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A Concise History of Karate

Updated on June 28, 2013

Karate in Japan Dates Back to the 1400s

Otori Gate in Miyajima, Japan
Otori Gate in Miyajima, Japan | Source

Modern Karate Originated in Japan's Ryukyu Islands

Ryukyu Islands, Japan
Ryukyu Islands, Japan | Source

Ancient History

While it is generally assumed that the history of karate dates back to early Chinese combat systems, there is evidence to suggest that it actually came from India. What we know for certain is that humans have fought each other since the beginning of time and hand-to-hand combat is thousands of years old. Although some people associate karate with Japan, the truth is that the ancient Japanese were more enamored with wrestling and swordsmanship than with exchanging punches and kicks. In the 16th century, a number of conflicts on the Japanese islands led to the banning of weapons and unarmed combat began to develop.

Martial Arts were Secretive in Japan Until the 19th Century

Modern Karate Practitioner
Modern Karate Practitioner | Source

Karate’s Roots

Japan became more open towards the end of the 19th century and the martial arts that were hidden from the public became more open, as displays were held in fields and halls. Average citizens started to learn martial arts, such as judo and kendo and various national organizations were created so martial artists could fight against one another. During this period, the people of Okinawa were practicing their own form of weaponless combat and different schools were set up to teach it. The Naha and Shuri schools were set up and modern karate can be said to derive from these disciplines.

Karate-do ‘Empty Hand Way’ Founder

Funakoshi Gichin
Funakoshi Gichin | Source

Modern Karate

Funakoshi Gichin was one of the aforementioned modern karate pupils and he came to the Japanese mainland in 1922. He created Karate-do, which was known as ‘empty hand way’. He showcased the art to the public and gained widespread appreciation. The Japanese government even allowed him to bring it into the nation’s school system! The Shotokan form of karate taught by Gichin was one of several types and its popularity was assured.

The Japanese Karate Association was formed in 1948 and the first Karate-do tournament was held in Japan in 1957. This was a test of karate’s rules and laid the foundations for it to be seen as a sport. A World Union of Karate-do Organizations was formed in 1970 and it soon spread the word about this martial art worldwide. It is now estimated that 100 million people around the world practice karate, so feel free to join them for fitness, fun, better self defense skills, and heightened self-esteem.

Historical Video Series - Gichin Funakoshi

Many Myths Surround the Martial Art of Karate

Karate Practitioners Sparring
Karate Practitioners Sparring | Source

Some Myths About Karate

We would also like to explode some myths about karate:

  • It is not really an ‘ancient’ art since the modern version of karate is less than a century old!
  • Although Gichin is known as the Father of Modern Karate, its origins span several generations across many centuries.
  • Contrary to popular opinion, karate is not related to ju-jitsu as the latter predates karate by 1,000 years.


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