Ryukyu Martial Arts Research 琉球武道研究

Karate, Ryūkyū-di and Self-Defense

Karate, Ryūkyū-di and Self-Defense / by Itzik Cohen
Martial arts today are divided into several types or aspects such as health, cultural-traditional, athletic and competitive sports, personal and social cultivation and even therapeutic.
These types of martial arts are divided into a number of continuum lines, such as hard/soft, several aggression levels, holistic levels and combative levels.
The roots of karate are found in the days of Ryūkyū Kingdom, where the local combat grew without particular name or, more precisely, it had several nicknames. This art was developed by educated skilled officials in the service of the government and the Royal Family. That what I "Ryūkyū—di” 琉球 手 meaning "Ryūkyū-hand". During this period, Ryūkyū-di was aimed for security and combat agendas par-excellence.
Over the course of a long history, various influences have been added to the local martial art in Ryūkyū Islands, the major ones being from China, Siam, and Japan.

Ryūkyūan-Siamese relations
Ryūkyū and Siam maintained extensive friendly relationship. Ryūkyūan trading and diplomatic delegations visited Siam frequently. According to records in the Rekidai Hohan, the Ryūkyūan -Siamese connection had been initiated by the end of 1380. These relations intensified during the 15th century and considered to be important.
There are several interesting common motifs to karate and Muay Buran (ancient Thai boxing). These motifs include positions and use of the center of gravity that are not typical to either Chinese or Japanese martial arts.

Ryūkyūan-Sino relations (Sino-Liuqiu)
The Chinese influence on Ryūkyū is dramatically evident in all fields including Martial Arts. Indeed China had been a close friend of Ryūkyū Kingdom for centuries.
First Chinese emissary arrived to Ryūkyū in 607 at the Sui 隋朝 Dynasty though no significant contact was established. Official relations between China added Ryūkyū had begun when China added Ryūkyū Kingdom to the Sinocentric (“Chinese Central Kingdom”) framework of tributary in 1372.
Note: Researchers hold several opinions as to why this was the case.
These bilateral relations were expressed by diplomatic relations, commerce, knowledge exporting and even high education in China. Ryūkyū and China had kept on unique warm relationships. At that time Ryūkyū in fact constituted the main maritime commercial intermediary among the kingdoms of the region. Chinese and Japanese expeditions continued to operate even after the Japanese Satsuma seizure of the island in the early 17th century (1609). No wonder that the Chinese influence has been highly reverberate in all fields, including Martial Arts. Not that Ryūkyū-di was influenced by both Northern-China and Southern-China (And its important to distinguish between the two).

Ryūkyūan-Japanese relations
Japanese influence on Ryūkyū was also before the 17th century. This influence was greatly enhanced after the Japanese Satsuma tribe took over Ryūkyū Islands. Contrary to the populist view that the Ryūkyūan residents were not allowed to bear arms, in practice there are historical documents attesting the usage of weapons for the security needs of officials in Okinawa (That by the way, included swords, bayonets, spears, armors and even gun-powders and heavy weapons). The use of these weapons was enabled and guided by the Satsuma. Ryūkyūan officials practiced in the schools of Jigen-ryū 示現流and Ten- ryū 天流. The training included the use of swords, jujutsu, bayonets, grenades, nuggets and even firearms.

The uniqueness of Ryūkyū-di
The Ryūkyūan local combat had unique characteristics in addition to the external influences. We know from historical testimonies of visitors about the strong impressions that the local Martial Arts left, especially in the use of the body as a weapon, for the powerful hands-techniques of both open hands (Fingers) and closed fist, which the foreign observers had ever seen in the past. Although the descriptions are not detailed in technical aspects, one can clearly understand the strong impression they left on the viewers.

Since then Ryūkyū-di has undergone many transformations. After the restoration of Meiji (明治維新 Meiji Ishin) at the end of the 19th century (1868) and during the beginning of the 20th century, Ryūkyū-di entered into the civilian circle. At first, local martial art served as self-defence and then also populate to the education system in Okinawa as an effective tool for physical and mental education. It was part of the Japanization process which included spiritual and nationalistic-militaristic mobility on the islands. This process of “Spiritual Mobility” became stronger during the 1930s and 1940s. The local Martial Arts in Ryūkyū that is already Okinawa had been transformed and adapted to the general public. Styles were created as well as new Kata(s), categorization of styles has been made, articles and books were published, and of course the Okinawan Martial Arts underwent a significant change conceptually, methodologically and technically. During that time The Local Martial Art officially received the Japanese oriented name “Karate” ("hand empty"), sometimes with the addition of "Dō", as it is customary for Japanese arts after the Meiji Restoration.
During this period, karate learning and practice was directed towards tradition, education and health. The need for combat was not the same as in the days of Ryūkyū Kingdom. This tendentious process is in fact common to all martial arts.

Under the influence of Japan and later the West, Karate also became sport. Consequently Karate underwent additional significant changes in atmosphere, perception, technique, power and ethics.
Kata in many places were studied and performed mainly for visual purposes. Combats were converted to competitive sparing according to variant rules. The important Basic (Kihon) 基本was forgotten or changed in many places out of Okinawa, and the ethical codes were also changed or simply disappeared.

And in spite of all, Okinawan Karate still maintains a unique atmosphere, ethics, emphasizing the importance of Kihon 基本, personal attention, power development, and the most fundamental component, pure intention. The Okinawan environment and culture give the Okinawan Karate a strong and unique foundation that is expressed mainly in both personal and social attention. Through these and with great diligence, the Okinawan Karata-ka produces the attributes and power that characterize the Okinawan karate.

What’s left in terms of Combat or Self-Defence?
The first rule of self-defense is to be smart and not to be involved in dangerous situations. This principle corresponds to the spirit of the Okinawan culture in general and the spirit of the Okinawan Karate in particular.
And what if one still encounters the need for self-defense? Not ashow, sport or an arena sparing but self-defense that saves lives?
Well, when you struggle for your life, there is no room for luxury such as exhausting your opponent, unnecessary movements or complicated manoeuvres. The goal is to neutralize the danger quickly, simply and efficiently. Period. This is in fact the environment in which Karate evolved originally. This requires not only technical ability but also physical ability and mental ability. For this purpose, it is fundamental to study and practice all these elements over time, thoroughly, with dedication and persistence.
Okinawan Karate emphasizes Kihon in details. Repeated practice provides a good starting point from which one can develop Close-Combat dimension very well.

Tanren Kobunaru
"Martial art is a strenuous practice"

The Kata contains an unlimited collection of technical possibilities at different levels and approaches. The way of performing Kata is important. Okinawan Karate does not give much significance to the aesthetic component but rather provides contours for studying and assimilating body mechanics, body strengthening, positions, kinesiology, improving concentration and deepening understanding. Combining all of these becomes a technique with speed and power.
If the aim of instruction is self-defense, then Karate will faithfully fulfill this function. The essence of Karate is constant infinite improvement of the practitioner. Self-defense is resulting of the practice, but not a primary goal.

There is important distinction between empty-handed combat between three working environments: one in an official or military environment and official personal security. The second environment is in the civilian security such as secure public places. The third and more familiar environment is personal self-defense. Even in that field there is a difference in type of threats, working environment, abilities and goals, for example between there is significant difference between self-defence for bus driver or self-defence for young girl.

Last but certainly not least.
Please let me cover briefly two topics: aesthetics and ethics.
These two topics direct and dictate in practice the nature and manner of activities these days and will determine the direction of the development and continuation of Karate ()as well as other Martial Arts) in future.

Aesthetics is a matter of individual person or culture. What is beautiful in one's eyes may not be so attractive for others. What is common in a certain culture may not be acceptable in other culture. Aesthetics becomes irrelevant both in combat environment and self-defense and as well as in classical Karate environment and personal development. Okinawan Karate is aimed improve one’s inside and not for external components such as show, competition and Aesthetics.

Ethics is at the core of every entity. Morality is the center of every society, system or mechanism. Without proper ethics, it will not be possible to develop and achieve the desired results over time. Ethic is the guiding and directing router and it is the glue that unifies the details into a whole system. Ethics is the responsibility and the continuity. Ethics is quality and it is existence. Purity of Arms gives to the society, to the army and to the soldier the moral power and maintains its operational quality.
Tei Junsoku 程 順 則, the Confucian Okinawan scholar and educator of the 17-18th century (1663-1734) said:
手墨 すぐりてん 智座の すぐりてん 肝ど肝 さだめ 世界の習や。
“As much as you may excel in the Ti and education, nothing is more important than the heart as the seat of the mind that is your behavior and humanity as demonstrated in daily life”.

Bushi Matsumura Sokon 松 村 宗 棍 in the 19th century left behind a letter in which he enumerates three virtues as a necessary condition for mastering the art in depth:
Reading, writing and arithmetic

Tanren Kobunaru
"Heart and Technique are one!"

If so, then in order to develop the Art and to and to create continuity, the Sensei must have a special personality and fulfill the following necessary conditions: technical quality, education and ethics. Professionalism, operational ability and quality are all derive from the basis on which Martial Art grows and on which a Karate-ka grows. In fact, these two are one.

Itzik Cohen

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