History of Karate, By Joseph Puleo

Posted on 28 March 2017

History of Karate

Karate is a beautiful martial art that showcases strength as well as agility. It is one of the most well-known martial arts in the world and focuses on punching, kicking, and knee and elbow strikes. Karate means “empty hand”, and practitioners learn how to defend themselves unarmed against an opponent before they get to learn how to use the various weapons that are used in Karate. The history of Karate is a long and proud one.


Okinawa is the southernmost area of Japan and consists of a chain of islands that are over 1,000 km long. Okinawa has a long and violent history, making it no wonder that the martial art of Karate originated there. Due to their history, a “no weapons” ban was often initiated, leaving the people with no way to defend themselves.

The martial art of te was practiced in Okinawa at the time. The Okinawa royalty and upper class learned te when visiting Chinese monks taught the basics of martial arts to them. In 1429 there were three kingdoms in Okinawa. The three kingdoms united to form the Kingdom of Ryūkyū. It was in 1477, however, when a new king came into power that people were banned from teaching martial arts. This, however, did not stop people from learning the art. Like many other famous martial arts, the art of To-te continued to be taught in secret. The ban on teaching martial arts continued until 1609, and shortly after that, To-te was split into three different styles: Naha-te, Shur-te, and Tomari-te.


Naha-te was the most active in and around the city of Naha. The Fujian White Crane system, which was practiced in Southern China, entered into the city of Naha, and the Naha-te practitioners used the Fujian White Crane and evolved it into their style of martial arts.


Tomari-te was taught and practiced in and around the city of Tomari. Chiense diplomats helped those in Tomari to learn more about their martial art. The style remained basically the same, but became more popular than many of the other styles.


Shuri-te was taught in the city of Shuri, which was the capital city of the Ryūkyū Kingdom.

Gichin Funakoshi

Gichin Funakoshi was a student of the very famous Ankō Itosu. Itosu is often cited as the “grandfather of modern karate”. This is because he was a teacher to Gichin Funakoshi, who brought Karate into the future when he moved to Japan. He changed the names of many of the kata to become Japanese names, and introduced the white uniform and the belt ranks that are popular today. These changes were mostly political, to make Karate seem less foreign to the masses. He was responsible for the first public demonstration occurring in 1917. His first demonstration was in the Butoku-den in Kyoto, but it did not stop there. Soon after, he began giving demonstrations all over Japan, managing to catch the eye of many influential Japanese citizens, including Crown-Prince Hirohito.

Teaching in Japan

Dr. Jano Kano, who was the founder of Judo, asked Funakoshi in 1922 if he would stay in Japan and teach Karate to the masses. Funakoshi agreed. Because Funakoshi was taken in by such a reputable master, Karate was seen as a sport to be done by the higher class, rather than one to be practiced by peasants. If that had been the case, the sport would have likely died a slow death right there.

In 1936, Funakoshi opened his own training hall. He was almost 70 years old. He named the dojo “Shotokan”, which is how the main form of Karate became known as Shotokan Karate. Karate is known for the deep stances and the powerful strikes, which are key to its devastating attacks and defenses.

The history of many different types of martial arts are filled with intrigue, secrets, and hidden teachings. Many types are born out of desperation. Karate is no different. When faced with imprisonment if one bared arms, peasants and the wealthy alike found a way to defend themselves that had nothing to do with weapons. The philosophy of the art is that one should only defend oneself as a last resort. Those living in Okinawa wanted to be prepared for anything.

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