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Karate Origins Explained

Karate practice at Shuri Castle, Okinawa, 1938

Karate is arguably the most mysterious and ambiguous Martial Art since there are not a lot of sources available about its origins published before the Meiji Era[1]. It can be explained by the fact that initially and for the longest time Karate was practiced in secret and so the knowledge was passed down through one-on-one instruction. Also, Karate has a relatively short history compared to other Martial Arts in Japan and so we have very scarce evidence about its origins.

The main theory is that Karate originated from Chinese Kenpo when the latter spread to Okinawa at the end of the 14th century. It later was adopted by the peoples of Ryukyu[2] that used it to create their own fighting system called de (唐手) or Okinawa-te (沖縄手), and eventually became Karate. Based on this theory, the origins of Karate lie in China.

However, according to Funakoshi Gichin[3], a unique fighting art was already secretly practiced in Okinawa before Chinese Kenpo was introduced because of the prohibition for carrying weapons imposed by the government. Chinese Kenpo was simply amalgamated into the existing fighting system. Therefore, we can say that Karate’s origins are truly Okinawan, which differentiates it from other Martial Arts.

Initially, Karate practice in Okinawa was carried out at night in secret strictly among the most trusted students and was exposed much later to the general public, when introduced to schools as a part of physical education curriculum[4]. It was not until 1922 when Funakoshi brought Karate to mainland Japan and made it “Karate-Do”.


加藤勝久『日本武道 空手道』、凸版印刷株式会社、1983.

船越義珍 『空手道一路』、株式会社講談社、1976.


[1] Meiji Era (1868-1912) – an era in Japanese history known for the Westernization of Japan and Meiji Restoration. [2] Ryukyu Islands – archipelago extending from southwestward from the southern Japanese island of Kyushu to northeastern Taiwan with a total of 55 islands, Okinawa and Amami being the biggest islands. [3] Funakoshi Gichin (is the founder of Shotokan Karate. He brought Karate to the mainland (Honshu) from Okinawa and was a key figure in introducing it as Budo to the rest of Japan. [4] Itosu Ankō (1831-1915) introduced Karate to the schools’ curriculum in 1901 and made it open, which resulted in its popularity in Okinawa.


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