The History of Okinawa and Uechi Ryu Karatedo 

World War II and Okinawa

Women In the Martial Arts and Uechi Ryu Karate Do

Registry of Women in Uechi Ryu Karate Do

Time Line of Uechi Ryu

Shohei Ryu Naming Documentation




The History of Okinawa and Uechi Ryu Karatedo



    You will see footnotes scattered throughout this document.  When you see a number in brackets you can click on it and it will bring you to a reference with the book and page number the info came from; from the footnote you can click on the number again and it will bring you back to where you were in the reading.

The History of Okinawa and Uechi Ryu Karatedo

      Historically the foundations of present day Uechiryu KarateDo were introduced by an Okinawan named Kanbun Uechi.  He, like a few others, studied Chinese boxing at Foochow in Fukien province, China. Uechiryu KarateDo finds its roots in a Southern Chinese boxing system known as Pan-gai-nun and relies on in-close fighting and economy of motion.

       However, to truly understand the deeper roots for the historical foundation of Okinawan Uechiryu KarateDo, one must go back to the earliest beginnings of the "birth of a united island," and then examine how karate became an innate part of the Okinawan culture.  Then one will truly understand the roots of Uechiryu KarateDo.

       Oral tradition cites the beginnings of the 14th century as the period when a karate-like art began to generally be practiced.[1]  Further, it may be concluded that a direct Chinese influence on Okinawan weaponless combat was a major factor in its development.

       By 1314 A.D. Okinawa was divided into three separate kingdoms; Nanzan to the South, Hokuzan to the North, and Chuzan in the central part of Okinawa.  Although the island was not united, in 1349, King Satto rose to power in the central kingdom of Chuzan.  He established formal relations with Japan and Korea and trade relations with parts in the southern seas.  But the most significant change was the establishment of relations with the Chinese Court.[2]

       Then, in 1372 under King Satto, the Ryukyu Dynasty was formally invested by the Chinese Emperor Hungwu-ti, as a tributary state of China.  The tribute system was based on a relationship with the sovereign nation and a vassal nation.[3]  The vassal nation was expected to make periodic tribute payments of local goods.  In exchange for the tribute payment.  Ryukyu was allowed to engage in trade with China and receive investiture.  Investiture was a ceremony which appointed the King to the Okinawan throne.[4]  It was also in 1372 that Chinese Kenpo was first mentioned in an historical document.  This was the beginnings of a long relationship between Okinawa and China.

       When King Satto expressed his allegiance to the Ming Emperor Hungwu-ti, he not only relegated his domain to tributary status but also threw open Okinawa's watery doors to greatly intensified Chinese Cultural influence.[5]  After the establishment of trade relations, the main export goods from Okinawa were goods transshipped through the Okinawan seaport of Naha.  Trade with China was done mostly through the ports of Kwangtung Province and Fukien Province in Central China.  The route between Naha and Foochow in Fukien Province became a route for not only trade but for culture and Martial exchange.[6]

       By 1392, Ming Emperor Hungwu-ti, pleased with the court's relationship with Okinawa, decided to promote further good relationship by presenting an imperial gift in the form of a large body of Chinese officials, skilled Chinese merchants, artisans, and monks.  Recorded in the year 1392, "thirty-six families"  immigrated from China to Okinawa for a cultural exchange and to help the welfare and development of Okinawa.  This Chinese immigrant community known as "Kumemura" or "Kume" village was established near Naha.  These "thirty-six families" came from the Fukien Province on the central coast of China.  Kumemura served as an arrival point for Chinese diplomats and envoys.  The people of  the village were made to be responsible for matters of trade and communication between China and Okinawa.  It became a learning place for the Okinawans.  They learned the language as well as ship building, navigation, techniques of Chinese administration, and Chinese Kenpo.[7]  This intense Chinese cultural influence on Okinawa supports the oral tradition that states that these "thirty-six families" were largely responsible for the transmission of Martial Arts throughout the Ryukyu islands.[8]

       After the establishment of formal relations, many Okinawans indeed traveled to China.  They traveled not only for trade but also to study Chinese Kenpo.  Therefore, King Satto decided to establish an Okinawan settlement in Fukien province called RyuKyu-Kan.  Its purpose was to house his people and for visitors to begin their stay when traveling to China.  This settlement was located at the Chinese Capitol of Ch'uan-chou.

       In terms of lasting Chinese influence upon Okinawan karate history, this settlement was extremely important, for not only did commuting Okinawan citizens bring back to their island artifacts and customs, but they brought the general belief that all things Chinese were superior.[9]  Over time, the threads of foreign influences were carefully studied and then woven into the fabric of Okinawan culture.  As a result, during the era of King Satto, Chinese Kenpo was introduced rapidly into Okinawa by the Chinese themselves in the village of Kumemura and also by the Okinawans in the settlement of RyuKyu-Kan who studied the "art" in China.

       In 1429, under the leadership of Sho Hashi, Okinawa became a unified kingdom and the capitol was moved to Shuri.  Because of  Sho-Hashi's exposure to Chinese government officials and his knowledge of Okinawa's isolated position, he was able to learn a great deal about improving economic conditions.  The effect of this was extensive trade.[10]  The development of Karate is readily apparent when one realizes that the Okinawans were suddenly having widespread contact with Arabs, Malaysians, Indonesians, Thais, Japanese, and Chinese who frequently visited the centers of commerce.[11]  It is easy to understand how in the following centuries Chinese Kenpo (or Ch'uan-fa) inched its way into the Ryukyu's, thus aiding the establishment of a regular system of unarmed self-defense based partly on the indigenous Okinawan form of fighting fists.  This blending of cultures was eventually complete over time with firm cultural ties lasting for hundreds of years.

       1477 A.D. was the next turning point in Okinawa's karate development when a new Sho dynasty was established.  The very first pronouncement of the new King, Sho Shin (who reigned from 1477 - 1526), was to ban the carrying of swords by everyone, noble or peasant.  He then ordered the confiscation of all weapons which were to be locked-up at his castle in Shuri and made private ownership of arms in large quantities illegal.  King Sho Shin's most significant act was to put a stop to feudalism and require that all members of the nobility (who were then disarmed) and their families come and live in the royal capitol.[12]  The banning of weapons by Sho Shin definitely spurred further interest in empty handed fighting techniques.  Consequently, after the disarmament of the people, two schools of combat were born.  One, known as the art of "ti" was developed and practiced by members of the nobility.  The other was known as Ryukyu Kobudo.  This latter school which was developed and practiced by the farmers and fishermen incorporated the use of simple fishing and agricultural tools as effective weapons of hand-to-hand combat.  Training in both armed and unarmed fighting techniques was done in utmost secrecy in remote places of dark.[13]

       This was Okinawa's golden age.  The kingdom of RyuKyu expanded and prospered.  It would continue until 1609 and was nourished by trade with China, Southeast Asia, Korea, Japan, and other Asian countries.  Then, in 1609, the Satsuma Clan of Southern Japan invaded Okinawa from the North and then marched south to the Royal Capitol of Shuri.  This military expedition ended Okinawa's independence.  Although remaining effectively a semi-independent trading nation and keeping close ties with China, Okinawa was economically drained by the Satsuma Clan.  The economic base was no longer supported by a lucrative sea trade but returned to agriculture.  Okinawa declined not only in its wealth, but also in its freedoms.  Okinawa's golden age of prosperity was over.

       Now, evidence demonstrates that after 1609, "ti" the martial art of Okinawan Royalty and Nobility was practiced solely by them for self-defense and self-development.  It is believed that "ti" which antedates "tode" was greatly affected historically by the Chinese settlement at Kumemura in Naha.[14]

       With the invasion of the Satsuma Clan in 1609 came a number of prohibitive ordinances, one of which included a further ban on the import of bladed weapons.  The bitterness that arose from such total subjugation was difficult and clashes between the two factions began to occur.  In such battles, the Okinawans were forced to use the only "weapons" they still possessed, which generally amounted to little more than their bare hands, feet, and farming tools.[15]  Seeing that such a disunited resistance was gaining them little, the various Okinawan Ch'uan-fa groups and "tode" societies had a series of secret conferences which resulted in their banning together in 1629 as a united front.[16]  With the presence of this united front, as well as the influence of Kumemura village and RyuKyu-Kan settlement, Okinawa's "tode" further developed among the "shizoku" class and their descendants.  Remember, stated prior, Okinawan martial arts were reserved solely for the Royalty and Nobility who resided in and around the Royal Castle at Shuri.  Ryukyu Kobudo was developed by the farmers and fishermen...and both were done in secrecy.

      NOTE:  The hierarchy of Okinawan culture in feudal times was characterized by a definite class structure.  At the top of the social structure was Okinawan Royalty which consisted of the King and members of the royal family.  Next in line were the "shizoku" or privileged class.  The "anji" or territorial lords made up the "shizoku" class.  Below the shizoku, a gentry class also existed which was made up of descendants of the king's soldiers, soldiers or retainers of the anji and others who had gained gentry standing in recognition of services rendered.  The gentry class was divided by a system of 3 titles.  These titles were Peichin, Satonushi, and Chikudan.  Each title had a senior and junior rank.  Initially, the commoner or Heimin made up the lowest social class of Okinawan society.  The heimin were mostly farmers and fishermen.[17]

       Now, by 1724, the Okinawan upper (or privileged) class, "the shizoku" in Shuri had grown so, that they were permitted to trade, be craftsmen, or farm in the countryside and outlying islands, taking with them their martial art.  The overworked peasants however, remained in a permanent state of near serfdom until the RyuKyu Islands were annexed by the Post-Restoration government of Japan in 1879, and the RyuKyan King, Sho Tai, was exiled to Tokyo.[18]

       By the 1800's Naha was a comparatively large business center with many Chinese and Okinawans involved in the Naha-Foochow trade.  Such close social and business ties produced Okinawans like Kanryo Higaonna, Chojun Miyagi, Matsuda Tokusaburo, Kugushiku Isei, Kinjo Matsu, and Kanbun Uechi who studied in China; Chinese military attaches like WanShu, Kusanku, and Iwah Anson; Chinese merchants like Gokenki who lived and taught on Okinawa; as well as Chinese-Okinawans from the village of Kumemura who studied or taught in China like Kaho Kojo, and Norisato Nakaima.

       According to Kanei Uechi, grandmaster Kanbun Uechi's eldest son: Kanbun's father and mother (Kantoku and Tsuru) were descendants of Satsuma Samurai[19] and therefore born into the "shizoku" class.  Their ancestors were among those who had been disenfranchised by the invading Satsuma clan and the Bureaucracy that followed.  Like many others, the Uechi family was forced to leave the Samurai society close to the castle in Shuri.  Eventually they moved from Shuri to Izumi on the Motobu peninsula to begin a life as pioneer farmers.  They had two boys -- Kanbun and Kanso Uechi.

       Being the first son to his parents and being of the "shizoku" class, his birth was a celebrated event.  Kanbun Uechi was born May 5, 1877 in the Ryukyu Domain, Motobu Division, Izumi Village on the Daikon Ridge (Okinawa-Ken, Kunigami-gun, Motobu-cho, Aza Izumi, Daikon Ridge).  This was a small mountain farming village on the Motobu peninsula in northern Okinawa.

       It was said that he took his intelligence from his father and his strong body and good nature from his mother.  Throughout his childhood he built up his physique by working in the fields and on the farm at Izumi.  His character was one of frugality, hard work and perseverance, and of social conscience and responsibility.

       He studied some of the martial arts forms available at the time, becoming proficient with the bo staff.  According to local tradition, the history of the bo staff katas on the Motobu peninsula is traced back to sometime after the Satsuma invasion of 1609, when for reasons unknown, many Okinawans of "Shizoku" descent fled from the area to the Shaolin Temple at Foochow where they stayed for about 10 years, before returning to Motobu to take up farming.  Upon returning they made up katas and Kumi dances based on the Shaolin techniques for display at the village festivals.[20]  Kanbun Uechi often participated in these demonstrations for the local festivals.  While in his teens, he saw many skilled instructors of the martial arts in his village (cho) where they regularly came to perform at the festivals.  At these festivals it was common to see Okinawan traditional dance (Kachashi), Kobudo (weapons), Kon-Jutsu (stick), Karate (tode), and Kama-no-te (sickles), demonstrated.  As presented earlier,  Okinawa had long benefited by rich cultural exchange over the centuries with China.

       Kanbun Uechi knew that "tode" (tote or tuti, literally "Chinese Hand") was becoming increasingly popular in the middle and south of the island and that many of the renowned teachers of that art had been to Southern China.  These displays aroused Kanbun's interest in the art of Kenpo and he soon decided that his future lay over seas -- in China.  He deliberated for almost two years with his father before departing to China in March 1897 at the age of nineteen.  There was, however, a second reason why Kanbun wanted to leave Okinawa.  This second reason concerned his desire to avoid being drafted into the Japanese army.  By 1896 the Japanese had already been inducting Okinawan youths into Military service against their will for almost nineteen years.  This was one way Japan attempted to ensure the subservience of the next generation of these troublesome, headstrong Okinawan people.



[1] Haines (pg. 74)

[2] Alexander (pg. 6)

[3] Fairbanks, Reichauer, Craig (pg. 195)

[4] Alexander (qtd. in Hiagonna, Kanjun (pg. 10))

[5] Oya (pg. 8)

[6] Alexander (pg. 6)

[7] Alexander (pg. 6)

[8] Oya (pg. 2) or Haines (pg. 75)

[9] Kerr [pg. 72 (History of Island People)]

[10] Haines (pg. 75)

[11] Haines (pg. 76)

[12] Hiagonna [pg. 18 (Okinawan Goju)]

[13] Hiagonna [pg. 18 (Okinawan Goju)]

[14] Bishop (pg. 11)

[15] Funikoshi (pg. 3) or Haines (pg. 77)

[16] Haines (pg. 78)

[17] Alexander (pg. 32)

[18] Bishop (pg. 10)

[19] Breyette (pg. 1)

[20] Bishop (pg. 138)



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