1 – The Weapons Ban Theories

According to a foundational theory of Karate, in pre-modern times an indigenous unarmed martial art of Ryūkyūan design existed. Generally referred to as Tī 手 in the native pronunciation, it is considered a native form of boxing and an original form of today’s Karate.[1] Various dates of its earliest creation sketch out a time frame extending from the 12th to the early 17th centuries.[2] The father of Okinawan studies, Iha Fuyū (1876–1947) described it as an indigenous unarmed martial art of Ryūkyū whose creation was triggered by two sequential weapon bans:

  1. The first implemented by King Shō Shin in the early sixteenth century, and
  2. the second by the Shimazu house of Satsuma following their 1609 Ryūkyū invasion.

Iha argued that Tī developed inversely proportional to the decrease in military armor, that is, in a causal effect with these two weapons bans.[3]

Perception of the Weapons Ban Under King Shō Shin

As regards the first weapons ban under King Shō Shin, Iha Fuyū misread the text of article 4 of the Momourasoe inscription (1509): He assumed that Shō Shin had confiscated all arms and had turned them into practical tools and utensils such as farm implements. That is, sort-of swords into plowshares.[4] This was the beginning of the theory that Shō Shin intentionally had demilitarized Ryūkyū.

Based on the above, Iha further concluded that under Shō Shin

by royal command the feudal lords from all territories had to locate to Shuri in order to secure peace inside the country. As preparations for war were no longer necessary, he confiscated all the arms of the whole country, without exception.

George Kerr, in his influential standard work, also translated article 4 as a complete ban of the ownership and use of weapons.[5] He further added that, in an attempt to forestall the dangers of insurrection,

it was first ordered that swords were no longer to be worn as personal equipment. Next, the petty lords were ordered to bring all weapons to Shuri, to be stored in a warehouse under supervision of one of the king’s officers.[6]

Still in 2000 Beillevaire noted that

the Ryūkyū Kingdom had been quite vulnerable since the first half of the 16th century when the local lords were disarmed and forced to reside in Shuri to prevent rebellions.[7]

As regards the perception of this weapons ban, Iha clearly stated that

among Karate persons King Shō Shin, by his political measure of abolishing all weapons in Ryūkyū, is considered to have provided the first major trigger for the development of Karate.[8]

In Karate circles this theory is perceived as King Shō Shin’s intention to completely eliminate the military readiness of the lower warrior classes. In addition, the theory was further expanded as follows:

In order to completely eliminate the military readiness, the weaponry of these warrior classes were requisitioned, stored in the Office of Revenues,[9] and placed under close supervision of the royal government in Shuri. As the carrying of weapons was prohibited, an effective unarmed martial arts developed among the ruling class warriors as the only alternative to weaponry. With the idea of felling down the enemy with one’s bare hands, Karate’s technical precision increased and formed into a weapon itself following the conception of “one strike, sure kill” (ikken hissatsu ー撃必殺).[10]

Critique of the Theory

The above given theory provided the impetus and logic for the idea that unarmed Karate developed as a result of this ban. Since the time of Iha and to this day this reasoning permeates the sublevels of the writings and theories related to the origin and development of Karate, both among Okinawan and Japanese as well as Western authors, as well as in the chitchat of practical experts.

Yet, already in 1977 Nakahara Zenchū noted that there were not only weapons such as bamboo spears and Bō (fencing staves) at the time of Shō Shin, but also cut and thrust weapons, which were not Okinawan products but imported from Japan. He pointed out a serious error in Iha’s interpretation of Shō Shin’s alleged abolition of weaponry[11] and corrected the phrase in question to

all sorts of cut and thrust weapons and bows and arrows were stored in magazines, in order to be used as tools for the defense of the country.[12]

Furthermore citing the Ryūkyū history work Kyūyō, Nakahara explains that Shō Shin’s measure of storing weapons was not meant to abolish the armaments of the country, but rather to organize all sorts of cut and thrust weapons and other arms for the completion of the national defense.[13]

It has also been pointed out that Japan excelled in the manufacturing of cut and thrust weapons, and that these weapons constituted the leading trading good to China, by which Japan became the arms factory of East Asia, so to speak, which was not a mere political idea, but an economic one.[14] That the Ryūkyū Kingdom had been heavily involved in this weapons trade within the tributary trade with China can clearly be seen in the list of tribute articles given in the official work Rekidai Hōan, among which were thousands of swords and other weaponry during the Ming era.[15]

Furthermore, by explicitly stating that this theory “mainly comes from Karate people,” Nakahara, as an Okinawan, shared his first-hand experience, saying that

by lumping everything together it is claimed that Shō Shin abandoned weaponry because he was a musician, as a result of which the government became one of culture, etiquette[16] and esteem for music.[17]

In 1987 Sakihara Mitsugu also translated the part in question from the original text as has appeared in the Monument Inscriptions of the Ryūkyū Country,[18] giving the translation as “swords and bows and arrows are accumulated exclusively as weapons for the protection of the country.” Similar to Nakahara he concluded that

King Shō Shin, far from abolishing arms, accumulated them and was proud of his superior weapons. The truth is that Ryūkyū never in her history had been officially disarmed.[19]

And in 2000 Sakihara again delineated the disarmament issue in Kerr’s newly published edition. Among the Karate intelligentsia it has also been understood that weapons had prevailed among the commoners and the warrior class.[20]

Actually, above described article 4 relating to the alleged weapons ban must be viewed in connection with the following article 5, i.e. “Law and order were established throughout the country” (Kerr) and “One thousand officials were awarded court ranks and one hundred officials were appointed to posts” (Sakihara). In accordance with Nakahara’s interpretation of article 4 – pointing to the completion of a system of national defense –, articles 4 and 5 actually refer to the establishment of the composite government organization called Hiki, which included all kinds of national affairs as well as the military. The described accumulation of weapons under government administration and the establishment of law and order throughout the country strongly suggest that the military equipment and personnel were placed under the administrative and operative responsibilities of the royal government organization of the Hiki. In other words, the actual meaning of the said disarmament was that the Anji were indeed stripped of the military jurisdiction over their individual troops and military equipment, but these were transferred and centralized under the jurisdiction of Shō Shin’s newly organized military government structure.

Furthermore, there is no actual proof that in the above process the local troops and weaponry were physically transferred to Shuri. Rather, it seems that administrative control over troops and weaponry was mainly achieved by the implementation of local governments all over Okinawa Island, as can be seen in the case of the Guardian of Hokuzan and other local military governors, as well as in the auxiliary troops from southern Okinawa which were deployed to Shuri and Naha in case of an emergency. Such it appears that the officials sent out to the local areas by the central government were responsible for law and order in these regions, necessitating troops and weaponry themselves, which would have been provided – at least partially – by troops and equipment from magazines owned by the local communities and still in existence from the previous rule of the Anji. And this appears to be the real meaning of Shō Shin’s weapons management orders.

From the above we can see that all claims of a primordial form of unarmed Karate as having developed as a result of King Shō Shin’s alleged weapons ban is a completely untenable historical fallacy. Even worse: It appears to be fictitious, artificial and wishful thinking.


[1] Cf. Miyazato 1978: 17. Shinzato 1996: 249. Kinjō 2012: 18. Nohara 2007: 56-57. Nagamine 1957: 51. Kadekaru 2012: 176.

[2] OKKJ 2008: 90. Nagamine 1957: 51. Nohara 2007: 56-57.

[3] Iha 1938: 310.

[4] Iha 1938: 306. Text of Article 4: 服裁錦綉器用金銀専積力剣弓矢以為護国之利器此邦財用武器他州所不及也. Sakihara, in Kerr 2000: 543

[5] Kerr 1958, 105

[6] Kerr 1958: 107

[7] Beillevaire 2000: I, 26

[8] Iha 1938: 296-97

[9] 公庫, government financial institution for the management of public funds.

[10] As explained by Takamiyagi Shigeru, in OKKJ 2008: 102.

[11] Cf. Sakihara, in Kerr 2000: 544.

[12] Citing article 4 of the Momourasoe inscription as given in the Chūzan Seifu: 「蔵二刀剣・弓矢之属一以為二護国之具一」. Nakahara gives the term Tōken 刀剣, i.e. cut and thrust weapons. The Chūzan Seifu, Vol. 6 中山世譜巻六, however, gives Manken 万劒, i.e. 10,000 swords, in the sentence 「又藏万劒弓矢之屬。以爲護國之具。」That is, „And 10,000 swords and arrows and bows and similar military equipment were placed in a magazine, in order to be deployed as tools for protecting the fatherland.”

[13] Nakahara 1977: 588, 594. 「服は錦綉をたち、器は金銀を用い、専ら刀剣をつんで、以て護国の利器となす。此の邦の財用、武器、他州の及ばざる所なり」. Cf. Ishadō 2004: 82, giving the original text as 服裁錦綉器用金銀専積刀剣弓矢以為護国之利器此邦財用武器他国所不及也。

[14] Nakahara 1977: 586.

[15] Cf. Uezato 2010: 224-55.

[16] Reigaku 礼楽, which is considered of high importance in Confucianism to appease the actions and quiet the minds of the people.

[17] Nakahara 1977: 592

[18] Ryūkyū-koku-chū Himonki 琉球国中碑文記

[19] Sakihara 1987: 199.

[20] See, for instance, Shinzato Katsuhiko, in OKKJ 2008: 105.

© 2017, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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