Karate and World Domination
Karate and World Domination
The Karate Tapestry – Part 23
Why is karate a part of Okinawan culture at all? Why does it even exist? Where did it come from?
The answer, in short – politics and the quest for domination.
Okinawa was, early on, made up of three kingdoms – northern, middle and southern. The leaders of each claimed some connection to Japanese ancestry and tried to maintain power in their domains. There was a thriving trade, as Okinawa was centrally situated for the purpose, and Okinawan sailors sailed throughout Southeast Asia. It was during this period that the Chinese Ming dynasty rose to power and took notice of Ryukyu (Okinawa) and the trade possibilities.
In 1372 Satto, the king of the central region (Chuzan), received recognition from the Ming in China, which the Asian world considered the center of the universe, and which immediately gave Satto status over the other two regions. In 1393 the Ming sent emissaries, merchants and scholars, to settle in Okinawa to teach Chinese language and culture and solidify trade. They also brought martial arts.
These emissaries were the fabled “36 Families” (36 Bin Bun). There were not actually 36 of them, in fact the number varied as they came and went. The name had more to do with numerology than mathematics. (Sanseiryu means 36). They settled in the village of Kume (Kumemura or Kuninda). The village sat on an island, at the time, but has long since been incorporated into the larger island of Okinawa. Kume Village still exists as a section of Naha.
In 1407 Satto’s son, Hashi, rose to power and subjugated the other two kingdoms, unifying Okinawa under one leader.
All these early dates and kingdoms are important to Okinawan history, but, you say, so what? Well, the king who actually had an impact on our art came to power in 1477. His name was Sho Shin. And he is relevant.
Sho Shin continued to unify Okinawa and as a precaution against insurrection, forced the other leaders to move under his watchful eye, to the capital, which he established in Shuri. In 1503, he also made some rules and erected a monument with a list of edicts, the 11 Distinctions of the Age.
Edict number 4 forbade the private ownership of weapons.
Sho Shin gathered the weapons and stored them in a warehouse. The political situation at the time was stable and the Okinawans had a reputation as a peaceful people, thus, collecting the weapons was not particularly difficult.
This was a boon for you and me, as it encouraged the development of Ti, the empty handed/primitive weapons art we so avidly pursue. But, a century later, when the Satsuma invaded, a weaponless warrior class insured defeat, not that Okinawa could ever have withstood the Japanese onslaught, anyway. In the long run it probably saved a lot of the lives of noble warriors who would gladly die for their island country against insurmountable odds.
Sho Shin’s mother, the person who engineered his rise to power and assured his political position was a Noro, a priestess. At that time the Noro had almost as much power as the king and presided over all religious activity. There were hidden groves and secret places known only to the Noro where men were forbidden to go. Women often also oversaw village politics. The men worked at fishing or farming and the women ran things. Possibly not a bad idea.
The gentry who carried weapons and ultimately gave them up to Sho Shin were called “Bushi”, “Warrior Knights” who had a long martial tradition. There is ample evidence that ti existed at the time among the Bushi and possibly in a fairly organized fashion. These Bushi, now deprived of weapons, continued their martial practice, only now with bo’s, sai’s and empty hands. They became magistrates of the villages and, in effect, acted as a police force.
One character alive during this period was a man named Akahachi. He ruled Yaeyama Island to the south and resisted the Shuri government. He was finally subdued and brought under Sho Shin’s banner in Sho Shin’s quest for domination over the rest of the Ryu Kyu islands. Akahachi was also purportedly a great martial artist and passed on to us bo and eku kata that bear his name. Yaeyama Island consequently became known for its weapon’s tradition and, as late as the twentieth century, martial artists were traveling there to learn kobujutsu.
By the late 1500’s other political waves were churning. The western powers, particularly the Dutch, had developed arms and the ability to travel long distances by sea and wanted to dominate Asian trade. They were closing in on the islands to the south of Okinawa. Toyotomi, the leader of Japan at the time, saw Okinawa as a possible shield.
Toyotomi also wanted to dominate Korea and wanted Okinawa to sign on to help and offer tributary (financial) support. The Okinawan king at the time, Sho Nei, refused, which enraged Toyotomi. It all settled down for a while when Toyotomi died on the way to attack Korea, but Okinawa’s fate was written in the stars. The Japanese, like elephants, never forget.
Tokugawa came to power in 1600 with the battle of Sekigahara and the unification of Japan. One of the powers aligned against him in that battle was the Satsuma clan from Kyushu, at the southern tip of Japan, led by Shimazu Yoshihiro. Shimazu wisely decided, in the middle of the battle, that things were not looking good, slipped away and hastened back to Kyushu. For his affront, he was banished to a life in religious retreat and his son Shimazu Tadatsune took over, becoming immediately allegiant to Tokugawa. A period of peace ensued, but Satsuma soldiers chafed for battle.
Their chance finally came in 1609 when Tokugawa decided it would be in his interests to dominate Okinawa, keep the Satsuma busy so they wouldn’t bother him, and, in addition, Sho Nei should be punished for his financial snub. Tokugawa told Shimazu he could “conquer” the island kingdom.
Conquering a weaponless nation was not all that difficult. Okinawan Bushi did drive the Satsuma back in certain places, but the outcome was a given and it was all over in two months.
After the Satsuma took over, life on Okinawa became decidedly more difficult. All the trade goods on which they had prospered for 400 years were transshipped to Satsuma and Okinawa became a poor, occupied island that never returned to its once prosperous condition. The weapons edicts and martial practice were now enforced under penalty of death and ti went underground.
China, if it even knew what was going on, ignored it all, having their own problems with the Manchurians who were knocking at their door with a vast army, in an attempt to dominate China. The Ming were vanquished in 1647 and the Manchu set up the Qing dynasty.
The Shaolin monks and the various martial societies had been allegiant to the Ming, so the Manchu, eager to curtail insurrection, set out to quash them. This set off a scattering of martial artists that filled Southeast Asia with Chinese ex-patriots and still resonates today, probably one of the main impetuses for the spread of Chinese martial arts.
The fate of one person in the midst of grand political currents is always interesting.
Take Janna Oyakata.
Oyakata was of Chinese heritage, descended from the 36 families of Kumemura. He was an advisor to King Sho Nei, during the years leading up to the Satsuma occupation. He was also vehemently opposed to any relationship with Japan and vocal about it. It’s hard to imagine what he expected to happen with the Satsuma controlling his island, but his opposition never seemed to ebb.
When the Satsuma took over, they brought the king and his entourage back to Kyushu to parade around as conquered royalty and to insure no insurrections. Among the entourage was Janna Oyakata.
The Japanese were familiar with Oyakata and his position and he was quickly condemned to death. But the Satsuma samurai appreciated warriors, even if they were enemies, and Janna was allowed one last request at his execution. He elected to perform what they referred to as an Okinawan dance. In those days, martial techniques were often hidden within dances and that is what Janna performed. In short, it was a kata.
Janna Oyakata is a legendary hero in Okinawa to this day and his defiant performance of kata before Japanese executioners is a proud part of Okinawan history.
The status quo remained for another 250 years and the next great political upheaval that effected our art was Japan’s introduction to the modern world as an equal to Western powers and, of course, it’s military leader Tojo’ attempt to control Asia through military domination.
Tojo led the country almost to annihilation and used karate as a tool for the false bravado of the manufactured term, Bushido, accompanied by karate greats like Itosu, Funakoshi and Ohtsuka, who wanted to create soldiers for the patria. It all came to an abrupt halt, as we know, in 1945.
The irony of this is that American soldiers who fought against an army imbued with the false bravado of Bushido eventually became avid aficionados of karate and the Asian martial arts and enthralled with the Budo concept. The result is that millions of people worldwide fervently practice the martial art of the Shaolin priests hounded by the Manchu, the art of Janna Oyakata, executed by the Satsuma, the secret art that allowed Okinawans to protect themselves and their villages during the occupation and the art that some karate teachers envisioned would build strong defenders of Japan.
More people practice karate now than ever even existed on Okinawa throughout its entire history combined.
We want to see karate as a personal pursuit that allows us to reach new levels of physical strength, self-defense and philosophical enlightenment.
The truth is that: 1) if the Ming had not wanted to expand China’s influence, and 2) if Sho Shin hadn’t sought the power of a unified Okinawa, and 3) if his Noro mother hadn’t wanted the power behind the throne, and 4) if the Manchu had never had aspirations of conquering China, and 5) if Sho Nei had not angered Toyotomi, and 6) if Western ships hadn’t threatened Japan’s boarders, and 7) if Tokugawa hadn’t dominated Japan in a grand battle, and 8) if Shimazu had not changed his mind about fighting, and 9) if Tojo hadn’t sought Asian dominance, then you and I may never have heard of our unique martial art and would be playing baseball or soccer or something like that.
Politics and power. Such is the tapestry of karate and of life.
This article was assembled from personal research and interviews, as well as the work of John Sells (Unante), various works of Patrick McCarthy, Mario McKenna, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai, Meibukan Magazine, Joe Swift, Sal Canzonieri (Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles), Benny Meng (Ving Tsun Museum), Earnest Estrada, Scot Mertz, Andreas Quast, the internet and Takao Nakaya (Karatedo History and Philosophy).
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