As a young kid in the 80’s I was a huge fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I watched the classic TV show, ate the cereal, had a few toys, and watched all the live-action movies with my younger sisters in the theater. Yes, we loved the “Ninja Rap” too. Lately, my son, now reaching the same age, has become a huge fan too, though he prefers the newer 2018 series: Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It’s a great show, and we’ve been watching it together, quoting inside references (“hot soup!“) and talking about TMNT across the generations.
One niggling thing that Middle-Age-Japan-Nerd-Me has come to realize though is that many of the weapons used in TMNT aren’t actually Japanese weapons. In fact, the story behind it is surprisingly complicated.
Things like karate, nunchuks, sai weapons, and such are assumed to be Japanese. However, more precisely they originate from a region called the Ryukyu Islands, which until two centuries ago was a separate culture and nation.
The Ryukyu Islands represent an ethnic group that is different than Japan, and the Ryukyu language (Uchinaaguchi) is a sister-language to Japanese: common origin, but otherwise unrelated. Initially it started as a small collection of island kingdoms, centered around the three strongest on the island of Okinawa, later unifying as the Ryukyu Kingdom (琉球國, Ruuchuu-kuku).
Because the Ryukyu Islands are so small, and have limited resources, the Ryukyu people turned to sea trade and became master seafarers, who shipped around raw materials as far north as Korea and as far south as the Straits of Malacca. The Portuguese even had contacts with the Ryukyu people in some of these places. For Imperial China, the Ryukyu people were among its staunchest allies because they gained so much culture and wealth from the relationship, while providing China much needed goods from elsewhere.
However, by the early 1600’s, the nearest Japanese feudal domain of Satsuma to the north. Precipitated by border dispute over the north Ryukyu Islands (Amani and Tokara), this led to a full-scale war, and the Ryukyu Kingdom was forced to surrender. The kingdom was then ruled by the Satsuma fiefdom, first as a nominally dependent kingdom (still maintaining relations with Qing-Dynasty China), but fully annexed by 1879.
This is the background which karate and related martial arts arose.
Karate was a form of self-defense that began in the Ryukyu Kingdom, starting in the 14th century. The Ryukyu Kingdom was closely allied to China, and many Ryukyu upper-class members would spend time in China, studying culture, literature, etc, and would bring back hand-to-hand combat methods such as kung-fu, etc. Hand to hand combat became increasingly favored after the reign of King Sho Shin, who banned weapons to avoid risk of insurrection, and enforced further by Japan after the 1600’s. Many of the weapons that we associated with the TMNT, were actually imports from Southeast Asia to the Ryukyu Islands as part of this development of hand to hand combat, alongside the extensive trading. Weapons like nunchuks, tonfa, sai and so on are thus Ryukyu-based weapons (via China and Southeast Asia), often used for training purposes.
After Okinawa was formally annexed by Japan in the 19th century, karate as a martial art was also introduced into Japan where its techniques and training methods were given Japanese names for wider appeal. However, it should be clear that there was no prior tradition in Japan until this time. Japan had been a martial society for centuries, but hand-to-hand combat as we know it in China or the Ryukyu Islands never really developed there. In the same vein, ninjas would have more likely used weapons similar to the samurai class, if cheaper versions, rather than Ryukyu-style weaponry.
Understandably, the 80’s kid in me, who loved the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Karate Kid Part II would have no comprehension that Okinawa, Mr Miyagi’s home, had in fact been a separate kingdom and culture until relatively modern times. But it is fascinating that such things that I enjoyed as a kid had a long, extensive history, with many layers.
I’ve tried to preserve these historical details in the Hamato Islands setting that I’ve been publishing for Dungeons and Dragon on DMS Guild. In A Traveler’s Guide to the Hamato Islands, I included a simple sketch map of the larger setting:
My map-drawing skills are not particularly good, but I did want to at least reimagine the existing Kara-Tur setting based on something quasi-historical, hence I used a more 13th century layout of the geography. Great Shou remains more or less the same, but I added in a fantasy version of Korea (based on Unified Silla), and a steppe-nomad based empire (e.g. the Jurgen Dynasty here) not unlike the Mongols, Jurchen, and so on. But I also explicitly added a fantasy island, sea-faring kingdom to mirror the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom.
Further, in A Traveler’s Guide, I have made a point to distinguish the monk class (as in hand to hand combat) from the clerical monks, the former common in the lands of Uchinaama while the latter is more commonly found in the Hamato islands to the north. I don’t know how many adventures I can write that utilize this fantasy Okinawan culture, but I wanted to at least get something out there for others to build upon. I personally am excited at the prospect of writing more seafaring adventures using Uchinaama as the potential starting point.
Speaking of fantasy, after purchasing the new Mordenkainen Presents:
Monsters of the Multiverse book (more on that in an upcoming post), and with my aforementioned love of the TMNT, and with a nod to Ryukyu/Okinawan culture, I made a new character for Adventurer’s League: Michaelangelo, the teenage monk ninja Tortle: