Karate-do, in all its various forms, finds its origins in one place - the Ryukyu islands off the coast of Japan. What we know as one of the most widely practiced systems of self defense and discipline in the world is the result of centuries of development. While Karate-do was introduced as a code of ethics to a peacetime America only a few decades ago, it began through the need of Ryukyu natives for better methods of fighting.
There are a few theories about the origins of the fighting arts that later became collectively known as Karate-do. However, it is certain that many notable Chinese kung fu practitioners settled in Okinawa, the capital of the Ryukyu kingdom.
The origins of the Chinese arts themselves are also shrouded in the mists of time. A widely accepted theory is that Bodhidharma, the founder of Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism created what would later evolve into Shaolin kung-fu. The original exercises were used to strengthen his monks' bodies, minds, and spirits, to help them better fulfill their duties. This level of personal cultivation carried across to many Chinese martial arts. By way of transmission to other countries, this carried across to other martial arts, Karate-do being one of them.
In the year 1429, a weapons ban was passed by King Shohashi. This led to the rapid development of native unarmed fighting arts. These arts were primarily influenced by various forms of Chinese kung fu, which Okinawans began learning in the 14th century.
Okinawans learned forms of Shaolin kung fu from Shaolin masters who fled China as a result of the oppressive Qing dynasty. Okinawans also learned various forms of kung fu from Chinese merchants, Chinese officials on diplomatic missions, and young members of wealthy Okinawan families who went to China to learn 'Quan Fa' / kung fu to further their education and martial arts studies. The general name given to the fighting arts learned and further refined by the Okinawan martial artists was tode-jutsu (alternately spelled tou-di), the Okinawan name given to Chinese martial arts.
In February 1609, invasion of Okinawa by the Satsuma clan (of Kyushu, Japan) triggered another period of rapid development of native Okinawan fighting arts. Satsuma control lasted until 1879, when the King of Ryukyu finally abdicated and the country became part of Japan.
During this period, kobudo (often translated 'classical fighting method'; commonly used to represent Okinawan weapon fighting) evolved. Farm implements were used as weapons, as traditional weapons were not allowed. However, some of the native Ryukyu warrior class traveled up to the Satsuma clan in the later part of the 19th century and learned their samurai fighting art Jigen-ryu kenjutsu. It was not long after this that Sokon Matsumura, 'Toudi' Sakugawa, and Tsuken Koura, among the many who had made the trip, introduced their contributions to kobudo.
Ultimately, three major strains were developed from Ryukyu kenpo karate-jutsu (as tode-jutsu eventually came to be called). These strains were named Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te, for the regions in which they were developed. All three regions are based in the southern part of Okinawa. The differences of the three styles may be traced back to the socio-economic status of those who practiced them. The lowest rung on the ladder was the worker class studying Tomari-Te. The middle section was the merchant class studying Naha-Te. The upper class noblemen were taking up practice of Shuri-te in and around the capital.
Matsumura is commonly considered the great grandfather of the karate movement in and around Shuri. He learned native Okinawan fighting from Sakugawa (who in turn learned from Kusankun and other masters). He later studied in Fujian and Satsuma. He learned Shaolin Boxing (Shorin-ryu) under the tutelage of master Iwah. As a result of the efforts of Matsumura, the fighting arts that surfaced around the noble / castle district of Shuri came to be known as Shuri-te (Shuri hand).
The Chinese master Ason taught Zhao Ling Liu (Shorei-ryu) to Sakiyama, Gushi, Nagahama, and Tomoyori of Naha. This led to the development of Naha-te. Naha, a coastal city, was a large trade center at the time. Xie Zhongxiang (nicknamed Ryuru Ko) of Fuzhou founded Whooping Crane kung fu (hakutsuru) and taught it to a number of notable karate masters in the Fuzhou province. Wai Xinxian, it is said, was a Qing dynasty officer, and taught Xingyi kung fu as well as Monk Fist Boxing. It is also said he assisted Master Iwah's instruction in Fuzhou province.
This article is a part of the author's concise guide to karate. Be sure to visit Johnston Karate Home Page to view the guide as well as many other free resources.