MY WAY OF LIFE
Inasmuch as there is virtually no written material on the early history of karate, we do not know who invented and developed it, nor even, for that matter, where it originated and evolved. Its earliest history may only be inferred from ancient legends that have been handed down to us by word of mouth, and they, like most legends, tend to be imaginative and probably inaccurate.
In my childhood, during the first year of Meiji, as I mentioned earlier, karate was banned by the government. It could not be practiced legally, and of course there were no karate dôjô. Nor were there any professional instructor. Men who were known to be adepts accepted a few pupils in secret, but their livelihood depended on work quite unrelated to karate. And those who succeeded in being taken on as students did so because of their interest in the art. At the very first, for example, I was Master Azato’s
only student and one of the very few who studied under Master Itosu.
They’re being no professional instructors; very little emphasis was placed on written descriptions of techniques and the like, a lack that a man like me, whose mission in life has been the propagation of Karate-dô, has regretted very deeply. Although I obviously cannot hope to remedy the lack, I shall attempt to set down what I remember hearing from my teachers about the legends that have survived in
Okinawa. Alas, I know that my memory is not always reliable, and I am sure that I will make my share of errors. Nevertheless, I will do my best to note here what little I have learned about the origin and development of karate in Okinawa.
Napoleon is said to have observed that somewhere in the Far East there was a small kingdom whose people possessed not a single weapon. There seems little doubt that he was referring to Ryukyu Islands, to what is now the prefecture of Okinawa, and that karate must have originated, developed, and become popular with the people of the islands for that very reason: because they were prohibited by law from bearing arms.
There were, in fact, two such prohibitive decrees: one promulgated about five centuries ago, the second some two hundred years later. Before the proclamation of the first decree, the Ryukyu were divided in to three warring kingdoms: Chuzan, Nanzan, and Hokuzan. It was the monarch of Chuzan, Shõ Hashi, who, once more he had succeeded in unifying the three kingdoms, issued a command prohibiting all Ryukyuans from possessing weapons, even rusty old swords. He also invited the famous scholars and statesmen of the three kingdoms to his capital city of Shuri, where he established a centralized government that was to endure for the next two centuries.
In the year 1609, however, the reigning king of the dynasty found himself obligated to outfit an army for the sake of repelling an invasion of the islands that had been launched by Shimazu, the daimyo of Satsum (now Kagoshima Prefecture). The newly armed Ryukyuan warriors fought with conspicuous bravery and gallantry against the soldiers of the Satsuma clan, known and feared throughout the country for the fighting skill, but, after Ryukyuan success in a few pitched battles, a surprise landing by Shimazu’s forces sealed the fate both of the islands and of their monarch, who was forced to surrender.
Since Shimazu reissued the edict banning weapons, many Ryukyuans (most of them members of the Shizoku class) Began secretly to practice a for of self-defense wherein hands and legs were the only weapons. What this actually was may only be conjectured. However, it is know that, for many centuries, Okinawa engaged in trade with the people of Fukien Province in southern China, and it was probably from the source that Chinese kempo (“boxing”) was introduced in to the islands.
It was from kempo that the present-day karate evolved. It was first known as “Okinawate.” And I recall, when I was a child, hearing my elders speak of both “Okinawate” and “karate” (the kara in this case referring to China). I began then to think of Okinawate as an indigenous Okinawa fighting art and of karate as a Chinese form of boxing. In any case, I perceived a clear distinction between the two.
During the years of arms prohibition, inspectors were sent to the islands from Satsuma to ensure that the prohibition was being strictly observed, so it is hardly surprising that karate (which, as it developed, enable a man to kill without weapons) could only be practiced an engaged in clandestinely. As I noted early, this clandestine aspect of karate persisted through the early years of Meiji, in part because the ancient decree lingered on in the minds of the people
It is my own observation that Okinawan folk dances make use of a number of movements that are similar to those used in karate, and the reason, I believed, is that adepts who practiced the martial art in secret incorporated those movements into the dances in order to further confuse the authorities. Certainly anyone who carefully observes Okinawan folk dances (and they have today become quite popular in the large cities) will note that they differ markedly from the more graceful dances of the other Japanese islands. Okinawa dancers, male and female, use their hands and legs far more energetically, and their entrances onto dancing area, as well as their departure from it, are also reminiscent of the beginning and end of any karate kata.
Indeed, the essence of the art has been summarized in the words: “Karate begins and ends with courtesy.” As for Okinawa itself, its people for many, many centuries regarded their country as a place where all the forms of etiquette were most strictly observed.
The famous gate In front of Shuri Castle was called Shurei no Mon: “the Gate of Courtesy.” After the Meiji government came to power and Okinawa became a prefecture, the Shurei no Mon exists no more: it was totally destroyed during the battle for Okinawa toward the close of the Second World War. How ironic it is that American military bases now occupy the ground adjacent to that where once stood the gate that symbolized peace! [Since this was written, the Shurei no Mon has been reconstructed in its original form.]