Ryukyu Martial Arts Research 琉球武道研究

The Practice of Ancient Karate

How did ancient Karate look like in its original form?
In order to examine the subject we must search deeper before the 19th century. We should dive into the geopolitical reality in East Asia during the era between the 12th to the 18th centuries, to the days of Ryukyū (Ryukyu) Kingdom. The Local Combat, Ryukyū-di 琉球手 and Ryukyū-kobudō 琉球古武道, were actually developed in the Military-Political environment by well-educated skilled warriors and security guards from upper social classes. In that era both activities were not separated as it is today. The missions were varied, some on the island’s soil and some with delegations overseas. We shall refer to the local fighting during this period as “Ryukyū-di 琉球手”, literally " Ryukyū -Hand", the ancestor of Karate.

Why “Di” and not “Te”…as for Karate?
Simply because this is the proper pronunciation to the ideogram手 (“Hand”) in the old origin local language, that is Uchinaguchi 沖縄口.
Later, after Meiji Restoration in 1868, local fighting began to spill into the civilian environment. Then in the first three decades of the 20th century, the local fighting took again a turn, when it began to spread outside the Ryukyū Islands while at the same time it entered into the education system. This is the period in which the Local Okinawan-te was adapted to the new time and environment and also received its new name: Karate 空手, or even being more precise: Karate-Dō 空手道.

Ryukyū Kingdom
Ryukyū Kingdom
The scope of this article comprises the early days of Karate and the sources are rooted during the reign of Ryukyū.
There are very few written testimonies about Ryukyū-di 琉球手, especially when we try to gauge what it looked like in the technical dimension.
However there are written evidences from sources that are believed to be reliable and accurate, some Chinese, Japanese, and even Western records. There is informative documentation of diplomatic relations, diplomatic envoys, trade delegations and security missions. We know details with great precision such as the location in which the delegations were dispatched, for how long they stayed, what their purpose was, who were there including dates and names, what was the exact number of people and in what environmental conditions they have stayed, including various logistics maters.

In a certain source from the 18th century, there is even a general description and impression of Ryukyū-di. Although there is no technical detail, some terms such: boxing techniques, closed/clenched fists, open hand, wrestling and casting are mentioned. Nevertheless the significant fact of this written testimony is that the incident left a strong impression on the observers, who used such expressions about the high skill of the fighters who used their bodies as weapons and the extraordinary power that these witnesses had not encountered before.

So how do Ryukyū-di 琉球手 looked at these days?
The kingdom of Ryukyū had a number of security needs that defined the tasks, the nature of the security forces and their skill. Add to this geopolitics, socio-economic/cultural environment, and we get the derivatives from which Ryukyū-di developed.
After the local wars among the Anji/Aji 按司 (Feudal Lords) in Ryukyū Kingdom came to end, the three Ryukyūan Kingdoms (Hokuzan 北山, Chūzan 中山, Nanzan 南山) were unified by King Shou Hashi 尚 巴 志 circa 1429. In the 15th century, King Shou Hashi established a police force (Chikosai). This force took care of internal order and security as well as along the coastline. It should be noted that the percentage of crime in the Kingdom was low.

Ryukyū Kingdom
Ryukyū Kingdom
The Kingdom of Ryukyū had skilled forces in order to secure the royal family and residence, as well as other sensitive places and diplomatic events. As mentioned, this force consisted mainly of upper-class educated people who acquired very high combat skills. Some of them were dispatched to diplomatic missions in order to secured diplomats and cargoes at sea and on soil of neighboring countries. These are actually the Special Forces guards who were the origin from which the Okinawan Karate evolved.

The nature of the threat posed to Ryukyū Kingdom:
Needless to say that the nature of the combat doctrine, characteristics and abilities were derived from the threat posed to the kingdom.
The threat of the pirates was significant, not only to Ryukyū but also to powers such as China, Korea, and Japan. The pirates constituted a large force and counted experienced warriors and skilled sailors. They caused extensive damage to property and life at sea and in populations along the coastline. Among the Ryukyūan Forces that secured the merchant ships and the diplomatic missions were also security guards from the Royal Kingdom of Ryukyū.
The security guards stayed with the delegations for weeks and months. Their tasks were varied and therefore they had to be skilled and respond quickly, efficiently and with the required intensity for each and every incident.
Managing combat on ship in the middle of the sea against pirates is different from fighting the pirates on shore.
Maintaining the King’s security within the Kingdom’s borders, or to differ, securing a diplomat on a mission in host country, are tasks that require special preparation.
Alternatively, the security of trade ships or Ryukyūan delegations that had arrived for a long period of time to China for example, is fundamentally different from the tasks mentioned above. The security guards had to react quickly to the events while causing minimal damage and not to create unnecessary tension.
Sometimes the Security Force was required to coordinate missions among the guards. Sometimes it was necessary to coordinate and divide roles in matters of security with the Security Forces of the neighboring country.

The tasks were varied and the Kingdom of Ryukyū was relatively small compared to China or Japan. The Ryukyūan Security Forces were required to be sophisticated and skilled in order to carry out their missions.

Ryukyū Kingdom
Ryukyū Kingdom
Apart from knowledge and local experience, some Ryukyūan Security guards received knowledge and training from China and often from the Japanese Satsuma tribe, which took over the Ryukyū Islands in the early 17th century. Famous Bushi Matsumura Sokon is an example of a figure directly connected to the Okinawan Karate in the 19th century. A warrior and security guard in the royal household who acquired Chinese and Japanese skills in addition to the local one, with both weapons and empty hand. The Ryukyūan warrior had must have high abilities to act alone in individual level, in small groups or in larger order of battle.

The Ryukyūan guard of the Special Forces had to be skilled with weapons on a ship, for example in dealing with attacking pirates. He was also required to be skilled in securing individuals e.g. The King or other VIP, sometimes at events where weapons were forbidden. In some cases the sensitivity was as high as in a diplomatic environment and the guard had to be careful not to cause unnecessary damage that might cause to diplomatic incident. He/they had to act quickly and quietly. There incidents in which it was necessary to remove a threat unharmed in order to extract intelligence such as information about assassins or other relevant threats.

These activities were carried out on the official level of Ryukyū Kingdom, in the military and political circles. It was an entirely different environment from the civilian environment, in which the Ryukyūan Art of Combat flowed toward the end of the 19th century. This was actually the beginning of the formation of Okinawan Karate and the transition from Ryukyū-di to Okinawa-te and then to Karate.
In a later period, or more precisely at the end of the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century, local martial arts were once again transformed. Books were written, schools were established and methods of study and techniques were changed. The Combat Art was adapted to modern times and to the evolving needs. Karate underwent a process of classification and reorganization and became popular (but this is already the subject of another article).

Karate roots were originated in the days of Ryukyū Kingdom. It was used then by very skilled officials that executed varied security tasks. I name the Local Combat at that time “Ryukyū-di” 琉球手. Ryukyū-di was for special mission and was characterized as Military/Official Close-Combat for special security missions rather than Civilian Self-Defence.
Then, a short time before the 19th century the Local Combat had entered to the civilian environment and became Okinawan-te. It became more Self-Defence oriented.
Later it entered to the education system and transformed again, this time it took two routes, one is tradition and legacy and the other was physical education and raising social morale. This is the era when the art received the name Karate. At this stage the local art of fighting had reorganization and became popular.
These conditions were changed in practice. The approach changed according to the new environmental conditions and the needs of the hour. The technical dimension also changed accordingly.

Itzik Cohen

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