Nakahara Zenshu: Character and Weapons of the Ryukyu Kingdom (2)

Iha Fuyū (1876 –1947), called the "father of Okinawaology", was a Okinawan scholar who studied various aspects of Japanese and Okinawan culture, customs, linguistics, and lore.

Iha Fuyū (1876 –1947), called the “father of Okinawaology”, was a Okinawan scholar who studied various aspects of Japanese and Okinawan culture, customs, linguistics, and lore.

In this second part, Nakahara sheds some light on the beginning of a twofold theory as regards weapons bans, which in consequence not only served to establish the theory of a historically “peaceful Ryūkyū kingdom” but also that of Karate as an unarmed martial art. Iha’s theory, formulated in 1922 and 1926, established two arguments:

  • 1) Shō Shin confiscated all weapons and pacified the country.
  • 2) Satsuma conquered Ryūkyū because the latter had no weapons, and Satsuma also continued a ban on their use.

Early Karate people adopted this theory from Iha. It provided them subjectively coherent grounds upon which they argued that these two historical incidents constituted the reason for the development of an a) indigenous, b) unarmed martial arts that is c) older than the import of Chinese kenpō.

Iha’s theory, and thus all subsequent theories building upon it, have long been refuted, at least since this article of Nakahara, which is from 1969 and thus already almost half a century old. However, in Karate circles this theory is continued to be used in the obstinate attempt to fabricate an ever longer lineage of an

  • a) indigenous,
  • b) unarmed martial arts that is
  • c) older than the import of Chinese kenpō and its modern “Karate” derivatives.

The point I am making here should be clear by now: In the argumentation which “Karate” style is older and more original, since the early 20th century, this was the most important point in the historical discussion. The results, however, were already predetermined and it depended on a combined logical, semantical, and historical fallacy. In its slipstream, the cultural hypothesis of developed as an underlying presumption, i.e. as a statement whose validity – under certain assumptions – is believed to be possible, but which in general so far could neither be verified nor rejected – I tend to the latter as everybody knows. This cultural hypothesis of added another level to it,

  • a) indigenous,
  • b) unarmed martial arts that is
  • c) older than the import of Chinese kenpō
  • d) and whose techniques have been handed down of over hundreds of years, unchanged, in secret, unbeknownst to anybody else, and in a personal tradition.

If that is not a Gordian knot I don’t know what it is.

Does it help? No it doesn’t. Everyone keep doing what you do and believing what you believe. But occasionally I will probably be asking for bullet-proof evidences for claims of century-long personal traditions. And I really would want to believe and I keep on hoping. Until that day, the oldest example of martial arts tradition that was actually handed down within a family remains that of members of the Naha gentry, which can be traced back to the 17th century. It has been described for the first time in Western language in my book Karate 1.0.

Nakahara Zenshu: Character and Weapons of the Ryukyu Kingdom (2)

Momourasoe was the name of the central building of the king’s palace. Situated in front of this building stood a balustrade, encarved on which where eleven articles describing the achievements of the King. The preamble and the quoted deeds enable us to partly understand the ideas/thoughts of the king and his retainers.

The inscription begins,

“The retainers, reverently (praise the) accomplishments of the Yo no Nushi of Chūzan, lord Shō Shin”.

Yo no Nushi is the Okinawan name for a governor, leader, or ruler, and Shō Shin’s Chinese style title, which corresponds to lord or prince in the Japanese language. Here, this gives a fleeting glimpse on the character of the Okinawan culture of the time. Praising the king’s personal appearance and moral influence, it says

“Our King Shō Shin, distinguished by his heavenly refined appearance and a farsighted awareness and intelligence, of a virtue equal to that of the ‘three kings’, with his famous name resounding in all directions, such that one can call him a wise ruler”.

The king’s ideal character was like that of the ‘three kings’, i.e. Yao, Shun, and Yu, which resemble the ideal of Confucianism itself. Shō Shin’s ruled according to the ideal of the Chinese emperor and his rule is synonymous with The Golden Age.

Next, let’s take a look at some concrete examples.

First, believing in Buddhism, temples were erected and Buddhist statues built:

“The Yo no Nushi, having been devoted to Buddha, the Buddhist teachings, and the Buddhist community, had the same heart as emperor Ming Di of the Han dynasty and emperor Wu Di of the Liang dynasty.”

  • Translators note on Ming Di: 28-75; reigned 57-75. First promoter of Buddhism in China who sent out a delegation to India to seek Buddhism and had built the allegedly first Buddhist temple in China, the White Horse Temple.
  • Translators note on Wu Di: 464-549; reigned 502-549. While keeping Confucianism as the state‘s basic political ethic, he was also the most important promoter of Buddhism in China. He is known in literature for his dialogue with Bodhidharma as having been narrated in the Biyan lu (Records of the Green Jade Cliff).

Second, he cleared up the character of the government. He rectified the etiquette towards his retainers, set mild taxes for the people, the first day of the month (or one day) they could rest, ruling the land, he put great effort in putting the clans to order. From this reason it is said that the people looked up to their king similar as they looked up to sun and moon, and that they were as intimate with the retainers as they were with their own father and mother.

The first article is about faith and teaching people and leading them to Buddhism, the second article about the way the politics ought to be, that is, the practice of Confucian ethics.

The third article concerns the conquest of Sakishima, explaining the increasing energy of the country’s military strength.

The fourth article states that the country became rich and prospered, and also clarified that the system of national defense was completed. I.e., it says,

“Clothes are quality made of fabric with a brocade and embroidery, gold and silver is used in making tableware/utensils, cut and thrust weapons are pieced together for being used exclusively as live arms for the defense of the country. Other countries fall short of this country’s use of goods/riches and arms”.

Clothes conventional were made of hemp or bashofu (Banana fiber), but also the much better silk cloth was used. Tableware and utensils were not only conventionally made of wood or earthenware, but also from gold and silver. As weapons there were not only bamboo spears, etc., but also cut and thrust weapons (swords etc.) were stored, and such the national defense was completed. In short: economy and national defense were considered at least on par with anywhere else one might compare to.

Silk goods, golden and silver tableware/utensils, as well as cut and thrust weapons were not Okinawan products. Silk goods were imported from China and golden and silver tableware/utensils as well as cut and thrust weapons were imported goods from Japan.

At that time Okinawa conducted a vigorous entrepôt trade with Japan, China, Korea, and Southeast Asia. Furthermore, as it was a monopoly business of the royal government, the profits from it presumably must have been huge. However, from the end of the fourth article,

“this country’s use of finances and weapons”,

Iha Fuyū Sensei read

“this country uses its finances for (buying) weapons”,

i.e. he reasoned that the king bought weapons in China, imported them, and produced farming implements from them.

Furthermore, the following is a historical evaluation of Iha is related to this topic. He explained that

”the intention of securing eternal peace within this peaceful micro cosmos was trampled down by the Satsuma forces one century later, and doomed the country to agree upon a 300 years period of slavery-like peace”.[1]

And this was the beginning of the weapons confiscating theory.

The Chūzan Seifu noted, that

“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,”[2]

and the Kyūyō notes the same, saying that rather than an abolishment of armaments (military preparations), it was a strengthening of the national defense.

The fifth article, the government official’s Kanzashi (hairpins) were divided in two kinds of gold and silver, in order to be able to differentiate the ranks.

The sixth, seventh, and eighth article explain the beautification of the inside and outside of the royal castle with ornaments.

The ninth article describes that “paying tribute” had been changed from once every three years to once every year, which promoted the foreign trade.

The tenth article describes the change towards the Chinese customs, revising the local manners of Okinawa, regulating the royal government officials’ etiquette, so that they on the first and the fifteenth day of the month lined up and bowed their heads in worship, and banzai-ing the king in a celebration. The system of clothes of the government officials was revised to a Chinese style, and according to the Yuraiki (Annals [of the Royal Government of Ryūkyū]), at the time of a state ceremony, the king and all subordinate officials would eat Chinese food. In the Japanese era of import of continental culture, the cloth system of Sui- and Tang Dynasty China, 581-619 and 618-907 AD respectively, were imported, the uniforms of government officials of both genders were determined, which can be seen as a precedent.

The eleventh article describes the building of the royal palace as an imitation of China’s palaces. At the time of receiving powerful stimuli from peripheral cultures, the emulation of governmental organization, clothing system etc., seems to have been a self-acting course of events. It goes without saying that the organization of Nara and Heian era capitals were an imitation of castle town organizations of China.

As the king’s achievement, the Chūzan Seifu notes the importance of gathering the Anji from the various places, to

“get an advantage by dissolving (those) loose and disorganized warriors”,

which can also simply be interpreted as the

“termination of warfare”.

The Anji who remained from then on had to reside in Shuri, deprived of their function as military men and transformed into a mere court rank. This was the so-called centralized authoritarian rule (Chuō-shūken 中央集権). The administration of the rural areas at the time was provided by means of dispatching Anji-okite from Shuri, while following the Satsuma rule this changed to Jitōdai, who were persons of origin from these rural areas.

The king also prohibited the evil custom of following the demise of a king or a king’s mother by committing suicide, which had been performed since about 100 years prior. This was induced by suggestion of Sengan 仙岩, the chief priest of Enkakuji temple, which can be seen in the Kokuō Shōtoku-hi (The Monument in Praise of the Paragons of the Virtues of the King, 1543). At the end of the inscription on the same stone monument it is said that

“A retainer honouring his master, the filial piety of children towards their parents, the deference paid by younger brothers to their older brothers, and to honor the elderly and to love the juniors: these are the ideal morals of the peoples daily existence”.

With above-mentioned description, it is possible to draw a summary of king Shō Shin’s achievements. I’am questioning, though, if this was only the political ideal of the king and his court officials[3]. This ideal can be said to be a straightforward Confucian ideal. Considering the expression ō 王道 – i.e. righteous government or rule of right – here the politics are such that the ethical king enriches the life of his people by means of moral influence. Thus king Shō Shin’s politics made him a person close to this ideal, comparable to emperor Ming (28-75; rg. 58-75) of the Later Han dynasty who erected Buddhist temples in China for the first time, and emperor Wu (464-549; rg. 502-549) of the Liang dynasty, who met with Daruma Daishi (Bodhidharma).


[1] Cf. Iha 1922: 14; 1926/1: 139; 1926/2: 21; etc.

[2] Nakahara gives the term tōken 刀剣, i.e. cut and thrust weapons. The Chūzan Seifu, Vol. 6, gives it as manken 万劒, i.e. 10,000 swords. The original sentence of the Chūzan Seifu is “And 10,000 swords and arrows and bows and the like equipment were placed in a magazine, in order to be deployed as tools for protecting the fatherland.”

[3] 臣僚. Translation taken from Chinese Chénliáo, meaning a court official in former times.​

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