Educational Modernization, Standard Language, Karate, and Dialect Cards

One of the crucial pillars of the Okinawa assimilation policy was educational modernization. Students needed to be trained in the standard language of Japan. Implementation began as early as 1880 when two new schools were established to serve as the nucleus of an Okinawa education policy:

  • In June 1880 the Conversation Training Facility (Kaiwa Denshū-sho 会話伝習所) was established as the first education facility for teachers. It was located inside the official residence of the Satsuma Resident Commissioner in Naha. Shortly afterward it was renamed to Okinawa Normal School (Okinawa Shihan-gakkō 沖縄師範学校).[1] After several relocations and renamings, in January 1886 it was transferred to the new school building in Shuri Tōnokura.
  • In December 1880 the former National Academy (kokugaku) situated on the palace grounds was renamed and established as the 1st Middle School of Okinawa Prefecture.[2]

In both the above-mentioned schools, as well as in the affiliated primary school, the use of standard Japanese (hyōjungo 標準語) was thoroughly enforced.[3] At the same time, the use of the Okinawan language was prohibited. It was understood that language is the most critical prerequisite to national identity.

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.

BTW, as you may know, the above-mentioned two schools were also the two schools were Karate was implemented for the first time in school education. While widespread and accepted, the terminus “school education” here is actually a euphemism. In fact, it was a “conscription-agers education” (sōtei kyōiku 壮丁教育). Analoguous to this, the Karate taught at the Shuri schools at that time was not “school Karate”, but “conscription-agers Karate” (sōtei karate 壮丁唐手). This can also clearly be seen in the “Ten Articles of Karate” (Karate Jūkajō 唐手十ヶ條) by Itosu Ankō, presented to the Prefectural Government in 1908.[4] The second of these ten articles, which is self-explanatory, is as follows:

If children were to begin training naturally in military prowess while in primary school, then they would be well suited for military service. Remember the words attributed to the Duke of Wellington after he defeated Napoleon, ‘Today’s battle was won on the playing fields of our schools.’[5]

Naturally, standard language was also a key skill for soldiers. It is no coincidence that ki o tsuke 気を付け still today is the command for “(stand to) attention!” in Karate.

BTW, graduates from the Okinawa Normal School – such as Funakoshi Gichin – would then go on and teach at one of the primary schools on the islands. As regards the quantity of such primary schools: By 1885 there were already fifty-seven primary schools established in Okinawa.[6]

As can also be seen in the Ryūkyū Shinpō (1898/4/25) newspaper, being the conformist state media of the time, published the article “Regulations for Conscription-agers,”[7] giving the details of what was expected from conscripts, including standard language, hygiene regulations, hairdo, punishments etc. The crew cut fashionable in schools and elsewhere at that time was a result of the conscription regulations.[8]

BTW, one of the tools to punish those who failed to fully assimilate in Okinawa was the Dialect card (hōgen fuda 方言札). This method was originally a European idea which was adopted in Japan and then implemented in Okinawa. It is said that the Dialect card was even initially voluntarily adopted by Okinawan students at the beginning of the 20th century, but became mandatory as assimilation policies increased following 1917. A student who spoke Okinawan would be forced to wear the card until another student also spoke in Okinawan, and then it would pass to the new transgressor, with the student wearing it at the end of the school day punished by the teachers.[9]

Of course, Dialect cards are a tool for oppression. They can also be likened to claims in Karate, as has been done in this blog entry of the Motobu-ryū from Japan.

BTW, when thinking about this, I began to wonder about all the Okinawan martial arts terms so popular these days. I mean, there is barely one found in any writing prior to the 1950s and now you can already fill complete dictionaries with them. How did that happen? Did they survive uninterruptedly in personal tradition, maybe in secret, until today? Or are they re-inventions, cautiously begun sometime after ’45 and increasing exponentially ever since?


Quast, Andreas: Karate 1.0. Düsseldorf 2013.


[1] Kadekaru 2012: 177.

[2] Kerr 1958: 413-14. Shuri Chūgakkō, variously renamed afterwards.

[3] Kadekaru 2012: 177.

[4] OKKJ 2008: 558. Kadekaru 2012: 178.

[5] Iain Abernethy: The 10 Precepts of Anko Itosu. Translated by a professional translation company. Retreived 2013/12/06,

[6] Public primary schools (shōgakkō 小学校) provided education for the masses of the people and were distributed throughout Okinawa Prefecture. The middle school in Shuri was the first public middle school (chūgakkō 中学校) in Okinawa, until 1910 a branch school was established in Naha, which thus became called the 2nd Middle School. The first vocational school was established in Shuri in 1904, followed by others in 1905 in Naha etc. Public high schools (kōtō-gakkō 高等学校) began between 1900 and 1910 and were the highest educational institutions in Okinawa until the Shōwa era. The Himeyuri nurses came from the higher girl’s school, which shows that girl’s education was also part of the “conscript-agers education.” The fact that no university had been established in Okinawa was without doubt part of a repressive Okinawa policy. In this way, intellectual breeding grounds for different ideas were prevented. In addition, the few Okinawan university students, who would form the future elite, had to study a few years at a university in “real” Japan. It was only the Americans who bestowed a university to Okinawa, deliberately called Ryūkyū Daigaku, not Okinawa Daigaku.

[7] Chōhei tekirei-sha no kokoroe 徴兵適齢者の心得. Kondō 1994: 13.

[8] Kondō 1994: 10-14. Uechi 1977: 389.


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