A History of Karate-Do
Where Do You Come From?
A History of Karate-Dō
There are many things that the true student of Karate-Dō should absorb and know; one of them is to know from whence you came.
Table of Contents
· Kung Fu to Karate.
· What’s in a name?
· The birth of Shotokan.
· The birth of Goju-Ryǔ.
· The birth of Shito-Ryǔ.
· The birth of Wado-Ryǔ.
· The birth of Kyokushinkai.
· Theories of the evolution of Shotokan.
· The Shotokan Masters’ influence on their Legacy.
· The Founding of Torakan.
As legend has it, the evolution of Karate began somewhere around the beginning of the fifth century AD when Bodhidharma, ‘Daruma in Japanese’, arrived in Shaolin-si, a small forest temple in China, from India, to teach Zen Buddhism. He also introduced a systematised set of exercises designed to strengthen the mind and body, and in fact better prepare the monks of the Shaolin Temple for their sometimes hazardous travels throughout Asia, where they might have to defend themselves from all manner of bandits, pirates and vagabonds.
On their travels, the monks became famous for their awesome fighting skills. Bodhidharma's teachings and exercises marked the beginning of the Shaolin style of temple boxing and later became the basis for the majority of Chinese martial arts. For various reasons, not least of all Japan’s contempt for anything Chinese, the actual history of the transfer of those skills to Karate is somewhat shrouded.
Okinawa is a small island of the group that comprises modern day Japan. It is the main island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands which span from Japan to Taiwan. Surrounded by coral, Okinawa is approximately 10 kilometres wide and 110 kilometres long. Situated 740 kilometres east of mainland China and 550 kilometres south of mainland Japan, it is an equal distance north of Taiwan.
Okinawa’s significance at the crossroads of the major trading routes was first realised by the Japanese, who determined to take advantage of its unique positioning for trading with China, Indo China, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and the Philippines. Later it became a trade centre for all South East Asia; hosting Chinese sailors and immigrants, who brought their Buddhist religion and – although this is purely conjecture – probably even monks from the famed Shaolin temple. There is little doubt that it was indeed Okinawa’s unique geological positioning that led to the fostering of the martial arts for which Okinawa has become famous.
Kung Fu to Karate
What we now refer to as Kung Fu, or Gung Fu, had spread throughout China over the centuries, and it is clearly evident that Chinese martial artists visited the island of Okinawa and passed on their knowledge. Over time those martial skills and expertise were transformed and became the martial arts and civic self-defence that are unique to the island of Okinawa.
From 1609, under the rule of the Satsuma Clan from Japan, weapons and martial arts, in general, were banned in Okinawa. This of course had a profound influence on the art as it led to the secret development of many empty hand techniques. All those who chose to learn martial arts had to do so in secrecy. As a result, very little information was written down about the martial arts in Okinawa before the 20th century, hence the mystery surrounding its origins, founders and heroes. However, there were three main styles which were named after the cities in which they were developed, Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te. Collectively, these fighting styles were known originally as Kara Te, ‘Chinese Hand’ or later, Okinawa Te. Two forms of To-de, ‘Karate’, emerged by the 19th century, Shõrin-Ryǔ which was developed from the Shri and Tomari styles and Shõrei-Ryǔ which came from the fighting style practiced at Naha.
What should be taken into consideration is the fact that these cities were all within a few miles of each other and Shõrin-Ryǔ and Shõrei-Ryǔ had many similarities. Their main differences were in their emphasis and, according to Funakoshi Gichin Sensei, who studied both of these forms; their development was based on different physical requirements.
Shõrin-Ryǔ was a quick, linear art that taught natural breathing whereas Shõrei-Ryǔ was more rooted and practiced breathing that was synchronized with each individual movement. According to Funakoshi Sensei, both styles also have links to the Kung Fu styles of the Wutang and Shaolin Temples.
In the mid-1800s, Okinawa was a place in turmoil as a result of the end of the old Samurai ways in Japan and the onset of the Meiji restoration, where the emperor once again ruled.
Okinawa found itself caught between the national interests of China, Japan and America. The Okinawan king was denounced as a commoner and his government was disbanded; one of the results of that was that the whole city of Shuri saw mass unemployment and the forefathers of Karate, once belonging to the higher social classes, were reduced to a state of abject poverty.
Matsumura ‘Bushi’ Sokon
Matsumura ‘Bushi’ Sokon, once a military officer responsible for the safety of the Royal Family, along with his student Itosu Anko, became instrumental in the development of the hard style of Shuri-te; which focussed on quickly rendering an opponent unconscious using one single technique, or at least a minimum number of techniques. This philosophy, replacing the former submission holds, grappling and light rapid techniques of its former Chinese boxing, Kung Fu, origins, is largely believed to be the first Okinawan style to be practiced that closely resembles modern Shotokan Karate.
Until the early 20th century the Okinawan masters trained in secret, spending three years on each kata and training extensively on a makiwara board. Sparring as we know it today was not practiced; however karateka would often test their skills by challenging one another to fight. As you can imagine, fights of this nature could end in disaster for one or both karateka.
One of the most significant acts in the history of Karate, heralding a new era of growth for the art, happened in 1905 when Itosu Anko persuaded the authorities to allow him to start a program of teaching Karate in the local schools; finally taking the art out of the secrecy in which it had been shrouded for centuries.
What’s in a Name?
Funakoshi Gichin Sensei, the founder of Shotokan karate, is generally credited with having introduced and popularised Karate on the main islands of Japan. In addition, many Okinawans were actively teaching as well and are thus also responsible for the development of Karate on the main islands of Japan. On the other hand, it wasn’t until 1933, on mainland Japan, that the actual name, ‘Karate’, with the meaning given to it by Funakoshi Gichin Sensei ‒ who by using different characters for the Kara part of Kara-te, making it ‘Empty hand’ instead of ‘Chinese hand’ ‒ was used. This of course made it all the more palatable, and an even more attractive option for the culturally exclusive Japanese people.
Today, although there are many, and ever splintering, styles of Karate around the world, probably numbering in the hundreds, there are five main styles of Karate-Dō in Japan: Shotokan, Goju-Ryǔ, Shito-Ryǔ, Wado-Ryǔ and Kyokushinkai.
The Birth of Shotokan
Shotokan was officially founded by Funakoshi Gichin Sensei in Tokyo in 1938. Funakoshi Sensei is generally considered to be the founder of modern Karate. Born in Okinawa, he began to study Karate with Yasutsune Azato; at that time, one of Okinawa's most renowned and respected masters. Although Funakoshi Sensei first introduced Karate to Tokyo in 1921, it wasn’t until he was nearly 70 years of age when, in 1936, he eventually opened his own training hall. Funakoshi Sensei’s students called his dojo Shotokan, after the pen name, Shoto, used by Funakoshi to sign poems written in his youth. Shotokan Karate is characterized today, more due to the later influence of Funakoshi Sensei’s 3rd son, Funakoshi Gigo Sensei, by powerful linear techniques and deep, strong stances.
The Birth of Goju-Ryǔ
Goju-Ryǔ developed out of Naha-te, its popularity primarily due to the success of Higaonna Kanryo Sensei (1853-1915). Higaonna Sensei opened a dojo in Naha using eight kǎo-lu or kata brought from China. His best student, Miyagi Chojun (1888-1953) later founded Goju-Ryǔ, 'hard soft way' in 1930. In Goju-Ryǔ much emphasis is placed on combining soft circular blocking techniques with quick, strong counterattacks delivered in rapid succession. The Goju Kata is immediately recognisable by the prolific use of the shiko-dachi stance.
The Birth of Shito-Ryǔ
Shito-Ryǔ was founded by Mabuni Kenwa Sensei (1889-1952) in 1928 and was influenced directly by both Naha-te and Shuri-te. The name Shito is constructively derived from the combination of the Japanese characters of Mabuni's teachers' names ‒ Itosu Anko and Higaonna Kanryo. Shito-Ryǔ uses a large number of kata, about fifty; and is characterized by an emphasis on speed and power in the execution of its techniques. The Shito-Ryǔ kata can typically be recognised by the abundant use of neko-ashi-dachi ‘cat stance’.
The Birth of Wado-Ryǔ
Wado-Ryǔ, 'way of harmony', founded in 1939 by Otsuka Hienori Sensei (1892-1982), is a system of Karate developed from jujitsu and the Karate taught to him by one of his instructors, Funakoshi Gichin Sensei. This style of Karate combines basic movements of jujitsu with techniques of evasion, putting a strong emphasis on softness and the way of harmony or spiritual discipline.
The Birth of Kyokushinkai
Kyokushinkai is a style of stand-up, full contact Karate, founded in 1964 by Korean-Japanese Oyama Masutatsu Sensei (1924-1993). Oyama Sensei broke away from Funakoshi Gichin Sensei to establish his own particular, singular brand of Karate. ‘Kyokushin’ is Japanese for ‘the ultimate truth’ and is rooted in a philosophy of self-improvement, discipline and hard training. Brute force seems to be Kyokushinkai’s guiding principle, and the majority of its devotees appear to be physically strong young men.
Theories of the Evolution of Shotokan
Shotokan of course changed significantly when Funakoshi Gichin Sensei’s third born son, Gigo, began taking an active role as the technical advisor for his father in the early 1930s. Prior to that he seems to have been missing from the scene for almost ten years and when he returned, or at least when he began taking an active role, his stances were deeper and longer, there was a notable change, if not in technique, certainly in emphasis, and a marked increase in kata. Various rumours abounded concerning his absence and the subsequent changes to the Shotokan system. For instance, Funakoshi Gigo Sensei was known to have studied Kendo, combat with the bokken, and Iaido, the art of drawing and cutting with the katana, and it was suggested that he adapted some deep stances from these arts. Another theory put forward is that Funakoshi Gichin Sensei’s 3rd son returned to Okinawa, tracing his lineage, to train and study with the same schools or styles his father had formerly trained with, or at least with a hard style like Shõrei-Ryǔ. Another notion, and I rather like this one, is that he followed that lineage back to source, actually visiting his martial roots way back in China, training at the legendary Shaolin Temple.
Having personally studied Iaido, and trained with some Kendo exponents, I pretty much dismiss the theory that Funakoshi Gigo Sensei adapted any of it to the Shotokan system. Kendo’s stances are pretty high, and Iaido stances have a completely different stress to them. I haven’t actually done any specific Shõrei-Ryǔ training but I did employ a Shõrinji-Kempo practitioner, as a ‘Close Personal Protection Operative’, and we did train together regularly during my monthly workshop seminars. It is a strong style, with similarities in common with Shotokan; so that could be true.
In regard to the Shaolin Temple theory; I actually do know something of the Shaolin, Tiger Ripping, Gung-Fu System, a very hard Shaolin style, and I believe the resulting changes and additions that Gigo Funakoshi Sensei implemented into the Shotokan system are far more likely to have come from the Shaolin Temple than from Iaido or the Kendo. With my fertile imagination, I tend to lean toward the Shaolin Temple theory; however, I might add that this is a personal opinion, not backed by any definitive facts, and most of my contemporaries favour the Shõrei-Ryǔ explanation as the most likely scenario.
The Shotokan Masters’ Influence on their Legacy
Shotokan has morphed somewhat since its spread throughout the world via the various masters who – through their own individual life experiences and study of at least one and sometimes several, other martial arts – in turn have added their own particular slant to their Karate. Although clearly similar in their Shotokan heritage, some differences are also clear in their particular interpretations.
Kanazawa Sensei’s Shotokan Karate International Federation’s (SKIF founded in 1977) style varies from Asai Sensei’s Japan Martial Arts Karate Asai-Ryu (IJKA founded in 2000) and Kase Sensei’s Kase Ha Shotokan Ryu Karate-Do (from the mid-1980s). All three of those masters, who have since passed away, R.I.P., were formerly emissaries of the Japan Karate Association (JKA); and around the same time, the same generation, on the same mission from the JKA, was my original chief instructor, Enoeda Sensei.
Enoeda Sensei remained with the JKA until his passing, R.I.P., in 2003; however, his Karate too was quite unique. Students of all the above masters are recognisable by their interpretation of their Shotokan, and yet they are also unique in their own versions of their master’s expression of his art. I mention those masters in particular because they were all, initially, students of Funakoshi Gichin Sensei, the Founder of Shotokan, and I have trained with three of the four mentioned, along with many other outstanding Japanese masters I might add.
The Founding of Torakan
Initially, I trained under two of Scotland’s legendary Karate masters, Alec McGregor Sensei and Danny Bryceland Sensei. When McGregor Sensei went on to found the famous Budokan School in 1974, I remained with Bryceland Sensei who founded the renowned Lenbukan School in 1975. I went on to be the founder of the Torakan School of Shotokan Karate in 1977; and as I write this monthly Blog article for the Torakan website in 2023, 46 years on, Torakan still thrives.