Isshinryu School of Karate and
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Students practice on the grounds of Shuri Castle in Okinawa
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.

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 as "empty-hand".

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 fighting systems.

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 school system.
A group of famous Okinawa Karate Masters
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.
Gichin Funakoshi
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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