What is Karate?
Karate is a martial art consisting of hand and foot strikes, as well as open hand offensive techniques.
It is considered a ‘hard’ martial art, where attacks are defended directly and forcefully.
It is practised by 100 million people on five continents and 192 countries.
Today, it’s a worldwide martial art, but I’ve often wondered about its origins, in particular whether Karate us Chinese or Japanese.
To help answer this, I think it’s useful to look at the meaning of the name itself.
Karate meaning in Japanese
“Karate” written in Japanese characters as “空手” which means “empty hand”.
But this wasn’t always the case.
Karate was originally written in Kanji as”唐手” which means “Tang dynasty hand”. The Tang Dynasty lasted fron until 618 – 907 and occupied much of what is modern day China.
This is the first clue as to Karate’s origins.
Where does karate come from?
Karate has its origins as a fighting style of the people of the Ryukyu Islands.
These are a string of islands that are located on the south-west tail of Japan.
The fighting system was called te, and over time, a number of regions developed particular styles. These were referred to Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te, and were named after the cities from which they emerged.
The Ryukyu Islands used to be an independent kingdom before they were formally annexed by Japan in 1879.
Prior to their annexation, the islands had enjoyed good diplomatic and trading relationships with China since the 14th Century.
The Chinese had sent a number of families to the islands to assist with the kingdoms development and to share their knowledge of technology, science and, of course, martial arts, in particular White Crane Kung Fu.
The adoption and growth of unarmed fighting techniques was further enhanced when King Shō Shi banned the use of weapons in 1477.
Karate Kata / Forms
A kata is a sequence of defensive and attacking moves that has been set down in a prescriptive manner. Karate students, or karateka, are required to learn and master a number of kata as they progress through the ranks.
Karateka are required to demonstrate their competence at kata when they undertake their grading, where they are judged as to whether they should progress to the next rank of belt.
Studying the katas of various fighting styles also reveals clues about Karate’s lineage.
The blending of the native Te fighting methods with styles from China is evidenced by the similarities between some of the kata in Fujian White Crane Kung Fu, from South China, and Goju-Ryu Karate. Take for instance, Karate’s Sanchin below:
This is very similar to White Crane’s Happoren form below:
Both techniques make use of an isometric breathing technique, whereby the muscles of the body are tensed during a deliberate outbreath.
The technique could have developed independently, but it seems more likely that the Chinese style heavily influenced the Te fighting techniques of the Ryukyu Islands.
Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands and one of its best known karate masters was Gichin Funakoshi (1868 – 1957).
He is known as the “Father of Modern Karate” and is largely credited for spreading Karate to mainland Japan in 1922.
This wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Following the annexation of the Ryukyu Islands in 1879, Japan became increasingly militaristic and went to war with China in 1894.
With this background of tension between China and Japan, Funakoshi knew it would that spreading a fighting style called “Tang dynasty hand” would be almost impossible in Japan given the population’s animosity towards China at the time.
In a shrewd political move, Funakoshi changed the name to “Empty Hand”. He also changed the name of some of the katas to make them sound more Japanese.
The move worked and before long karate was being taught in a number of Japanese universities.
After the Second World War, Karate students from Japan started to travel overseas spreading the knowledge of this fighting styles to all corners of the globe.
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