the history of shotokan karate
Karate has made a fascinating journey in little over 100 years
from being a secretive martial training system known only to a select
few in Okinawa to what it has become today.
Now Karate is one of the most popular martial arts in the world.
Origins of Karate
The majority of Karate books have an opening paragraph or chapter on the history and origin of Karate and the different accounts can seem contradictory.
The diversity of opinions is no surprise as there is no clear single origin of
Karate and there are many origin myths.
People love to romanticize the history and origins of martial arts.
It is hard to distinguish what is fact, opinion, exaggeration and fabrication
but it is safe to say that Karate did develop in Okinawa as a fusion of Chinese martial arts with the local training methods and that over time
the Okinawans made it into their own distinctive style.
Three separate styles emerged from three cities in Okinawa:
Shuri-Te, Naha-Te and Tomari-Te. Over time these three styles
merged to become two: Shorin-Ryu and Shorei-Ryu.
Collectively these styles were called Tode (Chinese Hand).
The early known pioneers were based in the Shuri-Castle. The first recognised Karate master was Santunuku Sakugawa (born in Shuri in 1733).
Sakugawa was a map maker in the Shuri Castle which is where
he started to learn Tode and he also learned Chuan Fa (Kung-Fu) from
a Chinese dignitary called Kong Su Kung.
He created the kata Kusanku (Kanku-Dai) in honour of Kong, and he is credited with writing the first dojo kun, a rule of behaviour for martial artists.
Sokon Matsumura (born in Shuri in 1796) was taught by Sakugawa
and became the bodyguard to three Okinawan Sho kings and
the chief military commander of the Shuri Castle.
Despite this title he was not allowed to carry weapons due to the rules
imposed by the Satsuma Samurai over-lords. He devised direct and effective training methods to protect the unarmed king against potential threats and destroying an opponent with one attack was central to his training philosophy.
The concept of linear impact power was different from the softer, more circular techniques of Chuan Fa and Tode that he had been taught. He is credited with producing many of the katas that we practice today including Naihanchi (Tekki), Seisan (Hangetsu), Passai (Bassai), Gojushiho and Chinto (Gankaku).
Yasutsune Azato (born in 1828), Yasutsune Itosu (born in 1831)
and Seisho Aragaki (born in 1840) were all students of
Matsumura and all worked in the Shuri Castle.
They provided the next generation of Karate development.
Aragaki was a Chinese interpreter whose many visits to China resulted in the creation and development of the more circular katas
that we practice today including Niseishi (Nijushiho) and Unsu.
Azato was known for his strict teaching style, especially in kata repetition.
He taught Gichin Funakoshi only Niahanchi (Tekki Shodan) for
the first three years of his training and refused to teach him any other kata
until his very strict standards were met.
Itosu’s punch was legendary and he was known for his
quick and decisive fighting techniques. He created the five Pinan (Heian) Katas which to this day provide the fundamental teachings and
colour belt syllabus to most of the karate styles. He also adapted
the Naihanchi kata into the three versions of Tekki that we practice
today and created two versions of the Kanku, Bassai and Gojushiho katas.
In 1901 he decided to end the secrecy of Karate and introduce it into the Okinawan school system. He wrote a letter in 1908 with his 10 Precepts which were an explanation of the benefits of Karate and why its widespread introduction to the public and military would greatly benefit all the Okinawan people.
Gichin Funakoshi (born in Shuri in 1868) was a student of both
Azato and Itosu and he is responsible for introducing Karate to
mainland Japan. In 1917 Funakoshi organized the first public
demonstration of Karate in Japan, at the Budokuden in Kyoto.
He was invited to more demonstrations in the following years
and by 1924 he was teaching at various universities in Japan. It was
around this time that he became friends with Jigoro Kano (born in 1860)
and adopted the white cotton uniform and belt system of Judo.
He changed the name of Tode (Chinese Hand) to Karate (Empty Hand) and he gave Japanese names to the Katas.
Karate now became a ‘Japanese’ martial art and in 1936,
the first Shotokan dojo was opened in Tokyo.
Gigo Funakoshi (Gichin’s son, born in 1906) developed techniques
that clearly distinguished Japanese Karate from its Okinawan origins.
He favoured long range attacks such as oi-zuki (lunge punch)
from greater distance using deeper stances and higher level kicks.
Stances in katas were either lowered or changed and he is largely
responsible for the Shotokan version of Sochin,
Wankan and the Taikyoku (Kihon) Kata. He introduced gohon (5-step),
kihon-ippon (basic one step) and jiyu-ippon (freestyle one step)
kumite (sparring) and was one of the first instructors to promote
jiyu kumite (free sparring).
Masotoshi Nakayama (born in 1913) helped to establish the
Japanese Karate Association (JKA) in 1949 and became its chief instructor.
He restructured the Shotokan Karate training programme
to fuse traditional Karate with modern sports science practices
and established kata and kumite as tournament disciplines.
Nakayama wrote many textbooks on Karate which helped to popularize
Karate internationally. He formed the JKA instructor trainee programme
and encouraged his senior instructors to travel the world spreading Karate.
In 1965 four JKA instructors travelled to England including
Keinosuke Enoeda (born in 1935)
and Hirozaku Kanazawa (born in 1931).
Thanks to Nakayama’s efforts, there was a generation of inspirational
instructors in many different countries around the world and
one did not have to travel to Japan in order to learn from the best instructors.
Nakayama also set up the Hoitsugan Dojo in the basement of his apartment
block which served as a training hall for foreign visitors with live-in dormitories.
After his death in 1987 many of the senior JKA instructors left
to form their own associations.
It is now the very great privilege of Sensei Ben Pethick,
Black Belt 4th Dan, and founder of Crouching Tiger Karate, to share the teachings and mission of these highly inspirational karate masters
with the South West London community here in the United Kingdom.