The History of Karate

The Origin of Karate

No one knows the exact origin of karate but popular theories suggest that it came from India in the 16th century when a Buddhist monk called Bodhidharma (“Daruma” in Japanese) is said to have travelled to China to spread the doctrine of Zen Buddhism. As legend describes it, Bodhidharma arrived in Shaolinsi (Dengfeng County, Henan Province, China) and began teaching Zen Buddhism along with a style of temple boxing that was based on exercises designed to strengthen the mind and body. Over time these exercises developed into a fighting systems that is now commonly known as Kung Fu.


Where karate began & How it got its name
Karate began its existence in Okinawa – an island south of Japan – in the 17th century. It was cultivated as a form of self-defence at a time where weapons were banned by invading Japanese forces.

At the time Okinawa was an important historical trade hub between many Southeast Asian countries. One of its strongest links was with China, so much so the Okinawans looked up to Chinese culture as the ultimate sophistication. Every person, idea and product that came from China – including Chinese martial arts (known as kung Fu) – was treated with the utmost respect. The Okinawans referred to the Chinese fighting arts to as ‘Toudi’ (aka Tode, Tuidi, Tote etc.) meaning ‘Chinese Hand’.

Chinese Hand
After cultivating Toudi for many years in Okinawa, a handful of local practitioners (including Funakoshi Gichin, Mabuni Kenwa, Miyagi Chojun, Motobu Choki etc.) wanted to spread this art to mainland Japan.
Unfortunately, Japan was in historical conflict with China at this time. Anything that had connections to China was disliked by the Japanese. In order for Japan to accept Toudi, several things had to change; including the name. The first character (‘Tou’/’Kara’) was replaced with an alternative character – also pronounced ‘Kara’ – but with the meaning ‘Empty’ instead of ‘Chinese’.

Empty Hand
‘Chinese Hand’ (唐手) became ‘Empty Hand’ (空手) – both of which are pronounced karate in Japanese.

On October 25th 1936 at 4 pm, a historical meeting of Okinawan masters was held. There they officially decided to change the name from ‘Toudi’ to ‘Karate’.

Okinawan Masters
Meeting of the Okinawan Masters

It was agreed that not only would ‘Karate’ be easier to market and promote in mainland Japan, its new meaning (‘Empty Hand’) was more aligned with the Zen approach of modern Japanese society.
The name was later changed to Karate-Do. ‘Do’ is Japanese for ‘Path’/’Way’, and signified that Karate was a philosophical journey of enlightenment now – not just a fighting method anymore.

“The Way of the Empty Hand.”

In other words, Toudi’s self-defensive Chinese roots become replaced by Karate-Do’s self-developmental Japanese values. From self-protection to self-perfection.
Modern Karate was born.

Old Karate Class
From several Okinawa cities (Shuri, Naha, Tomari), each closely spaced but with very different societal demands, three separate styles of Karate emerged.

  1. Shuri-te, – specialising in light fast techniques
  2. Naha-te – focusing on strong, heavy techniques
  3. And Tomari-te.

Collectively these were called Okinawa-te or tode (Chinese Hand). Over time, the styles merged slightly to become just two: Shōrin-ryū, developed near Shuri and Tomari, and Shōrei-ryū, near Naha.
Today, karate-do is taught all around the world, and though it is often modified and always changing, four distinctive Japanese styles have emerged:

  1. Gōju-ryū
  2. Shitō-ryū
  3. Shotokan
  4. Wadō-ryū

At K.S.K.A we study the style of Shūkōkai, a direct descendent of Shitō-ryū. If you want to learn more about Shūkōkai itself head over to The History of Shūkōkai.
Today, karate is practised by millions of people right across the world and although the lines are often blurred between karate history facts and exaggerations or legends, the contribution made by the old Okinawan masters and those that followed them should not be forgotten.

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