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The History of Karate

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Although karate is often referred to as a Japanese martial art, the island of Okinawa is generally regarded as the birthplace of the art – though if you look back further you will find that it has its roots in China and before that India.

It was in the sixth century that famed Indian monk Bohidharma travelled to China to spread the teachings of Zen Buddhism. He settled at a Shaolin monastery, but found the monks that resided there were too weak to follow his strict regime, so he introduced them to forms of physical training which would later transform into the fighting art known as Shorinji kempo.

The Shaolin monks of China were not the only people to develop a system of unarmed combat to protect themselves. The people of the Ryukyu Islands (Okinawa being the largest) developed a fighting system called Te that they used to defend themselves from invaders. Ryukyu was positioned as an important trade destination and it was in 1372 that the Ryukyu Islands started to forge trade links with the Fujian province of China. This lead to several Chinese families migrating to Okinawa as part of a trade deal that was in place. It was from these Chinese nationals that the people of the Ryukyu Islands started to learn Chinese kempo and integrate it with their own fighting system.

The original fighting styles that were devised on Okinawa were centred in the three areas that they were developed and named after: Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te. It is said that these styles over a period of time, developed into styles that suited practitioners of different physical attributes, the Naha-te style focused on strong, powerful techniques, while the Shuri-te style was based on lightning quick strikes.

It was during the 1400’s that Okinawa was invaded by the Japanese Shimazu clan, who set out to quell any uprising by the people of Okinawa by banning the carrying of weapons. It was this ban that lead to the adoption of farming hand tools to be used as weaponry. This ban was upheld by subsequent rulers of the islands, right up to the end of the Satsuma clan rule in 1872. These oppressive rulers meant that any martial art practise was done in secret.

It was during these times that noblemen from Okinawa started to travel to China to study and trade. One of the first was Sakukawa Kanga, who on his return to the city of Shuri in 1806 started to teach a fighting style he called ‘Tudi Sakukawa’, which translates to ‘Sakukawa of the China hand’. It was one of his students, Matsumura Sokon that started teaching a fighting art that combined the original Te and Chinese kempo and this would be the art that would eventually become shorin-ryu.

Now we start to see a line of karate’s heritage that would run from Kanga to the forefathers of modern karate. Matsumura Sokon had a student called Ankoh Itosu who is often called the Grandfather of Karate, as he was the karateka who developed a kata that could be practised by an average student. It was one of his students, Gichin Funokashi, who was fundamental in introducing the art to Okinawa’s schools and to a wider audience on Japan.

Funokashi has a very important part to play in karate’s history. He gave the first karate demonstration in Japan 1917, then again in 1922 and was subsequently invited to teach at the Kodokan Dojo by Dr Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo. This lead to the popularity of karate growing in Japan. Funokashi is acknowledged as the founder of the Shotokan style of karate, which is still one of the most popular karate styles being practised today.

At the time of Karate’s growth in Japan, it was still mainly considered a Chinese fighting art, with even the name meaning ‘Chinese hands’ and as relations between Japan and China were becoming increasingly hostile, it was the Okinawan masters decision to change the meaning of the name so that Kara-te came to mean ‘Empty hands’ instead – the meaning we all know today.