The history of karate has about as many versions to it as the Beatles' "Let it Be" in karaoke
bars all over Japan. We keep hearing all kinds of different things, different versions, myths, legends, wishful thinking,
and basic lies all tangled up in one huge Gordian knot.
So, what is really the truth about the history of karate? Where did it come from? How did it
get to be what it is today? Why are there so many different styles of karate? How is it possible that they all claim to be
"traditional", implying that they are "original" or "authentic" as the "real" karate as opposed to all those other fakes out
Legend has it that karate was something else before it became karate. The popular belief is
that it began long long ago somewhere in the misty past of Ancient Greece or India where some guy, whose name is unknown and
thus mysterious, came over to China. The Chinese, who have been a meditative and pious people, learned the venerable art of
this weaponless combat and changed it into something of their own.
The legend further mutates to suggest that it was the ancient Shaolin monks who formalized
this training and made it an art. The Shaolin temple monks are renowned for their fighting prowess, their deep sense of spirit,
and their superhuman abilities in punching and kicking.
What grew out of the Shaolin tradition was a myriad of different fighting styles that grew
into the various schools of wushu, or kung fu in the contemporary. Kung fu forms are based largely on the actions, attacks,
and reactions of animals. There is the white crane school or kung fu, the tiger school, the praying mantis school, the bear
school, to name but a few.
Somehow, in the midst of all of this, a form of unarmed combat training found its way through
China, to Taiwan, and then up to Okinawa. The legend continues that the crafty and extremely resourceful Okinawans developed
this craft to suit their own needs.
As a largely agricultural society, the Okinawans became adept at unarmed conflict but also
added different weapons to their repertoire of deadliness. It is from this point that our sticky tale becomes even stickier.
There was a man named Gichin Funakoshi. This man was one man among many who learned the art of The Hand, or Te. As a school
teacher he had hoped to find a way to introduce this art into the school system as a means of developing the physical education
programs of Okinawa.
The exercises he designed for his physical education classes were adaptations of the karate
that he was learning secretly from karate masters who lived nearby. In the early days of modern karate, the art's popularity
was localized to Okinawa only but later came to the rest of Japan. In 1921 the Japanese Crown Prince (who later became Emperor
Hirohito) saw a karate demonstration by Gichin Funakoshi and his traveling band of karate men. From there, karate spread in
popularity due to the rave reviews of the Crown Prince.
Karate grows in many shapes and forms as other styles of karate come from Okinawa to the Japanese
mainland, including Gojuryu, Wadoryu, and Shitoryu. University clubs throughout Tokyo and Osaka start forming. Karate has
now become a standard "Japanese" activity and pastime.