The art we know today as "karate" (pronounced "ka
rah tay") originated on the island of Okinawa, presently
a part of the nation of Japan. Okinawa is one of over one hundred
islands in the Ryukyu (pronounced "ree-you-cue") chain
that extends from southern Japan to Taiwan. To understand the
development of karate, one must understand some of the history
of the island and it's people.
Since ancient times, Okinawa has been a crossroads of Asian cultures.
This was due to Okinawa's central location in the East China Sea,
making it an excellent trade center for goods moving to/from China,
Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
A major root of karate can be traced to ancient China. Legend
has it that Daruma Daishi (Bodhidharma) developed eighteen exercise
forms for the use of the Buddhist monks living at the Shaolin
Temple. These exercise forms eventually became known as Shaolin
Kempo, meaning "Way of the Fist". The exercise discipline
concentrated upon the art of learning to control and master the
body, mind, and soul.
Grand Master Tatsuo
Since ancient times, the Okinawan
people had practiced a system of self-defense referred to as Te,
meaning "Hand", the second root of modern karate. During
the years of trade and cultural exchange, the Okinawan people
were exposed to Shaolin Kempo. Over many years, the Okinawan people
synthesized these two martial traditions into what we know today
as karate. The term was used as early as the late 1800's and translates
In the 14th century, during the reign of King Sho Shin, the private
ownership of weapons and the use of armed retainers by lords were
first prohibited. Through this the nobility was able to gain complete
control over the citizens. This fueled the desire for empty-hand
During the 17th century, Okinawa was overrun and occupied by
the Satsuma Clan of Japan. Okinawa was never to be independent
again. The weapons of the Okinawan samurai were confiscated, and
they were forbidden to own, use, or carry any weapons. The edict
issued in 1609 also forbade the practice of martial arts. Again,
this was to completely subjugate the Okinawan people. Faced with
the necessity of defending themselves and their people from their
oppressors and pirates, and having only their bare hands with
which to fight, the samurai warriors turned to the ancient forms
of Te and Kempo. In those desperate years, they developed and
refined the techniques until their bodies were as deadly and effective
in their defense as had been the swords that were taken from them.
Karate was taught in secret and was known only to the nobility.
Where and how it was taught was a mystery to most Okinawan people,
for to be introduced to the discipline of karate was to be marked
as one of the most poised and trusted human beings and was an
honor as high as any that could be bestowed.
For over 300 years, karate remained secret and known only through
word-of-mouth on the island of Okinawa. Masters taught only to
small groups, usually family members and relatives. Each family
developed their own personal method of training, thus many styles
of karate came into being. Karate became a course of exercise
valued for its health and character building.
In 1875, the Satsuma occupation ended and Japan officially recognized
Okinawa as a prefecture. The need for secrecy ended. In 1902,
Anko Itosu, a master of Shuri-Te, gave the first public demonstration
of karate on Okinawa. Later, both he and Master Kanryo Higashionna
(sometimes spelled Higaonna) introduced karate into the public
In 1917, an Okinawan school teacher by the name of Gichin Funakoshi,
who had studied karate in Shuri, Okinawa, gave a series of karate
demonstrations at the Butokuden (the government sanctioning body
for all martial arts prior to WWII) in Kyoto, Japan. These demonstrations
could well be the most historic event in the history of karate,
for this was the first time that this fighting system was demonstrated
outside of Okinawa. In 1921 he was asked to give a demonstration
at Shuri Castle for visiting Crown Prince Hirohito. The prince
was so impressed, he mentioned it in his report. This led to Master
Funakoshi being invited to give a demonstration to the Ministry
of Education in Tokyo, leading to the adoption of karate as part
of the school system in Japan.
After World War II, Okinawa was occupied by the United States.
US servicemen, a long way from home and with nothing to occupy
their free time, discovered karate. Those men returned home and
opened the first dojo(s) in America. Thanks to them, karate has
now spread world-wide.
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Last Modified: April 6, 2004