The martial arts movies of the 1960s and 1970s served to greatly increase the popularity of martial arts around the world, and in English the word karate began to be used in a generic way to refer to all striking-based Oriental martial arts. Karate schools began appearing across the world, catering to those with casual interest as well as those seeking a deeper study of the art.
Shigeru Egami, Chief Instructor of Shotokan Dojo, opined that “the majority of followers of karate in overseas countries pursue karate only for its fighting techniques … Movies and television … depict karate as a mysterious way of fighting capable of causing death or injury with a single blow … the mass media present a pseudo art far from the real thing.” Shōshin Nagamine said, “Karate may be considered as the conflict within oneself or as a life-long marathon which can be won only through self-discipline, hard training and one’s own creative efforts.”
On September 28, 2015, karate was featured on a shortlist along with baseball, softball, skateboarding, surfing, and sport climbing to be considered for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Olympics. On June 1, 2016, the International Olympic Committee’s executive board announced they were supporting the inclusion of all five sports (counting baseball and softball as only one sport) for inclusion in the 2020 Games.
Web Japan (sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs) claims there are 50 million karate practitioners worldwide, while the World Karate Federation claims there are 100 million practitioners around the world.
Karate began as a common fighting system known as “te” among the Pechin class of the Ryukyuans. After trade relationships were established with the Ming dynasty of China in 1372 by King Satto of Chūzan, some forms of Chinese martial arts were introduced to the Ryukyu Islands by the visitors from China, particularly Fujian Province. A large group of Chinese families moved to Okinawa around 1392 for the purpose of cultural exchange, where they established the community of Kumemura and shared their knowledge of a wide variety of Chinese arts and sciences, including the Chinese martial arts. The political centralization of Okinawa by King Shō Hashi in 1429 and the policy of banning weapons by King Shō Shin in 1477, later enforced in Okinawa after the invasion by the Shimazu clan in 1609, are also factors that furthered the development of unarmed combat techniques in Okinawa.
There were few formal styles of te, but rather many practitioners with their own methods. One surviving example is the Motobu-ryū school passed down from the Motobu family by Seikichi Uehara. Early styles of karate are often generalized as Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te, named after the three cities from which they emerged. Each area and its teachers had particular kata, techniques, and principles that distinguished their local version of te from the others.
Members of the Okinawan upper classes were sent to China regularly to study various political and practical disciplines. The incorporation of empty-handed Chinese Kung Fu into Okinawan martial arts occurred partly because of these exchanges and partly because of growing legal restrictions on the use of weaponry. Traditional karate kata bear a strong resemblance to the forms found in Fujian martial arts such as Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, and Gangrou-quan (Hard Soft Fist; pronounced “Gōjūken” in Japanese). Many Okinawan weapons such as the sai, tonfa, and nunchaku may have originated in and around Southeast Asia.
Sakukawa Kanga (1782–1838) had studied pugilism and staff fighting in China (according to one legend, under the guidance of Kosokun, originator of kusanku kata). 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. 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.
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).
In addition to the three early te styles of karate a fourth Okinawan influence is that of Kanbun Uechi (1877–1948). At the age of 20 he went to Fuzhou in Fujian Province, China, to escape Japanese military conscription. While there he studied under Shushiwa. He was a leading figure of Chinese Nanpa Shorin-ken style at that time. He later developed his own style of Uechi-ryū karate based on the Sanchin, Seisan, and Sanseiryu kata that he had studied in China.
Japan was invading China at the time, and Funakoshi knew that the art of Tang/China hand would not be accepted; thus the change of the art’s name to “way of the empty hand.” The dō suffix implies that karatedō is a path to self-knowledge, not just a study of the technical aspects of fighting. Like most martial arts practiced in Japan, karate made its transition from -jutsu to -dō around the beginning of the 20th century. The “dō” in “karate-dō” sets it apart from karate-jutsu, as aikido is distinguished from aikijutsu, judo from jujutsu, kendo from kenjutsu and iaido from iaijutsu.
The modernization and systemization of karate in Japan also included the adoption of the white uniform that consisted of the kimono and the dogi or keikogi—mostly called just karategi—and colored belt ranks. Both of these innovations were originated and popularized by Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo and one of the men Funakoshi consulted in his efforts to modernize karate.
A new form of karate called Kyokushin was formally founded in 1957 by Masutatsu Oyama (who was born a Korean, Choi Yeong-Eui 최영의). Kyokushin is largely a synthesis of Shotokan and Gōjū-ryū. It teaches a curriculum that emphasizes aliveness, physical toughness, and full contact sparring. Because of its emphasis on physical, full-force sparring, Kyokushin is now often called “full contact karate”, or “Knockdown karate” (after the name for its competition rules). Many other karate organizations and styles are descended from the Kyokushin curriculum.
Karate styles place varying importance on kihon. Typically this is performance in unison of a technique or a combination of techniques by a group of karateka. Kihon may also be prearranged drills in smaller groups or in pairs.
Sparring in Karate is called kumite (組手:くみて). It literally means “meeting of hands.” Kumite is practiced both as a sport and as self-defense training.
Levels of physical contact during sparring vary considerably. Full contact karate has several variants. Knockdown karate (such as Kyokushin) uses full power techniques to bring an opponent to the ground. In kickboxing variants (for example K-1), the preferred win is by knockout. Sparring in armour, bogu kumite, allows full power techniques with some safety. Sport kumite in many international competition under the World Karate Federation is free or structured with light contact or semi contact and points are awarded by a referee.
In structured kumite (yakusoku, prearranged), two participants perform a choreographed series of techniques with one striking while the other blocks. The form ends with one devastating technique (hito tsuki).
In free sparring (Jiyu Kumite), the two participants have a free choice of scoring techniques. The allowed techniques and contact level are primarily determined by sport or style organization policy, but might be modified according to the age, rank and sex of the participants. Depending upon style, take-downs, sweeps and in some rare cases even time-limited grappling on the ground are also allowed.
Free sparring is performed in a marked or closed area. The bout runs for a fixed time (2 to 3 minutes.) The time can run continuously (iri kume) or be stopped for referee judgment. In light contact or semi contact kumite, points are awarded based on the criteria: good form, sporting attitude, vigorous application, awareness/zanshin, good timing and correct distance. In full contact karate kumite, points are based on the results of the impact, rather than the formal appearance of the scoring technique.
In the bushidō tradition dojo kun is a set of guidelines for karateka to follow. These guidelines apply both in the dojo (training hall) and in everyday life.
Okinawan karate uses supplementary training known as hojo undo. This utilizes simple equipment made of wood and stone. The makiwara is a striking post. The nigiri game is a large jar used for developing grip strength. These supplementary exercises are designed to increase strength, stamina, speed, and muscle coordination. Sport Karate emphasizes aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise, power, agility, flexibility, and stress management. All practices vary depending upon the school and the teacher.
Gichin Funakoshi (船越 義珍) said, “There are no contests in karate.” In pre–World War II Okinawa, kumite was not part of karate training. Shigeru Egami relates that, in 1940, some karateka were ousted from their dojo because they adopted sparring after having learned it in Tokyo.
Karate is divided into style organizations. These organizations sometimes cooperate in non-style specific sport karate organizations or federations. Examples of sport organizations include AAKF/ITKF, AOK, TKL, AKA, WKF, NWUKO, WUKF and WKC. Organizations hold competitions (tournaments) from local to international level. Tournaments are designed to match members of opposing schools or styles against one another in kata, sparring and weapons demonstration. They are often separated by age, rank and sex with potentially different rules or standards based on these factors. The tournament may be exclusively for members of a particular style (closed) or one in which any martial artist from any style may participate within the rules of the tournament (open).
The World Karate Federation (WKF) is the largest sport karate organization and is recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as being responsible for karate competition in the Olympic Games. The WKF has developed common rules governing all styles. The national WKF organizations coordinate with their respective National Olympic Committees.
WKF karate competition has two disciplines: sparring (kumite) and forms (kata). Competitors may enter either as individuals or as part of a team. Evaluation for kata and kobudō is performed by a panel of judges, whereas sparring is judged by a head referee, usually with assistant referees at the side of the sparring area. Sparring matches are typically divided by weight, age, gender, and experience.
WKF only allows membership through one national organization/federation per country to which clubs may join. The World Union of Karate-do Federations (WUKF) offers different styles and federations a world body they may join, without having to compromise their style or size. The WUKF accepts more than one federation or association per country.
Sport organizations use different competition rule systems. Light contact rules are used by the WKF, WUKO, IASK and WKC. Full contact karate rules used by Kyokushinkai, Seidokaikan and other organizations. Bogu kumite (full contact with protective shielding of targets) rules are used in the World Koshiki Karate-Do Federation organization. Shinkaratedo Federation use boxing gloves. Within the United States, rules may be under the jurisdiction of state sports authorities, such as the boxing commission.
In August 2016, the International Olympic Committee approved karate as an Olympic sport beginning at the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Karate, although not widely used in mixed martial arts, has been effective for some MMA practitioners. Various styles of karate are practiced in MMA: Lyoto Machida and John Makdessi practice Shotokan; Bas Rutten and Georges St-Pierre train in Kyokushinl; and Michelle Waterson holds a black belt in American Free Style Karate.
Minimum age and time in rank are factors affecting promotion. Testing consists of demonstration of techniques before a panel of examiners. This will vary by school, but testing may include everything learned at that point, or just new information. The demonstration is an application for new rank (shinsa) and may include kata, bunkai, self-defense, routines, tameshiwari (breaking), and kumite (sparring).
In Karate-Do Kyohan, Funakoshi quoted from the Heart Sutra, which is prominent in Shingon Buddhism: “Form is emptiness, emptiness is form itself” (shiki zokuze kū kū zokuze shiki). He interpreted the “kara” of Karate-dō to mean “to purge oneself of selfish and evil thoughts … for only with a clear mind and conscience can the practitioner understand the knowledge which he receives.” Funakoshi believed that one should be “inwardly humble and outwardly gentle.” Only by behaving humbly can one be open to Karate’s many lessons. This is done by listening and being receptive to criticism. He considered courtesy of prime importance. He said that “Karate is properly applied only in those rare situations in which one really must either down another or be downed by him.” Funakoshi did not consider it unusual for a devotee to use Karate in a real physical confrontation no more than perhaps once in a lifetime. He stated that Karate practitioners must “never be easily drawn into a fight.” It is understood that one blow from a real expert could mean death. It is clear that those who misuse what they have learned bring dishonor upon themselves. He promoted the character trait of personal conviction. In “time of grave public crisis, one must have the courage … to face a million and one opponents.” He taught that indecisiveness is a weakness.
Karate was originally written as “Chinese hand” (唐手 literally “Tang dynasty hand”) in kanji. It was later changed to a homophone meaning empty hand (空手). The original use of the word “karate” in print is attributed to Ankō Itosu; he wrote it as “唐手”. The Tang Dynasty of China ended in AD 907, but the kanji representing it remains in use in Japanese language referring to China generally, in such words as “唐人街” meaning Chinatown. Thus the word “karate” was originally a way of expressing “martial art from China.”
Since there are no written records it is not known definitely whether the kara in karate was originally written with the character 唐 meaning China or the character 空 meaning empty. During the time when admiration for China and things Chinese was at its height in the Ryūkyūs it was the custom to use the former character when referring to things of fine quality. Influenced by this practice, in recent times karate has begun to be written with the character 唐 to give it a sense of class or elegance.
The first documented use of a homophone of the logogram pronounced kara by replacing the Chinese character meaning “Tang Dynasty” with the character meaning “empty” took place in Karate Kumite written in August 1905 by Chōmo Hanashiro (1869–1945). Sino-Japanese relations have never been very good, and especially at the time of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, referring to the Chinese origins of karate was considered politically incorrect.
In 1933, the Okinawan art of karate was recognized as a Japanese martial art by the Japanese Martial Arts Committee known as the “Butoku Kai”. Until 1935, “karate” was written as “唐手” (Chinese hand). But in 1935, the masters of the various styles of Okinawan karate conferred to decide a new name for their art. They decided to call their art “karate” written in Japanese characters as “空手” (empty hand).
Another nominal development is the addition of dō (道:どう) to the end of the word karate. Dō is a suffix having numerous meanings including road, path, route, and way. It is used in many martial arts that survived Japan’s transition from feudal culture to modern times. It implies that these arts are not just fighting systems but contain spiritual elements when promoted as disciplines. In this context dō is usually translated as “the way of ___”. Examples include aikido, judo, kyudo, and kendo. Thus karatedō is more than just empty hand techniques. It is “The Way of the Empty Hand”.
Karate and its influence outside Japan
Karate began in Canada in the 1930s and 1940s as Japanese people immigrated to the country. Karate was practised quietly without a large amount of organization. During the Second World War, many Japanese-Canadian families were moved to the interior of British Columbia. Masaru Shintani, at the age of 13, began to study Shorin-Ryu karate in the Japanese camp under Kitigawa. In 1956 after 9 years of training with Kitigawa, Shintani travelled to Japan and met Hironori Otsuka (Wado Ryu). In 1958 Otsuka invited Shintani to join his organization Wado Kai, and in 1969 he asked Shintani to officially call his style Wado.
In Canada during this same time, karate was also introduced by Masami Tsuruoka who had studied in Japan in the 1940s under Tsuyoshi Chitose. In 1954 Tsuruoka initiated the first karate competition in Canada and laid the foundation for the National Karate Association.
In the late 1950s Shintani moved to Ontario and began teaching karate and judo at the Japanese Cultural Centre in Hamilton. In 1966 he began (with Otsuka’s endorsement) the Shintani Wado Kai Karate Federation. During the 1970s Otsuka appointed Shintani the Supreme Instructor of Wado Kai in North America. In 1979, Otsuka publicly promoted Shintani to hachidan (8th dan) and privately gave him a kudan certificate (9th dan), which was revealed by Shintani in 1995. Shintani and Otsuka visited each other in Japan and Canada several times, the last time in 1980 two years prior to Otsuka’s death. Shintani died May 7, 2000.
Due to past conflict between Korea and Japan, most notably during the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 20th century, the influence of karate in Korea is a contentious issue. From 1910 until 1945, Korea was annexed by the Japanese Empire. It was during this time that many of the Korean martial arts masters of the 20th century were exposed to Japanese karate. After regaining independence from Japan, many Korean martial arts schools that opened up in the 1940s and 50’s were founded by masters who had trained in karate in Japan as part of their martial arts training.
Won Kuk Lee, a Korean student of Funakoshi, founded the first martial arts school after the Japanese occupation of Korea ended in 1945, called the Chung Do Kwan. Having studied under Gichin Funakoshi at Chuo University, Lee had incorporated taekkyon, kung fu, and karate in the martial art that he taught which he called “Tang Soo Do”, the Korean transliteration of the Chinese characters for “Way of Chinese Hand” (唐手道). In the mid-1950s, the martial arts schools were unified under President Rhee Syngman’s order, and became taekwondo under the leadership of Choi Hong Hi and a committee of Korean masters. Choi, a significant figure in taekwondo history, had also studied karate under Funakoshi. Karate also provided an important comparative model for the early founders of taekwondo in the formalization of their art including hyung and the belt ranking system. The original taekwondo hyung were identical to karate kata. Eventually, original Korean forms were developed by individual schools and associations. Although the World Taekwondo Federation and International Taekwon-Do Federation are the most prominent among Korean martial arts organizations, tang soo do schools that teach Japanese karate still exist as they were originally conveyed to Won Kuk Lee and his contemporaries from Funakoshi.
Karate appeared in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, during Nikita Khrushchev’s policy of improved international relations. The first Shotokan clubs were opened in Moscow’s universities. In 1973, however, the government banned karate—together with all other foreign martial arts—endorsing only the Soviet martial art of sambo. Failing to suppress these uncontrolled groups, the USSR’s Sport Committee formed the Karate Federation of USSR in December 1978. On 17 May 1984, the Soviet Karate Federation was disbanded and all karate became illegal again. In 1989, karate practice became legal again, but under strict government regulations, only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 did independent karate schools resume functioning, and so federations were formed and national tournaments in authentic styles began.
After World War II, members of the US military learned karate in Okinawa or Japan and then opened schools in the USA. In 1945 Robert Trias opened the first dojo in the United States in Phoenix, Arizona, a Shuri-ryū karate dojo. In the 1950s, William J. Dometrich, Ed Parker, Cecil T. Patterson, Gordon Doversola, Donald Hugh Nagle, George Mattson and Peter Urban all began instructing in the US.
Tsutomu Ohshima began studying karate under Shotokan’s founder, Gichin Funakoshi, while a student at Waseda University, beginning in 1948. In 1957 Ohshima received his godan (fifth degree black belt), the highest rank awarded by Funakoshi. He founded the first university karate club in the United States at California Institute of Technology in 1957. In 1959 he founded the Southern California Karate Association (SCKA) which was renamed Shotokan Karate of America (SKA) in 1969.
In the 1960s, Anthony Mirakian, Richard Kim, Teruyuki Okazaki, John Pachivas, Allen Steen, Gosei Yamaguchi (son of Gōgen Yamaguchi), Michael G. Foster and Pat Burleson began teaching martial arts around the country.
In 1961 Hidetaka Nishiyama, a co-founder of the Japan Karate Association (JKA) and student of Gichin Funakoshi, began teaching in the United States. He founded the International Traditional Karate Federation (ITKF). Takayuki Mikami was sent to New Orleans by the JKA in 1963.
In 1964, Takayuki Kubota relocated the International Karate Association from Tokyo to California.
In the 1950s and 1960s, several Japanese karate masters began to teach the art in Europe, but it was not until 1965 that the Japan Karate Association (JKA) sent to Europe four well-trained young Karate instructors Taiji Kase, Keinosuke Enoeda, Hirokazu Kanazawa and Hiroshi Shirai. Kase went to France, Enoeada to England and Shirai in Italy. These Masters maintained always a strong link between them, the JKA and the others JKA masters in the world, especially Hidetaka Nishiyama in the USA.
Vernon Bell, a 3rd Dan Judo instructor who had been instructed by Kenshiro Abbe introduced Karate to England in 1956, having attended classes in Henry Plée’s Yoseikan dojo in Paris. Yoseikan had been founded by Minoru Mochizuki, a master of multiple Japanese martial arts, who had studied Karate with Gichin Funakoshi, thus the Yoseikan style was heavily influenced by Shotokan. Bell began teaching in the tennis courts of his parents’ back garden in Ilford, Essex and his group was to become the British Karate Federation. On July 19, 1957, Vietnamese Hoang Nam 3rd Dan, billed as “Karate champion of Indo China”, was invited to teach by Bell at Maybush Road, but the first instructor from Japan was Tetsuji Murakami (1927-1987) a 3rd Dan Yoseikan under Minoru Mochizuki and 1st Dan of the JKA, who arrived in England in July 1959. In 1959 Frederick Gille set up the Liverpool branch of the British Karate Federation, which was officially recognised in 1961. The Liverpool branch was based at Harold House Jewish Boys Club in Chatham Street before relocating to the YMCA in Everton where it became known as the Red Triangle. One of the early members of this branch was Andy Sherry who had previously studied Jujutsu with Jack Britten. In 1961 Edward Ainsworth, another blackbelt Judoka, set up the first Karate study group in Ayrshire, Scotland having attended Bell’s third ‘Karate Summer School’ in 1961.
Outside of Bell’s organisation, Charles Mack traveled to Japan and studied under Masatoshi Nakayama of the Japan Karate Association who graded Mack to 1st Dan Shotokan on March 4, 1962 in Japan. Shotokai Karate was introduced to England in 1963 by another of Gichin Funakoshi’s students, Mitsusuke Harada. Outside of the Shotokan stable of karate styles, Wado Ryu Karate was also an early adopted style in the UK, introduced by Tatsuo Suzuki, a 6th Dan at the time in 1964.
Despite the early adoption of Shotokan in the UK, it was not until 1964 that JKA Shotokan officially came to the UK. Bell had been corresponding with the JKA in Tokyo asking for his grades to be ratified in Shotokan having apparently learnt that Murakami was not a designated representative of the JKA. The JKA obliged, and without enforcing a grading on Bell, ratified his black belt on February 5, 1964, though he had to relinquish his Yoseikan grade. Bell requested a visitation from JKA instructors and the next year Taiji Kase, Hirokazu Kanazawa, Keinosuke Enoeda and Hiroshi Shirai gave the first JKA demo at Kensington Town Hall on April 21, 1965. Hirokazu Kanazawa and Keinosuke Enoeda stayed and Murakami left (later re-emerging as a 5th Dan Shotokai under Harada).
In 1966, members of the former British Karate Federation established the Karate Union of Great Britain (KUGB) under Hirokazu Kanazawa as chief instructor and affiliated to JKA. Keinosuke Enoeda came to England at the same time as Kanazawa, teaching at a dojo in Liverpool. Kanazawa left the UK after 3 years and Enoeda took over. After Enoeda’s death in 2003, the KUGB elected Andy Sherry as Chief Instructor. Shortly after this, a new association split off from KUGB, JKA England. An earlier significant split from the KUGB took place in 1991 when a group led by KUGB senior instructor Steve Cattle formed the English Shotokan Academy (ESA). The aim of this group was to follow the teachings of Taiji Kase, formerly the JKA chief instructor in Europe, who along with Hiroshi Shirai created the World Shotokan Karate-do Academy (WKSA), in 1989 in order to pursue the teaching of “Budo” karate as opposed to what he viewed as “sport karate”. Kase sought to return the practice of Shotokan Karate to its martial roots, reintroducing amongst other things open hand and throwing techniques that had been side lined as the result of competition rules introduced by the JKA. Both the ESA and the WKSA (renamed the Kase-Ha Shotokan-Ryu Karate-do Academy (KSKA) after Kase’s death in 2004) continue following this path today. In 1975 Great Britain became the first team ever to take the World male team title from Japan after being defeated the previous year in the final.
Hiroshi Shirai, one of the original instructors sent by the JKA to Europe along with Kase, Enoeda and Kanazawa, moved to Italy in 1965 and quickly established a Shotokan enclave that spawned several instructors who in their turn soon spread the style all over the country. By 1970 Shotokan karate was the most spread martial art in Italy apart from Judo. Other styles such as Wado Ryu, Goju Ryu and Shito Ryu, although present and well established in Italy, were never able to break the monopoly of Shotokan.
France Shotokan Karate was created in 1964 by Tsutomu Ohshima. It is affiliated with another of his organizations, Shotokan Karate of America (SKA). However, in 1965 Taiji Kase came from Japan along with Enoeda and Shirai, who went to England and Italy respectively, and karate came under the influence of the JKA.
Karate has grown in popularity in Africa, particularly in South Africa and Ghana.