A word in your ear

The expression “Disposition of Ryūkyū” (Ryūkyū Shobun) designates the stepwise incorporation of the Ryūkyū Kingdom into the Japanese Empire. First, it was designated the Ryūkyū fief in 1872. Seven years later, in 1879, it integrated into the Japanese Empire as the Okinawa Prefecture.

Various royalist Okinawans opposed this forced annexation. They were usually referred to as the “stubborn faction” (gankotō). The term ganko denotes stubbornness, backwardness, a pigheaded fellow.

The other clique was the pro-Japanese “enlightenment faction”, referred to as kaikatō. The term kaika implies enlightenment, civilization, cultural progress; the process of becoming civilized, or to have laws and culture.

The ideology behind this terminology is revealing. This is especially true as still today it is used in historical context. But it should be noted that this terminology was nothing but calumny by the pro-Japanese stakeholders and their affiliate network.

One major tool for stabilizing the Okinawa region from early on was the policy called Preservation of Old Customs (Kyūkan Onzon Seisaku), in effect from 1879-1903. It was the Meiji government’s answer to strong complaints from among the gentry and former officials who were about to being deprived of their often hereditary privileges. This policy was bases on the continuation of the tax system as under the Ryūkyū Kingdom. In this way the family stipends of royals and senior gentry were ensured. In addition, the gentry enjoyed the privilege of tax exemption. The gentry class was given priority over the rest of the Okinawan people. In this way, commoners and farmers kept laboring under the former gentry much as during kingdom times.

3rd Provincial Governor Iwamura Michitoshi (1840-1915, in office 1883) enforced the involvement of the former gentry and local officials in the prefectural government. Stipends for the high ranking gentry were continued to be paid until 1909, which shows the crucial importance of this measure. Non-stipended lower ex-rank-holders received economic aid, such as seed money to start businesses. The lower stratum encountered some problems in finding employment within the government, but were able to work as school teachers and the like. This group of progressive aristocrats and former rank-holders constituted the core of the indoctrinated pro-Japanese “enlightenment faction” (kaikatō). They willingly aligned with Japan’s demands to modernize Okinawa, inevitably approved the annexation of Ryūkyū, and supported its rapid integration of Okinawa to Japan.

In 1894 patriotic societies (giwadan) were established at the Teachers’ College (Shihan gakkō) and the Middle School (Chūgakkō) in Shuri, in 1895 war was declared against Qing China (1st  Sino-Japanese War), the Patriotic Women’s Association of Okinawa was established, and so on. It is this ideology that poses great problems when talking about early karate: because everything related to war, imperialism, and militarism always had a negative connotation within the Japanese “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” (coping with one’s own past). This holds true for Okinawa and for karate.

Those Ryūkyūans who had still held for China prior to the 1st  Sino-Japanese War now saw that Japan with her new methods could conquer China and began to favor the Japanese. As a result, the stubborn party in Ryūkyū and abroad began to cease dramatically. On the other hand, with all hopes for the restoration of the Ryūkyū kingdom buried, and the combined education and military policy getting a grip, a rapid Japanization was achieved. At this moment the three crucial factors for the success of Okinawa’s assimilation into the Japanese Empire were in gear:

  1. The successful implementation of a combined education and military policy, or “conscription-agers education.”
  2. The reinforcement of the pro-Japanese faction (kaikatō).
  3. The victory in the 1st Sino-Japanese War.

With these prerequisites, the Japanese government in earnest began the institutional integration of Okinawa and “Yamato”.

On March 5, 1898, Imperial Decree No. 36 promulgated the Ordinance of the Okinawa Garrison Headquarter (Okinawa Keibitai-ku Shireibu Jōrei). On April 12 five officials assumed office under Commandant Shimoe Takashi and the conscription office was launched on April 15. Yabu Kentsū at this time was transferred from the Army’s 6th Division 13th Infantry Regiment in Kumamoto to the Okinawa Garrison Headquarter, where he was responsible during the 1st to the 3rd conscription examination.

The Okinawa Garrison Headquarter functioned solely as a conscription office and no Okinawan conscripts were deployed on Okinawa itself, but as of 1898/12/1 were assigned to any of the following: the Army 6th Division 13th Regiment  (Kumamoto), Army 23rd Regiment (Kumamoto),Army 45th Regiment (Kagoshima), Army 46th Regiment (Ōmura), Army 12th Division 14th Regiment (Kokura), Army 24th Regiment (Fukuoka), 47th Regiment (Kokura), 48th Regiment (Kurume), and the Sasebo Navy Base.

Soldiers of the Kumamoto Garrison with bayonet rifles (jūken) in front of the Kankaimon front gate of Shuri Castle. Following the Ryūkyū Shobun, the Kumamoto Garrison had been sent by the Meiji government and was lodged inside Shuri Castle.

Soldiers of the Kumamoto Garrison with bayonet rifles (jūken) in front of the Kankaimon front gate of Shuri Castle. Following the Ryūkyū Shobun, the Kumamoto Garrison had been sent by the Meiji government and was lodged inside Shuri Castle.

Well, when talking about modern Shuri-te, doesn’t it refer to the karate of the pro-Japanese enlightenment party based around Imperial policy, the school system in Shuri, and wasn’t it centered on that part of the former gentry that were deliberately supported in all matters by the government and educated in the Shuri middle and teachers’ schools?

Did not all other karate that was continued, revived, or newly created later simply had to align to this ideology? But of course! And from this perspective isn’t it really childish to admire some weightlifting young men with bare torsos for their achievements?

On the other hand, the total number of “stubborn party” exiles to China between 1874 and 1896 exceeded one hundred persons, many of which were former high-ranking gentry. Among these were karate men that were members of the Yoshimura house, the Kojō house and others. Many of them died in China.

As an example of draft evasion: in the conscription inspection of May-June 1898, some conscripts escaped to China. In this year 1898 the military accused altogether thirty persons of draft evasion. Captured defendants were punished by imprisonment with hard labor and were fined. In addition, the Ryūkyū Shinpō newspaper actively supported government measures and began to publicly report the names of suspected persons.

Ideology played a very important part at the time in Okinawa, at a crucial moment in the creation of modern karate. This has nothing to do with whether you as a person today count yourself to the political middle, right wing, left wing, liberal, democratic or whatever. It doesn’t have to do anything with whether you are pro or contra firearms or your standpoint towards police and military. Depending on your personal perspective you might even feel friendship for the one or the other of the above historical Okinawan groups. You might even don’t give a damn. I don’t think most Okinawan Sensei care.

The sole point here is that we as researchers must also think of modern karate by asking the question:

“Why is it that these specific forms of karate survived until today? Why is it that we are informed specifically about these persons?”

Following the basic human bias of WYSIATI – What You See IS All There IS – one might simply answer “Because it was the karate that was handed down from the old kingdom era, plus some new stuff. And because these were the karate men of the time.”

I disagree (which really isn’t anything special 🙂 ) and have ample reason to do so.

We should consider the karate that survived this crucial era as an unrepresentative and fragmentary tip of the iceberg. The only thing that can shed some light on what was really old style in sense of pre-1879 is precise and detailed historical research. And you might not even like it. You might say “No, that is not karate.” At that point, you’re right and wrong at the same time. Again.

This said, keep on running, Forrest.

© 2015 – 2019, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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