When I think on Okinawa in the late 1800s the line from Dickens “Tale of Two Cities” comes to mind. (not that I have read it).
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
I believe we must look to a wider picture to understand what karate came to be for Okinawa and then Japan. The full nature of the time is an important consideration.
I suppose this is a result of my age, but I do wonder if we focus on too small a focus on Okinawa’s pasts and miss other things which occurred.
As I recall 1870 was a bad year for Okinawa. Japan pushed their dominance over Okinawa. The Okinawan king was removed and relocated to Japan. The aristocratic class had their government pensions stripped leaving many of them facing poverty for the first time. The Japanese modernized the schools, which means they became a tool to change Okinawan customs, as in eliminating the male top knot, and working toward eliminating the Okinawan languages replacing them with Japanese. Heavy handed social engineering. And Japan was getting a lot of practice at that. Soon to become the standard of dominance for Korea, Manchuria and many island nations they would dominate in the years to come.
I imagine knowledge of karate was even more a class handshake among the adepts. A way to maintain an identity of their own against the changes being forced by Japan.
With more people having access to education, I believe the choice of sharing karate in the schools was as much a way to build something uniquely Okinawan as anything.
Karate was not seen so much for a needed self defense art, There were not samurai roaming the streets with swords. I think that Okinawa, for the most part, was a quiet place. But they had to chaff under the heel of Japan proper. That was where there was the ‘right stuff’, language, customs, etc. stuff of Empire. Okinawa would have been a poor relation to Japan itself.
So Itosu created a special sort of Karate for the schools and promoted it as the tool for creating a stronger Okinawa. Through sharing karate with the young would be a contribution to the society and show Japan the worth of Okinawa.
Now let us think about what Japan was like during this time. They considered themselves the master race of their part of the world.
Before long they would take over Korea turning into their toy.
Manchuria would be another conquest, leading to China proper.
The many islands were play things to their whim,
They played with a very skewered idea what morals were,
namely anything they wanted was their right.
When the chance to show something of karate to Japan the most educated individual was selected to clearly present the art itself. That was Funakoshi Ginchin. Then he made contact with Professor Kano, creator of Judo, and they found a common bond. And a new role for karate in Japan was begun, where there had been none before.
The Japanese instructors, Funakoshi and Mabuni, began to work within the Japanese society, to promote Okinawa as having value, using karate instruction in the Japanese Universities as their way to make this point.
I really doubt they were concerned about those students being able to defend themselves or other people.
They were determined to show that karate would strengthen the Japanese University trained youth making Okinawa even more valuable as time passed.
And let’s take Itosu’s assumptions as truth. Then they were consciously working to make Japanese University students better Japanese citizens, able to accomplish more of the nasty things Japan the country wanted.
And I used that word quite specifically, there is no doubt that what Japan was doing was nasty.
As everyone today assumes karate will make the individual better it is only reasonable to assume that is what was proposed.
So karate trained students went into industry, into colonial positions for the Japanese government, into the Government itself, into the Navy making the point of Itosu that karate would be valuable for the growth of the nation.
Of course the role of those University trained students, and the things they did for Japan through their world, are not something anyone wants to discuss today. If there is anything to the claim that karate was making them more capable individuals that cannot be separated at what they were using their strengthened characters for, pushing forward the aims of the Japanese Empire. Abusing many nations and peoples all in the name of Japan. And building a stronger Japanese Navy for Japan to use for their purposes.
It is a two edged sword. Proving karate strengthens its people. You can’t separate those people from their actions.
Now consideration can be made that Okinawa was not Japan. But as originally the Okinawa’s choose their most polished instructor with greatest command of Japanese to present their art, they had some stake in the success of the Diaspora that resulted.
Then the War, and yes Okinawa was used, abused and destroyed from Japan’s actions.
From the ashes of that war karate rose like a Phoenix to the young military occupation and did capture their imaginations.
The karate was not expressed at what had already been accomplished, good and bad. It was just put out there as it was what it was, and everything went from there.