History of Karate

Most people, if asked, would assume that karate has been taught in Japan for many hundreds, if not thousands of years, but this is not so.

It was introduced to the Japanese mainland in 1921, and the first demonstrations in Europe were shown in the early 1960's. The following is a brief history of modern day karate.

Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating kneeling defence with a young Ohtsuka SenseiKarate originated in Okinawa, one of the Ryu-kyu islands, which belongs to Japan. In 1429, the island was unified under king Shohasi, who according to history passed a law banning the practice of any martial arts. It is probable that the unarmed combat techniques came to Okinawa via china, and were therefore influenced by the Chinese martial arts. Due to the seizure of Okinawa in 1609 by the Satsuma clan of Japan, the use of weapons was banned completely. At this time the art was known as Tode, ("to" meaning china, and "de" meaning hand or technique), and had to be practiced in great secrecy. The word 'karate' is not very old, and the word "kara" means empty. It evolved from china hand into empty hand around 1935, as the calligraphy for the words looked almost identical.

The father of modern karate, Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) pioneered and brought the art from Okinawa to Japan. Funakoshi was born at the beginning of the Meiji period (1868) and this was a time of considerable upheaval throughout Japan, when power was restored back to the emperor, creating a period of considerable social change.

Funakoshi was also a child of poor health, was very small for his age and had suffered various illnesses in his younger years. Whilst at school he had the good fortune to be in the same class as the son of the Okinawan karate master, Azato sensei. Subsequently Funakoshi began training with both Azato and another master, Itosu sensei, when he was around 11 years old. Itosu sensei is famous for being regarded as having originated the 5 Pinan katas.

Because all martial art practice was banned, he had to train in the middle of the night. Every evening he would trudge the few miles to Azato's house to be taught kata. In those days there was no kumite or pad work and as a consequence, the karate Funakoshi learnt was kata based training only. He would spend many hours a night, every night for around three years, mastering just one kata! Funakoshi recalled that he was instructed to practice to exhaustion, or until he was too weak to pick himself up off the floor. His instructors would then make him lick the dust off the floor, and force him up to perform the kata once again. He would then wearily trudge by lamplight the journey of a few miles home, and re-enact this scenario day after day.

Basic kartate practise in a traditional pre war Japanese dojoFunakoshi says that master Azato would tell him "use your hands and feet like swords", and that master Itosu, an immensely strong man, would tell him "train your body so that is able to withstand any attack". One evening, during a savage typhoon on Okinawa, a lone figure was spotted on the rooftops by a crowd huddled together, who were sheltering against the massive storm. It was master Funakoshi, practicing straddle stance against one of the most potent forces of nature!

Funakoshi later stated in his biography, "both Azato and his good friend Itosu shared at least one quality of greatness: they suffered from no petty jealousy of other masters. They would present me to the teachers of their acquaintance, urging me to learn from each the technique at which he excelled."

Funakoshi had also been exposed to the different styles of the two masters; Shorei through Azato and Shorin through Itosu. This put him in an ideal position to appreciate the stronger points of the various styles of karate and he began integrating them together. With this and also through his training with many of the other prominent Okinawan karate masters of the day, Funakoshi had become the most revered karate practitioner on the island.

In 1902, the commissioner of public schools strongly recommended, in a report to the Japanese ministry of education, that the physical education programs of the junior schools and high schools of Okinawa prefecture include karate as part of their curriculum. This recommendation was implemented a short while later. Funakoshi stated that this was the first time, since the ban of practicing was lifted, that karate had been introduced to the general public. After this, karate was successfully incorporated into the Okinawan school system. Funakoshi, a schoolteacher by trade, was in an ideal position to be at the forefront of promoting karate-do the masses.

Some years later, captain Yashiro of the imperial navy, whilst visiting Okinawa, saw a karate demonstration by Funakoshi's young students. He was so impressed that he issued orders for all of his crew members to begin studying karate. In 1912, the imperial navy's first fleet, under the command of Admiral Dewa visited Okinawa. About a dozen members of the crew stayed for a week to study karate. Yashiro and Dewa were therefore mainly responsible for the first external exposure to karate, and they brought news of this new and exciting martial art back to Japan.

Around 1914 and 1915, Funakoshi and a number of the other top students of the day, gave karate demonstrations throughout the island of Okinawa. Others included in the group were Mabuni (founder of Shito Ryu), and Motobu (founder of Goju Ryu). This practice would not have been allowed during the previous times of secrecy. It was mainly due to the huge work of this group in popularising the art through lectures and stunning demonstrations, that karate became well known to the Okinawan public.

Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating punching technique in his dojoIn 1921, the Crown Prince Hirohito, (later to become Emperor Hirohito) came on a trip to Okinawa. The commander of the destroyer on which the Crown Prince was travelling, Captain Kanna, was an Okinawan by birth and he suggested that the Prince observe a karate demonstration. Funakoshi was put in charge of the exhibition for Hirohito and this was a great honour for him. It also further reinforced him as the prominent student of Okinawan karate. Shortly after the crown prince's visit, Funakoshi resigned his teaching position to concentrate solely on karate. He did always however, maintain excellent relations with the Okinawan educational systems.

In 1921 the Japan department of education invited Funakoshi to participate in a demonstration of Japanese martial arts and he travelled to the mainland. In order to make a large impact something more than a demonstration was called for. With significant assistance from Hoan Kosugi, the famous Japanese painter, Funakoshi published the first book relating to karate, entitled "Ryukyu Kempo karate".

Funakoshi was soon spending his time in Japan between teaching at universities and establishing dojo headquarters. He was also in high demand to speak and demonstrate on the subject and although nearly 60 years old, Funakoshi had now started to introduce karate to the Japanese public.

He had support during this time from other renowned martial artists, such as Master Jigoro Kano, the founder of modern judo. Kano was instrumental in helping karate gain acknowledgement as a valued Japanese martial art, and also encouraged Funakoshi to stay in Japan. Several famous sumo wrestlers became students of karate-do during this period. Funakoshi was also helped by the great kendo instructor H. Nakayama, who offered Funakoshi the use of his dojo when it was not in use. Times were also hard, and he had to resort to sweeping floors to earn a living.

It was soon understood that karate had much to offer to the Japanese society and karate had evolved from being merely a fighting art, to an art that improved the character of its students. This meant that instead of being a purely self-defence art, it was also a method of self-improvement and this reflected the social changes initiated by the Meiji reforms.

Master Funakoshi summarised karate in the following statement. "Karate is not only the acquisition of certain defensive skills, but also the mastering of the art of being a good and honest member of society." and this statement indicated the importance of self-improvement and ones contribution to a better society. No longer could "good" karate be defined simply as a fast punch or powerful kick, qualities of character were also now a part of the equation. This concept is further demonstrated by his statement that "karate begins and ends with courtesy."

Karate started to become exposed to the American military after the end of the Second World War and it then spread to mainland America during the fifties. The art was introduced to Europe in the sixties, and was transformed to the truly global position that it now enjoys over the following years.

Gichin Funakosh1 teaching head block in old grainy pre war photoFunakoshi expertly guided karate through a transition from an ancient Samurai fighting system to a modern, widely practiced member of the Japanese martial arts. His efforts provided the foundation for the mass appeal and eventual internationalisation of modern karate.

The importance of master Funakoshi's accomplishments and contributions cannot be understated. He died aged 89 in 1957 but his mission had been accomplished. The sickly schoolboy, who had trained every night in secrecy and went on to master karate, had introduced the art to Japan and the rest of the modern world. His contribution to the way of training is still felt today.

Gichin Funakoshi, the humble schoolmaster who pioneered karate-do, will always be remembered as the "father of modern karate".

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