A brief history of Shotokan karate

Shotokan karate is the most powerful and dynamic of the Japanese martial arts of karate and is generally considered to be the most comprehensive, both in the range of its techniques and the number and diversity of its kata. To understand the basis of Shotokan and to appreciate the rich pedigree of karate, it is helpful to know a little regarding its origins and the history of its development.


Shotokan was developed on Okinawa, the largest and most important island of the Ryukyu Island chain that lies in the East China sea, between the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and the main southern island of Japan. It is a small island, 67 miles long and varying between 2 and 17 miles wide. Historically, the islanders lived a simple existence based on fishing and crude agriculture with little outside interference until around the 5th century when Japanese and Chinese traders began to use Okinawa as a staging post for trade with each other, South East Asia and Korea.

As early as the 7th century a tradition of empty hand fighting existed on Okinawa. This tradition was known for centuries in Okinawan simply as Te (literally ="hand").

1372 saw a period of cultural and social change begin when one of the three kingdoms of Okinawa entered into a formal relationship with China, with Okinawa as a whole forming an entirely subordinate relationship with China in 1429 when it was was united under one king, Sho-Hashi. This proved highly beneficial for the development of te with many Chinese fighting traditions being combined with existent Okinawan techniqies. Since the term To or Do (depending on pronunciation) was the term used to refer to the Tang dynasty (which was synonymous with China itself at this time), the resultant merging fusion of styles become more commonly referred to as To-te or Tode, hence "Tang hand" or "China hand" fighting.

The banning of weapons

Around 1477, a new king, Sho-Shin, banned the carrying of swords. This was subsequently followed by the banning of all weapons, as a way of dealing with rebellious warlords. A natural consequence of this ban was to further stimulate the interest in the weaponless fighting arts which were a necessity to the Okinawans due to their need to defend themselves from the Wa-Ko (pirates) that terrorized the towns and cities of the region.

Okinawa's golden age came to an end in 1609 following a successful invasion by the dominant Satsuma clan from Japan's south island. In addition to introducing new and more severe levels of taxation, the victorious Japanese continued to enforce the total ban on weapons, a policy which made the islanders even more determined to develop their indigenous martial arts.

The emergence of Naha-te, Shuri-te and Tomari-te

In 1669, the ban on weapons was joined by a further edict banning the practice of martial arts themselves, forcing training to become a covert activity to be practised in great secrecy. Over the next two centuries, martial art techniques were refined and systematised, with three distinct styles of Tode becoming dominant; Naha-te, Shuri-te and Tomari-te, each named after the village in which they were taught.

Tode becomes Karate

In 1879, with Japan united and the power of the Satsuma clan broken, Okinawa officially became a province of Japan, meaning that the practice of martial arts was no longer illegal. In addition, the Japanese language played an increasingly dominant role in the education system, meaning that Japanese pronunciation began to be more frequently used for existing Chinese and Okinawan words.

Since the character for "Tang" was pronounced as to in Chinese and kara in Japanese, karate replaced tode as the name for the Okinawan fighting art, even though the written characters used remained unchanged.

Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu

By the end of the nineteenth century, the arts of Shuri-te and Tomari-te had more or less unified in terms of their curriculum and came to be referred to collectively as Shorin-ryu. Naha-te retained a greater emphasis on Chinese boxing than the other martial arts and was subsequently named Shorei-ryu to distinguish it from Shorin-ryu.

Gichin Funakoshi

Born in Okinawa in 1868, Gichin Funakoshi is considered to be the father of modern karate. As a boy, he trained as a student with the both of the greatest karate masters of the age, one in the art of Shorei-ryu and the other in the art of Shorin-ryu. After years of study, Funakoshi created a simpler system that combined the styles of both and formed a synthesis of their ideals. Interestingly, Funakoshi never actually named the fighting style that he developed, just preferring to call it karate. For Funakoshi, the word karate itself eventually took on a deeper and broader meaning, becoming karate-do, literally the "way of karate". He believed that training in karate-do became an education for life itself.

Gichin Funakoshi

House of Shoto

However, in addition to being a karate master, Funakoshi was an avid poet and philosopher who would reportedly go for long walks in the forest where he would meditate and write poetry used his pen name, Shoto (which means "waving pines"). Funakoshi's students wrote the name Shoto-kan on a sign that they placed above the entrance of the hall at which Funakoshi taught karate. The word kan means training hall, or house, thus Shotokan referred to the "House of Shoto" and was subsequently adopted as the name of the style of karate that Funakoshi had developed.

Royal Approval

In 1916, Funakoshi gave a demonstration at the martial arts training hall in Kyoto, which at that time was the official center of all martial arts in Japan. In 1921 he lead a demonstration for the Crown Prince Hirohito (later to become the Emperor of Japan) whose approval led to invitations from various groups in Tokyo (including the Ministry of Education) for further demonstrations of his art. These demonstrations lead to the establishment of many clubs in Japan's universities and resulted in Funakoshi deciding to stay in Japan in order to promote his art.

During the next twenty years Funakoshi and his senior students continued to develop the art of Shotokan, building the first dedicated dojo in Tokyo in 1939 and adopting a standardised ranking system and training uniform.

From China hand to empty hand

During this period, the idea of replacing the first character in the word karate from "China" to "empty" (a change which retained the original pronunciation due to both characters sounding the same in Japanese) was proposed by the Butokukai (the Japanese organization tasked with preserving and promoting the martial arts in Japan) as a way of allowing karate to be perceived as a purely Japanese art, rather than a imported Okinawan art with Chinese origins.

However, Funakoshi argued that purely from a philosophical perspective, the term "empty hand" seemed more fittingly to reflect Zen concepts of the notion of emptiness, implying more than just a hand holding no weapon. This deeper philosophical association elevated karate to Funakoshi's belief in it as an art of self-perfection rather than simply as a means of self-defence. He wrote:

"Just as an empty valley can carry a resounding voice, so must the person who follows the Way of karate make himself void or empty by ridding himself of all self-centeredness and greed. Make yourself empty within, but upright without. This is the real meaning of the "empty" in karate. [In this sense] karate explicitly states the basis of all the martial arts. Form equals emptiness; emptiness equals form."

Niju Kun

Funakoshi published several books on karate, including his autobiography, Karate-Do: My Way of Life. His legacy, however, rests in a document containing his philosophies of karate training now referred to as the Niju Kun, or "twenty principles". These rules are the premise of training for all Shotokan practitioners and are published in a work titled The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate. Within this book, Funakoshi lays out 20 rules by which students of karate are urged to abide in an effort to "become better human beings".

Gichin Funakoshi died in 1957 at the age of 88, but not before establishing one of the most popular martial arts in the world.

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