History of Karate

Definition of Karate

The Japanese term 'Karate' which means 'empty hand' is used to describe the techniques of fighting with the body's natural weapons. The tremendous offensive and defensive power of Karate is well known.

Karate is an art with which one can defeat enemies with a single fist attack or kick, without weapons. Karate is a physical and mental mastery of an art destined to improve the union of the body, mind and spirit and also serves as a method of perfecting one's own abilities.

Karate's philosophy is: that one who masters its techniques can defend themselves readily without resort to weapons; and that in daily life, one's mind and body be trained and developed in a spirit of humility; and that in critical times, one be devoted to the cause of justice.

The mastery over all the effective karate techniques brings an inner peace and calm which is difficult to find in combat sports using weapons, or in those which contain the limitations and restrictions of a sporting objective.

The techniques of Karate are based on sound scientific principles. Throughout its long history, the art of Karate has undergone refinement. More recently, it has also benefited from advances in understanding of physical and mechanical laws.

History of Japanese Karate

The first Okinawan master to introduce the art of karate to the Japanese people was Gichin Funakoshi. He was often referred to as 'the father of modern karate-do'. The style that Funakoshi originally brought with him, 'Shuri-te', had been characterized by close-range techniques intended mainly for use of throwing methods and low-level kicks.

 Gichin Funakoshi, circa 1955

Gichin Funakoshi, circa 1955

Gichin was born prematurely; a condition which in those days was a precursor of ill health and a short life. Funakoshi's father took Gichin to Yasutsune Azato, the great scholar and karate master, and implored Azato to teach the boy karate to improve his health. Azato did accept Funakoshi, and the course of the boy's life was changed completely.

As the young Funakoshi grew toward manhood, his interest in karate grew stronger. Night after night, he would walk in the dark, sometimes carrying a dim lantern, to Azato's house and would there place himself in the sensei's hands. Because of his attachment to Azato, Funakoshi was able to meet and train under many of the best karate masters of the day in Okinawa.

The first formal, recorded demonstration of the art was performed by Funakoshi to the Commissioner of Okinawan schools in 1902. So taken with the sincerity of the man and the vigor of his students he recommended, to the Ministry of Education, that Funakoshi's karate be instituted on a formal basis in the Okinawan school system.

Because of Funakoshi's academic and philosophical approach to karate, the art quickly attracted interest from the intellectuals and educators of the day and Funakoshi, an educator himself, was always available to demonstrate and explain.

In 1917, The Ministry of Education asked Funakoshi to demonstrate his art for the first time in Japan.

A few years later Gichin Funakoshi formally introduced karate to the Japanese people, at the Women's Normal School, in Tokyo on April 1, 1922. At that time he also established the first formal Japanese karate club at the Meisei Juku, in the Suidobata section of Tokyo.

In 1924, at the age of 56, when most men are contemplating retirement, Funakoshi was granted permission to give a formal karate demonstration. Karate began to grow steadily, primarily through the universities and colleges, but also through instruction to groups of employees at companies.

In 1925, students from various other colleges started coming to Funakoshi for instruction and they gradually organized clubs on their campuses over the course of the next few years. The growth of Funakoshi's karate continued unabated throughout the 1930s and soon spawned several other schools or styles.

It was in 1935 that Funakoshi first actually acknowledged his position as undisputed leader of the karate movement in Japan. Funakoshi suggested that something as foreign as karate should be considered Japanese and proposed that the characters which had represented karate as Chinese throughout all the written history should be changed to different characters representing something entirely different. He chose another character for 'kara' which meant 'empty' or 'rendering oneself empty'.

Funakoshi pointed out that kara represented truth itself. He believed more correctly that it represented the true nature of karate-do as a method of developing perfection in human character.

From that moment forward the techniques of 'Chinese hands' became 'karate-do' 'the way of the empty hand'.

By 1940, Japan was engaged in war on several fronts. Funakoshi's dojo was filled with eager young men. Many of them were called to duty and some of the most promising karate students were lost in battle.

In 1945, Funakoshi's dojo was completely destroyed in an air raid. Encouraged by the return of many of his students from the war, Funakoshi embarked upon a rebuilding project for karate in 1947.

In 1953, the U.S. government prevailed upon Funakoshi to demonstrate karate for members of the Strategic Air Command (SAC) at several Far Eastern bases. At the age of 83, this remarkable man boarded a U.S. government plane accompanied by several of his top students and toured many U.S. air bases where they demonstrated karate to thousands of members of SAC.

This milestone event, about which very little has been written, was one of the most significant stepping stones in the formation of karate in the United States. It was the cornerstone for the foundation of the martial arts relationship between Japan and America.

After its introduction to Japan, karate continued to evolve and develop into individual styles, according to the particular aspects emphasized by the respective senior instructors. It has been estimated that there are more than 70 different systems of Japanese karate today.

When Funakoshi passed away on April 26, 1957 he took with him forever the unifying forces of Shotokan karate-do.

Shotokan Karate


The name Shotokan comes from the world's first karate dojo, which was constructed in 1939 by Funakoshi's students. They placed a plaque over the door that said "Shotokan," in honor of Funakoshi 'The Hall of Pine Waves'. This dojo was destroyed in an American bombing raid on Japan in 1945 and was never rebuilt.

The founder of the style, Gichin Funakoshi, signed his works of calligraphy with the pen name Shoto. The word Kan means building. Together, Shotokan refers to the building in which Funakoshi taught Karate.

The word Shotokan is composed of three kanji characters in Japanese. The 'Sho' character is taken from the word Matsu which means pine tree. 'To' is the character for waves. Pine Waves is supposed to mean "the sound that pine trees make when the wind blows through their needles."

The tiger (shown below), which is commonly used as the symbol for Shotokan karate, is a traditional Chinese design which implies that the 'tiger never sleeps'.

 Tora No Maki

Tora No Maki

Exemplified in the Shotokan tiger therefore, is the keen alertness of the wakeful tiger and the serenity of the peaceful mind which Gichin Funakoshi experienced while meditating on Tiger's tail Mountain.

Shotokan karate places a great importance on forms training and the use of low stances. It also fosters a strong, determined spirit. The techniques employed are well-suited to competition, being essentially strong and vigorous.

Shotokan Karate-Do International Federation

 Hirokazu Kanazawa Soke

Hirokazu Kanazawa Soke

The Shotokan Karate-Do International Federation is an organization which seeks to promote the ideals and philosophy of Shotokan karate throughout the world.  Headquartered in Japan, the SKIF has over two million members across 130 countries.

The SKIF was founded in 1978 by Hirokazu Kanazawa.  He is one of the few living karate practitioners to have studied directly under Gichin Funakoshi.

In 1958, Kanazawa participated in the first All Japan Karate Championship.  He won in the category of kumite(sparring) with a broken wrist.  The next year, he won the championship for both kumite and kata.  

In the 1960's, Kanazawa traveled to Hawaii and Europe to establish and promote karate schools.  He served as the first President of the Hawaii Karate Congress and later became Chief Instructor for the Karate Union of Great Britain.

Today, Hirokazu Kanazawa continues to serves as Soke(supreme instructor) of the SKIF.   In 2013, he passed his former title of Kancho(head of the organization) on to his son Nobuaki.  At the same time, Manabu Murakami was promoted to Chief Instructor.  This transition to the next generation ensures the future development and expansion of the SKIF.