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Earliest American report of Karate, 1899

November 13, 2014
Vintage image of Okinawan karatekas, date unknown. Source: http://karatedo.hakuakai-matsubushidojo.com/history.html

Vintage image of Okinawan karatekas, date unknown. Source: http://karatedo.hakuakai-matsubushidojo.com/history.html

Most sources charting the history of Karate in America reach no further back than the period immediately following World War II, when American servicemen began returning from their time spent in Okinawa—the homeland of the art. The earliest report, however, of the existence of Karate date to nearly fifty years earlier—from 1899, when Dr. William Furness presented an account of his 1896 visit to the Ryukyu islands to the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Science and Art. These islands, which include Okinawa, were then referred to as the Loochoo, Luchu, or Lewchew islands by American and British writers.

Above: The title page of Dr. Furness's 1899 report.

Above: The title page of Dr. Furness’s 1899 report.

Furness provides the following background in the opening pages of his report:

Each year finds the Luchu Islands more and more important, commercially, to the Japanese government, although, as yet, they are but little known to the busy world which sails past them to and from the markets of China, Japan, and the far East. After careful search, I have been unable to find any detailed account of these islands, or of the people, before the visit paid to them by Captain Basil Hall, of H. M. S. “Alceste,” in 1816. His accounts of the people agree in every particular with what Dr. H. M. Hiller and myself observed in 1896 (eighty years after Captain Hall’s visit), albeit during these four-score years the independent rule of a king has been abolished, and the islands are now entirely under the government of Japan. In view of this fact, the conclusion seems warranted that all changes in manners and customs in this small country are slow, compared with the rapid advance which is going on all around them. What was true in 1816 was most probably true a hundred years before. According to their own traditions, they never have been a warlike people, and have mingled no further with their near neighbors than the payment of a yearly tribute both to China and to Japan…

After devoting several pages to the various cultural institutions of Okinawa and other neighboring islands, Furness proceeds to the martial arts:

We were told that the young men occasionally engage in boxing bouts, with bare knuckles; all blows are struck with the right hand, while the left is used solely as a guard. Clinching and wrestling for a fall are considered legitimate features of the sport. Rokshaku is another manly sport of the order of single-stick, with a staff about six feet long. Non-shaku is played with a stick about three feet long to which is attached a rope. The object of this game is to disarm the opponent by whipping the stick out of his hands. With these games and sports the youth of the islands pass their time…

Although the report is scant in its detail, it does appear to represent the first account of the existence of the martial arts of the Ryukyu by an American.

Above: One of the few photographic plates in Dr. Furness's report. No pictures of the martial arts were included.

Above: One of the few photographic plates in Dr. Furness’s report. No pictures of the martial arts were included.

The complete account can be accessed here:

https://archive.org/stream/lifeinluchuislan00furn#page/n1/mode/2up

If you enjoyed this article, you might also be interested in the following:

Husband and Wife Practice Kenjutsu in New York City, 1897

“How the President is Taught Jiu Jitsu”

Japanese Sword Technique in the New York Sun, 1904

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