Okinawan Te

History of Okinawan Te

Okinawan martial arts refer to the martial arts, such as Karate, Tegumi (Okinawan wrestling) and Kobudo (Okinawan weaponry), which originated among the indigenous people of the Okinawa Island. Due to its location, Okinawa was influenced by various cultures, which greatly contributed to the development of martial arts on Okinawa.

Karate began as a common fighting system known as Te, among the Pechin class of Okinawa. After trade relations were established with the Ming Dynasty of China in 1372, a large group of Chinese families from the Fujian province moved to Okinawa in 1392. These families brought with them Fujian White Crane Fung Fu, which greatly influenced the development of Okinawan martial arts.

In 1429, King Sho Hashi unified the three kingdoms on Okinawa to form the Kingdom of Ryukyu and banned the practice of all martial arts. When King Sho Shin came to power in 1477, he banned all weapons. These bans were continued after Okinawa was invaded by the Shimazu Clan of Satsuma Domain of Japan in 1609, but Te and Kobudo continued to be taught in secret.

Te often varied from town to town, so to distinguish between different types of Te the word was often prefaced by the region it originated in. Each area and its teachers had their own unique kata, techniques and principles that distinguished them from one another. Although they were all different, they were all greatly influenced by Chinese martial arts, and these kata all bears a striking resemblance to forms found in Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, Gangrou-quan, and other forms of Kung Fu. Many of the Okinawan Kobudo weapons, such as the sai, tonfa and nunchaku, also has their origins in China.

Okinawan Te continued to to develop over the years, particularly around the cities of Shuri, Naha and Tomari. Each of these cities were a centre to a different type of population: Shuri with Kings and nobility, Naha with merchants and business people, and Tomari with farmers and fishermen. Because of these differences in societies, their self-defence needs were different, and by the 18th century, three distinct styles of Te developed around these cities. These different styles became known by the names of the cities – Shuri-Te, Naha-Te and Tomari-Te, but were collectively known as Okinawan Te, and later To-Te or Tode. It is important to remember that these three cities are only a few miles apart, so differences between them were essentially ones of emphasis rather than contents. Beneith the surface differences, the methods and aims of all Okinawan Te is the same.

The main differences between Shuri-Te and Naha-Te were that of basic movements and breathing. Shuri-Te emphasise natural movement and breathing. Feet move in straight lines forwards or backwards if a step is taken, while speed, power and timing is essential. In contrast, Naha-Te makes use of steady, rooted stances and a rhythmic but artificial method of breathing.  Shuri-Te also tends to be much more offensive, while Naha-Te is more defensive. Tomari-Te was mainly somewhere in between Shuri-Te and Naha-Te, but eventually moved closer and closer to Shuri-Te. At this point, Shuri-Te and Tomari-Te developed into Shorin-Ryu, while Naha-Te developed into Shorei-Ryu.

Okinawan Te continued to be practiced in secret until Okinawa officially became part of Japan in 1875. The open practice and popularity of Okinawan Te grew until it was eventually included in the school system in Okinawa in 1901. Once it was in the Okinawan schools, it soon spread to mainland Japan.

Over the last 100 years, what was originally Naha-Te (Shorei-Ryu) developed and divided into several popular modern styles of Karate – the most popular being Gojo-Ryu and Uechi-Ryu. Similarly, Shorin-Ryu also divided into several styles – these mainly being Matsumura Orthodox (or Matsumura Saito), Kobayashi, Matsubayashi and Shobayashi.