The Ryukyu Archipelago is a string of small islands that stretch from the southern coast of Japan to Taiwan and offshore from China. Okinawa is the largest island within the Ryukyu group. In the past, this archipelago was an independent kingdom, and Okinawa was the seat of the kingdom.
It is believed that the indigenous people came from China and possibly from Japan. During much of its history, China exercised a powerful influence on the Okinawans. While remaining relatively isolated, the incursions of the Japanese forced the Okinawans to organize themselves into a number of small kingdoms; and, by 1340, three major kingdoms arose.
However, it was not until sometime about the early 1400’s, that the kingdoms were united into one kingdom under King Sho Hashi, and the Shu dynasty was established. In the late 1400’s, the first dynasty ended and a new one began. In an effort to prevent possible civil war, the new ruler, Sho Shin, in 1477, outlawed all weapons. He collected and stored these weapons in the city of Shuri and established a system that the Japanese followed years later by keeping all local nobles close at hand in the capital city. Ultimately, this system of banning weapons did not work. However, after the Japanese under Toyotomi attacked in 1586 another ban was established. Finally, in 1609, the Tokugawa Shogun ordered the defeated but dangerous Satsuma Clan, to attack Okinawa thus keeping them away from the mainland. They instituted the final ban after taking over the island for the last time. In fact, they controlled Okinawa for some three centuries until it became a part of Japan. The Okinawans developed their own systems of open handed combat. They were forced to practice mainly at night and under the cover of secrecy. That could very well be one of the reasons the use of kiai is not prominent in Okinawan karatedo.
As the major cities were close to each other, the techniques were similar. However, differences in the various Okinawan kata can be attributed to the influences of the Chinese who had contact with the Okinawans. The three main seats of development were Shuri, Naha and Tomari. There is some evidence to suggest that Shuri-te derives from Shaolin Temple boxing, while Naha-te incorporates more of the soft, Taoist techniques, involving breathing and the control of Ki, the life force, called chi in Chinese. Tomari-te evidently drew from both traditions. It appears that the major systems developed in the 18th Century. Shuri-te and Shorin-ryu developed around the cities of Shuri and Tomari, while Shorei-ryu around the city of Naha. Interestingly, the systems about Shuri and Tomari used natural breathing and foot movements while there was controlled breathing and foot movements around Naha. For Shorinjiryu, Tomari plays a very prominent role.