The History of Karate


Karate is an Asian system of unarmed combat, using hands and feet to deliver blows and punches, kicks, knee strikes, and elbow strikes to the opponent. Karate aims at strengthening the body and delivering maximum force at the point of contact.  This explains how the students and experts of martial arts can break pieces of wood several inches thick, and with accurate timing and tactics knock down a human.

The Origins

Karate is a form of martial arts. According to certain traditions, the origin of martial arts is traced back to 500 AD, when a Buddhist monk from India traveled to China to impart the teachings of Buddhism to monks there. He brought with him the practice of certain exercises to train and calm the body and mind that later developed into the martial arts.

The history of Karate or martial arts of the like can be traced back to the Okinawa islands, which were located near China and Japan. They were a major route through which trade was established between the two countries. Many theories revolve around the beginning and development of Karate.

As early as 1372, King Satto of the Chuzan part of the Okinawa kingdom extended bilateral trade relations with the Chinese Ming Dynasty, and it became a major pathway of cultural exchange between the two.  Many Chinese families migrated to the islands and brought with them many forms of Chinese art and culture, including Chinese martial arts.

Although the exact history of Karate cannot be laid down due to a lack of written evidence, the following can be said to have introduced the roots of Karate. The 1600s saw an invasion of Okinawa by the Japanese under the Ryukyuan Kingdom. The policies of later kings of the Ryukyuan Kingdom, especially the ban of armed combats, laid the basis for furthering the development of martial arts for defense and combat. Having been defeated due to a lack of weapons, the Okinawans desired to be strengthened in the art of defense by bare hands.

The word Karate is a reference to Te or hand. According to evidence of Karate in Okinawa, we know of the word Tode (the Okinawan name for the art) in the late 1700s. A visitor from China namedKushanku brought to the island the tode style of Kung Fu. Kung Fu was the collective name of the martial arts practiced in China. The tode style of fighting fused with the already developing forms of the art and gave rise to the further development of the form called te.

The Chinese Influence

The Japanese allowed the Okinawans to keep contacts with china. This allowed them to send men from leading families to China to learn from their scholars. A few years later, these men would come back and bring with them more knowledge and perfection in Chinese martial arts. These men secretly began to teach this art to the locals, which became known as kara-te or Chinese hand. Sakugawa Kanga (1733–1815) was one of the earliest masters of Te, which is the precursor of the modern Karate. A student of Sakugawa, Matsumura Sōkon (1809–1899), is known as one of the original masters of Karate.

In the 1860s, the beginning of the Mei Ji dynasty in Japan brought Okinawa entirely under the flag of the Japanese. Hence any form of outside influence, including that of China, was banned. The practice of Karate thus kept taking place secretly under masters of the art.

Further Development

The ‘te’ style became popular in three cities on the island and is the basis of the origin of the three forms of Karate;Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te.  Matsumura taught the art to ItosuAnko, who became known as the grandfather of modern Karate. He played a major role in preserving the art and further inculcating it into students at a grand level.

In the early 20th century, under the Mei Ji dynasty, the ban on Karate,as well as its practice and teaching, continued. The masters very carefully chose the students who were to be trained. At first, they were only told to do certain chores to test their capability and patience. Those who were to be trained were selected after scrutiny, and they were instructed to keep this practice secret.

In 1926, Karate was exposed by the Japanese military. As Okinawan men were recruited into the military, it was found that they possessed a certain degree of strength, patience, and calm. It was then discovered that these were students of the art of Karate. The Japanese government then decided to lift the ban on Karate. Hence they decided to use it for the betterment of Japan and its army. The art was adopted on a national level. And it was decided to refer to it as Karate, meaning empty hand and not Chinese hand.

Karate Masters

A student of Matsumura, Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957), is referred to as the father of modern Karate. Modern Karate is the form as we know it today. Gichin had a passion for the arts, and he preserved it not only through handing over the gift to his students but also through his calligraphy and poetry. He is the founder of the most popular karate style called the Shotokan Karate-Do, which is the most practiced form today all over the world.

As japan lifted the ban on Karate and adopted it in national spirit, karate associations began to spring up. Gichin taught Karate at various universities and brought it in full spirit from Okinawa Island to the Japanese mainland in Tokyo. He is also the one credited with the philosophical transformation of the word Karate to mean empty hand rather than the Chinese hand to curb the Chinese influence.

Karate continued to gain influence from the Japanese culture, which also included the introduction of the white uniform called the kimono. It was adopted as the uniform specific for Karate.

1957 saw the development of another, a newer form of Karate, called Kyokushin, by a master MasutatsuOyama. It is now known as full-contact Karate as it emphasizes the importance of full contact sparring.

Influencing the World

Since the 1950s, Karate began to make its way into the western world. Throughout the 1960s, it became popular in the Soviet Union and was banned and allowed many a time. Although it has kept changing and developing, four forms of the original Japanese style were retained, which are:

  • Gōju-ryū
  • Shitō-ryū
  • Shotokan
  • Wadō-ryū

In 1990, the first World Okinawan Karate display was held in Naha, where masters of the art displayed it in front of the public. This led to a recognition that having mastered Karate meant the possession of deadly techniques, and it could not become a sport.


Karate was slowly adopted as a sport. The World Karate Federation came into being, and a few general rules and regulations were laid down. Today,Karate is recognized as an important sport, and the system of awarding colored belts according to the ranks in mastering the sport is recognized throughout the world. Hence everyone knows that a person having a black belt is a master in Karate who can knock one over with a blow of his hand.

The influence and importance of Karate could not be kept hidden for long. In the modern world, it has formed an important part of the physical and philosophical development of man.