NV_The History of Karate

Oriental martial arts are of ancient origin. As far back as 3000 BC. There existed in India a warrior class that was taught unarmed combat. Buddhist texts tell of at least three different systems.

The founder of the Zen sect of Buddhism, Daruma Taishi (Bodhidharma), was born into the warrior class in India at the end of the 5th century BC. As a boy, he was taught unarmed combat, but decided as a young man to become a Buddhist monk. After several years of study, Daruma decided to travel and spread the teachings of the Buddha. Eventually his travels led him to China, where he took up residence at the Shaolin monastery about 500 BC.

According to legend, when Daruma began to teach the monks at Shaolin, he found they were unable to absorb his teaching or to perform the difficult ascetic practices that were intended to lead to “satori” or enlightenment. The monks’ very poor physical condition was their biggest impediment to progress. Daruma began to teach them the system of exercises that he had learned as a boy, and a set of physical and mental disciplines known as the “I Ching Sutra”. With this training, the monks eventually became the most formidable fighters in China. The art they practiced became known in Chinese as Shaolin-szu kempo and in Japanese as Shorin-ji kempo.

The roots of modern Karate are found in Okinawa, the largest island of the Ryukyu chain. Okinawa lies three hundred seventy miles from Taiwan, and five hundred miles from Foochow, China.

The Ryukyu Islands were divided into three kingdoms from the first to the 15th century, ruled over by chieftains who placed a high value on military skills. Wars among the chieftains and their kingdoms were frequent, especially in the seventh and eighth centuries. In the tenth century, many Japanese sought refuge in Okinawa from the Great War between the Taira and Minamoto clans in Japan. Many of these refugees were warriors, and their fighting arts and skill were highly respected by the Okinawans, who at the time had no martial art systems as such.

Okinawa’s location in the East China Sea allowed social and commercial contact with China, Korea, Japan, Java, Sumatra, Siam, Arabia, and Malacca. It is probable that seamen and traders from these regions introduced some of their own fighting arts to the Okinawans.

Shohashi, King of Chuzan, accomplished the unification of the three kingdoms around 1429. In about 1470, Shohashi banned the possession of weapons by the people of the Fukyus, in order to protect his position as king. This edict served to encourage the development of unarmed fighting methods and the use of peasant and fishing tools as weapons. These arts were forbidden, and practiced only in secrecy. Usually a master would teach one student at a time, training him at night so as not to be discovered.

The Japanese clan of Shimazu conquered Okinawa in 1609. In the process of colonizing, the Shimazu imposed a ban on weapons. Even farming implements were under government control, being stored in special warehouses and checked in and out daily. The Shimazu invasion and subsequent oppression unified the Okinawans against the Japanese. Many of the individual “schools” of Okinawa-te, or do-de, as Karate was then known, united to form more systematic styles. The major Okinawan styles by the middle of the nineteenth century were Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te (named after the locations in which they were developed and practiced as well as for the kinds of techniques that each emphasized).

Three of the greatest Okinawan Karate masters at the end of the nineteenth century were Azato (Shuri-te), Itosu (Shuri-te), and Higaonna, (Naha-te). The “father of modern karate”, Gichin Funakoshi, studied with all three of these masters, though primarily with Azato and Itosu. Funakoshi was born in Shuri, Okinawa in 1868. He began his study of Karate at the age of 11. It was during his youth and young adulthood that Karate practice became publicly acknowledged. As a teacher in the Okinawan schools, Funakoshi had the opportunity to help his master Itosu establish Karate as a physical education program in the public schools, as well as to participate in many demonstrations of Karate techniques. While Karate was becoming popular in Okinawa, it was still virtually unknown in Japan.

In 1917, Funakoshi was invited to Japan to lecture and demonstrate the Okinawan art of karate at a symposium sponsored by the ministry of Education (physical education in Japan at that time consisted largely of Judo, Kendo, and other martial arts training). Funakoshi’s demonstration was very well received and he was invited to teach his art in Japan. In 1922, Funakoshi returned to Japan to do so, and remained there for most of the rest of his life. Jogoro Kano, the founder of Judo and a very influential figure in the Japanese martial arts, gave Funakoshi his support and invited him to teach at the famous Judo headquarters, the Kodokan.

Karate became very popular in Japan, and Funakoshi traveled throughout the country lecturing and demonstrating his art. Karate clubs were established at all the major universities. Thousands of Japanese from many walks of life began to study the style of Karate taught by Funakoshi, which came to be known as Shotokan. In 1955 Funakoshi and his senior Shotokan students formed the Japan Karate Association, with Funakoshi as Chief Instructor. The Association was approved by the Ministry of Education as an educational corporation in 1958. This made it possible for leading Shotokan Karate-ka (those who practice Karate) to share knowledge, research, and technical skills, and to establish systematic training methods and instructor’s programs. Shotokan Karate, through the Japan Karate Association, has grown phenomenally since that time, and is now practiced in almost every country of the world. In 1957, Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern Karate, passed away at the age of eighty-nine. Funakoshi was the Karate-ka primarily responsible for taking a little known Okinawan peasant fighting art and introducing it first to the people of Japan, and then to the world. Thousands of karate-ka began their training under him, and many of the most accomplished Japanese Karate instructors were his students. In Japan and elsewhere, Karate is widely studied by people of all ages and walks of life. Karate is taught in private clubs, in the armed forces and to police, in colleges, in factories, and in corporate physical fitness centers. From its humble beginnings Karate has become a world art.