Okinawa – The Cradle of Karate-Styles

The roots of today’s known karate (空手) can be traced back to the island of Okinawa. Okinawa is located southwest of mainland Japan, in the east china sea, about 466 miles offshore the Chinese mainland. Around 600 years ago there have already been practise of techniques for self-defense in Okinawa, also known as Te (手). At that time the Ryukyu Kingdom still existed and Okinawa hasn’t been a prefecture of Japan yet.

Due to trading relations with China, that has been formed since the 14th century, the local technique „te“ has been deeply influenced by the techniques of the Chinese Kung-Fu (功夫). The results of that deep influence led to the development of a new techniques summarized under the name Tode (唐手). To emphasize the root of the Okinawan self-defence-techniques, in the end Tode was renamed into Okinawa-Te (沖縄手).

Location of Okinawa

Development of the Karate-Styles

Long before the „fighting techniques for self-defense“, which were still local at the time, transformed into independent styles, it was common for the Okinawan masters to impart their knowledge only to a small circle of students. There was no public training in large groups, accessible to everyone. The students were taught in secret, therefore it was the greatest privilege at that time to learn the Okinawan martial arts.

It was not until the beginning of the 19th century, that independent styles gradually developed from the Okinawan „fighting techniques for self-defense“. The two main styles, that were formed are known today under the names Shorin Ryu (少林流) and Shorei Ryu (昭霊流).

The history of the emergence of the styles Shorin-Ryu and Shorei Ryu can be traced back to three cities in the southern part of Okinawa. Shorin-Ryu stands for the fighting-techniques from the cities of Shuri and Tomari, Shorei Ryu for the fighting techniques from the city of Naha. Before the emergence of the styles, the fighting techniques associated with the city were also often referred to as Shuri-Te (首里手), Tomari-Te (泊手), and Naha-Te (那覇手).

Cities of the emergence of the styles Shorin-Ryu and Shorei-Ryu:
Shuri, Tomari, Naha

The name Shorin-Ryu was chosen for the first time by Choshin Chibana in 1933, although the root of the style above-mentioned Shuri-Te, is being much older. Choshin Chibana himself was one of the top students of Anko Itosu, Master of Shuri-Te . Anko Itosu on the other hand was one of the top students of Sokon Matsumura, who is credited with being the founder of Shorin-Ryu.

Sokon Matsumura (宗棍松村, 1797-1889)
Anko Itosu (糸洲安恒 , 1831-1915)
Choshin Chibana (知花朝信, 1885-1996)

The word Shorin (少林) is the Okinawan reading of „Shaolin“, Ryu (少林流) means school or style. The reading of „Shorin“ reveals the chinese influence as already mentioned. The meaning itself is “sparse forest” and one possible translation of Shorin-Ryu is “the school of the sparse forest”.

Shorin-Ryu and Shorei-Ryu laid the foundation for all further karate-styles, as well as the world-wide known Japanese karate-style Shotokan (松濤館). This foundation made Okinawa the cradle of karate-styles.

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