The true birthplace of what we now call karate is Okinawa, which is to karate what Mecca in Saudi Arabia is to Muslims; a pilgrimage to the birthplace. Students truly invested in their training go there to learn what karate truly is.
Karate was developed when Okinawa was its own kingdom, long before it was invaded and conquered by Japan in the early 17th century, let alone its 19th century annexation by Japan.
As someone who has practiced shotokan karate (one of many karate styles) for over two decades, I thought I understood at least most karate basics. But last month I spent a week training in traditional karate seminars in Okinawa and realized how little I actually understood.
While many martial arts, including karate, can produce reasonably good fighters — at least for tournaments — they actually are often remarkably deficient in teaching useful fighting skills for what one might encounter in real life.
Some history is necessary to understand what I am talking about. For generations karate was taught secretly in Okinawa. The art had almost no literature and when it emerged from secrecy at the beginning of the twentieth century it was enveloped in myths. And as it spread around the world, especially after World War II, there was no central authority. Instead there was a collection of different styles and schools, each with its own ideas, training methods, and versions of history.
Essentially, karate is a striking art using punching, kicking, knee and elbow strikes, and open‐handed techniques such as knife‐hands. Grappling, locks, restraints, throws and vital point strikes are also taught, but, sadly, most of that is not common in many styles today, though they are at the heart of what makes karate truly effective. A karate practitioner is called a karateka.
Hypothetically, any unarmed combat system could accurately be called “karate” since the Japanese phrase literally means “empty hand”. But this is not really karate. True karate was developed from indigenous fighting methods called te (literally “hand”; ti in Okinawan) and Chinese kenpo (a Japanese word used to designate several Chinese martial arts).
After trade relationships were established with the Ming Dynasty of China by King Satto of Chuzan in 1372, some forms of Chinese martial arts were introduced to the Ryukyu Islands by the visitors from China, particularly Fujian province. A large group of Chinese families moved to Okinawa around 1392 for the purpose of cultural exchange, and they shared their knowledge in a wide variety of Chinese arts and sciences, including Chinese martial arts.
Members of the Okinawan upper classes were sent to China regularly to study various political and practical disciplines. The incorporation of empty‐handed Chinese wu shu into Okinawan martial arts occurred partly because of these exchanges.
Sakukawa Kanga (1782–1838) had studied pugilism and staff (bo) fighting in China. 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”. In the 1820s, Sakukawa’s most significant student, Matsumura Sokon (1809–1899), was teaching a synthesis of te (Shuri‐te and Tomari‐te) and Shaolin (Chinese) styles. Matsumura’s style would later become the Shorin‐ryu style.
Matsumura taught his art to Itosu Anko (1831–1915) among others. Itosu adapted two forms he had learned from Matsumara. These are kusanku and chiang nan. He created the ping’an forms (“heian” or “pinan” in Japanese) which are simplified kata for beginning students.
In 1902, 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 Choki.
Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate, is generally credited with having introduced and popularized karate on the main islands of Japan. But actually many Okinawans were actively teaching, and are thus equally responsible for the development of karate. Funakoshi was a student of both Asato Anko and Itosu Anko.
During this time period, prominent teachers who also influenced the spread of karate in Japan included Kenwa Mabuni, Chojun Miyagi, Motobu Choki, Kanken Toyama and Kanbun Uechi.
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 (forms), techniques, and principles that distinguished their local version of te from the others.
Karate was brought to the Japanese mainland in the early 20th century during a time of cultural exchanges between the Japanese and the Ryukyuans. In 1922, the Japanese Ministry of Education invited Gichin Funakoshi, regarded as the founder of shotokan karate, to Tokyo to give a karate demonstration.
In an era of escalating Japanese militarism, the meaning of karate was changed from “Chinese Hand” to “Empty hand” — both of which are pronounced karate — to indicate that the Japanese wished to develop the combat form in a Japanese style.
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 name to the “way of the empty hand”. Karate‐do (the way of karate) teaches ethical principles and can have spiritual significance to its adherents. Gichin Funakoshi titled his autobiography Karate‐Do: My Way of Life in recognition of the transforming nature of karate study. Today karate is practiced for self‐perfection, for cultural reasons, for self‐defense and as a sport; all of which helps explain why much of karate today is lacking in true self‐defense effectiveness.
The do suffix implies that karate‐do 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 (technique) to -do around the beginning of the 20th century. The “do” in “karate‐do” sets it apart from karate‐jutsu, as aikido is distinguished from aikijutsu, judo from jujutsu, kendo from kenjutsu and iaido from iaijutsu.
Funakoshi changed the names of many kata and the name of the art itself (at least on mainland Japan), so karate could be accepted by the Japanese budo (martial way) organization Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. Funakoshi also gave Japanese names to many of the Okinawan 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‐ryu and Shorei‐ryu. He always referred to what he taught as simply karate, but in 1936 he built a dojo (training place) in Tokyo and the style he left behind is usually called Shotokan after this dojo.
In 1922, future Karate master Hironori Ohtsuka attended the Tokyo Sports Festival, where he saw Funakoshi’s karate. Ohtsuka was so impressed with this that he visited Funakoshi many times during his stay. Funakoshi was, in turn, impressed by Ohtsuka’s enthusiasm and determination to understand karate, and agreed to teach him. His prowess in martial arts led him to become an assistant instructor in Funakoshi’s dojo.
By 1929, Ohtsuka was registered as a member of the Japan Martial Arts Federation. Okinawan karate at this time was only concerned with kata. Ohtsuka thought that the full spirit of budo, which concentrates on defense and attack, was missing, and that kata techniques did not work in realistic fighting situations. He experimented with other, more combative styles such as judo, kendo, and aikido. He blended the practical and useful elements of Okinawan karate with traditional Japanese martial arts techniques from jujitsu and kendo, which led to the birth of kumite, or free‐fighting, in karate.
During the years leading up to and during World War II, karate in Japan became militarized. Harry Cook, author of the authoritative Shotokan Karate: A Precise History wrote: