Karate as an Intangible Cultural Property

There are various levels and designations of cultural properties of Japan. They may be designated by institutions on municipal, prefectural, and national level, and in a multitude of fields: there are “Tangible Cultural Properties”, “Intangible Cultural Property”, “Folk Cultural Properties”, Monuments, Cultural Landscapes, Groups of Traditional Buildings, “Conservation Techniques for Cultural Properties”, and “Buried Cultural Properties”. All these are regulated in the “Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties” (1950).

For example, many of the various traditional village staff fencing methods (mura-bō) from Okinawa Prefecture had been designated “Folk Cultural Properties” since the 1980s.

In the field of Karate and Kobudo, the field of designation is “Intangible Cultural Property” (mukei bunkazai). According to law, this exclusively refers to human skills of high historical or artistic value such as drama (Noh, Bunraku, Kabuki, Kumiodori), music, and craft techniques (ceramics etc.).

It should be noted that there are “Intangible Cultural Properties” designated on national level as well as on prefectural level. While bearing the exact same designation, there is a hierarchical difference.

Karate and Kobudo were recognized as an “Intangible Cultural Property” on prefectural level by Okinawa Prefecture on August 8, 1997. At that time, the first three holders of this title were also recognized (Nagamine Shōshin, Yagi Meitoku, Itokazu Seiki). Since that time, Okinawa Prefecture is legally entitled to designate “Intangible Cultural Properties in the Field of Karate and Kobudo.” The certificates of the title holders are numbered and the first of these was issued to Nagamine Shōshin. Here is the list of the 20 holders of the title recognized so far by Okinawa Prefecture.  

  • Designation year 1997: Nagamine Shōshin, Yagi Meitoku, Itokazu Seiki.
  • Designation year 2000: Iha Koshin, Tomoyose Ryuko, Nakazato Shugoro, Nakazato Joen, Miyahira Katsuya, Wakugawa Kosei.
  • Designation year 2013: Ishikawa Seitoku, Uehara Takenobu, Hichiya Yoshio, Nakamoto Masahiro, Higaonna Morio.
  • Designation year 2020: Takara Shintoku, Iha Seikichi, Nakahodo Tsutomu, Iha Kōtarō, Maeshiro Morinobu, Kikugawa Masanari.

The next higher level called “Important Intangible Cultural Property” (jūyō mukei bunkazai) can only be designated on national level. Furthermore, when it is a person designated as such, they are informally referred to as “Living National Treasure” (ningen kokuhō). These persons receive a special grant of two million yen a year to help protect their properties.


As these designations are all fixed in a law, the terminology must adhered to at all times with great accuracy and must not be confused with other certificates or titles.

The first three persons designated “Intangible Cultural Property in the Field of Karate and Kobudo” by Okinawa Prefecture in 1997. From left to right: Nagamine Shōshin, Yagi Meitoku, Itokazu Seiki. Source: OKKJ 2008: 8.

© 2016 – 2020, Andreas Quast. All rights reserved.

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