Okinawa – A martial history
Okinawa – A martial history

Okinawa – A martial history

Uchina is the name inhabitants use to refer to the island the rest of the world calls Okinawa.


Any visit to Okinawa, and indeed any serious study of karate, will undoubtedly be enriched by the following whistle-stop tour of the island’s martial history.

Karate proper began its formulation in the mid 1700’s but for this article I will be tracing the martial influences of the Ryukyu’s back to their earliest evidences from the mid 5th century.

Let me preface this by stating that I’m not an academic and the following historical summary is from the perspective of cruising at 40,000ft above the subject. For me karate is for doing, not intellectualising about doing, and so my approach has always been to understand ‘why’ techniques are performed in certain ways. I don’t want to mimic empty movements, I want to feel their truth.

‘Truth’ is not an easy thing to track-down in any field. Official ‘narratives’ exist in the worlds of all specialisations and karate is no exception.

What’s needed are the tools for seeking and identifying truth; which is the goal of philosophy. The human landscape has been well mapped. Through a deeper study of karate we can traverse its terrains, physically, mentally and spiritually and in so doing begin to sift the wheat from the chaff.

The following is the fruit of my direct experience seeking answers. It may or may not resonate with your views and that’s fine, use it to inform and guide your own exploration.


Okinawa & Ryukyus

Situated approximately midway between Japan and Taiwan, Okinawa is the largest of fifty-five islands comprising the Ryukyu archipelago. This chain is further divided into three groups; Northern, Central and Southern Ryukyus. Today the central and southern groups are politically administered as Okinawa Prefecture.

Before sea levels receded at the end of the last glacial period, approximately 20,000 years ago, the Ryukyus were the crests of a vast volcanic mountain range that represented the easternmost coast of the Eurasian continent. Today they present a mix of rocky coral islets and jungle forested mountains jutting from azure waters. Their western shores are washed by the tides of the South China sea, and to the east the vastness of the Pacific ocean.

The main island of Okinawa is not large, measuring approximately 108km in length and just 24km at its widest point it has total landmass of around 1,200 square kilometres. Throughout the year it is affected by a humid, subtropical climate with temperatures averaging between 80-84 degrees Fahrenheit in summer, rarely falling below 59 degrees in winter. Summer begins in April through to September with a rainy season from mid-May to the end of June. This is then followed by a typhoon season from July to the end of October. These form as a result of the Kuroshio ocean current that sweeps northward bringing the warm waters of the equator as it weaves through the Ryukyus up the east of Japan. As many as twenty tropical storms form in the region each year with many reaching velocities over 150km/h; two to three of these will pass directly over Okinawa.

One of the best times for karate-ka wishing to visit the island on their own pilgrimage is March or November as travelling out of season not only brings fewer tourists but also cooler evenings for training sessions. Dojo groups seeking to travel from other countries would do well to contact the Okinawan Karate Information Center* to help make the most of any trip.

Early Inhabitants

Some of the earliest human remains in South East Asia have been found in the Ryukyus, showing that peoples lived there approximately 35-40,000 years ago.

In prehistoric times the islands were characterised by small, autonomous communities typically led by a warrior chieftain or shamanic priestess. Early shell-mound evidence suggests that these societies occupied the many caves and secluded coves along the rocky shorelines, before later moving inland, taming the landscape and developing agriculture. 

Pottery shards and other artefacts reveal an ancient trade route existed between the central Ryukyus and wealthy landowners in Kyushu. Exotic shells of conch and turban, valued for their appearance and perceived magical properties, were exchanged for rice and ceramics. Conch shells used as horns facilitated group signalling and even today the ‘fog horn’ of ships and large vehicles mimic their sound. 

Travelling in a northward direction from Okinawa to Kyushu, by even the most primitive craft, is possible to keep landfall in sight on a daily basis. The southern group islands however remained largely unaffected by such cultural interactions until developments in ship building enabled the dangerous crossing of the Miyako Straits, a 250km passage of water between Okinawa and Miyako.

Initial interactions with the Yayoi of ancient Japan indicate that peoples of the central and northern islands fiercely opposed attempts to be brought under their expanding sphere of influence. In Okinawa’s case this is supported by the fact that several of the smaller islands around were successfully subjugated during the 5th century, despite Okinawa being the largest and more resource rich territory .

Emergence of Nobility

Archaeological evidence suggests an influx of advanced culture arrived on Okinawa from the north during the mid 7th century. This likely came from refugees fleeing a political power-shift on the mainland that occurred in 645AD.

Prince Shotoku Taisho is considered an enlightened Regent in ancient Japanese history who enthusiastically embraced Buddhism from China. However, following his death, key families of old power hatched a coup to overthrow the standing Soga Clan and in the wake of their defeat it’s feasible that members fled south into the Ryukyus. There they settled with the indigenous population on Okinawa bringing with them technological advancements in weaponry, masonry, agriculture and zen. This period sowed the roots of an aristocratic class that would later become the Aji (Lord) a word that mirrors the archaic term Uji, from the mainland.

Three Kingdom Era

By the 11th century the larger clans on Okinawa had organised themselves into three principality states, Hokuzan in the north, Chuzan in the middle and Nanzan to the south. Each region had geographical advantages and vulnerabilities and constructed impressive stone wall structures called gusuku which sought to borrow from the strengths of their local environments. These stone ramparts of coral and limestone mapped the contours of the surrounding hills and valleys and commanded impressive views of passes and waterways. The ruins of almost fifty gusuku sites exist within the Ryukyus with five have gained World Heritage Status. This observation alone ridicules the romantic, and long standing official narrative that Okinawa was always a weaponless pacifist state without conflict. On the contrary the Okinawans would go on to have a well organised army and navy that expanded their territories and interests throughout the region.

During the later part of the 12th century another shift of power on the mainland lead to a further influx of advances in weaponry and military tactics from those fleeing persecution at the end of The Genpei War. This conflict saw the mighty Taira and Minamoto clans clash for supremacy and resulted in the former’s eventual defeat at the battle of Dan-no-Ura, a major sea battle in the Shimonoseki Straits between Honshu and Kyushu.

A number of historical sites, stone markers and horse breeds found within the Ryukyu’s support the notion that fleeing members of the Taira forces made their escape into the islands. Despite losing the naval battle the Taira were the more experienced ship builders and sailors so it’s not beyond the realms of probability that they later contributed to the rise of Wako piracy throughout the East China Sea.

During the later part of the 13th century it is said that a Mongol force arrived on Okinawan shores attempting to pressure them to contribute to proposed invasions of Japan. The demands were refused and a later force would be repelled. Recent academic revisionists suggest the Chinese records are mistaken and that the ‘Ryukyus’ mentioned in texts of the time recount to present day Taiwan. However, as with a number of the disputed claims that bring doubt upon Okinawa’s military advancement in the region, there are techniques within classical Ryukyuan Bujutsu, both physical and tactical, that strengthen the case for Okinawa at the time being regarded for its military acumen.

Indeed, the Three Kingdom Era, Sanzan Jidai, witnessed many bloody conflicts, court intrigues and betrayals until unification was achieved in 1429. by King Sho Hashi; the Peace King. His success was achieved through forming alliances and subjugating opposition to establish a unified Okinawa and the birth of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Ryukyu Kingdom

The Ryukyu Kingdom was a semi-independent state that lasted from 1429 to a 1879 and flourished through maritime trade with many cultures of the South Pacific Basin. 

A tributary state to China the Okinawan’s became masters of the seas and at the height of their power maintained an extensive trade network between present day Thailand, Malay, Taiwan, China, Korea and Japan. 

With each new king China ‘officiated’ the Office with lavish gifts and lucrative trade opportunities. More than any other nation under China’s tributary system the Ryukyuans enjoyed unrivalled privileges and even had their own university within the Forbidden City. This special relationship led to the Okinawan’s modelling much of their court culture from Imperial China, including ranks, costume and customs. Through trade they exchanged ceramics, weapons, textiles, spices and metals. Investiture mission records reveal that sulphur was a primary export of the Ryukyu’s to China where it was mixed to make gunpowder, presumably for the vast civil engineering projects being undertaken to construct walls, canals, and infrastructure.

A Chinese settlement of master craftsmen, scholars and ministers was established at Kumemura in 1392. These mostly hailed from noble families of  Fukien Province in China and were part of a long-game cultural exchange program to influence politics, culture and technology. 

Sho Dynasty

The First Sho Dynasty wasted no time in centralising power and a new city grew up around Shuri castle. Most Aji (Lords) were required to abandon their ancestral lands and take residence in the capital leaving custodians in charge of the country estates. However not all Aji were obliged to do so. Some of those in the north of the island remained too powerful to truly command obedience and so an office of the King’s brother was established to oversee the conduct of the northern lords.

A successful coup in 1469 led to the establishment of the Second Sho Dynasty which made further advancements in infrastructure, economy and institutions. 

During the rein of Sho Shin wide-scale weapon edicts prohibited the stockpiling of weapons by powerful families. Coupled with divorcing the Aji from their estates this move further reduced to opportunity for armed revolt. From this point on military weapons would be stored in government controlled warehouses to be distributed under emergency.

However,  this is not to say that weapons were completely outlawed. The Aji living in the capital were still permitted to maintain small retinues of armed guards for escort and patrol duties. The Second Sho Dynasty witnessed Ryukyu’s ‘Golden Age of Trade’ and established it as a significant force in the region. In context to it’s neighbours of China, Korea and Japan then it was of course a small nation yet through diplomacy and as serving as middlemen for South East Asian trade they endured through semi independent status.

The Ryukyuan’s were early adopters of firearms, initially these included hand cannons and mortars from China. In the 12th century three Ryukyuan envoys demonstrated gunpowder to Shogun of Japan. During the early part of the 1500’s Shuri rapidly expanded its territories to both the south and north, with the large islands of the Amani Oshima group being wrestled back and forth between Ryukyu and Satsuma several times. A plaque near to Seuyoshi Park describes how a former shooting range was once located there and that all passengers travelling as part of official investiture missions to China were obliged to take up riffles and protect the vessel in the event of piracy.

Finally, in 1543 a Portuguese vessel with a cargo of riffles bound for a Ryukyuan trading post on Tanegashima was blown off course and seized by Japanese officials. This event signals the arrival of firearms in Japan but an inventory of a Shuri warehouse listed ### muskets several years earlier. It’s likely that knowledge of Ryukyu possessing such weapons, and its expansion in a northerly direction, contributed to Satsuma seeking to claim the islands as their own.

Satsuma Invasion

In 1609 an invasion force from the Satsuma Clan in Japan’s Kyushu region successfully invaded Okinawa and subjugated the then King Sho Nei. Once secured, the overlords retreated into the shadows and operated Okinawa as a puppet state leaving the outward pretence that nothing had changed. Shogunate dictates in Japan strictly prohibited outside trade with China but under this rouse Satsuma was able to milk the lucrative Okinawa/China trade for over 250 years.

This event is often cited as the motivation for the development of karate by farmers as an unarmed means of protecting oneself against tyranny. On the contrary there’s no historical evidence to support this. Firstly, life for the typical farmer and peasant class in Okinawa did not change radically after the 1609 Invasion. The biggest shifts were felt in the nobility and upperclass. Land reforms, titles, incomes and restrictions on personal trade allowances. These things impacted Okinawan life more.

To date there is no evidence of an organised populist uprising against Satsuma agents. A political movement based out of the Motobu peninsula did make noise about petitioning Beijing to send a relief force and several staging sites considered including Kume-jima and Nakijin castle. But nothing ever came of it.

In the later part of the nineteenth century the world around Okinawa was changing rapidly. In 1868 the Tokugawa Shogunate in Japan came to an end and authority was returned to the Imperial Sun Line. Known as the Meiji Restoration the social, economical and political landscape of Japan changed radically. In China the Opium Wars had resulted in numerous western encroaches leading to the ownership of large port cities. By 1901 these had come to a head in the populist Boxer Rebellion which drove the nail into China’s claim as a world power of the time. In 1879 the Ryukyu Kingdom was dissolved and Okinawa annexed into Japan proper.

PART II: Coming soon