Overview: 4 Main Styles of Okinawan Karate
By: Mandy Melendy
January 18, 2014

Karate is very diverse.  It originated over 1000 years ago on the Ryukyu
Archipelago, more commonly known as the islands of Okinawa, Japan.  Different
regions within Okinawa practiced different styles.  In the 1400’s weapons were
banned in Okinawa.  As a result karate was often taught and learned in secret.  The
weapons used were farming tools, such as the bo and bokken.  There are many
different weapons Bo (6 ft staff), Tonfa (utility handel) , Eku (6 ft oar), Kama (grass or
cain sickle), Nunchaku (horse bit or rice flail), Sai, Samuri sword, Kuwa (Japanese
Hoe), and the Timbei and Rochin(shield and dagger) which are currently used in the
various styles.   It was after World War II, when the US occupied Okinawa, that karate
became more widely known.                                     
It is difficult to determine when exactly karate began.  Its roots are thought to have
started as far back as the 5th century BC when Bodhidharma arrived in China from
India and taught Zen Buddhism as well as introduced a systemized set of exercises
designed to strengthen the mind and body.  The islanders of Okinawa used karate
as a means of protection.  The area was often in upheaval and since weapons were
not allowed for a large portion of time it was essential to develop a means of
protecting oneself.  Peichin Takahara (1683-1760) was an astronomer and a monk.  
He became known as one of the fathers of Okinawan karate.  His student Sakugawa
(1733-1815) went on to study the fighting arts in China.  Sakugawa helped form the
basis for Shuri-te by “combining the Chinese are of ch’uan fa and the Okinawan art
of tode”.  He also passed down the Kusanku kata, which was taught to him by
Kusanku (aka Kung Syanag, Koso Kum), who instructed him after the death of
Takahara.  In addition, he developed the bo kata Sakugawa no Kon.  Soken
Matsumura (1797-1889) began learning under Sakugawa at a young age.  Almost all
of the branches of Shorin-ryu that are practiced today can be traced back to
Matsumura.  Like his predecessor he also traveled to China to further his
knowledge of the fighting arts.  He is credited with making one of the greatest
contributions  of katas to further the development of Okinawan karate, these katas
include Naihanchi 1-3, Passai Dai, Chinto and Gojushido.  One of his top students
Yasutsune Itosu (1830-1915) is credited with developing Kusanku Sho and Passai
Sho.  He also introduced the Pinan katas 1-5 into the Okinawan public school system
in 1901.  There are many modern day instructors who have trained under him
including Chosin Chiban who made many great contributions to karate as well.
This lineage of instructors helped to create the basis from which the karate that we
practice today was formed.  There are four main styles of Okinawan karate, although
there are several smaller branches as well.  Many of the styles are similar yet
distinct.  They all tend to incorporate a similar philosophy.  They are Goju-ryu,
Matsubayashi-ryu, Uechi-ryu, and Shorin-ryu.  Each style originated in a different
region, although they were located closely to each other.    
The Goju-ryu branch of karate developed in the Naha-te area.  The success of
Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1915) helped to popularize this branch of karate.  Higaonna
traveled to the Fujian Province of China where he studied under various teachers.  
He returned to Okinawa in 1882 bringing with him a style comprised not only of the
Okinawan style but also of the martial arts that he learned in China.  In 1930, Chojun
Miyagi (1888-1953), a student of Higaonna’s, decided to officially call this branch of
karate Goju-ryu.
The Tomari-te branch of karate was developed in the Tomari region.  Although the
Tomari-te branch of karate has not survived it did greatly influence many other
styles, most notably, the Matsubayashi-ryu branch of karate.  It was officially named
Matsubayashi-ryu  in 1947 by Nagamine Sensei and the name pays tribute to
Matsumura Sokon of Shuri-te and Matsumora Kosaku of Tomari-te.   
The Uechi-ryu branch of karate was founded by Kanbu Uechi (1877- 1948).  He was
an Okinawan who also studied in China and brought back what he learned back to
Japan and Okinawa.  In 1932 after many struggles Kanbu established a full-fledged
dojo and taught a system called Pangainoon-Ryu at a school titled Pangainoon-Ryu
Karate Jutsu Kenkyo-jo.  In 1940 the students of the school renamed the system
Uechi-Ryu and awarded Kanbu the title of Grandmaster.  His eldest son Kanei
studied under him for many years before opening his own dojo and he has helped
to spread the style throughout the world.
The Shorin-ryu branch of karate developed in the area surrounding the Shuri
castle.  Chosin Chibana was one of Itosu’s top students and in 1930, as Shorin-ryu
began to evolve, Chibana-sensei made the move to rename it Kobayashi-ryu to
indicate that it was the original style taught by Itosu-sensei.  Chosin Chibana was
one of the founding members of karate masters and in 1936 he agreed that karate
should be translated as “empty hand”, instead of the previous meaning “Chinese
hand”, to help signify it’s distinction from Chinese styles.  He is credited with stating
that “karate is teaching Kata (form) we have taken from our forefathers without
changing it at all”.  In 1969 he was awarded the Fourth Order of Merit from the
Emperor of Japan for his lifelong contribution to the martial arts.  One of his most
influential students was Shuguro Nakazato, to whom Chibana Sensei presented his
personal black belt, which is a testament to Nakazato’s devotion and skill as a
martial arts practitioner.  Shuguro Nakazato (1921 – present) became the president
of the Okinawan Shorin-ryu Shorinkan karate-do Kyokai.  He was promoted to 10th
Dan in 1980 and is one of the most influential figures in Okinawan karate.  His many
contributions have been recognized with countless awards, including the title of
“Kenmukei Bunkazi” (Intangible Cultural Asset) which was given to him in August of
2000 by the Okinawa Prefecture Board of Education.  He has many first generation
students who practice karate in the United States including Nabil Noujaim, whose
lineage we continue.  He has been studying karate since 1972 and currently runs a
dojo in El Centro, Ca.  He travels extensively to promote our style of karate, making
trips both within the US and abroad.  His November Camps, held annually in
Winterhaven, Ca, draw together karate practitioners from all over the world,
including many high ranking students from Okinawa, to teach, study and learn from
each other.  His student, my Sensei, Salvatore Cirrincione, currently runs a
successful dojo in Vista where he continues to pass on the history of Shorin-Ryu