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#106623 - 11/24/04 12:55 PM A little known History of Karate...

Part I
The effects of Sho-Shins Weapon Edict of 1477

This post may be of interest to those who enjoy the comfort found in understanding the history of their chosen Okinawan karate style. Over the past ten years I've spent considerable time researching the roots of karate and have made some intriguing and previously undocumented discoveries pertaining to the historical roots of Shorin-Ryu karate. It has always amazed me how many individuals in the karate world will conveniently 'borrow' from Goju-Ryus chartered lineage for an example of their own history however Shorin-Ryu and Shorei-Ryu are two 'generic' terms to describe two different approaches. They do share similar traits however one is far more influenced by something other than White Crane quanfa.

It may not ever be possible to ascertain exactly who or where a style first originated, not only this but styles evolve and techniques become altered between teachers to teacher. One thing however tends to remain alive something that seems to continue to exist as the art passes from generation to generation. It is of course the 'philosophies' upon which the art was first founded upon.

I have found that when attempting to trace the history of our chosen karate style it is important to ascertain what part of Okinawa it geographically came from. This exercise bears considerable importance and offers good insight into the motivating factors behind the art.

Okinawan culture is perhaps one of the most beautiful ones on this planet. Throughout history it has played a vital role in the trade routes of countries spanning the South Pacific basin. By the time the Satsuma’s invaded it was already a peace loving nation though it had not always been so; its survival between two powerful nations such as China and Japan was achieved more through cunning political manoeuvrings over military strength.

It has been largely documented before that when Napoleon first heard of Okinawas weapon edicts he protested "I cannot fathom a nation not concerned with war". To the contrary Okinawa was well advanced in martial skill and weaponry; at one point their chief trade was in bladed weapons.

Several hundred years earlier in the 1500's Tome Pires notes in his journal of the orient that the Ryukuans are skilful craftsmen and armourers. "They sail between China and Japan chiefly trading in gold, copper and weapons; they are truthful men, more so than the Chinese, and feared too. They freely trade merchandise for credit and if lied to when they go to collect, they collect it sword in hand."

In 1477 King ShoShin imposed the first of two weapons bans upon the island and insisted the 'Anji' (feudal lords) reside at the capital of Shuri. It is interesting to note that these reforms were mirrored on Japan nearly 125 years later by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1600.

It is not entirely clear how enforced the first weapon ban was as there are frequent accounts like Pires' that mention quantities of arms being traded through the ports. One thing is certain though, the edict led to an increase in pirate skirmishes upon trade vessels sailing to and from the Naha area. By 1503 two forts had been constructed in Naha harbour to increase defences.

By this time the unarmed martial skills of Okinawa were going through a period of re-development. 'Okinawa-Ti' was originally a largely weapon based art (bladed) its techniques however also taught the importance of disarming and neutralising aggressors. But Ti was just one of the ingredients to go into the mixing pot that gave creation to karate as we know it. Chinese boxing skills and pugilistic systems of several Asian cultures also contributed greatly.

The period surrounding the first weapon edict is in my opinion one of considerable interest in karate’s history as it forced people to look at improving their means of defence by utilising unarmed skills. In order to understand your art deeper it is important to recognise the different 'flavours' that presided at the time through the three main townships of Naha, Shuri and Tomari. This is because exponents from each of these were responsible for developing the two broad categories of Shorin-Ryu and Shorei-Ryu which all karate falls under.

Township styles & Evolution
For the purpose of this post I'd like to stay focussed upon the period of the early 1500's.

Naha was a bustling commercial port with an excellent natural harbour. Due to the weapon restrictions merchants now employed 'security experts' to escort them upon their travels and protect them and their goods from the wako pirates that patrolled the coasts. Sailors of every nation are renowned for their violent/frequent brawls and those of Asian descent were certainly no less guilty of this than their western counterparts. The mixture of lonely men at sea blended with a busy red-light drinking district (Tsuji) and most likely a helping of 'one up manship' lead to violent clashes. Using commonsense and comparison of nightclub brawls today we can probably imagine quite realistically the scenes that unfolded
in the late night bars of Naha. Bottles, knives and chains undoubtedly made more than just a cameo appearance in the small, confined spaces that these fights took place in.

There were no 'syllabuses' of what each style taught because back then they weren’t even styles they were just skills. Experts in those days were individuals who specialised and taught particular skills. Naha-Te (the karate from Naha) at this point in history favoured rooted postures suited to short-range techniques. Kicking was less emphasised most likely due to space and not wanting to be caught off balance. The seeds sown from such experiences would be refined and blended in later years with southern shaolin crane boxing to eventually evolve into what we know today as Goju-Ryu and Uechi-Ryu.

In the 1500's Shuri was the capital and Royal seat of Okinawa. Court officials and royalty were privy to studying the indigenous art of Ti (te) utilising the use of the sword and halberd. Movements of Ti take on a more liberated appearance and feel, in contrast to the rigidness of Japanese Bu-Jutsu. With the new weapons edict unarmed techniques were developed greater as too were 'non-bladed' weapons such as the staff and tonfa (as well as a great deal of everyday items). Techniques of Ti were unlikely to have been developed from drunken brawls and instead grew from the need of self-preservation, protection of peers and civil arrests.

Today, though hard to find, Ti exists as a wonderful art similar, to Taijiquan. Movements are soft, flowing and almost dance like as this was its way of surviving the more enforced weapon edict of the Satsuma Invasion. Thus the roots of Shuri-Te (later Shorin-Ryu) developed upon a different need than that of Naha-Te.
Over the years a blending with Japanese Yawara, Chinese Chin-Na and northern Shaolin arts created a style that favours mobility over rooted-ness and ballistic linear attacks more suited to mid-long range combat. In addition to skills of civil arrest and Hojo-Jutsu (rope tying techniques).

Finally the fishing community of Tomari also developed skills similar to karate. Despite being regarded as the lowest class the fishermen had the freedom of the seas at their doorsteps. Being from the poorer scale of the caste system inhabitants of Tomari were rarely if ever privy to the exclusiveness of Okinawa-Ti and the court systems; techniques coupled nicely with a highly nutritious fish diet and emphasised the development of health over combat. Today Tomari-Te does not exist as style in its own right. This is partly because the township was later merged into the expanding Shuri borders and also because the 'flavour' of Tomari-Te was really just that in comparison to the 'style' like systems of Shuri and Naha. The flavour exists today, certainly, within the Shorin-Ryu styles and appears more as a 'way' of performing techniques as opposed to physical techniques in themselves.

In addition to the three main township systems of Naha, Tomari and Shuri there are other karate styles that have evolved more from family arts but for ease of classification are often labelled under their geographic location. Amongst these would surely be Kojo-Ryu and Motobu-Ryu to name just two.

In short...
The weapon ban of Sho-Shin done much to quell internal conflicts upon the island but ultimately left it wide open to outside threats. As we can see, in the 1500's karate was still just the personal repertoires of techniques collected largely from professional men, it is nearly 100 years later when karate went underground to avoid detection that it truly began to develop into a most deadly and organised art influenced by something that calls to everyone during desperate times.

If people are interested I'd gladly share my views upon how I believe the second weapon edict then helped to further the development of karate. It too is an interesting period and ends with the emergence of the colourful characters of the art we know today such as, Matsumura, Itosu, Higashionna, Matsumora and the Motobu family.

In the meantime,
Good health to all..

[This message has been edited by Joel^R^ (edited 11-24-2004).]

[This message has been edited by Joel^R^ (edited 11-24-2004).]

[This message has been edited by Joel^R^ (edited 11-25-2004).]

#106624 - 11/24/04 02:53 PM Re: A little known History of Karate...
still wadowoman Offline
Improved beefier techno-prat

Registered: 04/10/04
Posts: 3420
Loc: Residence:UK- Heart:Md, USA
Great post, I would love to hear more.

#106625 - 11/24/04 03:35 PM Re: A little known History of Karate...
Stampede Offline
Lord of the Kazoo

Registered: 04/08/04
Posts: 967
Loc: El Dorado, AR
Indeed. Interesting post.

As an aside, I can't say I've heard of any northern styles of chuan fa influencing Te development. Most of what I can find points to Fukien arts and Monk Fist (I believe Shaoilin Lohan). Of course, my research is not the most indepth or complete.

Looking forward to more.

#106626 - 11/25/04 12:12 AM Re: A little known History of Karate...
senseilou Offline
Professional Poster

Registered: 10/14/02
Posts: 2082
Loc: Glendale, Az.
The flavour exists today, certainly, within the Shorin-Ryu styles and appears more as a 'way' of performing techniques as opposed to physical techniques in themselves.

I have been trying to relay this message for quite sometime, that its more approach that make things different, and to look for the similarites not the differences. The only thing I would add is that of 'signatures' or little things that would differentiate between styles and techniques. My Sensei use to sit and watch katas, and tell what styles or organization they came from. Yet we could all learn from the samenesses, than turning our noses up at the differences. Great post, hopefully it will open some eyes.


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