top of page

A History of Karate Part 1

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

A History of Karate (part one) is an interesting article from Sensei Dan Young and gives some good background information on the history of our martial art form. Read on...

A History of Karate

Part One - The Move towards the East and Pre-Sensei Funakoshi

The history of karate goes back thousands of years, as far as ancient Egypt. Although this was not the karate we know today, it was a fighting style; the first fighting systems were used to defend a man against both man and beast.

Egyptian hieroglyphics depicting the early Egyptian ‘martial art’.

There are hieroglyphics in the tomb of Pharaoh Menes, who unified Egypt, of men performing a move similar to age-uke in a shiko-dachi stance

As well as Egypt, the development of martial arts also took place in Greece, there are paintings of the Greeks practicing unarmed self-defence during the reign of Alexander the Great who influenced the Buddhist monks during his conquest to India. In Sumer, Mesopotamia there were pictures of something similar to boxing and wrestling these techniques arrived in Greece from Mesopotamia via Crete.

The techniques were described in the twenty-third book of the Iliad. The Greeks created a form of competition called the Pankration which was a combination of boxing and wrestling in which the winner was the one alive at the end of fight this was widely regarded as a combat sport compared to the Pannachon, which was a battlefield martial art. This form of competition was later discarded by the Greeks but, was revived by the Romans.

The Pankration, the name comes from Ancient Greece and means “all powers”

The next location in the development of martial arts occurred in India. Around 5000 B.C. an Indian prince of Kanchipuram, developed a crude version of self-defence, this version was based on the movements of animals and birds that he observed whilst they fought. The prince then devised and practiced techniques on 1000 slaves, to find the weaker point of the human body. The prince used the techniques that were the most successful and directed them at the weakest parts of the human body thus creating the first real form of self-defence.

India at the time was a war torn country and warfare was regarded as an important cultural aspect. The desire to be more superior than your neighbours laid the foundations for all martial arts. The Kshatyria, an Indian warrior class, developed a type of unarmed combat which was recorded in the Lotus Sutra (a Buddhist chronicle). The chronicle details a form called I-Chin Sutra which integrated both mental and physical disciplines.

Another form named Nata is also detailed in the chronicle, it laid down a set of pre-arranged techniques similar to the syllabuses of modern day karate. One of the Kshatryia was Daruma Taishi also known as Bodhidharma, an expert in unarmed combat who travelled to China after becoming unhappy with the way Buddhism was taught in India.

When Bodhidharma arrived in China he went to the Shaolin-Si temple. He found the monks there despite being devout Buddhists were lacking in both fitness and endurance, both were required to study for the length of time that wanted. Bodhidharma introduced a form of exercise to strengthen their bodies and minds, these exercises came from the Chinese martial arts. Some however believe he taught them self-defence to defend themselves from bandits who plagued the monastery. All of Bodhidharma’s teachings came from what he learnt when in the Kshatryia to achieve either of these objectives.

The monks became known as the best fighters in China and the system they were taught was known as Shaolin boxing , this incorporated indigenous fighting systems of unarmed combat into I-Chin-Sutra . The monks travelled from China spreading the word of Bodhidharma and his system, Zen, which was readily accepted in Japan. It is likely that the elements of karate found their way from mainland Asia (mainly India and China) to the homeland of karate, Okinawa. Bodhidharma recorded his teachings the Ekkin-Kyo which can be considered to be the first book on karate.

The Heian Period

In the year 710 AD the first Japanese capital was established, the city of Nara. Many Buddhist monasteries were built and the political influence of the monks grew, so in order to protect the emperor the capital moved to Nagaoka in 784 and 10 years later to Heian (now Kyoto), where it remained for 1000 years. A major characteristic of both the Nara and Heian periods is the decline of the Chinese influence in Japan. Many imported ideas became “Japanised,” the arts in Japan became very popular with native movements occurring. Throughout the centuries the political power shifted from a central government to large independent land owners.

The Fujiwara family controlled most of the political scene during the Heian period through various means such as marriages with the imperial family. In 1016 the power of the clan reached its peak and after this its power began to decline. Land owners sought the use of samurai to protect their land and this is how the military class became more influential. After the Fujiwara supremacy (which ended in 1068) Go-Sanjo became emperor, he was determined to rule without help. After nearly 20 years in power he abdicated but continued to rule from behind the political scene, this method of government was known as an Insei Government. Insei emperors were in power from 1086-1156 when Kiyomori became the new leader of Japan.

During the 12th century two military families with aristocratic backgrounds gained a lot of power. The two families were the Minamoto and Taira families. The Taira families replaced many of the Fujiwara nobles and the Minamoto gained military experience by bringing part of Honshu under Japanese rule in the Early Nine Years War (1050-1059) and the Later Three Years War (1083-1087). After the 1159 Heiji Rising, a power struggle between the families emerged. It was as a result of this Taira Kiyomori evolved as the leader of Japan and ruled the country through the emperor for 10 years up to 1178. After Kiyomori’s death the families fought a war for supremacy, the Gempei War (1180-1185). At the end of the war the Minamoto’s put an end to the Taira supremacy and Minamoto Yoritomo became the leader of Japan. After eliminating all of his potential rivals he was appointed shogun and established a new period.

Despite these wars the Heian Period was relatively peaceful and a stable period in Japan with the emperor ruling with an aristocracy to form a government.


Okinawa is the home of Shotokan karate, it’s one of the Ryukyu islands and it lies on the coast of Taiwan, China and Japan.

Okinawa used to be an independent kingdom until 1372 when it became a Chinese state and in 1429 all weapons were banned and this was when the development of empty-hand fighting occurred. In 1447 Sho Shin became ruler of Japan after the death of his father Sho En. He was only 13 when he became leader and due to his devout religious beliefs he upheld the ban on weapons - as a result of this ban weapons were devised from farming tools such as tonfa, nunchaku and bo.

This law was carried on by the Satsuma clan following Sho Shin’s death. Because of its geographical location Okinawa martial arts were heavily influenced by both the Chinese and Japanese. The Chinese soldiers and military attaches taught kung fu to the native Okinawans, some in turn went to mainland China to learn more. When they returned all the ideas got mixed up and became known as karate “Chinese Hand,” or Ryukyu kempo; Okinawan boxing. Kushanku (or Kong Su Kun) was one of these Chinese visitors, he demonstrated and taught Ch’uan Fa (Chinese boxing and grappling).

A picture of Sho Shin, ruler of Okinawa in the 1400s

In summary, karate in Okinawa developed from a mixture of two fighting techniques. The first used by the native Okinawans was simple yet very effective and close to reality as it had been used in combat for centuries. The second was more elaborate and philosophical, was a product of ancient China; these two origins explain the dual character of karate - violent and efficient but a strict and disciplined philosophy with a non-violent emphasis.

In 1609 the Satsuma clan, led by Shimazu Ichisa, arrived from Kyushu (Japan) invaded Okinawa and saw the benefit of maintaining the ban on weapons and were also very strict on farming tools. With no weapons to combat the Japanese with the Okinawans began to learn Te, ‘hand.’ During this time the warrior class trained themselves in unarmed self-defence by using and developing ancient techniques. As they were preparing to fight armed men they developed techniques which could disarm and ‘finish off’ an opponent in one technique, even if they were wearing samurai armour.

There was severe punishment for practicing martial arts so most of the training, was done in secret during the night time whilst their oppressors slept. The training was made up of kata so it could be disguised as a dance to hide its true purpose. The term karate first appeared in 1772 when a man called Sakugawa started to teach what he called karate-no-sakagawa.

As time passed the three main areas of karate in Okinawa were Naha, Shuri and Tomari. Each town dealt with a different part of society; Naha held merchants, Shuri held the monarchy and Tomari was the base of fisherman and farmers. During the weapons ban three main types of self-defence became evident; Naha-te, Shuri-te and Tomari-te. Collectively they were known as Okinawa-te or Tode, “Chinese Hand,” this is because the Chinese influence brought open hand techniques from Ch’uan-Fa. Tode’s most famous master was Sokon (Bushi) Matsumura (1798-1890), royal bodyguard to three generations of the Sho Dynasty. Due to his level of skill in the Martial Arts the name ‘Bushi’ meaning ‘Warrior’ was bestowed on him. Matsumura Sensei was taught by Iwah who was a Chinese military attaché and was influenced by Kong Su Kun and Sakugawa

Sensei Sokon Matsumura - two of Matsumura Sensei’s pupils were Itosu Sensei and Azato Sensei

From here the systems developed further, Shorei-ryu was developed from Naha-te and was better suited to bigger and stronger men, Shorei-ryu taught strong, rooted techniques with synchronous breathing. Shorin-ryu was developed from Shuri-te and Tomari-te and was better suited to faster and lighter men; it consisted of faster, linear movements with natural breathing.

The Satsuma Rule came to an end in 1872. The Meiji Period in Japan began in 1868. Meiji translates as “Enlightened Rule.” It was during this period that Japan went under a major refurbishment from a medieval society to a leading economic and military power in Asia. This time also saw the transfer of power from the Shogun back to the Emperor.

It was in 1868 that Sensei Gichin Funakoshi was born.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page