Karate is a civilian art developed in Okinawa that has come to the US direct and thru Japan. The emphasis is on atemi waza (striking techniques), keri waza (kicking techniques). The whole body can be a weapon as demonstrated by using finger tip, PIP joint, knuckle, back of hand, palm of hand, wrist, elbow to name a few points on the upper extremity that can be used as striking surface. Similar point all over the body can be used. Speed, power and focusing of energy are key point to the atemi arts. However more important than how much power you hit with is where you hit – 300 lbs per square inch to the chest will move a person but not seriously hurt them. A tenth that power to the throat or eye can be devastating.


Historical Sense of Karate

Karate is a civilian self-defense art that arose in the Okinawan Islands. The Chinese, in the formation of karate, influenced the Okinawans. The art changed again as that karate came to Japan after the Meiji Restoration. It is important to realize that much of so-called karate history is the result of the Okinawan practitioners’ creativity to procure the acceptance of Japanese official approval at the turn of the century. It should also be noted that the Okinawan language (Hogan) had no written portion, thus all history relied on oral tradition. Patrick McCarthy’s works (including his translation of the Bubishi) are excellent sources of research into more detailed accounts of karate’s history.

The evolution of Okinawan karate is the result of the interaction of social, individual and historical factors. The stories of peasants developing karate and utilizing the tools of a farmer as weapons to overthrow the oppression of their lords are not largely based on fact. Some facts closer to a true picture of the history of karate are as follows:

Local chieftains ruled various parts of Okinawa from the fifth to the fifteenth century. The tenth century, part of the Heian Era in Japan, saw the arrival of Japanese samurai. These heavily armored and skilled men were highly venerated by the Okinawans. These bushi introduced jujutsu, kyujutsu (archery), sojutsu (spear), and kenjutsu (swordsmanship) to the islands. In 1156, the Taira clan defeated the Minamoto clan. One of the Minamoto leaders was Tametomo (1139 – 1170), who was exiled to the Oshima Islands. He worked his way south until he arrived at Unten, Okinawa. There, his skills were well received. He married the sister of the Oazato Aji (aji means chieftain) and helped start a new dynasty in Okinawa – the Shunten, which would last until 1253. The martial skill of Tametomo and his bushi would strongly influence the warrior class of Okinawa.

In 1372, the Chinese Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Hong Wu, sent envoys to Okinawa. Okinawa was made a tributary colony and in 1393, the so-named “36 Families” arrived. This was a settlement that included ship builders, scholars, craftsmen, a priest and a few martial artists. The purpose was to educate the young Okinawans in Chinese language, writing, arts and various skills, like papermaking. This was followed with various sapposhi (special envoys of the Chinese Emperor) who became occupational specialists; they would give dispatches and return with situational reports on what was going on in the far reaches of the Chinese Empire.


It was not until 1507 that Sho Shin-O united all of Okinawa under one house and ended feudalism there. This government would last until 1879, when the Japanese annexed Okinawa. Shin-O set up a system of nine classes. The pechin were the group third from the top; they corresponded to middle level samurai and were responsible for civil administration and law enforcement. All lords were ordered to stop stockpiling weapons, withdraw from their fortresses and come live with Shin-O in Shuri. With limited weapons, the pechin took to studying the arts of gongfu (kungfu) from China.

The Japanese samurai of the Satsuma clan took Okinawa, by force, in 1609. For the next 270 years, the kings of Okinawa were puppets of the Satsuma clan. During this time, many Okinawans went to Japan or China to study martial arts. This included Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura; he is considered the great-grandfather of karate. One Jigen Ryu soke even taught the peasants self-defense in order to support the forces already in place. These skills were taught as dances. Jigen Ryu Bo Odori is a watered down version of jo. Others taught bo, eiku (boat oar), kama (sickle) and shakuhachi (flute).

Matsumura (1796-1893) was a student of Toudi  Sakugawa (one possible Okinawan translation for karate) in native Okinawan fighting traditions, based on interpretations of Japanese and Chinese arts. Matsumura was also a student of gongfu and had received a menkyo (teaching license) from Jigen Ryu (kenjutsu). In 1927, Bushi Matsumura codified a system that taught eclectic self-defense, called Shuri-te. Some of his principle disciples include: Azato Anko (1827-1906), Itosu Anko (1832-1915), Sakihara Penchin (1833-1918), Yabu Kentsu (1866-1937), Funakoshi Ginchin (1868-1957) and Kyan Chotoku (1870-1945).

The Meiji Restoration brought the end of the Tokugawa Jidai (era) and took Japan out of the feudal ages and into nominal democracy, although it really only restored the Emperor. This, like much of history, is difficult to imagine without understanding all the cultural and political forces at work. Martial arts were viewed with a different purpose and many new schools would arise to fill the need.

Itosu Anko, who argued that martial arts would strengthen, physically and spiritually, the young men for military service, first introduced karate into the Okinawan school system. The Japanese military had also looked into utilizing karatejutsu but abandoned the idea due to lack of organization, impractical training methods and length of time to gain skill.


Itosu Anko, at the turn of the century, radically changed how karate would be practiced. Karate would be made safe for school children by eliminating bunkai and weakening some fundamental waza. For example, the hand was no longer chambered on the ribs at solar plexus level, but on the hip, to make the strike less effective than a punch (farther from target and weaker usage of musculature) and as an elbow strike (less depth of penetration and with a more blunt striking surface). Karate would embrace a philosophical aspect adopted from the Japanese Koryu (old schools of martial arts).

At that time, the Dai Nippon Butokukai was the governing body of Japan’s national martial arts; it was dissolved in 1945 when Japan surrendered to the Allies after World War II. The Butokukai sought to stop the rivalry between karate teachers from Okinawa, and set forth some organized methods of teaching and ranking. There was encouragement for a standardized gi and ranking structure, with Kano’s dan/kyu (black belt/under black belt) system. Konishi Yasuhiro (1893-1983) was a master of jujutsu and kendo. He had trained Ryukyu Kempo karate before it was introduced to Japan. Konishi claimed that modern karate was forged in the mold of judo and kendo. While this, in part, was true, the Butokukai never did get the local Okinawan karate teachers to stop the conflict among one another.

Around 1905, Hanshiro Chomo, a student of Bushi Matsumura, for the first time defined karate as kara (empty) te (hand). Previous to this, the kanji for karate was written to mean “China Hand.” This could be pronounced as karate or toudi. Most Okinawan teachers preferred the toudi pronunciation. Funakoshi later began using the empty hand kanji and karate-do became the primary name.

Karate would eventually become very popular; however, it never did achieve the cohesion and harmony that the earlier Japanese ryuha achieved. Karate continued to be plagued by fierce rivalries and personal animosities. While a myriad of eclectic interpretations continue to unfold, most were just watered-down versions of earlier efforts. Karate never achieved the single tradition the Budokukai had hoped for.

In 1917, Ginchin Funakoshi was selected to represent karate in its introduction to the Japanese mainland. Funakoshi was selected not because he was the most skilled, but because he was the most educated karateka the Okinawan council could find. He spoke Japanese and understood the ways of educational programs and cultured society. Funakoshi’s first visit was not particularly successful. His second visit, however, in 1922, bore fruit. In fact, he would never return to Okinawa again. Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, who had also helped Morihei Ueshiba get his Aikido started, aided Funakoshi’s second trip. Funakoshi, following Kano’s suggestions, attempted to influence the Japanese intellectuals by emphasizing the physical and spiritual merits of karate-do. Funakoshi was in awe of the Japanese judoka, who trained more intensely and were much larger and stronger than Okinawan karateka. (Funakoshi’s autobiography Karate-Do; My Way of Life, is excellent reading.)

Funakoshi took on part-time work while teaching karate on the side. He made a firm commitment to introducing the art to Japan. This is rather amazing when you consider that Funakoshi had a good job and family back in Okinawa. He gave this up to do menial work while teaching karate. Funakoshi’s calm bearing and persistence paid off; his popularity as a teacher grew. In 1924, Keio University began offering classes in karate. Soon, other major universities followed under Funakoshi’s direction. It was from these universities that the future teachers of karate would arise. Funakoshi’s group studied Shuri-te, and Funakoshi’s co-teachers were students of Bushi Matsumura.

Mabuni Kenwa arrived in Japan in 1928. He was a fellow student of Funakoshi’s. Mabuni later trained with Higaonna Kanryo (1888-1951) from the Naha-te tradition. The styles, which had much in common, were also vastly different. It should be noted that the variations that occurred in Okinawa were vast. For example, after Bushi Matsumura created the kata Bassai in the mid-1800s, there were eight, major variations of the kata before he died. The Shuri-te and Naha-te were regional styles or interpretations. Mabuni named his style Shito ryu after the first kanji of his teachers. The shi is from ito of Itosu Yasusune and the to is for the higa of Higaonna Kanryo.

In Okinawa, Miyagi Chojun (1888-1953) was training for some 13 years with Higaonna Kanryo. He then traveled to China and studied martial arts there for two years (1915-1917). Soon after his return, Miyagi formed Goju ryu, meaning hard/soft style. The name was taken from the Bubishi (the “bible of civilian martial arts”), which was a text from Monk Fist and White Crane gongfu. Despite its name, Goju has seemed to emphasize the go (hard aspect of the art).


In 1936, Miyagi gave a lecture to Japanese students entitled “Things about Karate-do”. In it he said, “Now we abandon the spirit of Tai Shu Shin Ju (body first, spirit second, technique first, personality second; the teaching in Okinawa) and emphasize Kenzen Itchi (Fist and Zen are One). We shall now establish an open door policy of teaching.” This is a clear indication that the emphasis of Okinawa karate changed when it came in contact with the Japanese classical arts.

There are many styles of karate in Okinawa, Japan, and the United States. Each has its merits. The idea, however, that karate as we know it today is an ancient art, is simply not true. Karate has changed significantly in just this century. Yoko geri, mawashi geri and ushiro empi (rear elbow strike done with each punch and most blocks) were introduced in the 1920s!

It is important for the practitioner of Shoshin Ryu to understand the more accurate history of karate that martial arts researchers are able to give us today. It is imperative that we are not misled by exaggerations or selective history. Just because an art is new, makes it neither good nor bad. An old art with “lineage” is no guarantee either; consider that it takes only one person in that lineage to make inappropriate changes for the art to lose meaning. The true martial art lies in the kokoro (heart) of the teacher and student.

Shoshin Ryu of Arizona