History of Karate

History of Karate

The evolution of Karate began over a thousand years ago, with styles flourishing all over far east Asia.

Bodhidharma One notable milestone in the martial arts calendar began early in the 5th Century AD when Bodhidarma, a travelling monk, entered China from India with his own form of spiritual teaching and self defence.

Bodhidarma’s teaching of Zen Buddhism led him to believe that his followers were weak and not of sound mind, he thus developed and introduced systemised sets of exercise and physical techniques of Yoga, which consisted of stretching posture and deep breathing. This format was designed to strengthen the mind and body and the exercises later lent itself to the beginning of the Shaolin style of temple Kung fu. It was through breathing and meditation that practitioners developed almost superhuman skills to defend themselves against hostile bandits and so began the myths of the Shaolin monks. It is within these principles of Bodhidharma’s teachings that martial arts evolved and formed the basis for a majority of the Chinese martial arts. A philosophy that later found its way across Asia to the Japans.

Hundreds of years later we find ourselves at Okinawa, a small island in the Ryu Kyu chain which leaves the tip southern most tip of Japan and leads to mainland China. In 1609 Okinawa was invaded by the local daimyo of the Shimazu clan. Being at the crossroads of a major trading route its significance within the Empire was of great importance. The rebellion to overthrow the samurai rule in Okinawa led to the first banning of all weapons by the Japanese invaders. This drove local resistance fighters to seek basic empty hand techniques.

However it was the second rebellion and banning of weapons on the island that formed the catalyst for the martial art system we know today as “karate”, based on the indigenous form of closed fist fighting known early on as Okinawan Te, or ‘hand’. These weapons bans, imposed on the Okinawans at various points in their history, encouraged the refinement of the empty-hand style. Further influences from other martial arts systems brought by nobles and trade merchants to the island also found their way into this Okinawan system. As time passed, Karate and its development soon took on a more clandestine route and remained a secret until modern times and the advent of World War Two.

Te continued to develop over the years, primarily in three Okinawan cities: Shuri, Naha and Tomari. Each of these towns was a centre to a different sect of society: kings and nobles, merchants and business people, and farmers and fishermen, respectively. No doubt, there was a system in place. However, it was until someone called Sokon Matsumura put together a collection of prescribed moves, that Karate started resembling the martial art we know at present. The moves were called “Kata”.

For this reason, different forms of self-defence developed within each city and subsequently became known as Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te. Collectively they were called Okinawa-Te or Tode, ‘Chinese hand’. Gradually, karate was divided into two main groups: Shorin-ryu, which developed around Shuri and Tomari and Shorei-ryu which came from the Naha area. It is important to note, however, that the towns of Shuri, Tomari, Naha are only a few miles apart, and that the differences between their arts were essentially ones of emphasis, not of kind. Beneath these surface differences, both in the methods and aims of all Okinawan karate. Gichin Funakoshi goes further to suggest that these two styles were developed based on different physical requirements. Shorin-ryu was quick and linear with natural breathing while Shorei-ryu emphasized steady, rooted movements with breathing in synchrony with each movement. Interestingly, this concept of two basic styles also exist in kung-fu with a similar division of characteristics.



The first public demonstration of karate in Japan was in 1917 by Gichin Funakoshi, at the Butoku-den in Kyoto. This, and subsequent demonstrations, greatly impressed many Japanese, including the Crown-Prince Hirohito, who was very enthusiastic about the Okinawan art. In 1922, Dr. Jano Kano, founder of the Japanese art of Judo, invited Funakoshi to demonstrate at the famous Kodokan Dojo and to remain in Japan to teach karate. This sponsorship was instrumental in establishing a base for karate in Japan.

As an Okinawan “peasant art,” karate would have been scorned by the Japanese without the backing of so formidable a martial arts master. Today there are four main styles of karate-do in Japan: Goju-ryu, Shito-ryu, Shotokan, and Wado-ryu: Shotokan was founded by Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) in Tokyo in 1938. Funakoshi is considered to be the founder of modern karate. Born in Okinawa, he began to study karate with Yasutsune Azato, one of Okinawa’s greatest experts in the art. In 1921 Funakoshi first introduced Karate to Tokyo. In 1936, at nearly 70 years of age, he opened his own training hall. The dojo was called Shotokan after the pen name (shoto) used by Funakoshi to sign poems written in his youth. Shotokan Karate is characterized by powerful linear techniques and deep strong stances.


Mas Oyama

One of Funakoshi’s students was the legendary Mas Oyama. Masutatsu (Mas) Oyama was born Yong I-Choi on the 27th of July, 1923, in a village not far from Gunsan in Southern Korea. At a relatively young age he was sent to Manchuria, in Southern China, to live on his sister’s farm. At the age of nine, he started studying the Southern Chinese form of Kempo called Eighteen hands from a Mr. Yi who was at the time working on the farm.

When Oyama returned to Korea at the the age of 12, he continued his training in Korean Kempo. In 1938, at the age of 15, he travelled to Japan to train as an aviator, to be like his hero of the time, Korea’s first fighter pilot. Survival on his own at that age proved to be more difficult than he thought, especially as a Korean in Japan, and the aviator training fell by the wayside.

He did however continue martial arts training, by participating in judo and boxing, and one day he noticed some students training in Okinawan Karate. This interested him very much and he went to train at the dojo of Gichin Funakoshi at Takushoku University. His training progress was such that by the age of seventeen he was already a 2nd dan, and by the time he entered the Japanese Imperial Army at 20, he was a fourth dan. At this point he also took a serious interest in judo, and his progress there was no less amazing. By the time he had quit training in Judo, the defeat of Japan and the subsequent indignity of Occupation almost proved to be too much for Mas Oyama, who nearly despaired. Fortunately, So Nei Chu came into his life at that time. Master So, another Korean (from Oyama’s own province) living in Japan, was one of the highest authorities on Goju Ryu in Japan at the time. He was renowned for both his physical and spiritual strength. It was he who encouraged Mas Oyama to dedicate his life to the Martial Way. It was he too who suggested that Oyama should retreat away from the rest of the world for 3 years while training his mind and body.

When he was 23 years old, Mas Oyama met Eiji Yoshikawa, the author of the novel Musashi, which was based on the life and exploits of Japan’s most famous Samurai. Both the novel and the author helped to teach Mas Oyama about the Samurai Bushido code and what it meant. That same year, Oyama went to Mt. Minobu in the Chiba Prefecture, where Musashi had developed his Nito-Ryu style of swordfighting. Oyama thought that this would be an appropriate place to commence the rigours of training he had planned for himself. Among the things he took with him was a copy of Yoshikawa’s book. A student named Yashiro also came with him.

The relative solitude was strongly felt, and after 6 months, Yashiro secretly fled during the night. It became even harder for Oyama, who wanted more than ever to return to civilisation. So Nei Chu wrote to him that he should shave off an eyebrow in order to get rid of the urge. Surely he wouldn’t want anyone to see him that way! This and other more moving words convinced Oyama to continue, and he resolved to become the most powerful karate-ka in Japan.

It was his sponsor who informed him that he was no longer able to support him and so, after fourteen months, he had to end his solitude. A few months later, in 1947, Mas Oyama won the karate section of the first Japanese National Martial Arts Championships after WWII. But still he felt empty for not having completed the three years of solitude he had set himself. During this phase in his life Oyama decided to dedicate his life completely to karate-do, and so he started again for his quest of solitude and enlightenment, this time on Mt. Kiyozumi, also in Chiba Prefecture. This site he chose for its spiritually uplifting environment.

This time his training was fanatical – 12 hours a day every day with no rest, standing under (cold) buffeting waterfalls, breaking river stones with his hands, using trees as makiwara, jumping over rapidly growing flax plants hundreds of times each day. Each day also included a period of study of the ancients classics on the Martial arts, Zen, and philosophy.

After eighteen months he came down fully confident of himself, and able to take control of his life.

masoyama2In 1950, Sosai (the founder) Mas Oyama started testing (and demonstrating) his power by fighting bulls. In all, he fought 52 bulls, three of which were killed instantly, and 49 had their horns taken off with knife hand blows. That it is not to say that it was all that easy for him. Oyama was fond of remembering that his first attempt just resulted in an angry bull. In 1957, at the age of 34, he was nearly killed in Mexico when a bull got some of his own back and gored him. Oyama somehow managed to pull the bull off and break off his horn. He was bedridden for 6 months while he recovered from the usually fatal wound.

In 1952, Mas Oyama travelled the United States for a year, demonstrating his karate live and on national televison. During subsequent years, he took on all challengers, resulting in fights with 270 different people. The vast majority of these were defeated with one punch! A fight never lasted more than three minutes, and most rarely lasted more than a few seconds. His fighting principle was simple – if he got through to you, that was it.

If he hit you, you broke. If you blocked a rib punch, your arm was broken or dislocated. If you didn’t block, your rib was broken. He became known as the Godhand, a living manifestation of the Japanese warriors’ maxim Ichi geki, Hissatsu or “One strike, certain death”. To him, this was the true aim of technique in karate. The fancy footwork and intricate techniques were secondary (though he was also known for the power of his head kicks).

In 1953, Mas Oyama opened his first “Dojo”, a grass lot in Mejiro in Tokyo. In 1956, the first real Dojo was opened in a former ballet studio behind Rikkyo University, 500 meters from the location of the current Japanese honbu dojo (headquarters). By 1957 there were 700 members, despite the high drop-out rate due to the harshness of training.

Headed by Mas Oyama the beginning of Kyokushin and the current World Headquarters were officially opened in June 1964, where the name Kyokushin, meaning “Ultimate truth” was adopted. In the same year the International Karate Organization (IKO) was established. From then, Kyokushin continued to spread to more than 120 countries, and registered members exceed 10 million making it one of the largest martial arts organisations in the world. Among the better known Kyokushinyudansha (black belts) are Sean Connery (Honorary shodan), Dolph Lundgren (sandan, former Australian heavyweight champion), and President Nelson Mandela of South Africa (Honorary hachidan), and most recently (June 1988), the Australian Prime Minister, John Howard (Honorary godan) who was awarded the grade at the official opening of the Sydney Kyokushin dojo.

Another notable Kyokushin student was the young Kaicho Bernard Creton, his journey and the founding of Karate Jutsu Kai can be found here

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