History of Karate
From India to China
Karate-do (the Way of the Empty Hand) is a relatively modern art, with ancient origins. The foundations of the art can be traced back several thousand years to the martial arts of the Indian subcontinent, which were later disseminated across Asia. Perhaps the most important figure in those early years was the Indian monk Bodhidharma (known in Japan as Daruma), who first brought fighting techniques to the Shaolin Temple in China. The Temple was to become crucial to the development of martial arts in China, and Shaolin Kung Fu was to influence many other Chinese fighting methods.
Amongst the methods influenced by the Shaolin traditions were Monk Fist Boxing and Fukien White Crane Boxing, both of which were practised in the southern, coastal province of Fuzhou. It is from here that these Chinese arts left the mainland and travelled across the sea to the small island kingdom of Okinawa, part of the Ryukyu archipelago tied politically to Japan.
Over the years, these Chinese boxing methods were amalgamated with indigenous Okinawan arts such a Tegumi, until a new system of fighting known as Ryukyu Toudi Jutsu (Okinawan China Hand Art) was developed. This new unarmed combat method received tremendous impetus when King Shoshin banned the possession of weapons on the island in 1477, and the following centuries saw the development of various different styles, defined mainly by geographical location. The art eventually came to be known as Te (Hand), and the main styles practised were based around three major towns – Tomari Te, Shuri Te and Naha Te.
The term Karate was not used until the 19th century, and originally meant ‘China Hand’ in recognition of its Chinese origins (the full title of Karatejutsu meant ‘China Hand Art’). The meaning was only changed to ‘Empty Hand’ in the early 20th century, by Master Funakoshi Gichin, who was attempting to make the art popular on the Japanese mainland and felt that the use of the word ‘China’ might make it unpalatable to the nationalistic sentiments of the Japanese people.
Master Funakoshi was successful in his efforts, and Karate soon became hugely popular in Japan, with four major Japanese styles emerging – Shotokan, Goju Ryu, Wado Ryu and Shito Ryu. The character of the art changed considerably with the new Japanese influence, and Karate took on many of the trappings of the ancient arts of the Samurai warriors – discipline was made more severe, classes became more formalised, and techniques became more highly codified. Classes also grew tremendously in size, which led to the development of teaching large numbers of students in lines.
During this time, the more combative aspects of Karatejutsu (China Hand Art) became less important, and more emphasis was put on spiritual and personal development. Karatejutsu therefore followed the older battlefield martial arts such as Kenjutsu and Jujutsu (which became Kendo and Judo respectively), and became a ‘Do’ form (thus completing the change from ‘China Hand Art’ to the ‘Way of the Empty Hand’).
Karate also followed Judo in adopting the coloured belt system to show the student’s grade, as well as introducing a sporting format so that techniques could be tested against a fellow student in relative safety.
It is perhaps the sporting aspect of Karate more than any other that has popularised the art around the world, and Karate now has a presence in every corner of the globe. Indeed, the most successful competitors in modern Karate generally now come from the European nations.
Many styles of Karate emerged due to the new sporting emphasis, and one of these was Shukokai (‘the Way for All’). This system was founded in the 1940s by Tani Chojiro, who was given permission to create his own style by his teacher Mabuni Kenwa (the founder of Shito Ryu, one of the four major Japanese styles). Unlike some other styles, which had very long, low stances from which they generated power, Tani preferred the use of much higher – and therefore more mobile – stances. The result in competition was plain to see, as the Shukokai fighter was tremendously manoeuvrable, with much faster movement than practitioners of most other styles.
The Shukokai style was further refined by Kimura Shigeru, who wanted to address the problem of how to generate power from a relatively high base. It was this desire for power, with Kimura’s aim to achieve ‘one punch, one kill’, that led to the development of the Shukokai ‘double hip twist’. This way of moving the body is based upon solid scientific foundations, and like many other sports movements (shot put, javelin, baseball throw, golf swing), uses the power of the hips along with the body’s own natural stretch reflex to create strikes with enormous impact.
The Shukokai style is therefore characterised both by its manoeuvrability and its power, and its use of natural movement to achieve these results. Effectiveness in this style of Karate does not depend upon size or strength, but upon the utilization of proper body mechanics, and it is therefore a system that anyone can become proficient in – truly, ‘the Way for All’.