A Brief History of Karate-Do


by Matthew Barnes (c) 2001, 2002,2003 



Excerpted from the author’s previous paper, The Evolution of Karate-Do 


Most Americans associate the art of Karate inextricably with Japan. The roots of Karate surprisingly don’t begin in Japan, and the arrival of Karate in Japan is a relatively recent event. Karate, or more properly Karate-Do, translates as ‘The empty hand way.’ The original kanji (Japanese ideograms) pronounced ‘Karate-jutsu’ used a homonym for ‘kara’ meaning Chinese, so it would translate as ‘Chinese hand techniques.’ (McCarthy, Bubishi, 196) The island of Okinawa, now part of Japan, had its own dialect unintelligible to those of Japan proper, called ‘hogen’, (Goodin, Motobu 9 ) and in this dialect, Karate-jutsu would be pronounced ‘tode-jutsu’ (Goodin, Motobu 8) and is often translated as ‘Chinese Boxing.’(Bishop 9) 


Country of Origin and Evolution of the Art 


The term ‘Evolution’ suits Karate-do and its ancestral arts, as many of the parent arts are still practiced today, and each has evolved into a separate species. The earliest record of a root art of Karate can be found in India over 2000 years ago with the art of Kalaripayattu, which translates directly to ‘the arts of the gymnasium.’ It is believed to be the precursor to arts like judo, karate, and kung fu. According to Assaniyar Gurukkal, a teacher of Kalaripayattu, the style closely resembles karate, and is difficult for the untrained to distinguish from the Okinawan style. (Theodore) 


Many martial arts experts suggest that a Buddhist monk named Boddhidharma traveled from India to China in the 5th or 6th century to organize the Chinese Buddhist monks. While there he taught the monks a modified form of the Indian martial art to incorporate physical discipline. (McCarthy, Kata10; Chun 12;Theodore) The temple housing the monks was the famous Shaolin Temple, acknowledged as the major source for Kung fu and Shaolin Chuan Fa, known in Japanese as Shorinji Kempo, and in English as the Shaolin temple fist method. (McCarthy, Kata10) However, the Boddhidharma story is regarded as largely apocryphal by historians, as the first mention of Boddhidharma in literature was in the late 19th century. (Yip, Henning) 

In 1372, Emperor Hong Wu of China sent an envoy to Okinawa to form a tributary alliance, and by 1393 there was a mission of 36 Chinese families living in Okinawa. This village is considered to have been Okinawa’s window into Chinese culture. (McCarthy, Bubishi 46-47) From this point until when Okinawa was annexed by the Japanese in 1879, regular trade and cultural exchange with China ensued. (McCarthy, Bubishi 46) Prior to the annexation the Satsuma clan had invaded Okinawa putting it under Japanese control in 1609. (McCarthy, Kata 16) The Meiji government of Japan set to ‘Japanizing’ Okinawa following its annexation, to rid the island of the ‘foreign’ old Okinawan ways. (Bishop 10) 


Antedating karate and Chinese influence, there existed an indigenous art called in the Hogen dialect ‘ti’, meaning ‘hand.’. (Nagamine, 20) Ti was later called ‘te’ reflecting the Japanese influence. (Bishop 10) Te flourished in the 15th century, and was mentioned prominently in poetry that existed prior to the first public demonstration of Chinese martial arts in Okinawa. (Nagamine, 20) Prior to 1609, ti was practiced for self defense and self development by the nobility, and this pattern continued with the later introduction of ‘to-de’until the annexation. To-de was the art that evolved as the imported Chinese martial arts merged with the indigenous ‘te. (Bishop, 10-11) In the late 18th century, this merge took place after Kushanku, a Chinese envoy on a trade ship that had been blown off course, performed a public demonstration of Chinese martial arts in Okinawa in either 1761 (Nagamine 21) of 1762 (McCarthy, Bubishi 33) The introduction of To-de (Chinese hand) was mainly due to demonstrations like this, or by Okinawans who traveled to China and brought Chinese martial arts back. (Bishop 22) 


Itosu Anko, an Okinawan karate instructor and teacher at Shuri Jinjo Elementary school, introduced Karate as a Physical Education program in 1901. Initially it was considered too risky for the children, so the more dangerous techniques were removed. By 1905 he had developed a series (called the Pinan Kata) of 5 karate forms, one for each of the grades in the school. (Bishop, 89) Three years later, in 1908, he wrote a letter to the Prefectural Education Department extolling the virtues of Karate in instilling a physical and mental toughness that would be useful in the militaristic society, creating a generation of good military recruits. This letter led to Karate being taught in all of the Okinawan public schools, and eventually the program spread to all of Japan. (Bishop, 89) 


The introduction of karate to the main island of Japan happened in 1921 when two noted masters of Okinawan Karate moved there at about the same time. Choki Motobu moved to Tokyo, and then Osaka, and accepted many challenge fights to draw attention to his art. One challenge, in which he defeated a foreign western boxer brought him national fame. Shortly after, he started a dojo (training hall) and began teaching in Osaka. (Goodin, Motobu 9) Gichin Funakoshi, who later became the founder of the Shotokan style of Karate, moved to Osaka, and performed public demonstrations. One of the earliest demonstrations was reported in the Tokyo Daily newspaper on June 2nd, 1922. (McKenna 25) Interestingly, over twenty years before the introduction of Karate to mainland Japan, it was introduced to the American territory of Hawaii. In 1900, the ship S.S city of China arrived in Hawaii, containing 26 Okinawan immigrants. One among them, Chinzen Kinjo described using karate to defend himself shortlly after arrival in the book Uchinanchu: A History of Okinawans in Hawaii. ( Goodin, Roots) In 1927, Karate master Kentsu Yabu visited Hawaii to introduce and teach karate, and he was followed over the next seven years by Choki Motobu, Mizuo Mutsu, and Chojun Miyagi. (Goodin, Mutsu 8) 


To gain acceptance nationally in Japan, Karate needed to be affiliated with the Butokukai. The Butokukai, established in 1895, housed and was operated by Japan’s premier martial artists in arts such as kendo, judo, and others. The representatives of the Butokukai met with Motobu, Funakoshi, and other prominent Karate masters, and set forth several guidelines that had to be met before karate would be accepted. First, the name had to be changed to remove any evidence of Chinese influence. Japan was in an especially nationalistic period and held a negative attitude about foreigners, especially the Chinese. Second, Karate needed to adopt a standard practice uniform, so the keikogi, used in judo, was selected. Third, a curriculum and testing standard needed to be developed. Fourth, a method for assigning degrees of proficiency was required, and again, the judo belt ranking system was borrowed. Prior to this, there were no particular ‘belt ranks’ in karate. Finally, the Butokukai required that they organize a format for competition. (McCarthy, kata, 20) With the introduction to Japan, the training was more rigid and formal. The stances became larger, which some Okinawan masters felt was for aesthetic purposes that hindered effectiveness. (Bishop 60) With the Butokukai setting the guidelines, Karate took on a much more ‘militaristic’ slant. The requirements of the Butokukai were met, culminating in the genesis of most of today’s major Japanese Karate styles – Wado ryu, Shotokan, Shito ryu, and Japanese Goju ryu – which have not changed essentially since. (McCarthy, Kata 20) 


Two significant evolutions out of Karate are the Korean sports of Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do. Although these arts are often presented as indigenous to Korea, their roots are firmly in the realm of Karate-do. During the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1907-1945, all forms of Korean expression were prohibited, including martial arts. (Cummins) A Korean named Woon Kook Lee studied under Gichin Funakoshi in Japan, attaining a 3rd degree black belt in Shotokan karate. When he returned to Korea, he applied for a license, formed the Chung do Kwan, and began to teach Tang Soo Do, which is the Korean pronunciation of the ideograms for Karate-do, or in English, “China hand way.” (Kluzek) In a similar fashion, Hong Hi Choi, acknowledged as the ‘Father of Taekwon-do,’ studied Shotokan Karate in college in Kyoto, then Tokyo attaining the rank of 2nd degree black belt. In 1957 he formed and became president of the Korean Taekwon-do Association, coining the name ‘Tae-kwon do’ in the process. Originally, the Shotokan forms were used, but eventually the organizations developed their own forms.(Powerkix) 




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Chun, Richard, with Paul Hastings Wilson. Tae Kwon Do: The Korean Martial Art. New York,: Harper & Row, 1976. 

Cummins, Michael E. “Soo Bahk Do Tang Soo Do and a Brief History of the Soo Bahk Do Moo Duk Kwan Federation.” Online. 11/26/01 http://www.soobahkdo.org/yuba-sutter/history.html 

Goodin, Charles C. “ Choki Motobu: Revelations from His Son Chosei.” Dragon Times Volume 19, 2001: 8-10 

Goodin, Charles C. “Mizuo Mutsu: Unraveling the Mystery.” Dragon Times Volume 18, 2001: 8-10 

Goodin, Charles C. “The Roots of Okinawan Karate in Hawaii” Online. 3/31/02, http://www.tanega.com/seinenkai/art-roots.html 

Kluzek, Erik “History of Chung Do Kwan and U.S.U. Tae Kwon Do Club …” Online. 11/26/01 http://www.usu.edu/taekwond/history.html 

Liu, Edward C. Lynda St. James, “Cyberdojo Frequently Asked Questions List” Online, 12/1/01 http://www.ryu.com/cyberdojo/faq.html 

McCarthy, Patrick. The Bible of Karate: Bubishi. , Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1995. 

McCarthy, Patrick. Classical Kata of Okinawan Karate. Santa Clarita, CA,: Ohara Publications, Inc., 1987. 

Mckenna, Mario “The Beginnings of Shotokan” Dragon Times Volume 19, 2001: 25 

Nagamine, Shoshin. The Essence of Okinawan Karate-do. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1976. 

Power Kix Karate “Power Kix Karate – History of Tae Kwon Do” Online, 11/26/01. http://www.powerkixusa.com/history/history.htm 

Theodore, Rajiv “Kerala’s dying art form Kalaripayattu: The precursor of judo and karate” India in New York, Online 11/30/01 http://www.indiainnewyork.com/iny052298/Sports/kalari-29.html 

USA National Karate-do Federation, Member U.S. Olympic Committee. “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) and Answers” Online, 11/30/01 http://www.usankf.org/faq/faqteamselection.html 

The USA National Karate-do Federation (USA-NKF), “About the USA-NKF” Online 11/30/01 http://www.usankf.org/about.html 

Cei-Cai Yip . “First Teacher of Zen Buddhism: Bodidharma” http://www.healthekids.net/course.phtml?course_id=326 

Stanley Henning,”Ignorance, Legend and Taijiquan” http://www.nardis.com/~twchan/henning.html

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