British Karate Federation

History of Karate


Karate was thought of as an art by the Okinawan practitioners therefore the term 'Jutsu' (art) was appended giving the complete title 'Karate-jutsu' which can be translated as 'Art of the Chinese hands'. Under the stimulus of S Ogawa and M Nishimura "Karate-jutsu" gained official acceptance as a splendid physical endeavour and was introduced into the curriculum of the Okinawan school system in 1902 as a standard physical education subject. Many great Karate sensei were to become involved with the teaching of the art in schools. Anko Itosu, one of the greatest contemporary Karatemen and Yabu taught at the Shihan-Gakko (teacher training college). Gichin Funakoshi was prominent in education and several years later Chojun Miyagi taught at several schools. Itosu trained a number of imminent Karatemen, among whom were, Gichin Funakoshi the founder of Shotokan and Kenwa Mabuni the founder of Shito-ryu.

At this period Karate – jutsu was still an exclusively Okinawan pursuit. However one local master, Gichin Funakoshi was in the process of creating a popular Karate. An educated and cultured man he had strong views on character development and the virtues of self discipline. Funakoshi had been a keen student of Itosu and the late Azato, both teachers of Matsumura's Shorin-Ryu. As chairman of the Okinawan Shobukai, Funakoshi was the natural choice to represent the island at a demonstration at the Butokuden (martial virtues hall) in Kyoto, Japan staged in 1917. Funakoshi returned to Okinawa and resumed his teaching activities.

In 1921, crown prince (later Emperor) Hirohito visited Okinawa and it was Funakoshi who was invited to give a Karate display. Reporting on his tour the Emperor listed this event as one of the highlights.

Funakoshi received another invitation to perform in Japan, this time at the first All-Japan Athletics Exhibition at Ochanomizu, Tokyo in May 1922. His acceptance of this invitation changed his life and the future of Karate. Following the demonstration, Funakoshi who was deeply involved in Japanese culture particularly "Shodo" (calligraphy), decided to stay on in Japan and teach Karate to the Japanese people. Eventually he introduced Karate into several Universities as well as numerous military academies and commercial organisations.

In 1928 another Sensei Kenwa Mabuni settled in Japan and began to teach his distinctive style in the Osaka area. Mabuni had studied two diverse styles: Shorin-ryu under Itosu and Naha-te under Higaonna. His personal style combining the two he first termed Hanko-ryu, he later changed this to the designation Shito-ryu which together with its many sub-schools still flourishes today. Like Funakoshi Mabuni taught mainly at Universities plus several local police departments.

At about the same time another Okinawan, who had been resident in Wakiyama near Osaka, since 1924, began to teach Karate to the public. This was Kanbum Uechi who had studied "Pan-gai-noon" in Fukien, China for many years. This system is now famed as Uechi-ryu in honour of Kanbum.

Chojun Miyagi introduced his Goju-ryu into Japan in late 1928. Based mainly in the Kyoto region he taught at Teikoku, Kansai and Ritsumeikan Daigaku (universities).

Karate was introduced into a Japan that was becoming increasingly nationalistic and militaristic. However the Karate-jutsu they were attempting to introduce was identified by many Japanese as being foreign and heathen. Following the Manchurian incident of 1931 (a prelude to the occupation of the region) anything of Chinese Origin was proscribed in Japan and in 1936 war broke out between China and Japan. Yet the Okinawans (who were themselves still not fully accepted) were attempting to introduce their 'Chinese-Hands-Art'. As one can imagine it would be obviously bad for moral to arm these future soldiers and occupation forces with a combat art identified with the very country they were occupying. In the increasingly expansionist atmosphere pressure was on the Karate masters to bring their art into line with national sentiments. Accordingly in 1936 the now famous meeting of masters; Miyagi, Yabu, Motobu, Hanagi and Kimayu was held in Naha. It was decided at this meeting to follow the example of Master Funakoshi and use different terminology to identify their art. The 'Kara' character previously read as Chinese was given its alternative reading as 'Empty'. Thus 'Chinese Hands' became 'Empty Hands'. Additionally the term 'Jutsu' (art) was replaced by 'Do' meaning 'way'. Discussion regarding Jutsu and Do forms had been popular amongst Karate masters for some time. Although some teachers continued to use the traditional terminology gradually the Okinawan fighting entity became known by its present name 'Karate-Do'.

In the period 1935 to 1945 there was almost a revolution in the Shotokan style of Karate mainly brought about by Yoshitaka Funikoshi (son) but with the full approval of his father. After looking around at the other martial arts - judo, kendo and so on, Yoshitaka came to feel that Karate needed to change and be developed as a modern Japanese martial art. Changes were made throughout the whole range of the karate technique. In a fundamental development, stances were stressed as the basis for strong Karate technique and they were progressively made much deeper and firmer. Yoshitaka was also the first Karate-ka to emphasise the thrusting of the rear leg and hips in performing techniques with the idea of delivering an attack with the whole body. He was also instrumental in developing the modern styles of kicking, Yoko-Geri, Mawashi-Geri and Ushiro-Geri. There was also a greater development of Kumite beyond the prearranged Ippon Kumite and semi-free Kumite to include Jyu Kumite (free sparing). As for the Kata their sequence and techniques remained pretty much the same, however their Chinese names were changed to good Japanese sounding ones. This helped to identify Karate as a modern Japanese martial art and also the old Chinese names did not seem appropriate at a time when disturbances between China and Japan were frequent.

Karate survived the holocaust of World War II and emerged to become international in scope which was a truly remarkable achievement.

When World War II ended, the USA Administration in Japan issued an order prohibiting the practice of judo and kendo which were thought to foster militarism. As a result Karate-Do and Aikido were much sought after as a safety valve for young people's energies. Another and more important reason for the increasing interest in Karate-Do and Aikido was that both can be practised without any implements. This gave an advantage under the social conditions of that time when equipment not only for martial arts but for any other sports, could not be obtained. Thus time and the tide were favourable for Karate-do’s arrival into a new era and the popularity of Karate greatly increased.