A Brief History of Traditional Karate

The true history of traditional karate is almost impossible to verify due to the secrecy surrounding the arts and the lack of written records. It is known that the martial arts of Okinawa and Japan were influenced in the development of their martial arts by various Chinese sources. It is also clear that at least one source of influence on Chinese martial arts came from India.

In about 520 A.D. a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma, or Daruma Taishi, traveled to China where he taught Chan (or Zen) Buddhism to the monks at the Shaolin Temple in Henan province. The monks were not physically capable of withstanding the ascetic practices of his teaching, so he began to teach them exercises based on a fighting system. He introduced a systematized set of exercises designed to strengthen the mind and body, exercises which allegedly marked the beginning of the Shaolin style of temple boxing. Bodhidharma’s teachings later became the basis for the majority of Chinese martial arts.

The Shaolin monks eventually gained the reputation of being the most formidable fighters in all of China. Their fighting method became known as Shorinji Kempo and as they traveled to teach about Zen, it influenced and was influenced by numerous other Chinese fighting systems.

In the late 12 th century, Zen was introduced to Japan and readily became the religion of the Samurai class. As such, it would influence all of Japan’s traditional martial arts. If Shorinji Kempo was introduced with Zen, as seems likely, it may also have had some influence on the traditional fighting methods of Japan.

Okinawa itself is a small island at the southernmost point of the chain of islands that comprise modern day Japan. It is the main island in the chain of Ryuku Islands which spans from Japan to Taiwan. Surrounded by coral, Okinawa is approximately 6 miles wide and only about 70 miles long. It is situated 400 nautical miles east of mainland China, 300 nautical miles south of mainland Japan and an equal distance north of Taiwan. Being at the crossroads of major trading routes, its significance as a “resting spot” was first discovered by the Japanese. It later developed as a trade center for southeastern Asia, trading with Japan, China, Indo China, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and the Philippines.

Due to Okinawa’s proximity to China, cultural exchanges between the two countries undoubtedly took place even before written history. When the first exchange of martial arts techniques and ideas occurred is not known. It is known that in 1372 Okinawa’s King Satto exchanged diplomatic delegations with the Ming Emperor. Part of this exchange included people knowledgeable in the martial arts of their respective countries. Thus the Okinawans refined their own fighting methods further by incorporating ideas from foreign sources and adapting them to their own styles and needs.

One important factor in the development of Okinawan fighting methods was the advent of repressive rulers. Between 1477 and 1526 Okinawa was ruled by King Sho Shin who banned the ownership of weapons. In 1690 Japan’s Satsuma clan came to power and continued the ban. The various schools of fighting practiced in secret, so as not to be observed by the rulers, and in deadly earnest.

Okinawa was also engaged in trade with the people of Fukien province in Southern China and it was probably from this source that Chinese Kempo, was introduced to the ordinary people of the islands. Further refinement came with the influence of other martial arts brought by nobles and trade merchants to the island.

Te continued to develop over the years, primarily in three Okinawan cities: Shuri, Naha and Tomari. Each of these towns was a center to a different sect of society: kings and nobles, merchants and business people, and farmers and fishermen, respectively. For this reason, different forms of self-defense developed within each city and subsequently became known as Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te.

Collectively they were called Okinawa-Te or Tode. Gradually, karate was divided into two main groups: Shorin-ryu which developed around Shuri and Tomari and Shorei-ryu which came from the Naha area. It is important to note, however, that the towns of Shuri, Tomari, Naha are only a few miles apart, and that the differences between their arts were essentially ones of emphasis, not of kind.

Beneath these surface differences, both the methods and aims of all Okinawan karate are one in the same. It has been suggested that these two styles were developed based on different physical requirements. Shorin-ryu was quick and linear with natural breathing while Shorei-ryu emphasized steady, rooted movements with breathing in synchrony with each movement.

This Okinawa-te continued to be practiced in secret, even after the end of the Satsuma rule in 1872, when the only “enemies” left were the other schools. The secrecy did not end until 1902 when Commissioner of Education Shintaro Ogawa recommended that it be included in the physical education of the first middle school of Okinawa.

While the need for a true jutsu had somewhat declined by the advent of the 20th century, karate’s value as a character building and health promoting martial art was recognized, and it was soon being taught in many of Okinawa’s schools. The first karate master to teach in Okinawa’s schools was Anko Itosu. He was soon followed by a number of others, including Chojun Miyagi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Gichin Funakoshi ( the founder of Shotokan).

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