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The history of Karate, clear and crisp


The history of Karate ...

... is very controversial and subject to many controversies. Indeed, there is very little writing on karate and its origins and it is very difficult for a purist to know exactly the truth about the birth of karate.

So I will just outline the main lines of Karate history without going into more or less legendary details that ultimately do not bring much and even fuel the mystification of our art.

The Karate Story: Position of Okinawa Island

1 - The Chinese origins:

Karate is a Japanese martial art, but (and everyone agrees) he is from Okinawa Island of the Ryu-Kyu Islands archipelago located in the south of Japan and east of China.

Due to its position, Okinawa Island has for many centuries enjoyed many trade exchanges with China, and it is probably, over time, the Chinese martial arts that have most influenced Okinawa Karate.

To know more about these Chinese martial arts, let's take a little trip in time and space to project ourselves in China in the 10th century :

There was two currents of Chinese martial arts :

Internal styles (12 major styles) and External styles (360 major styles)

Internal styles (Neï-Jia):

They are from Mount Wudang and influenced by the Taoist thought current and especially the fear of death.

This fear of death results in martial styles based on an internal search for a long life and the absorption of action, ie the use of the strength of the other.

From these styles, we will retain Taï Ji Quan, Pakua Zhang (Everything is in a circle) and Hsing Yi (Everything is online and circles with arms).

External styles (Waï-Jia):

They find their origin in the famous Buddhist monastery of Shaolin.

Buddhist thought and belief in reincarnation breeds martial styles with outward-looking actions (transmitting one's strength to the other) and a stronger commitment in the fight.

These styles are broken down in two streams, the styles of the south and those of the north:

Southern styles (composed mainly of sailors and peasants in the rice fields) are based on very short techniques, even in hand-to-hand northern styles (Chang Chuan), with its very large plains and riders, give much larger, larger techniques.

Now, all these styles of Chinese martial arts have been structured under one and the same term: the Wushu that could be translated as "martial art" or "art of defense"

2 - The island of Okinawa cradle of Karate:

These Chinese martial arts arrived on the island of Okinawa and influenced by local techniques, will give birth to To-Te (hand of Chinese) which in the 17th century will be divided into 3 styles :

  • Cities origins Karate OkinawaNaha-Te
  • The Tomari-Te
  • the Shuri-Te

Naha, Tomari and Shuri being cities of Okinawa (see map)

In the 19th century, following the colonization of the island of Okinawa by Japan, the To-Te will change its name to become Okinawa-Te (The hand of Okinawa).

Naha-Te, native rather southern Chinese styles, will give birth to Shorei Ryu, based on the Yin / Yang, the hard and the soft, to later become the Goju Ryu from Okinawa founded by Master Kanryō Higaonna.

Tomari-Te and Shuri-Te, rather influenced by the Northern Chinese style, are very close to one another and end up giving birth to Shorin-Ryu founded by Master Sõkon Matsumura.

A third style, very hard, will also be founded in Okinawa, the Uechi Ryu de Kanbun Uechi Master.

3 - Transition of Okinawa Martial Arts Styles to Modern and Japanese Karate

Master Anko Itosu

The real father of modern Karate is Master Ankõ Itosu, a pupil of Master Matsumura, who modified the foundations of Shorin-Ryu to make it accessible to the general public.

He also created the 5 Heian (or Pinan).

On the other hand, the first to introduce Karate in Japan, will be one of his students, Gichin Funakoshi which was sent to Japan to publicize Karate.

Master Funakoshi changed the term Karate, which in Japanese meant "The Chinese Hand" with Karate, which means "The empty hand". The ideograms are different, but the pronunciation remains the same.

Master Funakoshi explain this choice in the book Karate-do: my way, my life :

« Kara which means empty [...] represents the refusal to use other weapons than the hands and the feet. In addition, the goal of Karate students [...] is to purify their hearts and minds from all earthly desire and vanity. »

Gichin Funakoshi made a demonstration in 1922 before the 1er Minister of Education in Tokyo who had a very great impact.

Very quickly, thanks in particular to the support of Jigoro Kano, Master founder of Judo, Karate experienced a significant social rise and was even taught in Tokyo universities, then later all over the world.

Karate practiced by Master Funakoshi and that he taught was taken directly from Master Matsumura's Shorin-Ryu, modified by Master Itosu. This is Shotokan-Ryu, named after the 1er Dojo Karate that made Gichin Funakoshi in Japan in 1936, the "Shotokan". This name of Shotokan was chosen simply because Shoto ("Sho" = "pin" and "To" = "wave" therefore, Shoto = "waves in the pines") was the pseudonym under which Master Funakoshi signed his Chinese poems when he was younger. Shotokan means Shoto's house.

The Shotokan-Ryu So is the Shoto dojo school, which is Master Funakoshi's Dojo School.

Even though Master Funakoshi was for a unique karate school so that Karatédô continues an orderly and useful progression to the future development of man " other Masters founded their own styles of Japanese Karate.

Here are the other main karate schools:

  • Goju Ryu (different from Goju Ryu from Okinawa) Master Chõgun Myagi
  • the Shito-Ryu (from Goju-Ryu of Okinawa and Shorin-Ryu) from Master Kenwa Mabuni
  • Wado-Ryu (from Shotokan and Japanese Jujitsu) from Master Hironori Otsuka

These styles are certainly different but still remain karate and the basic principles remain the same in all these styles.

As a drawing is often better than comlicated explanations, I made you a small synoptic about the history of Okinawa Karate in Japan. We understand immediately much better

The story of Okinawa Karate in Japan

That's it, I hope this little trip in space-time has you more and that you understand a little better Karate history (clear and clean ;-))

Leave me now a comment below and if this article has you more than share it with your friends.

See you soon,

PS: I want to clarify that I drew most of this article by rereading one of my BEES1 courses. This course was given to us by Pascal Girodet, BE2, Master in Karate and KungFu-Wushu. The synoptic I made at the end, is the copy almost identical to what he had written on the board. Thanks to him.

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  1. Karate is traditional basic, and it remains in my opinion, the current requirement does not eliminate these values, all the values ​​we serve only karate sport with its development until the Olympics .. Until the, I do not think that the need, the stakes, the marketing of equipment, the envy of young practitioners and have a title to the podium, sports policies, can eliminate the other values ​​of karate and the main symbol of kata and their goal in karate, I say objective .. Just a reflection to the reality of art!

  2. Thank you Bruno! With you, everything is clear. But these are partial information ... It is true that everything is new to me. Question: Where are the sankukai and nanbudo schools in the history of karate? And additional question: for these two styles are not mentioned in your synopsis?
    Thank you again for your dedication

  3. Bruno,
    Thank you for your clarifying article. I allow myself to add a reading suggestion for those who read English.
    I recommend Bruce Clayton's book, Shotokan's Secret, which formulates a karate-based origin on about 300 pages.
    Some of his arguments have been controversial among historians without contesting the whole.
    The reading is exciting. She begins by looking for a picture of Master Yatsusune Azoto, the first master of Young Ginshin Funakoshi before Master Anko Itosu's appearance, and plunges us into the context of the Matsumura and Itosu era with photos and engravings of the time - a real police investigation where even the US (imperialist) navy is one of the actors.
    The same author has written an original note (in relation to what is constantly repeated) about the bunkai of Heian Shodan under the title Crack the Heian Shodan, which a search engine finds on different sites in pdf format. For example :
    The photos help you understand if you can not read English.

  4. Thank you Bruno
    super we learn a lot with your videos and your comments. All this progresses in the right direction karate Michel

  5. Blanchette, Jean-Noël at

    Hello. the beginning of your presentation draws the general lines, but in terms of styles: goju, shotokan, it is too restrictive. For example chito-ryu founded by Dr. Chitose is one of the first styles to be introduced in Japan, along with the goju and shito Mabuni. As for the Wado-ryu, it should not appear alongside the masters of Goju, Shito-ryu and Chito-ryu, because it was created by a Japanese student of Funakoshi. Otsuka was not a master of Okinawa. In addition, he motivated the shotokan and introduced ju-jutsu techniques ... So maybe clear but not very clear!

  6. Thank you Bruno, very good idea to share this and especially very good summary, thank you also for the diagram


  7. good evening master Bruno I am very happy with you you do a good job it reassures me in any case I read and I validate thank you good night

  8. Following the article on the history of karate, its origins and the masters who created their style, I am disappointed that the article does not mention the founder of Karate Kyokushin (Mas Oyama).

    Are there still preferences, and retisense with some styles, or rather Kyokushin Karate ...... Or is this RESPECT other styles? I think it's very important to mention what Master Sosai Mas Oyama has accomplished through Kyokushin, from yesterday to today.


    • Hello Real,

      No it is absolutely not a lack of respect if the Kyokushin is not mentioned. I'm just content to take the history back to modern karate.

      Then there were many other more contemporary styles like Kyokushin, Yoseikan Budo, Shototai, ... and probably others that I forget or do not know. I just did not cover that period in my article. Maybe it will be the subject of a future article.


  9. Hello Bruno, I practice Karate Shitu-Ryu, Shukokai since I was a child (I am 15 years old) and I never really knew what the karate style was called "Shukokai".
    Thank you for answering me.

  10. The origin of who and what..Kungfu is a generic term that designates various and varied practices that goes from the Northern Saholin (which in common with the shotokan post 1935) to the South Shaolin. It should be noted that China has carried out a terrible ideological rinsing in 1966, the cultural revolution, which led to the denunciation of all traditional practices and put too well known masters in re-education camps (most of them left for Taiwan where all the former Chinese) .. When Shaolin, there was a report in the 80 years published on KAraté Bushido, 2 or 3 old monks remained.Therefore China developed this ... For what is "kungfu" there are the Yang Jwing Ming's books, those of Ni Hua CHing for the taoiste culture and the books of Gabriel Manzur on taichi..A film and an interesting book on the theme "Iron and silk" ... and there is a large community Chinese in England.The old schools operate by letter of recommendation c'sst to say your sifu recommend you ..
    For current karate, the book "Karate Kyohan" has been "recomposed and a link to the original version is on the web pages of my site. It sounds like Taekwondo poomse (taekwondo is not karate, there are specificities)

  11. Hello . Thank you for these very educational lessons. What are the fundamental differences between goju ryu, shito ryu and wado ryu, in terms of techniques and positions?

  12. Thank you for your research work. I already told you, from the beginning of my registration, that I admire your dedication ... I do not know if I told you that I am a budoka since very young ... and now, I am retired from Médecins sans Frontières and Professor scientist of National Education. I was born in 1934! Thanks again.

  13. Hello Bruno

    If you want to deepen the history of Okinawa karate, I can only advise you to read Lionel Lebigot's book "Karate of Okinawa Fujian sources". This book takes the story of Okinawa cradle of karate and especially through the different views of Okinawa historians in Karate. It is the only French-language book dealing with this subject with this depth and objectivity, presenting the various historical sources in the most objective way possible without taking part and without privileging one more than the other. The preface is written by Pierre Portoccarero the author of "From China to Okinawa: Tode, the origins of Karatedo" book which is also a reference in the field.

  14. Thank you Bruno, it is clear but the question that I ask myself is to know the island of Okinawa. Does it belong to Japan / to the Chinese state?

    • The history of karate is often the product of facts that become legends, a little ... improved. For example, the famous fight of Mr. Funakoshi was won by Motobu, as the first one is on a drawing instead of Motobu understand that the latter has kept a grudge against him. Motobu was fighting in the street and his karate was very salt-defensive.
      Mr. Uechi to leave after a student who killed someone: The karate of death that kills, etc. ... The truth: the Okinawa went to China to flee conscription. Okinawans are very different from the Japanese. Karate become "empty hand" for the Zen spirit, etc. ... it is simply that in full Japanese nationalism to propose an art named "the hand of China" was rather frowned upon ...
      I grouped elements from wikipedia files:
      Americans are more informed about karate than we are, because since the end of the war, they have bases in Okinawa ....
      By cons, historically I do not see any reason to teach ancestral art to Americans ....

  15. Hello
    very good article bruno well explained and clear synoptic also gives a clear vision of karate schools and their creators

  16. Hello Bruno,

    First of all thank you for this article and all you share.

    However, I do not see anything about Kyokushin, which is one of the most popular karate styles in the world, with more than 12 millions of licensees ( => the official figures are here on the official website of IKO Kyokushinkaikan).

    Maybe it's voluntary on your part? Maybe you wanted to stay global in your presentation?

    In any case again thank you, and see you soon I hope through other articles on your blog!

  17. Bruno,
    It is in visualization different sites on our martial art which put this year forward the self defense which I deduced, perso, that the FFK had to be behind the departmental federations which in turn proposed to the clubs to orient themselves on this form of work.
    That's why I told you that "I felt that ...". You answered me saying that it was not so. So I just wrongly deduced my feeling. In fact, it was by chance that I was questioning sites that I came across club president edits that focused on the self (goshindo, "hunting" or goshin jutsu side, war side, if you can thus qualify by images these two aspects of karate).
    Thank you Bruno for this update.
    See you soon - Regards - Marcel

    • Hello Marcel,

      It's true that self defense is on the rise, but in my opinion it's more of a public demand than a Fed directive. A lot of people come to the club asking to do Self Defense without knowing that Karate is already a complete method of self defense. Karate often has a bad image (probably due to rather violent films ...) and suddenly, people want to do self, but not karate.

      That said to return to the Fed, you're still a little right because we had received, a few times ago, a specific DVD on Self Defense, probably to encourage us (or at least give us the idea ... ) to open a self defense section within the club ...


  18. Fabrice Mennechez at

    Hi Bruno and thank you for sharing your knowledge on this blog,

    That's good I started in karate, I did a little judo as a child but nothing more.
    Being very ambitious I asked myself this question: "Is it possible to learn several styles of karate at the same time? "

    I am your courses on the blog which made me want to join a club but I am attracted by 2 styles even 3 style of karate:
    shotokan and kyokushinkai or even goju ryu, currently I'm learning shotokan and I realized that there were katas in the kyokushinkai but also very different katas including other kata taikyoku focused on the legs , so I ask you this question:

    is it possible to learn shotokan and kyokushinkai at the same time?

    thanks in advance !!!

    • Hello Fabrice,

      Your question is not simple and will depend on you and your ability to learn. A priori I think it is not impossible to learn several martial arts at the same time but in the beginning, it should not be obvious to make the right things and not to s'emméler brushes.

      You can always try and you'll see. You do not risk anything anyway so if you want to try both, do it.


  19. I want to thank you for this page open on true knowledge. it's true i just started karate shotokan but my enthusiasm is great and your site is a bargain so continue master. osu!

  20. there is an excellent work by Tokitsu k entitled "History of karate -Do" (1993) which allows to deepen the subject. There is a part on the Bubishi which is a good reason to enrich his library with the excellent work by Roland Habersetzer entitled "Bubishi at the source of Karate" (2007).

  21. Good evening everyone,

    It is always good to know. I read the history of karate with a lot of interest. I congratulate you once again for the efforts made for us to produce these lessons. Courage and sincere thanks.

  22. Hi Bruno,

    A historian friend explained to me that karate was practiced openly at the base. Since most practitioners and teachers were peasants, this was not a problem given the strength and resistance they had in their hands.

    When the last of these masters was more or less forced to teach his art to the nobles and bureaucrats, they broke his fingers too easily. He decided to teach them with closed hands to avoid this.

    I'm doing an explanation of what he told me, because the discussions were very detailed and long enough
    I do not remember the name of this famous master.

    I wanted to know if you had heard of this story? This will not surprise me considering the number of techniques of spades present in karate. In our traditional Vietnamese martial arts school, we have a high guard and open hands.


  23. SANOGO Abdoulaye at

    Dear friend,

    Thank you for this reminder about the history of Karate. Simple and well summarized, it gives the important dates of our art.
    This text comforts me in my conviction that sports and commercial drifts degrade our art whose source is noble.

    Thank you for the quality of the articles on your site which is gradually becoming "our site".


  24. Short summary and yet full of information ...
    The story of the creation of Karate Shotokan is what interests me, because on the one hand this style is called "Modern Karate", but on the other hand being the most popular and present in France - it is not (for example) in the country I come from. It is for this reason, until some time I was convinced that this style is only "one among many others", and despite being most often taught in France, can not pretend in the name of "the most important" (nor can we say: "Shotokan - it's modern karate" without being able to say the same about other styles).
    From the article, I understood that from the Gichin Funakoshi school in Japan, his style has "spread" as the first in France - but is the fact that in other countries we have to do with the different styles, one can understand that there is no "one" Modern Karate, and that full of other styles and schools can claim this name?

    Could we expect, perhaps soon, articles on Karate Kyokushinkai and other Karate styles, with information where - in which countries - is each style the most prevalent?
    It would be super-interesting ...

    • Master Funakoshi presented his style in Karate Kyohon which I put the link. All photos have been changed later, after 1935, and it's not the same anymore, while on the original photos his techniques are similar to ShitoRyu. The founder of WadoRyu has kept the names and certain aspects of pre-shotokan karate (eg yokogeri is a "mae geri" on the side). Among the masters who went to Japan for karate, there was Master Mabuni and Chojun Myagi. The latter was the only one to be awarded the title of Kyoshi at Dai Nippon Butokukai.
      What is referred to as "shotokan" is the karate of Yoshitaka Funajoshi, the son) who practiced in a way that his father disapproved of (including kumite). Differences in positions imply differences when using the force of hips.But it is diffcult to say the martial arts are this or that, because specialists like Don Draegger speak of internal and external as being able to mean outside or not to China.When a Egami are style is incredibly long ... (the angle of the knee must damage the meniscus in my opinion). A disciple of the Master of Me Funakoshi is Master Motobu who unlike others liked to fight in the street and whose techniques are photographed. It's pure selfense. For Okinawian karate there are three main styles: ShitoRyu, GojuRyu and UechoRyu.

      As for Japanese styles, there is the Kokushinkai style and others that are close. Given my size I would not venture but it looks nice.I think we are very uninformed and for the avirs of people in Japan: there is

      Explanations by geography seem ridiculous to me, in the agglomerations of the plains or the mountains the streets are flat ... it would be like to say that the Thai boxing in the Seine St Denis is because the RER C does not allow skipped techniques .

  25. Hello Bruno,

    Speaking of the history of Karate, it reminds me of a question I ask myself.
    Why in Karate we use closed points in the guard? It seems to me that the traditional guards were done with open hands, in stiff pikes.

    Thank you for this great article.


    • Hi Fabien,

      I do not quite agree with what you say. On guard, our fists are not closed, but relaxed, so half-closed, half-open.
      It sometimes seems like fists are closed in competition because of the gloves, but they are not.

      After the strikes, it is true that we use much more closed fists than open hand and it is probably due to changes made by Master Itosu to make karate accessible to the general public. Indeed, a closed fist in relation to an open hand is like putting a protective cap at the end of a sword ...
      Well it's not quite that, but it's true that open hand, techniques can very quickly be very dangerous ...

    • I practice shotokan (but I practiced a year UechiRyu) and open hand techniques are prohibited in competition (face level) of common karate which explains their lack of interest And often the unmodernized martial arts are pure self-defense and that on a side a little "gore" .. we are more in sports.
      In Uechi karate, your fingers are strong enough to deflect and grab and hit as well. The idea is not the relative power but the speed on sensitive areas.
      The strokes, the fingers stretched and the same for the feet, require conditioning and reinforcement. For the fingers it starts with some kind of pumps on the folded fingers. What seems to be very important in okinawa karate is the UKE. Some kind of interception in the attack, but I'm not very competent. Hence the explanation there is no first attack we are in pure self defense: a reaction to an immediate attack (later it is revenge and more self-defense).

  26. Hello Bruno,

    Thank you for publishing this article clear, simple and straightforward that teaches us or remembers (depending on the case) the sources of our common martial art. The end synoptic is perfect for reading.

  27. Thank you Sensei ... for your devotion to the martial arts.I just discovered a lot of things thanks to your writings, I mean: the brochures and the history of karate which I did not know outright being very small in knowledge of karate.Be blessed Sensei .

  28. Some truths restored

    Be careful, however, that wado-ryu, Shito-ryu, etc. are not styles but karate schools derived from naha-te, shuri-te and tomari-te styles.

  29. thank you,
    I just added a PS to specify that I was strongly inspired by a course that Pascal Girodet had given us in my training at BE1. For the diagram at the end, I only copy the one I had in my class.
    Thank you Pascal.

  30. Bruno, congratulations for this beautiful blog ... .and thank you for the history of karate ... very good !!!! Thank you for your passion! Michel Arcand, black belt kenpo chinese

  31. And now we understand the story better
    a small question? is what can be said then that karate is the mother of the martial arts and that the other types came after
    because in karate for example we work hand and hand while in taekwondo we work just the foot and like that we find that each martial art has specialized in some characters of karate !!!

    thank you to you Prof Bruno

  32. Good evening Bruno

    Thank you for going back, knowing the origins and roots of karate is important for beginners and we also teachers. Do not forget that karate is not only a combat sport but also a martial art that also allows you to do a lot of work on yourself. Even if the path is long, it's not worth it.

    Yours Bruno and thank you again for your research.


  33. Thank you for this little history lesson. It's very well summarized and very understandable.
    Very nice to read

    Thank you for this excellent website

    Ciao and long live the sport!

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