I’ve been learning about the origins of different martial arts and I suspected that karate was Japanese, but didn’t know its exact history. I thought it might be from China or Korea. So, I did some research, and here’s what I found.
So, is karate Japanese or Chinese? Karate is Japanese in origin, and according to Britannica.com, it was invented in Okinawa. However, it was inspired by a group of martial arts techniques that were originally of Chinese origin.
It’s thought that karate had an influence from Chinese immigrants who moved to Okinawa, and shared their martial arts with people practicing martial arts at the time there.
Below, I’ll discuss the history of karate in much more detail. Whether you’re interested in who invented karate, what Japanese martial art is the oldest, or why karate is so popular, this article will explain everything you need to know about the origins of karate.
Who invented karate?
According to the Japan Karate Association, Karate was invented by Master Funakoshi. He was very gifted at karate and created the official ‘Dan’ ranking system, and invented the philosophy and curriculum in the 1920s.
Karate was originally called karate-jutsu and when written in Japanese means “Chinese-hand martial arts”. Giving reference to its Chinese origins.
The inventor of karate – Master Funakoshi was originally taught by Master Itosu Anko, a fellow Okinawan.
And from an early age Funakoshi was very talented at karate, and soon became better than his teacher. Funakoshi is seen as having the most influence on establishing and spreading karate throughout Japan.
Karate became well known when Funakoshi – at the age 54 traveled to Japan and put on a karate demonstration. People were so impressed that he was swamped with admiration.
Around this time another famous Japanese martial art judo had been invented by Kano Jigaro. Kano heard about the demonstration and invited Master Funakoshi to his dojo to give a demonstration of ‘kata’.
This event in the history of karate shows the link between the beginning of judo, and the beginning of karate.
Not long after this in 1922, Master Funakoshi published the first book about karate. At that time though, karate was still called karate-jutsu. After the release of the book word spread and the martial art gained even more popularity.
Two years later Master Funakoshi created the Dan ranking system for karate. And changed its name. Interestingly although Okinawa and Japan are very close geographically, they speak a different language, and so Funakoshi changed its name and the name of its techniques to make it more accessible to Japan.
Karate translated into Japanese
Master Funakoshi changed the spelling of the word karate to the exact same spelling in English.
This is known as a homophone in grammar. An example in English is the homophone ‘meet’ and ‘meat’. Or, ‘one’ and ‘won’.
By changing its spelling he changed the meaning from ‘Chinese hand martial arts’ to ‘open hand’. To signify the martial art was unique to him and was a refinement and adaptation of the Chinese influence on his fighting style.
He also established the ‘20 Precepts of Karate’, which is the official philosophy of karate. And includes teaching such as:
- Karate begins with courtesy and ends with courtesy
- There is no first attack in Karate
- Karate is an aid to justice
- First control yourself before attempting to control others*
*These are quoted directly from his 20 Precepts.
While he was in Japan he taught at many high schools and universities around the country. And students he taught went on to establish their own schools.
This led to the growth and spread of karate throughout Japan, and firmly established it as its own martial art. Master Goshin passed away in 1989 at the age of 89.
Here’s some footage of Master Funakoshi:
What martial arts come from China?
Well-known martial arts from China are kung fu, tai chi, and sanda (like kickboxing). There are over 50 distinct martial arts styles from China. According to Chinaculture.org, the first known history of martial arts in China goes as far back as 5000 years.
Interestingly, I’d never heard of Sanda, and it’s likely you haven’t either and it’s essentially Chinese kickboxing.
Sanda has international full-contact tournaments every year. But, instead of fighting in a ring, competitors fight on an open mat. The objective of a Sanda match is to win on points or to knock out your opponent.
Wushu and Sanda are often held at the same event. However, Wushu is a display martial art, and in Wushu competitions, competitors showcase their skills by performing techniques alone. Typically they also wear silk clothing and use weapons.
The first known recording of martial arts in China was taught by an emperor called Huangdi – known as the Yellow Emperor.
He was a war general and wrote many books on medicine, astrology, and martial arts. It’s thought that he invented a martial art that looks like wrestling or judo known as ‘jiao di’, Which has the nickname horn butting because it resembles how bulls and deer fight in the wild.
Kung Fu is probably the most famous Chinese martial art. And Wing Chun was made famous by the infamous martial artist and actor Bruce Lee.
Shaolin Kung Fu is quite well known and you’ve likely seen Chinese monks in their orange clothing performing it. They also perform incredible feats of strength such as being able to put all their body weight onto a spear.
Tai Chi is also quite famous. You might have seen older Chinese people practicing it at a park near you. But the way it’s trained doesn’t resemble a martial art, so you might not think it’s very effective for fighting.
And in my opinion, you’d be right. If a practitioner only practices the slow and deliberate moves, which it’s famous Tai Chi is famous for, they’ll be ill-prepared for a fight.
However, some Tai-chi practitioners do practice sparring. And when they do it looks almost identical to kickboxing. Though, you couldn’t really call it Tai Chi.
What martial arts come from Japan?
The most famous martial arts from Japan are karate, judo, and jiu jitsu. Karate is technically Chinese, but it was made into a complete system and spread in Japan. Judo, and jiu jitsu are thought to have been used by the samurai, and jiu jitsu was popularized in the USA.
Jiu jitsu was invented in Japan, but was taught to the Gracie family in Brazil, who took it to the USA. And the Gracie family made it famous by winning the first UFC, known as UFC 1. And was also used to win subsequent UFC’s.
Since then, it’s become extremely popular around the world. I covered this topic in more detail in this article about the differences between karate and jiu jitsu.
Is karate a sport yes or no?
Karate is a sport and a martial art. Sport karate has recently been designated an Olympic sport, and there are many international sport karate tournaments held every year. Sport karate is called ‘kumite’ in Japanese, and the most famous karate tournament is held by the World Karate Federation (WKF).
The WKF holds both continental and international tournaments. The continental tournaments are for Oceania and Europe. And each tournament has distinct weight classes.
To win a karate match you need to score points, and the official rules state that you can’t strike an opponent really hard.
Therefore, competitors aim to just touch their opponent with their strikes to score points. But, throws are also allowed.
At these tournaments, they also have a ‘kata’ competition. As you may know, a kata is a long sequence of moves, including punches, kicks, and blocks. Competitors perform a ‘kata’ individually, and it’s judged similar to gymnastics.
Certain moves are punctuated by ‘kiai’. Which is a loud shout that’s done as certain moves are executed.
Which is best karate or kung fu?
Karate is a better martial art for defending yourself. But, both have a range of benefits such as increased flexibility, fitness, and self-discipline. In most karate schools you will spar in a nearly realistic manner and can compete against a resisting opponent. Whereas, in kung fu, you don’t.
In kung fu tournaments competitors do a demonstration of their physical abilities individually similar to the ‘kata’ tournaments. But, at a kung fu school, you rarely have an opportunity to live spar. Where you practice in a way that mimics a real fight like the sparring in boxing, kickboxing, or karate.
Therefore, you don’t get the necessary skills to execute moves to defend yourself. However kung fu does practice with weapons which can be effective in a real fight, provided you have the weapons on you.
But, in everyday life, it’s impractical, and usually illegal to walk around with a weapon. One aspect of kung fu that will help you in a real fight is that it develops your fitness. And being able to run away, is very helpful in a life or death situation.
In karate, however, a large percentage of a normal class will involve sparring.
Even though you hit each other lightly you develop the skills in evading and blocking strikes, and well as landing strikes. And therefore, you’ll be much better prepared to avoid and land strikes in a real fight.
Fantasy martial arts versus real martial arts
There is a term used by long-time martial arts practitioners called ‘fantasy martial arts’. Which refer to martial arts that look good, but aren’t effective in a real-life situation.
Martial arts that are considered real are boxing, kickboxing, jiu jitsu, judo, wrestling, sambo, and to some extent karate.
Whereas, martial arts that are considered fantasy martial arts are aikido, kung fu, jeet kune do, and ‘death touch’ type of martial arts.
The main difference between fantasy-based martial arts and ‘real’ martial arts is the training techniques used.
For example, in fantasy-based martial arts very little emphasis is put on live drills, where an opponent is trying to realistically resist or attack you.
A good example to illustrate this point is observing what happens when a wrestler spars with an aikido practitioner.
Although an aikido practitioner would be able to avoid some moves and stay out of harm’s way. A wrestler will eventually grab a hold of them and easily dominate them.
Here’s a video of how it would go down:
Why is karate so popular?
Karate is very popular because:
- Of the blockbuster movie The Karate Kid
- People that study martial arts like to learn about lots of different martial arts
- Japanese culture is unique and interesting
Martial arts in general are very popular.
I’ll explain each of these points in more detail.
1. The movie ‘the Karate Kid’
The movie ‘The Karate Kid’ was very popular and many quotes from the movie are still thrown around today. Such as ‘wax on, wax off’. And you may remember the famous ‘crane kick’ that Daniel-sun used to win the final fight.
Also, Mr. Miyagi was very small in stature and old but was able to defeat young people which was very interesting. Anyone who saw the movie would have had an interest in it, and possibly taken it up.
2. People that go martial arts like to learn other martial arts
A person who is interested in martial arts is typically interested in which martial arts is the best, how all the different martial arts compare.
Therefore, because of karate’s popularity in Japan, and its reputation as being a real martial art, would have drawn people from other martial arts to learn about it, and take some lessons. Or, do it for many years, and move up the belt ranks.
3. Japanese culture is unique and interesting
Japanese culture includes stories about samurai, ninjas, bowing, interesting fashion, as well as, cultural practices such as bowing.
Japanese people also have a reputation for striving for perfection, and cleanliness. Japanese cartoons – called anime, are also very popular outside of Japan and are unique in the art world.
Therefore, all of these factors create a mystique around Japan and make karate more interesting to look into and try.
4. Martial arts in general is very popular
Being able to defend yourself, and fighting, seem to be built into our DNA, and are very interesting topics to most people, especially men. Every different culture around the world also has its own fighting art.
Whether it’s Scottish backhold wrestling, the Viking martial art glima or Greco Roman wrestling. Therefore, karate is seen as something important and worth learning about.
What do you call a karate student?
A karate student is called a karateka. Also, a karate instructor is called a sensei. These are both Japanese words that are translated into English. In Japanese adding ‘ka’ to the end of a martial art means a student. For example, a person who practices judo is called a judoka.
But, as you know in other martial arts you just add an ‘er’. For example, a wrestler, or a kickboxer.
What is the oldest Japanese martial art?
Kendo is seen as the oldest Japanese martial art and is a relic of ancient sword fighting martial arts. The Kendo Federation says that swords were first used widely in Japan by the samurai in the year 782. And the protective armor that’s used in kendo today was first used in the 1700s.
Kendo was invented much earlier than judo, and karate. The website Way of the Samurai says that karate, judo, and kendo are relatively modern martial arts and have only been around for the last 100 years.
However, in my opinion, it’s likely that there were also hand-to-hand combat martial arts before then, and likely around the same time as when swords were widely used.
They also say that there were many weapons used in older Japanese martial arts such as spears, halberds – spears with a sword on the end, and Kitana.
Interestingly, the website Way of the Samurai, says that samurai were around earlier than 782, and were thought to have been active during the Asuka period in the year 580.
During this time they were charged with defending the rulers of Japan at the time. They say that samurai were originally called ‘saburai’ which is the Japanese adaptation of the Chinese word which means ‘to serve’.
Here’s a summary of the key points I covered in this article:
Karate techniques are thought to have come from China.
But, a karate master known as Funakoshi translated the techniques into Japanese, and compiled and adapted selected techniques into what is known today as karate.
It was originally called karate. However, it was spelled differently. And Funakoshi changed the spelling to make it mean ‘open hand’, rather than ‘a martial art from China’.
He also started many karate schools and spread karate far and wide in Japan. Karate now is also a sport known as ‘kumite’. And is an official Olympic sport.
China also has its own uniquely Chinese martials arts such as kung fu, and tai chi.
- Britannica.com: Karate
- Wikipedia: Okinawan Prefecture
- Jka.or.jp: Supreme Master Funakoshi Gichin
- Englishshotokan.net: The 20 Precepts of Gichin Funakoshi
- Chinaculture.org: History of Chinese Martial Arts
- Wikipedia: Chinese Martial Arts
- Kendo.or.jp: What is kendo?
- Way-of-the-samurai.com: Japanese Martial Arts History