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The strength and uniqueness of Karate lies in its heritage. Each one of us is an extension of the direct line from Master Funakoshi, to Master Funakoshi's teachers, to your Black Belt instructors, to you. In order to put the philosophical, spiritual, and physical teachings of your seniors in proper perspective, you should understand the inspiring heritage of Karate.

The Origins of Karate-do


Although the ancient origins of karate are extremely vague, we do know that about 1400 years ago, Daruma (Bodhidharma), the founder of Zen Buddhism, used techniques basic to karate. According to legend, Daruma travelled from India to China to teach Buddhism. His training methods were so demanding that his disciples dropped from exhaustion. In order to build up their strength and endurance, he developed a method of training the mind and body. His training was taught in the monastery of the Shaolin Temple in China, where the techniques were refined and developed into fighting forms known as Shaolin Boxing.


In the 16th Century, Shaolin Boxing found its way to Okinawa from China. This was combined with native Okinawa techniques and developed into several Okinawan styles. During several periods of Okinawa history, the owning and carrying of weapons was banned. Each ban resulted in great advancements in the techniques of unarmed combat. Secret training flourished, and the styles became more efficient and deadly.

Japan - Master Funakoshi

Master Gichin Funakoshi was the founder of modern karate. Born in 1868, he began to study karate at the age of 11, and was a student of the two greatest masters of the time. He grew so proficient that he was initiated into all the major styles of karate in Okinawa at the time.

Funakoshi In 1922, Master Funakoshi, then President of the Okinawa association of the Spirit of Martial Arts, was chosen to demonstrate karate at the first National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo. This led to the introduction of the ancient martial art to the rest of Japan. At the urging of friends and officials, he remained in Tokyo to teach.

During the American occupation after World War II, American military authorities prohibited the practice of the martial arts such as Kendo and Judo. However Karate, still not well known, escaped the prohibition and, during the next ten years, many students practiced Karate in the Japanese universities. At the eve of the Korean War, when Japanese-American relations allowed for a liberalization of the rules imposed by the United States military authorities, Karate had become equal in popularity with the other martial arts. Karate was even taught to the American troops by some students of Master Funakoshi and thus began to be known outside Japan.

In 1955, two years before Master Funakoshi died (April 26, 1957), one of his last and most gifted students left Japan to teach Karate in the United States. His name was Mr. Tsutomu Ohshima, now the Shihan of Shotokan Karate of America.

Master Funakoshi taught only one method, a total discipline, which represented a synthesis of Okinawan Karate styles. This method became known as Shotokan, literally the clan of the house of Shoto. As a result of his pioneering efforts and his greatness in Karate, master Funakoski is today recognized as the father of modern Karate. He was also revered as an outstanding human being who always stressed Karate as a total way of life.

The ultimate aim of the art of karate lies not in victory or defeat,
but in the perfection of the characters of its participants.

- Gichin Funakoshi    (Nakaya,1986)

The Meaning of Karate-do

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.


kara te do

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).

Styles of Karate-do

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.

Technical Elements of Karate Practice

Karate may be defined as a weaponless means of self defense. It consists of dynamic offensive and defensive techniques using all parts of the body to their maximum advantage. Karate is a Japanese method of developing good health and self-defense skills and is an excellent way to achieve unity of body, mind and spirit.

Karate practice is divided into three areas:

Kihon (drilling of stances, blocks, punches, strikes and kicks)
Kata (pre-arrange forms simulating combat situations)
Kumite (sparring)

In each category, the beginner is given instruction at the most basic level until the techniques become spontaneous. As the student progresses technically, he or she progresses physically as well, and advanced practices demand greater stamina. At this stage, the student becomes involved with more intricate and difficult katas and more dynamic forms of kumite. As the student approaches black belt level, technique, stamina, speed, and coordination become natural as a result of strong practice. It is at this stage that the serious student discovers that his or her study of karate has only just begun.

While training you must keep in mind that your true opponent is you. Self mastery is of prime importance if you are to learn Karate. Therefore do not give in to your desire to rest or cease practice when you become tired. Easing up during training will only result in self defeat. You must make a habit of victory over your weaknesses to gain control of your body by your willpower. It is not the physically strong who master Karate, but the mentally strong.


The training Master Funakoshi received consisted almost exclusively of the practice of Kata. After he himself became a teacher, he had his students practice single techniques from each Kata repetitiously as independent units. He felt that this approach # the polishing of each technique # would eventually result in more perfectly executed Kata. Out of this new training approach developed the method of practice we have come to call Kihon or basic practice. This repetitious practice of each technique forms the foundation from which one advances in his growth as a Karate student.


For centuries, experiences by warriors in actual combat were studied by past Karate masters in order to develop the most effective fighting techniques possible. These techniques, given the ultimate test in battle, were handed down from generation to generation through a stylized method of practice called Kata. A series of blocks and attacks were combined in a predetermined manner into a form in which the student imagines multiple opponents attacking from different directions. Each form, resembling a carefully prepared ballet, takes approximately one to two minutes to complete. Arduous practice will develop conditioned responses and a level of concentration such that, while performing a Kata, the student will feel and react as though he or she is actually in a combat situation with real opponents.

If all the various Kata are considered, their number is very large. However since the purpose of learning Kata is not just for the sake of learning them but for the tempering and disciplining of oneself, it is not necessary to study indiscriminately large numbers of them.

Some Katas emphasize the development of speed and quickness, while others promote physical strength and muscular power. Both are essential to one's total development.

You should not be discouraged when your instructor requires that you perform each movement within a Kata precisely with the correct feeling and spirit. The precise execution of Kata thus preserves the critical link with the old Masters, and their accumulation of knowledge drawn from a lifetime of experience in actual combat.


Sparring as a method of practice was another development under Master Funakoshi's direction. Its original intent was to allow students to apply the offensive and defensive techniques practiced in Kata against real opponents instead of imaginary ones.

It must be emphasized that sparring does not exist apart from Kata but for the practice of Kata, so naturally there should be no corrupting influence on one's Kata from one's sparring practice. When one becomes enthusiastic about sparring, there is a tendency for Kata to become neglected. Karate, to the very end, should be practiced with Kata as the principal method and sparring as a supporting method.

Of course, as a method of practice, all-out combat could not be permitted since serious injuries would result. Hence, different methods of progressive advancement were developed from the most basic forms, for the unskilled, to those as close to real combat as possible for the highly skilled.

Attacks should be so powerfully and surely executed that the defender will be unable to mount an effective counterattack. The purpose of this is to aid in developing our mentality and improving our techniques to the level where we can confidently face real opponents, and even death, without being overcome by our own weaknesses and fears. Therefore your counterattack must be forcefully delivered with pinpoint accuracy since survival may depend on it.


Last Updated ( Saturday, 23 September 2006 )