A Brief History of Shotokan Karate

Karate as we know it originated from the RyuKyu Islands (known to us as Okinawa).  Formerly an independent kingdom, Okinawa became a Chinese vassal state in 1372, and when all weapons were banned in 1429, there was a tremendous secret development of empty-hand fighting. In 1609 the islands were conquered by Japan and all weapons and martial arts were again banned; this again ensured the art’s development to a formidable degree of efficiency. The fighting styles developed during this period in Okinawa were known simply as ‘Te’, which means hands.

Okinawan Missionaries who had been visiting China (when relations between the two were good) brought back Chinese systems of fighting. In addition to this, between the 18th and 19th centuries a Chinese visitor called Kushanku (or Koso Kun) demonstrated and taught Ch’uan Fa (Chinese boxing and grappling) on the island of Okinawa. The islanders apparently liked it and adapted parts of it to include with their indigenous fighting systems. This meant that ‘Te’, what was once a basic form of self-defence, was growing in complexity. Chinese influence brought open hand techniques from Ch’uan-Fa as what was now called Tode was developing.  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.

Shuri-te, Tomari-te and Naha-te were three different Styles of Te that had developed from different regions of Okinawa. The term karate first appeared in 1772, when an Okinawan called Sakugawa started to teach what he called karate-no-sakagawa.

Gichin Funakoshi is known today as the father of modern day karate. He was born in 1868 in Okinawa. As a boy he studied karate under two masters, Master Itosu and Master Azato. When Funakoshi grew up he became a school teacher, training in karate all the while with both masters.  Around 1902 Okinawans recognised the valuable character building aspects of karate and introduced it as part of physical education in schools.

In 1922, the Japanese Ministry of Education held a martial arts demonstration in Tokyo and Funakoshi was asked to introduce Okinawan karate to Japan.  His demonstration had a powerful affect on the Japanese public and after the demonstration Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, asked Funakoshi to stay and teach karate at the Kodokan, his Judo dojo. Eventually Funakoshi had enough students to open the first karate dojo in Japan. The dojo was called ‘Shotokan’ (‘Kan’ means ‘building’, ‘Shoto’ means ‘pine waves’, which was Funakoshi’s pen name). In 1955, Funakoshi established the Japan Karate Association. Funakoshi served as chief instructor of the JKA until his death in 1957.

The development of shotokan karate was hindered during the time of the Second World War, however during the late ’40s, Post-war development of karate began, with most of the input coming from the late Master Nakayama 9th Dan.  Part of Nakayama’s plan for the development of Shotokan was the spread of karate worldwide.  He established this by sending his young dynamic instructors around the world to spread the word of this new eastern fighting art.  England was lucky enough to host many Japanese instructors, but two in particular had a massive influence on Karate in the UK, Kanazawa Sensei and Enoeda Sensei.