Throughout history, cultural identity1 is affected, damaged, sometimes even destroyed by occupations, takeovers, annexations, and other means of oppression—often combined with feelings of superiority on the occupying force's side and such of inferiority in the occupied territory. This is because occupied territories lost battles and they definitely are powerless and at the occupier's mercy. Occupied territories are often exploited economically, and the occupying power usually imposes its culture on the conquered. This inferior and powerless position frequently leads to high sensibility2 in an occupied territory about aspects of its own cultural heritage.
We find this challenge in Okinawan history, where—within less than two centuries—the island was obtained and annexed by Japan, had its inhabitants assimilated and educated to become Japanese, was abandoned by the Japanese military in WWII, its population killed in battle in 1945, was then occupied by the United States for twenty-seven years, and was finally handed back to Japan.
Okinawa Maintains Its Subcultural Identity within Japan's Culture
Okinawa became part of Japan politically, but at the same time, culturally it was not, leaving a dichotomy of culture and citizenship. The process of Okinawa's assimilation into Japan's culture and political system is a complicated and unique one.
Okinawa was Japan's only new territory that was granted the status of prefecture in 1879. After a lengthy political process, Okinawans eventually received full legal citizenship in 1920, two years before Funakoshi Gichin Sensei introduced karate into mainland Japan. "This differentiates Okinawa from other occupied regions, e.g., Taiwan and Korea, which were colonies par excellence. They were never incorporated into the administrative system and social network of the Japanese state to the same extent as Okinawa" (Meyer 2007, p. 95).
The more recent history of the Pacific War molded another aspect of Okinawa's complex political experience. "In the spring of 1945 on the eve of the Battle of Okinawa, the Japanese . . . lawfully surrendered to the United States. Although the end of the war was reached, the emperor of Japan along with the military insisted on pressing on in an attempt to put of the inevitable occupation just a little longer" (Nielson 2006, p. 5). During the following battle an estimated one fourth of Okinawan civilians died.
After Japan's capitulation, Okinawa was governed under U.S. military rule. Restoration followed in 1972, and the island was given back to Japan. Okinawa Prefecture was reestablished, and its current prefectural flag was adopted.
On the one hand, the experience of the battle with the USA led to initial resentments against Americans. On the other hand, suffering from being treated as inferior for decades as well as inhumane acts of Japanese soldiers during the battle of Okinawa3 maintained some cultural boundary between Okinawa and Japan. This two-sided, bi- directional sentiment, aimed at the initial occupational force, Japan, as well as at the new one, America, prepared the re-enforcement of genuine Okinawan cultural symbols as well as peace-related values as important postwar and post-reversion aspects of Okinawan culture.
A witness at that time, Sam Athye Sensei, 7th Dan Shorin Ryu, Shorinkan, describes the general situation in Okinawa and his karate training experience in 1973, as4
". . . still sufering from an economic depression converting from dollars to yen, changing from the right side of the road to the left. There were still open sewers, few street lights, and no gaigene (karate tourists) wandering kokusaidori . . . I took day classes from Hanshi Yuchuko Higa. Night classes from Master Kat- suya Miyahira.5 I remember the class was filled (20+ old yudansha) [sic]; these guys had survived the war and the famine. We would do kata for fifteen minutes and a five minute smoke break you would follow [sic]. Half of Miyahira's dojo was open air. In both dojos, the younger guys my age would want to bang forearms, do ippon kumite, and ask me to do kata as a way to check me out. There were no military or gaijin at these dojos. They did not like white guys and were open about it."
The resentment toward foreigners soon changed, and over time Western karate tourists as well as U.S. service members were heartily welcomed in Okinawa and in Okinawan dojos.
Today, Okinawan hospitality toward American guests and caring for them is unmatched, and it is an extremely rare occasion—which the author himself experienced only once—that a fellow karateka shows some kind of resentment towards a gaijin, toward a non-Japanese outsider.
Until today, the Okinawans have not 100-percent assimilated into Japanese society. A boundary remains, and the dichotomy of culture and citizenship endures. Nothing indicates that it will disappear in the future.
Outwardly, the two societies are integrated, but the Okinawan people have proven masterful at the remaining cultural differences and attaching new importance to them (Meyer 2007, p. 316), genuine Okinawan karate being one of those cultural symbols.
Japan's commendable strategy of not destroying Okinawan traditions during centuries of occupation and control created favorable conditions for the reemergence of a culture that today represents the whole of Okinawa. We find this local culture for instance in the performing arts, in traditional rituals, and in celebrations: the music of sanshin, turtleback tombs, shiisaa [shisa] lions, the shiimii festival and other cultural constructs appropriated by the present-day narratives of Okinawan identity, were preserved against the expansion of Japanese culture" (Meyer 2007, p. 311).
"By debating and transforming Okinawan politics and values, and by creating a vibrant Okinawan music and literary scene, Okinawans are embroidering an intricate tapestry of Okinawanness. What it means to be Okinawan is being contested, redefined, and inscribed in the consciousness and praxis of Okinawa today" (Hein/Selden 2003, p. 1).
The island's culture and its implicit values are embodied in the peaceful, caring, easygoing personalities of the locals and their spirit of yumaru (i.e., helping one another).
Shisa lions are found all over Okinawa today, like the ones guarding the Shuri Castle entrance, as well as new modifications like the ones wearing gi and guarding the entrance of the famous Shureido karate gear store in the city of Naha in Okinawa.
Okinawan karate, however, unlike these tangible and other intangible symbols of Okinawan subcultural identity, was never "left alone" by Japan. On the contrary, Okinawan karate had to deal with several Japanese "takeover" attempts.
The fact that Okinawa is a prefecture of its former occupiers, and that mainland Japan is preserving its own, many centuries-old bushido and budo traditions, complicates things, because "while some maintain the autonomy and cultural rooting of karate as an indigenous art of Okinawa, those in the Japanese government view karate as a Japanese cultural tradition, as is consistent with their view of Okinawa as part of Japan both legally and culturally" (Johnson 2012, p. 62).
The above is an excerpt from Analysis of Genuine Karate: Misconceptions, Origins, Development, and True Purpose, by Hermann Bayer, Ph.D., pub date October 1, 2021 YMAA Publication Center,
Footnotes for Analysis of Genuine Karate by Hermann Bayer, PH.D.
Chapter 2: Arguments to Maintain Okinawan Karate in its Originality
1. "Cultural identity can be understood as the experience, enactment, and negotiation of dynamic social identifications by group members within particular settings" (Chen/Lin 2016, p. 1). Or, in plain English, cultural identity is the feeling of belonging to a group and becomes a part of a person's self-conception and self-perception.
2. Cultural identity may be seen as a part of "social identity," where members of a subculture can "experience social identity threat when they think that their group is not sufficiently acknowledged as a separate entity with unique characteristics. Such group-distinctiveness threat is experienced when diferent groups of people are included in larger, more inclusive groups, nations, or organizations" (Encyclopedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/topic/social-identity-theory/Identity-threat, retrieved February 2, 2020).
3. "Unlike the Americans who were immediately perceived as the enemy and rightfully feared by Okinawans, the Japanese were to be the protectors of the civilians. Instead of shielding their cultural brethren in battle from the common foe, they became the enemy while practicing horrific acts of violence and grand schemes of deceit against them. Japanese soldiers were commonly known to command Okinawan civilians to commit group suicide rather than surrender to the enemy. Okinawans who had found refuge from the battle by hiding in caves were killed by Japanese soldiers in order to use the shelters for themselves" (Nielson 2006, p. 6).
4. (https://www.facebook.com/groups/ShorinryuShorinkanGroup/). Sensei Sam Athye's reference to a dojo being " half open air" underlines the challenging training conditions in Okinawa's extremely hot and muggy climate for Americans accustomed to air conditioning.
5. Author's remark: both sensei trained under Chibana Chosin Sensei and are famous for their hard style fighting techniques, which were continuously used and practiced during kumite and sparring training sessions at that time.