According to tradition, many masters of the Shorin-ryu karate style were associated with the court and some may have been bodyguards for the royal family. Shorin is Japanese for Shaolin, the name of the famous Chinese Buddhist temple celebrated in many martial arts films. Bodyguarding was a bit complex because most people were forbidden to carry arms -- which is where the karate came in. Things got even tougher in the 1600s when the Satsuma clan from Japan invaded. It was probably around that time karate became a clandestine activity, often practiced at night in secret locations.
Shorin-ryu is characterized by fast, whiplike movements that generate power from the body's center of gravity.
One teacher, Minoru Higa, was particularly demanding. Like most of our teachers, he was in or near his 70s but in amazing physical condition. During one of his sessions, someone estimated that we threw 2,700 punches and 200 kicks in not much more than half an hour.
Most people, Higa explained, stop when they become fatigued. But if one trains past the point of fatigue, wasted thoughts and motions fall away and correct technique emerges. I loved it and managed to train a couple of times at his private dojo learning the traditional version of old Naihanchi forms. These are symmetrical fighting movements performed in a horse stance without turning, as if one had one's back to a wall or cliff -- or if one were protecting a member of the royal family.
The Chinese connection
Naha is a port city and once had the reputation of being wild and woolly. Okinawa enjoyed wide trade and diplomatic contacts, thus lots of interesting people and rough characters passed through. Ties were especially close to southern China, which had a sizable Okinawan community. Those ties are celebrated at the Fukushuen Garden in central Naha.
The Naha styles of karate were heavily influenced by southern Chinese fighting systems. If the Shorin style was rapid and whipping, Goju and Uechi-ryu emphasize sheer physical toughness and emphasize close-range fighting, combining striking with grappling.
Goju emphasizes strength development, dynamic tension and special breathing. It develops the ability to absorb as well as dish out powerful techniques.
Uechi-ryu seemed downright savage, with unusual strikes using fingers, the thumb knuckle, and the knuckle of the index finger as well as kicks with toes. Uechi stylists practice a version Sanchin that is done faster and with open hands.
The arms and hands of Naha-te stylists literally have been turned into weapons and look like them, too. Most styles toughen the hands by hitting the striking board. Equally impressive -- or scary -- were their forearms, which sometimes appear to have been tattooed. Hours of arm-pounding exercises have turned them into the equivalent of baseball bats.
It's a good thing that the people who practice it are generally nice.
History's winners and losers
Okinawa has been dealt some tough cards by history. In the 1870s, Japan formally annexed it and attempted to wipe out the indigenous culture and "Japanize" the population. Okinawans were conscripted into the Japanese army and other imperial projects during that country's phase of militarism and imperialism. It is said that the founder of Uechi-ryu went to China in the late 1800s to avoid conscription and mastered his style while there.
During World War II, island residents suffered terribly during the "typhoon of steel," as the Battle of Okinawa is known locally. As many as 200,000 people died during the last major land engagement of the war. Many were victims of atrocities committed by the Japanese army, which engaged in massacres and used civilians as human shields, although many perished as collateral damage to U.S. bombardment or were killed in the crossfire.
Today, the Peace Memorial Park outside Itoman commemorates the worst of the fighting. Now a place of beautiful beaches, cliffs and shrines, it is hard to imagine the hell on Earth it once was.
Even though the war wasn't their idea, Okinawans bore the heaviest postwar burden of any Japanese territory. The U.S. directly administered it from 1945 to 1972 and built massive military bases, displacing local landowners. Crimes such as rapes committed against Okinawan civilians by some military personnel continue to be a sore spot.
Given all that, it's a wonder that Okinawans are so nice and among the longest-lived people. It's not unusual for people to live to 100 and sometimes beyond while leading active lives.
And that Okinawan age group has borne with grace all that history threw at them. I saw that spirit of resilience in our teachers. As one sensei put it, "In Okinawan karate, we do not train to win or to defeat others. We train so as not to be conquered."
Through all the storms of war and global politics, the Okinawan spirit remains unconquered to this day.
Rick Wilson is area director of American Friends Service Committee, West Virginia Economic Justice Project.