I just finished reading an extremely well researched account of the history of Okinawan martial arts. Andreas Quast thoroughly covers Okinawan martial history from approximately 1400-1890 in Karate 1.0: Parameter of an Ancient Martial Art. I would only recommend the book if you are a real karate history buff, because it’s a very dense read – about 450 pages, 8.5x11, small text, and few pictures. Still, there are some real gems in there for understanding the context that gave birth to karate. So I would like to distill a few revelations from the book that contradict the historical legends and expose new evidence that I would have presumed lost in the chaos of World War II.
First, a common belief is that karate practice was performed secretly, because martial training was illegal or suspicious under Japanese rule. However, Quast reveals that karate and kobudo demonstrations were regularly given at ceremonial events throughout Japanese rule. It seems likely that the secretive late night practice had another purpose – perhaps to avoid teaching pupils of poor character, or simply because the day was filled with work activity leaving the evenings for training the body (those are my guesses). Along with the secretive practice myth is the myth that karate and kobudo were designed for a makeshift military composed of Okinawan peasantry. It’s pointed out by Quast and also Bruce Clayton that this simply isn’t true. The military arts were developed and practiced by the ruling class as part of their duty to the King as peace-keepers and soldiers.
Next, there is a common belief that karate and kobudo were developed as an alternative to using edged weapons and firearms due to a ban on weapons under Japanese rule. Quast rigorously demonstrates that no such ban existed before the Japanese takeover (1400-1609), and the only related ban under Japanese rule (1609-1868) applied solely to firearms. Even then, the practice and carry of firearms was allowed under the regulation of a Japanese official. Quast gives a multitude of examples where edged weapons were carried by Okinawans or presented to government officials as gifts, and where firearms were trained and carried for security on tribute ships.
In fact, Quast gives a convincing alternative argument for the development of an unarmed and lightly armed martial art in Okinawa under Japanese rule. Prior to 1609 (as a tribute nation to China), Okinawa was responsible for its own national defense. Upon the Japanese takeover, Satsuma took on the responsibility of national defense for Okinawa. At this point (during the 1600s), the government officials that served in the Okinawan military were systematically reassigned to various duties such as police, bodyguards, tribute escorts, and other security details. Naturally, these peace-keeping duties don’t require the regular use of edged weapons and firearms, so more time was devoted to empty hand and non-lethal weapon training.
It was a dense read, but I’ve never seen such a detailed and well-supported history of Okinawan karate. I think it’s important to know the context in which our martial art was created so we can understand the design goals of the kata and techniques. Was this used to kill armed soldiers on a battlefield? Assassinate key personnel? Police a civilian population? Civilian defense against an ambush? Understanding the design goals helps us relate our modern goals to the origins of the art, thus making our practice more conscientious, directed, and effective.
Submitted by: Matt Baran, Sandan