Pēchin caste.
Chatan Yara (1740-1812) whose name appears in several kata was a Chikudun Pēchin. The Kobudo master Soeishi Ryotoku (1772-1825) was an Uekata, and both Tawata Shinboku (1814-1884) and Chinen Umikana (1797-1881) were from the Chikudun Pēchin caste. Too many examples exist of karate and kobudo masters of this period being of the Shizoku caste for them to be all listed here, but many of these Shizoku were not just martial arts masters but also royal guardsmen, and therefore men who were professional warriors of the Ryukyu kingdom.
By the 19th century, perhaps due to the waning influence of the nobility, many masters were often known without their formal tittles, but nonetheless they were either Shizoku or descended from the Shizoku caste. For example, Matsumura Sokon’s students, Asato Anko was a Pēchin, his other student Itosu Anko was a Chikudun Pēchin. Arakaki Seisho (1840-1920) was a Pēchin. Higaonna Kanryo (1853 – 1916) the great Naha-te master is known by history mostly as being born into a poor family, but his father was of the Chikudun Pēchin rank.
Although the feudal system was abolished in 1879, Tode or Karate remained an activity practiced by men from a select group in Okinawan society in the early decades of the 20th Century:
- Chibana Choshin (1885 – 1969), the founder of Shorin Ryu was descended from Shizoku
- Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957) the founder of Shotokan was descended from Shizoku
- Mabuni Kenwa (1889-1952) and Shiroma Shinpan (1890-1954) the co-founders of Shitoryu were both descended from Shizoku
- karate and kobudo master Taira Shinken (1897-1970) who created the kataTaira no Nunchaku was descended from Shizoku
- Motobu Choyu and Motobu Choki, were not Shizoku, but being descended from the Ryukyu royal family (the Udun), were of the Aji caste which ranked above the Shizoku.
- Miyagi Chojun, founder of the Goju-Ryu, was from a wealthy shipping family.
A notable exception was Uechi Kanbun, the founder of Uechi Ryu karate. He was descended from a family of farmers. However he was born in 1877 and came of age after the feudal system was abolished and common people began to learn martial arts.
In other words, the weapons ban was not the catalyst that brought about the development of karate, and Okinawan peasants did not develop empty-handed fighting methods to fight the Japanese Samurai.