Karate is possibly the most well known martial art in the world – the Japanese Ministry for Foreign Affairs estimates 50 million practitioners worldwide, whilst the World Karate Federation believes there are 100 million practitioners worldwide. Everyone either trained a bit when they were a kid, or knows someone who did. Basically every school or leisure centre has a karate club, and most people know it originated from Japan and uses a mix of strikes using the hands and feet, but we’re going to run through the brief history of Karate, and how it moved from a simple martial art to the hugely widespread art, with many different styles, we know today.
Karate originated from the Ryukyu Island Kingdom of Japan (now Okinawa), and was based on the indigenous martial arts of the islands, which were known as ‘Te’. Te had no real formal style, rather many practitioners who taught their different methods and what worked best was passed on to the next generation. These early techniques were often named after the cities they were formed in, for example Shuri-te.
The upper class of Okinawan society were often sent to China to study various political and practical lessons, and these people often brought back techniques they learned and, along with the increasing restrictions on access to weaponry, lead to many of the empty-handed Chinese Kung-Fu techniques to be incorporated into the Te techniques.
Sakukawa Kanga (1782–1838) was one of the first recorded teachers of one of these combinations of arts, having studied both Pugilism and Chinese styles (in his case Bo, the art of stick fighting) in 1806 he started teaching his style, and his students advanced it. His most significant student was Matsumura Sōkon (1809–1899), who would go on to teach a mixture of several Te styles, as well as shaolin styles, which eventually became the Shōrin-ryū style of karate. Matsumura taught Itosu Ankō (1831–1915), who became known as the ‘Grandfather of Karate’. He introduced a series of simple techniques for beginners, which he then brought into the public school system, where elementary school aged children were taught them. These beginner’s forms are common across the majority of karate styles, and many of his students became very famous karate masters.
One of these students, Gichin Funakoshi, founded the Shotokan style of karate, and is credited with the spread of karate across mainland Japan. This occurred during a time of major military upheaval – Japan annexed the Okinawan Islands, the first Sino-Japanese war was fought, followed by the Russo-Japanese war, Japan taking over Korea and the rise of the militaristic regime in Japan. Funakoshi realised that the Chinese influence on his martial art needed to be downplayed, and worked to rename the martial art and many of its forms – mainly for political reasons, but with a few practical changes. As part of his modernization of what he, and later everyone else, referred to as Karate, Funakoshi consulted with Jigoro Kano (the father of Jujitsu, which we’ve looked at in a previous post ‘A Brief History of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu’) who helped to implement the Karategi uniform and the coloured belt system.
Kyokushin, a new form of Karate was formed in 1957 by Masutatsu Oyama and blends several other types of karate together, placing an emphasis on physical toughness and full contact sparring. Outside of the school classes everyone’s experienced Kyokushin is probably the form of karate you’ve seen the most of; due to its emphasis of full contact striking it’s become popular in MMA thanks to fighters like Bas Rutten, Uriah Hall and George St. Pierre.
Keep an eye out for future ‘Brief History Articles’, or check back on previous additions to the series!