Okinawa, a word which means "rope in the offring" is a fitting name for this rough and beautiful island, which is thin, knotted, and looks like a rope that has been tossed into the sea. The longest of the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawa is considered by all to be the birthplace of Karate.
There are many styles of Karate today, however this was not always so. Before traditional Okinawan Karate was stylized in classical ryu [systems or schools], in its original form it was predominately called Tode. Tode was no more than a rudimentary form of boxing with very little refinement or style. Basically, it was a rough and brutal combination or various punches, kicks, headbutts, jabs, knee strikes, elbow smashes, head locks, and tripping techniques. The victory was generally awarded to the one that could sustain the most pain and injury before succumbing to defeat. these were knockdown, dragout affairs where anything anything went and all was fair.
This was one of the main reasons that the early Te practitioners believed so strongly in conditioning and toughening the hands, arms, and legs. In the event that a fighters became involved in a provoked encounter, he was definitely prepared to go the distance against a lesser prepared adversary. Usually these bouts never lasted long because of the brutal punishment the fighters endured in the first several seconds of combat. It was also time where accidental luck could play a vital role in determining the winner od a confrontation.
Enter the Chinese art of Chuan fa, believed to have been brought to Okinawa during the Tand dynasty [A.D. 618-906]. This refined form of self-defense, used expressly for self-preservation, was quickly adopted and modified by the Ryukyu islanders. this stimulated a real interest in being able to defeat an opponent without getting injured in the process.
Naturally, this newly discovered form of fighting intrigued almost every Okinawan who was interested in the art and science of combat. This new style of fighting brought with it unique military stratagies and tactics that applied equally well in singular engagements as well as massive combative operations. Included in this art were techniques where leverage and knowledge won out over sherr brute force. Advanced hand maneuvers were used to attack the most vulnerable areas of the human anatomy with the swiftness of a striking snake. This latter form of empty hand fighting was undoubtedly responsible for shaping, or in truth reshaping, the old Te form of fighting and forming the foundation of what has become known as Karate in the generic sense.
The Ryukyuan fighters also learned the advantages of using the opponent's pressure points, sensitive nerves, vital organs, and exposed or vulnerable targets such as the eyes, ears, groin, and neck; knowledge that had been discovered thousands of years prior by their Chinese cousins. Borrowing and adapting these sophisicated techniques soon became a common practice by almost every serious fighter on the island. This practice was so prevalent throughout okinawa at that time no two fighters used the exact same styles or types of maneuvers.
This, in turn, had the greatest influence in formulating the basis for stylized combat throughout the Ryukyuan archipelago. If one fighter was defeated by another fighter using a specific technique, thn the defeated fighter opted to adopt the technique that caused his defeat into his oqn system of combat. In a matter of time, patterns began to emerge that distinguised truly effective techniques from ones that has consistently proven non-effective in actual life or death matches.
By the mid-1800's, and because of the progressively greater amount of Chinese influence induced through contact with monks, diplomats, merchant seaman and Ryukyuans' traveling to various provinces on the Asian continent, the exotic and highly exacting open hand forms of combat became even more pronounced. So prevalent, in fact, that the major villages of Okinawa such as Shuri, Tomari, and Naha had their own distinct fighting styles that embodied the most effective essences of the synthesized Tode [first techniques] with the Chinese Chuan Fa [first way] techniques. These distinctive blends were actally the real beginnings of distinctive blends were actually the real beginnnings of formalized ryu [styles] on the main islands.
Shuri, at that time being the capital of Okinawa, because a learning place for a serious students of the combat arts who wanted to perfect their skills and master the art and science of fighting. Though Naha and Tomari were were also influential in fostering the ryu concepts of systematic self-defense, it was the capital cillage that attracted the greater amount of enthusiasts for these newer and more refined styles. This was assured because Shuri was the hub of all diplomatic, social and cultural activities at the time, and most of the Samurai caste, nobles and embassy staff, in close assoctiation with the ruling gentry, lives within the perimeter of the large village district.
Regardless, all three, Shuri, Naha, and Tmari became known for their distinct styles of empty-hand fighting. Each village referred to the formal styles indiginating outside of the capitol city, Shorin-ryu generally is thought to be one of the first true stylized arts to incorporate a diverse and versatile multitude of lethal open-hand fighting techniques.
It was the intention of the early martial arts masters who integrated the open-hand and closed-fist arts to retain the most effective brutally powerful methods originating in their homeland, while also blending the most lethal open-hand techniques that China's Chuan Fa had to offer. they sacially blended abd refined until nothing but the superfluous ones were discarded.
The early Okinawan Te masters who conceived thses methods of merging fighting arts were obviously cognizant of the yin-yang [in-yo in Japanese] principle and it's causes and effects when it was applied specifically to the combat arts. This is quite evident when one witnesses the properly practiced ryus that evolved from the early Shuri Te arts.
It was the belief of these masters tha it was not enough to merely rely on the techniques or the hand or finger postioning itself to insure effectiveness. Regardless of the situation, the practitioner should always apply maximum focus, speed and power to the movement. At the time, in Okinawa, this was a realatively new concept in fighting. Using open hand, smooth, flowing circular techneiques that before relied mostly on exactness of execution to pressure points or vital points and adding Te's full undiluted power was virtually unheard of at the time.
The refinements envolving through centuries of discovery in China did very little to convince the Okinawan fighters that they were 100 percent effective against a potentail opponent who had spent years conditioning his body, limbs, and mind to absorb, withstand or even endure any punishment that an adversary could put out.
With this in mind, it is easy to understand why the early proponents of Okinawa Te had the belief that even the open-hnd or more exotic hand movements should be as conditioned as the seasoned and calloused fist techniques. Not only did it prevent a major disabling injury to the hand when explosive contact was made with a solid target, but it insured that, in the event the technique was not fully effective because of inaccuracy in the heat of combat, the sheer force of the impact itself was going to be somewhat effective. This built in back up strategy is perhaps one of the first breakthroughs that early Okinawan masters had after merging the two different forms of fighting.
It was not uncommon, and still is not today, to see Karateka on the island of Okinawa spending countless hours each day striking the rope wrapped makiwara or striking pad with spearhand, knife edge or ridgehand strikes and even strikes that utilize the thumbs and the bare feet and toes. In older days, students and instructors alike trained using bare hand grips to develop vice-like techniques to crush dried stalks of bamboo and rip the bark off trees with powerful clawing techniques. Some Te Proponents were known for their ability ro employ open hand strikes and grabs to literally tear the dried beef or pork chunks out of a carcass that hd been salted or cured in the sun.
In realistic fighting terms, this literally meant being capable of ripping, tearing or lacerating an opponent's vital target areas with every strike.
Some of the even more staunch Karateka took their conditioning trainging a few steps further. They would condition each individual finger to withstan great amounts of force by striking into buckets of rice, then progressing on to small, medium, and then course stones.
The early Karateka was fully aware that the human anatomy, though being fragile, was just as capable of being conditioned to withstand great amounts of punishment, induced through constant training. This logically meant keeping the prime weapons of their art - their hands and feet - in top condition and capable of inflicting maximum damage without causing injury too thenselves.
To test many of the fragile appearing open hand techniques, it was not uncommon to break sections of board, roofing tiles and even stones with knife edge strikes, finger strikes or even backhand slaps. This meant that a powerfully executed finger strikes or open hand strike could conceivably crack a skull, break almost any bone or penetrate an eye socket and cause severe brain damage.
Today, although many of these seemingly inhumane methods of self-defense are not used in fighting as they were before a were enacted, thse techniques re still exeplified in the Kataderiving their origins from Shuri-Te. The mechanics of the ovemnts, the Bunkai, the graceful, lowing, circular movements are so artfully integrated with powerful linear Te or Tode techniques, and the subtle and ingenious ways that multiple open hand assaults are used to attack multiple targets simutaneously, are all important reminders of the types of techniques found within the Shorin-ryu Kata. If you shoose to study Okinawan Karate you will soon discover that the Te arts of Okinawa'a feudal past are the link between formalized Karate as we know it today and improvised Te as they practice them.
The awsome techniques of Shorin-Ryu are the proven effective essences of two arts - one from China and the other from Okinawa - developed into one of the most awesome fighting systems known to man... Karate.