Karate is an ancient martial art whose origins date back over one thousand years. Karate can trace its roots to the Chinese Shao Lin fighting art. The Shao Lin style arose from the training methods introduced by Dharma at the Shao Lin monastery. Designed to build strength and endurance, these methods helped the Shao Lin monks carry out their religions strict discipline.
The Shao Lin style migrated to Okinawa, where the authorities forbade the use of weapons. The Okinawan style of "empty-hand" fighting and self-defense soon arose, combining Shao Lin with indigenous fighting techniques. This martial art was called karate in recognition of its Chinese origin. ("Kara" means "Chinese"; "te" means "hand".)
Gichin Funakoshi was born in Okinawa in 1868, the same year as Japan's Meiji Restoration. Introduced to karate as a boy, Funakoshis early training took place in complete secrecy -- at the time, the Okinawan government had banned the practice of karate. Funakoshi eventually became a schoolteacher, training in karate all the while. During this time, Okinawan karate emerged from its seclusion to become a legally sanctioned martial art. In 1922, the Japanese Ministry of Education held a martial arts demonstration in Tokyo; the Okinawan Department of Education asked Funakoshi to introduce Okinawan karate to Japan.
Funakoshi did not get the chance to return to Okinawa. His demonstration made a powerful impression on the Japanese public; Funakoshi was soon beseiged with requests to further demonstrate and teach his art. Eventually, he had enough students to open a modest dojo in a Tokyo dormitory's lecture hall. Local universities began to take an interest in karate, and Funakoshi became a regular instructor at a number of them. The ranks of Funakoshi's students grew.
Recognizing that the karate he practiced had diverged from the Chinese fighting styles, Funakoshi changed the meaning of "karate" from "Chinese hand" to "empty hand." ("Kara" can also mean "empty".) The change was important to Funakoshi: the "empty hand" concept not only reflected the fact that its practitioners used no weapons, it also recalled the Zen process of perfecting oneself and one's art -- by emptying the heart and mind of earthly desire and vanity.
Funakoshi also set out to make karate more accessible to the public. He revised and streamlined the components of karate training, especially the kata, to make karate simple enough for everybody -- young and old, men and women.
Karate began to spread throughout Japan. In 1935, Funakoshi's supporters had pooled enough funds to erect the first free-standing karate dojo in Japan. The dojo opened the next year, with a sign over the door bearing the dojo's name: Shoto-kan.
("Kan" means "building." "Shoto" means "pine waves," which describes the sound of the wind rustling through pine trees. Funakoshi, who loved nature, was fond of this murmuring sound -- he considered it a kind of "celestial music." Therefore, he used the name "Shoto" to sign his calligraphy.)
In 1955, the Japan Karate Association was established -- Funakoshi's art had become a full-fledged karate organization. At the time, it was a modest one, with only a few members, a handful of instructors, and Funakoshi, who served as chief instructor. Gichin Funakoshi passed away shortly, in 1957. Since then, Shotokan students have carried on his spirit and teachings. The result: the JKA now has over 100,000 active karate students and approximately 300 affiliated karate clubs worldwide.
JKA at Columbia's home page
Copyright (C) 1996, Bertrand Tzeng
Japan Karate Association at Columbia University
All rights reserved.
Revised: September 23, 1996.