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Shotokan Karate a History

Updated: Feb 25, 2020

By: Francisco Pherez

Karate has multiple origins. Throughout history, Karate has borrowed from several traditions and incorporated them to form a now defined style of self defense.

Karate originated in Okinawa(Ryukyu), but to pinpoint an exact date is impossible because ,first of all Karate was not always called karate and second, Karate is in constant evolution.

The history of Karate in many ways follows closely the history of Okinawa and its people.

From the beginning of Okinawan history there have been power struggles and wars fought between different Okinawan clans, therefore a form of fighting style indigenous to the Ryukyu islands is thought to have existed from a very early time.

However Karate, as we know it today, is not purely an Okinawan art but more of a blend of Okinawan, Japanese and Chinese fighting arts rolled up in to one specific and now recognizable self defense system.

Okinawan culture has existed for many centuries, the Ryukyu islands ( present day Okinawa) sit between two of the great East Asian powers, China and Japan.

Located to the south east of China and to the south west of Japan, Okinawa has been blessed and also cursed by this proximity to its neighbors.

At many points in history, it has served as a proxy in the power struggle between these two and it has both benefited and suffered for it.

Japanese influence is thought to have started at some point between the 10th and 12th centuries ,when exiles from Japanese warring clans made it to the Ryukyu islands and brought with them their own fighting traditions and styles.

One known example of this is that of Minamoto Tametomo ( himself a Samurai warrior exiled to Okinawa in the 12th century )

Tametomo eventually became a powerful Aji ( Okinawan overlord) on the island. Tametomo was also known for his ability in hand to hand combat and exceptional fighting skill.

It doesn’t take too much to infer that people like him had a profound influence in what later would become Karate.

In 1372 the kingdom of Chuzan (one of three kingdoms that formed Okinawa ),becomes a tributary to China under the Ming dynasty, effectively establishing a close economic and cultural relationship and incorporating many of the Chinese traditions into the the local traditions.

In 1393 the Thirty-six Families mission from China establishes in Naha ( current capital of Okinawa) and this is a turning point, historians believe that this is when Chinese fighting , as well as other traditions are systematically incorporated into the local society.

This relationship with China lasts from 1372 to the 1880s when Okinawa is annexed to Japan at the beginning of the Meiji restoration.

In 1429 Sho Hashi ( from the first Sho Dynasty in Chuzan ),unifies Okinawan three warring kingdoms i.e. Chuzan, Hokuzan and Nanzan and declares himself ruler of all Okinawa.

In 1507 King Sho Shin ,From the second Sho dynasty, implements a weapons ban on the people and this is credited for further fostering the practice of self defense techniques by the locals.

In 1609 the Shimazu clan of Satsuma Japan, after loosing at the battle of Sekigahara against Tokugawa Ieyasu ,turned its attention to Okinawa and occupies it, ruling it as a client state (along with the Chinese ) for 270 years until the new Japanese government incorporates Okinawa in the late 1800s (Meiji restoration).

During the years of dual rule ,Okinawa was further influenced in its fighting traditions by both overlord states .On the one side China with Kung fu and on the other Satsuma home of Jigen-Ryu Kenjutsu Samurais.

A second Weapons ban is also enforced by Satsuma rule ,further stimulating the development of self defense and also the use of daily tools as weapons ( art known as Kubudo ).

Of note, some sources suggest that those “daily implements”used in Kubudo as weapons were actually imported from China with the intention to be used as weapons from the start .

In the 18th century a Kung fu master by the name of Kusanku, teaches Chinese Kempo (Kung fu ) to the locals . One of his most prominent students is Kanga Sakugawa ,also known as Tōde( Karate in Okinawan ) Sakugawa ,who is credited as one of the earlier practitioners of the Te ( precursor of karate ) and who also studied in Fuzhou, Beijing , and Satsuma.

Tōde Sakugawa is in turn the teacher of Bushi ( warrior ) Matsumura ( who Patrick McCarthy dubs the Great grandfather of karate ) . Matsumura also studied in Fuzhou and Satsuma and served as the head of security of the Shuri palace under several Okinawa Kings , where he also taught martial arts including the to the king of Okinawa .

Matsumura is eventually credited as the creator of what eventually came to be known as Shuri-Te ( one of the immediate precursor of several styles of karate including Shotokan )

Among his most influential students are many masters who would later go on to develop different styles of karate ,but two of the main ones are Ankō Asato and Ankō Itosu.

Asato and Itosu ,and to some degree Bushi Matsumura, were teachers of Gichin Funakoshi and many other notable masters of different styles of karate .

Ankō Itosu was also teacher to Kenua Mabuni , the founder of Shito Ryu.

A second karate lineage comes from China directly into Okinawa.

Ryu Ryu Ko a native of Fuzhou and a master of Kung fu, took as a student a young Okinawan by the name of Kanryō Higaonna in 1868 . Higaonna lived and studied Kung fu in Fuzhou under Ryu Ryu Ko for fourteen years before returning to Okinawa ,where he then taught karate. Eventually his teachings led to the styles of Goju Ryu, To’on Ryu and partially to Shito Ryu ,developed by Chōjun Miyagi, Juhatsu Kyoda and Kenwa Mabuni respectively .

This second lineage was also influenced by a Chinese tea merchant ,Wu Xiangui who lived in Okinawa at the time and had a close relationship with Chōjun Miyagi among other practitioners of the time .

He is also known to have brought with him an early copy of the Bubishi ,(the Karate bible ) which is a manuscript of combat based on White Crane and Monk Fist Kung fu styles .

No one knows for sure who actually wrote the Bubishi or who was the first one to bring it from China, but it is well established that the techniques and teachings in this combat manual have influenced modern Karate.

Shotokan style

1868 marks a major turning point in the history of Japan and Okinawa , the Meiji Restoration does away with the old shogun rule and ushers a new era of modernism and westernization to the empire .This is also the year Gichin Funakoshi was born in Shuri to a traditionalist family of the pechin class ( mid level samurai/ aristocrat class ).

Funakoshi is schooled in the traditional way , against the new order , and in school he meets the son on Ankō Asato who eventually agrees to take him under his tutelage and starts teaching him Karate.

In Funakoshi’s own words Master Asato was “ unsurpassed in Okinawa in the art of Karate , also excelled in horsemanship, Japanese fencing ( kendo ) and archery”.

Asato ,according to Funakoshi was also ‘ a brilliant scholar “.

When Asato started teaching karate to Funakoshi there was a ban by the Japanese government on teaching karate and other local traditions , for this reason he had to take his lessons at night and in Asato’s back yard.

Funakoshi eventually became a school teacher and throughout his studies and early in his career he continued to study under Asato.

Funakoshi described his training sessions ;‘this constant repetition of single kata was grueling ,often exasperating ,and on occasion humiliating”

Asato would not teach him another kata until he was fully satisfied with his progress .

Through Master Asato he met and trained with Anko Itosu ,a close friend of Asato and like Asato , a member of the Warrior Samurai class.

Funakoshi credits both of them as the men that set him off on his path to karate becoming his way of life.

Funakoshi had many masters during his life but Itosu and Asato were the most influential.

He describes Asato as muscular and over all a “ samurai” while Itosu “ despite his well behaved child look” possessed extraordinary arm and grip strength and was capable of receiving heavy blows without major injury.

He also trained at times with old master Matsumura.

By 1901 the ban on teaching karate is lifted and in 1908 , largely due to the efforts of Ankō Itosu and his outline of his 10 precepts of Karate , the ministry of education in Japan approves for karate to be taught in the school system in Okinawa to children.

Karate is cleaned up at this time ,some of the more violent /hidden techniques in the kata are given a different connotation to be able to teach them to children.

In 1916 and 1921 Funakoshi is invited to Japan to give karate demonstrations.

During this time he establishes relationships with other martial artists, most notably Kanō Jigorō ,the founder of Judo . He helps set up karate clubs and starts teaching seminars at universities .He eventually moves to Japan where he teaches at the Meisei-Juku ,a dormitory for Okinawans in Tokyo.

In 1935 the first Karate Dojo is established in Japan and his students name it the Shotokan ( hall of Shoto ) . Shoto means pine waves and is Funakoshi’s pen name for his Chinese style poetry.

As Japan becomes more nationalistic there is a rebranding of Karate, the kanji characters for Chinese Hand are changed to the ones for Empty Hand and the do( way ) is added instead of the jitsu ( art ), to denote the Budo lifestyle of other Japanese arts like Judo, Kendo , etc.

This rebranding proved to be extremely effective in the diffusion of karate in Japan and eventually the world. The first karate master to use the term Empty Hand in lieu of Chinese Hand is Chomo Hanashiro , himself a student of Matsumura , however Funakoshi is credited for promoting and popularizing the change.

Once Karate is widely accepted as a Japanese martial art , the Butokukai ( Japan’s governing body of all Japanese martial arts )implements changes to its organization, grading system, etiquette and attire, like Judo before, it starts using the kyu and dan system and also the belt system to denote rank and adopts the Judo gi as uniform.

Karate today is many things to different people, a sport, a system of self defense , a way to keep fit and healthy ,but most importantly Karate is a lifestyle that enhances the individual both physically and spiritually.


Francisco Pherez trains at the Missouri Karate Association Dojo with his 4 daughters. He's been training for several years in Shotokan and is also a M.D. with a specialization in Infectious Diseases.

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