Karate prac­ti­tion­ers with any in­ter­est in the his­tor­i­cal roots of their art will be fa­mil­iar with the terms Naha-te and Shuri-te. They re­fer, very gener­i­cally, to the two ma­jor “styles” of Ok­i­nawan karate.


Most karateka who are into his­tory are fa­mil­iar with the Naha-te and Shuri-te va­ri­eties of the art. Here’s the scoop on those Ok­i­nawan sys­tems and what it means for mod­ern prac­ti­tion­ers of shorin-ryu, goju-ryu and other styles.

Some will know, too, that we can de­ter­mine the pedi­gree of a karate sys­tem through the her­itage of th­ese two styles. Shorin-ryu, for in­stance, comes ba­si­cally from the Shuri-te tra­di­tion, while the bulk of goju-ryu evolved from Naha-te.

Be­yond that, th­ese two it­er­a­tions of karate aren’t re­ally un­der­stood or ap­pre­ci­ated by many prac­ti­tion­ers. The dis­tinc­tions and unique char­ac­ter­is­tics of the two are in­trigu­ing, and they of­fer im­por­tant in­sights into the karate we prac­tice to­day.

WHILE OUR IM­AGE of Ok­i­nawa and the other Ryukyu is­lands is largely shaped by World War II, from very early on, the chain was seen as a cross­roads, a con­ve­nient, neu­tral stopover and trad­ing spot for much of Asia. Naha has al­ways been, and is to­day, the prin­ci­pal port city of the Ok­i­nawan is­lands. For cen­turies, Ok­i­nawans con­ducted busi­ness with the rest of Asia on this small spit of land. Ships from south­ern China, Ja­pan, Korea and else­where an­chored in the har­bor. It was one of the most cos­mopoli­tan places in that part of the world.

In 1852 Amer­i­can Com­modore Matthew Perry came ashore for the first time at Naha. He brought sailors and traders on his way to forcibly open­ing main­land Ja­pan to the West.

Think about it: Trav­el­ers of all sorts gath­ered at the inns and bars that were crammed into Naha. There was a con­stant in­flux of new ideas, and that in­cluded fight­ing tech­niques. An ob­ser­vant pa­tron of a rough, rowdy Naha saloon or a worker on the docks could have seen an In­done­sian silat head butt, the flick­er­ing hand strikes of Chi­nese pray­ing-man­tis box­ing, the brawl­ing tech­niques of Bos-

ton sailors or the moves of Ja­panese

ju­jitsu. It would have been a re­mark­able ar­ray of com­bat meth­ods, all prac­ticed by na­tive ex­po­nents.

Naha was a vi­brant melt­ing pot of fight­ing arts. El­e­ments were en­thu­si­as­ti­cally in­cor­po­rated into the in­dige­nous com­bat sys­tems. Sys­tems like goju-ryu and shito-ryu trace their ori­gins back to this time and place.


than 3 miles from Naha. To­day, it’s just a neigh­bor­hood of Naha, but in the olden days, Shuri was the home of the king and much of the yukatchu, the is­land’s rul­ing class. It was, in some sense, a world away from free-wheel­ing Naha. Shuri was an en­clave, and at its cen­ter was Shuri Cas­tle, a minia­ture ver­sion of Bei­jing’s For­bid­den City. (Trivia note: Com­modore Perry pushed his way into the cas­tle precincts; he did not, though, get the au­di­ence he wanted with the 10-year-old king.)

In karate terms, Shuri was where karate was prac­ticed by the up­per classes. The yukatchu main­tained their own tra­di­tions and de­vel­oped their own ver­sions of the art that have come down to us as shorin-ryu, shoto

kan and other styles. Two im­por­tant points must be in­serted here. One, th­ese are gen­er­al­iza­tions. Es­pe­cially af­ter the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury, there was much cross-pol­li­na­tion between the sys­tems and prac­ti­tion­ers on both sides, and no one to­day rea­son­ably can claim to be pur­su­ing a com­pletely unadul­ter­ated style of ei­ther. Two, noth­ing should be pre­sumed about one sys­tem be­ing more “real” than the other. Both lin­eages are full of leg­endary mas­ters revered in karate dojo, both are so­phis­ti­cated fight­ing arts and both are ut­terly wor­thy of study.


the im­age among Ok­i­nawan karateka in the first half of the 20th cen­tury was col­ored by the per­cep­tions that Shuri-te-based karate was more “aris­to­cratic” and Naha-te-based karate was more “blue col­lar.” Th­ese per­cep­tions were pro­nounced on Ok­i­nawa, and when karate moved to the Ja­panese main­land, they car­ried over.

It didn’t mat­ter that Cho­jun Miyagi (1888-1953) was the adopted son of a wealthy Ryukyuan mer­chant. Be­cause he’d be­gun his karate stud­ies in a dojo as­so­ci­ated with Naha-te — and be­cause, de­spite his fam­ily’s wealth, they were not of Ok­i­nawa’s tra­di­tional up­per classes — his rep­u­ta­tion was that of a rough, tough guy.

In con­trast, Gichin Fu­nakoshi (1868-1957), be­cause he was of the

shi­zoku class, a rel­a­tively low level of yukatchu but aris­toc­racy none­the­less, was seen as more of a scholar-gen­tle­man. The karate taught by Fu­nakoshi and oth­ers who de­scended from th­ese up­per classes had a ve­neer, at least, of re­fine­ment. THE YUKATCHU

of Ok­i­nawa was for­mally abol­ished in 1875, af­ter Ja­pan an­nexed the is­lands. This is usu­ally men­tioned in­ci­den­tally in Ok­i­nawan karate his­to­ries, while in re­al­ity, it was a pro­found, world-chang­ing event in the Ryukyu. Stripped of not only their ti­tles but also their lands, many yukatchu were forced to work in the fields or in jobs they pre­vi­ously would have con­sid­ered me­nial. It was hu­mil­i­at­ing, even dev­as­tat­ing, for some of them.

In this con­text, we can see that karate, once the ex­clu­sive prop­erty of the yukatchu, would have been one of the only re­main­ing trea­sures of their orig­i­nal sta­tus. They would have pro­tected it and en­cour­aged the be­lief that their art was su­pe­rior to arts of the com­mon classes. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing as­pect of karate’s his­tory, one we still can see if we know how to look at it.

ABOUT THE AU­THOR: Dave Lowry has writ­ten Karate Way since 1986. For more in­for­ma­tion about his ar­ti­cles and books, visit black­beltmag.com and type his name in the search box.

Naha was a vi­brant melt­ing pot of fight­ing arts. El­e­ments were en­thu­si­as­ti­cally in­cor­po­rated into the in­dige­nous com­bat sys­tems.

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