Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Okinawa and the Taira Connection

The warring period (also called the Gusuku period) in Okinawa extended from the late 1100’s until the Ryukyu kingdom was finally unified under a single ruler in 1422.  Historians draw a significant connection to the year 1185 when many defeated Taira warriors fled Japan to take refuge in the Ryukyu Islands.

So, what is the story behind this Taira clan, and how could they have made a difference on Okinawan development?  For these answers, we need to look at some Japanese history.

Early Japanese History

While China has a recorded history going back to 800 B.C., Japan did not become a single country until 500 to 700 AD.   Coincidentally this was also just after or about the same time that the Japanese and Okinawan languages split apart.

The Japanese had much contact and exchange with China then.  In 645 A.D. Japan entered the Taika era (Taika means “great change”).   A centralized imperial state was created based on the Chinese Confucian idea that this was necessary to maintain balance and harmony in society.

The Nara and Heian periods – A Cultural High Point in Japan

The Nara and Heian periods that followed (710 to 1185) were a golden age for Japan. The Japanese imperial family borrowed many things from the Chinese and adapted them to Japan culture.  Buddhist religion and Chinese writing (Kanji) were introduced.  Buddhism began to replace the indigenous Shinto religion.  Music, literature, art, and architecture flourished.  Children were taught in Confucian style schools.

Toward the latter part of the Heian period the Japanese emperor’s central control weakened.  Regional groups ruled by warlords (daimyo) gained in strength.

Two powerful families emerged, namely the Taira and Minamoto clans.  As early as the 10th century, these two clans fought each other for domination over the empire.

Taira becomes first military leader of japan

In 1156 a dispute erupted over who should be emperor.  Taira and Minamoto battled in an episode called the Hogen Insurrection.  The Taira side won.   The Minamoto family made another attempt in 1159 to take power.  This one was named the Heiji Uprising.  Taira Kiyomori, leader of the Taira clan, crushed Minamoto and became the first undisputed national military leader. 

However, going against the advice of his advisors, he spared the life of the Minamoto's youngest son. This is a decision he would come to regret.

The Taira Reign

Taira did much for Japan. He built up a profitable trade with China in the western part of Japan.  He was noted for his strong skills in shipbuilding and seafaring.  He did much to improve ports and navigation for his country.  Experienced in the ways of the Kyoto imperial court, he was no doubt skilled in diplomacy and court intrigue.  His military skills and the loyalty of his warriors kept him in power.

Minamoto Returns – The Gempei War

20 years later, the young Minamoto son whose life had been spared grew to manhood.  Seeking revenge, a plot was hatched in 1180 to overthrow Taira's rule. 

In 1181 war broke out between the Tairas and Minamotos, called the Gempei War.  It was to be a crossroads in Japanese history.  The name Gempei comes from the Chinese reading of the kanji for the respective clan names.  Gen is another pronunciation for Minamoto, and Hei for Taira.  When the two characters are put together in Japanese they are pronounced Gempei.

Minamoto had his forces in the east and north. Taira's strength was in the west and south.  Taira was also stronger at sea.

In 1183 Taira’s superior army was defeated in a battle at Mount Tonami.  Minamoto then captured the capital city Kyoto, and forced Taira forces to retreat west.  One year later Taira lost another major battle called Ichi-no-tani. 

Finally, a famous sea battle in 1185 called Dannoura in western Japan sealed Taira’s fate.  Despite his superior naval skills Taira forces suffered a final major defeat.  This ended the Taira rule over Japan. 

Minamoto became supreme leader of Japan and moved the capital to Kamakura.  He and his descendants would rule for the next 700 years.  The Minamoto takeover also signaled a change from the aesthetic, scholarly culture that had developed in Kyoto to the warrior samurai culture or “bushido” code.  Military dictators, or Shoguns, would rule Japan until 1868, when the Meiji Restoration gave power back to the emperor. 

What Taira people would have brought to Okinawa

Many Taira loyalists went south to the Ryukyu Islands.  They would have brought advanced knowledge of ships, sailing and navigation. Their experience in the royal Japanese court would have provided political expertise.  They would have carried knowledge of economic relations with China, with whom they had traded extensively.  And of course they would also have knowledge of military strategies and tactics.  All these skills would have been valued by the Okinawan local lords, called aji.

What it meant for Okinawa

The next 200 years in the Ryukyu Islands saw a proliferation of the aji, inter-village rivalries, and the construction of numerous castles (gusuku) all over the Ryukyu Islands.  Better navigation skills helped to increase trade with China and other countries, thus ushering in a period of wealth such as Okinawa had never before seen.

Today, the name “Taira” is one of the 10 most common Okinawan surnames. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

From Villages to Castles and the Feudal Period

The first villages in Okinawa, called makyo, began as a one-family affair.  Over time, the population grew and branches of the clan developed. Other families also moved in.  In this way larger communities called mura formed.   The mura had two or more blood groups or clans in the same village. 

The Family Village and the Sacred Grove

Families coming to settle in the islands would first look for a suitable place.  This was typically on a hilltop or mountainside where there was good sun for crop growing, high enough to be away from the storm surges of typhoons and floods, and easy to defend from other villages.  A source of fresh water such as a stream or spring was also important.

The sacred grove or otake formed the center of the family village.  The site for the otake was a heavy clump of trees and bushes with a small clearing.  A large rock or vessel for burning incense stood in the center.  The otake represented the place where the protective kami (god) of the family would present himself from time to time.

A nice article from “Of Andagi and Sanshin” by Wesley Uenten explains how the spirits of deceased ancestors transform to kami (gods) over time if cared for properly.  As memories of the ancestor fade among those still living, the ancestor moves from a spirit to a kami.

Village Government and the Creation Myth

The village was the earliest form of organization.  It was led by the house of the founding family, or the Neya – the root house.  Governance mirrored the religious beliefs about creation.

Several versions of the Okinawan creation myth exist.  According to Sakihara, the most basic one says that the Sun God created a man/woman figure called Amamikyo/Shinereikyo, and this figure gave birth to people – lords, priestesses, and commoners.  Village society reflected this creation myth by having the male head of the root house as “lord”.   The female head of the root house was priestess. The rest of the villagers were followers of these rulers.

The male head of the family controlled the political and business affairs of the village. The head female, typically a sister, controlled all religious and ceremonial activities.  The commoners were the basis for economic production.

Early Village Economy

Up to the end of the 12th century, Okinawa was at a primitive stage of development.  Survival depended on both farming and fishing to ensure enough food.  Rice was a very vulnerable crop and could easily be damaged by floods or drought. Fishing was restricted to areas close to shore, due to the crude level of boat building and navigation. 

Okinawa was chiefly connected externally with Japan in the north.  It was relatively easy to navigate to Kyushu along the island chain.   Travel to the south was risky and dangerous due to the large open stretch of ocean and many typhoons. 

The Feudal Period Begins

Okinawan population continued to increase. Small family villages merged with other clans to become larger multi-clan towns.  The once isolated villages started to find themselves competing among each other for resources. 

As competition for space and resources grew, communities developed local chieftains or lords, called aji.  These aji were looking for ways to expand their power and care for their people.

In 1185 the powerful Taira clan in Japan lost a major war with the Minamoto clan for control over that country.  Many defeated Taira warriors fled to the southern islands of Okinawa for refuge, bringing their knowledge and skills with them.  This would have included military strategy and advanced maritime skills, for which the Taira family was especially noted.

No doubt the Okinawan aji welcomed this influx of new information.  New technology would help them in their power struggles and their fight for resources.  Castle fortresses or gusuku were built by the aji as bases to conduct their campaigns.  The word for gusuku in Japanese is shiro or jo. 
Today, many Okinawans have “shiro” as part of their name.

The period of battling chieftains in Okinawa is also called, the Gusuku period, named after the large number of such structures built.  Today there are 200 to 300 remains of gusuku found throughout the Ryukyu Islands. 

This warring period lasted for over 200 years.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Karate Then and Now - Lecture by Charles Goodin and Sensei Pat Nakata

The karate that we see and learn today is much different than the original martial art developed in old Okinawa. 

Charles Goodin of the Hawaii Karate Museum and Sensei Pat Nakata of the Okinawan Shorin-Ryu Karate Association presented an enlightening review of the Karate’s history.  Their lecture "Karate in the Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa Prefecture, and Hawaii:  How is Okinawan Culture Spread through Karate” was part of the Center for Okinawan Studies Lecture Series.  It was held February 9, 2012 at the University of Hawaii, Manoa Campus.

Karate Development in the Ryukyu Kingdom

Ryukyu became a tribute state to China in the 1370's. Strong trade relations existed then between Ryukyu and China's Ming dynasty.  As part of a cultural exchange between the two countries, the Chinese sent the famous "36 families" to Okinawa to live and share their crafts and skills.  Martial artists were among them.  They taught the Ryukyuans their Chinese techniques. 

Over time the imported Chinese fighting style combined with native Okinawan techniques to become “Karate.”  In those days the name was Tu ti, meaning “Chinese hand” or “foreign hand.”

Karate Practitioners in Old Ryukyu

Legend says that peasants learned karate in secret to rise up against evil Samurai warriors. While romantic, it isn’t true.  Peasants were too busy trying to survive the harsh island life to have energy or time to devote to learning martial arts. 

Mr. Goodin presented evidence that only the gentry classes of Okinawa practiced Karate.  About one third of the population then was gentry class. They had assigned duties and were paid to perform them.  Learning martial arts would have been part of these duties.

Different Karate Styles for Shuri, Naha, and Tomari

Different schools arose in Okinawa based on the areas where they were practiced. 

Shuri castle was the home of royalty, with many foreign visitors.  The Shuri-te style was therefore more refined.  Practitioners could not show their calloused hands to visitors.  Shuri-te named their katas, or formalized practice routines, after the names of the people who created them. 

Naha, the port city, was where the bulk of the 36 Chinese families settled.  So the Naha-te style more closely aligned to Chinese methods.  Typical of the Chinese system at the time, Naha-te katas were named by numbers. 

People in the port city of Tomari had great exposure to sailors from other lands, and many diverse travelers and fighting methods.  The Tomari-te style was a mix of Shuri-te and Naha-te styles. 

Karate Training Then and Now

Old karate did not use gi's or belt systems.  These came later after Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan.  Before that people practiced in their street clothes. The belts or sashes they wore reflected their gentry rank, not karate rank.  Karate had no ranking systems. 

Unlike today, classes were small.  A sensei taught only a handful of students.

Training in Secret

Sensei Nakata indicated that ‘death’ matches were common at that time.  So people tried to keep their karate knowledge a secret to avoid being challenged to a duel.  They did not train in secret to avoid detection by Japanese samurai.

Karate in Okinawa Prefecture

In 1879, Japan abolished the Ryukyu kingdom and the gentry classes, and started to force more conformity to Japan ways in Okinawa.  There were consequences for Karate.

 The gentry class now needed to find work to support themselves.  Because of this, many karate teachers and other artisans had to perform for commoners and others to earn money.  The result was that karate and other Okinawan arts became widely available to the public.

Japan also did not like the fact that Karate used the characters for "Chinese hand."  So the name was changed to mean "Empty hand" to remove the Chinese reference. “Empty hand” also suggested a mysterious Zen-like quality that was more Japanese than Okinawan.

Modern Karate

Karate had always been considered a deadly art to be used only for self-defense.  In 1900 Sensei Itosu introduced Karate into the school system as a way to train Okinawan boys to become better soldiers for the Japanese army.  Over time, the Judo system of wearing gi's and using colored belts for ranks was adopted. Sparring tournaments were also added, something that old karate never engaged in.

Karate’s History in Hawaii

Many famous Karate men visited Hawaii over the years and the speakers reviewed a long list of names, too many to cover here.  They showed many old photos of these great masters and their travels to Hawaii.

Karate Philosophy and Okinawan Spirit

The goal of karate is to save your opponent, not to kill him.  Ryukyu, a small kingdom living under the shadow of both Japan and China, did not have the option to attack first.

Sensei Nakata and Charles Goodin spoke of how true karate expresses the Okinawan spirit.  The five principles of karate are:
·         have humility and respect for others
·        develop one's mind through training
·        always try your best
·        develop awareness so that you can avoid unnecessary conflict
·        develop the essence of martial character - bravery, honesty, justice, etc. 

Starting postures in traditional Karate kata embody these principles. The left hand always covers the right hand.   The right hand symbolizes power and the left hand passivity.  By covering the right with the left, you are expressing that you do not want to fight.

A story by Sensei Nakata summed it up.  Sensei was counseling a child who was getting into fights all the time. The child asked, “Sensei, when is it ok to fight?"  Sensei answered, “When you are ready to die.”


Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The First Okinawans

Prehistoric Okinawa

Who were the first humans to arrive in the Ryukyu Islands? How did they get there?  What was life like?  How did they survive?  When did they become “Okinawans”?  

The word “prehistoric” refers to the time from when humans first appeared until written records started.  The significance of this is that we must search for clues left behind (human remains, tools, and other artifacts) to figure out the answers to these questions.  For Okinawa, prehistory is thought to extend from about 7,000 B.C. to 1200 A.D.

The First Arrivals

The earliest human remains dating to 30,000 B.C. were found in Naha.  Another set of remains found in Minatogawa goes back to 18,000 B.C.  But continuous human activity in the Ryukyu Islands can only be traced back to 3,000 B.C. 

Research about these early days still continues.  By knowing how people travelled, and by comparing archaeological findings, the following picture emerges as one possibility.  This summary is based mainly on the writings of Pearson and Sakihara.

Ocean travel in Dugout Canoes

To get to the Ryukyu Islands you needed to cross the sea.  The earliest boats were simple dugout canoes.  They were powered by a sail or by oars.  Straying too far from shore was risky business.  Travelers would want to keep land in sight at all times.

From Kyushu to Okinawa Island lies a string of small islands close enough together that land was always in sight.  Likewise, Yaeyama and Miyako are linked to Taiwan by another series of islands. People from Japan in the north could work their way to Okinawa by canoe. Travelers from Southeast Asia and China in the south could reach Yaeyama and Miyako. 

Between Miyako and Okinawa lies 175 miles of nothing but ocean.  The long distance, combined with typhoons in that region, made the journey between the north and south Ryukyu Islands tough and risky.  These travel restrictions led to separate developments in the two island groups.  See my post "Okinawa - Location is Destiny" for more on geography.

Northern Islands and Okinawa Settlements came from Japan

Tools and pottery found in ancient sites in Okinawa are similar to those discovered in Kyushu. The islands nearest to Kyushu saw human activity as early as 3,000 B.C.  Descendants of those people moved south to Amami Oshima and then Okinawa some 500 to 1,000 years later, between 2,500 B.C. and 2,000 B.C.  This culture lasted until about 200 A.D. 

Northern Island Lifestyle

These early islanders were hunter-gathers, living off the sea and the land.  They caught fish and shellfish. They hunted and trapped wild pigs. And they ate vegetables that grew naturally around them.  They brought domesticated dogs with them.

Homes were built from large coral rock, away from the sea.  Houses were generally rectangle-shaped.  Each had a small hearth and pit for cooking. 

Tools for cutting and hammering were made of stone. Bones were used to make pins and needles. Pottery jars had simple designs.  Shells were crafted into ornaments.

Southern Island Settlements came from Southeast Asia and Taiwan

Just as island-hopping linked Japan all the way to Okinawa island, in the same way were the southern islands connected to Taiwan and Southeast Asia.

Differences between North and South Cultures

Artifacts found on the southern islands are similar to those seen in Taiwan, Philippines and other Southeast Asian cultures.  The pottery is much different from Amami and Okinawa.  The discovery of hoes in the South points to a strong farming society.  Different groups may have co-existed on the southern islands up until 1,000 A.D. 

Contacts with the Outside World

The early settlers were isolated and had little interaction with the outsiders.  Wayward boats or shipwrecked survivors would have washed ashore as the Black Current or typhoons swept them from the south toward the islands. 

Sporadic trade with China started around 200 B.C. 

Contact between the north and south islands began around 200 A.D.  Trade with China and Korea also increased and became more regular. 

Village Society Develops

Small permanent villages emerged sometime after 200 A.D.  Advances in farming methods needed an organized community effort to plant, grow and harvest crops.  Shallow sea fishing also continued.  The village culture continued until the end of the prehistoric period.

The Okinawan Language Appears

The Okinawan and Japanese languages were once the same. But they split apart sometime between 0 A.D. and 500 A.D.  Today they are completely separate languages and a person who speaks one cannot understand the other.  In fact, Amami, Okinawa, Miyako, and Yaeyama each developed their own dialects.

Okinawa is “Born”

Starting around 600 A.D. Chinese and Japanese documents began to refer to the islands as a distinct location.  Documents from the Chinese Sui Dynasty (589 to 618 A.D.) talk about “Liu-Chiu” (Ryukyu).  Japan records mention “Okinawa” around 616 A.D.   

And the Rest, as They Say, is History

Advances in technology and culture continued. Prehistory ended when written language was introduced in 1187 A.D.    A united Ryukyu Kingdom came into being some 200 years later.  That kingdom became a vibrant international trading center for the Asian region for many years to follow.