> History
   > Lineage
   > Belts
   > Forms
   > Symbols
   > Syllabus



A Few Symbols you might encounter in Karate

The Eagle -- The "Three Tears" -- Peacocks ..or not? -- White Crane
Okinawan Flag -- Yin and Yang

Why "we" have an Eagle   ^

The history of karate in America is very unique. Karate mainly made its way to America "officially" by way of US service men who encountered the art while stationed in Okinawa after WWII and learned their chosen art from first or second generation Okinawan or Japanese masters. Many of todays American Okinawan karate pioneers owe the bulk of their martial arts heritage to those servicemen that brought those skills and early teachings (and in some cases teachers) to the U.S.

One such story is that of Master Ansei Ueshiro a student of Grand Master Shoshin Nagamine, the founder of Matsubayashi Shorin-ryu who made the voyage to the states in order to bring his karate to America.  Which he did by way of a special visa obtained through the efforts of James Wax, an US marine, who while stationed in Okinawa, was the first American to earn a black belt in the Shorin-Ryu system under Master Ueshiro.  On Sept 15, 1962, Ueshiro entered the states as one of the first "Oriental" instructors to bring traditional karate to this country.

It is in recognition and respect for the part played by U.S. servicemen in the history of karate and in particular Okinawan karate that we have adopted a stylised American Eagle displayed supporting the Hidari Gomon into our martial arts crest.  Back when I began studying Shobu-ryu (now Tomasu Shorin-ryu) they had a bad logo design of a "Phoenix" (see peacocks below) that my instructor Sensai Ybarra said on several occasions, "looks like a dead chicken" and "makes no sense".  I drew this eagle in an art project created to be part of my dan petition in 1985.

Peacocks on Certificates   ^

"Wait, that's a peacock?  Why is that a peacock?"

I have seen all kinds of responses to this question. Everything from "they look martial art'sy" and "because the feathers are long and pretty" to "to show you can feel cocky".  In Asia, the feathers of the peacock are considered auspicious and protective. They are very hardy and intelligent birds and on large estates they were sometimes kept as reliable "watch dogs" calling out and raising their feathers when arroused. Feathers in the down position such as found on karate certificates being a sign of safety and good fortune.

They are however, most likely not peacocks at all, but based on a mythical Chinese bird associated with fire called "Fenghuang", a phoenix-like creature (notice the clouds of "smoke") that is something akin to a dragon.  They are usually depicted artistically as a peacock especially when they are drawn with their long tails (there is a lot of artistic license in how they should be represented). The Fenghuang is on many official Chinese documents and in emperial designs.

The bottom half of most karate certificates have a border arranged with Paulownia leaves and Chrysanthemums which were used as the crest in the emperial court of Japan.  This leads us to believe the origin of the certificate with combined Fenghuang/Paulownia border design and red "official" kanji stamps is probably one of those many customs imported from China to Japan and is a harmonized piece; of Phoenix (from China) with Paulownia and Chrysanthemums (from Japan).

These designs were historically only used in the imperial court and have just started to be used by government and municipal offices (as well as karate certificates) in modern times.

Hidari Gomon - "The Three Tears"   ^

This common symbol is called the Hidari Gomon and it was once the Royal crest of Ryukyu Kingdom in Okinawa and on their original flag. In Japanese the symbol is called the Hidari mitsudomoe and is a common design element in family emblems and corporate logos. The Hidari Gomon is the primary traditional symbol of Okinawa. It is unclear who used the symbol first but it has special significance to the Okinawan people, especially those practicing the ancient art of Okinawan Karate.

We know this symbol as the "three tears" and as representation of "death before dishonor". There are many variations to the story behind this symbol but here gist of it. The three tears represent three men; a 16th Century Okinawan and two Japanese samurai. The Okinawan was being restrained by the samurai, who were ordered by the Japanese overlord (depending on the story version) to throw him into a vat of boiling oil while he watched.

To show his indifference to death and his disdain for his executioner, the Okinawan grabbed the two samurai guards and dove headfirst with them into the vat (with the design now representing three heads swirling in oil). The story is very well known throughout Okinawa, and the action is so highly regarded, that the three tears symbol is incorporated into much of Okinawan life. Often, in karate-do and especially Okinawan circles, this symbol is used as a crest for those particular arts.

Okinawa Flag  ^

The Okinawan Flag of today is different from the flag of the former Island Kingdom.  Okinawa was absorbed by Japan; thus it now flies the Japanese flag.  But the island kingdom also has its own Prefecture flag.  The Okinawan Prefecture flag is distinguished by three circles. The white ‘O’ inside a large red disc on the white field represents the perfecture’s initial letter. The inner small red disc stands for progress of Okinawa and the outer red circle represents the sea surrounding Okinawa. Conversely, the large red circle may represent the land of the rising sun (Japan) enclosing the Okinawa prefecture.

The Prefectural Symbol of Okinawa was adopted as the official government symbol for Okinawa Prefecture in 1972 when reversion from United States gave Okinawa back to the country of Japan. 

Other interpretations have the large circle representing the ocean which plays such a big part in Okinawa's identity while the white circle symbolizes a peace-loving Okinawa and the inner circle symbolizes a globally developing Okinawa. In short, the whole of the mark symbolizes "Ocean" "Peace" and "Development" all primary concerns to the people of Okinawa.

White Crane   ^

A large group of Chinese families moved to Okinawa particularly from the northern Fujian Province for the purpose of cultural exchange around 1392, where they established a community and shared their knowledge of a wide variety of Chinese arts and sciences, including the martial arts such as Fujian White Crane, and Gangrou-quan (Hard Soft Fist; pronounced "Gojuken" in Japanese).

Cranes have a lot of associated symbolism in asian culture, largely involving long life, fidelity, wisdom, purity, prudence and vigiliance, peace and happiness. There is a folk custom that folding 1000 origami cranes brings good fortune that will aid a person particularly with recovery from illness or disease.

In Japan the Crane has long been an unoffical national symbol, it has associations with princes of the imperial family as well as having gained strong association as an emblem of peace. Post war Japan continues to have a strong pacifist ethic, and to a fair degree martial arts in Japan since 1945 reflect this, tending to have a strong emphasis on ethics and a philosophy of non-aggression.

It is thought that through that connection made by those early Chinese families (and many believe it to be true) masters such as Matsumura Sokon may have encountered and even been influenced by White Crane Kung Fu.  Although those fighting movements of long attacks and high kicking techniques are hard to identify within current Okinawa karate forms which more closely resemble southern Chinese low kicks and close-in style fighting styles like those in Gangrou-quan.

Yin and Yang  ^

The Yin Yang symbol is Chinese and dosen't really fit in modern karate teaching but it is seen in the Okinawan tradition and history. The symbol does not apply to the fighting itself, it applies to the philosophy of the fighting (and more so as a life philosophy), where there is power there must also be softness, you must be passive while moving into activeness, etc., it's a "balance" strategy.

Rarely are the theories of Yin and Yang applied other than in Daoist (Tao) religious practice, but you could argue that the theory exist in all martial arts, even in Western Boxing, you shift between positions and strategies, hard when you need to and soft when it's required. This is the applied principle of the Yin-Yang.

Almost anything in nature can be classified as either Yin or Yang. Yin represent darkness, inwardness, slow, soft, gentle, cool, etc. Yang represents light, outwardness, fast, hard, aggressive, hot, etc. I find the symbol steeped in way too much eastern "universalism" philosophy that is really far too general for practical application in my martial arts study.

It's said that by mixing the aspects of Yin Yang together, you can easily adapt into any situation, which goes to show that most martial arts are far more complex than a simple "hard or soft" or "this or that" and tend to be a mix or deal more often with the "flow" of conflict.  I find little use for this religious symbol in my personal martial arts journey or in my style of teaching.






Peacock border top











Hidari Gomon








Okinawa Prefecture







Asian White Crane