It has long been said that the uncultivated Okinawa peasant living at subsistence level tyrannized by their Japanese overlords, under the cover of darkness, developed the combat principles of karate, and applying these to the everyday implements at hand turned them into the traditional weapons of Okinawan kobudo, all whilst keeping this secret from the authorities for centuries. This supposition “can no longer support the weight of serious consideration” (McCarthy, Patrick, Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts, p.92).
Okinawa has never been a very militaristic society. In the late 15th century (1400s), King Sho Shin outlawed the private ownership of weapons. All swords were brought to Shuri and stored in a warehouse under the supervision of one of the king’s officers. This decree predates the Japanese sword edicts in Japan by almost a century (1586-1587) and Japanese control of Okinawa by a full century (1609). This, in part, led to the quick victory of the Satsuma over Okinawa in 1609 as the Okinawan army was ill-trained and the weapons were all located in Shuri.
During these years Okinawa extended its maritime trade throughout southeast Asia. This trade brought Okinawa into contact with many of the cultures and societies of the region, including their martial arts, such as Indonesia, Malay, and Thailand. The sailors brawled with other sailors and the diplomats studied the cultures around them and brought these ideas and techniques back to Okinawa with them.
In addition, in 1439 the Okinawans established a permanent trading depot in Ch’uand-chou in Fukien province in China. This allowed many Okinawans to travel to China to study their culture and martial arts to bring back to Okinawa. In addition, over the centuries the Chinese sent many traders and diplomats to visit Okinawa to share their knowledge and skills in all areas, including the martial arts. One such ambassador was Kusanku, who arrived in Okinawa as an ambassador around 1756. After his death approximately six years later, his student Sakugawa created the kata that bears his name.
Following the Satsuma conquest, the government sword smithy and the wearing of swords for even ceremonial purposes was abolished in 1669. In 1699 the government, under pressure from the Shogun, forbade the import of weapons of any kind.
Through these broad trading contacts with China and the other cultures of southeast Asia, the Okinawans were exposed to many of the martial arts flourishing throughout the region. The principles of ch’uan fa learned from the Chinese, mixed with principles from these other styles, were brought into the ancient Okinawan art known as tode creating a style that, beginning in the 17th century was known simply as te (hand). There were three primary centers to the development of te: Shuri (the location of the king’s court), Naha (the port where ideas mixed with sailors of other countries), and Tomari (the community of scholars and the 36 families).
During these years, the study of te was largely underground. Knowledge and skills were taught by masters to only a few students, with much remaining hidden to protect it. Because of this secrecy, little is known of the development of te during this time.
During the late 19th century, the study of te became more open and it gradually became known as karate (empty hand). In 1904 this process took a large step forward as karate came into the open and entered the Okinawan public schools as a regular part of the physical education curriculum.
As the study of karate opened up, the art went through a transition from an art concerned with life and death (self-defense) to competition. Some masters made the transition completely, removing kill and maim strikes to emphasize speed and accuracy solely for competition. Others rejected the competitive aspects to maintain a more traditional approach. Still others fell somewhere in between.
It was during this time that the masters begin to name their particular teachings and the various styles (ryu) of karate appeared.
Around 1920s (the date varies from source to source) Gichin Funakoshi, an Okinawan master, was invited by the Japanese Ministry of Education to give a demonstration in Kyoto (modern Tokyo). Following his demonstration, he stayed in Japan and began to teach karate to the Japanese. His teachings developed into the style known as Shotokan.