How Karate Came to the US

Today’s guest blogger is my husband and sensei, Scott Fawcett.  Scott is a godan (fifth degree black belt) in Isshinryu karate and owns the NJ Academy of Martial Arts in the Lebanon Plaza in NJ.  He blogs about how karate came to the United States.  Welcome Scott.

Scott and Kathy on Tsuken Island, Okinawa in 2008

Karate originated on the island of Okinawa. I had the opportunity to visit Okinawa with my Sensei, Arcenio Advincula for 10 days in 2008 and again for 10 days in 2009.  To fully understand Okinawan karate, one must understand and have an appreciation for Okinawan culture, customs, traditions and history.

Okinawa is a small island located about 200 miles south of Japan.  It is approximately 60 miles in length and about 15 miles wide at its widest point.  During World War II one of the most fierce land campaigns was fought on Okinawa.  This battle was known as Operation Iceberg or The Battle of Okinawa.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States entered the War in the Pacific with the ultimate goal of defeating mainland Japan.  The United States would use Okinawa as a strategic launch point to defeat mainland Japan. The Japanese realized how important Okinawa was and arrived there well before the American troops.

The United States arrived on Okinawa on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945.  At first the American troops advanced with little resistance.  The troops were later met with great Japanese resistance. The Battle of Okinawa lasted just under three months and resulted in 10,000 American casualties, approximately 40,000 dead Japanese soldiers and 1/3 of the Civilian population of Okinawa being killed.  This island of peace-loving people had their world turned upside-down.

US Navy SeaBee, Harold K Fawcett on Okinawa 1945

Following World War II, Okinawa was under American administration.  During this time, America rebuilt much of the infrastructure on Okinawa and also built a number of military bases.  Some U.S. Marines who were stationed on Okinawa in the late 1950’s and 1960’s became interested in Okinawan Karate (Kara meaning empty and te meaning hand).

Most Marines were only stationed on Okinawa for one 13-month tour of duty and therefore did not have time to fully understand this system, which takes years to learn. Tatsuo Shimabuku wanted Americans to learn more than kicking and punching.  He wanted them to understand Okinawan culture.  He is quoted in the April 30, 1960 edition of the Okianwan Times as saying “Even if we cannot promote friendship between Okinawa and America through karate, my true hope is that if karate becomes popular in the USA and Hawaii, then Okinawa would also become more well understood.”

Isshinryu Founder, Tatsuo Shimabuku

Today there are hundreds of Isshinryu dojo (karate schools) in the United States teaching Isshinryu karate.  Many have unfortunately lost the connection to Okinawa and appreciation for Okinawan culture, customs, traditions and history.  Sensei Arcenio Advincula is one of the few who returned to Okinawa many times to continue his studies under Shimabuku.  To this day Mr. Advincula continues to conduct annual Okinawan cultural martial arts tours to keep the true spirit of Isshinryu karate and his teacher Tatsuo Shimabuku alive.

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3 responses to “How Karate Came to the US

  1. Interesting history. One of the things I didn’t understand until I started Tae Kwon Do (Korean) was the variety of origins of martial arts. Most people think all martial arts are karate.

    My parents were stationed in Okinawa and really enjoyed it, but unfortunately I was too busy having babies to visit. 😉 Thanks for the background.

    • Hi Gwen,

      You’re right. There are many different styles from all over the world. I have a post about that for another day. It annoys me when people call a different style of martial arts “karate”.

      Take the new Jackie Chan Karate Kid Movie, for example. I guess they wanted to use the franchise name, but the kid goes to China and learns Kung Fu–not Karate–by a Kung Fu master. Even Jackie Chan said that the movie will be called the Kung Fu Kid in Asia. Why not in America?

  2. Thank you, Scott for being our first guest blogger!

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