As you read and study about Okinawan history, you will no doubt find various accounts relating to the significant cultural influences that led to the development of martial arts on the island. The Okinawans, like all civilizations, had developed basic, self defense skills involving unarmed methods of protection as well as skills involving the use of weapons long before any historical record was available. Of much debate is how these beginning, rudimentary self defense techniques evolved into what we know today as Gojuryu, Shorin-Ryu, Isshin-Ryu, etc.

While all accounts seem perfectly plausible, and each version no doubt contributed in some way to the development of a weaponless system of self defense, no one may ever really be able to say with certainty when and why martial arts developed exactly as they did on Okinawa. The following, however, are generally accepted theories pertaining to martial arts evolution among the Okinawan people:

  • Trade patterns led the Okinawans to other countries, notably China, where they learned various martial arts forms and then returned home with that knowledge.
  • Peasants developed unarmed fighting methods to protect themselves and their families from feudal warlords and invading forces.
  • Due to unrest in Japan in the late 700’s, wealthy Japanese, seeking safety, migrated to the Ryukyu islands with their own security forces, thereby, exposing the Okinawans to Japanese based martial arts.
  • In the late 1300’s, Chinese immigrants known as the “Thirty-six Families” established a colony on Okinawa and are possibly responsible for the systematic introduction of martial arts to the island.
  • Chinese envoys for the Emperor traveling the Okinawan countryside, gathering news and delivering information, taught various Chinese martial arts disciplines to the islanders.
  • For centuries, Okinawa was divided into three rival kingdoms. Once the island was unified under one king in 1429, a weapons ban was later imposed in 1507 and wealthy land owners, fearing for the safety of their lives and property, needed a means of protection.
  • After Okinawa was invaded by Japan in the early 1600’s Okinawan security and law enforcement personnel were not allowed to carry weapons and needed a method of self defense.
  • The invading Japanese warlord, Matsumura, after observing the Okinawans’ traditional methods of fighting, taught a combined martial arts discipline to the Okinawan people.

What is not in dispute is that Okinawa has prospered due to its location along major shipping routes, and in the process, gained exposure to foreign systems of self defense. In effect, the Okinawans’ position in the trading loop guaranteed them access to influence from Indochina, i.e., Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand where Okinawan martial arts “foot” techniques are believed to have originated, and introduction to “hand” techniques that may have come from early forms of Chinese Kung-Fu and Kempo.

For hundreds of years, Okinawa greatly benefited from trading relations with China and Southeast Asian Countries such as Japan, Korea, Sumatra and others, and by the 14th century had become a major trading point along established shipping routes. As a result, commerce outlets not only opened opportunities for profit for the Okinawans, but they also created opportunities for cultural, philosophical and…martial arts enlightenment.