What is more amazing when you go back to 1900, just a short while ago, the number man have been a few hundred, I have seen no numbers to suggest any number is correct, just conjecture on my part.
But 1900 ad, the practice of karate was a privilege that might be extended only to members of the right class of people on Okinawa, Shown at festivals, that would be about it. It was not thought as something appropriate to teach to the young in schools.
Then there are four pivot points that we can point too, when things changed that made a difference.
(Ok, there are more that 4 things, but let’s keep this simple to start)
1. Itosu wrote his letter to the Okinawan school board, and they paid attention to his proposal.
As Okinawa was under Japanese control since 1870, the Japanese certainly were controlling what education there was in Okinawa. It is not hard to imagine they might have not paid any attention to Itosu’s ideas and so the concept went no where. Karate was not introduced at the teachers college, and karate programs were not supported to be developed in the schools.
That would have meant many of that generation would not have been exposed to karate and in time gone on to become instructors.
2. When Prince Hirohito toured Okinawa, perhaps he was not interested in seeing a karate demonstration. And when one was proposed for Japan, he also might not have been so inclined. In turn Professor Kano might not have been interested, preferring what his own practice of judo offered.
A result of these events not having taken place, the opening door for Funakoshi, Mabuni, Miyagi, Motobu and all the rest that followed might not have happened. Japan was a country on a mission. They were conquering all of their world, their University students being trained to become Administrators, Officers and the like. There is every reason to believe they would have not had an interest in a quaint Okinawan practice.
So no preliminary foothold in Japan.
3. Then the winds of war intervened. The outcome might have been the same, but though different choices, the invasion of Okinawa could have been bypassed. The was might have gone in a different direction. A decision to bypass Okinawa as too costly to the main invasion of Japan could have been made.
The vast destruction might have not taken place on Okinawa. The karate seniors might have survived the War.
They could have not agreed to the changes those who were interested.
Then they might have seen no reason for uniformity, organizations, adopting training uniforms as opposed to tradition. Seeing no need to keeping track of students progress via rank.
Their art might have been retained only for those of the right Okinawan rank, never to be shared with others. That had been their traditional model.
4. And the decision might have been made not to station troops on Okinawa. Then going so far as granting Okinawa independence from everyone in 1972, not returning them to Japan.
Leaving the Okinawans in complete charge of this minor cultural heritage.
Of course it did not happen this way, but it is not unreasonable to consider it might have been.
And karate remaining Okinawan.