Karate History

General Karate History

Karate_Hieroglyphic_smLet us first start with a general history of Okinawan Shorin Ryu Karate Do. It is estimated that probably 90% of American Karateka know little, if anything, about their art other than the physical aspects. Most of these Karateka seem content merely to practice Karate and have little interest in studying the origins of their art. Those of us in the Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito Karate & Kobudo Association are of a different mentality. While we enjoy the physical aspects of Shorin Ryu, we also have a burning desire to learn the history and the origins of our art.

Generations of secrecy have shed a veil of mystery around the history and origin of Okinawan Karate. To a certain degree this veil of secrecy still exists. This, coupled with a general lack of written records, has created a void of information on the early years of Ryu Kyu martial arts. What little information we have has come to us through scattered bits and pieces that somehow have come into the possession of modern Karate historians or from those of us who were fortunate enough to have been told some of the history from an Okinawan Sensei. Nevertheless, any attempt to write on Karate history will leave “many stones unturned,” and the following attempt is no exception; a lot of questions are left unanswered. Perhaps, one day we will have more information.

Early History of Okinawan Karate


Early Okinawan Karate or Tode (Tuide) as it was called owes its origin to a mixture of indigenous Okinawan fighting arts and various “foot fighting” systems and empty hand systems of Southeastern Asia and China. The Okinawans, being a seafaring people, were almost in constant contact with mainland Asia. It is quite likely that Okinawan seamen visiting foreign ports of call may have been quite impressed with local fighting techniques and incorporated these into their own fighting methods.

Interest in unarmed fighting arts greatly increased during the 14th century when King Sho Hashi of Chuzan established his rule over Okinawa and banned all weapons. A more rapid development of Tode followed in 1609 when the Satsuma Clan of Kyushu, Japan occupied Okinawa and again banned the possession of weapons. Thus Tode or Okinawan-te, as the Satsuma Samurai soon called it, became the only means of protection left the Okinawan. Thus, it was this atmosphere that honed the early Karate-like arts of Okinawa into such a weapon that they enabled the island people to carry on a guerrilla-type war with the Japanese Samurai that lasted into the late 1800’s.

So, Tode or Okinawan-te developed secretly to keep the Japanese from killing the practitioners and teachers of the deadly art. Tode remained underground until the early 1900’s when it was brought into the Okinawan school system to be incorporated into physical education methods.

Development of Styles and Systems of Karate-Do


During the year 1762, an Okinawan tribute ship was blown off course and settled on a beach on Shikoku Island. A man named Tobe Ryoen was commissioned to record the testimony of the crew and passengers and did so in a book entitled the “Oshima Incident.” During the interviews, the officer in charge made reference to a man named Kusankun who was reportedly an expert of a style called Kumiai Jutsu. Reportedly, Kusankun and a few of his students had been travelling around Okinawa teaching their martial arts having been there since 1756.

Kusankun had learned his art from a Shaolin monk and was a teacher of some renown in China. Although he was a slender man, he was able to handle the larger Okinawans due to his precise technique and style. Sensei Pat McCarthy in his book The Bible of Karate – Bubishi, recounts an eyewitness account of a demonstration by Kusankun of his martial art and states that this remains the most reliable early account of the Chinese fighting traditions in Okinawa. In the account, Kusankun used a leg scissoring manoeuvre to defeat his opponent which was described by the Okinawan officer in charge, a man named Shiohira Pechin.

Kusankun reputedly had two very famous students during his stay on Okinawa, these being Chatan-Yara and Tode Sakugawa. Only brief references are made to Chatan-Yara’s study with Kusankun but Sakugawa apparently studied with him for some six years before Kusankun returned to China. Sakugawa subsequently travelled to China to continue his study with Kusankun. Another theory states that Sakugawa did not study directly with Kusankun but rather with his student, Yara Guwa (Yara of Chatan). One item that seems to support this concerns Bushi Matsumura who taught only Yara Kusankun kata which would indicate a link to Yara.

Sakugawa is credited with having originated the Kusankun kata based on the teachings he received from Kusankun or from Kusankun’s student Yara, depending on which theory you follow. It is thought that other of his students did this as well, resulting in and accounting for different versions of the Kusankun kata. Students of the time who were to become Masters in their own right often developed training patterns based on what their teacher taught them and it later became a kata bearing that teachers name.

Chatan Yara of Chatan Village

Chatan-Yara (Yara Guwa or Yara of Chatan Village) is one of the earliest Okinawan karate men about whom some written information exists and, as with most other early karate men, this information is sparse. Different authors place the birth of Yara in the village of Chatan somewhere between 1670 and 1725. Regardless of when his birth occurred, he contributed significantly to the early development of karate on Okinawa.

Yara was reportedly sent to China when he was 12 years old to train in martial arts and was apprenticed to a man named Wong Chung-Yoh and studied with him for the next 20 years. His training during this time concentrated primarily on the bo and twin swords. Of paramount importance to karate, however, was his study of Hsing-i and Chi Kung which he brought back with him and were the basis for the introduction of inner strength to Okinawan karate.

Yara returned to Chatan, Okinawa at the age of 32 and remained there for the rest of his life. It was here that he originated the Chatan Yara no Kon kata. He later studied with the Chinese envoy Kusanku and is responsible for a portion of the training of the karate great, Tode Sakugawa. While Yara did not establish a formal school, he left us his legacy in three kobudo kata which bear his name; Chatan Yara no Kon, Chatan Yara no Sai, and the Chatan Yara no Tonfa kata. It is recorded that Yara spent his later years studying calligraphy and translating Chinese into Japanese. The descendants of Chatan-Yara still live in the village of Chatan, Okinawa.

The Chatan Yara no Kon kata incorporates fighting techniques unique to Okinawa, encouraging bare-hand fighting as the closing struggle. This form is considered to be one of the most beautiful of the bo kata, as it not only employs lightening fast moves, but also demonstrates the power attainable through master of this weapon.

SakugawaTode (Satunuku) Sakugawa

The first teacher of a style that can be called Shuri-te (suidi) was the famous Satunuku Sakugawa (1733 – 1815). Sakugawa can be called the father of Okinawan Karate of the feudal age (old RyuKyu Kingdom). His first instructor was an Okinawan Samurai called Peichin Takahara. Takahara was a well educated man, who was responsible for drawing some of the early maps of Okinawa.

After studying under Takahara for some time, Sakugawa began studying under Kusanku, who was a Chinese military attaché in Okinawa. Sakugawa is said to have returned to China with Kusanku and remained for 6 years. Upon his return to Okinawa in 1762, Sakugawa was instructed by Takahara to call himself Tode Sakugawa and carry on the work of teaching Karate. Sakugawa combined his kenpo-like arts with Okinawa-te; the results were Shurite Karate.

Sakugawa became a famous Samurai. He was awarded the title of Satunku or Satonushi; these titles were for the service to the Okinawan King. Sakugawa had many famous students; among them were:

· Chikatosinunjo Sokon Matsumura (also called Machimura)
· Satunuku Makabe (nicknamed Mabai Changwa)
· Satunuku Ukuda (Bushi Ukuda)
· Chikuntonoshinunjo Matsumoto (Bushi Matsumoto)
· Kojo of Kumemura (Kugushiku of Kuninda)
· Yamaguchi of the East (Bushi Sakumoto)
· Usume (aged man) of Andaya (Iimundun)
· Ginowan Douchi (Bo Specialist)

Sakugawa contributed greatly to Okinawan Karate. We honor him today by continuing many of the concepts he introduced. Sakugawa’s greatest contribution was in teaching the great Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura.

Satunuku Sakugawa and Shinunjo Yara, Tanme (Aged man) of Chatan Yara, learned from Kusanku who had come to the RyuKyu Islands from China in approximately 1762. Kusanku introduced his new Kenpo to those who new the traditional RyuKyu Karate and completed today’s karate. This is the origin of karate-do today. Sensei Sakugawa is known as the founder of Ryukyuan Karate of “Medieval Times.”

In 1762, Sensei Sakugawa was 29 years old, roughly 35 years before Sensei Sokon Matsumura was born. When Matsumoto, Makabe, and Ukuda became Bushi (Samurai), a famous Bushi, Sokon Matsumura, was a child of approximately 8 or 9 years of age.

Sokon Bushi MatsumuraSokon “Bushi” Matsumura

Teacher Sakugawa was 78 years old when Sokon Matsumura (then 14 years old) became his student. Matsumura studied Karate (Tuide) for approximately four years under Sakugawa. At the age of 20 years, Sokon Matsumura became so famous for his Karate skill that he was called Shuri Matsumura (Suimachimura).

At that time, there were only three methods of Karate; Shuri (Sui), Naha (Naafa), and Tomari (Tumai). These three methods refer to the areas of Okinawa where the method of Karate was practiced.

Bushi Matsumura (1797 – 1889) studied under Sakugawa for four years. He rapidly developed into a Samurai. As a result of his martial prowess, Bushi Matsumura was recruited into the service of the Sho family and was awarded the title of Satunuku, later rising to Chikutoshi and eventually becoming the Chief Karate Instructor to the Sho family. At some time during his career, Matsumura was sent to China by King Shoko (Okinawan King) to train in the famous Shaolin Temple (Shorinji in Japanese). Matsumura is alleged to have remained in China for many years (some say his stay was 10 years). Upon his return from China, Matsumura systematized Shurite Karate, which later became what is now called Shorin Ryu.

Shorin Ryu is the Okinawan-Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese writing characters called Shaolin in China. In both languages Shorin or Shaolin means “Pine Forest.” Ryu simply means “methods handed down” or methods of learning, such as those of a school.

The definition of Shorin Ryu Karate Do is
Shorin – pine forest
Ryu – style or methods handed down
Karate – empty handed
Do – way

Bushi Matsumura lived a long, colorful life. He fought many lethal contests and was never defeated. He was the last Okinawan Samurai to be called “Bushi.” He passed on many Kata which he originated or was involved in developing the Kata from an older source. Among his Kata are:

· Passai Kata
· Naihanchi Kata
· Seisan Kata
· Chinto Kata
· Gojushiho Kata
· Kusanku Kata from Sakugawa
· Hakutsura or White Crane Kata which Matsumura received from Tode Sakugawa.

Bushi Matsumura actually taught two types of Karate, one type of Shorin Ryu which he taught to his students; the other type of Shorin Ryu he taught to his family members. The family system contains the Kata Hakutsura as the highest Kata of the system.

Bushi Matsumura had many famous students, among them were:

· Nabe Matsumura (grandson of Bushi Matsumura)
· Yatsune Itosu (1830 – 1915)
· Chotoku Kyan (1870 – 1945)
· Yatsune Azata (died 1915)
· Kensu Yabu
· Chono Hanagushiku
· Choyu Motobu

Further developments in Shorin Ryu Karate following the death of Bushi Matsumura primarily concern three of his former students: Yasutun Itosu, Chotoku Kyan, and Nabe Matsumura.

Anko ItosuYasutun Itosu

Yasutun Itosu, also called Anko Itosu, was a legendary strong man of Okinawa. Like his teacher Bushi Matsumura, Itosu fought many contests but was never defeated. Itosu is responsible for bringing Okinawan Karate out of its secrecy when, in 1903, Karate was brought into the public school system. Itosu is alleged to have made some modifications to Shorin Ryu Karate to make it more acceptable to the physical education systems. Itosu changed the traditional order in which Kata is taught to students. Traditionally, Seisan was the first Kata taught. However, Itosu developed the Pinan Kata to teach his students. Since this time, the Pinan Kata has been the first Kata taught to beginning students.

Also like Bushi Matsumura, Master Itosu had many students, among these are:

· Chosin Chibana
· Gichin Funakoshi
· Gusukuma
· Mabune Kenwa
· Tokuda Ambum
· Chuki Motobu
· Ogushiku Choki

One of Itosu’s students, Chosin Chibana (1886 – 1969) founded the Koybayasgu system of Shorin Ryu Karate. Master Chibana was from an old Samurai family and he was a great teacher. Master Chibana was presented a medal in 1960 by the Emperor of Japan proclaiming Master Chibana to be a great Karate Master. The Kobayashi style of Shorin Ryu is a powerful style as are all Shorin Ryu systems; much emphasis is placed on powerful hard blocks and counters. It is interesting to note the term Kobayashi can be pronounced Shorin Ryu. However, the first character Ko or Sho is written with three marks. Other forms of Shorin Ryu are written with the character for Sho being written with four marks. The method of writing Sho with four marks is the Old Chinese method of writing Shaolin. Nevertheless, Kobayashi is an old Shorin Ryu method, very authentic and a very efficient method. Today the Kobayashi style of Shorin Ryu is headed by Shugoro Nakazato. Master Nakazato is a descendant of an old Okinawan Samurai family and has a large following in Okinawa.


Nabe_Matsumura_smNabe Matsumura

Another lesser known student of Bushi Matsumura who played an important role in developing modern Shorin Ryu Karate was Nabe Matsumura. Nabe Matsumura, known as Nape no Tanme was the grandson of Bushi Matsumura. Upon the death of the old “Bushi” in 1889, Nape no Tanme was destined to carry on the Matsumura family system of Shorin Ryu Karate.

Nabe Matsumura had only a few students and not much is known about him. He must have been born in the 1850’s and died in the 1930’s. He is known to have given some instruction to Gichin Funakoshi and also to Chosin Chibana; however, only Nabe Matsumura’s nephew Hohan Soken was given the complete secrets of the old Matsumura system of Shorin Ryu.

The grandson of Sokon Matsumura, Nabe Matsumura, was designated to carry on the teachings, as this was a Samurai family tradition. It is interesting to note that his nickname was “Old Man Nabe.” Nabe Matsumura only preferred to teach family members the complete system of Shurite or Suide (later known as Shorin Ryu).

Teacher Nabe Matsumura started training his nephew Hohan Soken in 1902. Teacher Hohan Soken became heir to his teacher’s menkyokaiden.



Chotoku_Kyan_smChotoku Kyan

Another of Bushi Matsumura’s students who was significant in the development of present day Shorin Ryu styles was Chotoku Kyan (1870 – 1945). Master Kyan was a member of an important Okinawan Samurai family that fell on hard times during the Meiji Restoration of the 1870’s. Master Kyan began his study of Karate at a fairly early age. He studied under the following Karate Masters:

· Bushi Matsumura – learned Kata Naihanchi, Gojushiho, Seisan
· Kosaku Matsumora – learned Kata Chinto
· Pechin Oyadomari – learned Kata Pai Sai
· Pechin Maeda – learned Kata Wansu
· Yara of Yomitan – learned Kata Kusanku
· Peichin Tokumine – learned Kata Tokumine no Kun

It is under Chotoku Kyan that some styles of Shorin Ryu have a Tomari-te influence. This came about for the following reason. Master Kyan studied Shurite under Bushi Matsumura, and Master Yara; he studied Tomari-te under Kosaku Matsumora, Peichen Maeda, and Peichin Oyadomari. Two of these, Oyadomari and Kosaku Matsumora had studied under Bushi Matsumura, however, both had also studied under Satunuku Makabe who had been a student under Sakugawa. Tomari-te is actually a version of the earlier Shurite with some differences. Any Shorin Ryu Karate system that traces it’s lineage back to Chotoku Kyan is probably a blend of Shurite Karate and Tomari-te Karate. Some styles such as Shobayashi under Eizo Shimabuku also have a Goju influence.

Chotoku Kyan taught many people, among them being:

· Arakaki Ankichi
· Zenryo Shimabuku – founder of Seibukan Karate
· Tatsuo Shimabuku – founder of Isshin Ryu Karate
· Shoshin Nagamine – founder of Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu
· Eizo Shimabuku – brother of Tatsuo and Headmaster of the Shobayashi style of Shorin Ryu

By now, the reader is probable wondering what the difference is between Shure-te and Tomari-te. Both styles resemble each other; however the major difference is found in several Kata. The Tomari-te version of Gojushiho contains several techniques where the performer staggers from side to side much like a drunk man; some Masters in Okinawa liken this technique to a drunken monkey. Also the Chinto Kata found in Tomari-te is different from the Chinto found in Shuri-te. Both versions of Chinto start out the same; but after the first few moves, the Kata is different. The Shuri-te version of Gojushiho does not contain the drunken monkey stagger and the Chinto Kata is performed in a straight line with numerous long leg stances in combination with low hand blocks with one hand, and a mid to high block with the other arm. Also, the Kata Rohai and Wansu were limited only to Tomari-te prior to the Meiji Restoration of 1879. After this time, these Kata became common in various Shuri-te styles.

Master Hohan SokenMaster Hohan Soken

Grand Master Fusei KiseMaster Fusei Kise

Shorin Ryu Lineage