Placemaking in Okinawa

By Paul Babladelis, Ph.D.

Nearly everyone has a favorite place and most of us have several. What makes these places special and why do some places attract thousands or even millions of people to come and visit each year? The art and science of placemaking has evolved quickly in the past ten years and it is clear that there are concrete things most great places have in common. Planners are learning how to leverage science to create and enhance great places that people want to visit and consider part of their lives.

There is no single accepted definition of placemaking and yet most development planners will utilize this concept in modern planning. A basis for placemaking is belief in the ability of people to work together, collaborate, identify, and implement ways to shape the present and the future to consciously create great places.

This nearly always involves an effort to preserve and enhance a healthy ecosystem with vibrant plants, clean air and water, and an environment that promotes human growth and wellbeing. Humans seek the beauty of nature that appeals not only to the eye but to the spirit.

It also involves a social component including history, the nature and attitudes of its people. A safe environment is a baseline, but great places offer more, a welcoming atmosphere, a friendliness, and a feeling of belonging. The history of a place and people is key and historical sites are a big plus, especially if they link to the present.

Okinawa is already a great place with millions of people worldwide who hold it close in their hearts. Current efforts that explore placemaking in Okinawa are fortunate to have so much to work with. Here are a few of the components I see that can enhance current efforts to link karate and kobudo with a lager placemaking project.

Karate and Nature:

Nearly all people want a vibrant and healthy natural environment, but for practitioners of Okinawan karate and kobudo, it is in their DNA. From its earliest days martial arts training on Okinawa involved small groups training outside. There was a link to nature and some went so far as to say that karate practice is moving zen and there is no better place to open the mind than in the out-of-doors. This sort of training went on for hundreds of years with the idea of training primarily within a dojo taking dominance after WWII.

A teacher once told me, “If you don’t have a karate teacher look to nature. There you will find a teacher.” Many techniques were developed or refined by people who studied nature carefully and this practice developed aspects of personality that went deeper than surface intellectual analysis.

There are many other examples and the point is simple: nature is part of the fabric of karate. How would this tie to a placemaking plan? How about building dojos in beautiful natural areas and designing them with nature in mind? Outdoor and indoor spaces would blend and produce an environment perfect for someone who wants to have both an authentic nature and martial arts experience. “Dojo retreats” could be large or small and it would be possible to accommodate both long and short term stays.

What about designating a park or two as a meeting place for any martial artist who wants to work out with others? There would be very little cost and these could potentially increase public perception of Okinawa, not only as the birthplace of karate, but a place where it flourishes today.

Currently there is an effort to link karate visitors with existing natural resource attractions and this can and should continue. Dialogue among providers of nature-based experiences and with karate planners can link and integrate experiences that will inspire participants and create lifelong ties to the people and land of Okinawa.

Authentic History

Okinawan karate and kobudo are the “real deal.” Okinawa is the birthplace and has an authentic history that no other place can offer. Of course karate practice has modernized with time, but it is important to explore, identify, and maintain central elements of the authentic history.

Collaboration is one piece of karate history. While it is true that practitioners often were isolated by geographic area it is also true that practitioners of various styles often trained together to try out techniques and get a feel for what the other was doing. To draw upon this aspect of authentic history, events could be developed to expose visitors to a variety of styles or households within styles.

We know that certain places were used for karate training. Legend has it that Miyagi Chojun sensei trained at Moon Beach. What sort of training did he do there? Would it be possible to set up opportunities to train there now and replicate some of the exercises he performed there? There are many other places on the island, including places where small groups of masters met to train and exchange ideas. These places would be of great historical interest even if it isn’t possible to actually train on the same ground where the masters stood.

What was it like to train on Okinawa in the early 1900’s? There are living masters who can remember what their teacher told them about this. Would it be possible to do even more research, collaborate, and offer classes that accurately capture this experience as much as possible?

Authenticity must be a goal of current placemaking efforts. Modern developments can be appealing and valuable, but the authentic must also be preserved. While several individuals have in-depth knowledge of Okinawan karate history, a more complete understanding requires collaboration and dialogue among masters, historians, and planners that must be cultivated and researched.

Public Consciousness

Nobel Peace Prize winner and two time President of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, tells a story about the time he was offered the cancellation of national debt by Northern European nations. These nations asked him, “What will you use the money for?” He thought deeply about it; money was needed for health care, for education, for roads and public projects, yet he decided to use the money to put land into protected areas. It was called a “dept for nature swap” and became known worldwide as an act of enlightened conservation. Arias explained, “By preserving nature and the environment we told the people that these things are important. This awareness was integrated into the consciousness of the people of Costa Rica.” This is one key reason why Costa Rica is identified globally as an environmental paradise and receives millions of visitors annually. People within the country share environmental appreciation and embrace what they have as a country.

Here again, Okinawa has much to draw upon. There is considerable pride in many areas of history and culture that play a prominent part in public consciousness. Recognition of Okinawa as the birthplace of karate is widespread yet it can be further enhanced. Information should reach the Okinawan people and disseminate widely about karate history. A placemaking project should continue to develop public consciousness and pride in Okinawa and the martial arts it has given the world.

Friendship and Peace

Friendship is a cornerstone of Okinawan culture. So is peace. These concepts are already strong in Okinawan culture, but they must be recognized as part of placemaking, and serve as guiding principles for activities. Human beings gravitate toward friendship and peace, and these qualities are too hard to find in the world.

Linking Okinawan karate to friendship and peace is especially important in this day and age where martial arts are commonly portrayed as violent in the media. Global perceptions of karate often center on power, domination, and physical techniques rather than something of the heart.

I have heard various teachers say that, “The goal of karate is to make good people.” Others have said that, “The ultimate goal of karate is friendship. Only through real friendship can we train together and grow in a way that makes us both stronger.” There are undoubtedly many other ways to explain the authentic link between Okinawan karate and friendship, peaceful relationships with others, and a personal inner peace. This sentiment is needed in the world today as karate spreads and should be an important part of placemaking.


Placemaking is a deliberate effort to draw upon existing strengths and develop them through collaboration to create a great place. This is not easy (true collaboration seldom is easy) and that means few communities or regions or nations attempt it. Some succeed because things come together in an organic way, a great place “just happens.” Modern planning would suggest that these places could still benefit from the art and science of placemaking.

Okinawa is already a great place, yet more can be done to link karate and kobudo with a vibrant history, abundant natural beauty, and wonderful people It is a testimony to visionaries in Okinawa that these efforts have already begun with support from citizens, businesses, and government planners.