History of Karate

Photo of Hanshi Ken Fairhurst

Hanshi Ken Fairhurst

It is generally accepted that the history of the development of modern Karate started in China. In the year 527 A.D. an Indian Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma (Daruma Taishi: jpn) walked across the Himalayan Mountains from India into the Hunan province of China to the Shao Lin (Little/Young Forrest) monastery that was situated there.

To give some idea of the time–line of this era, the Saxons were invading Britain and had been fought to a temporary standstill by the defending British Celts (England, Scotland and Wales did not yet exist). The monks at the Shao Lin monastery were scribes; translating Holy Scriptures from Indian into Chinese and Bodhidharma found them physically and mentally unfit to carry out their everyday meditations, frequently falling asleep. So he gave them exercises to do based on animal movements using deep breathing and tension/relaxation techniques. These movements were the forerunner of what became Chi Gung that is practiced today in a lot of martial arts schools. Later the monks developed their own movements, which could also be used as self-defence techniques, which were called Shao Lin Chuan Fa, more commonly known as Kung Fu.

At about the same time on the island of Okinawa (the birth place of Karate) there was a crude form of combat known as Te´ or Okinawa Te´ (hand). In the year 1329 A.D. a group of 36 families from China settled on Okinawa and amongst them were a few Kung Fu teachers, who shared their knowledge with the Okinawa Te´ masters and the two arts were merged into what became known as Kempo or Tode´ (Chinese Hand).

The then King of Okinawa, Shoshin (1477 – 1526) banned all ordinary people from possessing weapons and the art of Tode´ became very popular as a means of the ordinary populace to defend themselves. But it had to be practiced in secret because of the Royal Decree.

Three main schools emerged and they were named after the area where they were practiced. In the capital of Shuri it was Shuri Te´, the main port and commercial centre of Naha it was Naha Te´ and Tomari Te´ in the fishing and farming region of Tomari.

In 1609 A.D. the Japanese Satsuma Clan of Samurai invaded Okinawa, deposing the king and enforcing martial law, which included a more severe ban on weapons. This acted as a further booster for the development of Tode´. Over the centuries the weapons ban was relaxed, but Tode´ was still practiced in relative secrecy.

The main masters of the modern times on Okinawa were: Sokon Matsumura of Shuri Te´ (1809 – 1899), Kanryo Higaonna of Naha Te´ (1853 – 1915) and Kosaku Matsumora of Tomari Te´ (1829 – 1898).

Although Tode´ was officially still banned it was common knowledge that the art was still being practiced, so a prominent master of the time petitioned the local Okinawan Government to not only remove the ban but to also include the art in the school curriculum, promoting its advantages to the youngsters health and fitness.

Photo of Itosu


In the year 1901 A.D. Master Anko Itosu (left) succeeded and the art of Tode´ was taught in the Junior High Schools of Okinawa, but only after he had taken out the more “aggressive” elements of the art. During Japan’s preparations for war against China the Draught Board of Japan noticed the superior fitness of the Okinawan young men compared with the rest of the Japanese conscripts. The Ministers for the military went to Okinawa to see a demonstration of the art of Tode´ after they learned of its practice by most of the young men and they were very impressed. They reported back to the Emperor and an invitation was sent for a Tode´ master to travel to Japan to give a demonstration of the art before the Emperors son at a Japanese Cultural Festival.

Photo of Funakoshi


A primary school teacher was selected as the best man to go to represent the art as he was a well–known scholar who had written many books on the (Chinese) classics, and some poetry. So Geichin Funakoshi (right) went to Japan in 1922 to give the first official demonstration in mainland Japan of the art he called “Ryukyu Kempo Tode”. The kanji characters used to write “Chinese Hand” were pronounced as “Tode” in the Okinawan dialect, but in the Japanese language they were pronounced as “Kara Te”.

Photo of Sensei Graham Crispin

Sensei Graham Crispen

Karate spread through Japan becoming popular with the young men, but it was looked down upon by the traditional Japanese Samurai arts (Bu–jitsu) so the Karate teachers asked the Official Government Body to recognise the art as being a Japanese martial art. They were told that a number of changes would have to be made before that could happen. 1st they would have to change the name, they could not have a Japanese art called “Chinese Hand”.

Photo of Sensei Miyagi

Sensei Miyagi

So the Okinawan teachers, including Funakoshi who taught Shorin-ryu (Shuri Te´) and Chojun Miyagi (right) who taught Shorei-ryu (Naha Te´) decided to change the characters used to write the name but kept the sound the same and to add the suffix “Do”. So was born the modern name of Karate–do, Empty Hand Way. Other changes they had to make were to systemise the art with a standard syllabus, introduce a grading system of coloured belts and black belts (there were no black belts in Karate before this time) and to develop a way to have sporting competitions between students and schools. Karate had no sporting application before this time.

Photo of Sensei Graham Crispin

Sensei Graham Crispin

After Karate was accepted as a Japanese martial art Funakoshi’s students raised the money to build him a Dojo (training hall) with living quarters attached. Funakoshi used a pen name when writing poetry, Shoto, so his students named the Dojo “Shoto Kan” (Shoto House). This became known as the name of his style of Karate, which is the most popular practiced in the world today, Shotokan. Before this time there were no different styles of Karate, it was just all Karate. When master Chojun Miyagi was asked what style of Karate he taught he answered “It is just Karate”. Then he was asked, “What principles does your Karate follow”? He said “A balance between hard and soft, yin and yang” and so his Karate became known as the “Hard/Soft Style”, Goju–ryu.

There are more than 70 different styles of Karate practiced around the world today, all from the original three “styles” of Shuri Te´, Naha Te´ and Tomari Te´. There is a Karate school in every University campus in Japan and in most High schools, as the Government recognises the health and fitness benefits of this character building art. There is also a growing movement of teachers going back to the original aims of the art, namely self–defence. Some going so far as to using the original kanji for Chinese Hand Art rather than Empty Hand Way.