Okinawan Te, Karate & ‘Te’; The confusion.

‘Udun-di’ (Palace-hand’).also known as’Te’ (var’ ‘ti’ or ‘di’), literal translation ‘hand’ or ‘martial skills’.   Okinawan Te started evolving somewhere after 600 ad. It was, and still is, the original, and premier, martial art of Okinawa, developed long before the Ryukyu Kingdoms (the Three Kingdoms) emerged, or the adoption of tode/karate.  It is the sister art of mainland Japan’s iai-jutsu and ju-jutsu rolled together.  A visiting Korean diplomatic delegation in the fifteen hundreds (many generations before the emergence of tode/karate in Okinawa), documented the palace guards being trained in Te skills by one of the aristocracy.  However, because the word ‘te’ literally means ‘martial skills’, when ‘tode’ (‘China-hand’ – later to become known as ‘karate’), came to Okinawa it was also referred to, generically speaking, as ‘te’. Because Te was taught in it’s entirety only to the upper aristocracy, to most Okinawan’s it already had an almost mythical reputation.  This was reinforced because parts of Te were imparted to various groups, like the palace guards and the sheriffs, who kept these fragments alive in the latter day karate and karate-based kobudo schools*, and this has led to claims that these arts are the descendants (and more evolved versions) of the ‘original’ Te.  However this is a commonly held misconception (even by many latter-day historians), which has led to a great deal of confusion over the use of the word ‘te’, even on Okinawa.  If one looks on YouTube, one will find hundred of clips of ‘te’ which are actually kara(te) and karate-based kyusho jutsu.  Whilst the groups using this term are perfectly within their rights to use the term (in the sense that what they do is ‘martial skills’ practice), there is only one art which bears the proper-noun ‘Okinawan Te’.

*Examples of this are the ma-ai (fighting distance), and ‘ashuri-ashi’ (slide/step-forward) combined with the ‘namba’ footwork (same hand and foot forward, as in oi-tsuki) used in modern competition karate.  These were introduced to karate by Funakoshi Sensei (who had been taught Te by one of his teachers Azato Sensei – a high ranking official who acted as a bodyguard and intelligence gatherer), and the distance that karate competition fighters stand at is derived from that of sword-work (Te’s influence), rather than from any form of pugilism.  Old style karate didn’t employ a long lunge-punch much as it was a close-quarter art.  The long lung punches were to close the distance between a man armed with a sword or spear and an unarmed man, or one armed only with a short weapon such as a knife.     Another example of ‘Te preserved in karate’ can be seen in the opening moves of Shotokans ‘Unsu’ kata, the hand applications of which are (in my opinion), misinterpreted by the karate world as simply a parry/leg-sweep and spear finger strike to the eye as the attacker goes down.  However, this application takes no account of why the hands and fingers are held in this position as the hands rise (before the imagined poke in the eye).  To understand this it is necessary to have a basic understanding of tui-te/tori-te, and how the points in the wrist can be manipulated using different grips.  These movements still exist as fundamental Te practice today, and some karateka may find the following clip to be of some interest.

Witnessing Te in action (see below), it should be obvious to any karate-ka that they are entirely different arts operating on different movement principles – Te being based on sword-wielding movements and more similar to latter-day aikido.  It also has a fundamentally different training ethos and philosophy from karate – which is again more similar to aikido.  

However; neither are Te and Aikido related; excepting that they were both ultimately developed from Japanese Ju-jutsu and Iai-jutsu.  Te is over a thousand years older than Aikido and there are some aspects of it which aikido does not cover, and some areas where practice of the same techniques  differ.  Also Aikido is kata (form-based), whereas Te is taught as mei-kata (formless-form), from the outset.  This leads to a major difference in mindset – which is a subject for another time and a post of it’s own. 

All Te is bladed-weapon based, while karate-based kobudo is stick, staff and agricultural-implement based.  Although te also employs sticks, staffs and other non-bladed weaponry, they are used with sword paradigms – often because bladed weapons are too valuable, and/or too dangerous to practice with, but also out of the practical need to be able to use whatever weapons were available and to know how those weapons may be deployed against one.  This results in Te’s non-bladed weapons-work having a more highly refined quality than karate-based kobudo (there is no ‘blocking’ or clashing of weapons in Te).  This is because karate-based kobudo appeared at a time when swords were banned in public, and the general public, not knowing Te’s methods, were turning to the ‘new’ ideas coming in from China (which were based on pugilism and peasant weaponry).

In short, karate is not related to the original ‘Okinawan Te’ in any way, except linguistically and geographically speaking, and although some karate styles have fragments of Te encoded within them they are not ‘descendant of Te as such.

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