History of Karate

The history of karate is a long and rich one filled with a liberal dose of myth and reality. The first necessity is to delineate between karate and martial arts. Karate is but one aspect of the broader classification of martial arts. Kyujutsu - archery, kenjutsu - sword, sojutsu - spear, naginata jutsu - halbard, sumo wrestling, bojutsu staff, and shuriken jutsu small knife throwing, are representatives of the wide variety of martial arts that are currently being practiced. A quicker way to explain the concept of martial arts is to remember that all men are human beings, but not all human beings are men, most, in fact, are women.

The history described herein is the generally accepted version of the development and dispersion of karate. Throughout history all societies have had some form of weaponless combat. How stylized and structured these systems became depended upon that particular society. The Native American Indians had an advanced form of wrestling, some tombs of ancient Egypt depict open handed combat, and the ancient Greeks devised a rather deadly form of sport combat known as pankration. Some historians even believe that this form of fighting made its way to ancient India where it underwent systematic changes until it emerged as wholly Indian and, thereafter, was adopted by the warrior class, the Kshatriya.


Whatever the facts of that dispersion are, martial arts scholars generally credit Bodhidaharma with the actual germination of kung fu/karate sometime about 525 A.D. As history depicts, Bodhidaharma was born of royalty and a member of the Kshatriya. For reasons not fully understood, although some believe as a result of his religious zeal, he gave up his worldly riches and traveled to China. While his activities appear to be have been lost in antiquity the following scenario has developed. He traveled through China finally setting in the Shaolin Temple of Honan Province. Upon seeing the rather deplorable condition of the resident monks he devised a series of exercises coupled with philosophy which would strengthen their bodies as well as their minds. The disciples of Bodhidaharma continued his teachings and practice of “shih pa lo han sho” or the “eighteen hands of Lo Han”. This appears to be the basis of Shaolin Ch’uan fa, or Shorinji Kempo. As years passed the spread of ch’uan fa became complete. As stated before, other forms of combat did in fact exist prior to, during and after this account therefore it is not unreasonable to suspect that they combined with Ch’uan fa to create newer forms.

Introduction to Okinawa

Throughout all of Southeast Asia various forms of the open handed combat arose. There appears to be probable reason to credit commerce and migration in the dissemination of Ch’uan fa. As commerce spread so did the high inevitability of the Chinese coming into closer contact with the Japanese on Okinawa. Somewhere between 600 A.D. and 900 A.D. the transfer of the arts took place. As formal relations became normalized the Okinawan culture was exposed to greater Chinese influences.

Early History of Karate

The Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa) were subject to invasions from all surrounding areas and therefore one may reasonably surmise that the open handed combat took place frequently, especially around the docks and bars. A combination of these external influences and indigenous techniques developed into “tode”. In the late 1390’s a large influx of Chinese settled in Okinawa and flourished there for several hundred years. In 1609, the ousted Satsuma clan, which was defeated by the legendary Tokugawa, was sent to Okinawa to subjugate the native population. Harsh decrees were imposed upon the indigenous populations including the ban on weapons—actually other bans on weapons had previously been imposed. The people were left virtually weaponless save for a small number of farm and fishing tools, and, of course, their hands.

Start of Karate

The combined styles of tode and Ch’uan fa developed into the system called “Te”. During this period of time the art was generally kept secret from outsiders with Naha, Shuri, and Tomari the strongholds.

Since much of the history was shrouded in secrecy there is difficulty defining that fine line between fact and legend. One legend deals with a man named Sakugawa (1733 1815), who in the 1750’s traveled to China to improve his skills under the direction of master Shang (Kong Su Kung). When he returned he established the “karate no Sakugawa” school, and for the first time, the word “karate” was used. What should be noted is that “kara” refers to the T’ang dynasty of China and the “te” of Okinawa te refers to the hand. Thus, karate originally meant the Chinese hands or techniques.

Another legend involves a man named Shionja and his Chinese friend named Shang, Kushanka in Japanese, both of whom helped spread the techniques of their various forms. Kushanka being immortalized through the katas named after him.

The third legend deals with Sokon (Bucho) Matsumura (1796 1893), who mastered Shorinji kempo and founded the Shorinryu gokoku an karate” the original name for Shorinryu karate. In 1848, he was named chief martial arts instructor for Okinawa, the first time a martial artist received the “Bushi” or “Samurai” Promotion Requirements for Youth.

Sometime between 1884 and 1903 “karate” replaced “te”. In fact, the ideograph was changed to represent “open hand” rather than T’ang, even though the pronunciation remained the same. From this period of time events moved rapidly and not necessarily with crystal clarity.

Introduction to Japan

A number of famous individuals arose from the Sakugawa Matsumura line, including Azato, the teacher of Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan, and a close friend of Itosu and Oyadaomari, Chojun Miyagi founder of Gojuryu, Kenwa Mabuni founder of Shitoryu, Choto Kiyan (Chotoku Kyan) teacher of Kori Hisataka—the founder of Shorinjiryu Kenkokan. Kyan appears to have been the key or pivotal figure in the history of modern karate do. He successfully bridged the methodology of Matsurmura Shorin ryu and Tomari te.

What should be noted is that many of the founders of modern styles studied under the same instructors but at different time periods. A little research will bear witness to this phenomenon as the numerous similarities of forms and techniques did not develop in a vacuum. Individual differences appear to have arisen out of necessity due to body type, ability and philosophy.

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