The History of Karate



By Shihan Dean Pickard


The development of the martial arts or fighting arts dates back at least three to four thousand years. From the evidence that remains, all major early civilizations, such as those in China, the Indian subcontinent, the Middle and Near East, and the Mediterranean area, for example, appear to have had forms of military arts, and it is not unusual to see evidence of the development of empty handed or unarmed techniques in conjunction with these arts.

Since the human anatomy is fairly uniform, the types of unarmed fighting arts that developed in these different regions, whether by direct influence from other cultures or not, show great similarity. The use of striking with various parts of the hands and feet, with the elbows and knees, the use of pulling, pushing, tripping and throwing to gain advantage, the use of holds and locks, pulling the hair, biting, gouging, breaking, strangling, etc., in the most violent forms of combat, presumably when survival was most at stake, are all in evidence in varying degrees. Which techniques were developed and used in each culture depended as much upon local custom, mores, and etiquette as on the creativity of the participants, and upon whether the use was for actual combat as opposed to sport or physical education.

The martial art of karate-do has its origins in Okinawa. Its earliest evolution is not known, but is only surmised to have preceded the very substantial development known to historians to have taken place between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, especially under considerable influence from China. Karate was introduced into Japan in the early twentieth century. Since the end of World War II there has been a great surge of cultural exchange between Asia and the West. Karate-do is part of that cultural exchange and has made a significant impact on many Americans. A much more detailed account of the origins, development, and spread of Asian martial arts can be found in the USKL Intermediate Training Manual.

Karate-do is a physical and mental discipline of self-defense based on courtesy, respect, humility and nonviolence. Though karate emerged from a background of physical combat and continues to offer one of the best known forms of personal unarmed self-defense, it is practiced for more important reasons. The foundation in rigorous and demanding physical training, together with the environment of strict discipline, is used as a means to self-development. This is guided by the etiquette of showing respect to the instructor, to oneself and to one's opponent for participating in and providing the opportunity for such growth. When the training is done within this tradition of martial arts as a do (from the Chinese Tao, meaning a "path" or "way"), the emphasis then becomes overcoming ones own limits rather than overcoming the opponent. The "opponent" then, is one's own limitations, which must be met with discipline, courage and perseverance. Each training session tests the student's endurance, patience and ability to meet the challenge of confronting his or her own limits and to grow beyond them. It teaches the student humility while instilling courage and the confidence that with persistence and effort the student can succeed. The training and even the training area, the dojo (literally, the place of one's path), is regarded as sacred in the sense of being devoted to this most central of human activities educating (educing or bringing forth) the best in each person.

There are discernable but unified aspects or levels in karate that all converge to offer such a path. Mental discipline, physical conditioning and mastering technique lead to the development of expertise in self-defense. This ability can be tested in the controlled environment of sport karate. It is important here to recognize that this aspect or level of karate, which is only decades old, is the least important, though it can be very useful in the larger context of a wholesome approach to the art.

The fact that karate is called an art is of great significance. It should always be practiced with this in mind. The karate practitioner, or karateka, must work very hard to perfect his or her technique. The demands of this process have a great deal in common with other art forms such as dance. The karateka must learn to execute movement not only with great efficiency, power, speed and balance, but with grace and style. The aesthetics of karate are most obviously manifest in kata (traditional prearranged fight scenarios performed against imaginary opponents), used to develop refinement of movement, power and speed. The karateka is able to control the body and express him or herself through movement much as a painter controls paints and brushes and expresses him or herself through the precision and finesse required in painting. This all requires great concentration.

In free sparring or kumite (literally, free hand), skill in movement must be carried out with the utmost calm and control under pressure in order to react spontaneously and effectively to an opponent's attack. This brings to bear the meditative aspect of karate training. The very training itself requires and cultivates kime or mental and physical concentration and focus. Concentrating and stilling the mind is also practiced in conjunction with karate training in the form of sitting meditation for a few minutes before and after class. Students are encouraged to make meditation a daily regimen outside the training as well. (See the intermediate and advanced USKL manuals for more complete information on meditation).

It is hoped that through extensive training the student of karate will come to understand and appreciate the aesthetic qualities, and ultimately reach the deepest levels, the philosophy, ethics, and spirit of karate-do. At this deepest level karate-do emphasizes a mind/body unity of natural action and reaction and encourages an attitude of respect for all persons. The martial way is not aimed at violence. A fighting art is not merely fighting or a means to justified self-defense. Excellence of technique is ultimately not what is at stake. Practicing the art points beyond the art. One must not become attached to the vehicle of self-development itself or it can come to inhibit growth rather than promote it. Karate should be practiced as a means to self-understanding and maturity, rather than as an end in itself. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than physical exercise or combat technique, and may lead to misuse. Although not all schools of karate are the same in what they foster, the true spirit of karate-do manifests itself in such qualities as discipline, honesty, sincerity, respect, humility, open-mindedness, and non-violence. Through proper training, the karate student develops capacities for concentration and self-confidence, which can carry over to and improve all aspects of life. Karate is only one of many paths. Whatever the path, if it genuinely aims at betterment of the individual as a human being, discipline and sincerity are at the core.


For convenience, modern Asian weaponless striking and blocking arts may be divided into four major groups. These were originated or developed in China, Okinawa and Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. The vast majority of styles in the United States today can be traced to one or more of these areas of development.


The oldest and most influential of these groups is the Chinese martial arts. China was the cultural and military center of the Far East several millennia before the Christian era. Chinese systems of writing, government, art, warfare, etc., became the models from which the surrounding areas developed their own cultures.

Although there were many different styles within China, the general term for Chinese empty hand arts has been "Chung Gwo (center kingdom or China) ch'uan (fist) fa (way)". The term now most widely used in China is "wu shu" (fighting hand or technique). The modern term "kung fu" is used in Hong Kong and the United States but not most of China. The term "kung fu" simply means accomplishment, expertise, or effort, so one might be a kung fu cook, or doctor, or martial artist.

Although there is evidence in stories and myths and from archaeological finds that fight�ing arts existed many centuries earlier, the oldest historical accounts of systematized fight�ing arts date from the middle to late Chou period in ancient China (1122-255 BCE). Further developments were recorded in the two Han dynasties (206 BCE-220 AD) and in the Ch'in dynasties (265-419 AD). Under Indian Buddhist influence, the so-called Shaolin systems evolved named after the temple where the Chan (Zen) Buddhist monk Bodhidharma taught in the fifth or sixth century AD. During the T'ang period (618-906) Chinese martial arts underwent a great development and its influence can be seen in techniques and even the names used in neighboring countries (e.g., T'ang Su (Soo) Do in Korea, and the Okinawan character for "Tode" or "Karate" originally meant T'ang or China hand)

Chinese systems can be divided into two types, internal (nei‑chia or nei‑kung) and external (wai‑chia). The internal or soft styles stress soft, neutralizing, defensive movements based on inner tranquillity and balance. Examples of this type are T'ai Chi Ch'uan (developed under Taoist influence) and Pa Kua. The external or hard systems emphasize more offensive harder technique. Most of the later variations of Shaolin styles are in this category. The external systems include the Dragon, White Crane, Wing Chun, Hung Gar, Praying Mantis, Monkey, Choy Lee Fut, and other styles. The styles that developed in northern China used longer-range techniques including high kicks, whereas southern styles tended toward mostly hand combinations with low kicks.

All these Chinese styles, both hard and soft, when compared to the arts of Okinawa, Korea and Japan will appear to be more circular and soft and so in the U.S. are referred to as soft styles.


Another major source of martial arts found in America today comes from Korea. The Korean schools usually place a great emphasis on kicking techniques. The general term for Korean kick�ing and striking arts is Tae Kwon Do. Formerly these arts were called Tang Soo Do with various schools such as Mu Duk Kwan. Some of the schools founded prior to 1970 still retain the older names.

By the 1960s the Korean arts were reorganized and unified under the name Tae Kwon Do. Under Japanese domination from 1905 to 1945, the Koreans had patterned much of their arts upon Japanese judo and karate. In their reorganization they eliminated some of the more obvious Japanese characteristics, such as the Okinawan type kata system which was entirely replaced in the early 1970s.

Although the major early influences on Korean military arts come from Mongolia and China, Koreans trace the origins of their empty hand arts back to an early type of foot fighting called Tae Kyon. In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, a military and religious movement developed a philosophy called Hwarang-do. The Hwarang-do movement died out long ago but its influence remained and some modern Korean styles use this name for their training methods.

Tae Kwon Do is the national sport in Korea and with this support has spread rapidly throughout the world in the 1960s and 1970s as Japanese karate did in the 50s and 60s. 


There have been many forms of martial arts developed in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, most greatly influenced by Indian, Moslem, and Chinese migrations into these areas. Some of the arts from these areas have played an important role in the development of other martial arts (e.g., see Okinawa above). The most well known to Americans are probably the tough sport of Thai kick boxing (Muy Thai), which is now familiar to many in the US due to the popularity of mixed martial arts, and Filipino arts under the names of Escrima, Kali, or Arnis which are becoming more popular and more widely taught. Unlike most other modern martial arts, which begin with the empty hand and move to weapons later, the Filipino arts begin with a large arsenal of bladed and wooden weapons and then move to empty hand and grappling techniques. This was probably true of most other traditional martial arts in their earlier stages when real combat was more likely.


In 1372 Okinawa became a tributary of China and ch'uan fa was part of the cultural influx that dates from that time. Although fighting arts probably existed previously, the earliest known form of empty hand combat dates from this period and was called "tode." With the unification of Okinawa in 1429 sea trade flourished and the two cities of Shuri and Naha became important shipping ports between the Indies and Southeast Asia and China, Korea, and Japan. Contact with these diverse areas, all of which had various forms of fighting arts, influenced the development of Okinawan fighting arts.

In 1609 Okinawa was subjugated by Japan and all weapons were banned. This further stimulated the development of weaponless fighting arts as well as the use of farm implements as weapons. The ch'uan fa and tode groups became secretive, and united to resist the enemy. This led to the development of various schools of te or Okinawa-te which continued into the late 1800's when the term "kara-te" meaning China hand became prevalent.

Okinawa-te took several forms. The two most well known were called Naha‑te also Shorei-ryu from the city of Naha and Shuri-te or Shorin-ryu from the city of Shuri. The Goju ryu and Uechi-ryu schools are derived from Naha-te and a variety of Shorin styles and Isshin-ryu derive from Shuri-te. It was during the 1800's that the Okinawan kata systems were created and developed by these schools (see below for the definition of kata).

Modern Okinawan karate is said to be a combination of Okinawan fist techniques, finger strikes from Taiwan, open hands from China, and kicking techniques from Southeast Asia.

Japan had developed military arts of its own from prehistoric times. Some of the fighting arts indigenous to Japan are jujutsu and kendo and, more recently, judo and aikido. In addition, there had been some influence from ch'uan fa (ken-po). Karate, however, was not introduced until 1915 when Gichin Funakoshi, an Okinawan Shorin expert, demonstrated it in Kyoto and began teaching in a Japanese university a few years later.

Funakoshi, who founded the Shotokan style of karate, was followed by other Okinawan masters such as Miyagi, (founder of Goju-ryu) in 1928 and Mabuni (founder of Shito-ryu) in 1930. Like Funakoshi they developed programs in the major universities of Japan. From the 12th century on, the Japanese began to be dominated by the warrior class or Bushi. This culminated in the formalization of their code of ethics by Yamaga Soko in the 17th century during the Tokugawa period.

The code of the samurai was called Bushido and was a blend of Confucian ethics, Shinto religiosity, and mental discipline from Zen Buddhism. By the Meiji period in the l9th century, dueling and the long sword had been outlawed, and though the feudal age marked by constant warfare had ended, the martial spirit continued. 

The jutsu systems of fighting arts, stripped of their practical utility, began to develop into the "do" systems, that is, martial ways of spiritual or character development through the rigor and discipline of martial arts training. The major examples of this were kendo, judo, and aikido, which developed primarily in the l9th century. 

It was in this milieu that karate was introduced into Japan and was quickly adapted to the newer "do" movement, hence the term karate-do. In 1936, the characters for karate were changed to mean empty hand in keeping with the philosophy of the newer movement in the martial arts.

The major styles of karate in Japan are Shotokan, Goju, Shito, and Wado. These systems have produced many derivative styles as well. There are also many other styles practiced in Japan such as Shorinji kenpo, which are of foreign origin modified by Japanese development.


Prior to World War II, the only martial arts that had been introduced in the mainland USA were judo and jujitsu. In Hawaii, Okinawan karate and Chinese ch'uan fa were being introduced on a small scale. 

Prior to this, ch'uan fa had been taught in the USA, but only in Chinese communities such as Chinatown in San Francisco. In 1942, a form of Shorinji Kenpo (Shaolin ch'uan fa), originally Chinese but modified in Okinawa and Japan, was introduced to Hawaii. This system was further modified and eventually introduced to the mainland in the mid 50s as "Kenpo karate." This was one of the first known school of "karate" on the mainland and was quickly followed by Japanese Shotokan and other schools in the mid 1950s.

Due to the rapid growth of interest in martial arts by US servicemen stationed in Japan and Okinawa after 1945, there began to be a great influx of martial arts into the US. Also, by the mid 1950s there were a few high ranking Japanese martial artists beginning to emmigrate to the US. Servicemen stationed in Taiwan and Korea brought back ch'uan fa and Tae Kwon Do, which was also followed by the immigration of higher ranking Asian artists.

In the 1960s, second and third generation Chinese Americans began to teach various styles of ch'uan fa (kung-fu) to non-Chinese, something which had previously been discouraged by the Chinese. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, an explosion of interest in Asian martial arts was reflected on television and in movies and by the large number of martial arts schools that opened. Much of the traditional Asian emphasis on the meditative, spiritual and ethical aspects of the art were replaced with an emphasis on commercialism, rank and personal achievement, and on the newest aspect of the arts, tournament competition.

Political rivalries were common, which was partly inherited from earlier rivalries and conflicts which had long existed in the Orient between styles and countries.

More recently, since the "boom" has passed, there has been a tendency to restore the emphasis on the traditional values, but the technical aspects of the arts in the U.S. have progressed a great deal as a result of competition, experimentation, and blending of styles. This in not unlike such periods of development in the past, only on a larger scale.