Hawaii Karate Seinenkai

The following article appeared in the Hawaii Pacific Press, December 15, 1999. Copyright © Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

Karate: A Window To Okinawan Culture

By Charles C. Goodin

What aspect of Okinawan culture has spread to more countries and is practiced by more people than any other? The answer may surprise you: Karate.

In November, I gave a lecture about Karate history in Hawaii at the Ward Warehouse in connection with a fundraising effort for the Bento To Mixed Plate Exhibit, which will be sent to Okinawa next year. After the talk, one of the Okinawan attendees confided that he had not known that Karate was of Okinawan origin. Like many people, he thought it was Japanese.

In fact, Karate developed long before Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture (1879). What we know as Karate today is the result of a combination of the unarmed Okinawan self-defense art of Okinawa-Te (or Uchinadi) with the Chinese self-defense art of chuan-fa or kenpo. Many of the kata we practice in Okinawan Karate still bear the names of the Chinese teachers who brought them to Okinawa hundreds of years ago. The term Karate (or Tode) actually meant "China Hand" until the mid-1930's, when prevailing sentiments in mainland Japan led to a change in the kanji used. As a result, Karate became "Empty Hand."

In the Shorin-Ryu lineage (principally from Shuri), we learn that a Chinese chuan fa expert named Kusanku arrived in Okinawa in the 1700's and taught an Okinawan named Tode Sakugawa, who taught Sokon Matsumura, who taught Chotoku Kyan (among others), who taught Shoshin Nagamine (among others), who taught several Hawaii Karate instructors. My own dojo practices the style of Matsubayashi-Ryu which was founded by Nagamine Sensei in 1942 and named in honor of Matsumura Sensei (of Shuri) and Kosaku Matsumora (of Tomari). And the most advanced kata we study is called Kusanku!

This is just one example of a Karate lineage. Other styles can trace their lineage to one or more of the above teachers or to other Okinawan pioneers. In the Goju-Ryu system, for example, most schools trace their lineage to Chojun Miyagi or Seko Higa, who in turn were students of Kanryo Higashionna (of Naha), who learned chuan fa in China. Miyagi Sensei also took at least two trips to China in order to study chuan fa and research the origins of the art.

Anko Itosu, a student of Sokon Matsumura, was the person most responsible for the introduction of Karate to the Okinawan school system. He taught a large group of students, some of whom were instrumental in spreading Karate outside of Okinawa.

Karate in Japan -- 1920's.

Gichin Funakoshi, a highly respected school teacher in Okinawa, started teaching Karate in Tokyo in the early 1920's as did Choki Motobu (or Motobu No Saru). They were quickly followed by Kenwa Mabuni, Shinken Taira, Chojun Miyagi, Dr. Tsuyoshi Chitose (Chinen), Uechi Sensei, and other teachers from Okinawa. There should be no misunderstanding: these teachers were spreading the Okinawan art of Karate ("China Hand") -- they were not creating a new form of Karate.

Pressures were exerted in mainland Japan to make Karate more standardized and "Japanese." In particular, Karate was expected to fit into the mold of Judo and Kendo, which were already widely popular. These arts had a competitive or sport aspect not found in Okinawan Karate. The large university Karate clubs needed consistent rules for the judging of kumite (sparring) and kata (form) contests. Karate also adopted a lighter version of the white uniform used in Judo as well as the kyu/dan ranking system. In the dan system, there are ten degrees of black belt. In Okinawa, there were no belts at all. A competent student might be given a license of proficiency from his teacher, but even this was not always done. Okinawan and Chinese terminology was also largely abandoned, in favor of more acceptable Japanese names and terms.

Thus, many of the Okinawan teachers in Japan gradually, albeit reluctantly, adopted these "innovations." In time (mostly after the war), many of the changes were also adopted in Okinawa.

Why were changes made in Japan? First, Japan had recently fought wars with China and tensions continued during this time period. The name "China Hand" was therefore considered unacceptable, as were other Chinese names and terms. In addition, Okinawan culture was like the proverbial "protruding nail" to most Japanese. According to this saying, anything different should be hammered down (made to conform). From the time of Okinawa's incorporation as a prefecture, there was a systematic attempt to eliminate its "native" language, religion, arts and customs. Prejudice against Okinawans was common and widespread.

I spoke to Kiyoshi Aihara, who studied Karate in mainland Japan under Gichin Funakoshi. While he was aware of the prejudice many people had against Okinawans, he stated that he and the other students had the highest respect for Funakoshi Sensei and his Okinawan culture. Amid a swirling storm of prejudice, Karate provided an important window for cultural understanding.

Karate in Hawaii -- 1900.

Kentsu Yabu and students
Honolulu, 1927

Karate arrived in Hawaii in 1900 with the very first Okinawan contract workers. As early as 1910, Karate demonstrations were being given in connection with bon dances and sumo tournaments. By the 1920's, Karate was being taught openly. Another of Matsumura's (and Itosu's) students, Kentu Yabu (Yabe) visted Hawaii in March 1927, and stayed until December of that year. He taught classes in Honolulu, Waipahu and on Kauai. He was followed in 1932 by Choki Motobu, in 1933 by Zuiho Mutsu (a Japanese university professor) and Kamesuke Higashionna (an Okinawan educated at Toyo University), and in 1934 by Chojun Miyagi. Several Karate clubs were established on Oahu and the outer islands by the 1930's.

Hawaii was a far different environment than mainland Japan. Prior to World War Two, there was little or no pressure for the teachers to adopt Japanese "innovations." For the most part, the Okinawan community kept to itself and Karate was taught to Okinawans only. As a result, the Karate taught in Hawaii was the "old way." The term "China Hand" was used up to and even after the war, as were the old kata names and terminology.

One Karate or Many?

While the above is a very brief historical background of the spread of Karate in the early part of this century, it does show that Karate is from Okinawa, where it had developed for hundreds of years with a heavy Chinese influence. What then is Japanese Karate, Korean Karate or American Karate? For that matter, is there such thing as Hawaii Karate?

An art is heavily influenced by the culture in which it developed. Karate naturally reflects the Okinawan culture -- or more correctly, the old way of Karate reflects the Okinawan culture. A Karate student is taught about the life and deeds of his teachers and all those teachers who came before. Okinawan students learn about such pioneers as Matsumura, Matsumora, Itosu, Higashionna, Yabu, Hanashiro, and Kyan, and their place in Okinawan culture and history. It would be expected that students in Japan, Korea, America and other parts of the world also learn about these meijin (famous or accomplished people), but this is not always the case. In modern times, little emphasis has been placed on looking back to the roots.

On several occasions, I have met students of Karate styles derived from Funakoshi Sensei who were adamant that Karate developed in mainland Japan. They were surprised to learn that Funakoshi was an Okinawan and that he taught an Okinawan art. In fact, some would not believe me! I assured them that we were cousins in the art since our lineages converged with Itosu Sensei (one of Funakoshi's primary teachers, along with Anko Azato).

American Karate gets even more confusing. With the links to Japan and Okinawa faded by time, a new martial arts culture has developed which bears little or no resemblance to the "old way." Most Americans do not recognize a distinction between the Okinawan and Japanese cultures. Grasping for some culture, some Americans have mistakenly adopted the samurai mold for Karate.

I visited the website of one such Karate student who proclaimed that his students "were samurai" and "followed the code of Bushido." I asked this student where he obtained such information and proceeded to explain how Karate was more influenced by unarmed Okinawans having to learn to protect themselves against armed Satsuma (Japanese) samurai occupiers. Karate was a civilian art of self-defense rather than an institutionalized system of armed warfare. But again, many people incorrectly assume that the assimilation of Karate into the Japanese mainstream meant that Karate's history was somehow rewritten in the samurai mold.

Please don't misunderstand. I have great respect to the Japanese culture and also practiced Japanese martial arts from childhood. My mother is from Fukuoka and I lived in Misawa in Northern Honshu for several years. But it is simply wrong to think that Karate originated in mainland Japan or that it reflects the samurai or military tradition. Karate reflects the unique Okinawan culture.

What Can Karate Sensei and Students Do?

1. Learn About the Okinawan Culture. First and foremost, those of us who study the art have a responsibility to be good examples. This does not only mean developing superior technique. It is essential for us to learn the history and traditions of the art and this means learning about Okinawa itself.

When I started my research on the development of Karate in Hawaii, my sensei's wife loaned me a copy of Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii. Later, when I interviewed Mrs. Helen Miyashiro (the wife of Thomas Shigeru Miyashiro) she gave me her copy of Uchinanchu, along with all of her husband's religion books. Everywhere I've gone, senior members of the Okinawan community have taken the time to sit down with me and explain various aspects of the Okinawan culture and the place of Karate in it. I was fortunate to meet Dr. Mitsugu Sakihara (by accident) and just yesterday completed A History of Early Okinawa Based on The Omoro Shoshi. I also read George Kerr's Okinawa: The History of An Island People. When I could, I reviewed the commemorative journals for the various Okinawan clubs, which often contain short biographies of prominent members.

My point is that I found it impossible to write about Karate in Hawaii without first researching the history of Okinawans in Hawaii. In turn, I could not begin to understand Okinawans in Hawaii, unless I also researched the history of Okinawa. In particular, I have tried to learn what it was about Okinawan culture, history and geography that lead to the development of the peaceful art of Karate.

2. Teach Your Students About the Culture. It is not enough to learn yourself. You must also teach your students about the Okinawan culture and the development of Karate in Japan, Hawaii and around the world. Make time in your classes to include stories about the old masters, particularly those in your own lineage. When you know more about your own style, you will find that it is intimately interwoven with many others.

Teach courtesy and etiquette and make sure that your students observe them at all times. Encourage your students to read about the early days of the art. Breaking bricks and boards is fine. Breaking down the barriers of misunderstanding and ignorance is far better.

3. Spread the Art. Karate is a "living" tradition. It lives in its practitioners and in their daily lives. It is essential for seniors to pass on what they know to the next generation of students, who will in turn carry it on. We often say that Karate can give you a good life but it is not a good livelihood. In Hawaii, very few teachers make a living teaching Karate. Most of us have full time jobs and teach because we love the art. My of the "old time" teachers never charged a penny during their entire lives.

Sensei Mitsugi Kobayashi told me a story about his training with Seko Higa (a student of Kanryo Higashionna) in Okinawa during the 1950's. One day, Kobayashi gave his sensei $20 which was a large sum at that time. Outside, an old woman was picking up broken pieces of glass that she would sell or use in some manner. Higa Sensei walked outside and gave the $20 to the woman. To her, it must have seemed like a king's fortune. Later, Kobayashi found out that his teacher did not have any money to catch the bus. Having nothing himself, he had given everything to the woman. This was the old way.

From time to time, it is good to give demonstrations to the public. I first learned about Okinawan Karate when a classmate in my high school demonstrated an Okinawan dance for a culture day. In one of her dances, she used the sai (a three pronged metal weapon). I was amazed. I later found out that her father was a Karate sensei who had learned in Hilo from an Okinawan Issei. A few years later, when I had the opportunity to join an Okinawan Karate class in Kalihi Valley, I jumped at it. I often recall that I owe my introduction to the art to my high school classmate.

When my students and I are asked to give demonstrations or lectures, I remind them that this is the way be pay back for what we have gained from the art. Perhaps someone who watches will one day join a dojo and help to continue the art and tradition.

What Can The Okinawan Community Do?

Please recognize that Karate is an Okinawan art with Okinawan roots. It has a place along side of Okinawan music, dance, poetry, crafts, food, and other aspects of Okinawan culture. As with all arts, there are those who respect tradition and those who don't. When you see a ridiculous person on television jumping around in a multi-colored gi, please don't close your eyes to the many unseen teachers quietly perpetuating the art out of camera view.

Over the years, I have read several commemorative booklets celebrating Okinawan accomplishments and milestones in Hawaii. Karate is mentioned only rarely. Tomu Arakawa, who taught Miyagi Sensei's style of Karate (Goju-Ryu) at the Jikoen Temple, was one of the sensei most responsible for helping to maintain Karate's rightful place in the Okinawan culture. A 1970 photograph of Arakawa Sensei demonstrating kobudo (weapon's art) with Henry Fujita appears in Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii. Arakawa Sensei is also profiled in Hui O Laulima's Of Andagi and Sanshin: Okinawan Culture in Hawaii. Mrs. June Arakawa has helped me greatly with my Karate research.

When the time comes for commemorative journals, please make a small space for Karate. I will be happy to contribute written and photographic background materials. I'm sure that other Karate instructors will be happy to do the same.

For parents, please find traditional Karate classes in your area and send your children to them. This is the only way to preserve the art for future generations. And if you have the time, join the class too! It is great when parents and children train together.


In the islands of what we now know as Okinawa Prefecture, the art of Karate was developed over many generations. Taught in secret from father to son, from master to disciple, it became accessible to the public only this century. Now it is practiced worldwide.

A person can put on a tinsel grass skirt and shake their hips -- that does not make it hula. Similarly, a person can put on a gi (uniform) and execute a series of punches and kicks -- that does not make it Karate. Like hula, Karate reflects the rich culture and traditions of the land of its origin.

At the beginning and end of each Karate class, we bow in respect to the sensei who came before us. In each class, we feel the eyes of these elders watching us, and in our lives we try our best to live up to the standards they set. Through the window of Karate, we have an opportunity to learn about the rich culture of Okinawa and to spread a message of understanding and peace.

Do you have a story or photographs of Hawaii's early Karate students or sensei? If so, please contact the author.

Contact Charles C. Goodin

Copyright Charles C. Goodin. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai