Searching for the roots of Ryukyu Karate

Since 2012, Urasoe City is sponsoring a project to explore the roots of Ryukyu Karate. The investigative commission is led by karate researcher Miyagi Tokumasa sensei, a Shorin-ryu 9th dan student of late Higa Yuchoku sensei. Originally from Maeda in Urasoe, Miyagi sensei is the former president of the Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts and the author of the acclaimed book “Karate no Rekishi”. He is also the a senior advisor for the Okinawa Dento Karatedo Shinkokai.

According to history annals, King Satto, who resided in Urasoe Gusuku was involved with the beginning of the tributary and trade relation with China. Since the first Chinese envoys visited his Chuzan Kingdom in 1372, the commission believes that there must have been a martial art transmission and exchanges and intends to look into this lead.

After a 1st trip in the sister city Quanzhou in Fujian China in 2012, the commission visited China once again in October 2013 for more research and exchanges. A 10-people investigative team strong of 9 karate and kobudo masters met with Chinese masters of the Five Ancestors Fist, White Crane Fist and staff martial arts and exchanged opinions and techniques. At the Quanzhou Maritime Museum, they also researched about a martial art transmission to Ryukyu during the Ming/Qing dynasties.

1st trip in 2012

1st trip to Fujian in 2012 and meeting with Chinese martial experts.


2nd trip of committee to Fujian in 2013.  Exchanging with Fujian Yong Chun (Eishun) White Crane Kung Fu experts


On Sunday 16, 2014, the Urasoe City sponsored commission held its last meeting for this fiscal year. The session being public, some 50 people came to listen to reports from the 5 standing committee members, all karate experts excepts for Mr. Dana.


Modern times Ryukyu karate, by Okinawa International University Professor Dana Masayuki

Professor Dana first started mentioning about “Oshima Hikki”, the oldest written records about karate dating back to 1762. During this year, Ryukyuan boats bound for Kagoshima drifted ashore at Oshima, a small island off the southern tip of Tosa, today’s Kochi Prefecture in Shikoku. A young Confucian scholar by the name of Tobe Yoshihiro interviewed Ryukyuan Shiohira Peichin and wrote a 76 pages record. In the 3rd part, there are mentions about “Kumiai-jutsu”, “Bubishi” and a certain kempo expert named “Koshankin from Mainland China” who visited Ryukyu and is believed to be Kusanku. But Mr. Dana believes that much research still needs to be done as everything mattering to Sapposhi and Sino-Ryukyuan relations was recorded. For example, Mr. Dana mentioned some records found about a famous Chinese koto master who visited Ryukyu in 1632 and taught Ryukyuan royals.

 iha0300-045 kosyankin-3

Copy of the page of Oshima Hikki with the mention on Koshankin.

① Kumiai-justu  ② Bubishi ③ Hontou yori Koshankin - From Mainland China Koshankin

(Photo credit: University of the Ryukyus Repository)


Outline of Chinese martial arts and karate literature, by Miyagi Tokumasa sensei

In his presentation, Miyagi sensei talked about the importance of the book “Kiko Shinsho” (Ji Xiao Xin Shu) which was published in China circa 1583 and has 18 volumes on the art of war. He moved on to speak about the Chinese “Bubishi” dating of 1621. According to him, it uses information from “Kiko Shinsho” and was first made public in 1934 in Mabuni Kenwa’s “Sepai no Kenkyu”. Miyagi sensei ended by saying that he firmly believes that further study of the compilation of ancient poems and songs from Ryukyu known as “Omoro Soshi” is essential to understand the development of karate.


About Okinawa Karate’s kata names, by Jiangwei Lu from the Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts and Okikukai member

Jiangwei Lu spoke about the various level found in Chinese languages, and the importance of understanding the Fujian local dialect in karate research. He went on giving various examples about kata names and their equivalent in Chinese. For instance, “san chin” in Fujian language is said “san tsien”, while “nai han chi” is said “noy huan tsien”.


Kata “Sanshin” in karate and Fujian Nanken, by Kadekaru Toru, a karate researcher at Waseda University and member of the OGKK

Kadekaru sensei spoke about his study of Goju-ryu kata Sanchin and its equivalent found in China. Focusing on bowing, starting and final sequences, Kadekaru first described the many similarities between the Ryukyuan Sanshin form and the Five Ancestors Fist and White Crane Fist forms.


Comparing Shorin-ryu and Five Ancestors Fist and White Crane Fist, by Tsuha Kiyoshi, karate historian and current President of Urasoe City Karatedo Federation

Tsuha sensei compared traditional Shorin-ryu with the Five Ancestors Fist and White Crane Fist. Looking at important points such as breathing, kamae forms, stepping and blocking, he admitted finding very few similarities between Okinawa and Chinese forms therefore making him believe that Shurite/Shorin-ryu was most likely developed according to the originality of Ryukyuan people. However, with prior WWII newspaper articles mentioning about old kata like Kusanku and Passai, the origins of such ancient kata still needs to be investigate.


After 3 hours of presentation and discussion, the committee ended with saying: “Far from us to advocate or believe that karate roots are in China. This is not the point of this investigation. Okinawa is undeniably the cradle of karate and is recognized as such by the entire world. It is more about researching about the history of karate, or like Miyagi sensei said, ‘To explore the Ti of ancient Ryukyu’”.

For the final year of this project (April 2014 – March 2015), another trip to Chinese southern Shaolin Temple as well as a symposium in January 2015 are scheduled. It should see various conferences as well as martial arts demonstrations from Okinawa karate masters and Chinese visiting martial artists. A full report will also be published early 2015.


Sources: Okinawa Karate News Issue 82, 91 published with the support of Urasoe City Board of Education Culture Department