18. Training in Feudal Okinawa

The following very interesting question was asked by Barry Griessbach of the Redlands dojo.

“What was the typical training routine for a beginning karate student in feudal Japan, and how does this differ from how we approach this issue now? I am interested in this issue because I am a beginning student and would like to know what their training schedule was like.”

To start with the training in Japan where martial arts were mandatory in buke (warrior families) was quite different than the training in Okinawa during the same time period. Then there were different time periods. So the answer is not easy to give unless we define places and times. I think that a really good view will be to look at the capitol city of Shuri and environs in the year 1730. To put this in perspective, however, let’s look at Japan and Okinawa during different time periods, then come back to the training routine in Shuri 1730.

First, Japan:

700-1100AD. This is the beginning of martial arts in Japan as officially sanctioned military arts. The Butokuden became the main training hall with primitive structure. Much was obtained by seeking assistance from Chinese instructors of martial arts.

1100-1600AD. This is the time where the military took over the government of Japan, even moving the capital city to Kamekura. Everything Chinese was distained including their “weak” martial arts. Rival warlords vied for supremacy while sensei and dojo became the property of the warlords. Wandering “sensei” gained much attention and if the sensei’s reputation was great enough people followed him as he traveled trying to learn his “secrets.” The warlords’ dojo were run by sensei who were assigned who to teach by the administration of the warlord. Training consisted of learning very possible weapon and strategy because wars and battles between warlords were commonplace. Those who didn’t know enough died in battle. These were serious times in Japan.

1600-1867AD. The Tokugawa regime managed to consolidate Japan into one “nation.” Training became hereditary and entrance into dojo became much more difficult or impossible. Only those who had a hereditary right (buke) were given entrance. Specialization in one or two weapons became commonplace. Wars were uncommon and the military tended to become more like police. Many sensei looked beyond the physical techniques to find greater internal development. They took zen philosophy to its height while, at the same time, degeneration among many samurai occurred to such extent that many became mere plunderers and murderers of the common people.

1867-1895 AD, the Meiji Restoration. Admiral Perry’s “Black Ships” opened Japan to foreign trade in 1968. The corrupt military government was replace by a semi-democracy. The samurai as well as the sensei were out of work. Dojo closed. The arts declined. All but a few were forgetting the 1000 year history and tradition of martial arts in Japan. In 1895 the Dai Nippon Butokukai was begun in an effort by the aging masters of many martial arts to preserve the history and traditions being lost. Admission to the Butokukai was by recommendation.

Second, Okinawa:

1450-1600AD. Introduction of Chinese culture by 36 family emissaries. Martial arts as arts begin to be taught. Dojo run by Chinese emissaries, rarely by Okinawan indigenous people. The arts are copies of the Chinese and dojo are open to all but had little physical structure. Training appears to have been in private homes and in fields but there were no restrictions on training.

1600-1867AD. In 1609 Japan claimed to own Okinawa. It forbade the practice of martial arts and the possession of weapons. Okinawan instructors had to go underground to teach.

1867-1899AD. The previous restrictions on the Okinawan people were removed but the Okinawan people had developed such a long history of secrecy that karate was hidden in the shadows during these years. Then in 1899 Itosu Yasustune and Gichen Funakoshi began to teach karate openly in Shuri schools.


So what was the training like? You can see that it is hard to say what training was like over the 1000 year history of Japan and more than 500 year history of Okinawa. Let’s look at the capitol city of Shuri, Okinawa 1730AD to get a first glimpse. Rather than look at the schedule of events during a training I will give you the glimpse of what the processes were surrounding trainings. Although what I will present is partially fictitious much of it is true.

Shuri, Okinawa, 1730AD:

Tatsuo’s father, a local land-owner named Hironori with a proud military family history for 10 generations, told Tatsuo that Tatsuo was to learn martial arts. The father felt that the martial arts would build his son’s slight frame and give him more safety during the dangerous times he lived in. Hironori first learned of a martial arts sensei in the outskirts of Shuri by talking with some relatives. He arranged to visit the man. The sensei subtly denied that he knew anything about martial arts and politely suggested that Tatsuo’s father had made a mistake. Hironori knew that the man was a great sensei but because of the man’s refusal Hironori accepted the rejection and left honorably.

Hironori next heard from friends that another sensei, named Takahara, taught at Adama village outside of Shuri. Tatsuo’s father arranged to meet this man, this time taking a letter of introduction from a student of Takahara’s (only Hironori didn’t know that the man was a student, he thought the man just knew Takahara personally). The letter of introduction, stated nothing about martial arts for if it were to fall into the wrong hands the police would arrest both men and perhaps (likely) execute both of them. Takahara recognized the name of his student without saying anything or even looking up. He asked what Hironori wanted.

Hironori explained about his son. Takahara listened and countered to Hironori that he did not take new students unless they were humble, desirous, will not be removed from his school until he dismisses them, and that they prove that they really want to learn martial arts for a lifetime. Hironori bowed deeply and then brought his son in to meet Takahara. Takahara told Tatsuo what was expected of him. Tatsuo agreed. Hironori left his son there that night after the payment of two koku of rice per year was agreed as the retaining fee.

Tatsuo expected that his training would begin immediately. It did but not as expected. The young boy was first introduced to cleaning the house for the first time in his life. He was told to wash the floors, clean the walls, cut and stack firewood for the winter, rake the garden, pick up leaves, deliver messages to neighbors and all manner of chores. He did them as weeks passed into months and even into years. He missed his father and mother. After two years Tatsuo has still not seen a single martial art technique, so he thought. And worse, Tatsuo has not been allowed to visit his family, either.

Others boys came and went. Some of them mentioned to Tatsuo that they wanted to learn martial arts. Tatsuo knew better than to say anything for martial arts training was to be secret. He remained silent doing his chores as he was told. He saw other boys dismissed by Takahara leaving the house with regret and remorse. He felt relief because he was not dismissed. He would have felt great shame to be forced to return to his parents. He wanted to stay with Takahara even though he had not learned what he came for in two years, just so that he did not shame his family name by returning home.

On the 14th day of the 5th month after the second New Year that Tatsuo had been at “training” Takahara invited Tatsuo and two others into tea. Takahara placed the cups in front of the three and filled them with tea. The three were astonished to have Takahara do this. He had never done it before. They waited as he poured his own tea and sat motionless allowing the moonlight to filter thru the open window. Then he drank his tea. The boys did not know what to do. One boy pushed the tea away refusing to elevate himself to the point of accepting his sensei as a tea-pourer (a humble position). The other, knowing that Takahara had offered the tea did not want to offend Takahara so he drank the tea with all the proper etiquette of drinking tea. Tatsuo thought for a moment. He did not want to offend his instructor by refusing the tea nor did he want to debase his instructor to the point of being his personal tea server. Tatsuo picked up the tea cup and took it over to Takahara’s ancestral shrine and placed the tea there in front of the Takahara’s memories of his family ancestry then returned to the table with a deep bow toward Takahara.

Takahara expelled the boy who refused the tea and the boy who drank the tea. Tatsuo remained. No words were spoken to Tatsuo. He waited to be dismissed by a nod of Takahara’s head. Tatsuo bowed deeply and exited the room backwards, bowing again at the door before closing it. Tatsuo finished his chores and retired to bed.

Takahara waited until the star Antares was 30 degrees (three fists) away from the meridian (about 10:00pm on this date) then walked into Tatsuo’s room and said only one word, “kinasai” which meant “come.” Tatsuo quickly rose, dressed and followed Takahara. They walked for most of an hour up into the hills where they came to an open field (the lower field but Tatsuo didn’t know this yet). Takahara began doing some strange movements. Tatsuo imitated. Takahara repeated. Tatsuo imitated again. Soon Tatsuo had memorized the pattern; step forward with the left leg, step forward with the right leg, step forward with the left leg; each time moving the hands a certain way. (Tatsuo had been introduced to the beginning movements of the kata Seisan, even though he did not know it.) Takahara told Tatsuo to practice. Takahara remained for a few minutes then disappeared in the opposite direction from where they came. Tatsuo was left in the open field in the moonlight, alone. He continued to practice.

Takahara had gone to the high field (his name means high field, a name taken from where he used to practice his karate). In the high field when Antares crossed the meridian line his other students and he were to meet (that is midnight on this date. Remember that they had no clocks. They went by the sky. Takahara was an astronomer and taught his students the use of the stars for time.) When Antares was three fists to the west of the meridian training halted. It was 2:00AM. Takahara went back to the lower field to find Tatsuo still practicing the same movements.

Takahara called to Tatsuo. When Tatsuo was close enough Takahara said to him, “Tatsuo you must practice these movements frequently, everywhere you can, whenever you can but never let anyone see you practicing them.” Tatsuo bowed deeply. They returned home.

Takahara kept an eye on Tatsuo. Takahara saw that Tatsuo was practicing the movements and being very careful not to do it when anyone could see him. But the old master saw, because he was looking for Tatsuo’s practice. Two weeks passed. Takahara called for Tatsuo.

Takahara said, “Tatsuo, you have been doing well. I am sending you on a brief vacation to visit your parents. You are to leave tomorrow at first light, and take with you this letter. Give it to your father.”

For the first time in two years and after having learned only three movements from one kata on one night weeks before, Tatsuo returned home. As he passed the threshold of his home he announced, “I have returned.” The family was glad to see him. The father took the letter, read it upside down (because he couldn’t read) and nodded. He asked his son to read it. The son read the letter from Takahara, “Your son is progressing well. He has improved in discipline, honor, tenacity, respect. He will continue in one week. Please have him back by the fourth day of the sixth month. Takahara.”

When Tatsuo returned he found things much different. The very first night back Takahara told him to be at the lower field at half way between sunset and sunrise. Tatsuo arrived early not knowing how to tell “star” time yet. At midnight a man appeared and called Tatsuo by name. He told him to follow. They went to the high field. There several men were gathered. Takahara soon appeared.

They practiced under pure star-light. No moon was present and no lanterns were lit. They practiced by feel. Tatsuo was bewildered. He knew only three movements, and he didn’t know what they were about. He tried to follow but he just couldn’t even see what was going on.

Two hours later and after a ceremonious closing in a circle everybody went home.

Tatsuo was discouraged. He had hardly seen anything. He couldn’t really remember having done anything that he could repeat. So in secrecy he practice his three movements from the previous training. Takahara watched from behind the pillars.

Two night later there was another training. There didn’t seem to be any pattern to the nights that trainings occurred. Frequently trainings were held in other fields in other directions. Tatsuo soon learned that he could see and copy better on the nights with moonlight. He also found that individual practice on personal kata occurred more on moon-less nights while new material, as well as more partner practice, occurred on moon-light nights.

Takahara sent Tatsuo on an errand to pick up some fish at the open market. Takahara wanted fresh fish that night and had heard that a new shipment of fish was due that afternoon. Tatsuo went to the open-market and looked for the fish-monger. As he approached the table he recognized the fish-monger as one of the men who trained with him the night before. He smiled. The other man did not so much as blink an eye. Tatsuo picked out the fish he desired and paid the man for them. No more was said than the price of the fish and no more was expressed than the standard bow. Tatsuo was bewildered.

Thinking on the incident as he walked to Takahara’s house he began to realize the depth of the secrecy. Students who trained together during the night did not know each other during the day by need to protect the school’s secrecy. It wasn’t a matter of talking about karate, it was a matter of even recognizing each other.

That night Tatsuo trained with the fish-monger at Takahara’s high field.

Tatsuo had been training in the fields for nearly a year when his training took on new life. Late one night while training in the high field, Takahara suddenly stopped the training and said “disperse!” As the group broke into different directions armed police descended on the field. Pandemonium resulted. Tatsuo raced towards the route he had been told to exit in such an emergency. He was hit by a bo and thrown to the ground. One of the elder brothers (sempai) stepped right in and did battle with the armed man, dispatching him in a couple of movements. The sempai aided Tatsuo to safety among the trees. In silence they waited till dawn.

The next morning at Takaharas, Tatsuo was brought into the tea room. Takahara said to him that one of the members from the night before had been captured. He was taken to the village and beheaded in the morning. Takahara did not need to explain to Tatsuo the need for absolute silence about and secrecy in practicing martial arts.

Another student had been badly injured. He lie at home bandaged, bruised and perhaps dying. Takahara wanted to go to see the man but the chances of discovery were great and could lead to further investigation. Takahara would take great precautions and Tatsuo was to help (Saifa? Saiha?). Tatsuo was to go buy fish from the fish-monger whispering to him at a safe time that Takahara would come at the fifth hour of the night. The fish-monger passed the word to the family of the injured man.

That night Takahara broke out his black clothing. He took the charcoal from the fire and covered his face, hands and feet. He took his black bo from the secret hiding place. Dressed completely in black and with a moon just to set at the fourth hour of the night he slipped out into the darkness of the night. Within an hour he slipped into his student’s house thru the back.

The man had been badly injured. Takahara applied his katsu (healing techniques involving physical manipulation and herbal medicines). He slipped back into the dark in an hour. At home Tatsuo had prepared a bath for him. Takahara explained that he would need to go every night for a while. Both resolved to accomplish what must be done.

Trainings resumed in two nights. New fields were chosen farther away from the town. Centuries were posted on both ends of the approaches to the fields. Solitary scouts passed thru the fields an hour before training was scheduled to discover anyone hiding there. If all was clear they lit a lantern for two minutes and hung it in a tree.

Tatsuo trained with Sensei Takahara for six years more before he was sent to live at home again. He had learned a great deal, but now it was time for him to take his place in society during the daytime and train in martial arts during the nighttime. He had found a bond to his karate-friends, his sensei and his art with such depth that he would die rather than betray any of them.

He was one of the secret bushi of Okinawa.


Barry, although this story is fictitious (in some parts) I hope it answers your question. Karate in the 1700s was a curious blend of fighting technique, close relationship and secrecy. Today we practice in the open with published hours for training. We fear no intrusion by the military of the police. But with that privilege we often do not develop the closeness that the ancients needed to survive in a hostile environment. Thanks for the question.