A Brief History of Karate

Karate has its origins in the Ryukyu Kingdom, or modern day Okinawa and means Empty Hand. (Kara – empty, te – hand).

In general, karate can be practiced as an art (budo), as a sport, as a combat sport or as self defense training. Although traditional karate emphasises on self-development or budo, modern karate emphasises on psychological elements that are incorporated into a proper attitude (or kokoro) – such as perseverance, fearlessness and so forth.

Although many have been made to believe that Karate was a form of combat practiced by the peasants of the area, it has in fact been confirmed that it was a secret form of combat practiced by the warrior class or Samurai of the Ryukyu kingdom.

The Ryukyu Kingdom

Situated south east of Japan is a group of islands known as the Okinawa Islands.

Although Okinawa Island is well known today, in part made famous by movies such as the Karate Kid Part II, what is not always so well known is that these islands were in fact a kingdom seperate from Japan in the 14th century. This period during which the three principalities that united the small and scattered domains across the islands was known as the Sanzan – or Three Mountains period and the kingdom was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. The islands that make up the Okinawa Islands are therefore also known as the Ryukyu Islands group.

For nearly two hundred years, the Ryukyu Kingdom would thrive as a key player in maritime trade with Southeast and East Asia. Central to the kingdom’s maritime activities was the continuation of the tributary relationship with Ming Dynasty China, begun by Chuzan in 1372, and enjoyed by the three Okinawan kingdoms which preceded it. China provided ships for Ryukyu’s maritime trade activities, allowed a limited number of Ryukyuans to study at the Imperial Academy in Beijing, and formally recognized the authority of the King of Chuzan, allowing the kingdom to trade formally at Ming ports.

In 1609, the Shimazu-family of Japan invaded the Ryukyus. Occupation occurred fairly quickly, with a minimum of armed resistance, and King Sho Nei was taken as prisoner to the Satsuma domain and later to Edo (modern day Tokyo).

Flag of Ryukyu until 1879

The kingdom found itself in “dual subordination” to both Japan and China, but this status was accepted by Japan since they had little desire to engage in military action with China. Ryukyu was given a great degree of autonomy, to best serve the interests of the Satsuma daimyo and those of the shogunate, in trading with China. Ryukyu was a tributary state of China, and since Japan had no formal diplomatic relations with China, it was essential that Beijing not realize that Ryukyu was controlled by Japan. Thus, ironically, Satsuma—and the shogunate—was obliged to be mostly hands-off in terms of not visibly or forcibly occupying Ryukyu or controlling the policies and laws there. The situation benefited all three parties involved—the Ryukyu royal government, the Satsuma daimyo, and the shogunate—to make Ryukyu seem as much a distinctive and foreign country as possible. Japanese were prohibited from visiting Ryukyu without shogunal permission, and the Ryukyuans were forbidden from adopting Japanese names, clothes, or customs. They were even forbidden from divulging their knowledge of the Japanese language during their trips to Edo; the Shimazu family, daimyo of Satsuma, gained great prestige by putting on a show of parading the King, officials, and other people of Ryukyu to and through Edo. As the only han to have a king and an entire kingdom as vassals, Satsuma gained significantly from Ryukyu’s exoticness, reinforcing that it was an entire separate kingdom.

In 1872, the Japanese tributary kingdom was reconfigured as the Ryukyu Province. At the same time, the fiction of independence was maintained for diplomatic reasons until the Meiji Japanese government abolished the Ryukyu Kingdom when the islands were incorporated as Okinawa Prefecture on March 11, 1879.

Karate itself began as a common fighting system known as te, among the Pechin or scholar-officials of Okinawa. The Pechin were part of a complex caste system that existed in Okinawa for centuries, they were the feudal scholar-officials class that was charged with enforcing the law and providing military defense to the nation, Ryukyu Kingdom. The specific rank of a samure was noted by the color of his hat.

Any unarmed self-defense techniques were of great importance to them, given repeated weapons bans by the Ryukyu King and Japanese Satsuma invaders. The first time that the Pechin’s weapons were confiscated was during the reign of King Shoshin (1477–1526), who unified Okinawa into one Ryukyu Kingdom. The second time that the Pechin were disarmed was after the Satsuma invasion of 1609, which prohibited the carrying of weapons by the Ryukyu Samure. Although the use and carrying of weapons was prohibited, it is clear that not all weapons were confiscated and that there were instead restrictions placed on their use as Toshihiro Oshiro, historian and Okinawan martial arts master states:

“There is further documentation that in 1613 the Satsuma issued permits for the Ryukyu Samure to travel with their personal swords (tachi and wakizashi) to the smiths and polishers in Kagushima, Japan for maintenance and repair. From the issuance of these permits, it is logical to infer that there were restrictions on the Ryukyu Samure carrying their weapons in public, but it is also clear evidence that these weapons were not confiscated by the Satsuma.”

(5 men wearing Ryukyu Dress)

Warfare, law enforcement and fighting systems was the primary business of the warrior class and not the peasant class. Peasants, who often had to perform manual labor for eighteen hours a day to pay taxes to the upper classes and sustain themselves, did not have the energy, time or financial resources to practice the warrior arts. The warrior class, however, which was sustained by peasant taxes could afford the luxury of sending the first born male child of a warrior family to be trained in Te and other warrior arts. However, there are early twentieth century Japanese documents that mention this secret fighting style as being practiced by the peasants of Okinawa. The disconnect often comes from Japanese ignorance of the Ryukyu caste system and at times seeing Okinawans as inferior Japanese. Though, around the time of the creation of the Okinawa Prefecture, the Pechin scholar-officials class were already calling themselves Samure, the word which derives from the Japanese term “Samurai”.

Shoshin Nagamine (recipient of the Fifth Class Order of the Rising Sun from the Emperor of Japan) states in his book The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do, on pg. 21

“The forbidden art (Kara-Te) was passed down from father to son among the samure class in Okinawa”.

The Okinawa Prefectural Government in recent years has tried to clarify misunderstandings by the West as to the history and development of Karate in Okinawa. The Okinawa Prefectural Government English and Japanese website, Karate and martial arts with weaponry, states that Karate was a secret of the Ryukyu Samure.

“Okinawan Te was practiced exclusively among the Ryukyu or Okinawan feudal scholar-officials (Ryukyu Samure) – Pechin. Peasants were strictly prohibited from practicing or being taught these secret unarmed fighting techniques.”

The last king of the Ryukyus was forced to relocate to Tokyo, and was given a compensating kazoku rank as Marquis Sho Tai. His death in 1901 diminished the historic connections with the former kingdom.

During the Battle of Okinawa, in 1945, which was during the Second World War, a quarter of the civilian population died. They are commemorated at the Cornerstone of Peace. After World War II, Okinawa remained under US administration for 27 years and although the US government had returned the islands to Japanese administration in 1972, a large US military presence remains on the islands under the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. Karate has become quite popular with these military servicemen. Lately, however, there has been mounting pressure for the removal of the US military presence from the islands, due in large part to a number of crimes committed by some of the US servicemen.

Early History of Karate

Since trade relations existed with the Ming Dynasty of China, established by King Satto of Chuzan in 1372, it was inevitable that some forms of Chinese martial arts would be introduced into the Ryukyu Islands, particularly from the Fujian Province of China. In 1392 a large group of Chinese families moved to the islands for purposes of cultural exchange, where they established the community of Kumemura and shared their knowledge of a wide variety of Chinese arts and sciences, including the Chinese martial arts.

Members of the Okinawan upper classes were sent to China regularly to study various political and practical disciplines. The incorporation of empty-handed Chinese Kung Fu into Okinawan martial arts occurred partly because of these exchanges and partly because of growing legal restrictions on the use of weaponry. Traditional karate kata bear a strong resemblance to the forms found in Fujian martial arts such as Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, and Gangrou-quan (Hard Soft Fist; pronounced “Gojuken” in Japanese). Many Okinawan weapons such as the sai, tonfa, and nunchaku may have originated in and around Southeast Asia.

Sakukawa Kanga (1782-1838) had studied both pugilism (boxing) and staff (bo) fighting in China. He started teaching a fighting art in Shuri in 1806 called Tudi Sakukawa, which meant “Sakukawa of China Hand”. Sakukawa’s most significant student, Matsumura Sokon (1809-1899) taught a synthesis of te and Shaolin (Chinese) styles. Shaolin Kung Fu refers to a collection of Chinese martial arts that claim affiliation with the Shaolin Monastery. Matsumura’s style would eventually become the Shorin-ryu style, which is characterised by circular rather than direct movements.

Matsumura Sokon taught his art to Itosu Anko (1831-1915) among others, who adapted two forms he had learned from Matsumura and created the ping’an form (“heian” or “pinan” in Japanese), which are simplified kata for beginning students. In 1901, Itosu helped get karate introduced into Okinawa’s public schools, teaching the forms at elementary school level. Itosu’s influence was so broad that the forms he created are common across nearly all styles of karate. Itosu’s students became some of the most well known karate masters, including Gichin Funakoshi (Shotokan Karate), Kenwa Mabini (Shito-ryu) and Motobu Choki (Motubu-ryu), hence Itosu is referred to as the “Grandfather of modern karate”.

Of all these, Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) probably had the biggest influence. Gichin Funakoshi was born in 1868 (the year of the Meiji Restoration), in Shuri, Okinawa, to a low-rank Okinawan samurai and originally had the family name Tominakoshi. His father’s name was Gisu. After entering primary school he became close friends with the son of Anko Azato, a karate and Jigen-ryu master who would soon become his first karate teacher. Being trained in both classical Chinese and Japanese philosophies and teachings, Funakoshi became an assistant teacher in Okinawa. During this time, his relations with the Azato family grew and he began nightly travels to the Azato family residence to receive karate instruction from Anko Azato.

Shotokan is named after Funakoshi’s pen name, Shoto, which means “waving pines”. In addition to being a karate master, Funakoshi was an avid poet and philosopher who would reportedly go for long walks in the forest where he would meditate and write his poetry.

By the late 1910s, Funakoshi had many students, of which a few were deemed capable of passing on their master’s teachings. Continuing his effort to garner widespread interest in Okinawan karate, Funakoshi ventured to mainland Japan in 1922.

In 1930, Funakoshi established an association named Dai-Nihon Karate-do Kenkyukai to promote communication and information exchange among people who study karate-do. In 1936, Dai-Nippon Karate-do Kenkyukai changed its name to Dai-Nippon Karate-do Shoto-kai. The association is known today as Shotokai, and is the official keeper of Funakoshi’s karate heritage.

In Japan, Funakoshi not only changed the names of many kata but also the name of the art itself. In order to get karate accepted by the Japanese budo organisation (Dai Nippon Butoku Kai). Funakoshi also gave Japanese names to many of the kata. The five pinan forms became known as heian, the three naihanchi forms became known as tekki, seisan as hangetsu, Chinto as gankaku, wanshu as empi and so on. Funakoshi’s changes were mainly political and although most of the changes were to names, there were some content changes as well. The idea being to make Funakoshi’s style of karate more acceptable to the Japanese. Although Funakoshi had trained in two of the most popular branches of Okinawan karate of the time, Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu, in Japan he was influenced by kendo, where he incorporated some ideas about timing and distancing into his style.

In 1939, Funakoshi built the first Shotokan dojo (training hall) in Tokyo. He changed the name of karate to mean “empty hand” instead of “China hand” (as referred to in Okinawa); the two words sound the same in Japanese, but are written differently. It was his belief that using the term for “Chinese” would mislead people into thinking karate originated with Chinese boxing. Karate had borrowed many aspects from Chinese boxing which the original creators say as being positive, as they had done with other martial arts.

In 1936, he built a dojo in Tokyo and left behind the karate style called Shotokan, one of the most popular styles of karate. The modernization and systemization of karate in Japan also included the adoption of the white uniform that consisted of the kimono and the dogi or keikogi—mostly called just karategi—and colored belt ranks. Both of these innovations were originated and popularized by Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo and one of the men Funakoshi consulted in his efforts to modernize karate.

In 1949 Funakoshi’s students created the Japan Karate Association (JKA), with Funakoshi as the honorary head of the organization. However in practise this organization was led by Masatoshi Nakayama. The JKA began formalizing Funakoshi’s teachings. Funakoshi was not supportive of all of the changes that the JKA eventually made to his karate style. Funakoshi got Osteoarthritis in 1948 and died of Colorectal cancer in 1957.


Karate can be practiced as an art (budo), as a sport, as a combat sport, or as self defense training. Traditional karate places emphasis on self-development (budo). Modern Japanese style training emphasizes the psychological elements incorporated into a proper kokoro (attitude) such as perseverance, fearlessness, virtue, and leadership skills. Sport karate places emphasis on exercise and competition. Weapons is important training activity in some styles of karate.
Karate training is commonly divided into kihon (basics or fundamentals), kata (forms), and kumite (sparring).


Karate styles place varying importance on kihon. Typically this is performance in unison of a technique or a combination of techniques by a group of karateka. Kihon may also be prearranged drills in smaller groups or in pairs.


Kata means literally “shape” or “model.” Kata is a formalized sequence of movements which represent various offensive and defensive postures. These postures are based on idealized combat applications. The applications applied in a demonstration with real opponents is referred to as a Bunkai. The Bunkai shows how every stance and movement is used. Bunkai is a useful tool to understand a kata.

To attain a formal rank the karateka must demonstrate competent performance of specific required kata for that level. The Japanese terminology for grades or ranks is commonly used. Requirements for examinations vary among schools.


Sparring in Karate is called kumite. It literally means “meeting of hands”. Kumite is practiced both as a sport and as self-defense training.

Levels of physical contact during sparring vary considerably. Full contact karate has several variants. Knockdown karate (such as Kyokushin) uses full power techniques to bring an opponent to the ground. In Kickboxing variants ( for example K-1), the preferred win is by knockout. Sparring in armour (bogu kumite) allows full power techniques with some safety. Sport kumite in many international competition under the World Karate Federation is free or structured with light contact or semi contact and points are awarded by a referee.

In structured kumite (Yakusoku – prearranged), two participants perform a choreographed series of techniques with one striking while the other blocks. The form ends with one devastating technique (Hito Tsuki).

In free sparring (Jiyu Kumite), the two participants have a free choice of scoring techniques. The allowed techniques and contact level are primarily determined by sport or style organization policy, but might be modified according to the age, rank and sex of the participants. Depending upon style, take-downs, sweeps and in some rare cases even time-limited grappling on the ground are also allowed.

Free sparring is performed in a marked or closed area. The bout runs for a fixed time (about 2 to 3 minutes.) The time can run continuously (Iri Kume) or be stopped for referee judgment. In light contact or semi contact kumite, points are awarded based on the criteria: good form, sporting attitude, vigorous application, awareness/zanshin, good timing and correct distance. In full contact karate kumite, points are based on the results of the impact, rather than the formal appearance of the scoring technique.


In 1924 Gichin Funakoshi, adopted the Dan system from the judo founder Jigoro Kano using a rank scheme with a limited set of belt colors. Other Okinawan teachers also adopted this practice. In the Kyu/Dan system the beginner grades start with a higher numbered kyu (e.g., 10th Kyu or Jukyu) and progress toward a lower numbered kyu. The Dan progression continues from 1st Dan (Shodan, or ‘beginning dan’) to the higher dan grades. Kyu-grade karateka are referred to as “color belt” or mudansha (“ones without dan/rank”). Dan-grade karateka are referred to as yudansha (holders of dan/rank). Yudansha typically wear a black belt. Normally, the first five to six dans are given by examination by superior dan holders, while the subsequent (7 and up) are honorary, given for special merits and/or age reached. Requirements of rank differ among styles, organizations, and schools. Kyū ranks stress stance, balance, and coordination. Speed and power are added at higher grades.

Minimum age and time in rank are factors affecting promotion. Testing consists of demonstration of techniques before a panel of examiners. This will vary by school, but testing may include everything learned at that point, or just new information. The demonstration is an application for new rank (shinsa) and may include kata, bunkai, self-defense, routines, tameshiwari (breaking), and/or kumite (sparring).


Ryukyu Islands
Okinawa Prefecture
Gichin Funakoshi


Est telum se defendere