Students of Karate usually start training for reasons such as self-defense or to improve their fitness. As students progress, there is often an awakening interest as to how Karate developed. This brief history tries to give the reader the main historical influences. From the origin on the Japanese island of Okinawa, the influences of visits to and from Okinawa, the social effects of banning weapons, and the later influence of Japan. All this rich history leading to variations in style – all visibly Karate but all visibly different. Read and enjoy.

karateOrigin of Karate

Karate, the art of the empty hand, has had many influences and it is difficult to say exactly when Karate started as the history below will show. It is generally held that Karate started in a small string of islands linking the main islands of southern Japan to the Chinese offshore island of Taiwan. The Japanese call these islands the Ryukyu islands. The largest island of the chain is Okinawa, which is also the capital.

History of Okinawa

Okinawa is situated on what were the trade routes between South-east Asia, China and Japan. This contributed to the various developments and enhancements to the art of Karate. In the early days of 6th to 9th century, the people of Okinawa lived a simple life supported mainly by a crude agriculture, sea-fishing and the gathering of shellfish. As early as the 7th century there was some Chinese influence with “hand arts”. There were military incursions by the Japanese from the 6th to the 9th centuries AD. This caused the native people to begin military village groupings, headed by chieftains.assoc

In the 11th century, the Taira-Minamoto wars in Japan caused many refugees of the Taira clan to flee to the Ryukyu islands. Many were war veterans skilled in the use of their own martial arts which then became absorbed into the local culture, providing a “fertilised seedbed” for what was to come.

Okinawa had become divided into 3 rival kingdoms by 1340. In 1372 Okinawa came under the feudal control of China. Like almost all of China’s neighbours except for Japan, Okinawa sent annual delegations to the mainland bearing tribute for the Emperor. It was also a time for visits to and from China, mainly by nobles, merchants and diplomats. A few nobles enrolled in the foreigner’s schools in Peking, where they would study Chinese culture, arts and sciences before returning home. In this way, many important Okinawans became familiar with the city and court life of China, as well as its traditions and learning. There was also an influence upon the martial arts as many of the Chinese military attaches were highly skilled in Chu’an fa or Kempo.

By 1429 the 3 states of Okinawa were united under King Hashi and the first (Sho) dynasty was established. As a way of attempting to prevent violence from political and social upheaval one of his successors, Sho Shin, passed a law to confiscate and ban weapons(see the section below). This was a major point in the history of Karate. In the meantime, the people continued to trade. Trade links stretched not only to Japan and China but as far afield as Indo-China, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo, Indonesia and the Philippines, all bringing diverse influences.

Okinawan sailors and merchants visited not just China and Japan, but all the great ports of East Asia, a factor that Okinawans of today consider highly important in the history of their martial arts. They were probably even influenced by the pirates who were active in the surrounding seas.

The banning of weapons

Around 1470, there was major social and political upheaval in Japan which caused violence. In Okinawa, the new king, Sho Shin, looked at Japan (who had internal strife between important clans) and then at his own country where there were warlords who were firmly entrenched in their castles throughout the island. He decided to try to avoid problems by taking 3 actions. His first move was to ban the carrying of swords by anyone, noble or peasant. His next move was to order the collection of all weapons, which were to be placed under royal control at his castle in Shuri. Finally, he charged that all nobles, now unarmed, should come and live next to him in the royal capital. (Later the Japanese copied the approach with a sword edict in 1586 and then in 1634 when Tokugawa Shogun’s ordered the daimios or warlords to assemble in his capital.)

kickIn 1609 Japanese invaders defeated the Okinawans who had little experience of fighting, lacked skill but fought ferociously. This Japanese occupation spurred on the Okinawans to learn more effective fighting techniques. Some even went to China specifically to learn their methods of unarmed combat which they then passed on to their comrades. These various techniques became known as te (hand).

3 distinct styles emerged named after the cities in which they were practised: Shuri-te was from the capital, Naha-te from another large city and Tomari-te after the major port. Shuri-te was a “hard” style based on the Chinese Shaolin approach, Naha-te carried softer Chinese elements and, being based in a port with many influences, Tomari-te was a mixture of many styles.

The Japanese occupiers maintained the ban on the carrying of weapons and kept the nobility bottled up in Shuri city. Japanese samurai were, however, allowed to carry their weapons there. In 1669 the ban on Okinawans having weapons was re-stated and the practice of Okinawa-te went further underground and was practised in great secrecy. The ban on the natives’ carrying of weapons evidently remained in force throughout Okinawa’s subsequent history.


kick2Whilst the various forms of Kempo were practised in China and Te in Okinawa, techniques were also developing in Japan. In the Han period(AD 220) there is evidence of kicking techniques. It was a comparatively crude style relying mainly on brute strength. Developed for use in war, the deployment of armour rendered many of the techniques useless. Indeed fighting without weapons was considered to be common brawling. So it is probably wrong to think that Karate has a long history tracing back to the samurai. Empty hand combat only came into its own in the 16th century as wearing armour became less fashionable. A form of wrestling known as Ju-Jutsu developed and some southern Chinese Kempo techniques became incorporated. The use of unarmed techniques in war were completely devastated by the introduction of firearms. The highly trained warriors were slaughtered at long range. Techniques continued to evolve and by the middle of the 19th century defined methods of striking had been incorporated. These atemi-waza were aimed at specific points that were unguarded by any armour. The atemi techniques were largely used as a distraction at the start of a series of grappling or throwing techniques. They were not really considered sufficient on their own. This then was a major difference from Karate-do whose exponents had learned how to deliver punches or kicks of sufficient power to have an immediate effect. In the last 70 years, Japanese martial arts have influenced Karate although little of this influence has filtered back to Okinawa.

The divergence of Karate styles

Even though the art was practised in great secrecy, in remote places, and largely at night or before dawn, the story of Okinawa described how 3 separate styles emerged. Shuri-te, the art that developed in Shuri, was practised by the Samurai of the court, while in the nearby port town of Naha, and in Tomari, the gate-town of Shuri, the people developed their own independent styles of te.

The differences between them probably arise from their having been influenced by different Chinese traditions. There is some evidence to suggest that Shuri-te derives from Shaolin Temple boxing, while Naha-te incorporates more of the soft, Taoist techniques, involving breathing and the control of Ki, the life force, called chi in Chinese. Tomari-te evidently drew from both traditions.

strikeIt is important to remember, however, that the towns of Shuri, Naha and Tomari are only a few miles apart, and that the differences between their arts are only of emphasis and not of real substance. Beneath these surface differences, both the methods and aims of all Okinawan Karate are the same.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the names of the styles had changed again. The arts of Shuri and Tomari were subsumed under one name, Shorin-Ryu, meaning the ‘flexible pine school’. Naha-te became known as Goju-Ryu, the ‘hard and soft school’, and it was developed by the great master Higaonna Kanryo. Shorin-Ryu is subdivided into several slightly different styles, but Goju-Ryu has remained largely unified stylistically. There has also grown up a tradition in Okinawa and Japan where both styles are fused together and taught as one. The largest school which does this is the Japanese Shito-Ryu, headed by Sensei Mabuni.

Traditionally, the Shorin-Ryu style is lighter and faster than Goju-Ryu, and the stances are generally higher. The kata of the 2 styles are slightly different: in Goju-Ryu the arm and leg motions are more bent and circular, and greater emphasis is paid to breathing.

In 1935, a multi-style committee of masters sat down together to decide on a single name for their art. They called it Karate, which means ’empty-handed’ or ‘weaponless’ defence art. Some masters feel that the Japanese appendage of -do, ‘the way’, should also be added to the name.


Karate is a rapid and effective way of defending against, and counter-attacking, an aggressor in true fighting. But to become effective, Karate training involves practising attacks and defence against imaginary attackers with moves that are combined together in long sequences, or Kata. Karate Kata are built up from basic stances, movements, strikes and counters, which are linked together by more advanced actions.

Every Kata is given its own name. There are some Katas unique to each style of Karate, and other shared Katas that are practised by different styles. However, even the same Kata can be almost unrecognisable between styles, due to the different stances and techniques.

Kata is performed in a choreographed pattern, with imaginary attackers performing set attacks. Students are taught the explanation of the Kata (bunkai). Each detail of the Kata is taught to the student, and the sets of movements performed can last for several minutes. These movements are carried out in several different directions. Movement tends to be linear rather than circular (attacking and defending in straight lines) – forward, backwards, to the side, or diagonally from the start position. Strikes and blocks performed in one direction are often repeated along the opposite axis to give an appearance of symmetry, allowing the student to practice techniques both from hidari, the left and migi, the right.

Emphasis is placed on perfection of every aspect of the performance. Timing, balance, focus, economy and harmony of the breath, body and spirit are the aims of the performer when following the moves of the Kata.


Kumite (an encounter with the hands) is essentially sparring carried out against a real opponent (whereas Kata is a choreographed response to an imaginary opponent). But Kumite can also have a degree of choreography – pre-arranged sparring as opposed to free sparring (Ju).

In pre-arranged sparring the attacker comes forward with a designated attack. The Sensei, or teacher, will have taught one or several defences. These will be practised by the defender either as instructed by the Sensei or at their own discretion as to which to use.

In free sparring the attackers and defenders can use any technique they wish whilst showing suitable control. Hence attacker becomes the defender and vice versa as an attack is rebuffed and counter attack is begun. Usually, pads are worn so that some degree of controlled contact can be delivered without undue damage to the opponent.

Control is essential both in the Dojo and during competition. In competition, it is not uncommon for a competitor to be disqualified when a technique is deemed to have contacted with his opponent with such force as to contravene the rules of competition.