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Karate -- A Minority Art, Part 1

Karate was introduced to mainland Japan in the 1920s. It was then that Okinawan teachers living on mainland Japan started to publicly teach the art. Gichin Funakoshi is the best known of these teachers, but he was not the only one. Others included Choki Motobu, Kenwa Mabuni, Chojun Miyagi, Kanken Toyama, and Tsuyoshi Chitose. Of course, there were many Karate experts visiting and living on mainland Japan before the 1920s.

In the United States, when we think about minorities, we usually think about people of a different color. White people are the majority, and Blacks, American Indians, Latinos, Asians, and others are the minorities (of course, this is vastly oversimplified). You can see the difference between the groups, or at least some people think so. For the record, I am against discrimination. I am of mixed race myself. I am only writing this to make a point about the development of Karate.

From a certain point of view, all Asians are a single minority. But Asians are not just one group. People from places such as Japan, China, and Korea are distinct. And people from such countries are distinctly aware of their unique identities. This is even more true in their home countries.

My mother grew up in pre-war Japan. She is Japanese. One of her best friends was Korean. This was a problem. As a Japanese, she was not supposed to have a Korean friend. Japanese and Koreans did not mix.

Today this would seem strange, but in prewar Japan this was common. There was a great deal of discrimination against Koreans and other minority groups -- including Okinawans.

Although Okinawa formally became a part of Japan in the 1870s, its people were still viewed as a minority. They were not considered to be "Japanese."

Again, to people living in the United States today, this may seem strange. Today, Okinawans are viewed as being Japanese. But that is a little like calling native Hawaiians, Americans. It is true that Hawaii is now a state and people living here are Americans, but Hawaii's native people were here long before the United States was even a country.

In a similar way, the people we call Okinawans were part of the Ryukyu Kingdom long before they were considered to be Japanese. Okinawans were a distinct group. And even if we cannot see it, Japanese and Okinawans could see it before World War Two (and can still see it today).

I would say that the differences between Japanese and Okinawans before World War Two, were just as obvious to them as the differences between white people and black people in the southern United States in the 1920s and 1930s.

My mother was not supposed to have a Korean friend when she was a young girl. I am sure that there were similar sentiments about Okinawans. Just ask Okinawans who married Japanese at that time. It was a very difficult thing. Japanese were not supposed to marry Okinawans.

Again, this may seem crazy today. As Americans, we believe in equality of rights, that all men were created equal. But in prewar Japan, this was not the case.

So at the time that Karate was introduced to mainland Japan, the Okinawans teaching it were viewed as minorities. Okinawa was the poorest prefecture in Japan. Okinawans came to mainland Japan to work and make a living, to escape poverty -- not as cultural ambassadors.

Karate was a minority art in a land where the proper role of minorities was to conform and keep their place.

So how did this shape the early teaching of Karate on mainland Japan?


Charles C. Goodin