History of Karate

Please note:

Whilst the author of this page has tried to adhere to history as supported by hard evidence, it is recognised that historical documentation is still incomplete with regards to the origins of Shotokai Karate-do. In the interests of aiding understanding, the gaps in history have been filled based on the best evidence available, whether that be word of mouth or even legend.

If any reader has any high quality evidence that may enable refinement of the contents of this page, please contact the webmaster who would be only to happy to review the contents of this page in light of the evidence presented.



Early Martial Arts

In the words of the late Master Genshin Hironishi (5th Dan Shotokai Karateka and President of the Shotokai in Japan):

"Karate must be nearly as old as man, who early found himself obliged to battle, weaponless, the hostile forces of nature, savage beasts and enemies among his fellow human beings. He soon learned, puny creature that he is, that in his relationship with natural forces accommodation was more sensible than struggle. However, where he was more evenly matched, in the inevitable hostilities with his fellow man, he was obliged to evolve techniques that would allow him to defend himself and, hopefully, conquer his enemy. To do so, he learned that he had to have a strong and healthy body. Thus, the techniques that he began developing - the techniques that finally became incorporated into karate-do, are a ferocious fighting art but are also elements of the all-important art of self-defense."

Foreword to Master Gichin Funakoshi's book, 'Karate-do, My Way of Life'

If one looks deeply enough, some form of karate would appear to stretch back into time before history was recorded. As karate was for many years passed on by word of mouth and not recorded (originally practitioners were sworn to secrecy), there is an air of mystery to the subject, especially in its very early days.

Drawings of men in karate-like stances are shown on a wall of an ancient Egyptian tomb, which dates back perhaps as far as 5000 years. Another early piece of evidence is contained in two small Babylonian works of art dating back to somewhere between 3000 to 2000 years BC. Each shows the characteristics of fundamental blocking techniques of karate, which we use, today.

According to George E. Mattson in 'The Way of Karate', approximately 5,000 years ago there lived in India a rich prince who developed the first crude version of weaponless self-defense. This prince watched the movements of the animals and studied their methods of self-defense. He noted the stealth of the tiger and how the birds of the forest fought, noting their wing and foot movements. The prince applied these fighting techniques to the human body and found that many of them could be successfully employed.

In his book, 'Karate Training', Robin Rielly states that according to legend, there existed in India a system of unarmed hand and foot fighting prior to 1000 BC. A warrior caste, the Kshatriya, dominated India before the advent of Buddhism and they were said to have practiced vajramushti, a barehanded martial art. Because India and China have a common border, it is quite possible that the Indian Vajramushti system came to China along with Buddhism. Morio Higaonna writes in Traditional Karate-do of a martial art form known as "Kalaripayt"; (Indian martial arts) emerging in the south of India. It resembles the native Okinawan martial art known as "te" (hand). This Indian martial art would have been introduced to Okinawa by sailors who had traveled to the south of India in search of trade, later combining with Chinese Kempo (empty hand), and developing into karate.

Chinese Connections

Bodhidharma (Who is attributed with originating Zen Buddhism) was born in India about 1400 years ago. A member of the warrior caste, he was the third son of King Sugandha. Bodhidharma traveled to China, and according to legend crossed the Himalayas on foot. He is believed to have arrived at the foot of the Songshan Mountains in Hunan province in China around 520 A.D. Bodhidharma is generally considered to be the originator of martial arts.

He lectured at the Shaolin Monastery on Buddhism. Finding the monks to be in a terrible state of health, Bodhidharma devised exercises so his students might withstand the rigors of Zen. The exercises were based on yoga, and the monks became healthy and strong. The exercises were known as the 18 hands of Lo-Han, which is believed to be the forerunner of Shaolin temple boxing. The monks of Shaolin-Szu became famous for both their fighting skill and their Buddhist knowledge. They also applied their knowledge of vulnerable points gained from their advanced knowledge of acupuncture. This formed the roots from which all martial arts developed.

Bodhidharma devised a series of movements that came to be the foundation of the Chinese ch'uan-fa (fist way). When done nearly perfectly, the movements would give the performer an enlightenment, which could be carried over to his everyday life. The monastery grew in reputation as a result of the fighting skill and martial spirit of its monks. Bodhidharma spent nine years at the Shaolin Temple in meditation, facing the wall of a cave, which is located near the temple.

The Shaolin Temple

There are many references of interest regarding the Shaolin Temple. The monastery was built in AD 496, and was burned down in 535 as the wars between the north and south raged. It was rebuilt in the reign of Sui Wen-ti and given the name Chihu su, meaning 'ascending the hill'. The name changed to Shaolin during the Tang Dynasty (618-960). The monks were scattered after the monastery was again burned down in 1674, and legend has it that only five monks survived. These are referred to as the five ancestors and it is claimed that the Shaolin teachings have been passed down through them. The monastery was burned down again during the early 20th century. The monks left, but they later returned and again made it habitable. The monastery now functions as a museum, and is attended by a small number of monks. The famous wall mural, which shows monks training in martial art remains. The monastery's status began to decline when the military situation changed, and China came under the influence of Western nations.

Chinese Martial Arts

An interesting connection to Shaolin was Wing Chun kuen, meaning 'beautiful springtime'. This is one of the most popular styles of kung fu practiced today. The system was originated by a Shaolin nun named Ng Mui, who was an instructor of a kung fu style called mui fa chuan, or 'plum flower fist'. In the village where Ng Mui eventually settled, she met a young girl named Yim Wing Chun to whom she taught her system. Finding the system she was taught placed too much reliance on power techniques and strong horse stances more suitable to men, she created her own style, dedicating it to the Buddhist nun who had taught her, but naming it after herself. In the 12th century, one of the three major systems of internal kung fu, Hsing ye, or Hsing I came into being. It is also known as Chinese mind boxing. Its movements are very graceful, stressing the yin-yang principal of complementary opposites, hard and soft. Pa-kua (meaning 'eight trigrams'- from the I-Ching), an internal system of kung fu ('kung fu' is a Chinese term meaning 'well done'), originated almost 5,000 years ago.

Japanese Martial Arts

A group of Chinese craftsmen and administrators were sent to Okinawa by Emperor Hung Wu in 1393 to show support for King Satto and to demonstrate to the Okinawans the superiority of Chinese administrative and shipbuilding methods. The settlement that they founded near Naha became known as the "thirty-six families", a term used at that time to designate a large group of people. Okinawan legends credit the members of this group with the spread of ch'uan-fa.

King Sho Shin (1477-1526) banned weapons in Okinawa in 1507 with his "Act of Eleven Distinctions". This is historically significant because it explains the upsurge in development of unarmed self-defense. An emphasis on hand conditioning developed because of the wooden armor worn by the occupying Japanese soldiers. Techniques came about because of local conditions and daily activities - in areas where agriculture was most common, the workers had strong arms and upper bodies - so arm and hand movements were emphasized. In Northern China, because of the common use of horses, the men's legs were strong, so they developed techniques using strong leg muscles - especially jumping and kicking. Also, without an effective police force to protect them, the peasants developed a way to use agricultural and domestic implements as weapons.

Five weapons were developed: the staff (bo), the forked truncheon (sai), the sickle (kama), the rice grinder handles (tonfa) and the rice flails (nunchaku). In Okinawa, the ban on weapons continued in the early 1600's. Peter Urban writes in 'The Karate Dojo' that the Japanese ordered confiscation of all metals on the island. This meant all weapons, tools, cutlery, and every source of replacement, including cooking pots and pans and forges. Any found were confiscated and the owners were severely punished. The Okinawans continued to practice weaponless fighting. In time, the term "te" was prefixed by the name of the town in which it was practiced.

Three major schools developed; Shuri-te, Tomari-te, and Naha-te.

In time, Shuri-te and Tomari-te became known as the shorin style (developed by Yatsutsune Itosu 1830 - 1915) and Naha-te as the Shorei style (developed by Kanryo Higashionna 1845 - 1915 or 1853 - 1916 according to Morio Higashionna).

Shorinji Kempo (the Japanese rendering of the Chinese Shaolin su ch'uan-fa) is the martial art system of the Shaolin Monastery. Doshin So, founder, was born in 1911, the eldest son of a customs officer in Okayama Prefecture, Japan. His father died when he was young, and he went to live with his grandfather in Manchuria. So returned to Japan when his grandfather died, then back to Manchuria in 1928 to spy for the government. During this time, he began practicing Chinese martial arts under a Taoist priest. So escaped from Manchuria ahead of the invading Russian forces and returned in 1945 to a war-ravaged Japan. It is thought that both Shorinji Kempo and Wutang (a type of Chinese boxing) came to Okinawa before the 15th century. It was in Okinawa that karate originated.

In 1890, the Japanese Minister of Education, an ex-samurai, incorporated sumo, kendo and judo into the school program for boys, and naginata-do for girls. In 1911, kendo and judo became compulsory in all middle schools.


Kanryo Higashionna (1845 - 1915), known as Kensei (fist saint), was thought to be the greatest master of Naha-te in the history of Okinawan karate.

Born in Naha, he later worked for a tea merchant who took him to China. There he worked for a fellow tea merchant and friend of his employer who happened to be an expert martial artist. Higashionna studied in Fuzhou, China, for possibly 20 years under the ch'uan-fa master Liu Liu-Ko. He was also one of the top students of the famous Shuri-te master Sokon Matsumura. In 1902 karate was made part of the physical education curriculum in Okinawa, changing its history of secrecy there.

The Republic of China was inaugurated in 1912 and the military traditions (wu shu) were renamed national art, or kuoshu. The rise to power of the Communists drove many martial artists to withdraw to Taiwan, with the defeated forces of General Chiang Kai-Shek. Others escaped to Hong Kong.


In 1900 Mr. Uechi, an Okinawan, went to southern China and studied the three foremost styles of Kempo. At the end of ten years, he took the best kata (formal exercise) from the three styles, which became the foundation of the Uechi-Ryu Karate Association in Okinawa.


Gichin Funakoshi was born in Shuri, the capital of Okinawa, in 1868. He describes himself in his book as "rather a sickly baby and a frail child", so his family sent him to learn karate under masters Azato and Itosu. He became a competent, well-regarded student, and continued practicing after taking up teaching as a profession. Funakoshi lectured about karate to primarily intellectual audiences. He was a great exponent of tang (Chinese hand), later known as karate (empty hand). Funakoshi stayed on in Tokyo and later traveled throughout Japan.

1915 was the first time Funakoshi had been invited to demonstrate karate in Japan. It was this year he traveled to the Butoku-den in Kyoto to introduce the Japanese aristocracy to karate.

Funakoshi wrote "the martial art that I had studied in secret when I was very poor had at last emerged from seclusion and had even won the approval of the Ministry of Education. I did not know how to express my deep gratitude to Ogawa (commissioner of schools for Kagoshima Prefecture), but I determined to devote all the time and effort I could spare to the popularization of the art." He wrote further, of the crown prince visiting Okinawa in 1921, and observing a karate demonstration "I was granted the honor of taking charge of the demonstration, held in the Great Hall of Shuri Castle." "Later I was told that the prince said he had been much impressed by three things in Okinawa: the lovely scenery, the Dragon Drain of the Magic Fountain in Shuri Castle and karate". In 1922, the rest of Japan was introduced to karate, when Funakoshi participated in the First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo.

In 1922 he opened a dojo at a lodging house for students from Okinawa, and in November of that year his book, 'Ryukyu Kempo: Karate' was published. Karate was instituted in Tokyo University in 1926. Funakoshi published Karate-do Kyohan in 1935. Funakoshi urged the adoption of the characters meaning "empty hand(s)" to replace the traditional characters meaning "Chinese hand(s). This was most significant, because it reflected the change in the art itself from the techniques (jutsu) of Okinawan karate to karate-do, the Way of Karate. This change was eventually accepted. Okinawan fighting techniques had not been influenced by Zen, and did not possess a "do"(way) element. The Japanese added this until in 1936 the name evolved into 'karate-do', meaning 'the way of the empty-hand'.

In 1935, a committee of Master Funakoshi's senior students (called the Shotokai, 'Shoto' was Master Funakoshi's pen name and 'kai' meant association). The purpose of the Shotokai was to raise money for a dojo (training hall). Even when this task was completed, Master Funakoshi continued to keep the Shotokai Association going. He formally registered it under the name Nihon Karate-do Shotokai [NKS] in 1956 (see later).

Funakoshi wrote in his book about the first karate dojo erected in Japan being opened in 1936. He saw over the door a signboard bearing the new dojo's name, "Shoto-kan" (Shoto's house). He had no idea the committee had decided to use the pen name, Shoto, that Funakoshi used in his youth to sign the Chinese poems he had written. The name means 'waving pines'. Funakoshi's son, Yoshitaka, became something of a driving force behind his father's club, and it is to him that the famous mawashi geri, or roundhouse kick, is accredited.

"The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory of defeat but in the perfection of the character of the participants"

Gichin Funakoshi

There was a large increase in students during the Second World War; however, most of the senior students were killed. The Shotokan itself was destroyed during an air raid in 1945. After the war, the occupying forces banned all Japanese Martial Arts training, such as kendo and judo, but they did not ban karate. Some of the clubs were afraid of using the name, karate, so they called it something else, e.g., boxing. It would be nearly ten years after the War that kendo and judo were allowed again. In 1949 Funakoshi began to rebuild karate. Servicemen stationed in Japan after the war learned the art from some of the masters and since then have spread karate all over the world. It has been said that Gichin Funakoshi has had more influence on karate than any other man in the history of martial arts.

The Nihon Karate Kyokai [NKK] was established in 1949 as an 'association of karate leaders' (hence the term 'karate kyokai'). The NKK is commonly known outside Japan as the Japan Karate Association. Its initial aim was to bring all of karate under one roof. However, at the time, the other main Art was Wado Ryu which declined the invitation to join. Furthermore, the NKK was increasingly pressing for the development of competition and sport karate, which Master Gichin Funakoshi forbade. As a result, he and many of his senior students (including Shigeru Egami, Genshin Hironishi, Noguchi etc.) started to distance themselves from the NKK. This group of students continued to practice under the auspices of the original body called 'Shotokai' which was later officially registered as an organisation [Nihon Karate-do Shotokai, NKS] in 1956 with Master Gichin Funakoshi as the President.

The registering of the NKS was a reaction against the increasingly commercial and competitive nature of the Kyokai. Those who formed and joined the NKS felt that in Shotokai they were re-discovering the original purpose and principles of their Art.

Meanwhile, the Kyokai or 'Japan Karate Association' (JKA) continued to flourish as it found appeal with the masses with its sport/competitive nature. It was formally registered as a body in 1957, sixteen days before the death of Master Gichin Funakoshi (who died on 26 April, 1957). Later that year, the first All-Japan competitions were held... something that no-one had dared to do while the old master was still alive.

On the death of the Master Gichin Funakoshi, another problem arose... that of his funeral. Master Funakoshi's family wished his senior assistant, Shigeru Egami to organise a funeral procession as a fitting tribute to the old master who had devoted his whole life to the Art. Two of the four university clubs in which Master Funakoshi taught (in particular, the kyokai) boycotted the funeral stating that 'if they were not given the honour of organising and leading the funeral, they would have nothing to do with it', regardless of the wishes of the Funakoshi family. This was the final 'nail in the coffin', so to speak, for the entire study body under Master Funakoshi. The entire body was unambiguously split into two groups from that point on, both legally and philosophically:

1- The Nihon Karate-do Shotokai [NKS], which was originally founded by Master Funakoshi. After his death, it was led by Master Shigeru Egami as his successor. The NKS 'inherited' Master Funakoshi's original Hombu Dojo (main headquarters) as well as his official seal and his many scrolls etc. The 'Shotokai' were determined to preserve 3 key philosophies and practices of Master Gichin Funakoshi:

  • To maintain the practice of karate as a 'Do' (a noble and honourable Art) rather than as a sport, whose ultimate aim was perfection of character. They therefore completely avoided competitions and sport karate, in keeping with Master Funakoshi's wishes.

  • To practice the Taikyoku kata, which were developed by Master Gichin Funakoshi and his son (Yoshitaka Funakoshi) as the culmination of approximately 40 years of research and learning into the Art.

  • To continue to research and refine the Art and never to stay still/static in their practice, just as Master Funakoshi did. If one compares Master Funakoshi's practice in the late 19th century to that of the mid-twentieth century, one can see a considerable evolution of his practice as he continuously investigated and researched his practice further and further. Master Egami continued to develop this philosophy of research during his leadership period of the Shotokai (1957-1981) until his death on January 8, 1981. Such research has resulted in the practice becoming much more fluid and natural, with emphasis on expansion and relaxation.

2- The Nihon Karate-do Kyokai [NKK], led primarily by Masters Masatoshi Nakayama and Hidetaka Nishiyama. They founded their own dojo (training hall) and their own organisational structure. Their main representative in Europe was Keinosuke Enoeda until his death in 2003. This NKK had several key differences with the Shotokai philosophy:

  • Competitions and sport karate were promoted.

  • Commericalism was permitted.

  • The Art remained as it had been in the 1950s, with no further changes/refinement made to its practice or technique. They wished to preserve the Art exactly as it had looked (in terms of technique) at the time of Master Funakoshi's death.

Two key students had left Japan in 1955 with Master Funakoshi's blessing to start the Art anew in other parts of the world: Master Mitsusuke Harada (in Brazil and later in Europe) and Master Tsutomu Ohshima in the USA. As the term 'Shotokai' had yet to be registered formally, the term 'Shotokan' as a dojo name was adopted by both Masters. Master Harada renamed his school when he moved to and settled in Europe in 1963 and called it the 'Karate-do Shotokai' [KDS] and Master Ohshima's remained the Shotokan Karate of America [SKA].

Another Master had arrived in Europe before Master Harada (in 1957): Master Tetsuji Murakami. By the 1960s, Master Murakami had adopted the new research and refinements founded by Master Egami in Japan as the Head of the Shotokai. Master Harada's base remained in the UK, although he had affiliated clubs in Europe and further afield. Master Murakami's headquarters remained in mainland Europe until his death in 1987. To the knowledge of the webmaster, Masters Harada and Murakami did share and exchange knowledge on friendly terms until 1985. Since the death of Master Murakami, students of the two lineages have followed a parallel history to the present day.

As a mirror's polished surface reflects whatever stands before it and a quiet valley carries even small sounds so must the student of Karate render his mind empty of selfishness and wickedness in an effort to react appropriately to anything he might encounter. This is the meaning of kara or 'empty' in karate.

Gichin Funakoshi


Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju Ryu, was born to nobility April 24th, 1888 in Naha, Okinawa. Miyagi started karate at the age of nine under Kanryo Higashionna and was an ardent student until his sensei's death in 1915.

Miyagi then traveled to China to study the soft forms of kung fu. He studied Zen and martial arts in a temple in China, and after many years he returned to Okinawa, from there devoting his life to spreading the art in the Pacific area.

Miyagi followed Funakoshi to Japan and in 1930 he was invited to demonstrate at the Butoku-den. He was unable to attend and sent his student Shinsato in his place. At this time the demonstrators were asked to name their styles. Up until this point Miyagi Chogun's karate had simply been called Naha Te after the city it was practiced in. Shinsato did not think it was appropriate to call it this to the masters so he quickly said Hanko Ryu (half hard style). Shinsato then returned home and told Miyagi Sensei what had occurred. Miyagi thought about this and decided to call the art Goju Ryu, meaning hard and soft. The name comes from the Chinese "Eight Poems of the Fist", where it is declared that everything in life is both hard and soft.

There are many references to Miyagi Sensei's great strength and skill, and to his kindness. He died October 8th 1953 at the age of 65.

Gogen Yamaguchi, one of Miyagi's early students, further developed Goju Ryu in Japan. He was introduced to Goju Ryu in 1931 through Mr. Marata, an Okinawan carpenter. Yamaguchi devised a form of free-style sparring. He was sent to Manchuria in 1939 as an intelligence officer, and captured by the Russians. In 1947 he was repatriated to Japan and returned to work in the All Japan Gojukai Karate-Do Association, which he had organized in 1935.

Gogen Yamaguchi was the head of Goju both in Japan and internationally until his death. His two sons Gosei and Goshi Yamaguchi have now taken his place


Kenwa Mabuni trained with Kanryo Higaonna (Miyagi's master), and also trained under one of Funakoshi's teachers, Master Anko Itosu, and with Master Aragaku of Tomari te. He visited China with Chogun Miyagi. He eventually blended these different schools together in the style, which became known as Shito Ryu. The name "Shito" was conceived by joining alternate pronunciations of the Chinese characters for "Ito" and "Higa", from the names of his two teachers Anko Itosu and Kanryo Higaonna.


Hironori Otsuka was born June 1, 1892 in Shimodate City, Ibaragi, Japan the same year Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (All Japan Martial Arts Federation) was established. He was the son of a Doctor of Medicine. In 1897, he started to study ju jitsu with his mother's uncle, Chojiro Ebashi Sensei. In 1905, he studied Shindo Yoshin Ryu ju jitsu under Tatsusaburo Nakayama Sensei at Shimozuma middle school. The key point of this style is yielding (the founder of this style having noticed snow on top of a willow tree, the tree yielding to the elements of nature with a natural swaying movement, thus avoiding damage to its delicate branches).

In 1922, Otsuka heard about Funakoshi's demonstration. He visited Funakoshi and discussed various aspects for hours. Funakoshi agreed to teach Otsuka and the lessons started that day. In May 1924, Otsuka and Funakoshi presented a public demonstration. By 1933, Otsuka had combined Okinawan karate with elements of traditional Japanese martial arts and developed the Wado-Ryu (way of peace, harmony) style, and registered as a member of 'Nippon Kobudo Shinko Kai' (Japan Martial Arts Federation). The style emphasizes redirection of the opponent's power. Otsuka's skill in ju jitsu resulted in wristlocks and throws being incorporated within the style, techniques seldom found in karate. The movements in Wado Ryu are generally smaller than those in other styles, and use the minimum necessary energy.

In May 1934, Wado Ryu Karate was recognized as an independent style. In 1938 the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai awarded Otsuka the rank of Renshi-go, a high rank instructor. It was also in this year that his style was registered as Shin Shu Wado Ryu; in 1939 the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai asked all karate styles to officially register their names, and this style became "Wado Ryu". In 1944, the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai asked Otsuka to become the Chief Instructor of Karate in Japan. In 1972, a member of the Royal family, Higashi no Kuni no Miya, President of Kokusai Budo Renmai (International Martial Art Federation) awarded Otsuka Sensei the title of 'Meijin', the greatest title possible, and the first man in history to receive this honor. Otsuka died at the age of 90 in 1982, after practicing martial arts for 84 years. He wrote:

The way to practice Martial Art is not for fighting. Always look for your own inner peace and harmony, search for it.

Hironori Ohtsuka