If you don’t run in martial arts circles, all the terminology and the different forms of martial arts can be somewhat overwhelming. With more than a couple of hundred different styles/types of martial arts from all around the world, divided by style, type, school and sub-styles, it can all get a little convoluted. You have striking styles, grappling styles, weapons styles and uncounted numbers of hybrid styles. Without delving too deeply in how some styles are descendent from another and so forth, let’s focus mainly on the style I’ve been studying all my life: Uechi Ryu Okinawan Karate.
First, let’s cover off some basics so that we’re all on the same page. Karate is an Okinawan martial art, not to be mistaken with a Japanese martial art. Yes, yes, I know… Okinawa is part of Japan; a prefecture of Japan, in fact. For those who don’t know, a prefecture is a sort of jurisdictional division, like a country, Province or state. And although some descendent styles of karate were founded in Japan, karate owes its roots to Okinawa. Hence, the distinction.
Karate, or Karate Do as it’s meant to be pronounced, means “empty hand” with the latter term meaning “way of the empty hand.” The fighting style came about when the original masters returned from China where they had learned a number of different styles of Kung Fu. In the case of my style’s founder, he fled to China in order to escape the military draft. But hey, nobody’s perfect!
Originally, martial arts in Okinawa were referred to as Te, or “martial skill. Once the inclusion of Chinese Kung Fu came about, it was renamed Tode, or “Chinese Hand.” For the most part, Te was used as a fighting art for law enforcement and the rich and generally included the use of a sword or other edged weapon. Te is also way, WAY older than Tode. This is why the true origins of karate as I know it come from Tode.
Once karate made its way to Okinawa, it became divided by three separates schools or “styles” (although they never referred to them as separate styles): Naha-Te, Tomari-Te and Shuri-Te, after the three main cities on Okinawa. To some extent, every traditional style of karate, including the subsequent Japanese styles, can trace their roots to one of these three original schools. In the case of my style, (Uechi-Ryu) it got it’s humble beginnings in Naha, making it a part of Naha-Te.
In the beginning, there were no differing styles. Karate was karate and students from those three cities would train together with no discerning difference in techniques and style with the exception of small, cosmetic aspects. As specific “styles” began to emerge due to the inclusion of specific forms and techniques, most were named in honour or remembrance of their founders, which is the case for Uechi-Ryu, which was so-named by students after Master Kanbun Uechi’s death in 1948.
The only real distinction that could be made amongst the three styles were that Tomari-Te and Shuri-Te were pretty linear styles with Naha-Te being more of a circular style. But in speaking with some of the original masters way back then, most of them were surprised and even indifferent to the prospect that people were referring to their karate as “this style” or “that style.” For them, it was all just karate.
One of the things that makes me sad is that Uechi Ryu is not a mainstream form of karate like many of the more recognizable styles, like Shotokan, Kyokushinkai or Goju-Ryu. Ironically, Goju-Ryu is Uechi-Ryu’s sister style and is almost identical to Uechi-Ryu. Same katas, same circular blocks and movements, same original background. But this means that if you try to see Karate’s family tree, Uechi-Ryu is often not included.
You can check out Uechi-Ryu’s full background by reading the Wikipedia entry, which I have to say is pretty accurate and complete. But today’s face of karate differs quite a bit from it’s humble beginnings two centuries ago. Many popular styles of karate are simply hybrids or combinations of previous or traditional styles. The aforementioned Kyokushinkai, for example, is a hybrid combination of Goju-Ryu and Shotokan karate. And new schools and styles seem to emerge with every passing decade. At the end of the day, karate is karate. A punch is still a punch and a kick is still a kick. Finding the style that works for you and that you can commit yourself to is the key. But knowing the roots that started it all will open the door. ☯