Karate History

The Ancient History of the Worlds Largest Martial Art

Masters_of_KarateMasters of karate in Tokyo (c. 1930s),
from left to right, Kanken Toyama, Hironori Otsuka, Takeshi Shimoda, Gichin Funakoshi,
Motobu Chōki, Kenwa Mabuni, Genwa Nakasone, and Shinken Taira

Some of the earliest origins of karate have been traced to the island of Okinawa in the Ryukyu Island chain. It is thought that a native style of self-defense developed here called te, or hand in English. Okinawa is within close distance to the coasts of Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea, thus there has been extensive influence from a number of Asian cultures in the subsequent history of this island. Karate as it has developed is thought to be an amalgamation of te with some prominent Chinese martial arts, such as Shaolin Temple Monk fist boxing. In early years, karate was translated as "Chinese hand" (kara=China/Chinese; te=hand).

An early event germane to the development of karate, occurred in 1477 during the beginning of the newly formed Sho Dynasty (Reid & Croucher, 1983) . In order to manage unruly warlords, the king proclaimed a ban on the carrying of swords, and had all weapons, and the warlords themselves, brought to court, where they could be monitored. In 1609 when the Japanese annexed Okinawa, they maintained the ban on the carrying of weapons, however, Japanese samurai were exempt from this edict. It is suggested that during this time both the art of the hand, as well as weapon arts, or kobudo, were developing, with the nobility studying mostly te, and the peasant classes developing weapons systems based upon the use of familiar, and available tools, such as rice flails (nunchaku), mill grindstone handles (tonfa), sickles (kama), and other implements.

On Okinawa, te began to develop into three similar, but distinct systems which were tied to the major geographical regions of Shuri, Tomari, and Naha. Reid & Croucher (1983) state that these differences may have emerged through the divergent influences coming into each region, with Shuri-te evolving more from the influence of the harder Shaolin Temple style under the likes of Sokon Matsumura, and Naha-te being more closely related to the "inner" Chinese styles which emphasized the cultivation of ki (a.k.a. chi), or life energy, and was fostered by Kanryo Higaonna. Tomari-te appears to adopt aspects of both the hard and soft of Shuri-te and Naha-te, and has been associated with Kosanku Matsumora.


Matsumura Sōkon (1809–1899)

Sakukawa Kanga (1782–1838) had studied pugilism and staff (bo) fighting in China (according to one legend, under the guidance of Kosokun, originator of kusanku kata). In 1806 he started teaching a fighting art in the city of Shuri that he called "Tudi Sakukawa," which meant "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 Sōkon (1809–1899) taught a synthesis of te (Shuri-te and Tomari-te) and Shaolin (Chinese 少林) styles. Matsumura's style would later become the Shōrin-ryū style.


Itosu Ankō (1831–1915)

Matsumura taught his art to Itosu Ankō (1831–1915) among others. Itosu adapted two forms he had learned from Matsumara. These are kusanku and chiang nan[citation needed]. He created the ping'an forms ("heian" or "pinan" in Japanese) which are simplified kata for beginning students. In 1901 Itosu helped to get karate introduced into Okinawa's public schools. These forms were taught to children at the elementary school level. Itosu's influence in karate is broad. The forms he created are common across nearly all styles of karate. His students became some of the most well known karate masters, including Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Motobu Chōki. Itosu is sometimes referred to as "the Grandfather of Modern Karate."


Gichin Funakoshi
(Nov. 10, 1868 – Apr. 26, 1957)

In the early 1920's, an Okinawan school teacher under the tutelage of Anko Itosu, named Gichin Funakoshi (Nov. 10, 1868 – Apr. 26, 1957), was observed by the Japanese Emperor's son performing a display of Shuri-te karate. Funakoshi was subsequently invited to Japan to demonstrate karate for the nation, and later went on to be charged with incorporating it into the regular Japanese school curriculum. Funakoshi's adaptations to shorin-style karate later became known as shotokan, a name adapted from his own authored pen name. In 1935, a multi-style coalition of karate masters met to decide on a common name for their teachings, and "karate" was decided upon, with a slight change in the meaning to "empty hand", a decision which reflects the independent political stance at the time.

Wado is a Japanese karate style founded in 1939 by Master Hironori Otsuka, which combines Master Otsuka's early experience with classical jujutsu with the shotokan karate he learned as a student of Gichin Funakoshi's. Wado, meaning the "way of peace/harmony", is one of the four major styles of karate in Japan and perhaps the purest form of karate-do (the way of the empty hands). Trained in classical bujutsu (the techniques of the samurai), Master Otsuka applied this outlook and experience to his teachings. Some of the harsher resistive or hard contact elements of sparring technique, typical of many karate styles, are not present in Wado. Master Otsuka rejected hardening certain parts of the body, such as hand conditioning, as useless preparation. At the time of his death, Hanshi Masaru Shintani was the head of Wado Kai karate for North America and was one of Master Otsuka's senior students.

The aim of Wado karate is not merely perfection of the physical techniques of self-defense, but the development of a mind that is tranquil yet alive, able to react intuitively to any situation. In Wado, as skill and knowledge are acquired through training and concentrated effort, the student is expected to develop inner strength and calmness of character, as well as the virtues of self-control, respect for others, and true humility. Karate-do for Master Otsuka was primarily a spiritual discipline.

Basic techniques - punching, kicking, blocking, striking with open hand, joint twisting, and trapping techniques - kata (a sequence of techniques done in certain order against imaginary opponents), and prearranged and free style sparring comprise the training foundation of this style. Equally fundamental to Wado is taisabaki, body shifting to avoid the full brunt of an attack, a technique derived from Japanese swordsmanship. Kumite (sparring) is usually judged on a point system; one referee and four corner judges determine which techniques are given a point. In free sparring, there is no contact allowed to the head, below the waist except for foot sweeps, or to the spine; only light to medium contact is allowed to the torso. Attacks to the head and torso can all score points in a tournament; therefore, Wado karate-ka tend to fight with explosive, close movements with an emphasis on well-controlled techniques.