Prior to the 20th Century, many terms were used to describe certain forms existing in Okinawa. These forms were not found in Japan nor in China but many similarities were found in these countries.

Kempo: “Chan Fa and Ken Fat”
The meaning of “Kempo” in Japanese is “The Law Of The Fist” or “The Way Of Fist”. “Kempo” is read as “Chan Fa” in Mandarin and “Ken Fat” in Cantonese in China.

The Tang Dynasty influenced Japan in many ways. Government representatives had been exchanged during the Sui period but it was during the Tang period that the Japanese learned Chinese culture very deeply. There were many buildings built imitating Chinese design. So great was the influence by T’ang that the character “To” (also known as “Kara”) was used as an adjective meaning “T’ang=China.” For example, Kara Ningyo=China doll and To Jin=Chinese people. It is understandable that either Japanese or Okinawans named the fighting forms developed in Okinawa as “Tode” (then also read as “Karate”), not because these forms came from China but because of unknown factors. As a custom, when there was something unknown to Japanese people, they were pleased to believe that it must have come from China.


In 1905 Karate was included in the physical education curriculum of Okinawa’s intermediate schools (junior high). The ideographs (Tode) were standard in Okinawa at this time. In 1905 the Okinawa Master Chomo Hanagi first used the other (Karate) ideograph for his book Karate Soshu Hen.

Meeting in 1936

In 1936 Ryukyu Shimpo, an Okinawan newspaper, sponsored a meeting of Okinawan Karate masters to discuss the status of Karate in Okinawa. Yabu, Kiyamu, Motobu, Miyagi, and Hanagi were invited to Naha, the capital city of Okinawa and also the “Mecca” of the Karate world. In this meeting, the unification of writing was discussed and it was decided to change the name of the art to “Karate” meaning “empty hand”.

Reasons For This Change

1. They would establish the new origin. They believed Okinawan fighting arts could be independent from China even though they recognized that great influence by China that existed.

2. The new ideograph also represented the meaning of “Mu” “Ku” which has a stronger association with Zen philosophy than the old.

3. This was the art of fighting methods using no weapons but only the “empty hand”.


After the meeting, the letter was standardized and has remained unchanged to the present day. The ideograph was used occasionally by people who were reluctant to use changes even in the early 1960′s.
The Beginnings In India

According to legend, in the sixth century A.D., the Indian monk Daruma journeyed from India to China to teach the Liang dynasty monarch the tenets of Zen Buddhism. To endure this arduous journey, Daruma developed the physical and mental powers for which he was later renowned. After delivering the tenets of Buddhism, Daruma remained in China, staying in Shaolin Sze where he taught Buddhism to the Chinese monks. Here he became famous for teaching standards of Buddhism that were very strict physically as well as spiritually.

Although there are many stylistic similarities in the fighting arts of India and China, there is no solid evidence. There are Chinese texts documenting the existence of several Chinese martial art forms prior to Daruma’s journey in the 6th century.

I merely wish to affirm that the organized origins of Karate came into being during this time period, and that no known record either verifies or denies this contention.

The Chinese Influence
“Although the goal of Buddhism is the salvation of the soul, the body and soul cannot be separated. In weak physical condition one will never be able to perform the rigorous training necessary to attain true enlightenment.” So Daruma taught student monks Icchin which is regarded as the tool through which is necessary rigorous physical and mental training may be endured.

As a corollary of Daruma’s training, the monks at the Shaolin Temple won the reputation of being the best fighters in China.
Ch’Uen Yuan

Most Chan Fa systems are descendants of the one hundred-seventy hand and foot positions of Ch’ Uen Yuan and they can be traced back to Bodhidharma’s influence.
Branching Out

The Shaolin Chan Fa is listed as one of nine Wai Cha (external schools) of fighting systems and is regarded to be the first established system in China.

1. Shaolin Chan Fa…..Sui period or before
2. Hung Chuan……….Sung period (1127-1279)
3. Tau Tei Yu Tan Tui..Sung period
4. Hon Chaun………..Ming period (1368-1644)
5. Erh-Lang Men……..Ming period
6. Fan Chuan………..Ming period
7. Cha Chuan………..Ming period
8. Mi Tsung Yum……..Ching period(1699-1911)
9. Pa Chuan…………Ching period

In comparison there were the Nei Cha (internal schools), all from the Sung or post Sung Dynasties.

1. Wu Tang Pai
2. Tai Chi Chuan
3. Pa Kua Chaun
4. Hsin Yi Chua
5. Tzu Fan Men
6. Liu He Pa Fa


Sumo is perhaps the oldest known form or system of weaponless fighting in Japan and dates back beyond the mythological era (before 500 A.D.). The earliest legends tell of two god figures, Takeminakata No Kami and Takemikazuchi No Kami, who engaged in power contests. Another story relates the wrestling contests between Nomino Sikune No Mikoto and Taima NoKehaya. These contests are known to be the first between demi-gods and similar mythological beings.

In 607, during the Sui Dynasty, the first official Japanese ambassador was sent to China, and this exchange was maintained through the T’ang Dynasty. During this time Chinese influence flourished in Japan, and it is believed that Chan Fa was introduced along with many other things of Chinese origin.

Many forms of martial arts already existed in Japan during this time period which might carry the influence of Chan Fa in their fighting styles. However, these Chan Fa systems were never developed by the Japanese martial artists of the day. This lack of development was due to the structure of Japanese society. At that time, there was a very strong status system in Japan much like the caste system in India, and only the members of the samurai class were allowed to use weapons for fighting or train in the martial arts.

The samurai were respected because they protected the commoners. They were expected to behave in a respectful and courageous manner.. Through strong government control, the role of the samurai became a sacred trust, carrying “this burden of pride.” Being a member of the samurai class meant lifelong employment unless a samurai was found guilty of wrong doing. In that case, he and his family would lose their jobs permanently.

Samurai constantly practiced weaponry to better themselves and had time for little else. It is easy to see how weaponless fighting systems developed at that time would never gain enough popularity to be properly recognized. Even so, some forms of martial arts were developed like Torite and Ashikeri, and later Yawara and Jujitsu did exist among the lower class police forces. An interesting note is the similarities in the weapons (kobudo) developed in Japan and in Okinawa during this time period.
Early Stages

During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, many Japanese and Chinese representatives traveled with relative freedom between the two countries. This is also when Buddhism came to Japan and gained popularity. Interestingly, during the Heian period between 794-1184, many Buddhist monks were well trained in fighting methods and were used to maintain local law and order. Many became security guards for wealthy individuals in Kyoto. The popularity of Buddism made some temples so powerful that they became involved in many political upheavals. And because of the popularity of Buddism, the monks were untouchable by either the samurai or the government. Many temples became independent and secretive in their administration of religious matters due to the political intrigues.

This is believed to be the time when many martial arts developed in Japan. Wars and battles were still decided by the samurai, but the art of fighting systems was practiced and developed by the Buddhist monks.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi

In 1592, this great general decided to fulfill his dream of conquering the world. He had conquered Japan and sought to continue his quest by marching on to China. Many of his generals were against this plan, and it soon proved to be a disaster as the Japanese faced too many disadvantages. Ships were not powerful enough, the climate was against them, the generals in Korea were not familiar enough with the terrain to plan strategic advances, and resistance was much stronger than expected. The dream was ended with the death of Hideyoshi in 1598 without a single Japanese soldier ever setting foot on Chinese soil.

The failure of this conquest cost Toyotomi not only his life and his fortune, but also his dynasty. Once again the peace of the entire nation was in shambles. The conflict between the remainder of the Toyotomi clan and the rival clan of Tokugawa Dynasty began and was to last for the next three hundred years.

It is oral history that many warriors came back from the failed conquest of China with some kind of hand-to-hand combat system. But as history has revealed, the warriors reached only Korea and not China.

The basic form of self-defense are perhaps as old as mankind. The art of Karate as it is widely practiced today can be traced back to Okinawan martial arts systems called “Te”, meaning “hand”. Te later was renamed Tode, the name it held before it became known as Karate. the Japanese used the name “kempo”, which means “fist way”, and the similar term in Chinese is Chan Fa.

Okinawa is the main island of the Ryukyu Islands, located in the East China Sea between Kyushu, Japan and Taiwan. Okinawa has maintained cultural contact for centuries with both China and Japan. Through a constant influence of Chinese sailors and merchants, the indigenous Okinawan fighting forms were heavily influenced by Chan Fa. Because of its strategic location, Okinawa was invaded several times by both China and Japan. Each country sought to use okinawa as a military and diplomatic base. With these two powerful countries vying for control, it is not surprising that the Okinawan people developed high levels of proficiency in self-defense.

Okinawans have long been known as fierce fighters, and the tragic battles of World War II proved to the world that the Okinawans would rather die than live in disgrace. The spirit of the samurai was well developed in the hearts of these people.
The Legendary Sakugawa

In 1724, a man named Sakugawa journeyed to China from his home in Shuri, Okinawa. He was gone for many years, and his friends and relatives thought him lost or dead. One day to everyone’s surprise, Sakugawa returned home a much changed man. He possessed a mysterious physical strength and a complex form of Chan Fa.Soon many people wanted to become his students. This was the start of the Sakugawa style of Karate.
Thirty Six Families

The emperor of China sent Okinawa an imperial gift of skilled artisans and merchants. These people soon formed into a community known as the Thirty-Six Families. This community was responsible for the rapid spread of Chan Fa throughout Okinawa. It should be noted that “thirty-six” often means “a great many” and may not mean thirty-six numerically.
Chinese Numbering

One Whole, absolute, first

Two Pair, comparison, front and back,

top and bottom, etc.

Three Sanchin, top-middle-bottom, fate,

Mother Nature

Four Directions, square, objects

Eight Multiple directions, many, plenty

Thirty-Six Great many
Sho Hassi

In 1429, Sho Hassi united the kingdom of Okinawa under his rule and renamed North and South. During the era of his grandson Sho Shin, the policy of “Bunji-Kokka”, or government by culture not military force, was put into effect. At this time all weapons were banned except for those used by military forces. The objective was to restore peace and to disarm rival clans.
Civil War In Japan And The Satsuma

After Toyotomi died, Japan was split into two massive forces. One force was the remainder of the Toyotomi clan from the West and the other was controlled by the new leader Tokugawa from the East. In 1600, these two powers met head-to-head at Sekigahara Field to decide the control of Japan. Although most of the Western generals and the Satsuma clan controlled most of Kyushu joined the Toyotomi, the Tokugawa forces won.

Tokugawa allowed the Satsuma-Shimazu family to retain their territories under the edict of unconditional loyalty to Tokugawa. The reason he allowed the Shimazu family to keep their lands was that they were so powerful that trying to destroy them might have proven self-defeating and was not in the best interest of Tokugawa. So instead Tokugawa took the Shimazu family as his allies and sent them to punish Okinawa for refusing to send supplies during the Japan-China war of 1592. It was also a useful way to smooth the honor of the frustrated Satsuma warriors by giving them a new target while keeping them too busy to make any further plays against Tokugawa.

A Ban On All Weapons

Upon seizing control of Okinawa, the Shimazu clan instituted numerous rules of martial law, one of which was a ban on all weapons. This time, however, the ban was on a much larger scale than that instituted by Sho-Shin. Only the Satsuma samurai, who were the invaders and conquerors of Okinawa, were allowed to have weapons.

The methods used by the Satsuma for enforcing the weapons ban were ruthless. Any weapons found in an Okinawan’s possession were immediately confiscated and the owner was severely punished. As part of the ban, the Shimazu also prohibited the Okinawans from participating in the study or practice of the martial arts.

This ban had a number of serious effects on the Okinawan martial arts. All study and participation was forced underground, and all teaching was done by word of mouth only.No written records exist which would allow us to trace the development of the Okinawan arts during this time period. This has led to the creation of many false legends due to the inability to document facts.

Secrecy became such an obsession that instructors hid true techniques from rival schools, as in the changing or hiding of moves in kata. this eventually led to the development of new and unique fighting techniques and systems including the modification of farming and work tools into weapons for combat use. The fighting attitudes in the martial arts schools became very violent due to the suppression of civil liberties and the general sentiment of the times.

And above all, the ban made Karate one of the most practical and effective hand-to-hand combat systems ever developed. The need for practical application kept Karate from degenerating to a mostly theoretical art or a simple or obscure form of exercise.

It is impossible to pinpoint when the secrets of Karate began to be revealed long after rules were changed. However, there was a gradual but steady unveiling and interaction of this magnificent art. Luckily, some schools were not as attached to secrecy as others, and slowly the major schools of Karate became less suspicious and more open. Officially, the Satsuma’s control ended in 1875, but Karate did not become popular or even well known as being an Okinawan art until around 1903.

Intense rivalry within Karate schools did not help to promote the discovery of the art. Karate, primarily developed to maim or kill opponents, was no longer needed in actual combat as conquering Satsuma samurai had departed for Japan.

Most Western students of Asian martial arts, if they have done any research on the subject at all, will surely have come across references to Bodhidharma. He is known as “Daruma” in Japan and as often as not, this Indian Buddhist monk is cited as the prime source for all martial arts styles or at the very least, for any style which traces its roots back to the fabled Shaolin Temple. However, the question of his contributions to the martial arts and to Zen Buddhism and even of his very existence has been a matter of controversy among historians and martial arts scholars for many years (Spiessbach,1992).

As legend has it, the evolution of karate began over a thousand years ago, possibly as early as the fifth century BC when Bodhidharma arrived in Shaolin-si (small forest temple), China from India and taught Zen Buddhism. He also introduced a systematized set of exercises designed to strengthen the mind and body, exercises which allegedly marked the beginning of the Shaolin style of temple boxing. Bodhidharma’s teachings later became the basis for the majority of Chinese martial arts. In truth, the origins of karate appear to be somewhat obscure and little is known about the early development of karate until it appeared in Okinawa.

Okinawa is a small island of the group that comprises modern day Japan. It is the main island in the chain of Ryuku Islands which spans from Japan to Taiwan. Surrounded by coral, Okinawa is approximately 10 km (6 mi) wide and only about 110 km (less than 70 mi) long. It is situated 740 km (400 nautical mi) east of mainland China, 550 km (300 nautical miles) south of mainland Japan and an equal distance north of Taiwan. Being at the crossroads of major trading routes, its significance as a “resting spot” was first discovered by the Japanese. It later developed as a trade center for southeastern Asia, trading with Japan, China, Indo China, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and the Philippines.

In its earliest stages, the martial art known as “karate” was an indigenous form of closed fist fighting which was developed in Okinawa and called Te, or ‘hand’. Weapons bans, imposed on the Okinawans at various points in their history, encouraged the refinement of empty-hand techniques and, for this reason, was trained in secret until modern times. Further refinement came with the influence of other martial arts brought by nobles and trade merchants to the island.

Te continued to develop over the years, primarily in three Okinawan cities: Shuri, Naha and Tomari. Each of these towns was a center to a different sect of society: kings and nobles, merchants and business people, and farmers and fishermen, respectively. For this reason, different forms of self-defense 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 the methods and aims of all Okinawan karate are one in the same” (Howard, 1991). Gichin Funakoshi goes further to suggest that these two styles were developed based on different physical requirements Funakoshi, 1935). 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 (Wong, 1978).

The Chinese character used to write Tode could also be pronounced ‘kara’ thus the name Te was replaced with kara te – jutsu or ‘Chinese hand art’ by the Okinawan Masters. This was later changed to karate-do by Gichin Funakoshi who adopted an alternate meaning for the Chinese character for kara, ‘empty’. From this point on the term karate came to mean ‘empty hand’. The Do in karate-do means ‘way’ or ‘path’, and is indicative of the discipline and philosophy of karate with moral and spiritual connotations.

The concept of Do has been prevalent since at least the days of the Okinawan Scholar Teijunsoku born in 1663, as this passage from a poem he wrote suggests:

No matter how you may excel in the art of te,
And in your scholastic endevours,
Nothing is more important than your behavior
And your humanity as observed in daily life.


The first public demonstration of karate in Japan was in 1917 by Gichin Funakoshi, at the Butoku-den in Kyoto (Hassell 1984). 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 (Maliszewski, 1992).

Today there are four main styles of karate-do in Japan: Goju-ryu, Shito-ryu, Shotokan, and Wado-ryu:

Goju-ryu developed out of Naha-te, its popularity primarily due to the success of Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1915). Higaonna opened a dojo in Naha using eight forms brought from China. His best student, Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953) later founded Goju-ryu, ‘hard soft way’ in 1930. In Goju-ryu much emphasis is placed on combining soft circular blocking techniques with quick strong counter attacks delivered in rapid succession.

Shito-ryu was founded by Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952) in 1928 and was influenced directly by both Naha-te and Shuri-te. The name Shito is constructively derived from the combination of the Japanese characters of Mabuni’s teachers’ names – Ankoh Itosu and Kanryo Higaonna. Shito-ryu schools use a large number of kata, about fifty, and is characterized by an emphasis on power in the execution of techniques.

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 used by Funakoshi to sign poems written in his youth. Shotokan Karate is characterized by powerful linear techniques and deep strong stances.

Wado-ryu, ‘way of harmony’, founded in 1939 is a system of karate developed from jujitsu and karate by Hienori Otsuka as taught by one of his instructors, Gichin Funakoshi. This style of karate combines basic movements of jujitsu with techniques of evasion, putting a strong emphasis on softness and the way of harmony or spiritual discipline.