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The word Karate comes from two Japanese characters: "kara" which means empty, and "te" which means hand. Together they form the word "karate." This refers to the fact that a person who has trained in karate needs no weapon; by learning to block, kick, punch and move they have made their body into a weapon. (However, weapons do exist in the martial arts, but do not detract from the name or its original meaning, spirit and focus.)

As legend has it, the evolution of karate began over a thousand years ago; possibly as early as the fifth century BC when Bodhidharma arrived in Shaolin-si (small forest temple), China from India and taught Zen Buddhism.  However, the origins of karate appear to be somewhat obscure and little is known about the early development of karate until it appeared in Okinawa. Okinawa ("rope in the offing") is a small island of the group that comprises modern day Japan. It is the main island in the chain of Ryuku Islands which spans from Japan to Taiwan. In its earliest stages, the martial art known as "karate" was an indigenous form of closed fist fighting which was developed in Okinawa and called Te, or 'hand'. Approximately five hundred years ago, a Japanese clan took control of Okinawa. A weapons ban was imposed by the clan, forbidding the Okinawan people, from having weapons. This encouraged training in secret and stimulated the ultimate refinement of empty-hand techniques. Okinawan Te, continued to develop over the years. This name was later changed to karate-do by one of the foremost Okinawan karate masters, Gichin Funakoshi; who adopted an alternate meaning for the Chinese character for kara, 'empty'.  From this point on the term karate came to mean 'empty hand'. The Do in karate-do means 'way' or 'path', and is indicative of the discipline and philosophy of karate with moral and spiritual connotations.

In 1922 Master Funakoshi, was chosen to demonstrate karate at the first National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo, for among others, the emperor of Japan. This served as a tremendous turning point for the art. Because of his influence and dedication, Master Funakoshi is widely recognized as the "Father of Modern Karate." Born in Okinawa in 1868, he studied Karate-do from childhood with Yasutsune Azato and Yasutsune Itosu. Certainly, if there is one man who could be credited with placing karate in the position it enjoys in the Japanese mainland today, it is Gichin Funakoshi.  His influence helped broaden karate's scope out of Japan, to make it a worldwide phenomenon. (Master Funakoshi also helped develop the "color belt ranking system".) In many ways, Master Funakoshi's story is very similar to that of other great masters in karate. He began as weak, sick and in poor overall health. However, between his doctor, Tokashiki who prescribed herbal remedies that would strengthen him, coupled with Azato's and Itosu's good instruction, Gichin Funakoshi soon blossomed. He became an excellent student, and developed his expertise and a highly disciplined mind. One of the most famous stories about Master Funakoshi tells of a time when a typhoon struck his hometown. While everyone else hid and waited for the storm to end, master Funakoshi climbed onto the roof of his house and stood in the most powerful karate stance, to test his strength and determination against the storm.

    Master Funakoshi was a writer as well as a martial artist. He used his pen name Shoto - "pine waves" to remind him of the trees he loved near his home.  When he opened his first school at nearly 53 years old, he combined his pen name Shoto with the word kan "house."  The school was called Shotokan.  Today there are Shotokan "dojos" all over the world; teaching the kind of karate practiced by Master Funakoshi.  In summary, Master Funakoshi was a true karate ambassador who placed a profound emphasis on character development and exercising restraint in the use of karate against ones enemy.

"Students of any art, clearly including Karate-do, must never forget the cultivation of the mind and the body.  To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the highest skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the highest skill."

- Gichin Funakoshi -


Karate History