Karate Myth Busting: The Secret Truth About Peasants and Karate

By Jesse | 30 Comments

Lately I’ve been noticing a pretty interesting phenomenon unfold in the world of MMA.

You know how, a couple of years ago, it seemed like only thugs, coal mine workers, brawlers and bar fighters practiced MMA (mixed martial arts)? It was like this unsophisticated, primitive form of beating each other senseless in a cage – without any apparent technique or refinement?

(Of course it wasn’t really like that, but to many people it surely seemed like that.)

"Wanna grapple?"

Then, gradually, something interesting happened.

People who usually spent their afternoon playing golf, drinking appletinis, wearing tight jeans, getting a fake tan or greasing their hair started showing up at the doors of MMA gyms all over the world.

Snobs, you might call them.

Tired of their rich boy lifestyle – looking for a new thrill – MMA with its no-nonsense approach to gritty, mano-a-mano fighting appealed to their senses. It was rough. It was tough. And it was becoming increasingly popular.

It filled a void.

For your everyday rich-daddy playboy it provided fresh excitement  in a square world filled with predictable cocktail parties.

And that’s basically where we are today.

And I see it every day, even in our academy.

MMA is no longer a shady underground business, practiced by tattooed ex-cons. Far from it. It is a sport enjoyed by many different people, even rich youngsters. And interestingly enough, here’s where we find a largely unexplored parallel to the early beginning in the evolution of Toudi (or Karate as it was later to be known) in Okinawa.

You see, Toudi (Karate) was basically a pastime hobby of snobs.

  • No peasants.
  • No poor farmers.
  • No oppressed villagers trying desperately to fight the evil Japanese Satsuma samurai tyranny.

Aristocrats created Karate.

“Myth: a : a usually traditional story of ostensibly historical events that serves to unfold part of the world view of a people or explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon”

- Merriam-Webster/Encyclopaedia Britannica

People…

Karate was not a martial art developed by peasants.

Let’s get that straight, once and for all. And yes, I know I’m repeating myself here, but judging from the insane amount of “Karate was developed by avenging peasants” e-mails I keep getting, some people need to hear this more than once.

Look, the high kicks of kata Gankaku were not designed so that peasants could kick under the helmets of “samurais” riding horses. The kata Kusanku Dai/Kanku Dai was not made for peasants fighting evil Japanese killer ninjas in the night. The kata Naihanchin/Tekki was not made for peasants fighting sideways battles between rice paddies.

Question: When was the last time you saw a rich, young, handsome playboy working in a friggin’ rice field?

Never.

That’s when.

(and I have yet to step my foot in one)

Because Karate wasn’t created by farmers.

It was created by noblemen and scholar.

But please, before we go any further, don’t get me wrong here. Pesants are awesome. Hunters, farmers, fishermen… my family and relatives consists of them to a high degree. They are smart, strong, kind, cool, humble, honest and remarkable in every way. But they are, above all, incredibly b-u-s-y.

Work, work work…

Fishing, hunting, farming, harvesting; the life of a farmer today is literally filled to the brim with work, from dusk till dawn.

And believe me… the last thing they want to do on their spare time is physical exercise!

Martial arts? Fuggedaboudit!

I mean, all they do on their spare time is eat and sleep a couple of hours – until it’s time to work again! Getting punched and kicked on? No way! Having cows shit on you and horses kick on you all day long is enough, thank you very much.

So, if that’s the situation today (remember, we have loads of technology when it comes to farming these days), guess what it was like a couple of hundred years ago in rural Okinawa (still the poorest prefecture in Japan!)?

That’s right.

Even busier.

Even tougher.

And I’m not saying peasants are stupid or incapable of being martial. Oh no. On the contrary, the numerous revolutions which have shaped the history of our modern world were in fact started by disgruntled workers/farmers/peasants of some sort. Probably the last person you want to piss off is a hard-working peasant, believe me. There will be blood.

But I digress.

"Oh noes! The samurai want's to steal my thong! I must quickly defend myself, using this piece of wood, which will become a weapon in the future! History books, here I come!"

Karate, or Toudi as it was then called, was an eclectic martial art developed, practiced and taught by aristocratic Okinawans with strong, often governmental, connections to China and Siam. Keep the peasants out of it. Sons of diplomats, frequently on scholarship, upper class, noble families descending from the Chinese settler’s village of Kume/Kuninda (in modern day Naha), bodyguards to the king, wealthy merchants (often from Shuri, where most soy and sake breweries were located = big money = big bodyguards = trouble)… the examples are numerous and paint a clear picture.

Let me repeat myself here: Your average Okinawan villager (working night and day, remember?) just didn’t have the time nor the vigor to practice fighting techniques and develop sophisticated martial arts all day long. The only people in Okinawa who did enjoy the luxury of “playing” Karate and Kobudo were the serving noble class (shizoku) of warriors (pechin), ranging from the lowest warrior caste (chikudun) to the highest (peekumi). And above that we have oyakata (lord),which is the highest of the privileged classes before we step up to the royal classes of aji (descendant of prince) and oji (prince).

These were the type of titles held by the progenitors of Karate.

To give you a quick example of how significant the caste system of Ryukyu Kingdom was, I can inform you that a pechin was roughly 6 times ‘higher’ in social status than a regular Joe Schmoe-san. Believe dat.

A prosperous and educated warrior.

A Karate-ka.

Just to add some proof to the pudding (?), here’s some of the most famous pioneers of old-school Karate along with their social class/status/rank. In no specific order:

  • Matsumura Sokon (1809-1899): Pechin class. Bodyguard of the king.
  • Sakugawa Kanga(1786-1867): Chikudun Pechin class.
  • Soeishi Ryotoku (1772-1825): Oyakata class. King’s secretary!
  • Chatan Yara (1740-1812): Chikudun Pechin class.
  • Tawata Shinboku (1814-1884): Chikudun Pechin class.
  • Sueyoshi Anyu (unknown): Pechin class.
  • Chikin Seionori (1624-unknown): Oyakata class.
  • Chinen Umikana (1797-1881): Chikudun Pechin class.
  • Higa Kanematsu (1790-1870): Pechin class.
  • Chinen Masanra (1842-1925): Chikudun Pechin class
  • Kyan Chofu (unknown): Shizoku class.
  • Hamahiga Oyakata (1847 – unknown): Oyakata class.
  • etc…

I can keep name-dropping all day. And most of the above dudes studied the fighting arts directly in China too.

What’s that? Oh, you think that’s too far back? Not reliable and accurate enough? Want more modern masters? How about Motobu Choki (1870-1944)? Aji class (direct lineage to the king, like Chibana Choshin (1885 – 1969)). So was Yoshimura Chogi (1866-1945).

Yabu Kentsu (1866-1937)? Shizoku family. Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957)? Same. Toyama Kanken (1888-1966), Mabuni Kenwa (1889-1952), Taira Shinken (1897-1970), Shiroma Shinpan (1890-1954)… they were all either directly from a noble, upper class family or descended from one back in the days.

So let’s give the peasants a break.

Because I didn’t see no farmers, fishermen, peasants, samurai slayers or rice paddy dwellers up there on the list.

Did you?

That’s right.

Because peasants have more important things to do.

Like surviving.

So, now that we’ve got that out of the way, where exactly does this “Karate was created by peasants” –myth stem from anyway? Surely there must be some base for this myth? Some substance?

Well… perhaps.

"Dude... I just had an idea. After we finish here, you wanna do some full contact sparring?"

My guess is, when the Okinawan class system was eventually abolished (during the fall of the Ryukyu Kingdom) and these aristocratic upper class people lost their position and wealth they were often forced to leave their Bugattis and Lambos behind, moving away from their grand beach mansions to live according to new (considerably lower) standards.

Consequently, either they themselves or their descendants might then have had to occasionally work as farmers, fishermen, peasants or something else equally “lower class” and dirty, giving birth to the myth that farmers and peasants magically came up with up this deadly martial art of Karate because they were so bored of work (or something). I really don’t know.

However, what I do know is that I have yet to successfully compile a list of famous Karate pioneers who were anything less than educated, well-respected and privileged noblemen.

Because that’s how it went.

Karate = snobbery.

Just like MMA is slowly becoming.

Whether you like it or not.

About the author

is a self-titled Karate Nerd™, best-selling martial arts writer, unreasonably handsome elite athlete, autodidact, karatepreneur and carrot cake aficionado. He really thinks you should become a Karate Nerd™ too.

30 Comments

  1. Barry

    May 30, 2011 at 3:13 am

    Even today in our modern cultural this applies to a certain degree. Does everyone have the finaces to attend a certain dojo ? Does everyone have the free time to “spend” as well on thier martial arts ? Sure there are ‘programs’ at the local center in some places that can make it affordable for some , but once again do they have the means for transportation ? Do they have the time to invest in it beyond a glorified TaiBo kick class at the local gym ? Most of the individuals I grew up with doing martial arts have left it behind because I get “oh with the kids now I cant afford it” , “oh the wife get’s upset , she wants me to spend more time with her”, “oh at work we have this major project I have to fly to here and then back…I dont have the time anymore” In my opinion it still works that way to a certain degree.

  2. Tom

    May 30, 2011 at 7:48 am

    Is the kobudo-weapons-are-derived-from-farmer-tools also a myth?

    • Jesse

      May 30, 2011 at 11:11 am

      Yes. They were all largely designed with combative intentions in mind, imported from China (sai, nunchaku, surujin) and Siam (tonfa/tunfa etc) in the cultural hot-potch that was Okinawa. Except the kama, of course (and the more modern kuwa) which is still used in Okinawan agriculture. Actually, last year I saw some workers even chop down palm trees with those puppies!

      I wrote two posts about this earlier: http://www.karatebyjesse.com/?p=5892

      • Tom

        May 30, 2011 at 4:33 pm

        Ok, thanks for the reply.
        Great articles as always.

    • Dojorat

      May 30, 2011 at 3:13 pm

      As a resident of Okinawa, I can tell you that the kama is and always was a tool. You dont have to go to the karate store to get one. The reason why the myth is so easy to accept is that most of the kobudo weapons look like tools. The weapons were not developped from the tools. They existed at the same time and were used for their intended purpose, either working or fighting. The Chinese version of the kobudo weapons predate the okinawan ones by a few hundred years and just by looking at the things it is obvious that they were not made for the field or rice paddy…

  3. Erik

    May 30, 2011 at 9:35 am

    True dat!

  4. herrle 58

    May 30, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Sure true, but everybody but me ever wondered if the shaolin-story is true?
    I mean peaceloving monks who were supposed to present the other cheek?

    • Jesse

      May 30, 2011 at 11:14 am

      Did you read “The Mysterious Martial Monk”, which I wrote a while back? It’s a brief two part article/story about the alleged Daruma and his influence on the Shaolin monastery and Karate. http://www.karatebyjesse.com/?p=3364

      • herrle 58

        May 30, 2011 at 2:20 pm

        NOW i did! Fun to read, as always.
        When i wrote my comment, i should have placed a ;-), should have guessed the conversation already started.
        Thanks

    • Dojorat

      May 30, 2011 at 3:17 pm

      I guess even monks have a limit to their patience. A japanese proverb even says so. Maybe they started martial arts after they ran out of cheeks to turn? Ever wondered how many times you can smack a shaolin monk across the face before he has enough and decides to `show you the error of your way`…I wouldnt want to try it

  5. Jack

    May 30, 2011 at 11:59 am

    Hi, i read often your articles even if they are a little tricky for a non english speaker as i am(italian,10 years of shotokan traditional karate in Hiroshi Shirai’s Federation).
    Sometimes your articles keep me in a very confusing state, like this one. I don’t know your , let me call it, referenes to say what you ‘re writing here. The list of names? Yes, sure but you just saying it and we have no way to confront or check it.
    Anyway, i DON’T really wanna seem as a troll. I appriciate many of your articales and some of your ideas, but this one…sorry man, i can’t agree nor disagree either.

    • Jesse

      May 30, 2011 at 12:15 pm

      Well, that’s the beautiful thing about blogs; they are entirely based upon opinion. In this case, my opinion (as hinted by the name of this blog). As Aristotle once so accurately put it: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it”. And if not, hopefully, at least you get some inspiration! :)

  6. Geoff

    May 30, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    Thanks Jesse. I suspect that after a hard days work the peasants were more likely to want to go home, have a beer (or the equivalent) and try to practice the marital arts rather than martial arts. Much like lots of people today.

    • Jesse

      May 30, 2011 at 12:26 pm

      Comment of the month!

  7. Dojorat

    May 30, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    Karate developped by peasants is a very hard myth to debunk because it is a popular one and it has been transmitted with karate to generations of karateka. It would be kind of complicated to explain that karate was developped by nobles and warriors who then lost their social ranks, but continued to practise and transmit karate until this day. The myth gives karate more popular appeal, but the truth makes a whole lot more sense. The myth is still very much alive because to some people the idea of karate as a weapon of resistance by the oppressed class sounds way to awesome to let go

    • Fleur

      May 31, 2011 at 6:46 am

      Ain’t that the truth!

  8. Alex Kirri

    May 30, 2011 at 6:27 pm

    Although I’ve never really believed the “peasants’ revolt” argument, I do remember one thing that seems to support it that might interest you. It was a documentary about Aikido on youtube that had been taken from 70s tv show or something, and it was a very famous high ranking figure, and at one point he spoke about how he found it hard to predict the movements of boxers because of their footwork. He then went on to say that because in Asia, they are primarily farming nations, when sowing seeds, they required karate style yori-ashi shifting type steps, and these became part of their martial systems (<--seems to be suggesting that peasants developed it?); whereas in Europe, they were primarily hunting nations, so they ran when they fought, so thus the running/jogging on the spot type movements entered their martial arts.

  9. Ørjan Nilsen

    May 31, 2011 at 10:08 am

    I guess most people do not understand the Asian concept of history as they believe the asian view of history is the same as the western view of history. In the west we are very concerned that history is made up of facts (at least we like to believe so) and we have a linear approach to it. In Asia it is perfectly OK (it is changing now but it used to be ok) to be much more creative. Hence we have all these “creation myths” in all asian martial arts. You do not have to look hard to find them either. Taekwondo is 2000 years old, all martial arts came from Boddhidarma in shaolin, karate was developed by peasants etc. Many myths like the ones concerning the Shaolin monastory etc are relatively recent ones.

    Then we have all those reseachers and authors who either cling to straws or just repeat what others have said before without checking it first. One primary example is Karates “lost form” Changnam. It is said to be a lost chinese form that Itosu constructed Pinan from. Article upon article has ben written on this but the only source from all this is a quote by Chooki Motobu where he recounts a visit to his teacher Itosu. The quote is very short but parapharising he basicly says after a kata demonstration that it looks like changnam but that it was altered.

    This quote that was written down after Choki Motobu had died is the only source of the lost Changnam Kata and yet many articles have ben written about it.

    Luckely Karate and the martial arts in general have so many myths and missconceptions that Jesse will have a lot of material to write about and for that I am glad becouse I really like his writing style.

    • Jesse

      May 31, 2011 at 11:55 am

      Changnam/Channan article on it’s way for sure! Been thinking of writing one for years, but it’s such a… mess! :)

      • Dojorat

        May 31, 2011 at 5:28 pm

        I believe the `channan` form is said to be the origin of the naihanchin kata series, not the Pinan. Practically every source on the origin of the Pinan kata, including Itotsu himself state that they were created to facilitate learning and mastering techniques in older kata, namely kusanku. Then again, I may be the one mixing up which kata supposedly comes from `channan`

        • Ørjan Nilsen

          September 8, 2011 at 11:51 am

          Hi Dojorat. I would suggest that you read this article if you are interested in the background of “Channan”: http://fightingarts.com/reading/article.php?id=127 . It is the best article that I have read on the subject, and while waiting for the handsome almighty Karate wizard/genious ( also known as Jesse)to write a better one this is the one I will recomend:)

      • Ørjan Nilsen

        September 8, 2011 at 12:01 pm

        Great:) While your at it could you please write an article busting the myth that Naihanchi/Tekki/Chulgi kata/Hyung was created to teach fighting while on a rice paddy (or while you have your back to a wall or at the end of a cliff etc)? So many myths and so little refreshing reality. Your blog is a shining beacon of light:)

  10. Joe

    June 13, 2011 at 4:53 am

    One thing you left out is that the Okinawans of Peichin status were the Okinawan version of Samurai.
    So these Peichin were the local law enforcement, military and guards of the time. Fighting was their business.

  11. Zad

    July 4, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Wow… I knew that many of the Tode developers were peichins, but I didn’t expect all these farm tool weaponry to be a huge fat lie.

    Some people just over mysticise stuff…

    Great article!

  12. ky0han

    July 6, 2011 at 11:54 am

    Hi Jesse,

    what is your source for Sakugawas Birthyear and the year of his death?

    There are a lot of speculations regarding these dates.

    Regards Holger

    • Jesse

      July 6, 2011 at 2:16 pm

      Yes, I know! It’s crazy. Anyhow, I chose Nakamoto Masahiro’s research as base for my dates, since I know for a fact that he personally actually opened the family grave of Sakugawa and looked at the actual urns when I visited Okinawa a couple of years back!

  13. Joe

    July 7, 2011 at 6:42 am

    Some food for thought, I remember reading an article in Classical Fighting Arts issue 9 dealing with a similar subject.
    Henning Wittwer stated in the article “Jigen Ryu Swordsmanship and its Influence on Karate-do”:
    “The saber of Jigen-Ryu was not the only weapon of this school which emerged in the kingdom of
    Ryukyu. Togo Shigemasa (2nd generation) created a fighting system relying on common tools rather than
    “real” weapons. This tradition bears the name Jigen-Ryu Bo-Odori (Stick Dance of the School of Manifestation)
    and its purpose was to provide military instruction to as many Satsuma social classes as possible.”

    He goes on to list the weapons taught:
    Sanjaku-bo (3 shaku stick)
    Rokushaku-bo (6 shaku long staff)
    Tenbin-bo (pole for carrying loads on the shoulder)
    Ro (oar)
    Shakuhachi (bamboo flute)
    Kama (sickle)
    Ono (axe)
    Suki (spade)
    Kuwa (mattock)(hoe)

    Since the Satsuma was the Japanese clan that occupied Okinawa and two of Karate’s fore fathers, Koura Tsuken and Matsumura Sokon (Sokon receiving Menkyo) It’s possible that this influenced the development of these “weapons” on Okinawa.
    Juat a thought.

    • Jesse

      July 7, 2011 at 7:31 am

      I’m impressed! I read that article too, and I believe your observation to be very much true. Especially when comparing certain Okinawan Kobudo kata versions, looking at the common defensive templates/patterns of movements in such related kata as Sakugawa, Sanjakubo and Tsuken no Kon.

  14. Paul

    March 15, 2012 at 1:45 am

    Of course mma is becoming snobbery. Have you seen how fans of MMA are constantly touted how “superior” MMA is to any other martial art out there that came before it?

  15. Ian

    July 23, 2013 at 5:59 am

    Cool article.

    Let me start by playing “devil’s advocate” for a minute here. There are two things at the heart of your thesis: educated guesswork as to the “way of life” of Okinawan peasants, and a list of aristocratic names of famous historical karate practitioners. Let’s look at the latter. Try this for a moment: quickly list the name of twenty men who fought in the Napoleonic wars … I”m guessing that you listed a bunch of generals, and maybe an admiral with one eye. No peasants, no foot soldiers, no commoners. And yet we know that Napoleon took an army of half a million to invade Russia in 1812, &c.

    My point being … the members of the elite are the ones who, being “worthy” of being noted, are the ones who get remembered. Yeah, we all remember Chatan Yara, but nobody remembers the peasant who taught him everything he knew.

    “Hey, that peasant doesn’t exist! That’s Jesse’s whole point” I hear the internet cry.

    They could be right.

    Once I stop playing Devil’s Advocate, I’d say that Jesse probably IS right. At least, his theory sounds plausible. Those ARE the well-known names of old masters he’s named, and nary a ditch-digger among them.

    … which is what we’d expect, whether old-timey karate was only for the elite or whether it was much more universal.

    So …

    … what next?

    Good job by Jesse taking a run at an “accepted myth” about karate’s past … and I think that old myth really gets a boost from the related old myth “kobudo = farming tools” by the way … so two birds with one stone?

    The next step? Detailed research to flesh out what has been deduced, to see if the new and plausible theory withstands historical scrutiny. It’s one thing to replace one old myth with a slightly ore plausible new myth, but much better to replace it with substantiated fact.

    Fun, eh?

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