When you think of martial arts, karate is probably one of the first that comes to mind. It has appeared in countless action films, TV shows, and video games. Today, parents all over the world send their children to learn the ancient art of karate. But what are the origins of karate? How did a deadly weapon become a hobby sport we teach our children?
The Etymology of Karate
Like most martial arts originating from Asia, karate has an interesting etymology. Translating the names of these martial arts often tells us a lot about the art and the philosophy behind them.
For example, Jujutsu translates as ‘the yielding art’; this beautifully sums up the philosophy of jujutsu – using the opponent’s energy and movement against them by being ‘yielding’. Karate is different, however.
Karate’s etymology gives us a history lesson in Japanese-Chinese relations of the last few centuries. Ask anyone on the street what karate means, and if they know a little about the sport, they’ll say it translates as ‘empty hand’. This is both correct and incorrect.
In Kanji (Chinese script), karate was originally written as “Chinese hand” since it was the predominant Chinese martial art. When karate first became popular in Japan, Sino-Japanese relations were unusually good. Everything Chinese was quite in vogue in Japan, and so the Japanese continued using the kanji spelling.
However, during the 20th century, as relations between the two countries became icy again, the spelling began to change. In 1905, Hanashiro Chomo (a well-respected Okinawan karate master) changed the spelling of karate while writing Karate Kumite . For a time after this, both spellings were used interchangeably as both “Chinese hand” and “empty hand”.
With the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, it became politically incorrect to use the old spelling, popularizing the new. In 1935, it was made official when the Okinawan masters united in deciding to change the name of their art.
Hanashiro Chomo, Okinawan martial arts master of Shōrin-ryū karate (1869-1945) ( Public Domain )
Karate’s Okinawan Origin
Karate’s origins date back to 14th century Okinawa. It began life as a martial art called te, practiced by the Pechin class (middle-class scholars) of Ryukyuans (natives of the Ryukyu Islands, including Okinawa).
In 1372, King Sattoo of Chuzan (one of Okinawa’s three kingdoms) opened up trade relationships with the Chinese Ming Dynasty. As trade increased, cultural exchange was heavily encouraged by both kingdoms. In 1392, a large group of Chinese families moved to Okinawa and founded Kumemura, a society of scholars, diplomats, and bureaucrats. They brought with them a wide breadth of knowledge of Chinese art, science, and martial arts.
The sacred springs of Jōgaku, from Eight Views of the Ryūkyū Islands ( Public Domain )
As well as the Chinese families coming to Okinawa, many members of the Okinawan upper class visited China regularly. Although te had existed before this cultural exchange, it was heavily influenced by the incorporation of Chinese empty-handed kung-fu after the exchange.
Originally te had very few formal styles. Instead, it had many practitioners who all did things slightly differently. These early forms of karate are now often generalized as Shuir-te, Nah-te , and Tomari-te. Each is named after its originating city. It was a point of pride that each area had its own individual form of te.
Te continued to evolve into what we would recognize as karate today. Over the next several hundred years, three major events would help increase the popularity and development of the martial art.
The 15th century saw the area attempting to move away from war-like practices and embrace peace. This began with the political centralization of Okinawa by King Sho Hashi in 1429. Then in 1477, King Sho Shin of the Ryukyu Kingdom instituted a law banning weapons. This law was enforced in Okinawa following its 1609 invasion by the Shimazu clan.
These changes in the law had a profound cultural impact. Most importantly, civilians needed to find a way to defend themselves that did not involve weapons. For this reason, martial arts that promoted the use of weapons fell out of favor. This led to an increase in techniques from empty-handed Chinese kung-fu being introduced to te, creating kara-te.
The next big evolution of the martial art arrived in 1806. One of the great te masters, Sakukawa Kanga, spent many years training in China. There he learned the arts of pugilism (boxing) and bo (staff fighting). In 1806, he created a martial art called Tudi Sakukawa and began teaching it in the city of Shuri in Okinawa.
Portrait of Kanga Sakukawa ( Public Domain )
Kanga later taught pupil Matsumura Sokon, who created another style, Sorin-Ryu. Matsumura, in turn, taught his style to Anko Itosu. Itosu’s influence on modern-day karate and its popularity is hard to overstate. He went to great pains to simplify the forms he had been taught to make them more accessible to beginners.
In 1901, Itosu helped to get karate added to the curriculum of all Okinawa public schools. The forms he created are featured in nearly every style of karate taught today. His students went on to become some of the most well-known karate masters of all time. Today, Itosu is often referred to as “the Grandfather of Modern Karate”.
Anko Itosu’s Ten Precepts on Karate letter was influential in karate’s spread ( Public Domain )
Karate on the Japanese Mainland
Besides Anko Itosu, there is another karate master who had an important role to play in the evolution of modern karate. This man was Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate. Funakoshi is widely credited with introducing and making karate popular on the Japanese mainland .
This was no easy task, and Funakoshi’s timing could have been better. During this period Sino-Japanese relations were at an all-time low. It all began with Japan annexing the Okinawan islands in 1872. This was followed by the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895). Despite being brief, and, broadly speaking, a complete success for Japan, the war was also bloody. The Chinese lost a total of 35,000 dead and wounded, and the Japanese had 17,000 killed or injured.
Relations were not improved by Japan’s annexation of Korea in 1910, nor the rise of Japanese militarism between 1905 and 1945 or the massive increase in nationalism that came with it.
Karate training in front of Shuri Castle, the palace of the former Ryukyu Kingdom, Okinawa, 1938 ( Public Domain )
Funakoshi knew that this would all make karate as it existed then a hard sell in Japan. Not only did it literally have the word Chinese in its name, but its history was also closely tied to that of China, and so were many of the techniques it utilized.
The first big change Funakoshi made to the martial art was a name change. Knowing “China-hand” wouldn’t be popular, Funakoshi is one of the masters responsible for changing the name to “empty-hand”. Then, to bring karate more in line with other Japanese martial arts that tend to emphasize spiritualism as well as combat, the suffix dō was added. The new name, karatedō, implied that the martial art was a path to knowledge.
Simply changing the name itself wasn’t enough, however. Karate needed to be accepted by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. Originally established in 1895 in Kyoto as a private martial arts school, the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai quickly evolved into something very different. It fell under the control of the Japanese government. The teaching of martial arts was used to promote combat effectiveness and became ideologically aligned with the government’s ultra-nationalistic policies.
To ensure the acceptance of karate, Funakoshi began changing the names of many of the kata, or forms , that made up karate as a whole. For example, the five pinan forms became the heian forms. For the most part, these were just political changes to keep the nationalistic Japanese authorities happy.
Finally, Funakoshi made some technical changes to the actual forms used. It seemed prudent to add a Japanese influence to the art, and so Funakoshi integrated some elements of kendo. Funakoshi’s ‘modernization’ of karate was completed with the adoption of the white kimono (traditional Japanese dress) and the karategi. The karategi are the colored belt ranks that are still in use today. These were both actually first used by Kano Jigoro, founder of Judo and friend of Funakoshi.
Karate’s final evolution came after the end of WW2 and the fall of Japanese militarism. In 1957, a Korean master by the name of Masutatsu Oyama founded a new form called Kyokushin. This often feels like a more hard-core form of the art.
Its curriculum focuses on ‘aliveness’, toughness, and full-contact sparring. Today, kyukushin karate is better known as ‘full contact karate’, and many modern karate forms are direct descendants of this more brutal form of the art.
Photo of Funakoshi Makiwara ( Public Domain )
The Philosophy of Karate
Karate is interesting in that in its original form it did not have an official philosophy. As te, it was simply a broad collection of varying techniques taught and practiced by different masters. Each master likely had his own philosophies and taught his students in his own way. The only uniting characteristic of early karate was its use of certain techniques that had been adopted from Chinese martial arts.
Funakoshi changed all this. Writing in Karate-Do Kyohan, Funakoshi quoted the Heart Sutra , a famous Buddhist writing. The quote was “form is emptiness, emptiness is form itself”. For anyone without a degree in philosophy or a deep understanding of Buddhist theology , this might be a little difficult to understand.
Funakoshi believed the ‘kara’ of karate-do meant “to purge oneself of selfish and evil thoughts … for only with a clear mind and conscience can the practitioner understand the knowledge which he receives…”. Funakoshi felt that karate practitioners should be inwardly humble and outwardly gentle. Karate was not for the hot-headed or brash.
Funakoshi stated that practitioners “should never be easily drawn into a fight”. He knew that karate in the hands of one who was well-trained was deadly. To misuse that deadly gift was dishonorable.
Funakoshi promoted this philosophy at a time when the Japanese government was basically promoting the opposite. They were encouraging the teaching of martial arts as a weapon of war, to be used against as many enemies as possible. Funakoshi, on the other hand, said it should be unusual for a practitioner to use karate in a confrontation more than once in a lifetime.
Funakoshi’s introduction of his philosophy to karate is interesting for this reason. He may have done it partly to help popularize the martial art and gain its acceptance by Japanese state authorities. However, at the same time, his philosophy seemed to undermine those same authorities’ teachings. He was playing a balancing act of popularizing an art he loved while also trying to keep it pure and free from corrupting influences.
Karate has a fascinating history. On the one hand, its origins in Okinawa show what happens when countries work together rather than against each other. Without the Chinese-Okinawan trade relationship and the resulting cultural exchanges, karate would never have evolved.
In contrast, the modern history of karate is one of cultural animosity and xenophobia. For much of the 20th century, Japanese practitioners like Funakoshi had to make major changes to the art they loved just to get it accepted. They had to minimize karate’s Chinese heritage and create something which was essentially the same, but also different.
Thankfully, today karate is taught in many forms in pretty much every country in the world. Once again it is a tool for cultural exchange. Its students, ranging from young to old, share in a collective knowledge base that hails back to 14th century Okinawa.
Top image: Two men practicing karate Source: Andrey Burmakin / Adobe Stock
By Robbie Mitchell