It is difficult to avoid politics. History is always political. What is more, the political issues of an earlier era always are reinterpreted in light of today’s political issues.
A study of Okinawa, for example, raises many past and present—and universal as well as particular—issues. I am once again led to this insight by my interest in the history of martial arts. Okinawa, an island that was only fully incorporated into the nation of Japan after the Meiji Restoration of the late nineteenth century, figures prominently in any full accounting of the development of unarmed combat because it is the center of one of the most internationally popular systems, karate.
In the summer of 1964, when Japan hosted the Olympics, I first heard a version of the legendary origin of karate. In 1609, Japanese invaded Okinawa and outlawed weapons-possession by the locals, and, subsequently, the art of unarmed combat developed secretly. The modern political issue that this reminds me of is gun control, which we might more generally call “weapons control.” In most such cases, a total weapons ban is almost never enacted, but, rather, weapons control usually means that some people cannot legally possess weapons while others—their oppressors—are allowed, and in some cases even encouraged, to possess weapons. This practice has been repeated virtually everywhere in all eras, from ancient China to Renaissance England to Turkish Armenia to Nazi Germany to the present day in many countries: first disarm your enemies, and after that it is like the proverbial shooting of fish in a barrel.
More recently I learned the following Okinawan legend: In seventeenth century Okinawa, the Japanese samurai were able to go around Okinawa committing crimes against the locals with impunity because they had swords while the locals had none. One day, a samurai tried to rape an Okinawan woman but an unarmed Okinawan man happened by and disarmed the samurai. The story does not tell whether unarmed martial arts were outlawed by the conquerors before or after such incidents.
Now, either I or the ABC television network back in 1964 got some of the history garbled. Karate did not arise after the invasion by the Japanese, because there were unarmed combat systems on Okinawa before that. To understand this, you have to look at the geography of Okinawa, which is the largest of a thousand-mile-long chain of islands that once constituted the Ryukyu Kingdom, and is situated between the Japanese island of Kyushu to the northeast and the Island of Taiwan to the southwest. The people of this island chain had their own non-Japanese language and were more apt to trade with and be influenced by Chinese than Japanese culture. One of the things they learned from the Chinese was kung fu or kenpo, as it is more often called in Japan. The Okinawans seem to have had their own fighting system, called “tii” or “te,” which they combined with kenpo to develop a hand and foot fighting system called “kara te” or “karate” meaning “Chinese hand.” This would likely have been the already developed system used against the seventeenth century rapist in the legend.
Politics keeps rearing its head in this story. By the end of the nineteenth century, Okinawa was being fully integrated into Japan linguistically, culturally, and politically. At the same time, Japan was trying to dominate Asia and was hostile toward China. It so happened that the “kara” in “karate” came from the word for China in general or the Tang Dynasty in particular, but it also sounds like the Japanese word for “empty”; so, in the early twentieth century, the character for “China” or “Tang” was replaced with the character for “empty” in the Japanese writing of “karate” to make karate seem more Japanese. (Never mind that the Japanese writing system itself is based on the Chinese one.)
In the future—no doubt the near future—we are looking toward a crisis involving a small group of islands that form part of the Okinawa Prefecture. The Senkaku islands, which are claimed by Japan, are also claimed by the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the People’s Republic of China (Red China). The PRC also claims Taiwan. Once China feels they can do so with impunity, they will take over Taiwan, and if they do so, they will sooner or later take the Senkaku islands, too. This will bring them into conflict with Japan once again. The Senkaku islands have no native population, however. Taking the Senkakus would be more of a cause for alarm depending on who was taken first. Taiwan taking the Senkakus would be an international crisis. The taking of Taiwan by Red China would overshadow the fate of the Senkakus whether the ChiComs moved on the little islands or not. It would be very threatening, however, for the PRC to invade the Senkakus before attacking Taiwan because Japan and Taiwan would each regard it as an attack on them. It is always ill-advised to make two enemies at once without neutralizing at least one of them first.