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Brief History of Karate

Some of the earliest origins of karate have been traced to the island of Okinawa in the Ryukyu Island chain.  It is thought that a native style of self-defense developed here called te, or hand in English.


Okinawa is within close distance to the coasts of Japan, China, Taiwan, and Korea.  Thus there has been extensive influence from a number of Asian cultures in the subsequent history of this island.












Karate as it has developed is thought to be an amalgamation of te with some prominent Chinese martial arts, such as Shaolin Temple Monk fist boxing.   In early years, karate was translated as "Chinese hand".  (kara = China / Chinese and te = hand)

An early event germane to the development of karate, occurred in 1477 during the beginning of the newly formed Sho Dynasty (Reid & Croucher, 1983).  In order to manage unruly warlords, the king proclaimed a ban on the carrying of swords, and had all weapons, and the warlords themselves, brought to court, where they could be monitored.


In 1609 when the Japanese annexed Okinawa, they maintained the ban on the carrying of weapons.   However, Japanese samurai were exempt from this edict.  It is suggested that during this time both the art of the hand, as well as weapon arts, or kobudo, were developing.

The nobility were studying mostly te, and the peasant classes developing weapons systems based upon the use of familiar, and available tools, such as rice flails (nunchaku), mill grindstone handles (tonfa), sickles (kama), and other implements.








On Okinawa, te began to develop into three similar, but distinct systems.  They were tied to the major geographical regions of Shuri, Tomari, and Naha.  Reid & Croucher (1983) state that these differences may have emerged through the divergent influences coming into each region.


Shuri-te evolved more from the influence of the harder Shaolin Temple style under the likes of Sokon Matsumura, and Naha-te, these being more closely related to the "inner" Chinese styles.  They emphasized the cultivation of ki (a.k.a. chi), or life energy and was fostered by Kanryo Higaonna.

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In the early 1920's, an Okinawan school teacher under the tutelage of Anko Itosu, named Gichin Funakoshi, was observed by the Japanese Emperor's son performing a display of Shuri-te karate.


Funakoshi was subsequently invited to Japan to demonstrate karate for the nation, and later went on to be charged with incorporating it into the regular Japanese school curriculum. Funakoshi's adaptations to shorin-style karate later became known as shotokan, a name adapted from his own authored pen name.


In 1935, a multi-style coalition of karate masters met to decide on a common name for their teachings, and "karate" was decided upon, with a slight change in the meaning to "empty hand", a decision which reflects the independent political stance at the time.

Tomari-te appears to adopt aspects of both the hard and soft of Shuri-te and Naha-te, and has been associated with Kosanku Matsumora.

Towards the late 1800's, the Shuri and Tomari styles merged into what was called shorin-ryu (the small forest school).  Shorin is the Okinawan pronunciation of "Shaolin" in Mandarin-Chinese.  The shorin-based styles tend to be light and high in stance.


Many styles have emerged from this line, including kobayashi-ryu under Chosin Chibana, matsubayashi-ryu under Shosin Nagamine, and the shorin-ryu of Yasutsune ("Anko") Itosu.


Naha-te emerged as goju-ryu (hard and soft school) under the development of Chojun Miyagi, with the goju style placing emphasis on breathing and tension.  Another school, shito-ryu is a combination of both goju and shorin styles, while uechi-ryu is very similar to goju.

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