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Barefoot Okinawans and Stone Structures

On his last visit to Japan, my good friend, Professor Kimo Ferreira, brought back a book entitled Natsuhashiki Okinawa (Remembrances of Okinawa), by Katsuo Notamura. November 23, 2000. 160 pages. Japanese language.

The book presents photographs that were taken during the visit of a Japanese gentleman to Okinawa before World War Two (looks like the 1930s). It contains two photographs of Kentsu Yabu and one of his students practicing Karate.

There are many photographs of the scenery, architecture, and people of Okinawa. I found a couple of things to be very interesting.

The first is the architecture. Okinawans lived in very modest houses. Okinawa was the poorest prefecture in Japan before the war, and it showed. However, the castles, tombs, and bridges were usually magnificent stone structures. It appears that most of this stone was coral rock (as opposed to the volcanic rock we have here in Hawaii). The Okinawan carved the stones with straight edges and fit them together like beautiful puzzles that remind me of some of the walls seen in the temples of Mexico and Central America.

It was the contrast that was so striking. Many people, particularly the poor, lived in simple wooden huts. But nearby would be a magnificent stone bridge. And the people buried their dead in stone tombs (and caves). The tombs cost many times the price of a house.

Many of the stone structures looked very old. They were most likely constructed during the Golden Age of Okinawa, when the Kingdom prospered as a hub of trade between China and Japan. Only a wealthy government could invest so much money in its infrastructure.

The other thing that I noticed was that just about all of the common people were barefoot -- not just the children, everyone. Of course, for formal photos where the visitor to Okinawa was wearing a suit, the Okinawans tended to be better dressed and wore shoes or slippers. But in the candid photos, the people on the roads and in the villages were all barefoot.

I mentioned this to my mother, who was born and raised in Fukuoka, on the Island of Kyushu. She said that as a child, she always wore shoes (she went to a Catholic school). But during the war, all the children went barefoot. This was to show support for the soldiers who were fighting in the war. The public had to make sacrifices.

But in Okinawa, it seemed that going shoeless was more a factor of poverty. We often hear that the ground in Okinawa is very rocky. I noticed this during my two visits. Despite the rocky terrain, the people wore no shoes. They must have developed very strong feet and toes!

I wonder if this is a reason why we kick with the tips of our toes in Shorin-Ryu? For people with callused feet and toes, this would make sense. I have worn shoes all my life. In Hawaii, you would say that I have "haole feet." The local people here also went barefoot much of the time and developed tough feet. "Haole feet" means that one's feet are tender.

Some of the Okinawans who did wear footwear, wore getta. With getta, you have to grip the center strap with your toes. This also strengthen the toes.

Whether because they were barefoot or wore getta, Okinawans probably had much tougher feet than we do today. This would have enabled them to kick with their toes and the edges of their feet.

Today, modern Karate schools tend to teach the use the ball of the foot and the heel to deliver kicks. Is it because we have tender feet (or because we would usually have to kick while wearing shoes)?

Just a couple of things I noticed in that book of old photos from pre-war Okinawa.


Charles C. Goodin