It is estimated that probably 90% of American martial artists know little about their style and, other than the physical aspects, most of those martial artists seem content merely to practice karate, with little interest in studying the origins of their art. Those of us in Okinawa Shorin Ryu Matsumura Seito Karate and Kobudo Association are of different mentality. While we enjoy the physical aspects of Shorin-ryu, we also have a burning desire to learn the history and the origins of our art.

Generations of secrecy have shed a veil of mystery around the history and origin of Okinawan karate. To a certain degree, this veil of secrecy still exists. This, coupled with the general lack of written records, has created the lack of information on the early years of Ryukyu martial arts. What little information we may have has come to us by scattered bits and pieces that somehow have come into the possession of modern karate historians or from those of you who were fortunate enough to have been told some of the history from an Okinawan sensei. Nevertheless, any attempt to write on karate history will leave many stones unturned, and the following attempt is no exception. A lot of questions are left unanswered, perhaps one day we will know more.

Early Okinawan karate, or tode (“China Hand”) as it was called, owes its origin to a mixture of indigenous Okinawan fighting arts and various foot fighting systems and empty-hand systems of Southeast Asia and China. Being seafaring people, the Okinawans were in almost constant contact with mainland Asia. It is quite likely that Okinawan seamen visiting foreign ports were impressed with local fighting techniques and incorporated these into their own fighting methods.

Interest in unarmed fighting arts increased during the 14th century when Chuzan King Sho Hashi established his rule over Okinawa and banned all weapons. A more rapid development of tode followed in 1609 when the Satsuma clan of Kyushu, Japan, occupied Okinawa and again banned the possession of weapons. Thus tode or Okinawa-te, as the Satsuma samurai soon called it, became the only means of protection left to the Okinawans. It was this atmosphere that honed the early karate-like arts of Okinawa into a weapon, enabling the island people to conduct a guerrilla-type war with the Japanese samurai that lasted into the late 1800;s.

So tode or Okinawa-te was developed secretly, thus preventing the Japanese from killing the deadly arts practitioners and teachers. Tode remained underground until the early 1900s, when it was brought into the Okinawan school systems physical education program.

Shorin-Ryu Matsumura Seito (Orthodox) is one of the oldest Okinawan styles to be formally organized into a “ryu”, or system to be handed down. As head bodyguard and martial arts instructor to King Sho Tai, Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura developed the system in the early 1800s. He based the style on the teachings of “Tode” Sakugawa, and the Hakutsuru (White Crane) techniques he learned during his stay at the Shaolin Temple in China. He had many students, but reserved much of his teachings for his grandson Nabe Matsumura. Nabe in turn taught these secrets to his nephew Hohan Soken, who passed them on to Grand Master Kise. As a result, Hanshi Kise is the first person not of the Matsumura family to receive the Menkyo Kaiden (certificate of full proficiency) of Matsumura Seito. Because Hohan Soken spent several years in Argentina and avoided the popular migration from traditional karate to sports oriented training, the techniques he taught remained pure.

We do not use the low stances and exaggerated motions popular in sports styles, instead keeping the shallow, upright stances and conservation of motion and effort that made Bushi Matsumura’s style so effective in his duties protecting the King. Our kicks are generally kept at belt level or lower, and our hand techniques are very quick and focused on specific vulnerable targets and pressure points. Because our stances are more natural and comfortable, we are able to kick quickly with either leg, and to employ “body change” – a method of stepping and angling that maximizes our ability to hit an opponent’s targets while keeping our own targets protected.