Beginnings of Okinawan Karate: Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te

The story of karate begins on Okinawa, the largest of the Ryukyu Islands. “Okinawa is approximately 6 miles wide and only about 70 miles long” (“A Brief History of Traditional Karate”). Okinawa is situated in the middle of the trade route between Japan to the north and China to west. It was first used as a resting place by Japan and later “developed as a trade center for southeast Asia who were trading with China, Indo China, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo, and the Philippines” (“A Brief History of Traditional Karate”). Because of its closeness to China, Okinawa was greatly influenced by Chinese culture. Chinese tradesmen, emissaries, and martial artists all visited Okinawa and left their marks on the culture.

Here, on Okinawa, in Shuri, Naha, and Tomari karate originated. It grew and evolved out of the desire for freedom from oppressive rulers and the need for Okinawans to defend themselves. “The Legend of Ryukyu Karate” aptly states, “Ryukyu Karate is martial arts of resistance.”

Twice in Okinawa’s past, weapons were banned as a method of controlling the rebellious native population. In 1509, King Sho Shin united the various factions on the islands through “the ‘Act of Eleven Distinctions,’ which prohibited the stockpiling and the possession of weapons” (Marshall). Thus karate, fighting with the empty hand, became the only means of resistance, but unfortunately, karate was also banned; it could now only be practiced in secret.

In 1609, the powerful Japanese Satsuma clan was given permission by the Shogun to invade Okinawa. There was fierce resistance from the local population. In order to control the citizens, the clan “confiscated all weapons, all tools, all cutlery, even the pots and pans (“Karate”). This disarmament had the same effect as it did in 1509. The islanders turned again to karate and continued guerrilla actions against the clan.

One legend tells that since it was a crime to own a weapon, each village was issued one knife which was tied to the well in the middle of the village and guarded by two samurai. Otherwise the villagers could not slaughter animals and prepare food. In response to this kind of control, it is said that the oldest man on the island proclaimed, “We will develop the sides of our hands into swords and our fists into hammers” (“Karate”). Thus karate, fighting with the empty hand, again became the only means of resistance, but again unfortunately karate was banned; it could only be practiced in secret.

But what was this karate which the Okinawans practiced in secret and where did it come from? The Okinawans called their martial art Te, which means “hand”. This name was meant to confuse the Japanese. Anyone overhearing a conversation would not connect the word “hand” to the fighting arts that were practiced in secrecy.

The origin of Te is perhaps twofold. Some historians assert that Te is a descendant of Chinese ch’uan fa that was probably brought to Okinawa during the T’ang dynasty which reigned from 618 to 906 A.D. (Haines). Others believe that Te descended from  a form of martial arts that was indigenous to the Ryukyu Islands. Historians have surmised this from some of the islanders’ classical dances that contain what looks like karate moves (Haines). In all probability, Te was a mixture of ch’uan fa and an indigenous martial art.

Okinawan Te developed in three villages: Shuri, Naha, and Tomari. Each village had its own way of performing Te. These three styles of Te were named Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te. During the occupation, these three leading schools of the martial arts went underground. Because of this, there is little written information available for a period of more than 120 years.


Shuri City was the ancient capital of the Ryukyu Islands. Shuri City was a famous trading port because luxury goods were shipped there from the Indies and Southeast Asia and reshipped from Okinawa to Japan, China, and Korea (Haines).

Shuri‑te was developed in the city of Shuri. Its influences came from Northern China.  “Shuri‑te was primarily an offensive style studied by the King’s court and those of  nobility” (Long), and also by bodyguards of the Okinawan gentry (“Naha‑te vs. Shuri‑te”).

Although martial arts existed in Shuri during the time of King Sho Shin, the first formal practice of martial arts in this area originated with “Karate” Sakuguwa Tode in the late 1700s and early 1800s; thus he is credited with the development of Shuri‑te. Sakuguwa’s Shuri‑te techniques resembled the northern China styles of Kung Fu (Fenton). It was a linear, hard style of karate (Camara). Sakuguwa, one of the practitioners of Shuri‑te, was a student of Chatan Yara who had trained under Chinese master Kusanku. Both men influenced Isshin‑ryu Karate. Chatan Yara Sai is today a part of the kobudo of the Isshin‑ryu system, and the seventh empty-hand kata is named for Kusanku.

Sakuguwa’s greatest contribution to the martial arts is his introduction of “Dojo Kun,” the traditions and principles of training and proper etiquette still used in Okinawa style dojos today. Perhaps “the true measure of a karate master is their legacy. Sakuguwa’s techniques became a dominant lineage of Shuri’s Karateka and had a tremendous influence across Okinawa and into Japan”(Fenton). Sakuguwa’s legacy includes many karate masters and karate styles. Some of the important masters that descended from Shuri‑te are Sakukawa Kanga, Matsumura Sōkon, Itosu Ankō, Asato Ankō, Chōyū Motobu, Motobu Chōki, Funakoshi Gichin, Hironori Otsuka, Kyan Chōtoku, and Tatsuo Shimabuku.

Some of  the styles that descended from Shuri-te are Shotokan, Wado‑ryu, Motobu‑ryu, Shito‑ryu, Shuri‑ryu, Keishinkan, Shorinji‑ryu, Shorin‑ryu, and Isshin‑ryu.


Naha‑te is another early Okinawan martial art. Naha‑te developed, concurrently with Shuri-te, in the port city of Naha which was only a few miles from Shuri. Naha‑te’s predecessor was the Fujian White Crane system of southern China (“Naha‑te”).  Some think the Fujian White Crane system “trickled into Okinawa in the early 19th century through Kumemara, the Chinese suburb of Naha (“Naha‑te”). Others feel because Naha was a coastal village, the merchants and businessmen had more opportunities to train with visiting Chinese masters and more opportunities to travel to China to study Chinese martial arts (“A Brief History of Traditional Karate”).

Because the ancestors of Shuri‑te and Naha‑te came from different areas of China where different martial arts were taught, Shur‑te and Naha‑te are quite different. Naha‑te emphasizes stronger, slower movements and more rooted stances. It also employs Zen-like breathing techniques that date back to the Shaolin Temple and the Buddhist monks. Naha‑te is more defensive and incorporates grappling and throwing techniques (“Naha‑te vs. Suri‑te”).

Kanryo Higaonna is thought to be the founder of the Naha‑te style (Fenton). Higaonna trained under Aragaki Seisho who was required to travel to China as part of his job as an interpreter for the Ryukyu Kingdom (Fenton). In China, he trained in the martial arts then returned to Okinawa where he developed his own fighting system. He is significant because he is said to be the first martial artist to perform Seisan Kata in public. Later, Tatsuo Skimabuku was to use Seisan Kata as the basic kata of the Isshin‑ryu system.

Later, Higaonna would go to China himself to train with Chinese master Wai Xinxain  (Fenton), and after his return to Okinawa, he opened his own dojo. Here, he became know for his strength training and teaching Sanchin Kata. Higaonna adapted Sanchin Kata by adding strikes with closed fists where previously striking was done with open hands (Fenton). This kata would also later become part of the Isshin‑ryu system.

Hiagonna died on December 15, 1917 (Fenton).  He believed that karate was created as a helpmate to society; it was a philosophy he passed on to his students (Long).  He had many notable students, but his senior student Miyagi Chojon had the greatest influence as he founded Goju‑ryu Karate and taught Tatsuo Shimabuku, who later combined what he thought was the best of Goju‑ryu and Shorin‑ryu to create Isshin‑ryu Karate.


Tomari‑te was the style of karate taught in the Tomari‑te village on Okinawa. Tomari was the second largest seaport on Okinawa. So many boats from China and Korea wrecked near the shores of Tomari, that they found it necessary to provide accommodations to the shipwreck victims since they were to be guests for a undetermined time (Camara). It is these shipwreck victims who may be responsible for bringing various martial arts styles to Tomari‑te (Camara) as Tomari‑te has been said to be a “hotch potch of various Shaolin styles (Bishop). In Shuri, Shuri‑te was studied by nobility; in Naha, Naha‑te was studied by merchants and business men; but in Tomari, Tomari‑te was studied by farmers and seamen who befriended the shipwrecked foreign sailors.

Tomari‑te has been described as “being soft, and not jerky like modern karate” (Bishop). The most significant technique variation from other styles was that it did not teach the twist punch. “The full corkscrew punch was not encouraged as it leaves the vulnerable back of the hand open to a rap with the knuckles strike that can render the attacker’s hand inoperative” (Bishop). The Tomari-te punch was aligned with the opponent’s center (Camara). Isshin‑ryu founder Tatsuo Skimibuku was later to teach a similar punch, the vertical punch, to his students. He believed the vertical punch was faster and stronger than the twist punch, and it was aimed at the opponent’s solar plexus. Other characteristics of Tomari‑te were that the training stance was Shiko‑dachi, Kusanku Kata was very acrobatic, the force of the opponent was used against him, the style was light and not particularly athletic, and its main principle to protect the center of the body (Camara).

The development of Tomari-te was thought to be less organized than that of Shuri-te and Naha-te, perhaps because its students were farmers and fishermen and thus of the lower class (Camara). Tomari-te did have a few masters, although their history is not as clearly defined as that of the Shuri-te and Naha-te masters.

Gusukuma was perhaps the earliest Tomari-te master (Camara). But the most famous Tomari-te masters were Kosaku Matsumora, Kokan Oyadomari, and Gikei Yamazato (Camara). All studied with Chinese marital artist and military man Annan. Legend recounts that Annan was shipwrecked and went to hide in a cave. The king sent all the greatest samurais to capture him, but all were defeated by Annan using only his empty hands. Finally, the king sent Kosaku Matsumora. Matsumora befriended the shipwrecked sailor and Annan taught him martial arts. (In research texts, Annan has been given many names, including Chinto which is the one I learned for my black belt test. Also, the location of the cave varies from village to village.)

Another fascinating legend that comes from Tomari is the legend of the wet towel. It is told that Kosaki Matsumora developed a technique to disarm the Satsuma swordsmen using only a wet towel (Fenton). One day, on his way through the village, Matsumora heard cries for help, and when he investigated, he found a Satsuma clansmen threatening a group of women and children with a sword. Unarmed, Matsumora confronted the angry swordsman; he whipped out a wet towel that he had hidden under his jacket and in one quick maneuver wrapped it around the sword and yanked it out of the surprised clansman’s hand. Unfortunately, his little finger was sliced off in this heroic maneuver. Since now he could be easily identified, he was forced to go into hiding for the next 10 years (Fenton).

Much of what we know about Tomari‑te has been passed down through the oral tradition. Today, there are no commercial Tomari‑te schools; perhaps this is why it now said that Tomari-te is not a school or a style, but it is a tradition where the old Okinawa Tode‑jutsu is preserved (“Tomari-te).

Around the turn of the 20th century, there was a meeting of some of the leading Okinawan masters. All three of Tatsuo Shimabuku’s primary instructors, Kyan Chotoku, Miyagi Chojun, and Motobu Choki, were there, along with Hanashiro Chomo, Kiyoda Juhatsu, and Gusukuma Shiroma. At this meeting, the term “Karate” was officially adopted (Camara), and thus, the Te styles passed into Okinawan history and the “ryu” styles like Goju‑ryu, Shorin‑ryu, Wado‑ryu, and later Isshin‑ryu were born (Haines).