Conference Paper

Globalization is a Small Place from the Past. A Reinterpretation of Okinawan Karate Mythologies set in the Times of the Ryūkyū Kingdom (1429-1879)

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This paper presents a reinterpretation of the two main global mythologies of Okinawan karate, that actually point back to the times of the Ryūkyū Kingdom. Using a socio-historical approach, I unveil the imaginations and inexactitudes forming those karate myths, and how they speak about the contemporary geopolitical romanticization of Okinawa. Frequently considered an expression of the Japanese idiosyncrasy, karate has its origins in Okinawa during a time when the archipelago was a semi-independent state known as the Ryūkyū Kingdom (1429-1879). This historicity has, in fact, placed karate in an ambiguous position in relation to which is considered the proper body of Japanese budō, reflecting thus the peripheral situation of Okinawa and the complexity of its modern integration into Japan. Such a situation has found way in popular mythologies about Okinawan karate, of which the two main ones comprise cultural resistance standpoints and anti-Japanese perspectives: First, that karate is a martial tradition primarily bonded with Chinese martial arts at least since 1392, when 36 families from Fujian were sent by the Emperor to settle next to Naha port; second, that karate was largely developed against the background the Satsuma clan invasion of Okinawa in 1609, and the subsequent abuses imposed upon the local peoples by the Japanese samurai. This paper reinterprets these two legendary underpinnings of Okinawan karate with a socio-historical exploration of the Ryūkyūs between the 13th and 17th century. At that time, Okinawa was a stratified society dominated by competing feudal lords (aji) in the pursuit of land supremacy trading networks control. Therefore, violence and military are not only inescapable determinants for the formation of the Ryūkyū Kingdom and its maritime empire, but also an important piece of daily life in the East China Sea territories, deeply moulded by piracy and warlords activities. By analyzing the two aforementioned myths about karate’s past that gained global circulation during the 20th century, this proposal addresses a contemporary core narrative shaping both karate heritage and Okinawan history: romanticized views of the Ryūkyūs as an inherently peaceful land, “a kingdom without weapons”. However, a close reading of the historical roots of Okinawan martial arts reveals clear discursive gaps and contradictions, and hence aspects regarding the ideological nature of karate’s representations. Therefore, I argue that through a critical revisitation of karate’s mythologies we can learn about the present geopolitical situation of Okinawa. Keywords: karate, mythologies, Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa, Japan

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