Karate

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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 by mutable oral traditions learned during an apprenticeship. While a few martial arts were founded by aristocrats who could afford education (or scribes), few of these masters were also good enough authors to do their arts justice. This is compounded by the fact that few, if any, records from this 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. Rather than saying “I don't know,” cromulent-sounded speculations are provided instead.
  • Martial artists tend to over-focus on their particular system, ignoring 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 continuing evolutionary process which appears to have started c. 800 CE, from a blending of the Okinawan’s indigenous fighting techniques with kung-fu (in particular, Fujian White Crane) introduced by Chinese traders and diplomats. 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 this character can also be pronounced as “kara.”

The Okinawan populace was forbidden to own weapons after a 1497 CE edict from their king, Shō Shin, in move to consolidate his power. The populace, lacking other options, was forced to rely on unarmed fighting skill to protect themselves and their property from bandits, thieves, and their ruler's overreach. The Shimazu Clan, which oversaw the Satsuma province of Japan, clan conquered Okinawa in 1609 CE, and forbade martial arts altogether. Karate continued to persist as a collection 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. Karate was originally rejected by the Dainippon Butokukai (Great Japan Martial Virtue Association), which at the time, was the central governing body for martial arts, because karate:

  • Had no ranking system.
  • Had no uniforms. (Karateka previously trained in their underpants to avoid gi-grabs).
  • Had no standard curriculum.
  • Emphasized fighting techniques over spiritual development (i.e., it promoted -jutsu, instead of -).

Funkakoshi rectified the first two items by copying the jūdōka, who were extremely popular at the time. Funakoshi, being a public school literature teacher, designed a curriculum, and took the liberty to rename all of the forms to downplay Chinese influences to make karate more palatable to the then-imperialistic Japanese. Chief among these, was renaming the art itself through the clever use of homophones; in Japanese the kanji character for “empty” is also pronounced “kara.” Karate them became “empty hands,” highlighting its emphasis on unarmed striking. Finally, Funakoshi imposed a spiritual component into 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, the martial arts were thought to be some combination of gymnastics and black magic; this false perception led karate to become extremely popular in the 1960’s. While this fabricated aura of mystery has mostly worn off through increased familiarity, a few misconceptions sadly persist:

  • In the 1950’s, all Asian martial arts were labeled “judo,” since it was easier to pronounce and remember. Because of this, most Americans think all fighting arts are more or less the same.
  • Due to the low population of black belts in the US, earning one was thought to be a near-impossible feat, reserved for elite fighters. In reality, a black belt denotes minimum competence, like a high school diploma. Anyone willing to invest 5 ± 2 years in a gym can earn one.

While karate’s popularity has been eclipsed by other martial arts fads (e.g., Bruceploitation, the 80’s Ninja Craze), it continues to thrive because the classics are classics for a reason.

Within karate, there exist many schools of thought. Karate organizations are prone to factionalism and tumultuous internal politics, mostly because of disagreement over curricula, minutia in technique performance, and because karate tends to attract rugged individualists who respond poorly to the leadership of centralized governing committees. The differences between karate styles requires some indoctrination to notice -- just like how the Italian and French schools of fencing look the same to non-swordsmen. Goshin-Jutsu is admittedly, one of the less-popular styles of karate, mostly due to a lack of self-promotion. This website aims to correct this error.