History of Karate

Civil Combat through the Ages: A Brief History of Karate

by David S. Hogsette, Ph.D.

Introduction: Engaging a Rich History and Tradition

A quick Google search of “the history of karate” produces over 26 million hits. That’s a lot of information! If we search “history of karate” on Amazon.com, we get 468 books. Again, that’s a serious stack of reading. Why so much information on karate, and why do we even care? So much information exists about people kicking and screaming in what looks like their pajamas because mystery shrouds karate’s origins. No, not the floating guru kind of mystery, though some people claim the martial arts grants them supernatural powers over the laws of physics; rather, the beginnings of karate in the East predate the time when humans wrote things down. Various histories of karate stem from oral traditions transmitted from master to student or from one scholar to another, such that we have a variety of historical narrative traditions, some contradicting others. Thus, we have millions of websites claiming to reveal the “true history of karate” (usually ones favoring their own styles) and hundreds of books striving to navigate through the historical narrative fog.

So, what can I as a simple karateka in the 21st century hope to add to the proliferation of karate history narratives? More text and verbiage, to be sure. If nothing else, I hope to review this complex history so that I can better understand what I’m doing each week in the dojo and why. We are not just kicking and screaming in our pajamas. Each time we enter the dojo, we join millions of fellow karateka across time and space, linking our martial spirits together, drawing from those who went before us, offering up our own uniqueness to the practice and art of karate, and communing with those who embark on this martial journey with us. This history I trace is not THE history of karate, because I do not think we can, from our limited perspectives, ever know in absolute terms what THE history of karate is. Rather, let me share what I have come to understand is the history of karate (or a history of karate), and allow me to discuss its significance to why I train and what I hope to achieve through engaging this rich martial tradition. [Top]

Myth of Peasant Origins

Most historians agree that karate as we know it comes from Okinawa; however, karate did not just pop up out of Okinawan soil like dwarves in fairyland. There are many competing theories as to when and how karate developed in Okinawa, and one I remember being taught early on in my training involves peasants developing sophisticated fighting systems to defend themselves against oppressive warlords. The common story spread through dojos across the land and around the world is that sometime before the 19th century peasants in Okinawa were repeatedly attacked and oppressed by various warlords. Over time, these peasants developed empty hands techniques to fend off ferocious attacks by armor-wearing and sword-wielding samurai.

Years ago I had an instructor who was a cultural anthropologist who studied farm life in Okinawa, and he noticed that one technique for planting rice involves grasping the rice shoot and thrusting it into the soft mud using a hand position and motion that looks a lot like the nukite strike (spear hand). If we start from the assumption that this peasant theory is true, then we may very well conclude that the nukite came from planting rice. However, we must remember that similarity between things does not necessarily mean one derived from the other. As romantic and appealing as this agrarian theory may be, martial arts historian and practitioner Patrick McCarthy notes that there isn’t sufficient evidence to sustain it, concluding that “a further study of the Ryukyu Kingdom reveals findings that suggest a more plausible explanation” (78). Namely, karate is a complex sociological and cultural fusion of pre-existing Okinawan fighting systems with Chinese kung fu and Japanese martial arts. [Top]

Chinese Influences

In some ways, trying to discern the history of karate is like trying to resolve the chicken-and-the-egg conundrum. We know with sufficient certainty that Chinese kung fu, particularly the White Crane styles from Fujian, significantly influenced the development of karate in Okinawa and the Ryukyu Kingdom. However, this begs the question of where Chinese kung fu originated. Answering this question is indeed beyond the scope of this piece, but suffice it to say that kung fu’s history is just as mysterious and shrouded in legend and myth as that of karate. It’s enough for our purposes to note that various forms of White Crane kung fu was the dominant fighting system in Fujian, a southern coastal Chinese province that is relatively close to Okinawa and that heavily influenced cultural development in the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Karate historian and practitioner Christopher Clarke observes, “Historically, politically, culturally, linguistically, and racially, Okinawa and the adjacent islands of the Ryukyus have been poised uneasily between the two major powers of East Asia, China and Japan” (28). Our historical understanding of karate begins with China and its cultural and martial influences upon Okinawa. However, before we examine Chinese influences, it is only reasonable to first acknowledge what the Chinese were influencing. According to McCarthy, ancient “Okinawan warriors had a rudimentary form of unarmed hand-to-hand combat, that included striking, kicking, elementary grappling, and escape maneuvers that allowed them to subdue adversaries even when disarmed” (79). Master Shoshin Nagamine, founder of Matsubayashi Shorin Ryu, describes this combative system as the art of te or “the hands.” Even though the name emphasizes hand techniques, Nagamine explains that any part of the body was used as a weapon in this ancient, indigenous fighting art (19-20). Eventually, this Okinawan fighting system developed by the 18th and 19th centuries into two main divisions: Shuri-te, which came out of Shuri and Tomari, and Naha-te, which came out of the Naha area (Nagamine 21).

A major influence upon the development of Shuri-te and Naha-te was Chinese White Crane kung fu of Fujian. As far back as the 7th century A.D., Okinawa had contact with China; however, the relations between Okinawa and China strengthened significantly during the Ming dynasty (14th-17th centuries), in which vibrant economic and cultural relationships developed and grew (McCarthy 80). At some point during this several-hundred-year relationship, some version of the Bubishi, a classic Chinese martial arts manual, made its way into Okinawa, vastly influencing the evolution of Okinawan martial arts and traditional medicine. Nagamine states that the Chinese influences did not emerge until the 17th and early 18th centuries (21), yet McCarthy makes a convincing case that the influence happened and manifested much earlier.

From the 7th century and into the Golden Age of Okinawa (the 15th and 16th centuries), exchange students from Okinawa travelled to China to receive a classical Chinese education, which undoubtedly included Chinese kung fu. These exchange students brought this classical knowledge and kung fu back to Okinawa, thus influencing the development of Okinawan te (McCarthy 81). Additionally, the Chinese emperor regularly sent special envoys to various regions of its empire and to neighboring kingdoms with which it had relations, including the Ryukyu Kingdom (Clarke 32). From about the 15th century, Okinawan kings requested these special envoys from China at least twenty different times over a period of several hundred years. Each visit lasted four to six months, and each envoy numbered four-to-five hundred people, including military advisors and security specialists who introduced the Okinawans to their various styles of Chinese kung fu (McCarthy 81-82). Thus, between the Okinawan exchange students going to China and Chinese envoys coming to Okinawan, Chinese kung fu directly influenced the development of Okinawan te that later evolved into what we know as karate. [Top]

Japanese Influences

As previously mentioned, the Okinawans did have their own native fighting art generally known as te. In addition to being influenced by Chinese kung fu, te was also shaped by Okinawan interaction with Japan. The history of Japan is equally complex, and its various stages and developments directly and indirectly shaped a resilient Okinawa for hundreds of years. During the Japanese Heian Period (794-1185), various clans and warlords fought for power in Japan, often taking refuge in the Ryukyu Islands. The Okinawans picked up elements of Japanese fighting techniques such as grappling, archery, and use of the halberd, spear, and sword (McCarthy 79).

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, Japan experienced strife and turmoil, and during the 16th century Japan suffered through a bloody and costly civil war. By the end of the 16th century and into the 17th, Japan focused on the threat from foreigners, particularly Europeans seeking to open up trade with the East. Japan used this threat as a pretext to invade and occupy Okinawa so as to protect themselves from Europeans who used Okinawa as a staging ground for trade with Japan and China (Clarke 32-34). After the Satsuma Invasion, many of the Okinawan pechin or warrior class travelled to Satsuma to train in Jigen-ryu ken-jutsu, which is the fighting system of the samurai. They brought this fighting style back to Okinawa, mixing it with various kung fu techniques and thus further influencing the development of kempo toudi-jutsu or karate-jutsu (McCarthy 83-84). [Top]

Karate in the 20th Century

During the 19th and early 20th centuries, Japan explored methods of using Okinawan kempo to enhance their military training. Japanese military leadership abandoned this idea due to lack of organization and impractical training methods. However, in the early 20th century, Itosu Anko and a group of Okinawan karate practitioners introduced karate training into local school systems as a mode of physical education. While serving to broaden the Okinawan’s exposure to karate, this development also defanged karate significantly, transforming it into a sporting activity and removing much of its emphasis on practical self-defense and effective civilian combat (McCarthy 87).

Not only was karate changing in Okinawa, but when Gichin Funakoshi took it to mainland Japan, it experienced what some call the Japanization of karate. Many in Japan viewed karate as too foreign, and their anti-Chinese perspectives biased the Japanese to the kung fu roots and elements of Okinawan kempo karate. As a result, many techniques were changed and made more uniform (for example, stances were elongated, strikes were more dramatic and unnatural from an Okinawan perspective, and emphasis shifted from civilian combat to fighting other trained practitioners), and the training became regimented for mass training (McCarthy 87-88). Moreover, a new name emerged for this Japanese karate system: Shotokan. Revising the karate curriculum and reshaping its training methodology started karate on its journey toward becoming a worldwide sport that we see today. [Top]

Contemporary Attempts to Revitalize Bunkai as the Heart of Karate

When Itosu took karate into the schools, the teaching and training emphases shifted from civilian combat to physical fitness and competition with other martial artists. Indeed, there is nothing inherently wrong with training in karate for health and sport; however, for those contemporary practitioners interested in getting back to the heart of karate, this type of training is not sufficient. One major element lost in this transition to sport karate is bunkai training or the practical application of kata techniques. The bunkai movements were organized into kata or pre-arranged movements that could be practiced solo and then further developed into partner drills.

This method of training stems from classical Chinese kung fu training as illustrated in the Bubishi. Essentially, kung fu students were taught specific responses to certain types of attacks. Then, these responses where practiced in partner drills. Next, these responses were practiced solo for individual training, and then several movements were linked together into choreographed routines to be practiced solo and transmitted to others (McCarthy 18-19). Eventually, such routines became the kata of karate. By studying the movements within the kata, practitioners learned specific types of self-defense responses to various attacks. The key to kata, then, is the bunkai held within them (Clarke 75-77).

As Iain Abernethy observes, many modern dojos teach kata because it is “traditional,” because they are part of the curriculum, or for competition. The average practitioner may not really know why they are practicing kata, and they do so half-heartedly or begrudgingly (Abernethy). To study, train, and practice traditional karate is to dig deep into the kata, to learn their movements, and to analyze the application of these movements to civil combat and self-defense. In recent decades, many dojos have been returning to this more ancient tradition, and, ironically, taking karate into the future by returning to its past. [Top]

My Own Karate History

I have been training now for over twenty years, and as hokey as it may sound my inspiration was, yes, Bruce Lee. When I was a child in the 1970s, Bruce Lee was wildly popular in America, and his films fascinated me. I loved watching Black Belt Theater on Saturday afternoons, and I still chuckle at how irritated my dad would become at the obnoxiously fake punching and kicking sound effects in those old films. Those classic Hong Kong kung fu movies were awesome, and I wanted to learn how to do all those wild movements and gravity-defying techniques.

It wasn’t until I was in middle school in Saudi Arabia that I got my first introduction to formal martial arts training. There was a Thai man who worked in the recreation center, and he started a kid’s class teaching the basics of Thai boxing. I learned front kick, roundhouse kick, and some basic elbow strikes. Well, the spark was ignited, and I was hooked.

My family moved around a lot, and it wasn’t until my tenth-grade year in Tennessee that I was able to start training again. I found a really good, small Tae Kwon Do school, run by this little, young Korean man named Song Brown who looked a lot like Bruce Lee, especially when he put on his big sun glasses. His school was located in a loft above a Gold’s Gym, and I remember having to walk past all these muscle heads grunting and flexing in front of mirrors. Climbing the steps up to Song’s do jang brought me into a totally different world from the gym below. There were strange weapons, Korean flags, banners for the various Tae Kwon Do systems, different colored belts, various types of punching and kicking bags, and of course, little Master Song kicking, punching, twirling, and whirling like an Asian cyclone. He was small, but, dang!, was he fast and powerful.

After a year, my family moved again, this time to Ohio, and I continued training in Tae Kwon Do for my Junior and part of my senior year in high school. I then went to The Ohio State University, and I decided to train in a different style. I found the OSU Karate Club, and I liked what I saw: simple, no-nonsense, straightforward, kick-your-butt karate. I was sold. I trained with them through my undergraduate and graduate years at OSU. I learned that this karate was a very traditional Okinawan style called Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu, and after five years of hard training, three to four days a week for two hours each session, I earned my Sho Dan.

I was informed that now it was time to learn. Excuse me? After five years of hard training, now I start learning? Yeppers! The Eastern mind is delightfully different than the Western mind. What I thought was a goal or end point was, in fact, just the beginning point. Once I entered the black belt class, a whole other world of martial arts wonder opened up. No, we weren’t learning to levitate or fly through the tree tops (although that would be cool); we learned how to break the rules we learned for the past five years and to become even more efficient and effective in our movements. The techniques became more exotic but also more beautiful, and we learned a lot about power, strength, and body dynamics. Amazing stuff. I continued to train with them, and by the time I finished my Ph.D., I had achieved the rank of San Dan.

Alas, I would move again, this time to New York to pursue my academic career at the New York Institute of Technology. Life was taking me in different directions, and I found it difficult to continue training. I found a Shorin-Ryu school run by Sensei Sal Franco and trained there for a year. I then moved to a different city on Long Island and could no longer train there. In the new town I checked out a Shotokan school. The students were great, and the sensei was awesome. Sensei Avi. He was a Shotokan champion from Israel, and we immediately hit it off. What made me want to train there was that during a trial class, one of his black belts kept nailing me in the ribs with a really fast and strong reverse punch (Shotokan practitioners are known for their reverse punches), and I never saw it coming and could never block it in time. Even though he busted my ribs up pretty good (I still have rib issues to this day), I had to learn how to do that punch. So I joined. I liked Sensei Avi’s hard-nosed yet humorous personality, and the training was rigorous. I trained there for about three years and earned a Sho Dan in Shotokan.

But, life would take me to another town on Long Island, and once I moved I could no longer train with Sensei Avi. I looked around in my new town and did not find a suitable place to train, and so several years went by when I was not training. Eventually, I decided it was time to get out of the house and start training again. A new school opened up around the corner from my house, and the sign said Shaolin Self Defense. What’s that, I wondered. A few more months went by, and then I had the opportunity to teach a semester in Nanjing. I took my gi and hoped that maybe I could do some Kung fu training there. Much to my surprise, there were no Kung fu clubs on campus, but there were Tae Kwon Do and Karate clubs. Strange. Anyway, I went to the Karate club, and I was met with much respect and interest. It turned out that since I outranked the head teacher of their club, they wanted me to teach classes. I tried to explain that I wanted to learn from them, but they wouldn’t have it. Again, interesting cultural differences. The Asian mindset would not consider having a higher-ranking practitioner as a student to a lower ranking instructor, even though I wanted to learn from them. So, I agreed, and once or twice a week, I taught their karate classes. It was wonderful. I helped them develop their various skills, especially in basic self-defense.

When I returned from China, I decided it was time for me to do some formal training again, and I wanted to branch out into different styles and systems. So, on my way home from campus one day, I stopped by the Shaolin Kempo school around the corner from my house, and I immediately knew this was a good place to train. The senseis were knowledgeable, approachable, and sensible. No hard sells, no contracts, no nonsense. I learned that the system is a form of kempo from a master in Hawaii and that it brings together elements of karate, kung fu, grappling, and MMA (mixed martial arts). Nice. I trained with them for about four years, learned some interesting things and made excellent friends.

During this training, I discovered Iain Abernethy’s practical karate website, and my love for my traditional karate roots was rekindled. I have always been interested in practical bunkai, and Abernethy’s work was a real eye-opener. I then discovered that practical bunkai is the focus of practitioners who belong to Shorin Ryu Karatedo International, and now I’m training with Sensei Rick Kaufman and Sensei Jerry Figgiani. A whole new world is now open, and I’m bringing together all of my various training elements within practical bunkai, and I’m even developing my own curriculum that I plan to teach at a college karate club in Pennsylvania. [Top]

Conclusion: Participating in the On-going Spirit of Karate-Do

In my own training, kata is the element that links my present with the rich history of karate. Drawing from my literary foundations as an English professor, I view kata like a poem: each kata has both meaning and significance. The meaning of the kata is what the original creator intended each move to mean. Indeed, we may never truly know the original intent of a kata, but by studying what materials we have from the masters, comparing repeated movements, and dialoging with practitioners of various systems and styles, we may come sufficiently close to what the masters of old intended when creating these kata. Additionally, we can personalize the kata to our own bodies and martial perspectives, thus determining our own subjective significance for each kata we study and practice.

Examining the possible meanings of the kata connects us to the ancient spirit that informs all the various styles and schools of karate. Exploring the past and striving to remain true to our karate heritage is vitally important to keeping the heart of karate beating. Yet, it is not enough to gaze constantly in the karate rearview mirror. We must also take what we learn from the meaning of kata and apply it to our own lives and bring out its significance for us today. When we study the meaning of kata and develop its significance, we contribute to the strengthening and perpetuation of karate. [Top]

Works Cited

Abernethy, Iain. Bunkai Jutsu: The Practical Application of Karate Kata. Cockermouth, UK: NETH Publishing, 2002. Kindle AZW file.

Clarke, Christopher. American Shorin-Ryu Karate Association: A Manual for Students and Instructors. 3rd Ed. Fort Washington, MD: ASKA Press, 1989.

McCarthy, Patrick. Bubishi: The Classic Manual of Combat. Tokyo: Tuttle, 2008.

Nagamine, Shoshin. The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do. Tokyo: Tuttle, 1976.