Background & Philosophy
Although the island of Okinawa is regarded as the birthplace of karate, it’s origins can be traced back further - to China.
In the sixth century, the legendary Indian monk Bodhidharma, is said to have travelled to China to spread the doctrine of Zen Buddhism. Having been refused an audience with the emperor, he settled in the Shaolin monastery. Here he found the monks too physically weak to follow his strict meditation regime.
To remedy this, be began to teach a series of physical exercises. At the time, monasteries were centers for learning and were frequented by political and military leaders who saw the possible martial applications of the exercises being taught. Over time the exercises developed into a fighting system that was to become known as kung fu.
Okinawa (now a Japanese prefecture) has always held a position of importance, being a stepping-stone between China and Japan. The island has historically had cultural, political and military exchanges with both countries. One of the more notable exchanges took place in 1392, when 36 families from China settled on Okinawa, most likely bringing with them knowledge of kung fu.
These fighting methods were adapted and further developed by the Okinawans and came to be known as te (meaning “hand”) or to-de (written to mean “Chinese hand” and pronounced kara-te in Japanese). One contributing factor to the development of te as an unarmed fighting art was a number of successive weapons’ bans imposed by domestic and invading rulers between the 15th and 17th centuries.
Over time different styles of te developed to suit practitioners with different physical attributes. Three key styles are Shuri-te, Tomari-te and Naha-te, named from villages in Okinawa where the styles were popular. The Shuri-te and Tomari-te styles specialized in light, fast techniques while the Naha-te style focused on strong, heavy techniques.
Master Sokon Matsumura (1797-1889) founded the Shorin-Ryu style of karate which combines elements of Shuri-te and Tomari-te. Two of his students of note were Ankoh Azato (1827-1906) and Ankoh Itosu (1832-1915) who practiced Shuti-te and Naha-te respectively. These two experts had a student in common named Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) who would become known as the father of Shotokan karate. He combined the principles of both styles in an attempt to create a well-balanced style that could be easily learned by all.
Gichin Funakoshi (his pen-name was “Shoto”, hence “Shoto-kan” meaning Shoto’s club) was a schoolteacher, and in conjunction with Itosu and others had karate introduced to the Okinawan school system. In 1921, he led a demonstration for the then Crown Prince Hirohito who was passing through Okinawa on his way to Europe.
As a result of the interest shown by the Crown Prince, Funakoshi received invitations from various groups in Tokyo to demonstrate his art. Invitations came from, among others, the Ministry of Education and the Kodokan (judo’s headquarters). These demonstrations lead to the establishment of many clubs, most notably in Japan’s universities.
During this period (1920’s-40’s) what was to become known as “Shotokan” continued to be developed by Funakoshi and his senior students, especially his son, Yoshitaka (1906-1945). In order for karate to be accepted as a Japanese art (and not an Okinawan import) certain changes were necessary. One of these was to change the characters used to spell karate so that the meaning became “empty hand” rather than “Chinese hand”. Other requirements were the adoption of a standardized grading system and a standardized training uniform.
As a result of the Second World War, many of the top karate experts were either killed or stopped training. As Japan gradually recovered after the war and formal training resumed, it became apparent that much knowledge had been lost. In 1948 a meeting was held between some of the remaining top karate practitioners in Japan to pool their knowledge and standardize what was being taught. This meeting resulted in the formation of the Japan Karate Association (JKA) in 1949, with Funakoshi as chief instructor.