Karate History

The Karate | Karate History | Karate Origins | The Karate Styles | Karate Goju Ryu | Karate Practice | What’s in Karate Name | Karate in America | Gichin Funakoshi | Tatsuo Shimabuku | Karate Influence | Karate Stances | Return to Our Roots | Karate Shito Ryu | Karate Shotokan Ryu | Karate Wado Ryu | Uechi Ryu Karate

Okinawa: The relationship between Okinawa and Japan is complex and, in the context of karate, it is appropriate to consider them as separate entities. Japan annexed the nominally-independent Ryūkyū Islands in 1874, after centuries of strong Japanese influence over the kingdom following the invasion by the Japanese Satsuma clan in 1609.

The Okinawan martial art “ti” (or “te”) was practiced by Okinawan royalty and their retainers for centuries before, and alongside, later Chinese influences. There were few formal styles of ti, but rather many practitioners with their own methods. Early styles of karate are often generalized as Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te, named after the three cities from which they emerged. Each area and its teachers had particular kata, techniques, and principles that distinguished their local version of ti from the others.

Members of the Okinawan upper classes were sent to China regularly to study various disciplines, both political and practical. The incorporation of empty-handed Chinese kung fu into Okinawan martial arts occurred partly because of these exchanges. To this day, karate styles from some areas bear a striking resemblance to Fujian martial arts such as Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, and Gangrou-quan (Hard Soft Fist; pronounced “GōjÅ«ken” in Japanese), while some karate looks distinctly Okinawan.

Further influence came from Southeast Asia— particularly Sumatra, Java, and Melaka. The similarities between karate and silat may be found not only in the unarmed forms, but the weapon forms as well. Many Okinawan weapons originated in and around Southeast Asia including the sai, tonfa, and nunchaku.

Sakukawa Kanga (1782–1838) had studied pugilism and staff (bo) fighting in China (according to one legend, under the guidance of Koshokun, originator of kusanku kata). In 1806, he started teaching a fighting art in the city of Shuri that he called “Tudi Sakukawa” (at that time meaning “Sakukawa of China hand”). This was the first known recorded reference to the art of Tudi (written as 唐手).

Around the 1820s, Sakukawa’s most significant student, Matsumura Sokon (1809–1899) taught a synthesis of te (Shuri-te and Tomari-te) and Shaolin (Chinese å°‘æž—) styles. Matsumura’s style would later become the Shorin-ryÅ« style.

Japan: Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate, is generally credited with having introduced and popularized karate on the main islands of Japan. He was a student of both Asato Ankō and Itosu Ankō (who had worked to introduce karate to the Okinawa Prefectural School System in 1902). Funakoshi brought Itosu’s pinan kata to Japan, and worked to modernize karate and to spread it across Japan.

There were many other Okinawan karateka living and teaching in Japan during this time period who also influenced the spread of karate in Japan, including Kenwa Mabuni, Chojun Miyagi, Choki Motobu, Kanken Tōyama, and Kanbun Uechi. This was a turbulent period in history in the region, including Japan’s annexation of the Okinawan island group in 1874, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), the annexation of Korea, and the rise of Japanese expansionism (1905–1945).

Japan was invading China at the time, and Funakoshi knew that the art of Tang/China hand would not be accepted; thus the change of the art’s name to “way of the empty hand.” The dō suffix implies that karatedō is a path to self knowledge, not just a study of the technical aspects of fighting. Like most martial arts practiced in Japan, karate made its transition from -jutsu to -dō around the beginning of the 20th century. The “dō” in “karate-dō” sets it apart from karate “jutsu”, as aikido is distinguished from aikijutsu, judo from jujutsu, iaido from iaijutsu, and so on.

Funakoshi changed the names of many kata and the name of the art itself (at least on mainland Japan), doing so to get karate accepted by the Japanese budo organization Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. Funakoshi also gave Japanese names to many of the kata. The five pinan forms became known as heian, the three naihanchi forms became known as tekki, seisan as hangetsu, chinto as gankaku, wanshu as empi, and so on.

These were mostly political changes, rather than changes to the content of the forms, although Funakoshi did introduce some such changes. Funakoshi had trained in two of the popular branches of Okinawan karate of the time, Shorin-ryū and Shorei-ryū. In Japan he was influenced by kendo, incorporating some ideas about distancing and timing into his style. He always referred to what he taught as simply karate, but in 1936 he built the Shotokan dojo in Tokyo and the style he left behind is usually called Shotokan.

The modernization and systemization of karate in Japan also included the adoption of the white uniform that consisted of the kimono and the dogi or keikogi—mostly called just karategi—and colored belt ranks.

Both of these innovations were originated and popularized by Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo and one of the men Funakoshi consulted in his efforts to modernize karate. In 1922, Hironori Ohtsuka attended the Tokyo Sports Festival, where he saw the Funakoshi’s karate.

The Federation of All Japan Karatedo Organization recognizes four traditional styles of karate:

  • Shotokan-ryu
  • Shito-ryu
  • Goju-ryu
  • Wado-ryu

Styles that do not belong to one of these schools are not necessarily considered to be ‘illegitimate’ or ‘bad’ karate, but simply not one of the traditional schools. For example, the styles listed by the World Union of Karate-do Organizations (WUKO) are GōjÅ«-ryÅ«, Shitō-ryÅ«, Shōtōkan-ryÅ«, Wadō-ryÅ«, Shōrin-ryÅ«, Uechi-ryÅ«, Kyokushinkai, and Budōkan. Many schools would be affiliated with, or heavily influenced by, one or more of these traditional styles.