The Evolution of Karate

To fully grasp the state of karate, as it is today, it is important to understand its roots and how it evolved over time.

Roots in Native Grappling

Before the Ryukyu Kingdom experienced significant Chinese influence, the original martial tradition of the land was a form of native grappling known as tegumi (手組) in Naha and as mutō (武当) in Tomari and Shuri. It was a grappling-based system that was eventually enhanced by regional martial influences. It was the precursor to Uchina-di, which is the foundation of modern karate. It incorporated joint locking, choking, and control techniques. It is interesting to note that  the kanji for kumite and tegumi share a similar meaning and the same characters; they are simply reversed: kumite (組手), meaning “crossing/grappling hands” and tegumi (手組), meaning “hands crossing/grappling”. Tegumi/mutō was widely practiced on Okinawa until the Taishō period (1912–1925).

Miyagi Chojun Sensei grappling with Miyazato Eiichi Sensei; evidence of tegumi's overlap with karate.

Miyagi Chojun Sensei grappling with Miyazato Eiichi Sensei; evidence of tegumi's overlap with karate.

Old Ryukyu and the Art's Golden Age

As regional trade increased, the practitioners of tegumi/mutō began to meld their grappling art with the martial arts of the other cultures they encountered. Predominant among them were the martial arts of China. Those Ryukyuans were well-educated members of the royal and warrior classes. They were primarily responsible for the security-related functions of the kingdom and therefore were put into positions where survival in combat was of great concern. They were not dogmatic about stylistic differences. If a technique worked they adopted it. Early training took place privately and with relatively few people training together at any one time. These were not superficial instructor/student relationships. The tradition was only passed on to trusted individuals; in many cases through family lineages, from a father to son. This fostered intimate sensei/deshi relationships over long periods of time that allowed for deep sharing and understanding. What emerged from this blending of martial traditions was a holistic martial system known as Te(手), or Di in the Uchinanchu dialect. 

Te: Art With Many Names

In time, local lineages of Shuri-te, Tomari-te, and Naha-te came to be referred to collectively as Karate (唐手), originally meaning "Tang Hand" or “China Hand”, in reference to its Chinese heritage. After the abolition of the Ryukyu Kingdom and during the Japanese annexation of Okinawa, the written form of the word "karate" was changed in an effort to conform to Japanese culture. Karate (空手) as it is written today means “Empty Hand”.

Okinawan masters meet in Naha in 1936 to discuss the meaning of "karate".

Okinawan masters meet in Naha in 1936 to discuss the meaning of "karate".

Meiji Restoration and Japanese Influence

Along with the changes to the written form of karate, changes in the training methods were adopted by many as well. The first wave of change was a response to the Japanese annexation of Okinawa. Itosu Ankō is well known for introducing karate to the Okinawan public school system. In an effort to teach the art to schoolchildren, he simplified many of the original kata and training methods and implemented formal instruction to large groups of people at once. This was a crucial departure from the intimate training that once predominated the art. One of Itosu's most famous students was Funakoshi Gichen. He is acknowledged as the founder of the Shotokan in Tokyo and the style that shares its name. Funakoshi, following Itosu's example, also made drastic changes to his native art in order for it to gain acceptance on the Japanese mainland. Most notably, he was the first to introduce the gi and the dan/kyu system into karate, just as Kano Jigoro had done with Judo. It is important to keep in mind that these men were, themselves Okinawan, brought up in the tradition and culture of karate. Any changes they made were likely done under the best of intentions for the art. Funakoshi wrote in his book, Karate-Do Kyohan, “In karate, hitting, thrusting, and kicking are not the only methods, throwing techniques and pressure against joints are also included. All of these techniques should be studied referring to basic kata.”

Students training en masse at Shuri Castle.

Students training en masse at Shuri Castle.

East Meets West

The second wave of changes occurred in the period between WWII and the Vietnam War. Events during this era put karate on global trajectory. American servicemen stationed on Okinawa began karate training with local sensei. However, due to cultural and language barriers and the short duration of most of their training, it is doubtful that the American students departed Okinawa with a deep understanding of the art. Many of these students returned home and opened dojo; relying on what little knowledge they had gained. It is important to remember that these men were warriors. The original U.S. soldiers and marines on the island fought through the Battle of Okinawa, the bloodiest battle in the Pacific. Later, American servicemen were either headed toward or returning from combat in Korea and Vietnam. These men could appreciate the serious nature of karate.  Again, any inaccuracies in the transmission of the art made by these early American students, though detrimental, were probably due to ignorance rather than selfishness.

Shimabuku Tatsuo Sensei with some of his American students.

Shimabuku Tatsuo Sensei with some of his American students.


The third, and most detrimental, wave of change occurred when westerners started to inject capitalism into karate and other Asian martial arts. In the interest of profit over principle, there was a complete departure from the art's holistic approach and spirit of karate. Flashy movements devoid of sound principle were passed off as “traditional” and "effective" while entire areas of training were neglected and forgotten. High rank has been awarded to people after training for a relatively short time and in some cases while they are still very young. All the while, this bastardized form became more popular and accessible than the original karate of Okinawa. From my experience, the pop-culture brand of “karate” is what comes to mind for most Americans. There are many people who ridicule this type of “karate” as nonsense, and rightfully so. However, the general public do not differentiate what they see in a “McDojo” from what karate truly is.

Current State of Karate

Today, karate is global. According to statistics published by Web Japan (a site sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs) there are at least 130 million karate enthusiasts world-wide. That is roughly ninety-one times the total population of Okinawa as of the date of this publication. Karate has also become much more splintered than it was in the old days. Where before there were no defined styles, today styles are heavily entrenched within the culture of karate. Some off-shoot styles, such as Shotokan and Kyukushin, are actually more popular than many of the styles native to Okinawa. There is also a disturbing trend within Okinawa itself. The Okinawan youth are showing less interest in pursuing their native art. While many of us here in the West are passionate about pursuing the Eastern arts and culture, many in the East desire a more Western lifestyle. With an aging generation of Okinawan karate-ka there is a concerning possibility that the wisdom of the art will not get passed on to those with the language and cultural heritage to understand it and translate it for the rest of the world. Globalization cuts both ways.

Despite all of these things, there is a growing movement to restore karate to a more holistic state and purpose. It is happening in pockets all over the world that are becoming more connected over time. It is being done by people with the drive to look broader and deeper. It is being done by people who choose to look past the ego and differences in style; people who choose to look both further back into history and forward into the future to connect the dots. It is being done by individuals like you who are pursuing the spirit of karate.

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