Okinawan Civil Fighting Arts.
With the growth of man’s intellect the sophistication of his weapons increased. Furthermore the use of these weapons in mortal combat generated the development of systematic fighting arts. However, since all weapons are not created for the same purpose, different fighting arts evolved to meet different forms of combat.
Over time, as civilization developed and warfare grew deadlier, the fighting arts expanded into three broad but basic categories: combative sports practiced for the arena, martial arts found exclusively on the battlefield and civil fighting arts used for personal defense. Although both the martial arts and civil fighting arts are employed in mortal combat, the manner in which mortal combat is fought depends upon the social/political reasons influencing the engagement. Battlefield martial arts are used to further states’ policies and within their arsenals can be found a multitude of weapons ranging from those used by the individual soldier to crew-served weaponry such as cannon. Similarly, body armor is also worn by soldiers on the battlefield where combat is normally fought on broken terrain.
Contrary to battlefield systems, civil fighting arts, such as karate, usually have no political agendas. Their role is to provide the citizen with a means of self-defense against muggers, thugs and criminals. The civil fighting arts arsenal normally relies upon empty-handed foot and hand techniques, in addition to everyday implements such as walking sticks, agricultural tools and household items for weapons. Civil systems are intended for man- to- man combat on the city street or the shop floors level surface.
Although both systems of fighting are constantly evolving to meet existing threats, battlefield martial arts are usually the most technologically advanced due to warfare’s harsh demands. Seldom does a battlefield martial art devolve into a lesser form of fighting. Yet, this was the case on Okinawa where Te became a civil fighting art.
The following chart illustrates the differences and similarities of between Okinawan civil fighting arts and battlefield martial arts.
Battlefield Martial Arts Civil Fighting Art (Karate)
Body Armor: Worn Not Worn
Role of Weapons: Primary Secondary*
Type of Weapons: Sword to Cannon Agricultural Tools
Styles Purpose and Mortal Combat Self Defense- Mortal
Nature: Combat and Sport
Use of Grappling: Yes Yes
Use of Meditation: Yes Yes
Techniques Role: Secondary Primary
Used By: Warrior class Civilian/Commoner
Battleground: Broken Terrain Indoors/City Street
Type of Combat: Formation Based Singular
Combat’s Purpose: Political Personal protection
*This analogy applies only to Okinawan combatives.
A New Face for an Old Tradition
Initially, the Okinawan gentry had the right to overthrow a ruling king, but as Japanese influences grew stronger upon Ryukyuan culture this custom changed until the king held absolute power. This shift in governmental rule both enhanced the monarchy’s power and impacted the development of Te.
It was during the period known as the “Great Days of Chuzan” when King Sho Shin (1477-1526) issued two mandates that altered Te’s practice and laid the foundation upon which modern karate rest. The first one, which was intended to reduce the risk of armed rebellion, curtailed the wearing of swords and required that excess weapons, those not used by Sho Shin’s forces, be stored in a Shuri warehouse and issued only in time of national emergencies. Although not eliminating weapons entirely from Okinawan society, this imperial order helped shift attentions towards empty-handed strategies. And in time it changed Te’s orientation from that of a battlefield martial art to a civil fighting art used for personal protection. Thus, where as the fighting arts practice was previously weapons based, empty-handed strategies now assumed dominance while weapons training took on a supporting role.
Even though civil fighting arts mirror those used on the battlefield in that they make use of weapons, empty-handed strikes, blocks, grappling and footwork, the manner in which these strategies are used differs because of contrasting circumstances. For instance, empty-hand techniques used on the battlefield are not intended for punching through the enemy’s armor, but are designed to keep an adversary stationary long enough to be killed with either a sword or knife. However, the opposite proves true in civil fighting arts, for when no armor is worn then the entire limb is used to strike with, and this gives birth to formal techniques like the chop, spear-hand, and heel stomp kick.
Blocking is another strategy that changed because combat fought with a sword requires deflecting actions and evasive footwork to avoid oncoming cuts. No portion of the warrior’s body should be touched by the sword’s blade since a grievous wound, or death, will occur. In contrast, civil fighting arts can use the whole arm for blocking since combat is often fought between unarmed individuals. This allows the fighter to ‘mold with’ an oncoming attack and precipitates the need for training exercises like Kakie, the Okinawan version of sensing hands.
Range is also crucial in civil fighting, for as combat shifts to arms’ distance, the need for slipping and circular body movements, in addition to solid stances that can generate power and facilitate limb- to- limb blocks, arises. This is the result of the unlimited number of foot-fist combinations encountered in close range fighting. As such, the body’s movements are designed to enhance the fighter’s empty-hand strategies by providing mobility and power, two qualities that are essential for all styles of fighting.
Terrain was another consideration as Te metamorphosed into a civil fighting art. On the battlefield a warrior’s footing is precarious due to loose rock, hillsides, ditches, streams and mud. Therefore, natural fighting stances like the hunter’s crouch are used to prevent the warrior from falling during combat. Contrasting this are the shop’s floor and level city street allowing the civil fighter a multitude of movements that would be almost impossible to perform on the battlefield. Hence, the civil fighter is able to execute one-leg stances, balance on the balls of his feet, distribute body weight unevenly and even mimic animals, all of which imbue a civil fighting art with characteristics different to those of the battlefield arts.
Sho Shin’s second mandate, which consolidate his powerbase by having the Anji to relocate into Shuri, helped establish Te in the Shuri, Tomari, Naha areas. And as interest for the Okinawan fighting arts grew, particularly during the 19th and 20th centuries, these towns became the point of origin to which many styles of karate trace their linage today.
Enter the Satsuma
Sixteenth century Okinawa has often been compared to Venice, one of the European Renaissance’s wealthiest cities. Like Venice, Okinawa was a mercantile power whose businessmen played host to nations that sought trade but were not on diplomatic terms. By the seventeenth century, Okinawa, because of European encroachment and Japanese pirates, had restricted its trade to China and Japan since they were in closer sailing distance to its ports. This decision, while making for safer sailing, also placed Okinawa in the position of having to pay tribute to both China and Japan, two nations frequently at odds with one another.
The martial traditions of seventeenth century Japan had evolved into sophisticated disciplines that addressed all aspects of battlefield combat. Yet, despite their ethnocentric views, the Japanese, like other men of arms, also embraced a pragmatic realism towards combat. Advancements in arms and armor were always sought, one of which came in 1543 from Portuguese traders who sold firearms to the Shimazu family, long-time rulers of Satsuma province. Soon afterwards Japanese gunsmiths began manufacturing the weapons, and by 1590 hand held firearms were commonplace on Japan’s battlefields.
Despite having bought arms from the Portuguese, the Japanese were suspicious of European encroachments since trade was not an option with them, but an ultimatum that often led to invasion. George Kerr observed about European policies that “The white men were willing to trade, but only on their own terms; they gave no quarter to anyone bold enough or foolish enough to refuse their demands. The more prosperous the port, the greater the danger it would be seized and sacked or declared a possession newly ‘discovered for a Christian King” (Kerr, Okinawa The History of an Island People, 124).
Geographically, Okinawa is a stepping stone to Japan proper; therefore, its occupation by a European power would make Japan’s southern most provinces vulnerable. Moreover Japan’s ‘strategic’ concern was compounded by Okinawa’s relationship with China. In 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi petitioned supplies and troops from Okinawa to support his invasion of Korea. However, the Okinawans denied his request for fear of insulting China, a country that Hideyoshi ultimately planned to conquer. This was not the last time the island nation would shun Japanese dominance because Tokugawa Ieyasu, who became Shogun after his victory at Sekigahara in 1600, received a similar response from the Okinawan court in 1606.
A warlike clan by nature, the Satsuma had opposed Tokugawa Ieyasu at the battle of Sekigahara. As fate would have it, they survived the battle’s outcome then established an uneasy peace with the new Shogun from their stronghold in Southern Kyushu. It was there, far away from Tokugawa’s Edo based government that the Satsuma contended with the Shogun’s rule. However, since they needed official sanction to trade outside of Japan, a situation arose whereby the government allowed the Satsuma to conduct business, thus preventing their rebellion and averting another large scale war.
Seeking the Shogun’s appeasement in 1606, Satsuma Lord Shimazu Yoshihisa demanded Okinawa to pay homage to Tokugawa, since he was now ruler of Japan. The petition was ignored by the Okinawan court, and the Satsuma, who saw an opportunity to gain favor with Tokugawa, offered to punish the Okinawans for not submitting to the Shogun’s rule. Ieyasu Tokugawa granted the Satsuma’s request, realizing that it would keep the clan occupied with affairs outside of Japan, as well as safeguard Okinawa against European invasion. But there were ulterior motives involved, one being money. The Satsuma’s finances were depleted by years of warfare, and since they could not expand their territory northward, there was only one direction in which to move, south towards Okinawa. In 1609, 3000 Satsuma warriors landed on the Motobu Peninsula, brushing aside what resistance awaited them, they advanced on Shuri.
Firearms and the Fate of Okinawa’s Fighting Arts
Although many people consider the 17th century an age when sword to sword combat flourished, in reality, firearms dominated most of the world’s battlefields at this time. And despite the fact that the Samurai may have initially considered their use in violation of the code of man-to-man combat, the Arquebus soon gained mass appeal. This was especially so with the development of tactics allowing drilled units to maintain a consistent rate of fire, thereby increasing the weapon’s effectiveness. With these developments, the distance at which combat was fought increased, and the frequency at which close quarters combat occurred decreased. There was, however, another advantage the Arquebus offered and that was training. Whereas it normally took three to five years preparation for a warrior to be skilled enough to fight on the battlefield with sword and spear, bow and arrow, any common foot soldier could be taught to load and fire an Arquebus within a few weeks, if not days.
In Japan, where by the beginning of the16th century armies relied heavily on the use of ashigaru (peasant foot soldiers), the Arquebus allowed a damiyo (feudal lord) to equip and train his forces in a relatively short amount of time, and by the late 16th century, ashigaru units equipped with Arquebus often dominated an army’s ranks. About the Japanese’s attitudes towards firearms, Stephen Turnbull wrote that “One additional reason for the popularity of the arquebus lies with the changing social composition of armies. We have noted a decline in the use and potential of the Japanese bow from before the Mongol invasions and that with the increase in the size and scope of armies the lower classes were beginning to play a greater part. Now whereas it took years of practice and the development of strong muscles to shoot well with the bow, a person could be taught within a few days to shoot an Arquebus with all the accuracy of which the weapon was capable” (Turnbull, The Samurai A Military History, 140).
When the Satsuma landed on the Motobu peninsula, the resistance offered by the Okinawans was quickly swept aside because one third, if not more, of the invading force was equipped with firearms. Morio Higaonna describes the Satsuma’s assault in his book The History Karate: “On April 1, the Satsuma army separated into two forces. One, led by Kabayama, proceeded to the port of Yomitan from which they then attacked and burned Urasoe Castle and Ryufukuji Temple. They advanced as far as Shuri Castle, the residence of the king. Kabayama’s army was met at the bridge of Shuri Castle by defiant islanders armed with nothing more than sticks and bamboo spears. The Satsuma force of between 1,000 and 1,500 men, armed with guns, advanced onto the bridge. Bullets from their guns fell like rain and the islanders were forced to retreat into the castle” (Higaonna, The History of Karate, 3).
The Satsuma’s possession of firearms allowed them to unleash a devastating barrage on the Okinawans, which produced horrendous effects, both physically and psychologically. It was after the volleys of gunfire subsided that survivors were killed by spear and sword. And, as in Europe where the sword and spear were becoming obsolete, on Okinawa traditionally armed warriors were defeated by soldiers with guns. Hence, the Okinawan martial traditions became suitable only for personal defense due to changing social climates and new trends in warfare.
After their successful invasion the Satsuma organized an elaborate network of informers and spies, known as metsuke, to provide them with detailed information on the island’s inhabitants. This resulted in the practice of Te being conducted in seclusion and often among family members. Shoshin Nagamine, writing about this period in Okinawa’s history, noted that “The development of the art of te accelerated with the subjugation of the Ryukyus in 1609 by the Satsuma clan of Japan. The Satsuma banned the use of all weapons and the practice of martial arts by all Ryukyuans. Despite the enforcement of this ban for over three hundred years, the art of te was not lost. The forbidden art was passed down from father to son among the samurai class in Okinawa. Training went on in secret; devotees practiced in hidden and remote places, meeting between midnight and dawn for fear of informers. Having to study secretly and at great risk did not discourage those of martial and enterprising spirit; rather it inspired them to greater efforts” (Nagamine, The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do, 21). Given these circumstances, te’s practice became a very personalized endeavor whose qualitative dimensions were left up to individual interpretation. It was a fighting art based not on group conformity, but on the individual’s development. A tradition which remained firmly ensconced until the twentieth century.
Copyright 2012 by Michael Rosenbaum