[ FEATURE ] Karate : a brief history of time…


“The only thing constant in life is change.” Heraclitus (535-475 BC)

Over the past few weeks, events in the world – and sadly closer to home – have brought dramatic changes to the way our modern societies operate as well as to the way we interact with each other. In our karate circles, physical dojos have been replaced by virtual dojos all over the world, giving us an opportunity to attend group classes and to continue with our physical training. More generally fitness equipment has gone out of stock everywhere you look, with people keen to remain in shape under lockdown ! And teenagers are jumping up and down in their bedrooms to remain in shape…

But these chaotic times may also be a good opportunity to dedicate some time to reading about karate and martial arts, learning about its rich history, its practitioners, styles, evolution over time, etc. With this in mind, and over the new few weeks, we will be publishing a few posts dedicated to specific topics ranging from history of karate to differences between traditional forms of the art and sport karate… The first article below provides a very succint history of karate, pointing to historical events and traditions that influenced its development more than 50 years ago.

Osu !…

A brief history of time

Karate (空手) is a martial art that originates from Okinawa, one of the Ryūkyū Islands located south-west of Japan. It was developed over centuries from indigenous fighting methods called Te (手, or hand) and Chinese Kenpō (拳法).

Originally developed as a self-defence system, it was introduced in the curriculum of Okinawan schools by Anko Itosu at the beginning of the 20th century, following a cleansing process to disguise the most dangerous techniques.

In the 1930s, Gichin Funakoshi – a student of Itosu and the founder of Shotokan karate – led a campaign to popularise karate in mainland Japan. The campaign was largely successful but commanded further changes, e.g. the removal of most Chinese connotations, the introduction of a ranking system, the introduction of competitions.

Its popularisation in the USA (and in Europe) followed the second world war, with the occupation of Japan and Okinawa by the American army and Japanese immigration. This led to further adaptation and standardisation to suit the needs and expectations of the Western world…

Indian and Chinese influences

“Look to the old to understand the new.”  Gichin Funakoshi

According to Okinawan legend, karate finds its roots in the teachings of a Buddhist monk called Bodhidharma (believed to have developed the Buddhist philosophy known as “Ch´an” in China or “Zen” in Japan.), who travelled in the 5th or 6th century from India to settle in the Shaolin Temple (Honan Province of China). His teachings were based on a philosophy promoting both mental and physical conditioning. Still according to the legend, Bodhidharma’s teachings made their way to the Ryūkyū Islands through an Okinawan visitor who resided at the temple for some time.

There are no written records to confirm the above, nevertheless, Okinawan history does point to multiple economic and cultural exchanges with China:

In the 1370s, the King of Okinawa swore allegiance to the emperor of China; this led to a significant influx of Chinese customs – including fighting systems which probably had an influence on the development of native combat methods. It is possible that some of the existing katas in the Okinawan system were imported from China at that time;

In the 1470s, the King of Okinawa (Sho Shin) banned the ownership of weapons by civilians. Whilst the ban may have contributed to the development of empty-handed fighting skills, Okinawan nobles started practising martial arts to ensure they had the necessary skills to protect the King, providing loyalty and service in exchange for favours and social status; (hence it was the upper classes that were predominately responsible for the cultivation and development of karate and not, as commonly thought, the lower classes)

In the 1610s, Okinawa was invaded by the Shimazu Clan of the Satsuma domain, Japan. The Shimazu introduced a ban on the ownership of weapons by the commoners and laws to eradicate indigenous fighting systems. This likely led to further development in the Okinawan martial arts and their practise behind closed doors, by a chosen few. But through time (the Satsuma clan remained in control for nearly three centuries), this led to knowledge erosion, with kata and their applications taught to the most trusted of students only. The Satsuma practised their own martial art, called Jigen-ryū (示現流, revealed reality), based on swordsmanship. It is likely to have influenced the development of karate too;

In the 1860s, the Japanese feudal system was replaced by a democratic system and many of the ancient traditions were abandoned (class structure, wearing of swords by samurai, etc.). However, the practise of martial arts remained encouraged, as a mean to promote health and foster a sense of national identity;

In the 1900s, Itosu successfully campaigned to introduce karate in Okinawan schools, to improve health and character building of children. The art (including the practice of kata and terminology) was substantially modified to hide the most dangerous techniques, effectively making karate a child-friendly activity. Kata were subsequently taught without their underlying applications, or Bunkai (分解). Interestingly, Abernethy Sensei comments this dramatic evolution as follows: “Itosu is often criticised for “blunting” karate due to the changes he instigated, but […] this is grossly unfair. At that time, karate was essentially a dying art and had he not ensured that it adopted the modern characteristics […] karate may well have died out. Itosu will have had no idea that his “children’s karate” was due to become the world’s most popular martial art, and hence will not have known what a profound effect his changes […] were to have. The majority of today’s karate practitioners practice the art in the “children’s way” and not as the effective combat art it was originally intended to be. Indeed, Itosu himself encouraged us to be aware of this difference. He once wrote, “You must decide whether your kata is for health or for its practical use.”

Therefore before leaving the Okinawan shores, Karate had already gone through is a series of evolutions, some resulting from the blending of different fighting systems and combative traditions. Significantly whereas historically, kata were used to record and transmit brutal and effective methods of combat, they were sanitised following the introduction of karate in Okinawan schools.

“Every tradition needs a history to anchor it in the bedrock of origins.” Craig Colbeck (Karate & Modernity)

From Okinawa to Mainland Japan

“The Kata practiced in Tokyo (circa 1936) has been carelessly changed, and in some cases completely disintegrated. In Okinawa during the old days, students spent years meticulously learning a single kata or two. That custom in Tokyo had changed to the pointless practice of accumulating many Kata without ever understanding their respective applications. The practice of Kata has been reduced to stiff and lifeless postures, without Tai-Sabaki (体捌き) or Ashi-Sabaki (足さばき).”Master Choki Motobu

In the 1920’s, Gichin Funakoshi strongly campaigned for karate to gain national recognition in Japan. But this was only possible through a “Japanisation” process: a process of assimilation and through the eradication of Chinese, most obvious influences. In an article called “Karate and Modernity”, Craig Colbeck comments: “Karate had to be rendered presentable to masses and rendered performable by masses. […] It became imperative that movements be justified in terms of their presentations more often than for their effects. That is to say, effects were judged on form rather than on result: not, did it work? but, did it take the proper form? not, how did it feel? but, is it a faithful mimicry? not, was it timed so as to produce the proper result? but, did it maintain an exact simultaneity? not, did it meet the circumstances? but, was it an exacting repetition?”

This led to significant evolutions with the introduction of a unified curriculum, adapted to the teaching of a large group; the introduction of a ranking system similar to the one used in Judo (Kyu-Dan); and the introduction of the standardised training uniform (Gi). Chinese connotations had to be removed, with (a) Karate finally gaining its current appellation: 空手 (“empty hand”) instead of 唐手 (“Chinese hand”); (b) many kata being renamed Japanese-style; (c) dangerous techniques being further toned down to facilitate acceptance by the establishment.

Gichin Funakoshi was successful: karate did gain national recognition and was allowed to further develop. Karate clubs were established in Japanese universities. The focus was now on training large classes (as opposed to a chosen few) with universities striving to develop their own blueprint or identity. This also led to what can be seen as negative consequences, namely further dilution in the knowledge and understanding of kata applications and eventually, practitioners more concerned about the “look” of kata to win competitions. Abernethy Sensei comments on these developments in the following manner: “I would again caution the reader against viewing these changes in a negative light. Certainly, they had a negative effect on the effectiveness of the way karate was practised, but they also ensured the survival and spread of karate. If these changes had not been made it is extremely unlikely that karate would ever have left Okinawa, if it survived at all! These changes ensured the survival of karate, and the kata associated with it. The kata contain all the principles and methods of the original fighting art, and if we wish to practice the original karate all we need to do is alter the way we approach the kata.”

Nevertheless, karate’s popularity continued to grow.

In the late 1930s, Yoshitaka Funakoshi (son of Gichin) strived to modernise Karate further. Techniques were modified with stances becoming longer and deeper. The thrusting of the rear leg and hips was accentuated, with the idea that the whole body should be used when attacking one’s opponent. Yoshitaka was also instrumental in developing the modern styles of kicking, with techniques such as Yoko-Geri (横蹴り), Mawashi-Geri (廻蹴り) as well as Ushiro-Geri (後蹴り), whilst introducing free-style Kumite (組手) beyond the traditional Kihon Ippon Kumite and Jyu-Ippon Kumite.

The JKA (Japan Karate Association; 日本空手協会) was founded in May 1949. In October 1957, the 1st JKA All Japan Karate Championship was held in Tokyo.

From Mainland Japan to the rest of the world

“Karate, like anything else, must be constantly on the move.” Scott Langley

Following Japan’s defeat in the second world war, the country was occupied by American forces until 1952 (Okinawa remained occupied until 1972). During that time, some of the American soldiers became acquainted with karate and brought the art back to the USA, opening dojos.

In 1956, the JKA set up the first karate instructor (Kenshusei) training program at their headquarters. This eventually led to a generation of well-trained karateka receiving certification to fulfil various functions, encouraged to settle abroad with a view to introduce karate to the rest of the world. This was the case of Enoeda Sensei who arrived in the UK in April 1965 and began teaching in Liverpool.

In the 1960s and 1970s, cinema further increased karate’s popularity, with many martial arts movies produced during that period. Karate became an all-encompassing term referring to all types of striking-based martial arts.

But was the number of sufficiently qualified instructors sufficient to meet the demand ? And did a tendency develop, to promote unprepared practitioners to the status of instructor developed, to some extent against the traditions and spirit of earlier karate-do?