Many martial arts historians agree that the oriental martial arts started with a man s known as Bodhidharma (Daruma in Japanese). He came to China to re-ignite Buddhism. Bodhidharma arrived in Honan ( Hunan ) province at the Shaolin temple, only to find the monks practicing meditation, but in very weak physical condition. In an effort to help the other monks withstand many hours of meditation, he taught them breathing techniques and several exercises to increase their stamina and build strength.
It is believed that these same exercises, which were derived from imitating animals, are the source of the Shaolin ch’uan-fa (fist law) or Shaolin Temple Boxing. Using these exercises, the monks were able to develop their spiritual and physical strength. The monks of the Shaolin temple were known throughout China for their courage and fortitude. This temple is recognized by most martial artists as being the birthplace of gung-fu. And Bodhidharma is sometimes called Tamo or Da Mo, and is credited with originating gung-fu and karate. As these fighting skills became famous, they spread to nearby Fukien province, through tradesmen and merchants, and eventually to Okinawa.
Because of its strategic location between Japan and China, both nations vied for domination of the island. In the 14th century (1372) Okinawa became a Chinese satellite. It was during this time that ch’uan fa (fist law) was probably introduced. Chinese style fighting was greatly admired by the Okinawans, and they began to merge it with an existing native form of fighting called te (fist ), or bushi no te (warrior’s hand). At that time, this hybrid Okinawan martial art was referred to by one of it’s two names: To-de (Chinese hands) or Kara-te.
Regarding the use of the name Kara-te: In China, there was a province by the name of Kara, which was responsible for unifying the old country during the Tang dynasty. It is believed that during the period of the Kara Kingdom, Chinese martial arts leaked out to many satellite countries (Japan, Okinawa, Korea, etc.). There are two ways of writing in kanji, (kanji is one of the three alphabets in Japan), the characters for the word karate. When written one way, it reads “Chinese hands”, and when written the other way, it reads “empty hands”. The kanji for the “Chinese hands” may also be interpreted as “Kara hands”, or “hand of the Kara Kingdom”. The Japanese later changed the kanji that read “Chinese hands” to the kanji that reads “empty hands”.
In 1429, an Okinawan by the name of Sho, Hashi united what was known as the three kingdoms: Hokuzan (north), Chuzan (middle), and Nanzan (south), and made his capital in the city of Shuri. In 1477, Sho, Hashi was succeeded by another Okinawan by the name of Sho, Shin, who put a stop to all feudalism on Okinawa, made all of the anji (feudal lords) move to the capital city of Shuri and imposed a ban on all weapons even rusty swords, by the peasant class. Sho-shin encouraged people to focus on art and philosophy, so they might be dissuaded from te. However, the martial art continued in secrecy.
This was a good time for Okinawa. The Ryukyu kingdom expanded and prospered through trade with China, Asia, Korea, and Japan. Then, in 1609, the reigning king of the dynasty found himself obliged to outfit an army for sake of repelling an invasion of the islands that had been launched by Shimazu, the daimyo of the clan of Satsuma, who had been exiled from Japan. The newly armed Ryukyuan warriors fought with conspicuous bravery and gallantry against the soldiers of the Satsuma clan, known and feared throughout the country for their fighting skill, but, after Ryukyuan success in a few pitched battles, a surprise landing by Shimazu’s forces sealed the fate both of the islands and of their monarch, who was forced to surrender. The Sansura clan of Japan invaded and took over control of Okinawa. Shimazu reissued the edict banning weapons. Okinawan Ch’uan fa groups and To-de societies banded together to produce a solid front against the Japanese . Many Okinawans were secretly sent to China to learn fighting arts. Okinawa for many centuries engaged in trade with the people of Fukien province in southern China, and it is probably from this source that Chinese kempo (“boxing”) was introduced into the islands. As well as empty handed fighting, the use of the Bo, Sai, Tonfa, Nunchaku, Kama, and other farm and household items were secretly developed into effective weapons with their own individual methods or system. Combined, these weapons systems are known as kobudo.
During the 1700s, an officer called Sakugawa, who was in the Okinawan Palace Guard, learned Chinese fighting from a Chinese military officer, Kusanku, who arrived in Okinawa in 1761. At this time of Japanese occupation, it was still permitted for some Chinese attaches to come and go in Okinawa, for envoy purposes. It was also allowed for the nobles or royal classes to practice To-te, and it was definitely a requirement for the Royal Guard ). Sakugawa traveled many times to China with Kusanku, and learned to combine Ch’uan fa with te to form Okinawan-te. In fact, Sakugawa’s nick-name was “karate” or To-te” Sakugawa ( sometimes spelled ‘ To-de’ ), which literally meant, “Chinese fist Sakugawa.” The name karate, in those days, meant, “Chinese hand”. Later on in Japan, the character for “Chinese,” was changed to one meaning “empty,” so the new translation meant “empty hand.” ( From Kusanku we have the name of two high level katas, Kusanku Sho and Kusanku Dai, which is interesting because Kusanku supposedly did not teach kata! The katas may have been formed from the techniques taught by Kusanku).
In 1904, karate became even more popular with it’s introduction to the Okinawan public schools. The man responsible for this was Yatasune “Anko” Itosu, who helped make karate part of the physical education requirements. Yatasune “Anko” Itosu ( “Anko,” means ‘horse,’ and referred to the horse stance at which Itosu was superb in demonstrating ) was an educator in Shuri, a south city in Okinawa. Itosu was born in 1830 into a shizoku, or noble family. He became an educator, but was also a learned master of karate. From Itosu came the Pinan katas. These katas were stated by one source as coming from the Kusanku kata, before it was broken down into Sho ( lesser ) and Dai ( greater ). However, another source says that Itosu learned a form from a Chinese man, and the form was called “Chiang Nan” or ( Channan in Okinawan pronunciation ) from which he produced the Pinan katas.
Itosu taught anyone who wanted to learn, in contrast to some of the other masters, who would not permit a student to learn from more than one teacher. According to Gichin Funakoshi, student of Itosu and founder of Shotokan karate, Itosu was of average height, with a great round chest like a beer barrel. Despite his long moustache, he rather had the look of a well-behaved child.
The techniques of karate and kobudo were, by their very nature, to be kept from the uninitiated. Thus, there are but few historical records and the arts were conveyed almost entirely through personal oral transmission from master to disciple. However, following dissolution of the kingdom and the 1879 annexation of Okinawa as a prefecture, new institutions came into effect and karate and kobudo were into the Meiji public education system. There followed a movement to present these arts to the general public: during the Taisho Era (circa 1910-1926), demonstrations were made throughout mainland Japan, and in the early Showa years (circa main schools (ryu): Shorin-ryu, Gojyu-ryu, Uechi-ryu and Matsubayashi-ryu. Today, there exist many more sub-schools (ryuha) and factions (kaiha). Each boasts its own distinctive kata derived from the basic movements (kihon kata) common to all schools as the systematization of techniques of attack and defense.
The next development took place in 1922 at Tokyo and Osaka, Japan. Two karate men, Funakoshi, Gichin and Motobu, Choki, gave a demonstration of Okinawan karate for Japanese approval. Funakoshi impressed the emperor Horohito so much, that by 1932, karate became part of the educational system of Japan. After his demonstration, Funakoshi was asked to stay in Japan and teach Okinawan karate-do. The karate-do as Funakoshi knew it would have to change in order for his Japanese students to understand it’s complexity. Stances were altered and names of katas changed. His new system was titled Shoto-kan, but Funakoshi disliked the name; he thought that all karate should be the same.
At this time, the Okinawan martial art was referred to by one of it’s two names: To-de (Chinese hands) or karate (Empty hands). The Okinawans wanted everyone to agree on one name, so during a meeting between Miyagi, Chojun; Hanashiro, Chomo; Motobu, Choki; and Kyan, Chotoku, the decision was made and one name was finally agreed upon. In 1936, the Okinawan martial art was given the name karate-do, meaning “an empty-handed self defense art”, or “weaponless art of self defense.” Some would even go on to call it kute-do, ku meaning “sky”, which was associated with being “empty”, and “te” of course meaning hand.
The insightful reader will notice that, even as we relate the history of secrecy under which the different ‘brands’ of Okinawan karate and kobudo evolved, so the reported history of each branch tends to see their particular brand as supreme, or superior and reports its history accordingly. Perhaps it is sufficient to say that even the survival of a particular individual’s legacy speaks well of the loyalty of his followers and the effectiveness of his system. We have very few records of the natural evolution of each style as they evolved, but these were turbulent times. Fights/duels to the death were not uncommon and the men (for what we can find of the records records very little about women in this tradition) who championed each style must have been elite practitioners as well as theorists to leave such legacies.