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The History Of Karate


By Master Donald Bohan 


Isshin-Ryu Karate-Do


 May 5, 1978


The story of Karate is as old as man himself.  Struggling for survival in a hostile world, early man soon learned that his life depended on his ability to kill and evade.  Through centuries of painful evolution man broadened his knowledge, studying the fighting habits of his enemy and his prey, establishing systematic techniques and training methods.


Having defeated the greatest reptiles and most cunning animals in the battle for world domination, man encountered his most formidable opponent – MAN.  In defense of hunting territory, his home, his village or his country, man maintained a constant quest for knowledge and skill in the ways of combat.  Young men sought the knowledge and technique of old warriors, adding to them and passing the compounded knowledge on.  Spawned by generations of experience, a highly specialized art was born.  Families having knowledge of the art guarded it closely and generally exercised a place of prominence in the community.


The first true milestone in karate philosophy came in 563 B.C., with the birth of an Indian Prince named Siddhartha Gautama.  Born to royalty and great wealth, he rejected all worldly possessions to live the life of a monk.  He came to be known as the Buddha (“enlightened one”), founder of the gentle religion that bears his name.  Ultimately, one-third of the worlds’ population would be converted to Buddhism.  Buddhist theory credits the shortcomings of all humanity to man’s rebellion against the laws of nature.  An important part of Buddhist development was the study of birds, animals, insects and reptiles.  It was reasoned that Man could learn much from God’s creatures since they were in complete harmony with nature and the universe.


Traveling from village to village teaching the gentle ways of Buddhism, early monks often delivered mail and valuables as a service to their devoted.  For this reason they were often attacked and robbed.  Forbidden to bear weapons, they turned to nature with their need.  Knowledge of ancient unarmed combat techniques became a part of their training.  The fighting habits of birds, animals, insects and reptiles, as they applied to the human body, were incorporated and a complete new concept of combat was born.  It was to be known as Vajaramushti (meaning:  one whose first is unyielding).  Siddhartha Gautama’s (The Buddha) teachings were destined to have great influence on the fierce fighting art and it’s philosophy.  He died, a penniless monk in 483 B.C., at the age of 80.


In 500 A.D., responding to the death wish of his aging teacher (Prajnatara), a Buddhist monk by the name of Taishi Daruma journeyed from India across the Himalayan Mountains to Tibet and into China.  His prior purpose was to unite the various Buddhist schools of thought that had sprung up there and to establish a monastery.  Daruma was born the son of an Indian King (Su-Gan-Dha) and a member of the warrior caste.  He was therefore highly skilled in the deadly combat art of Vajaramushti.


Daruma (also known as Tamo and Budhidarama) found that the monarchs of the Liang dynasty were not perceptive to Buddhist Tehents.


Returning to the wilderness, he and a small group of disciples constructed the now famous Sholin (or Shaolin) Monastery (Monastery of the young Bamboo Forest) which was to be the birth place of the Zen Buddhism and the forerunner of modern day Karate.


The first written reference to the Chinese fighting art known as Kung-Fu (Cong-Fu, Ken Fat, Ch’uan Fa, Kenpo, Kempo and Tode) dates back to 2600 B.C., it’s development was stimulated at and during the time of the Sholin Temple.  Early forms of Kung-Fu which simply means “practitioner of excellence” were originally an art form taken from the frolics of animals and practiced primarily for health purposes.  In theory, the practitioner sought to experience, tap or participate in the flow “ch’i” which was believed to be the power of the universe.  In 180 A.D., the Chinese surgeon “Huo To” wrote of the frolics of the tiger, deer, leopard, crane and snake.


Finding his Chinese followers weak from long hours of traditional meditation and physical neglect, Daruma established a system of physical and mental discipline that was to be known as I-Chin (inner-conflict) and would later be called San-Chin (three-conflicts).  The concept of San-Chin is founded on the realization that man’s most powerful body forces lie virtually untapped.  The term “conflict” applies to the independent, undisciplined function of the body’s three most powerful elements:  controlled breathing, mental awareness and physical concentration.  In application, the San-Chin practitioner seeks complete coordination of these forces, greatly improving and enhancing the mind-body relationship.


When delivering a blow (which is a very small part of the total spectrum of San-Chin) the practitioner begins to exhale as his hand or foot starts forward.  Mental concentration is greatly increased and muscles begin to tighten.  The San-Chin state is brought to climax just prior to the point of impact.  All air is suddenly expelled from the body.  Mental concentration reaches an absolute maximum and every muscle is locked.  An explosion of super-human force is suddenly created lasting only a fraction of a second followed by relaxation, the entire move being performed with the suddenness of a lightening bolt.  This spontaneous explosion of life force was developed through close observation and imitation of the great cats and reptiles, especially the snake (the San-Chin theory is basically the same instinctive action that the snake executes as he hi-s-s-s-ses and strikes).


Also developed at the Sholin Temple were the techniques known as the “Eighteen Hands of Lo-Han” (Lo-Han meaning:  those who have achieved Nirvana, the spiritual goal of all Buddhists).  The study and practice of San-Chin and the Eighteen Hands of Lo-Han soon established the monk of Sholin as the most formidable fighters in China, absolutely above conventional acts of violence, which of course, was their goal.


Later, in approximately 1500 A.D., the Eighteen Hands of Lo-Han were expanded to seventy-two forms.


Then in 1522, a monk known as Kwok Yuen and two of China’s greatest teachers who had been invited to the Temple to assist; a master Li and a master Pak-Yook-Fong, expanded the seventy-two forms to one-hundred and seventy and classified them into what were known as the “Five Original Styles” (dragon, tiger, leopard, crane and snake).


The most important step in the development of modern day Karate came with the introduction of Zen Buddhism and Chinese culture to the Ryukyuan Islands, the largest of which is “Okinawa”.  These islands are scattered like stepping stones from the southern island of Kyushu, Japan seven-hundred miles south to Taiwan in the East China Sea.


A popular Okinawan legend states that in the year 1296, a shipwrecked Chinese mariner named “Chinto was washed ashore on Okinawa during a raging Typhoon.  Seeking shelter from the storm in a nearby cave, he found himself alone and penniless in a strange land.  Venturing out only at night to gather food, he was soon detected.  A soldier, in service of the King named Pechin Matsumura (NO relation to Kyan’s teacher Matsumora) was sent to capture the fugitive.  He tracked Chinto to the cave and there confronted him.


When Chinto refused to surrender, Matsumura attempted to physically restrain him.  Though a battle seasoned warrior, skilled in the Okinawan fighting art, Matsumura was unable to penetrate the derelict’s defense.  Having blocked every technique the soldier attempted, Chinto did not counter-attack but chose to run away.  Instead of persuading, Matsumura returned to the King and reported that this man would harm no one.  He then went back to the countryside and once again sought out Chinto who was hiding in a cemetery, there he befriended him and becamae his student.  From Chinto, Matsumura learned the primary defensive kata that today bears his name.  The style taught by Chinto was South China Kung-Fu.  Other famous students of Chinto were Teguchi, Yamazato, Nakazato, Yamada, Gusukuma, Kanagusuku and Oyatomari, all of the port city of Tomari.


In 1316 the Chinese Military Attache Iwah came to Okinawa.  Three famous Okinawans who became his students were Pechin Matsumura (who had also studied with Chinto) from Shuri, Kogusuku from Kume and Maesato from Kume.


Also arriving on Okinawa during this period were the Chinese Military Ambassador Ason and Waishinzan.  Ason’s better known students were Tomoyori, Sakiyama, and Gushi, all of the Port Naha.  Waishinzan taught Aragaki, Nagahema and Hijaunna of Kunenboya.  And Shimabuku, Higa, Senaha, Gushi and Kuwsu all of Uemonden.


In 1372, the Okinawan King Satto requested and was granted admission to the Chinese Empire.  As a gift Emperor Hung Wu-Ti sent thirty six families of skilled Chinese artisans including teachers, merchants, Buddhist priest and skilled military advisors.  The effect of these thirty-six families was stimulation of Ryukyuan cultural and economic development and of course, the introduction of Chinese Kung-Fu.


Then flourishing on Okinawa was the native fighting art known as Tode (Toe-day) Te (tay) or Okinawa-Te, which was characterized by brutal offensive techniques, not common to Kung-Fu which capitalized on it’s sophisticated defense.  The philosophy and superior defense of Kung-Fu, characterized by open hand technique, and the devastating superior offense of Okinawa-Te, characterized by the closed fist were destined to become one.  Evolution of the world’s deadliest fighting art was nearing its peak!


In 1429, the famous King Hashi succeeded in uniting the Ryukyuan Islands into one kingdom.  To insure rule by law, all weapons were seized from the people and it was made a crime against the state to possess weapons.  King Hashi, having knowledge of Chinese culture and trade, set out to improve the economic conditions of the islands by expanding trade relations with other countries.  Since Ryukyuans had long been able seafarers Okinawa commercial sea trade soon extended throughout southeast Asia and the Indies, China, Korea and Japan.  Between 1432 and 1570 Okinawa established forty-four official embassies on foreign soil.  Trade was far-reaching and successful.  The people planted their crops (rice, pineapples and sugar), fishing was good in the warm China sea and Pacific ocean, cattle were fat and barns were full.  Temples, homes and gardens were great beauty, such as the famous “Tea House of the August Moon”.


During 1400 and 1500 Okinawa-Te and forms of Chinese Kung-Fu were practiced throughout the islands, especially by royalty.  Early in 1500, the Okinawan master Thwanku, who had journeyed to China to study Kung-Fu, returned and further expanded Ryukyuan technique.  In 1588, the famous Chinese Kung-Fu master Seisan arrived on Okinawa and remained until early 1600.


Then in 1609, the powerful Satsuma Samurai clan of the southern Japanese Island of Kyushu, invaded and occupied Okinawa.  The imperial forces had to contend with extremely self-reliant, fierce, and proud people.  Their hostile stubbornness would not allow anyone to break their spirit, even though the Japanese, through superior numbers, armor, and swordsmanship, had conquered their home land.


By means of guerrilla warfare, the Okinawans were able to harass the Japanese troops.  Due to the distance between Japan and Okinawa, the occupying forces had great difficulty in continuously replacing their materials and their steadily depleting forces.  In an effort to strengthen their position and subjugate the Okinawans, the Japanese ordered the confiscation of all metals on the island.  This meant all weapons, tools, cutlery, and every source of replacement, including cooking pots and pans.  All forges were dismantled and removed.  The Okinawans were disarmed; possession of any weapon was forbidden.  The Japanese now thought that they had eliminated the strength of the opposition and that their task would be considerably easier.  It was, but only for a short time.


The confiscation of metal caused many problems for the Okinawans.  As fighters they felt very insecure without their weapons.  Also, unlike the Japanese, they were primarily meat and fish eaters and could not butcher their food.  It was difficult to prepare their food and do their work efficiently without proper instruments.  They endured these hardships for a while, but their will to resist gradually strengthened and they finally formed a delegation to present their grievances to the imperial forces.


The Japanese commander, Iehisa Shimazu recognized not only the validity of the complaint, but the possible consequences if he did not compromise.  He knew that the success of any occupation is largely dependent on the continuation of the occupied people habits and ordinary functioning.


It was necessary that he make some allowances that would benefit the Okinawans and at the same time enforce the original mandate.  It was decided that villagers would have a community knife which would be kept in an open square attached to a heavy anchored chain and which would be guarded by two Japanese soldiers.  This plan seemed to prove satisfactory.  Since the troubles and apparently ceased, the occupying forces began to relax their guard.


But the Okinawans did not relax.  Among the old patriarchs there was discussion of old stories remembered from their youth.  Some of their people had been to China and brought back information and stories about the incredible unarmed fighters in Cathay, who were able to defeat armed and armored opponents with nothing but their hands and feet and occasionally with the use of unusual wooden fighting instruments.


In 1629, the three major Dojos (Te-Schools) which were located in Shuri, Naha, and Tomari, held a series of secret meetings which resulted in their banding together.  Training was conducted at night in secluded places such as caves and cane fields.  In order to carve wooden weapons, knives were, of course, needed.  In a single night throughout the Island, guards were attacked and killed and all village knives were taken.


Common wooden weapons of the day were the “Bo” (long hard wood staff), the “Nanchaku” (root puller) which was actually a farming tool used to pull dead rice stalks and foreign roots from the mud of the rice paddies.  It consisted of two short (approximately a foot and a half long) hard wood sticks or handles which were linked by a short piece of rope or chain (approximately one foot long) at one end.  The techniques of the Nunchaku were based on the original Okinawan fighting art known as “Obi-waza” (belt techniques) which usually employed a metal weight, blade or star knife on the end or in the middle of the belt.  Still another wooden weapon was the “Tui-Faa” (handle) also a farm tool used as a handle for a grinding wheel and as a husking implement to remove the rice head from the stalk.  The Tui-Faa was a hardwood shaft some fifteen to twenty inches long with a round handle projecting at a right angle about six inches from one end.  Techniques with the Tui-Faa were also based on Obi-waza and the Okinawan “Sai” (pronged metal shaft).  In the hands of a skilled Okinawan, these simple wooden weapons were as deadly as swords and spears, capable of smashing military armor and the men wearing it.


Temeshi-wari (hardening the weapons of the body) became one of the primary elements of Te training.  Parts of the body such as the elbows, inner and outer forearms, knuckles, sides of the hands, knees and feet were toughened, calloused and eventually hardened by systematically pounding or striking the “Makiwara” (punching board or pad) usually consisted of a post wrapped with rice rope.  Callouses raised along the bone of the inner and outer forearm were necessary when blocking the wooden and metal weapons of the day.  Callouses on the first two knuckles of the fully developed Te fist had density of cattle horn, capable of penetrating the lacquered bamboo armor warn by the Samurai.  Fingers were strengthened for ripping and tearing by driving them into sand or rice.  Some practitioners are known to have developed the two major or inside toe joints by running on the under-turned toes.


Because of strict secrecy surrounding Okinawa-Te from 1610 to 1800, little factual information on its development is available.  However, because the sole objective of the art during this period was to kill, one important fact is known; it was during this period that the world’s deadliest fighting art reached its’ peak.


Possibly the most amazing consideration of the Okinawa-Te history is that the Japanese never discovered who the teachers were or where training was conducted.  Perhaps the unique Okinawan security system explains this phenomenon.  Anyone suspected of being an informer was kidnapped at night and taken along with a small goat or pig, about a mile off shore.  There the animal’s throat was cut and it was thrown overboard, when the sharks arrived, the informer invariably lost his balance and fell into the water.


Though the Okinawan’s succeeded in overthrowing occupation forces on several occasions they were no match for the armed might of the Japanese empire.


During this period many Okinawans traveled to China where they expanded their knowledge of the Chinese martial arts.  Many systems of Kung-Fu, including both the northern and southern styles, were introduced.


In 1635, the Okinawan Master Sakugawa of Akata in Shuri went to China to study.  He later returned having mastered still another unique form of the art and established the famous Sakugawa Dojo.


By 1700, two distinctive TE styles of “Ryus” had developed on Okinawa; Shuri-Te; and Naha-Te, named for the village in which they originated.


Shuri-Te was based on original Okinawa-Te with northern Kung-Fu influence.  It was later to be known as Kobayashi-Ryu (after the famous Master Kobayashi) and finally as Shorin-Ryu, Shorin is the Okinawan pronunciation of the Chinese word Sholin, which refers to the famous Sholin Temple.  However, this term is misleading since Naha-Te actually resembles the Kung-Fu of the Sholin Temple more than did Shuri-Te.  Shuri-Te stressed agility and quickness of movement but did not adopt the Chinese theory of San-Chin controlled breathing.  Pronounced hip-twist punching was not a characteristic of early Shuri-Te but later developed in many Shorin-Ryu related systems.


Naha-Te was also based on original Okinawa-Te but heavily influenced by southern Kung-Fu theory.  It was characterized by forceful movements but its’ major characteristic was the practice of San-Chin controlled breathing.  The system was later to be modified and re-named Goju-Ryu (Go-hard, Ju-soft, Ryu-way).


Today, practically every major Karate system in the world can trace its’ beginning directly to either the Shuri-Te or Naha-Te school.


In 1784, the Okinawan Master Shinja of Shuri returned from China accompanied by a Chinese friend, the legendary Kushanku, for whom the famous night fighting kata is named.  (The movements of the Kushanku Kata are based on responses to sound and touch rather than sight.)


Still another famous Okinawan to journey to China was Matsuma who returned in 1792 after studying at the famous Sholin Temple.


One of the most famous Okinawan Masters was Kanyo Higashionna, born in 1845.  As a young boy, he was taken to Fukien Province in China where he entered the home of a merchant, Wooluchin, as a student of trade.  Wooluchin was a Master tea merchant but he was also a Master of Kung-Fu and taught the art to the young Higashionna.  After eleven years, he returned to Okinawa and opened a Dojo (training school) across the street from the island newspaper in Naha.  Among others, Nigashionna taught Chojun Miyagi, who later founded the Goju-Ryu system, Kenwa Mabuni, who also studied from Itosu and later founded the Shito-Ryu system, and Kyoka.


The Japanese occupation ended in 1875.  The practice of Okinawa-Te retained it strict secrecy for over twenty-five years.  The most significant year in later Okinawa-Te history was 1903, which brought the first "public" demonstration or the art in over two hundred years.  These famous demonstrations were followed by the introduction of Okinawa-Te through- out the Okinawan public school system and universal acceptance of the term Kara-Te (Kara at that time meant eight China or Empty, and Te meant Hand.) 


Though he was a farmer of common birth, the name selected to coordinate the introduction of the art to the school system was Master Yasutsune Itosu, who had been a student of Sokan Matsumura and Okinawan Master Gusukume.  Itosu s Master students were Kentsu Yabu, Kenwa Mabuni (who also studied from the Master Higashionna and later founded one of the Shitoh-Ryu related systems), Choku Motobu, who was Co become one of the island's most fierce fighters and later established the Kosho-Ryu Dojo (Koold Sho-pine tree, Ryu-Way Dojo-school). 


In 1917 the Japanese association of martial arts Masters or Butokai was sufficiently interested in Karate to invite the Okinawans to demonstrate the art in Japan.  At that time the island's best-known fighter was Choku Matobu.  When news reached Matobu, he was enthusiastic.  However, being from a proud Okinawan family of royalty chat was famous for having fought the invaders, Motobu was radically anti-Japanese.  He refused to bow Co Japanese people under any circumstances.  He was crude in manner and speech and did not dress well. Motobu was high in stature for as Okinawan and extremely stronger   His strength and size made it almost impossible for another fighter to hurt him.  It was obvious to the Okinawan officials that Motobu could not be sent to Japan, chough "ears later he went as a guest of the Japanese.


Among the schools in Okinawa, which caught Japanese reading and writing, there was a certain preparatory school for Okinawans who wanted Co Qualify for Japanese Civil service.  The school called "Shoto Gakko", caught customs, manners, social graces, all the things necessary for success in the Japanese milieu.


The professor of this institution was an Okinawan of genius. He was astute in all things Japanese and could emulate the Japanese in every way.  His manner and speech were impeccable and he wore fine Japanese clothing.  He commanded the utmost respect from the well-educated Japanese gentleman.  His name was Gichin Funakoshi was a third Dan (Black Belt grade) of the Shorin-Ryu system.  Although Funakoshi was by no means considered a Master of Karate by the Okinawans, it was clear that he would go to Japan.  At a meeting of the high-ranking Masters, the little professor was promoted to fifth Dan.  Arrangements were made, and Funakoshi was off to Japan.  What he did there made history in the Japanese martial arts world for he flabbergasted the Masters of the Butokai.  The little professor, so modest and “only a fifth Dan”, defeated every fighter he was matched against, often defeating his opponents with the superior techniques which subsequently were copied by Jigoro Kane (founder of Judo) and became standard Judo forms:  the Judo throw commonly called “Uchimata” and the dumping techniques referred to as “Osote-gari”.  They were originally Karate forms and were, of course, much more deadly in the original.  


Because of his affinity to Japanese culture and the respect he won in Japan, professor Funakoshi felt very much at home during his stay and decided to remain.  He attracted quite a few students with his magnificent performance in the exhibitions, and he began teaching Karate in a Kendo-Dojo.


It was extremely difficult in the beginning to make Karate understandable to the Jiu-Jitsu and Kendo conditioned public.  There were many excellent would-be Karate students who shied away from it in the early years primarily because it was foreign, and therefore distasteful, according to the mentality of the times.  A great Karate professor at one time observed that even the clothes of the Japanese obstructed kicking and punching movements.  Their open-toed wooden shoes (geta) and their long sleeved garments with constricting robes hindered long strides, wide stances, and sudden jumping movements.  For this reason the Samurai warriors had developed a method of arranging their clothing to accommodate the particular technique they were using.  They did this as casually as if they were in front of their own mirror, while actually fighting for their lives in the heat of a battle.  The Chinese, on the other hand, had shoes that looked like sneakers and baggy, loose fitting trousers which facilitated all sorts of movements, and kicks.  Their dress allowed them to punch and use their hands freely.  The Okinawans were too poor for fine constricting clothing and consequently, were also at home with any type of movement.


Through his superior teaching, Gochin Funakoshi did eventually transcend the barriers of misunderstanding and prejudice against Karate.  He was treated with the highest possible respect and was soon able to establish his school as a separate Dojo, which he called the “Shoto-Kan” after the name of his polishing school in Okinawa.  From Funakoshi’s teaching sprang the Japanese Karate system known as Shotokan.  Though other Okinawan Masters also traveled and taught in Japan, including Chojun Miyagi and Choki Motobu, Karate did not reach national prominence in Japan until 1937.


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