Karate and Modernity: A Call for Comments

This posting is the introduction to a work in progress, sans footnotes, references, and italics. Like me, its akward and verbose, for which I apologize. I’m posting it because it has come to my attention that I am not the only historian working on the modernization of karate, I have recently heard from Ethan Savage of the University of Oregon. It is important for the two of us to coordinate a bit to make sure that we don’t step on each other’s research, and it is an opportunity to share our insights and hopefully help each other. And, of course, I welcome the responses of all froginawell readers.

Black belts on white uniforms, vigorous punches and high kicks identify karate worldwide. In karate practice sessions, the synchronized performance of esoteric maneuvers by groups of practitioners arrayed in rows before their instructor form the core. Although many karate styles emphasize competition over the so-called effete “dancing” of “traditional” styles that “begin and end with kata,” all karate practitioners decry the sportification (suspōtsuka) of karate. The synchronized performance of callisthenic maneuvers and some form of competitive sparring coexist in both jissen “real combat” and traditionalist styles. Practitioners subscribe to the generic philosophical regimen of the Japanese martial arts in which strict discipline and rigorous, persistent practice lead to individual spiritual development. Karate is a Japanese budō, (martial Way) which means that it symbolizes a unique and immutable ethno-national, virile spirituality that simultaneously instills and expresses invincibility, health, and morality. All also agree that karate is an ancient art. Beyond this, authors of karate history describe its origins as “murky” and “unclear;” they state that karate developed on Okinawa as a combination of primordial native arts and Chinese imports, typically describing an organic coalescence about five hundred years ago. The lack of further details, they say, results from karates covert, outlaw status. After the 1609 invasion of Okinawa by the samurai of Satsuma, their fear of karate had driven it underground, off the record, and under the historian’s radar. Banned from using the katana, Okinawans had polished their art in secret, bare-handed, had transmitted it at night and only among their intimate acquaintances. With modernity, much changed. For one, names. Old karate, that of the misty past, had been just te, hand. Then came the Chinese influence, a conjugation that birthed tō-de, Tang hand. Only when Okinawa was brought into the fold of modern Japan in the 1900s did the moniker take on its true form: karate, the empty hand.

And yet, in the 1921 Ryūkyū Kenpō: Karate, the first fully published karate text, little of this appears: karate is not a dō, lacks mythology, and is frank about recent Chinese influences. Reaching further back, to the unpublished writings of Itosu Anko, karate lacks even a name, makes no claims on the spirit, and mentions history not at all. Beyond that, the writing is in Chinese. Strangest of all, and most easily overlooked, is that through the 1920s there was only really one name: karate, the Chinese hand.

What are historians to make of this? Shall we dig through the historical record to discover the origins of these various traits? Plucking belts and uniforms from the history of judō, synchronized movement from the colonial period obsession with military drill, the division of new, jissen styles from their “traditional” parents—deriving their sport-orientation by the subtracting traditionalism of the latter? Shall we pursue the trail of karate until it vanishes in the mists—the inscrutable because unrecorded history of a vaunted tradition? Shall we satisfy our unsated curiosity with conjecture about the date, the exact origin, the means of transmission of Chinese martial arts? What about the possible secret meaning of every ancient mention of hands? And, at the end, do we recombine our findings into the tapestry of karate—a patchwork of once discrete elements that merge when viewed from afar? Alternately, does the historian perform some alchemy—combining one part judō, one part military drill, three parts secrecy, and four parts China—adjusting ingredients and portions, timings and temperatures to arrive at the correct recipe for modern karate?

These are viable methods for valuable goals, but I will take a different approach, proceeding from a different conclusion. (For to identify the components of modern karate is to start from the conclusion—to look at the final product, whole, inert, prone on the examination table; to dissect the adult in search of the infant it conceals.) I will start with the conclusion that karate was born old, asking not: how did karate foretell itself? but: when did karate authors begin to question their origins? From what vantage point did they look back and decide, a little spontaneously and even a little arbitrarily, that what their ancestors practiced was karate, or tō-te, or just plain te? In other words, perhaps they made such fine distinctions between these terms, not because such distinctions had always been made, but because those terms told the story of who they wanted to be.

I will not ask: how traditional is karate? but will instead investigate the means and meanings of that word. Labeling karate a tradition relieves it of the obligations of a rigorous historicity; or rather, it establishes a distinct set of historicized expectations. This relationship between tradition and history is problematic: by definition, every tradition needs a history to anchor it in the bedrock of origins; and yet to the extent that history is the description of change across time, especially in the upheaval of modernity, it undermines the validity of traditions by questioning immaculate transmission. Martial artists claim both this kind of unblemished pedigree and acknowledge (tout, even) changes that are sometimes quite radical. To accomplish this, martial arts historians judge changes by whether they preserve an original “spirit” encapsulated in the word dō. This spirit eludes definition: it is both immutable and under constant threat; it is both a weapon with which to attack the heretical, and an impervious protective amulet; it animates the tradition, makes it possible, but cannot be demonstrated. For karate, it is both the reason to practice and the least of afterthoughts. To understand how karate’s modernizers navigated the difficult terrain of historicism we must ask: how did they discursively generate this elusive spirit? where did they find it in practice? how did the make it both necessary and unobtainable?

Similarly, I will not ask: is karate a sport? Instead I ask: why do karate practitioners concern themselves with the question, and when did they begin doing so? All sports have histories, and maintain to varying degrees the traditional aesthetic: baseball has a tradition closely linked, but not limited, to American national identity, as cricket does for England. Even other of the Japanese martial arts, like judo, may be described in this way. But the same is true, to a lesser degree, of all sports—if sprinting had no tradition, why would anyone still recollect the accomplishments of Jesse Owens, whose speed is surpassed? For most practices, history and tradition peacefully coincide, if only because one dominates the other. But karate is somewhat unique in that the authors of its history pit tradition against sport, and visa versa. They state that theirs is “more” than a sport, even while competition forms an integral part of its practice. Why this discrepancy? What of sport is to be feared? To combine questions of tradition/sport: Why do its historians balance karate simultaneously on the descending slope of tradition and the up-escalator of modern sport?

I am not concerned with the questions: what of the Chinese origins of karate? what can we learn by putting their modern forms side by side? how do we measure their similarity and what would it tell us? do we identify and subtract Chinese affinities, and call the remainder purely Okinawan? In other words, do we attempt to derive the race of karate? I will contemplate the uses of a Chinese history for karate, its advantages and disadvantages: what did karate historians gain from careful manipulation of the place of China, and Okinawa or Japan, for that matter, within their liturgies of karate history? I will not add my voice to those debating when tō-te became Okinawan, and when karate became Japanese. Or make my own speculations about combinations, routes, and transmissions. I want to know: why must the unwritten history of karate be made to speak? And why must it remain selectively mute, able to say only specific things, and those with no specificity? But most of all: why does karate need a history at all?

The Multiplication of Karates

Although Japan’s annexation of Okinawa is most often described as “internal colonization” when it is mentioned at all, to those involved it was nothing so trite. After Japan officially annexed the Okinawan island group in 1874, widespread and severe derision of Okinawan culture as “backwards” and “uncivilized” replaced the official, and even then, limited, appeals to racial brotherhood and tacit sovereignty that had legitimized annexation. This discourse located Okinawa in a degenerate past and Japan in an enlightened future, and posited that only by reckoning with Japanese modernity could the country’s newest citizens hope for an improved future and the cessation of browbeating. For the next three decades Japanese administrators and segments of the Okinawan intelligentsia urged the “reform” of the Okinawan character through the purgation, right down to un-Japanese sneezes, of cultural elements that diverged from what were described as the homogenous norms of the “main islands.” Some responded by fleeing to China. But for the majority who remained, China gradually changed into the ultimate symbol of a revolting and fetid past. By the turn of the century, as assimilation (dōka) projects began to bear fruit, discursive treatment of Okinawa changed again: this time to emphasize the essentially Japanese identity of Okinawans, to claim that Okinawans had “always already” been good Japanese.

It was around this time that archeologists discovered that the Japanese race was a mixture of several distinct “native” peoples. Among these groups were ancestors of the Ainu, Koreans, Mongolians, and a lesser group that had long ago relocated to the Ryukyu Islands. This “proved” that, whether they realized it or not, Okinawans (and every native of East Asia) had always already been Japanese. But there had also been a fifth group named—paradoxically—the “original Japanese”. Okinawans, it turned out, had always already been Japanese, and they had also always already been second-class Japanese. Corroborated by linguistic and literary evidence, this convinced most that Okinawans comprised a prodigal “branch house” of the Japanese race and that the Japanese were the “parents” of all East Asia. Perhaps it should be unsurprising that after thirty years of an “assimilation” that saw the eradication both reminders of Okinawa’s affinities with China and many practices, like hand-tattooing, that were distinctly Okinawan, cultural affinities with Japan suddenly seemed uncannily numerous. Discovering this veritable theme park of breathing history, leading folk scholars concluded that Okinawa “preserved” intact Japan’s natal form. Ethnographers discovered that surviving Okinawan music and speech were ancient “subsets” of their Japanese counterparts, unchanged remnants on an island that time forgot. Japanese generally accepted this construction, flattered by their two-fold superiority as the providers of ancient Okinawan culture and of the template for Okinawan modernity. As Okinawa transitioned from the geographic exterior, “gaichi”, to the internal rural, “inaka”, Japanese began to discriminate against Okinawans as their primitive cousins rather than as primitive foreigners; “modernized” Okinawans came to regard “holdouts” as so many anchors holding them down, embarrassing them before their new friends; and the same scholars and activists who discovered the Japanese pedigree of Okinawa extolled their fellows to better themselves for the sake of their prefecture and their nation. The groups extolled Okinawans be proud of their identity—insofar is to be Okinawan was to be Japanese—and at the same time to become more like the “home island” Japanese—insofar as to be Okinawan was to be not Japanese enough.

Under this “always already Japanese” formulation, Ryukuan cultural elements remained viable only insofar as they could be brought up to speed with their erstwhile Japanese counterparts; the “subset” hiatus ended as soon as it was declared. Karate practices were no exception. Moreover, for karate in specific and Okinawa in general, modernization and Japanization were mutually defining terms. As they sought to promote their art to Japanese, Okinawans quickly realized that the in addition to the many parallels between Chinese and Okinawan martial practices that constituted a potentially fatal liability, there was also the matter of the non-modernity of karate. To restate, not only did Okinawan martial practices possess passé references, it also lacked required accoutrements. Modernization, for one, required that karate recount is history; modern things, especially traditions, do not materialize from the ether, they emerge from the cocoons of their pasts. Every modern entity can and must describe its history, explain and justify itself with a narrative that begins, transgresses a middle, and ends in a re-beginning called modernity. Karate could not move in the present without accounting for its whereabouts and activities in the past, and it could enjoy no fraternity with modern, Japanese traditions without first presenting a pedigree that linked it to narrative of the divine origin of all Japanese martial arts. Yet karate had no history, only a disparate smattering of legends that told no intelligible story. Karate historians had much to explain: Was karate born of the teachings of Daruma in China, the font all Japanese martial arts? (An easy one! They get harder.) Not just, when did Chinese martial arts begin to influence Okinawan arts? but more importantly, when and under what circumstances had this influence ceased? What, exactly, excused Okinawan martial arts for lacking what had become the paragon of the Japanese martial spirit after the end of the Tokugawa era, the katana? When so many Okinawan practices were being eliminated, why should karate survive? And most difficult of all, why did karate carry as its moniker the character for Tang China, the ancient name of Japan’s newly sworn enemy?

But the historical imperative was not a simple descriptive one, for it included certain strategic silences. They needed to know the details of their mystical origins, but they also needed to be at a loss to make a full accounting of the middle of karate history. Make no mistake: karate history soon had a middle, but it was indistinct—an outline with many precise gaps, a carefully composed picture of fog—because along with the questions that required answers were ones that could not be asked at all: Why could no 1920s karate practitioner trace a lineage more than two generations without arriving in China? Did Okinawan martial practices that had not come from China exist? What did karate texts tell, and in what language did they tell it? The answers to these questions needed to remain buried, or at least open secrets, in order for karate to achieve legitimacy, because any explanation would inescapably have been a story of betrayal.

There was also much to learn, for modern martial arts excelled at presenting themselves, and karate did not. Public demonstrations, books presenting instructive pictures and verbal descriptions of movements were necessary skills for the modern martial artist. Karate practitioners did not automatically know how to move in a modern way—to match words to movements and movements to words. They did not know how to express the ideology of karate movement for the spectator, the reader, and the viewer of photographs. And once it had been presented in books and on stages, karate had to match this representation in practice. Karate had to be rendered presentable to masses and rendered performable by masses. It is not that the modern period was the first to see movement rendered on paper or performed for an audience, but that in the modern period it became imperative that movements be justified in terms of their presentations more often than for their effects. That is to say, effects were judged on form rather than on result: not, did it work? but, did it take the proper form? not, how did it feel? but, is it a faithful mimicry? not, was it timed so as to produce the proper result? but, did it maintain an exact simultaneity? not, did it meet the circumstances? but, was it an exacting repetition? This is because in modern movement efficacy results from proper form, naturalness flows from faithful repetition, and proper timing from simultaneity.

The conditions placed on karate were therefore doubly contradictory: karate needed a modernization that declared its traditionality, and it needed to found this ancientness on a history that effaced much of its past. Yet this double bind also held a double opportunity—the imperative to construct a history for karate history almost from scratch meant that whatever displeased its authors could be dismissed as aberration and disavowed. The strategy they adopted was to multiply karate, not just in the present, but across time: in telling the story of karate’s beginning, middle, and end they created three karates. Faults could be sloughed off into one of the karates that existed only in the past tense: it was too late to deny connection to China, but amputation and cauterization was still possible. Conversely, the three karates could be united by continuities consisting of whatever pleased their creators: they could depict their predecessors as always secretly engaged in a Japanese identity by casting the troublesome name of karate as a subtle subterfuge with a second, secret, and entirely Japanese meaning; they could lay the blame for many of karate’s shortcomings on Japan itself: “Satsuma forced us to act un-Japanese.” This process of writing karate history spanned many drafts; it was written and then immediately rewritten; meanings were fixed and then radically rearranged; in terms of the above questions, they changed their answers and revised their strategies of refraining. Indeed, it would be more accurate to say that the project has never been completed—because once undertaken, narration its can never stop: not only must new events be recorded, but so must a new past. In executing this, karate authors borrowed heavily from the narratives of native Japanese arts, from the archeologists and ethnographers of long-secret Japaneseness, and the gurus of racial physicality. Karate proponents responded to the imperative of a traditionalizing modernity by creating new historical narratives in a process that simultaneously identified karate predecessors, gingerly detached them from contemporary karate, and sorted them into a chronology that transformed Ryukyu from the destination of Chinese martial practices into karate’s, and Okinawa’s, point of disembarkation in the direction of Japan.


  1. Hi Craig

    I tried to find a contact e-mail for you on this site but couldn’t. I was wondering whether I could talk to you about permission to reproduce a copy of this article on-line at kostudies.com (an update of Fukuoka History) which is on the blogroll here.



  2. Hi Craig,

    I will preface this by saying that my knowledge of karate comes from having practiced a ‘traditional’ okinawan style, rather than having an academic background in that area (I do Chinese history). However, your point about karate not being a ‘-do’ is surely significant. Does this suggest it does not have the cultural/spiritual significance to be classed as such? And are the Okinawan styles indeed lost in a no-man’s land, derived from Chinese fighting styles but detached from the buddhist (Shaolin etc) mythology and history that attaches to Kung-fu, and likewise not incorporated into Japanese culture as a true way? As you point out, even in the 1920s it was evident to historians that these practices were probably relatively recent arrivals. Many of the common kata studied today were only developed in the 1940s, aimed at a taller opponent as they were designed for Japanese who would be fighting Americans. However, they have retrospectively been given antiquity with the explanatory story that they were designed by Okinawans to fight the Japanese. (I have no idea whether Okinawans were typically shorter than the average Japanese of the same time)

  3. Hi Katrina. You point out that many of the common kata was developed in the 40ies and aimed at taller opponents. Interesting theory. I am a 5th dan karate ka with relatively good knowledge of kata, being a former norwegian national team coach. I have never heard of many kata being developed in the 40ies within the largest karate organisations in the west. Could you specify katas and styles ? Would be very interesting. I have never before seen in any texts from any “master” or anyone else that kata was created to fight anyone. They were as far as I know simply exercises. That is why bogu kumite became so popular in the late twenties in Japan since they did not have any faith in the katas when it came to close combat situations..

  4. Hi Thomas

    the kata I was referring to were those known as Geki Ssi Dai Ichi and Geki Sai Dai Ni (i have also known them termed Geki Sai Shodan and Geki Sai Nidan). They are the basic kata in Goju-ryu and I believe they are fairly well known in other styles. Goju-ryu is a recent style, being a synthesis of older Okinawan styles with a more obvious influence from southern styles of kung fu given the emphasis on arm techniques and blocks rather than kicking. Miyagi Sensei who developed the style also as far as I know developed the kata mentioned, with specific concern for the need to fight a taller opponent. I am happy to be corrected on any of this, of course – as I said I am not a martial arts historian!

  5. Hi All,

    Thanks for all the interest and the helpful comments. I’m sorry that I haven’t had time to respond (especially to Steve). I’m pretty busy finishing up my semester, but will get to it in a day or two. I really can’t resist posting to thank Katrina and Thomas for their interesting thread. I too was unaware of Okinawan kata more recent than the turn of the century; I’m not too surprised, though. It would be a great thing to look into further. Katrina, do you know of any sources that I might look find for this? And it would be especially helpful to know if Miyagi-sensei developed these kata as part of a military basic training curriculum. Any further information you have is welcome.

    As for the questions you asked: My questions are not about whether karate fits into the pantheon of martial arts, but examine the techniques by which people make it fit. Specifically, I am interested in the changing narratives of karate history and the changing practices of karate performance and instruction which were meant to put to rest the very questions that you bring up. (That’s right, I’m one of those aggravating historians who’s always trying to “complicate our understanding” of things.) It may seem that I am trying to dislodge karate from its home, or to expose the fact that it is not a true Way or a true Japanese art, but I couldn’t actually care less whether it is either of those things or neither of them because those are not ultimately answerable. To my mind, “Do” is just a word and a concept that applies to whatever people say it applies to (see my other posting). Rather than argue about it, I examine the arguers. The same goes for whether karate is Japanese. It’s not for me to decide the identity of karate, my job is instead to investigate the way that its identity was created. Like I wrote: Not, is karate a tradition? but, what are the means and meanings of that?

    As part of the paper this section is meant to introduce, I am more careful to contextualize the things that I say about karate, so that it does not appear that karate is adrift against some fixed background. (I probably should include it in the introduction, too.) Other historians of the martial arts have pointed out that the instability of the transition to the modern period affected all of the martial arts. Inoue Shun did an especially good job of showing this when he examined the invention of Judo at the end of the nineteenth century. And indeed, it was only in the transition to modernity that concern for traditionality took on its current meanings.


  6. While I know little to nothing about karate and judo, I do know a bit about Okinawa and its history, picked up during a three-year stint there as a military spouse and amateur military historian. I find it interesting that after annexation the Okinawans had to be “made” Japanese “all along”, when even today the Okinawans are usually considered as subhuman to the “true” Japanese as are blacks and Caucasians (an ethnically Japanese ikebono instructor I worked with once confided in me that before she met and married her ethnically Okinawan husband, she had always thought of hem as the “little brown monkey people”). Indeed, Okinawa is still by far the poorest prefecture, closer in geography (and dare I say spirit) to Taipei than to Tokyo. Lord knows they saw some the most appalling fighting of the war (most reputable scholars and nearly all vets affirm that it was the Battle of Okinawa that confirmed the need to drop the atomic bombs rather than risk an invasion of the Home Islands). When the US signed Okinawa back over to the Japanese government in the 1970s, many Okinawans didn’t want it to happen; they had hoped to return to the independence they had lost in the 19th century.

    I wonder if any of this “Japanese all along” history, archaeology and ethnography is being revisited in the wake of the recent archaeological forgery scandals in Japan, or if the recent rightist nationalist push will only make it worse.

  7. Read Inoue Jun’s new book “Budo no tanjou” (published 2004 from Yoshikawa bunko if I’m not mistaken). His argument is that budo is part of modern culture, not ancient culture as we often hear from budo teachers. He looks mainly at judo (as he did in Mirror of Modernity), but it has implications for other budo. A must read.

  8. Small linguistic point:
    You indicated that the original pronunciation of karate may have been ‘toote’ (sorry, no macron). My understanding based on readings of classical Japanese, specifically _Genji Monogatari_, is that the character for the Tang was read as ‘kara.’ There is a character in the _Genji_ where a Chinese cat figures prominently. The character used for Chinese was ‘kara’ for Tang (kara neko). I believe there are other instances where the prefix ‘kara’ is used for Chinese, thus indicating a common reading of the character as ‘kara.’ Not an exciting comment, but one I felt worth making. Also, it would be odd to mix the on-yomi of ‘too’ with the kun-yomi of ‘te.’ Thus, kara-te being both kun-yomi makes more sense on that level, too. Cheers.

  9. 1.- Katrina: About Gekisai Dai’ichi and Gekisai Dai’ni (and Tensho): They were developed by Miyagui Sensei, but both Gekisai’s were originally designed for high school teaching since the other katas were too complicated to teach to large numbers of teenagers. The purpose of Tensho is different (it concerns breathing and shifting focus).

    2.- Katrina: Most of Goju Ryu katas were brought to Okinawa from Fouzhou by Higaonna Kanryo Sensei. In 1916, Miyagui Chojun Sensei went to Foochow city (Fukien) were Higaonna Kanryo had studied (aprox. 1869-84) a southern style of Shaolin kempo under the tutelage of Master Ryu Ryuko. The School did not exist anymore because of the wars and emigration. Miyagui Sensei had the opportunity to perform Naha-Te katas in front of an old student of Master Ryu Ryuko, who recognized the style, according to the tradition the article analyses. One way to identify a tradition is the kata. But the point I want to make is not that there is a straight line, an uninterrupted tradition from Ryu Ryuko to Higaonna Morio Sensei or to Yamagushi Sensei, but that Naha-Te seems to be the Okinawan branch of an already disappeared Chinese martial art style. The trip of Miyagui Sensei to Foochow is the return to the sources; it may be interpreted as the quest for the recognition from the absent father. A Chinese father in 1916. It seems to contradict the hypotheses of the article.

    3.- Katrina: About the name “karate” and “Goju”. In 1933, Okinawan To Te (Chinese Hand) was recognized as a Japanese martial art by the Butoku Kai. To Te was a generic name. In 1935 some Okinawan masters of Naha-Te, Tomari-Te and Shuri-Te decided to name his art “karate” (empty hand) or “karate do”. Naha-Te, Tomari-Te and Shuri-Te were names of the martial art schools of Naha City, Tomari city and Shuri city. The same year, Miyagui Sensei registered the name “Goju Ryu” in the Butoku-Kai. According to these dates, all “karate” schools are recent.

    3.- Author of the article: I am missing the point: Ok, karate practicioners create their history, as every human being does. Ok, these new narratives are related to identity, nationalism, modernity and the creation of modern states. I think it is neither a paradox nor a contradiction. It is a very common social and cultural phenomenon.

  10. Besides Inoue Jun’s new book here are some other recent suggestions. First there is the 2003 publication
    “beikoku tainichi senryou seisaku to budou kyouiku: dainihon butokukai no koubou” by Yamamoto Reiko and also
    a big book called “Budou no kyouikuryoku: manshuukoku-kenkoku daigaku ni okeru budou kyouiku” by Shishida Fumiaki 2005!
    Both by academics! Budo-logy seems to be growing in Japan.

  11. In response to MDH, the characters 唐 韓 漢 空 殻 can all be read as ‘kara’ The first three were used to refer to foreign lands, specifically China and Korea. While 唐 was of course be used to refer to Tang China, it seems that the ‘kara’ reading suggested vastness or emptiness, and therefore foreign lands, in a more general sense. Furthermore, this definition of emptiness, today commonly written as 空(kara) is also related to the final character 殻(kara) meaning husk. Furthermore, according to my classical Japanese dictionary, the character 唐 could be pronounced either as ‘kara’ or ‘tou’ when used as a prefix.

    In modern usage, there is still sometimes confusion between 唐 and 空. Karaage (deep-frying) can be written as either 空揚げ or 唐揚げ, and I’m sure I’ve also seen it as just plain から揚げ. Even the 広辞苑 lists 空手and 唐手 as alternate ways of writing karate, and both of them (as well as all forms of karaage) show up in the Windows IME menu when typing.

    Mdh mentions that it is odd to mix the onyomi tou with the kunyomi te, but don’t forget that this was in Okinawan, not Japanese. I don’t personally know much at all about the differences between the two languages, but it is possible that lexical constructs that would be slightly odd in Japanese might be less so in Okinawan/Ryukyuan. Of course, there are plenty of mixed words in Japanese as well, so I don’t think that it necessarily means anything special.

    Ae said:

    In 1933, Okinawan To Te (Chinese Hand) was recognized as a Japanese martial art by the Butoku Kai. To Te was a generic name. In 1935 some Okinawan masters of Naha-Te, Tomari-Te and Shuri-Te decided to name his art “karate” (empty hand) or “karate do”

    If ‘te’ was a suffix added to the place of origin of a school, then wouldn’t that suggest that 唐手 (whether pronounced as karate or toute) meant “the style of kara/tou,” indicating foreign origins? If this is true, then the common explanation of 空手 meaning “empty hand” is either a misunderstanding or a lie told by Okinawan karate masters to disguise the true origins of their art, and construct a historical narrative for karate that would persuade the Japanese to permit its continued and open practice.

  12. I’ve enjoyed this, it fits with what I learned in studying Shotokan (on and off from 1970 to 1998).

    Similarly, I will not ask: is karate a sport? Instead I ask: why do karate practitioners concern themselves with the question, and when did they begin doing so?

    Now that is a good question.

    What is fun is to watch the same thing with Tae Kwon Do. My father studied it, in Korea, before the Korean War. He then came to watch a Shotokan work-out. He was enthralled by (a) the blocks and (b) the punches — both of which were alien to what he had learned. Reminds me of what Bob Barrow and Chuck Norris had to say about the katas they had learned — told their instructors had invented them, then encountered them in open tournaments being performed by karate students.

    This article explains why the “de-Chiniafication” of karate I keep running into. I already knew about why the native OOkinawan grappling techniques (in some kata) were not part of modern karate (all of the Japanese students came to karate from excellent college Judo programs, btw), but the rest of this was very interesting.

    Thank you for putting it on-line.

  13. Interesting article. My martial arts background is in arts other than karate, but I try to keep informed on the histories and principles of arts other than my own, including karate. Based on that, I might have a few quibbles:

    Black belts on white uniforms, vigorous punches and high kicks identify karate worldwide.” – Since you’re discussing “traditional” karate, I’m informed by practitioners of traditional Okinawan karate that they stick almost exclusively to low-line kicks.

    all karate practitioners decry the sportification (suspōtsuka) of karate.” – “All” practitioners except those in the ten zillion schools that specialize in sportive competitions. I suspect you mean that those who self-identify as traditionalists decry the sportification. I’ve met plenty of karateka who were all about the tournaments.

    Karate is a Japanese budō,…” – Only since the early 20th century, when Funakoshi brought the art to Japan and adapted both the techniques and the philosophy for the Japanese culture of the time. I expect that the conversion of karate to “karate-do” occurred at this time.

    Strangest of all, and most easily overlooked, is that through the 1920s there was only really one name: karate, the Chinese hand.” – Is this a big secret? Many of the books I’ve read about the history of karate point out that “China hand” was changed to “Open hand” for nationalistic reasons. The practitioners of Okinawan karate that I’ve conversed with at http://www.budoseek.net have been pretty open about the fact of Chinese influence on karate. I think it would be an interesting question to find out how much of karate comes from indigenous sources as opposed to Chinese sources, but I imagine it would be a tricky subject to research, given the uncertainties of an oral tradition.

    Quibbles aside, you have an legitimate point in describing how each generation of martial artists rewrites history to fit their immediate needs. You could make the point further by describing how, as karate spread to Korea and became tae kwon do, the Koreans rewrote history to describe the new art as developed strictly from local origins, such as tae kyon, even though they were practicing katas which came straight from karate. More nationalism, this time invoked to avoid giving credit to the Japanese.

    Since a majority of martial artists probably take the word of their instructor on matters of history, you get some ideas floating around which would give any historian laughing fits. I have in mind the 3rd-degree black belt in tae kwon do who earnestly told me that karate was “bastardized, Americanized tae kwon do.” I imagine this sort of non-historical fantasy is part of what inspired you to write the essay.

  14. This is one of the most succinct and salient articles I’ve read on the subject of tode/karate. Your research has led you to a place that many true Okinawan karate traditionalists have known about for decades. There is a long-running discussion on one of the M.A. sites (fightingarts.com) that led me here. Many of the posters there seem to think that they know karate’s true origins and history. What they fail to understand is that in their search for documented proof they overlook the oral “truths” which have been passed down from Okinawan shinsii to student since modern karate’s inception. Everything that you detailed is known by most earnest pracitioners of this cultural phenomenon.

    Many decry Funakoshi Gichin for being a betrayer of that cultural trust, but in reality he took a modest system of self-preservation and/or bodyguard techniques and made it palatable to the modern world. He packaged it understanding the Japanese sensibilities. He made them feel it was their art, in order to bring some recognition to the Okinawans. The outlet was post-Meiji restoration Japan and the result was the myriad combative arts and martial ways of the Okinawans, Koreans, Japanese, Americans and countless other Japanese/Chinese/Okinawan influenced arts that we see today. Those who are entertained by the pure physicality of the MMAs realm or the brutality of a K-1 match have Western Boxing, Thai Boxing, Japanese Judo and most importantly Okinawan karate to thank. I still find it amazing that very few people understand the importance or magnitude of Okinawa’s contribution to the modern martial arts world.

    When modern martialists or whatever they want to call themselves, want to lump all karate together as ineffectual pseudo self-defense mixed with dance moves they defame themselves and their supposed M.A.s. Most will never know true karate-jutsu, but the vanguard of “the real” is out there in very small numbers. This tiny, humble, peaceful chain of islands spawned a world-wide phenomenon of doppleganging and diluted imitation. Who cares if it was ever used by the Ryukyuan people in true combat? The likes of Bill Wallace, Joe Lewis, Chuck Norris, Andy Hugg, etc. have used it in simulated mano-a-mano combat for decades, so I guess that makes it legitimate as a M.A.. That was not its original purpose, but modern questions need a modern “answer” like these, I guess.

    Additionally who really cares about documentation when you have a truthful representation of the original form in your possession? I speak of good modern karate of course, much of it from the Okinawan ryuha.

    The Battle of Okinawa destroyed a lot of this sought after evidence, but the Okinawan people have tried there best to keep the information intact. Westerners always want to now why and what’s the proof (unless it comes to their religious beliefs). That is something that hampers many average people in the West. Knowing that you make correct decisions for your life and having faith in your ability to discern what is true for you is key, nothing else. Knowing that while you’re an apprentice you need to shut your trap and just learn is key. To understand that karate was an amalgam of indigenous fighting techniques mixed with chuan fa as well as Japanese fighting traditions such as Jigen Ryu is not enough. To know that its original intent WAS for Okinawan self-preservation and betterment, whether culturally, personally or otherwise, I feel is the main point many are missing. Thanks again for your scholarly endeavor. 🙂

  15. I agree with many points in Craig’s work in progress so far. but the thing that seems to be missing from the research are elaboration of 2 important factors: “oral truths” as Bryan mentioned, and “Need”.

    ‘Oral truths’ are the means of any folk Art’s transmission. As Craig accurately explains, when Karate invented for itself a way to transmit the Art en masse to the public starting at the turn of 20C, it had to invent terms, structure and uniformity. The Art went from being taught with one instructor and just a few students – each student having a customized and personalized version of what the instructor had to offer. How do we know this? corroberated oral truth. for example, it’s widely accepted thru independant accounts that Higashionna/Higaonna taught one or two kata to each student – but they were not the same kata for every student. The kata were selected by him based on the strengths and capabilities of each student.
    The way this ties in and is important to the research is that, imagine how an Art would change if it went from one-on-one instruction to ‘mass production’. Karate history and it’s changes of the past 100 years or so fits that model. I could give a bunch more specific examples of how oral truths can help illuminate the transition of karate from a vagely named folk art to an Art geered for public consumption.

    That ties in with my second point…’need’. What purpose has Karate served? I think is another key question to examine. Today, it largly serves a niche part of the health&fitness industry and competition sport. Pre-WW2 it served a small part of Japan’s war machine, by providing a niche within it’s youth health/fitness programs. conformity was the order of the day and custom instruction would have been unthinkable. It was also during this time that the ‘Fukyugata’ and ‘Gekisai’ kata were created. These kata differ from the ‘classical’ kata in that they are much more linear, easier for a beginner to learn, and contain basic principles of movement which are later built upon. They are simply training kata, not kata designed to ‘fight larger opponents’ or other such non-supported myths.
    But prior to Karate making it’s public debut (

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