Fighting Motives: The Kingdom with No Weapons

Fightland Blog

By Jack Slack

Photo by Ryusuke Komori/Moment Editorial

In Fighting Motives: Life, Death and Humiliation, we discussed how circumstances spur the development of martial arts in different directions. We looked at how Japanese jujitsu came from the days of feudal warfare, and how many of the focuses—throws controlling the wrists, and answers to wrist grabs—seem irrelevant to both our mixed martial arts mindset and our modern self defense mindset. (Wearing a sword makes wrist grabs seem all the more reasonable, however.)

We also discussed the development Chin Na and arrest techniques worldwide. Techniques known as “come-along” holds designed to either force compliance by pain and threat of pain, or by humiliation. Even in that one desire, to apprehend a lawbreaker, there were degrees of force governed by context. There is no need to put a child who has pinched a bag of sweets in a hammerlock, for instance.

Today, I want to recount to you one of the most interesting stories in the development of martial arts worldwide. Most martial arts have romantic creation stories, but the case of Okinawa is fascinating not because of someone having a vision of a white crane, or studying the way a tiger fights. It was the geopolitical and social circumstances that dictated the development of martial arts there that make it so compelling.

An Island Disarmed

The archipelago of the Ryukyus, and its largest island, Okinawa, was perhaps the perfect melting pot for the creation of a martial art for self-defense. Closely linked with China and Taiwan through trade, and conquered by the Japanese, Okinawa's unique geographical position nurtured the development of a martial arts tradition. But another factor essentially forced the development of a local martial art.

What makes Okinawa / the Ryukyu kingdom such a unique case study is that since the 15th century the Okinawan people had been almost completely disarmed. The formerly warring parts of the territory were brought together under one king (who ruled on behalf of the Japanese), and the nobility / gentry of the islands were kept at court.

The act of keeping your nobles within the same household as you is the oldest trick in the book of absolute rule. Many of you will have seen the mind-blowingly proportioned palace at Versailles in France—commissioned by Louis XIV to accommodate thousands of nobles and containing over 700 rooms—which was all built to keep the French nobility in household, and under the thumb, of the king.

The stockpiling of weapons on Okinawa—as was normal elsewhere in the Feudal and Early Modern world, as landowners were charged with arming their peasants in times of war—was forbidden. And while the island's elites could get away with indulging their interest in martial arts and swordsmanship, they were certainly not allowed to wear swords or other bladed weapons.

Improvised Weaponry

Weapons were banned by the government in Japan, so the Okinawans came to rely on what they had around to defend themselves. What is now called the art of Okinawan Kobudo is an amalgamation of forms and techniques developed around Okinawan folk weaponry. Recognize these?

They are Tonfa. And their design is so simple and versatile that it has stuck around to this day in the form of the nightstick. Yet the Tonfa didn't start life as a weapon, it is thought that it started out as the handle for a grindstone.

Similarly the sai (the metal things you used to pretend to wield, having insisted on being Raphael when your friends played Ninja Turtles) have been theorized to have begun life as a form of gardening fork, though they were already popular in China before arriving on Okinawa, and wound up becoming the Okinawan police's equivalent of a truncheon.

The kama, a scythe used in the fields, quickly found application as a weapon because, rather obviously, it was bladed and—as a farming implement—was overlooked by the ban on weaponry.

The bo or long staff found tremendous popularity among Okinawans just as it had among Chinese travelling monks, because it is at once a walking stick—permissible anywhere you wander, and a means of seriously hurting someone or keeping them at a distance.

Perhaps the most iconic improvised weapon for this disarmed nation of islanders was the Eku, which was quite simply an oar as one would use to row a boat. Anyone who has taken their Mrs. on a romantic afternoon out in a rowboat can attest that they are heavy enough to cause some damage. Miyamoto Musashi (who seems to appear in a great many of my articles) famously killed his rival, Ganryu Kojiro with a wooden sword which he carved out of an oar... using his actual sword.

Staff forms are always the prettiest... but getting hit by one will hurt however it is swung.

The eku is a unique weapon because while it is made of wood, the edge of the oar tapers so that it is almost bladed, making it capable of doing tremendous damage that one wouldn't perhaps imagine. Eku kata also contain movements where the paddle is used to throw sand into the face of the opponent. Chatan Yara, one of the founding fathers of Okinawan Te (hand) or Tode (Chinese hand)—later to become karate (empty hand)—became a folk hero of the Okinawans when he saved a woman from being raped by a Japanese soldier by using an oar to fight off an kill the samurai.

The only known drawing of Chatan Yara.

Yara, who had studied both martial arts and the classics in China as a young man, was approached by many Okinawans in the hopes that he would share his art, and consequently became a driving force in the evolution of Okinawan martial arts.

Tode: China Hand

Okinawa's strong trading links with China allowed many of the more wealthy Okinawans to study martial arts in China or Taiwan. Kanryo Hiagashionna (forefather of Goju-ryu, Shito-ryu and To'on-ryu) and Kenri Nakaima (founder of the family style of Ryuei-ryu) spent extended periods training under the Fukian White Crane master Ryo Ryo Ko, while Kanbun Uechi (founder of Pangai-Noon, renamed Uechi-ryu after his death) learned Fujian Tiger Boxing from a master named Shu Shiwa.

Others sought the help of foreign martial artists who arrived on Okinawan shores. A number of officials from China taught their own methods to Okinawan officials and consequently have kata (the forms which make up karate, some are progressive, others can be considered stand alone “styles” of fighting) named after them such as Kusanku and Wansu. Others came to the island as drifters, or even as pirates, as was the case with Chinto.

Furthermore, there grew a considerable Chinese community in Okinawa around Kume village that is thought to have been pivotal in the development of Okinawan martial arts. Go Kenki was a White Crane practitioner who moved to Okinawa to work as a tea salesman, but found himself influencing many of the island's karateka as a teacher.

Gokenki, with Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of Shito-ryu, behind him.

The idea that Okinawan karate was for resisting samurai oppression is pretty laughable. There were no Te rebellions, and Okinawa proved to be a fairly easy province for the Japanese to keep under control because the Okinawan kings had always used the authority of more major powers to keep their place.

The purpose of Te may have been to protect the common man, in the days before street lighting or real policing, from aggressors when carrying a knife just wasn't an option. But more than that, it seems that after years of trade with China and a ban on bladed weapons, Okinawa's citizenry, particularly the upper class, really developed a love for martial arts.

Got your leg? Gouge his eyes. A classic courtesy of Chotoku Kyan's students.

Some enjoyed getting into scraps and challenge matches—Choki Motobu's many brawls are well noted—where others just sought to make themselves strong. While Okinawans are now the longest living people on earth (with the highest percentage of centenarians in their population), it is worth noting that many of the great karate masters of old lived to eighty or ninety in the days when the average life expectancy was a great deal lower.

Jon Jones-esque in his oblique kicks is Choki Motobu, Joe.

The Characteristics of Okinawan Karate

The history of Okinawan Te is a muddled mess because of the secrecy in which it was taught in for most of the island's history. Traditionally there are three schools of karate, formed around three villages on Okinawa—Naha-te (te, as always, meaning “hand”), Tomari-te, and Shuri-te. But the towns which these styles come from are within easy walking distance of each other (and have now been absorbed into the sprawling city of Naha or Okinawa City).

Traditionally Naha-te is comprised of the “heavier” styles. Those which stress body development and use the Sanchin exercise to build strength. Goju-ryu, Ryuei-ryu, and Uechi-ryu are considered Naha-te styles, and are closer to their Chinese roots than Shuri-te or Naha-te. All three were brought over to Okinawa in the 20th century.

If you have seen Human Weapon you will remember Morio Higaonna, the Goju-ryu master. The great American judoka and pretty much the first martial arts journalist, Donn F. Draeger declared in the sixties that if every martial arts master in Japan went into a room, Higaonna would be the last one standing.

To see the stress placed on conditioning in these styles, check out Kiyohide Shinjo demonstrating his toe conditioning (traditional Te performs kicks with the toe tips rather than the ball or top of the foot), and of boshi-ken, the thumb knuckle. It’s simply incredible when you consider that both Higaonna and Shinjo are now pensioners.

Shuri-te and Tomari-te, which are hard to separate, are considered the older Okinawan methods. Still being heavily influenced by Chinese martial arts, these styles can be traced back to the 17th century when the aforementioned Kusanku visited the island and taught Okinawans his martial arts methods.

These older styles of Okinawa seem to have largely eschewed the open handed techniques that were so predominant in their Chinese predecessors, and placed a focus on seiken or the regular fist. Okinawan use of the makiwara (a board with rope wrapped around it as “padding”) even though sand bags in one form or another were used on the Chinese mainland for hundreds of years, seems to be a large force in this emphasis on punching technique and fist conditioning.

Gichin Funakoshi punching a makiwara.

If you've never used a makiwara, it is well worth a go. Heavy bags let you hit them full power first time, but nothing gives you feedback (in the form of pain) on kinks in wrists or other factors of a bad connection like the unforgiving makiwara.

Here is the interesting part though—kata contain so many different techniques that it is hard to point to constant characteristics in traditional forms. Some are heavy on wrestling with an opponent, others are all about open handed strikes, others contain techniques for wrestling a stick from an attacker.

The truth is that because Okinawan Te collected its methods and forms from so many sources and they cross-pollinated in Okinawa, it is hard to work out where all of it came from and that is really the beauty of it. Okinawa formed a bastard martial art lineage all of its own. Influenced by travels abroad, visiting martial artists and a local Chinese community. And that is what is so beautiful about martial arts in the modern era as well: we have the chance pick off the parts we like and amalgamate them into what we know, rather than take one school's methods as the gospel truth.

Perhaps the best example of how Okinawan martial arts became something of their own comes from the rowdy scrapper, Choki Motobu, who wrote that though many Te forms are reportedly Chinese in origin, similar forms cannot be found on the Chinese mainland in the modern era.

Becoming Karate

Te became a part of Okinawan culture and heritage, and when Kentsu Yabu and Hanashiro Chomo, two influential martial artists, were drafted to the first world war the draft officers were so impressed with their condition that Okinawan martial arts were eventually accepted into schools and the art became known as karate (“empty hand” in Japanese, rather than “China hand” or just “hand” as it had been known before).

Hanashiro Chomo as an older man.

Many of the more to the point, violent techniques were stripped away and karate, in Japan at any rate, became about stepping punches and wooden defenses. Looking at the classical forms, and the writings of the Okinawans who were skilled in Te before its mainstream Japanese acceptance, Okinawan karate starts to look a lot more like other self-defense martial arts.

Japanese karate today, though beautiful in its own right—focusing on distance and the three initiatives (Sen, Sen-no-Sen and Go-no-Sen) of Japanese fencing—is completely different in both its objectives and methods from Okinawan Te.

Gichin Funakoshi teaching the classic fireman's carry or kata-guruma, and following to the floor with punches. A sequence from the kata Chinto / Gankaku which is lost in modern interpretations of the kata.

Reading Gichin Funakoshi's account of his only real world confrontation, in Karate-do: My Way of Life, would disappoint someone hoping to hear about how the Okinawan master punched a hole through his attacker's chest, or side kicked him through a wall. But Funakoshi's tale of ducking and seizing his opponent's testicles is exactly what you would expect from a martial art method designed to save lives.

Everything in classical karate is, as Kenei Mabuni put it, about the two “Golden Targets”—the eyes and the groin—and following up if that doesn't work. And it's about escaping grabs and ducking swings, not blocking the same stepping punch in twenty-five different ways. It's the stuff you would revert to in a mugging, not the stuff that makes for lovely demonstrations.

Chojun Miyagi teaching to parry a kick and deliver a counter-kick to the groin (left), and to follow to the floor with thumb gouges to the eyes (right).

But perhaps the most interesting theory which has been brought forward about Okinawan Tein recent years is that it wasn't exclusively a self-defense art, but a body guarding art. Looking back, the majority of Okinawa's best martial arts exponents, and those who had the means to indulge their interest in weaponry and Chinese boxing methods, were nobles who served in the Royal household. It is a fascinating theory, and the island of Okinawa has such a rich and exotic history that it is well worth looking into.

Fighting traditions have developed in every culture on the globe. What makes Okinawa's so interesting is its geographical position, its trade routes and flow of knowledge, and most crucially, the necessity to defend oneself with an absence of weaponry.

Pick up Jack's e-books Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By. Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.


Check out this related story:

Fighting Motives: Life, Death and Humiliation