The first written notes about fighting skill without tools were in the book called “I Ching“- Book of change, which is more than 3000 years old. According to notices in the book, the Chinese fighting skill called Chuan-Fa (Kempo in Japanese), meaning Empty Hand, existed for more than 3000 years. But, real evolution of martial arts began over a thousand years ago, possibly as early as the fifth century AD when Indian Budhist monk- Bodhidharma arrived in Shaolin-si (small forest temple in North China) from India and taught Zen Buddhism. He also introduced a sistematized set of exercises designed to strengthen the mind and body, exercises which allegedly marked the beginning of the Shaolin style of temple martial arts. It is believed that Bodhidharma’s teachings later became the basis for the majority of Chinese martial arts. In truth, the origins of karate appear to be somewhat obscure and little is known about the early development of karate until it appeared in Okinawa.
Okinawa is a small island of the group that comprises modern day Japan. It is the main island in the chain of Ryuku Islands which spans from Japan to Taiwan. Surrounded by coral, Okinawa is approximately 10 km wide and only about 110 km long. It is situated 740 km east of mainland China, 550 km south of mainland Japan and an equal distance north of Taiwan. Being at the crossroads of major trading routes, its significance as a “resting spot” was first discovered by the Japanese. It later developed as a trade centre for southeastern Asia, trading with Japan, China, Indo China, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and the Philippines. In its earliest stages, the martial art known as “karate” was an indigenous form of closed fist fighting which was developed in Okinawa and called Te, or ‘hand’. Weapons bans, imposed on the Okinawans at various points in their history, encouraged the refinement of empty-hand techniques and, for this reason, was trained in secret until modern times.
Te continued to develop over the years, primarily in three Okinawan cities: Shuri, Naha and Tomari. Each of these towns was a centre to a different section of society: kings and nobles, merchants and business people, and farmers and fishermen, respectively. For this reason, different forms of self defense developed within each city and subsequently became known as Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te. Collectively they were called Okinawa-Te or Tode, ‘Chinese hand’. Gradually, karate was divided into two main groups: Shorin-ryu which developed around Shuri and Tomari and Shorei-ryu which came from the Naha area. Regardless to small diferences, the aim and methods of karate were the same.
Around 1600 A.D., the Japanese Lord of Satsuma attacked and conquered King Hachi’s unarmed kingdom in Okinawa. Just as King Hashi had done before him, the Japanese invader prohibited the native’s right to possess and carry weapons to protect his domination. Their reaction produced the second period of development for Karate in Okinawa. Secret night training in Okinawa-te again expanded, becoming even more deadly. Techniques were also developed using farm implements such as sticks, sickles, chains, and iron bars, which were impossible to forbid to the peasants. Thus, the techniques of Bojutsu, Tonfa, Nunchaku, and Sai were born. During this period the family of the Shimazu, Lords of Satsuma in Southern Japan, endeavored to promote commercial and cultural exchanges with the outside and to open the southern part of the country to China. This policy combined with the geographic closeness of the Ryukyu Islands to China greatly accelerated the influence of Chinese fighting methods on Okinawa.
Sakukawa Kanga (1782–1838) had studied pugilism and staff (bo) fighting in China (according to one legend, under the guidance of Kosokun, originator of kusanku kata). The kata, Kushanku, is now taught in Shotokan schools under the name Kwanku. It was the favorite kata of Gichin Funakoshi. In 1806 he started teaching a fighting art in the city of Shuri that he called “Tudi Sakukawa,” which meant “Sakukawa of China Hand.” This was the first known recorded reference to the art of “Tudi,” written as 唐手. Soon other Chinese delegates came to Okinawa. The principal ones were Waishingzan, Iwah, and Ason. Around the 1820s Sakukawa’s most significant student Matsumura Sōkon (1809–1899) taught a synthesis of te (Shuri-te and Tomari-te) and Shaolin (Chinese 少林) styles. Matsumura’s style would later become the Shōrin-ryū style.
Matsumura taught his art to Itosu Ankō (1831–1915) among others. Itosu adapted two forms he had learned from Matsumara. These are kusanku and chiang nan. He created the ping’an forms (“heian” or “pinan” in Japanese) which are simplified kata for beginning students. In 1901 Itosu helped to get karate introduced into Okinawa’s public schools. These forms were taught to children at the elementary school level. Itosu’s influence in karate is broad. The forms he created are common across nearly all styles of karate. His students became some of the most well-known karate masters, including Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Motobu Chōki. Itosu is sometimes referred to as “the Grandfather of Modern Karate.”
In 1881 Higaonna Kanryō returned from China after years of instruction with Ryu Ryu Ko and founded what would become Naha-te. One of his students was the founder of Gojū-ryū, Chōjun Miyagi. Chōjun Miyagi taught such well-known karateka as Seko Higa (who also trained with Higaonna), Meitoku Yagi, Miyazato Ei’ichi, and Seikichi Toguchi, and for a very brief time near the end of his life, An’ichi Miyagi (a teacher claimed by Morio Higaonna).
So, Karate in Okinawa developed from the synthesis of two fighting techniques. The first one used by the inhabitants of Okinawa, was very simple but terribly effective and above all, very close to reality since it was used throughout many centuries in real combat. The second one, much more elaborate and impregnate with philosophical teachings, was a product of the ancient cultures of China (Shaolin kung fu). These two origins explain the double character of Karate: extremely violent and efficient but at the same time a strict and austere discipline and philosophy with a nonviolent emphasis.
The Chinese character used to write Tode could also be pronounced ‘kara’ thus the name Te was replaced with kara te – jutsu or ‘Chinese hand art’ by the Okinawan Masters. This was later changed to karate-do by Gichin Funakoshi who adopted an alternate meaning for the Chinese character for kara, ‘empty’. From this point on the term karate came to mean ‘empty hand’. The Do in karate-do means ‘way’ or ‘path’, and is indicative of the discipline and philosophy of karate with moral and spiritual connotations.
Over time, Funakoshi’s core students introduced ideas of their own. Some remained loyal to the master’s teachings and others developed new techniques, philosophies and distinct ways of teaching. This was the beginning of Karate styles. After the WW2 four major Japanese Karate styles emerged – Funakoshi’s Shotokan (name taken from his ‘pen’ name) and 3 others Wado, Shito and Goju. These together with other uniquely Okinawan Karate styles, which had continued to develop and diversify, became the springboard for Japanese Karate to make the biggest leap in the history of Karate. See history Chart here…
Today the world largest organization-World Karate Federation recognizes these four main styles of karate-do in Japan: Goju-ryu, Shito-ryu, Shotokan, and Wado-ryu:
Goju-ryu developed out of Naha-te, its popularity primarily due to the success of Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1917). Higaonna opened a dojo in Naha using eight forms brought from China. His best student, Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953) later founded Goju-ryu, ‘hard soft way’ in 1930. In Goju-ryu much emphasis is placed on combining soft circular blocking techniques with quick strong counter attacks delivered in rapid succession.
Shito-ryu was founded by Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952) in 1928 and was influenced directly by both Naha-te and Shuri-te. The name Shito is constructively derived from the combination of the Japanese characters of Mabuni’s teachers’ names – Ankoh Itosu and Kanryo Higaonna. Shito-ryu schools use a large number of kata, about fifty, and is characterized by an emphasis on power in the execution of techniques.
Shotokan was founded by Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) in Tokyo in 1938. Funakoshi is considered to be the founder of modern karate. Shotokan Karate is characterized by powerful linear techniques and deep strong stances.
Wado-ryu, ‘way of harmony’, founded in 1939 is a system of karate developed from jujitsu and karate by Hienori Otsuka as taught by one of his instructors, Gichin Funakoshi. This style of karate combines basic movements of jujitsu with techniques of evasion, putting a strong emphasis on softness and the way of harmony or spiritual discipline.
Shotokan karate History
Gichin Funakoshi “the father of modern karate-do”
In the contemporary period, stretching from around 1900 to the present time, Master Funakoshi Gichin who had the most important influence in the development of Karate as we know it today. He was born in Shuri, on the Island of Okinawa, on November 10, 1886. At the age of 11 Gichin Funakoshi befriended the son of Yasutsune Azato who was a great scholar and karate master. Gichin had not been in the best of health and as he played at karate with his new friend his health started to improve. As Gichin’s doctor saw the boy’s health improve he encouraged his grandfather to request that Azato take Gichin on as his student. Azato accepted and the future of karate was forever changed. Funakoshi trained with Azato under the cover of darkness since the Okinawans had their weapons banned and were forced to train in secrecy. Later in life Gichin also trained with Yasutsune Itosu. After 1898, karate was determined to be no threat to the government and was allowed to be demonstrated and practiced in public. Itosu is credited with teaching the first group class at the Shurijijo Elementary School in Okinawa. In 1902, Funakoshi gave his first public demonstration of karate for Shintaro Ogawa, Commissioner of Schools for Kagoshima Prefecture. Ogawa was so impressed with the demonstration that he recommended to the Ministry of Education that Funakoshi’s karate be implemented on a formal basis in the school system. By 1917, karate was deeply ingrained in the Okinawan school system and the Ministry of Education requested that Funakoshi demonstrate his karate in Japan. Although it was well received, karate did not immediately gain acceptance
On March 6, 1921, the Crown Prince, who was later to become the Emperor of Japan, observed a Karate demonstration held in the Great Hall of Shuri castle in Okinawa. In the spring of 1922, Master Funakoshi traveled to Tokyo by the invitation of the Ministry of Education in Japan to introduce Karate to the Japanese capital. By now, Master Funakoshi realized that he wanted to see Karate-do introduced to all the people of Japan. He wrote to Master Azato and Master Itosu about his idea and they replied with encouragement, but warned him about the difficulties facing him. The entire demonstration in Japan turned out to be a great success. He intended to return to Okinawa at the end of the demonstration, but he remained because of the advice and insistence he received from Jigoro Kano, the father of judo and Hakudo Nakayama, a great authority on Kendo. “I had planned to return to my native island immediately after the demonstration, but postponed my return when the late Jigoro Kano, President of the Kodakan Judo Hall asked me to give a brief lecture on the art of Karate.
He proceeded to introduce Karate to the major universities of Japan, including Keio, which was the first University Karate Club in Japan with Iao Obata as its captain, and Waseda University with Hiroshi Noguchi as their captain. In 1936, the first official Shotokan Dojo opened in Mejiro, Tokyo, only to be destroyed by an air raid in 1945. Under Master Funakoshi, the original Shihans (chief instructors) were Takeshi Shimoda, Master’s first outstanding student, who died at an early age in 1934, and Yoshitaka (Gigo). Funakoshi, the Master’s son. Yoshitaka Funakoshi died young in 1945, preventing him from carrying on his father’s teachings.
Gigo Funakoshi was born in Okinawa and diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of seven. He was sickly as a child and began the formal study of karate-do at the age of twelve as a means to improve his health. Gigo moved from Okinawa to Tokyo with his father when he was 17. When his father’s Shihan (senior assistant instructor) Takeshi Shimoda died, Gigo assumed his position within the Shotokan organization teaching in various universities. Gichin Funakoshi transformed karate from a purely self-defense fighting technique to a philosophical martial Dō (way of life), but his son Gigō began to develop a karate technique that definitively separated Japanese karate-do from the local Okinawan arts. Between 1936 and 1945, Gigo gave it a completely different and powerful Japanese flavor based on his study of modern kendo (the way of the japanese sword), and Iaido. More so than his father, Gigo was the technical creator of modern karate. Thus, where the ancient tode, emphasized the use and development of the upper extremities, Yoshitaka discovered new leg techniques, Mawashi Geri, Yoko Geri Kekomi, Yoko Geri Keage, Fumikomi, Ura Mawashi Geri [though I have been informed that Kase sensei was responsible for this technique] and Ushiro Geri. All these became part of the already big arsenal of the ancient Okinawan style. The leg techniques were performed with a much higher knee-lift than in previous styles, and the use of the hips emphasized. Other technical developments were the turning of the torso to a half-facing position (hanmi) when blocking and thrusting the rear leg and hips when performing the techniques, the idea being to deliver the attack with the whole of the body.
Yoshitaka insisted on using low stances and long attacks, chained techniques, something that immediately separated it from Okinawan karate. He also emphasized the oi zuki and gyaku zuki. The training sessions were very exhausting, during these, Gigo expected his students to give twice as much the energy they would put in a real confrontation, thus they would be sure to be prepared for the actual situation if it were ever to arise.
Master Gichin Funakoshi approved without exceptions, even though what he taught, occasionally, and at least apparently, contradicted what his son instructed. Gigo was always held in high esteem, and respected by his students, thus he was in no way an impediment in the evolution of the, so-called, Shotokan style, and never created conflicts between Masters and students.
Under Gigo’s leadership big changes saw the light of day between 1930 and 1935. These were mostly in kumite (combat, free fighting training). Whereas his father placed most of the emphasis on kata, Gigo developed the fighting techniques and training. First of all he created the Gohon Kumite (predetermined sparring with five advancing attacks), a system very much like Kendo, an art that Yoshitaka also practiced and studied under the last Great Master, Hakudo Nakayama, from whom he obtained valuable inspiration for the future karate developments. In 1933 he established the Kihon Ippon Kumite (one step sparring) followed by Jiyu Ippon Kumite, just like Kihon Ippon Kumite but in movement (Yoshitaka was very fond of this form of kumite), they all inspired the kata Ten no Kata. This process ended with free sparring, Jiyu Kumite, in 1935.
Sensei, Murat Bajrami, 8th DAN