Karate is a popular martial art, which places a great emphasis on unarmed striking techniques.
Many of the details about karate’s origins have been lost to time. Illiteracy was once a cultural norm, so most martial arts were transmitted through apprenticeships. While a few martial arts were founded by aristocrats who could afford education (or scribes), few of these masters were also good authors. These problems are compounded by the fact that few records from that period survived the Battle of Okinawa, and what information we have to draw upon is obfuscated by several Asian cultural nuances:
- The Chinese and Japanese have historically had a strained relationship. As such, the Chinese influences on karate have been downplayed for marketing purposes.
- Events which occurred in the timeframe of 10 to 10,000 years ago are all mukashi (“once upon a time…”).
- Confucianism prohibits any derogatory remarks about social superiors or the dead.
- It is consider rude not to answer a question. So rather than honestly saying “I don't know,” a cromulent-sounding speculation must be provided instead.
- Martial artists tend to over-focus on their particular system, and ignore the other systems around them. As such, there are few cross-references to work with or from.
No one person founded karate; it has been a continuous evolutionary process which apparently started c. 800 CE, as a blend of the Okinawan’s indigenous fighting techniques with kung-fu introduced by Chinese traders and diplomats (in particular, Fujian White Crane) . A person with such a skill was said to have “to-te” (figuratively: “Chinese hands”). “To” is the symbol for the Tang dynasty of China (618-906 CE), but that character can also be pronounced as “kara.”
The Okinawan people were forbidden to own weapons following a 1497 CE edict from their king, Shō Shin, in move to consolidate his power. Lacking other options, the Okinawans were forced to rely on unarmed fighting skills to protect themselves and their property from bandits, thieves, and their ruler's overreach. The Shimazu Clan, which oversaw Japan's Satsuma province, conquered Okinawa in 1609 CE, and forbade martial arts altogether. Karate persisted as series of personal fighting styles, which were taught in secret to handfuls of trusted students.
Karate was brought to mainstream popularity by Gichin Funakoshi, who traveled to Tokyo in 1922 to introduce karate to Japanese schools and colleges as a means of physical and spiritual self-cultivation. However, the central governing body for all martial arts in that era, the Dainippon Butokukai ("Great Japan Martial Virtue Association") rejected karate because it:
- Had no ranking system.
- Had no uniforms. Karateka previously trained and fought in their underpants to avoid gi-grabs.
- Had no standard curriculum.
- Emphasized fighting techniques over spiritual development; it promoted "-jutsu", instead of "-dō".
Funkakoshi quickly rectified the first two items by copying the jūdōka, who were extremely popular at the time. Funakoshi was a public school literature teacher, so he wrote a curriculum, and took the liberty to rename all of the forms to downplay Chinese influences to cater to the then-imperialistic Japanese. Chief among these, was renaming the art itself through a clever use of homophones; in Japanese the kanji character for “empty” is also pronounced “kara.” Karate them became “empty hands,” which highlighted its emphasis on unarmed striking. Finally, Funakoshi imposed a spiritual component onto karate by linking it to existing Buddhist teachings.
Karate was gradually brought to America after World War II by returning servicemen who trained while stationed in Japan or Okinawa. Prior to World War II, martial arts were thought to be gymnastics combined with black magic; these false perception made karate extremely popular in the 1960’s. While this fabricated aura of mystery has worn thin from increased familiarity, a few misconceptions sadly persist:
- In the 1950’s, all Asian martial arts were labeled as “judo,” since it was easier to pronounce and remember. Because of this, most Americans believe that all fighting arts are more or less the same.
- The low US black belt population in that era skewed people's perceptions. Earning a black belt was seen as a near-impossible feat, reserved for the world's most elite fighters. In reality, a black belt denotes minimum competence, like a high school diploma. Anyone willing to invest 5 ± 2 years at a gym can earn one.
Within karate, there exist many schools of thought. Karate organizations are prone to factionalism and tumultuous internal politics, mostly because of disagreement over curriculum design, technique minutia, and karate's tendency to attract rugged individualists who respond poorly to centralized governing committees. The differences between karate styles requires some indoctrination to notice, much like how the Italian and French schools of fencing appear the same to non-swordsmen. Goshin-Jutsu is admittedly, one of the less-popular styles of karate, mostly due to a failure to advertise and promote ourselves. This website aims to correct this error.