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Okinawan Martial Arts


Okinawan martial arts refers to the martial arts which originated among the indigenous people of Okinawa Island, most notably karate, tegumi, and Okinawan kobudo


Satellite photo of Okinawa island.

Satellite photo of Okinawa island.

The location of Okinawa is of primary significance in the development of martial arts there. Okinawa is not, nor ever has been the name of a nation, but rather is the name of the largest island of the Ryukyu islands chain, which is a chain of islands in the western Pacific Ocean at the eastern limit of the East China Sea, stretching southwest from Kyūshū to Taiwan. This puts the island in relatively close proximity to Japan, Korea, and most importantly to the early development of martial arts on Okinawa, China.

Early martial arts

The precursor of present-day Okinawan martial arts is believed to have come by way of visitors from China. In the 7th century, Chinese martial arts were introduced to Okinawa through Taoist and Buddhist monks. These styles were practiced in Okinawa and developed into Te (, Okinawan: Tī?, Hand) over several centuries.[1]

In the 14th century, when the three kingdoms on Okinawa (Chūzan, Hokuzan, and Nanzan) entered into a tributary relationship with the Ming Dynasty of China, Chinese Imperial envoys and many other Chinese arrived, some of who taught Chinese Chuan Fa (Kempo) to the Okinawans. The Okinawans combined Chinese Chuan Fa with the existing martial art of Te to form Tō-te (唐手, Okinawan: Tō-dī?, Tang hand or China hand), sometimes called Okinawa-te (沖縄手, Okinawa-te?).

In 1429, the three kingdoms on Okinawa unified to form the Kingdom of Ryūkyū. When King Shō Shin came into power in 1477, he banned the practice of martial arts. To-te and kobudo continued to be taught in secret. The ban was continued in 1609 after Okinawa was invaded by the Satsuma Domain of Japan. The bans contributed to the development of kobudo, which uses common household and farming implements as weaponry.

By the 18th century, different types of Te had developed in three different villages – Naha, Shuri, and Tomari. The styles were named Naha-te, Shuri-te, and Tomari-te, respectively. Practitioners from these three villages went on to develop modern karate.


Naha-te (那覇手, Okinawan: Nāfa-dī?) is a pre-World War II term for a type of martial art indigenous to the area around Naha, the old commercial city of the Ryūkyū Kingdom and now the capital city of the island of Okinawa.

Well into the 20th century, the martial arts of Okinawa were generally referred to as te, which is Japanese for "hand". Te often varied from one town to another, so to distinguish among the various types of te, the word was often prefaced with its area of origin; for example, Naha-te, Shuri-te, or Tomari-te.

Naha-te was primarily based on the Fujian White Crane systems of Southern China, which trickled into Okinawa in the early 19th century through Kumemura (Kuninda), the Chinese suburb of Naha, and continued developing and evolving until being finally formalized by Higaonna Kanryō in the 1880’s.

In the first few decades of the 20th century, a number of formal organizations were founded to oversee Okinawan martial arts, and due to their influence, the word karate came to be widely accepted as a generic term for all sorts of Okinawan unarmed martial arts. With the popularity of the term karate, the practice of naming a type of martial art after its area of origin declined. The term Naha-te is no longer in general use.

Important Okinawan masters of Naha-te:

  • Kogusuku Isei
  • Maezato Ranhō
  • Arakaki Seishō
  • Higaonna Kanryō
  • Miyagi Chōjun
  • Kyoda Jūhatsu
  • Mabuni Kenwa

Important katas:

  • Sanchin
  • Saifā
  • Seienchin
  • Shisōchin
  • Seipai
  • Seisan

The successor styles to Naha-te are Gōjū-ryū, Tōon-ryū (developed by the students of Higaonna Kanryō), Kogusuku-ryū and Ryūei-ryū elsewhere.


Shuri-te (首里手, Okinawan: Sui-dī?) is a pre-World War II term for a type of martial art indigenous to the area around Shuri, the old capital city of the Ryūkyū Kingdom.

Important Okinawan masters of Shuri-te:

  • Sakukawa Kanga
  • Matsumura Sōkon
  • Itosu Ankō
  • Asato Ankō
  • Motobu Chōyū
  • Motobu Chōki
  • Yabu Kentsū
  • Hanashiro Chōmo
  • Funakoshi Gichin
  • Kyan Chōtoku
  • Chibana Chōshin
  • Mabuni Kenwa
  • Tōyama Kanken

Important katas:

  • Naihanchi
  • Pinan
  • Kūsankū
  • Passai
  • Jion
  • Jitte
  • Sōchin
  • Chintō

The successor styles to Shuri-te are Shōtōkan-ryū, Wadō-ryū, Shitō-ryū, Motobu-ryū, Shōrin-ryū and Shōrinji-ryū.


Anko Itosu, often called the 'Grandfather of modern karate.'

Anko Itosu, often called the "Grandfather of modern karate."

Tomari-te (泊手, Okinawan: Tomari-dī?) refers to a tradition of martial arts originating from the village of Tomari, Okinawa. Based on an underground empty-handed fighting style native to Okinawa, Tomari-te arose largely through the influence of Chinese diplomats and other personages skilled in Quan fa, such as Wang Ji, Anan, and Ason, in the late 17th century. Along with Naha-te and Shuri-te, Tomari-te belongs to a family of martial arts that were collectively defined as Tode-jutsu or To-de.

Important Okinawan masters of Tomari-te:

  • Matsumora Kōsaku
  • Oyadomari Kōkan
  • Yamazato Gikei
  • Motobu Chōki
  • Kyan Chōtoku

Important katas:

  • Ānankū
  • Wankan
  • Wanshū
  • Tomari Passai
  • Naihanchi (Koshiki)

The successor styles to Tomari-te are Motobu-ryū, Shōrin-ryū, Shōrinji-ryū, Gōhakukai and Matsumora-ryū Kōtokukai.


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