Origins Of Karate And Its History

Karate is one of the most popular disciplines in the eastern world. This fighting style has traveled a long way from a barbaric martial arts self defense system to a sport with a clean rule set.

Origins Of Karate And Its History
Origins Of Karate And Its History

There are many illegal moves in Karate today, but it depends on the style. For example, Goju Ryu and Shotokan Karate are known for very strictly forbidden hard shots, while you can throw bombs all over your opponent in Kyokushin karate, as long as you don’t hit his head. But interestingly, there weren’t many rules in the early styles of this martial art!

This article will focus on the history of one of the oldest fighting styles in the world, modern Karate training methods, the theoretical aspect of the game, the transition to the sport of Karate, and the difference between Kumite and kata.

How Did Karate Begin?

Origins Of Karate And Its History
Origins Of Karate And Its History

There are some legends about where Karate got its influence from. One of them says that it was brought from India thousands of years ago to China by a Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, who arrived in the state to teach the style of boxing that makes your mind and body strong.

If Bodhidharma traveled to southern China, this legend could make sense. For example, when you make a comparison between the kung fu styles south of the Yangtze River, you will see a lot of similarities between “southern kung fu” forms and the traditional Japanese martial art. Just look at the basic stance and strikes, this theory has a good starting point!

Who Invented Karate?

Karate was known under the name “Te” in its earliest stages on Ryukyu Island in Japan. The first teachers were Okinawan masters Sokon Matsumura and Sakugawa Kanga. This style later evolved and developed into modern Karate.

It is believed that Gichin Funakoshi is the official founder of Japanese Karate. Gichin Funakoshi became Okinawan Karate master under the guidance of teachers Yasutsune and Anko Itosu.

The Japanese emperor Hirohito visited him to see the demonstration of Okinawan Karate martial arts. Gichin Funakoshi later created a moment to remember in the history of Karate – he founded Shotokan Karate, which many consider “modern Karate”.

What Was The Original Purpose Of Karate?

Origins Of Karate And Its History
Origins Of Karate And Its History

Karate, or “empty hand”, was a form of martial arts that served as self defense against invaders.

There was a period in the Japanese history of Karate when it was not allowed to wear weapons for protection (for example, in former Ryukyu Kingdom), so people had to learn Okinawan martial arts to defend themselves against enemies.

When Was Karate Established?

In the early 1600s, the ruler King Shoha banned carrying a weapon, which led to the invasion of the Satsuma clan, which conquered Okinawa (then the Ryukyu Kingdom). People then started training in the Okinawan martial arts style of unarmed combat to defend themselves from the conquerors. Empty hand or traditional Karate fighting style popularity started to grow. Almost everybody knew at least the basics of unarmed combat.

The Japanese Karate Association was created in 1948, again by legendary Gichin Funakoshi. Yet, The legendary Japanese martial art became a part of society in 1955, when the first dojo was built in Yotsuya, part of the country’s capital, Tokyo.

When Did Karate Become Popular?

Karate’s popularity skyrocketed in mainland Japan after World War II. The Japanese Karate Association was just the beginning, as many Okinawan masters emigrated to different countries of the world and began teaching the fast-growing martial art.

Mainland Japan was damaged by the allied invasion after the second world war, so everybody was looking for an opportunity to survive. Also, Karate took shape as a sport in 1940.

Karate began to grow its popularity super-quickly. The most popular style nowadays is Shotokan Karate (founded by Gichin Funakoshi), with over 6 million practitioners in 190 countries of the world.

The Japan Karate Association still plays a massive role in the growing popularity of the sport Karate, but these days, World Karate Federation is a governing body. WKF was created in the 1970s as the International Karate Union but later changed the name to WKF in 1990.

History Of Karate: The Three K’s Of Karate

The basic three K’s reflects kihon, kata, and Kumite. I will elaborate on each aspect of one of the most popular Japanese martial arts, step by step.

Kihon is the syntax that covers “the basic fundamentals of martial arts, in this case, Karate”. You must master in Kihon to be able to progress further in your martial arts training. Fighters who don’t know basics cannot advance to the next level.

Kata is a solo form of discipline where you fight an imaginary opponent and demonstrate your skill set. You practice it alone in 8×8 mats (also available in the Olympic Games). You are doing the choreography alone. The origin of Kata can be traced to China. By the way, there is no Kata without Kihon.

Kumite, or sparring, is also in the area of the Olympic sport of Karate. This is a free combat where you compete against your opponent, trying to beat him under the specific rule set. Remember, there are legal and illegal fighting techniques in the competition, while every move that saves you work in the street. There is no Kumite without Kata, you must know strikes well, otherwise, you won’t be able to apply it in the bout.

Is Karate Japanese Or Chinese?

Origins Of Karate And Its History
Origins Of Karate And Its History

Are you ready for a shock? I know the majority of you believe this is a pure Japanese martial art, but I have to tell you that Karate belongs to the Chinese families of martial arts.

Karate’s origins are in China, where it was developed under the name Kung Fu, then it later transitioned through cultural and economic exchanges to the Ryukyu Kingdom (now Okinawa), where it turned into a martial art “Tode” or “Te”, the Karate’s ancestor and fighting system that became popular in the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Origins Of Karate And Its History
Origins Of Karate And Its History

The Origin Of Karate Between Chinese Martial Arts

Very little is known about the exact origin of Karate prior to its form in Okinawan Karate. The exact translation of the word is “China hand”, its not a Japanese word! It actually has its origins in southeast China, so we can discuss its Chinese origins! The two fighting styles that heavily influenced Karate are Shaolin kung fu and White Crane kung fu.

Shaolin kung fu offers a variety of styles. Karate mirrors stances and many strikes from the southern Shaolin temple techniques. The styles that affected Shuri Te, and later Shotokan Karate, Shito-Ryu, and other Karate styles, are Zui Quan (Drunkard Fist), Luohan Quan (Arhat Fist), Tanglang Quan (Mantis Fist), Yingzhao Quan (Eagle Claw Fist), Tantui (Leg Flicking Fist) and Xingyi Quan (Form-Intention Fist).

Naha Te (Karate styles popular in Okinawa, former Ryukyu kingdom) has its roots in White Crane kung fu. This style is known for hand-to-hand and close-range combat, which mimics the crane’s moves and attitude. Styles in Okinawan schools have a lot in common with the Crane technique.

Karate In Japan

The first place where Karate was seen in Japan was Ryukyu Kingdom (today Okinawa island) thanks to its exchanges with China. After an increased cultural exchange with Okinawa, Chinese martial arts were combined with the local ones, which led to the creation of the popular “Chinese hand” or Tode, Karate’s ancestor.

Early Okinawan Karate

Origins Of Karate And Its History
Origins Of Karate And Its History

Thanks to its location and separation from mainland Japan, the Ryukyu kingdom was heavily influenced by Chinese martial arts during the trade. China influenced the development of Asian martial arts in the Ryukyu Kingdom because of its ties with this isolated island.

In the 14th century, the Ryukyu Kingdom developed a tributary relationship with China, and many people from mainland China arrived at the new trade partner state because of work.

As soon as the bond was set, thirty-six Chinese families migrated to the Ryukyu kingdom in 1392. There were also martial artists who combined their fighting techniques with Ryukyu nobility skills, which led to the creation of a unique fighting system.

In 1477, King Shō Shin banned the use of weapons in Okinawa, which led to even greater expansion of hand-to-hand combat systems.

Ryukyu Kingdom leaders were also sending upper-class members to China to learn their skills. For example, famous martial artists who traveled to China are Peichin Takahara (1683-1760), Sakugawa Kanga (1733-1815) and Matsumura “Bushi” Sōkon (1809-1899).

There were three early styles of Karate in Okinawa, called by small villages – Shuri-Te, Naha-Te, and Tomari-Te. All these Karate schools were later united to the popular “Te”, which is the Okinawan word for “hand”.

Okinawan Art Differences

Shuri used to be the capital of the old Ryukyu Kingdom. Shuri-Te has a lot of similarities with Shaolin kung fu – an equal use of kicks and punches, and a lot of long-range strikes. It is the ancestor of Shotokan, Shorin-Ryu, and Wado-Ryu.

Naha is the current capital of Okinawa prefecture. Naha-Te is mostly based on Fujian White Crane kung-fu – a lot of close-range strikes and not many kicks above the level of mid-section. It is the ancestor of breathing techniques, traditional Karate, and now-modern styles Goju Ryu and Uechi-Ryu.

One could call Tomari-Te the mixture of these two styles, as it incorporates both close-range combat and some high kicks and long-range strikes. Karate practitioners of this style were the first “all-around” fighters, evenly good in both aspects of the game.

Origins Of Karate In The US

Japan and the United States were enemies in World War II, but many US servicemen were deployed to the Okinawan base. This martial art reached mainland Japan in the 1920s. Yet, soldiers who were stationed in Japan were given a shot to introduce Karate.

The USA soldiers understood that Karate training is all about discipline. Some of them mastered the Japanese martial art and started getting back to the USA, where they taught others about it. Karate reached the USA in 1939.

The most popular style in the United States of America is Kyokushinkai, or “knockdown karate”. Full contact is allowed but punches to the head are prohibited. But as long as you aim for the body, you can do whatever you want – fighters also don’t wear gloves.

When Did Karate Evolve As A Sport?

Origins Of Karate And Its History
Origins Of Karate And Its History

Is Karate A Sport Or Does It Belong To Martial Arts?

Every single martial art that has competitions with rule sets is considered a sport. Karate is an Olympic discipline, but the situation is a bit complicated here. It is both a sport and a martial art, and here is why.

For example, Kyokushin Karate offers strict rules, and punching your opponent in the face leads to disqualification. But many traditional Karate styles in Japan serve for self defense. Let’s be honest, they have more in common with Krav Maga than Shotokan or Goju Ryu.

The question is, which style of Karate are we talking about? For example, Karate team competition or Kumite tournament (Karate competition) fall under “a sport”, while self defense styles of Okinawan Karate are martial arts They combine elements from Chinese martial arts and modern forms of other disciplines with one goal – to protect you against the attacker.

Why Should Karate Be Seen As Martial Art?

There were no competitions in the Ryukyu kingdom. There were no matches with a strict set of rules before the 1940s, and Karate primarily served to protect and defend from the aggressor.

Instructors taught students that they can use this valuable martial art only when they have no other choice. It is always better to escape combat, according to the philosophical and spiritual elements of Karate.

For example, kung fu has always been recognized as a martial art, but it is very much different from Karate. It helped people in its early stages to adopt a valuable life philosophy, old Okinawan masters didn’t teach their students to harm people.

Modern day Karate is everything but a martial art – rules are very strict, and grappling is very limited. It could give you a hard time, especially when a bully grabs you and tries to humiliate you. Japanese culture is more focused on philosophy and lifestyle, and less on fighting people.

Yes, Karate was designed for war in its early stages, through the middle ages and before World War two, but the military now mostly gives an advantage to Krav Maga over Karate or other striking martial arts.

There is a good example of why Karate shouldn’t be seen as a sport. In mixed martial arts, for example, you’ll rarely see fighters standing and banging.

Grappling martial arts usually get the advantage, Judo, BJJ, or Sambo are way more beneficial in the discipline where you’re allowed to drag your opponent to the ground. In this situation, Chinese kung fu or Okinawan Karate striking becomes a disadvantage instead of an advantage.

Why Should Karate Be Seen As A Sport?

There have been sports contests in this martial art since the 1940s, with strict rule set. It changed as time went by, and the International Olympic Committee approved the ancient martial art for the Olympic Games in 2020 when it made its original debut.

There are strict rules and the goal is not to hurt your opponent by any means necessary, the key is to defeat him without breaking rules. Let’s be honest, with Karate moves you might stop your punch ahead of the opponent’s face or initiate light contact, which could be a serious problem if you are ever stuck in a street fight.

A Brief History Of Karate And The Olympics

Origins Of Karate And Its History
Origins Of Karate And Its History

The European Karate Federation (later turned to WKF) personality Jacques Delcourt launched a campaign to push Karate to the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972, but it was an unsuccessful attempt. It reached voting in 2009 and 2013, but it was rejected both times for an Olympiad.

The greatest moment in the history of Karate happened in 2016 when the Executive Board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved participation in the Olympic Games in 2020.

How Will Karate At The Olympics Work?

The modern form of Karate took place for the first time in the Olympic Games in 2020. Let’s see how competitions looked and what are the potential ideas for the future.

First, there are three weight divisions for both genders, and events are 50% male, and 50% female. Sixty teams from around the world compete in Kumite and 20 teams compete in Kata.

Kumite

Kumite is a contact form of Karate where judges score points. Striking below the belt is not legal, and the power of the shot must be strictly controlled.

You are not allowed to hurt the opponent, it could lead to a potential warning or disqualification. Also, when you knock an opponent to the mat, you must at least simulate a strike, or you’ll be warned by the ref too.

Break the rules more than once and you might get disqualified from the competition. Too serious rule-breaking might lead to team disqualification too.

Kata

Kata is a demonstration of the forms of the sport of Karate. Five judges score the contest and determine the winner.

Unfortunately, only WKF recognized Karate styles can take part in the Olympic Kata competition – Goju-Ryu, Wado-Ryu, Shotokan, and Shito-Ryu. It means some of the greatest stars might not participate because their style of Karate is not supported by WKF.

Does Karate Get Use In MMA?

Yes, but it is not one of the most popular styles for this type of combat. The most famous Karateka in the UFC and MMA is Lyoto Machida, a former UFC 205-pound division king, who bested some of the greatest names of the Octagon.

There are many positive sides of Karate – great angles, excellent timing and accuracy, wonderful reaction time, and superb lateral movements. Karatekas never fight on the central line, which turns them into a nightmare, even for the greatest masters of the game.

Another positive side of Karate is distance, they are masters of long-range combat who rarely choose to stand and bang and rather play mind games with their opponents. They are also very skillful in feints.

But Karate fighters are generally vulnerable to takedowns, so it is recommended to combine it with wrestling or BJJ on the canvas. Another huge vulnerability is leg kicks because of a deeper, long stance.

A great example of an all-around Karate fighter is the ex-170-pound division king Georges St-Pierre.

Other famous Karate MMA fighters are Kyoji Horiguchi, Bas Rutten, Chuck Liddell, Guy Mezger, Gunnar Nelson, Frank Mir, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson…

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has been training in the art of kickboxing for over seven years, holds a Taekwondo black belt, and has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. He's a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster.
Article by

Vladimir Vladisavljevic