Karate developed on the Ryukyu Islands. To understand karate,  some knowledge of geography and history is helpful. The Ryukyus are a string of islands that lie in the East China Sea between mainland Japan and China. The largest of the Ryukyu islands is Okinawa. The Ryukyus central location between China, Japan, and Korea places Okinawa at a strategic point between major Asian powers and the Pacific ocean. Mainland Japan recognized this fact prior to WWII, and placed four major airfields on Okinawa. The Battle of Okinawa was a major turning point for Japan during WWII, and a devastating part Okinawan history.  After the war, and to this day, Okinawa is still considered strategically vital.  The U.S. operates 14 military bases on Okinawa manned by 40,000 troops.  Many hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel and their families have lived in Okinawa since the second world war. Due to this military presence, many U.S. citizens have experienced the rich Ryukyuan culture which includes music, dance, food, strong spiritual beliefs, and Karate. 

Long before the modern day military recognition of the Ryukyu Islands as a central location, China recognized the islands as a central hub for maritime trade.  The Ryukyu Kingdom became a protectorate under the Chinese Ming dynasty during the 1400’s, and was provided trade ships by the Emperor of China for trade between Asian ports. Ryukyuan sailors manned the ships and traveled the seas along side Chinese sailors. Chinese officials lived in Okinawa during the Ming Dynasty, and were part of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s daily life at Shuri Castle, the home of the Ryukyu kings. Because of the strong connections between the Ryukyus and most of East and Southeast Asia, Okinawa was well exposed to a variety of asian cultures during its long history. Some Chinese martial arts theories and techniques can still be found in Karate because of these deep historical and cultural connections. 

Another, sometimes less known part of Okinawan karate history is that the Ryukyus and Okinawa, in spite of their history of multi-cultural activity, have held fast to their many original Ryukyu cultural traditions.  Okinawa has it own language, called Hogen, which is different from Japanese or Chinese, and is preserved to this day as a cultural link to the Ryukyu history.  The Ryukyus have their own spiritual and religious customs, their own dance, their own music, their own food, and their own martial art: Karate. Karate comes from the Ryukyu martial traditions which began before written history, and includes striking and blocking with the hand, forearm, and elbow, foot, shin and knee.  Body conditioning and toughening is part of karate training.  Offensive and defensive movement, timing, distancing, and strategy were practiced through real fighting and preserved in the formal exercises called kata. Karate is well known in the Ryukyu culture as a path to a strong, healthy mind and body, and a way to a long life. Karate also contains an ethical code of behavior, and a spiritual aspect, including meditation.  Accompanying karate is Kobudo, which means old war ways, and is the study and practice of the ancient Ryukyu weapons.

Karate was originally called Tee, or Tiy, which means hand in the Okinawan Hogen language.  There were three main areas where Tiy was practiced: Shuri (home of Shuri Castle and the Ryukyu kings), Naha (Okinawa’s largest city) and Tomari (a fishing port which is now part of Naha). Each area had its own karate: Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te. Three major styles emerged in the early 1900’s: Shorinryu (from Shuri-te), Gojuryu (from Naha-te) and Uechiryu (from Kanbun Uechi, a style most like Chinese martial arts).

Karate was introduced to mainland Japan during the Meiji Restoration in the early 1900’s as a way to promote strong, healthy youth for a military society. In 1936 during a meeting of the Okinawan Tiy masters, it was decided to call all the Okinawan Tiy forms Karate, which means empty hand. Karate was exported to the rest of the world after WWII, mainly through military service personnel returning home from assignment in Okinawa and mainland Japan.  Karate was also exported from mainland Japan through styles that have been changed slightly from the original Okinawa root styles.  Some of the larger Japanese karate styles are Shotokan, Shitoryu, Wadoryu, and Kyokushinkai.