Karate – Its Ancient Origin and Evolving History

Okinawa - the birth place of karate

To many in the Western world, karate is a Japanese martial art. Although there is a distinctive Japanese style of karate, karate did not originate from mainland Japan.

In this in-depth post, we will look at the fascinating origin of karate and how it developed and spread to mainland Japan and the rest of the world.

The Origin of Karate

Ancient fighting art

Fighting and wars have been an integral part of human history dating back thousands of years B.C.

Karate as we know it today originated from ancient fighting arts which began thousands of years ago. Drawings of men in karate-like stances are found on the wall of an ancient Egyptian tomb dated around 5000 years ago. Karate blocking techniques are also found in some Babylonian artworks dating back 3000 to 2000 B.C.

It is thought that karate fighting principles were introduced to India through Turkey and were further developed into a much more sophisticated fighting art called Kalaripayattu.

Kalaripayattu is still practiced today in India. It is considered the mother of all martial arts and is believed to be one of the oldest surviving martial arts with over 3000 years of history.

Kalaripayattu includes strikes, kicks, grappling, preset forms, weaponry, and healing methods. Students will first learn physical exercises to strengthen the body and mind before proceeding to wooden weapons and then metallic weapons. Finally, advanced students will be taught techniques to defend themselves without using weapons like locking, gripping, and throwing.

Kalaripayattu’s bare-hand fighting techniques resemble those of Okinawa martial art known as te (hand).

Origin of Chinese Kempo

Legend has it that Bodhidharma (known as Dhamo in China and Japan) was born a prince but gave up his title and dedicated his life to being a monk. He set out from South India to spread the philosophies of Buddhism and arrived in China around 520 A.D. and settled in a Shaolin monastery.

When Bodhidharma found that the monks were physically unable to keep up with his teachings, he devised a training system to train the monks both physically and spiritually.

He introduced a series of exercises consisting of 18 katas and 2 sutras, called Ekkinkyo and Senzuikyo in Japanese. These exercises and breathing techniques aim to allow one to withstand long hours of meditation as well as rigorous training.

The exercises he taught the Shaolin monks were thought to be based on Kalaripayattu principles. They were said to later develop into Shaolin Kung Fu or Shaolin Kempo.

Introduction of Chinese Kempo to Okinawa

There is a theory that Kalaripayattu was introduced to Okinawa (one of the Ryukyu islands) by sailors who had gone to India in search of trade. This was the beginning of the Okinawan martial art known as “te“.

Te was first practiced among the Pechin class of Okinawa which comprised a feudal cadre of officials and warriors and was equivalent to the Samurai of Japan. Te was said to be practiced secretly amongst Pechin families and passed on from generation to generation within those families.

Due to the proximity between Ryukyu islands and China, trade, study, and cultural exchange eventually led to the incorporation of elements of Chinese martial arts into Okinawa te.

The year 1340 was the beginning of a long relationship between Okinawa and Ming Dynasty China that lasted around five hundred years.

Chinese delegations were regularly sent to Okinawa and amongst the delegates were many masters of Chinese Kempo and other skilled practitioners. These masters taught Chinese Kempo to Okinawan noblemen.

Some Chinese artisans and monks who settled in Okinawa also taught Chinese Kempo to the villagers there.

According to some sources, in 1392, there were 36 Chinese families who migrated to Okinawa from Fujian province for the purpose of cultural and commercial exchange under orders from the Chinese government. They included Chinese bureaucrats, scholars, and craftsmen who were highly educated and possessed a variety of skills, amongst them Chinese fighting arts which were passed on to the Okinawans. Elements of the ‘Crane’ style originated from Fujian province can be found in Okinawan martial art.

Ryukyu ships with delegations of noblemen were also sent to China frequently. To protect these ships from pirates, crew, and delegates were well-armed and trained in martial arts.

In addition, a few Okinawan nobles also remained in China for extended periods of time and enrolled in schools to study Chinese Kempo.

As a result, during the reign of King Satto from 1350 to 1395, Chinese Kempo was rapidly incorporated into Okinawa’s martial art te.

The Banning of Weapons Encouraging the Development of Empty Hand Combat

Due to the previous period of social and political instability in Okinawa, after King Sho Shin took reign in 1477, he passed a law to ban the carrying of swords by everyone, noble or peasant. He also ordered the confiscation of all weapons which were then placed under royal control at his castle in Shuri. Furthermore, he also ordered all nobles who were now disarmed to come and live in the royal capital so that he could keep an eye on them.

As a result of king Sho Shin’s weapon ban, two schools of combats were born.

One known as the art of te was further developed and practiced by the members of the nobility. Because they had to live next to King Sho Shin and, without weapons, they had no choice but to practice bare-hand techniques in secrecy.

The other form was known as Kobudo, practiced by farmers and fishermen using simple fishing and agricultural tools as weapons. Examples of these weapon tools include the bō (six-foot staff), sai (three-pronged truncheon), tonfa (handled club), kama (sickle), and nunchaku (two sticks connected by chains or ropes).

In 1609, the Satsuma clan of southern Japan invaded Okinawa and stormed Shuri. Okinawa was forced to become a puppet state of Japan under the rule of the Japanese Shogunate. Though king Sho Nei kept his throne, the Satsuma clan took de facto control of the island. Under the pretense that nothing had changed, the Japanese maintained the ban on the carrying of weapons by Okinawan. This continued until Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan in 1879.

The continued ban further stimulated the development of the unarmed combat aspect of Okinawa te. It was practiced under great secrecy and passed down within known or trusted groups.

During this time, trade relations between Okinawa and China continued to prosper and Chinese martial arts continued to influence Okinawa te.

For example, according to historical records, in 1683, a Chinese delegate named Wanshu stayed in an Okinawan village called Tomari and taught the villagers a Chinese Kempo kata. After he left, the villagers continued to practice this kata and named it after him. Wanshu kata is still practiced today as a kata of the Tomari-te style.

Another example is Kusanku. Kusanku was a Chinese Kempo master who traveled to Okinawa in 1756 with his pupils and taught Chinese Kempo to Okinawans. A kata in the Shuri-te style is named after this Kempo master.

Sakugawa Sungo, a master of Shuri-te also went to China in 1755 to study Chinese Kempo. Around 1868, Master Kanryo Higaonna, the founder of Nata-te went to Fukien province and spent about 12 years there to study Chinese martial arts.

Though heavily influenced by Chinese martial arts, Okinawan people had created for themselves a very different and distinctive style of unarmed fighting.

Over time, three styles of karate emerged from three Okinawan villages called Naha-te, Shuri-te, and Tomari-te. Collectively, they were generally referred to as “Todei” meaning “Chinese hand” or Karate. Naha-te later became Goju Ryu while Shuri-te and Tomari-te later came together as Shorin Ryu.

The Introduction of Karate to Mainland Japan and the Rest of the World

In 1879, the Meji government annexed the Ryukyu kingdom and the whole Ryukyu kingdom officially became a Japanese prefecture. Following this, as Okinawan migrated to the mainland looking for work, karate was gradually introduced to mainland Japan and, subsequently, spread to the rest of the world.

There is no doubt that spreading karate to mainland Japan has greatly helped the development of karate into a popular and beloved martial art practiced by millions of people worldwide today.

However, as I wrote briefly in this post, the spread of karate to mainland Japan has resulted in a karate style that is distinctively different from the traditional Okinawan karate.

While traditional Okinawan karate remains an art of self-defense that emphasizes mental development and character building, Japanese karate has become more of a competitive sport. There are also many technical differences between traditional Okinawan karate and modern Japanese karate.

For example, Japanese karate uses low and long stances, favors long-distance fighting and explosive movements, relies on linear patterns, and focuses more on attacking and scoring than self-defense. Traditional Okinawan karate, however, uses higher and more natural stances, favors close-range combat, and utilizes many circular movements. It teaches many unbalancing, throwing, and grappling techniques and techniques aiming at vital pressure points. Body conditioning and the use of traditional training tools remain a big part of training. Tournaments and competitions are not a prominent feature in traditional Okinawan karate.

Traditional karate vs sport karate is a big topic on its own and I might write a separate post on this one day.

Below are some major milestones of the development of karate to date.

1901 – The Commissioner of Education, Shintaro Ogawa recommended that karate be included in the physical education of the first middle school of Okinawa

1917 – Gichin Funakoshi was invited to Kyoto to give the first public demonstration of karate

1921 – Gichin Funakoshi, Chojun Miyagi (founder of Goju Ryu), Shinko Matayoshi (Okinawan weapon expert) and others gave a karate demonstration at the great hall of Shuri Castle and impressed Crown Prince Hirohito

1922 – Gichin Funakoshi was invited by the Ministry of Education to give a lecture about the art of karate. His also impressed the minister with his delivery

1922 – Gichin Funakoshi and Makoto Gima were invited by the Japanese Ministry of Education to give a karate demonstration which spurred the popularity of karate in the main land

1924 – The first university karate club in mainland Japan was established at Keio University

1932 – All major Japanese universities had karate clubs

1933 – The Okinawan art of karate was recognized as a Japanese martial art by the Japanese Martial Arts Committee.

1936 – Before 1936, karate was written as 唐手 meaning Chinese hand. Wishing to further spread karate in mainland Japan amid escalating military tension with China at the time, in 1936, the maters of various styles of Okinawan karate decided to change the name to 空手 (“empty hand”) – both of which are pronounced karate in Japanese

1945 – Okinawa became an important US military site and karate became popular among servicemen stationed there. Service men began to teach karate in the US upon their return

1946 – The first karate dojo was opened in the United States

1949 – The Japan Karate Association was established and Gichin Funakoshi was inaugurated as the supreme master

1957 – Japan’s first All Japan Karate Championship was held in Tokyo. This then became an annual event

1958 – The first karate club in the UK was opened

1955 – The first karate club opened in France

1969 – The first karate school opened in the former Soviet Union

1970 – The Word Karate Federation was established

1981 – Karate was banned in the Soviet Union. Karate became too popular there that many professionals gave up boxing, sambo and judo and because karate was not an Olympic sport, this set back Soviet Union teams in those disciplines at the Olympic Games. Soviet karate was also more bloody and brutal than elsewhere. The ban was lifted in 1989

2020 – Karate becomes an Olympic sport.

Today karate has become a popular and beloved sport. It is practiced by about 50 million people in over 160 countries.

Karate history documentary

Below is the link to a great documentary about the origin of karate.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r2akLaTpBcM

I hope you find something interesting reading this brief history of karate. Please check out my library of other karate articles which is updated regularly.

References

A Short History of Karate (Michael Cowie and Robert Dyson)

Traditional Karate-Do: Okinawa Goju Ryu Vol. 1: The Fundamental Techniques

History of Kalaripayattu

About Kalaripayattu – Kalari Movement

An Appraisal of Kalarippayattu and Its Association with the Culture of Kerala

The Historical Origins Of Karate

Wikipedia – Karate

A Brief History of the Japan Karate Association

The Japanization of Karate? Placing an Intangible Cultural Practice

A Brief History of Karate

The Origins of Karate

Kumemura

Communist karate: Why was it more brutal and bloody than the original?

Sophia

I haven't trained in karate for long but it has given me so much and definitely has made me a better person. The more I train, the more I realize that karate is more about mastering your mind than mastering your physical form. If learning karate is like learning a language, I am still at the alphabet stage and I am sharing with you on this blog bits and pieces that I pick up a long the way. I hope you find them useful and wish you all the best with your karate journey!

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