The beginnings of karate is believed to have its origins in China with a man of Bodhiharma. It is believed that Fourteen hundred years ago he traveled to the Shaolin Temple , in China , to give a lecture on his religion to the monks. Many of the monks fell from exhaustion due to his vigorous training regime. It is said that the next day he gave the monks exercises to learn and practice so that they would strengthen themselves physically. These exercises and this level of training would better prepare Bodiharma’s followers to learn their religion. Bodhiharma felt the soul and body were inseparable. Thus, the need for good physical conditioning. Later these very exercises were spread to many other places and became known as Shorinji Kempo.
Around 500 a.d., the great Ta Mo came to the Shaolin Temple and ended up teaching a form of exercise which he had brought with him from India . These exercises originally were for physical fitness only but later became a form of self defense as well. In addition to Ta Mo ‘s exercises, the Chinese learned much by observing nature. Having the idea of being one with nature, similar to Native Americans, they mimicked the animals as they stretched and exercised. Later when examining the philosophy of self defense they once again chose to watch the animal kingdom. The 5 major animals for self defense at the Shaolin Temple were the Tiger, the Crane, the Leopard, the Snake and the Dragon.
Known for its power and strength, the tiger stylists were known for their ripping and tearing techniques. Hands held like tiger claws, these fighters would strike and claw with tremendous speed and power.
The crane was known for its grace and beauty. Known to stand on one leg for long periods of time, it is no wonder that the crane stylists had excellent balance and were known for their awesome kicking ability and long range techniques.
The leopard was known for its tremendous speed and cunningness in battle. Unlike the tiger that doesn’t mind frontal attacks, the leopard stylist prefers to attack only when the odds are in his favor. The only time he shows he is hurt is when he is not. He acts like he is running away in order to come back with an attack on his own ground. These are the strategies of the leopard stylist.
The snake is known for its speed once an opponent is in striking range. The snake raises its head and waits patiently until the unsuspecting opponent gets too close. The snake stylist, too, concentrates on waiting until the time is right and with his fingertips, strikes to a vital spot in a blink of an eye. Knowing how to use one’s internal energy or chi is a major part of the snake system.
The dragon is the mysterious animal of ancient China . All the flying and floating qualities associated with the martial arts are given to the dragon. As the dragon floats through the sky he twists and coils, flipping his tail as he turns. The dragon stylist uses turns and circular motions to throw and strike his opponents.
As time went on many of the Shaolin monks learned each other’s style of fighting and traded techniques. Thus hybrid styles developed using principles of two or more animal systems. In the 1300’s, official relations were developed between China and the island of Okinawa . These Chinese also taught their form of Shaolin Chuan Fa (the fist method) to the Okinawans. The local Okinawans called this art Kempo. The word for the Shaolin Temple in the Okinawan language was Shorin: thus was born the art of Shorin Kempo. Combined with the local fighting art, a new art developed that has become known around the world as the deadliest fighting art in the world. This art later became known as Kara-te (Kara meant China , and Te meant hand) or the way of the China Hand.
Originally there were three styles of Okinawan Karate named after the villages they came from: Shun, Tomari and Naha village. The locals simply added Te to the end of the village’s name to recognize where each style came from: Shun-Te, Tomari-Te and Naha-Te.
Many events and places contributed to the development of karate as we know it today. The island of Okinawa became a common port for travel and communication for centuries. By the 7th century many people were traveling between the China mainland and Japan . Karate may have been introduced to Okinawa from these travels. At the same time of these influences, there was also an indigenous fighting style in Okinawa called “te” or “tode” in 1372, Okinawa was a Chinese satellite country. More cultural exchanges resulted in Kung-Fu mixing with Okinawan fist-fighting. The developing art of karate spread further when the Chinese emperor Hung Wu-Ti sent a large mission of Chinese officials to Okinawa . in 1392 a group of 36 families moved from Fukien Province , China , to Kume-Mura, a suburb of Okinawa . The community established was called (‘thirty-six families.” Here, Chinese boxing was taught to the Okinawans. Then in 1477, King Sho Shin re-imposed the Okinawan weapons ban, thus increasing the emphasis of weaponless fighting.
In 1609, Japan conquered Okinawa , and again weapons were denied the Okinawans. Therefore, in the fights between the dominating Japanese versus the Okinawans, the Okinawans used only their hands and feet. Thus, the Okinawans had a great incentive to train hard in their art of weaponless warfare. They had to study and practice in secret, usually at night and at remote locations. The Okinawan martial artists did not share their knowledge, and often fought each other. Different strategies and techniques were tried and tested on the real battlefield — the loser usually died. Thus, the surviving warrior’s techniques were kept, and the loser’s techniques were discarded. Okinawan karate improved at the expense of human life. Finally in 1629, the Okinawans stopped the unproductive fighting with each other. The fighting style that they had developed was a mixture of Okinawa-Te and Chinese Ch’uan Fa.
Before the 18th century, there were three main styles of Okinawan unarmed fighting: Naha-te, Shun-te, and Tomari-te each named after the main cities from which they were practiced. By this century, Okinawan karate was developing into its current form. The basic differences between these two styles is that Naha-te relies more on flexibility in movement, while Shuri-te relies more on speed. Karate historians agree that the secrecy of karate lasted until either 1875 when Okinawan occupation ended, or until 1903. From about 1915 to 1940, Okinawan karate grew in popularity. In this time frame, almost all major karate styles were established.
Shorin-Ryu is a popular karate style in Okinawa and has historical links through distinguished Chinese fighting systems. The two ancient Chinese masters of Shorin-Ryu were Iwah and Wai Shin-Zan. Sokon Matsumura was a student of these masters. Another influential master was Kusanku who learned the Chinese art of Ch’uan Fa from a Shaolin monk. In 1761 he was sent to Okinawa to teach this martial art. “Tode” Sakugawa was a student of Takahara, but then studied under Kusanku. He combined Ch’uan Fa and Tode, resulting in Okinawa-Te. After Sakugawa, there were three other masters before the founder of Shuri-Te karate, Sokon Matsumura. A political leader in Okinawa became friends with Sakugawa. The political leader died in 1799, but had asked Sakugawa to raise his three year old son, Sokon Matsumura. Matsumura learned karate from Sakugawa and is credited with creating all of the Shuri-te katas which include: Seisan, Nalhanchin, Ananku, Wanshu, Gojushiho, Chinto, Passal and Kusanku. In 1884, Sokon Matsumura died. However, he left many students, the most notable being Yasutsune Itosu and Yasutsune Azato.
Yasutsune Itosu (1830-1915) created the Pinan katas and the Naihanchi kata. Itosu was also nicknamed “Iron Horse” due to his strong stances. After Itosu’s death his senior student, Kentsu Yabu took over. Yabu soon retired, and Itosu’s second ranking student became the leader. However, many of his students thought they should be the number one leader. These disgruntled students formed their own separate schools, thus, several different types of Shorin-Ryu styles were established. Yabu’s successor was Chosbin Chibana (1887-1969). Chibana was a very well respected karate grand master, and was first to name his style Shorin-Ryu in 1928. At Chibana’s death, again there was a disagreement between two of his students over who should take over as leader. Currently, Katsuya Miyahira leads the Kobayshi Shorin-Ryu (small forest Shorin style) and Shugoro Nakazato leads the Kobayashi Shorin Kan Shuwakai (small forest Shorin school of all Shugoro’s students.) The present head of Matsubayashi Shorin-Ryu (pine forest Shorin style) is Shoshin Nagamine. Nagamine studied with Chotoku Kyan. His style emphasizes a faster, lighter movement while the Kobayashi styles use more power and less mobility.
Chotoku Kyan (1870-1945) was a great karate master. He studied Shuri-Te from Sokon Matsumura and Master Itosu. He studied Tomari-Te from Peichin Gyadamari, Peichin Maeda and Kosaku Matsumora. The Shorin-Ryu style that he passed on to his students combined Shuri-Te and Tomari-Te. His style was known as the Sukunaihayashi style of Shorin-Ryu karate.
Zenryo Shimabukuro was one of Kyan’s best students. He first called his style Shorinj-Ryu after the Shaolin Temple . Later, however, he changed the name of this style to Seibukan. His style taught the full combative techniques. His son, Zenpo, is Zenryo’s successor. His style is also known as Seibukan.
By 1880, the term karate had replaced the word,” te” (hand) in Okinawa . In 1905, Chomo Hanashiro used this new karate character meaning “empty hand.” Later, Gichin Funakoshi also used this karate character. Funakoshi was one of the most well known Okinawan karate masters. He was the first to formally introduce Okinawa karate to Japan in 1922. He was born to a government official in the year 1868. His father was a member of a privileged dass in society called “Shizoku.” He was quite small and in poor health as a child so his father thought he would benefit by training in karate. He began training in his primary years with Master Azato, who trained under Matsumura, Sokon. Azato encouraged him to train with other masters and introduces him to Anko Itosu.
Funakoshi was invited to Japan in 1902 to perform his technique to the commissioner of schools. As a result of this demonstration, karate was installed as a part of the physical education program at the Dai Chi Middle School and the Men’s Normal School in Shuri. In 1913, Funakoshi formed a team of karate masters to demonstrate publicly in Japan . The first demonstration of karate ever given outside of Okinawa was in 1917 at the Butokuden, the center for Japanese martial arts. In 1921, he gave another demonstration at Shuri Castle for the Crown Prince Hirohito. Hirohito was so impressed, he mentioned it in his report. Shortly after this demonstration, Funakoshi was persuaded to stay in Japan giving lectures and doing demonstrations. He never returned to Okinawa and by 1936 established a permanent Dojo in Tokyo known as Shotokan; Shoto after his pen name meaning pine waves and Kan meaning house. Through his writings, the meaning of karate changed from “Chinese hands” to “empty hands.” This served two purposes.
From there, Kenwa Mabuni founded Shito-Ryu (1928), and Chojun Miyagi established Goju-Ryu (1930). Funakoshi founded Shotokan in 1938 and Hironori Otsuka blended jiu-jitsu with karate (learned from Funakoshi) to form Wado-Ryu in 1939. Universities in Tokyo and Osaka formed karate clubs and the art of Okinawan China-hand soon became Japanese. The Butokukai, Japan’s top combat-arts organisation, also helped Japanise karate, creating standards for teaching and developing ways to competitively test the arts. These were the beginnings of sport-karate.
Today there are four main styles of karate-do : 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 (1853-1915). 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. Born in Okinawa , he began to study karate with Yasutsune Azato, one of Okinawa ‘s greatest experts in the art. In 1921 Funakoshi first introduced Karate to Tokyo . In 1936, at nearly 70 years of age, he opened his own training hall. The dojo was called Shotokan after the pen name used by Funakoshi to sign poems written in his youth. 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.