top of page


Gichin Funakoshi
Yasuhiro Konishi
Early kumite practice (Gichin Funakoshi, left)
Giko Funakoshi
Osamu Ozawa
Hidetaka Nishiyama

Though karate was first introduced to Japan during the 1920's, its traditions in Okinawa are centuries old, and, like many Japanese and Okinawan arts, its roots can be traced to ancient China. Tote (also called simply Te), meaning “hand”, was an art of self-defense that had been undergoing development in Okinawa for centuries. Because of trade and other relationships between Okinawa and China, it is probable that it was influenced by the Chinese fighting techniques known as Chuan-fa. Chuan-fa traces its origins back more than one thousand years. It is believed that the Chuan-fa fighting art called Nan-Pei-Chun, which was developed in the Fukien Province of China, had the greatest influence on the development of Okinawan Tote. However, there are no written records giving a clear line of development for Tote.

Okinawa was unified under King Shohashi of Chuzan in 1429, and later, during the reign of King Shoshin, an edict was issued prohibiting the practice of the martial arts. It is known that an order prohibiting weapons was promulgated by the Satsuma clan of Kagoshima after they gained control of Okinawa in 1609. Tote then became a last means of self-defense, but since the Satsuma clan clamped down severely on this, it had to be practiced in great secrecy. For the Okinawans, there was no alternative and they developed it into the art we know today.


Gichin Funakoshi, one of karate’s pioneers in its introduction to Japan, was born in Shuri, Okinawa in the Fall of 1868, and it is he who would have the greatest influence on the development of karate in the Twentieth Century. Funakoshi was born prematurely and not expected to live a long life; however, it was when he was around the age of 11 that he began playing with the son of the karate enthusiast Yasutsune Azato. Although his health was still poor, the result of Funakoshi’s playing with Azato’s son was the recommendation by the family physician that he be submitted to Azato as a student of karate. While practicing in Azato’s backyard with the other young men of the village, Yasutsune Itosu, a friend of Azato’s and a karate teacher, would come by and watch the students performing kata and make comments on their techniques. Between Azato and Itosu, Funakoshi was exposed to the two main karate traditions of the time - Shorin-ryu and Shorei-ryu. Although a school teacher by profession, Funakoshi was considered to be one of the more proficient karate masters in Okinawa by the time he was in his early thirties. In 1902, Gichin Funakoshi and his students put on the first formal public demonstration of karate for Shintaro Ozawa, the commissioner of schools for Japan's Kagoshima Prefecture. Ozawa was so impressed by this art and the young men demonstrating it that he made it possible for Funakoshi's karate to be included in the schools on a formal basis. With the exception of Itosu, who openly assisted Funakoshi in developing the karate program in the public school system, this action was against the wishes of many of the older karate teachers on Okinawa.

1906 marked the first public demonstration of karate, but it wasn’t until 1913 that Funakoshi was finally able to organize a demonstration team of approximately 25 men to travel around Okinawa and demonstrate this art to the public. Funakoshi was invited as the representative of the Okinawan Prefecture to demonstrate at the Butokuden (the official center of all martial arts in Japan) in 1916 and in Kyoto, Japan in 1917, but there was little more than passing interest at these displays. However, on March 6, 1921, the Crown Prince of Japan, Hirohito, visited Okinawa while en route to Europe and witnessed a karate demonstration in Shuri Castle’s great hall. In the early Spring of 1922, Funakoshi returned to Japan at the request of the Ministry of Education to demonstrate at the first National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo. The martial arts community, particularly Jigoro Kano (the founder of judo), and the educational community were so impressed and so eager to learn that Funakoshi was convinced to remain in Japan. After that exhibition, Funakoshi was besieged by requests for him to stay on in Japan to teach karate. Two of the people requesting that he stay were Hoan Kusugi, the popular painter who later created the Shotokan Tiger, and Jigoro Kano. As a result, the 53 year old Funakoshi migrated from his home to teach and spread the art of karate to Japan.

Initially, Funakoshi taught in the dojo of other arts. In September, 1924, Hironishi Ohtsuka, the founder of the Wado-ryu style of karate-do, and Gichin Funakoshi arrived at the kendo training hall at Keio University. They approached Yasuhiro Konishi with a letter of introduction from Professor Kasuya of Keio University. Funakoshi asked if it would be possible to use the training hall to practice Ryukyu Kempo Tote-jitsu. During this era, it was unheard of for one martial arts school to allow a martial arts teacher from another system to teach in their dojo. Such a request would be considered a challenge to the dojo. Konishi, however, saw the value in cross-training; he remembered the kata demonstrated during his university days by fellow student Tsuneshige Arakaki, and agreed to Funakoshi’s request.


On October 15, 1924, the study group of Tote started training at Keio University. Konishi bought the book written by Funakoshi ("Ryukyu Kenpo Tote"), but could not fully understand its concepts. So, at the recommendation of Ohtsuka, Konishi entered into the dormitory called Meisei-jyuku (where Funakoshi was living, together with other students from Okinawa), to observe and participate in this new art. Funakoshi, Konishi, and Ohtsuka ultimately became the principal instructors of this group.

In 1925, Funakoshi began gaining students and developing clubs at the various colleges and universities in the Tokyo area. By the early 1930's, there were karate clubs at every major university in Tokyo, and by 1933, Funakoshi had developed basic drills for practicing the techniques with a sparring partner. In 1934, a method of practicing these attacks and defenses with partners in a slightly more unrestricted way, semi-free style, was added to the training. Finally, in 1935, additional examination of methods of free sparring with opponents had begun. Until this time, all of the karate practiced on Okinawa had been composed of kata training.

Also during this time, there was an ongoing philosophical debate among martial artists as to the definition of budo. Some believed budo required the death of the opponent; to others that meant supporting or educating the opponent in the proper ways. Funakoshi always taught budo as technique and education. Konishi especially believed in Bu bun ryo do, loosely translated as "for karate to be perfect, it cannot be just technique, but also education." As technique disciplines the body, education should discipline the mind; thus, Konishi believed that budo involved educating the opponent.

Karate gradually became more popular and many masters from Okinawa began to visit Japan. Among them were: Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-ryu), Chojun Miyagi (founder of Goju-ryu), and Choki Motobu. How Tote could be improved to the same level of development that kendo and judo had attained was the task to be tackled. Only a few people besides Funakoshi, Ohtsuka, Konishi, and Takeshi Shimoda (1901-1934) recognized the importance of this.

In 1929, teachers and students in Keio University's Karate Research Group discussed the translation of the kanji for karate, and agreed to change the kanji of karate to mean 'empty hand.' They contended that this new kanji was a better representation of what karate had developed into. This change was adopted over the protests of many Okinawans, but remains the accepted translation to this day. Gichin Funakoshi was instrumental in this movement through his publication of a series of newspaper articles as well as his book, "Karate-do Kyohan". Originally, the symbol kara had meant ‘Tang,’ referring to the Tang Dynasty of China. Another character for kara was chosen, which came from the Zen concept meaning ‘empty’ or ‘rendering oneself empty.’ Te, of course, was both the Okinawan and Japanese word for "hand." It was the consensus of the Keio research group that these kanji characters more accurately represented the true nature of karate as a method of character development through physical training. Eventually, this interpretation became the accepted definition. Funakoshi explained the reason for the change, including historical, sociological, and philosophical arguments in his "Karate-do Nyumon":

"Just as an empty valley can carry a resounding voice, so must the person who follows the Way of Karate make himself void or empty by ridding himself of all self-centeredness and greed.

Make yourself empty within, but upright without.

This is the real meaning of the "empty" in karate...

Karate alone explicitly states the basis of all martial arts.

Form equals emptiness; emptiness equals form.

The use of the character in karate is indeed based on this principle."

While the issue of whether to call this art ‘Chinese hand’ or ‘empty hand’ might seem trivial, it inspired a storm of controversy in both Okinawa and Japan during the 1920's and 1930's. Some of the fervor had to do more with cultural identity and socio-political issues among the Japanese and Okinawan peoples than with philosophical arguments about the ultimate meaning of the martial arts. But in successfully adopting the 'empty hand' version of karate, the way was paved for the adoption of this martial art into Japanese culture. More importantly, the name change marked a philosophical turning point for the art of karate. Only with this change and its introduction into Japan did karate become karate-do (the Way of karate), part of the tradition of Japanese budo. When Funakoshi introduced karate to Japan, he introduced much more than an Okinawan fighting art. By calling his art karate-do, rather than simply karate, he claimed a spiritual and philosophical foundation for karate training. As a -do form, karate was transformed into an art form, a way of life, and a path to self-knowledge and self-improvement. "Art" is defined as creativeness, skill, or a making or doing of things that have form and beauty. The mastery of an art form implies communication with and mastery of the inner self. With the mastery of the inner self, and the death of the self-conscious observing ego, comes an undistorted perception of reality; the ability to see things as they are. . . the ability to see truth.


In a -do, the mastery of physical techniques is less important than perfection of human character. However, this does not mean that any less emphasis is placed on detail and precision. Emphasis is placed on exact performance, which allows the discipline required for improvement to serve its prime function, which is that of a vehicle or ‘way.’ Thus, the physical techniques are not an end in themselves, but merely tools to be used to shape the practitioner. With the publication of Funakoshi’s "Karate-do Kyohan" in 1935, karate-do became firmly established. Though Ryukyu traditional martial arts, Ryukyu Kenpo, Tote-jitsu, and Karate-jitsu had started to be known throughout Japan, the history of their dissemination in Japan was still short, and they were still considered to be inferior to kendo and judo. Konishi worked to disseminate karate-do through his connections in the jujitsu world, but the results were not satisfactory. In the kendo world, people who recognized karate-do, like Hakudo Nakayama, were a minority, and there was still a strong tendency to define karate-do as a primitive art in which thrusting and kicking were representative techniques.


The Mecca of martial arts in Japan was the Dai Nippon Butoku-kai, and when Konishi introduced and demonstrated karate-do into this association, Chairman Fusataro Hongo was surprised at Konishi’s smooth, circular movements containing both softness and hardness. Hongo suspended the rest of the matches scheduled for the day and ordered Konishi to continue his study of the art in an effort to complete this new martial art. The Dai Nippon Butoku-kai was politically very strong and set the standards for ranking individual martial artists as well as signed all certificates of membership. Konishi, already a member through both kendo and jujitsu, felt that karate-do would be effective in the education of the Japanese people, and so he applied to the Dai Nippon Butoku-kai for recognition of karate-do.

In 1935, the Dai Nippon Butoku-kai recognized karate-do as a member and, in 1939, awarded Kyoshi (Master Instructor) rankings to Yasuhiro Konishi, Chojun Miyagi and Sannosuke Ueshima. Toshiyuki Shimizu, Kenwa Mabuni, Masahiro Kasuya, Hironori Ohtsuka, Takehiko Eto, Gichin Funakoshi, Toshiyasu Niizato, Kazuya Nozawa, Toyosaku Sodeyama, Takeshi Shimoda, Masaji Kushihashi, Nuinosuke Yamamoto, Torakichi Inagaki, Kazuo Miura, Kotaro Namiki, Jitsuro Ueno, Shujiro Kihara, Giko Funakoshi, Kanemori Kinjyo, Ryusuke Kawarabuki, Shosin Nagamine, Seko Higa, and Sanemi Yamaguchi were all awarded the title of Renshi.

At the recommendation of Morihei Ueshiba and Danjyo Yamaguchi, the principle karate-do instructors of the day began to devise names for their particular styles of karate-do. Konishi named his Shindo Jinen Ryu Karate-jitsu (godly, natural style, complete empty-handed way), while Miyagi named his style Goju-ryu, as it blended hard and soft techniques (go and ju). Mabuni studied under both Yasutsune Itosu and Kanryo Higashionna (Okinawan masters of Tote), and named his style Shito-ryu, combining the first kanji from each of their names. For Hironishi Ohtsuka, the study of budo places one in harmony (wa) with the universe; his style became known as Wado-ryu. Ueshima based Kushin-ryu (Sky-Heart) on the idea of the universe and person as center and in harmony. And students convinced Funakoshi to name his style Shotokan (based upon Funakoshi’s pen-name as a poet).By the late 1930's, the karate-do movement was gaining strength, with Funakoshi having established and taught at more than 30 karate-do clubs on college campuses (including Keio University, Tokyo Imperial University, Shoka University, Takushoku University, Waseda University, and Nihon College of Medicine).

With World War II, many karateka left to fight for their country, and further development of karate-do was stymied. Following the war, karate-do and budo were developed and introduced into the public education system. Karate-do had thus become a way of life in Japan. While Funakoshi concentrated his teaching efforts in Japanese schools, Konishi was more often found in a business, teaching employees. While both arenas may seem unusual to the Western mind, their efforts were highly respected and very practically arranged, since it prevented open competition between them.


Shortly after the war, Funakoshi’s son, Giko Funakoshi, a promising young karateka and the student that Funakoshi saw as his replacement as the chief instructor of the Shotokan, contracted tuberculosis and died. Almost immediately after the war, the karateka of Japan began reorganizing. Their goal was to build a large, strong organization. In May of 1949, the Nihon Karate Kyokai (Japan Karate Association) was officially organized, with Funakoshi named chief instructor emeritus. Since Funakoshi was 81 years old, Masatoshi Nakayama was chosen to handle the actual teaching and Hidetaka Nishiyama was appointed chief of the instruction committee.


Beginning in 1951, the United States Air Force instituted a program of martial arts instruction which was taught at the Kodo-kan. This program was the result of the Air Force's desire to improve the physical condition of its pilots and interest in this was generated by karate-do demonstrations at various air bases in Japan by Nakayama and Isao Obata between 1948 and 1951. Contact with the Americans had a great impact on the Japanese instructors, in that the Americans always wanted to know why things were done the way they were done. Nakayama and Nishiyama were forced to study and research the scientific basis for karate-do technique in anatomy, kinesiology, psychology, exercise physiology, and physics. This search for and development of a rational scientific basis fundamentally altered both teaching and training methods, making them more palatable to foreigners.

Gichin Funakoshi, the father of modern karate-do, died on April 26, 1957. On his black, cross-shaped gravestone are the words "Karate ni sente nashi" ["There is no first attack in karate"].

In pursuit of the goal of making karate-do international in nature and popularity, rules were devised which would allow sport competition. Kata competition was modeled after Olympic sports such as gymnastics and ice skating. Sparring rules were also devised, with much concern for the safety of the competitors, discussion centering on target areas and the level of acceptable contact. The first All-Japan Karate-do Championship was held in June of 1957.

In addition to developing the sport aspect of karate-do, the Japan Karate Association also instituted an instructor training program for the development of instructors to be sent overseas to spread the art of karate-do. To be admitted, one had to be a college graduate and a second-degree black belt. In addition to karate-do training, instructors studied anatomy, psychology, physics, the history and philosophy of physical education and sport, and business management. To complete the program they were required to pass their third-degree black belt test, as well as serve a teaching internship for a year.

Beginning in 1961, these instructors began arriving in the United States. By the early 1970's, men such as Teruyuki Okazaki, Takayuki Mikami, Yutaka Yaguchi, Osamu Ozawa, and Hidetaka Nishiyama had established strong organizations. Due to political infighting, two separate organizations were formed in the 1970's: the International Shotokan Karate Federation (I.S.K.F.), headed by Okazaki, and the American Amateur Karate Federation (A.A.K.F.)/International Traditional Karate Federation (I.T.K.F.), headed by Nishiyama. These two organizations are now separate but equal members of the J.K.A. (which itself has now split numerous times).


Aurora, Illinois

Proudly created with

Please note that the information and the training methods contained on this web site can be dangerous. Neither the author, nor the host of this site, nor any other person, or persons, accepts any responsibility what so ever for any injuries, damages, or death caused to, or by, any person, or persons, as a direct, or indirect, result of the use of any of the information, advice, movements, and or techniques, described in the articles contained on this web site, or any other linked web sites, pages or articles. Anyone following the information, advice, movements, and or techniques provided here, does so at their own risk. All of this material and any of the linked web sites are intended to be for educational purposes only.

bottom of page