History of Karate
The origins of karate are somewhat obscure. The most popular tradition traces them to
the arrival in China of the fierce Indian monk Bodhidharma, or Daruma taishi, to give him his
Japanese name. He is said to have arrived in Canton in AD 520 and he was also the First
patriarch of Zen Buddhism in China.
Bodhidharma imposed the most severe discipline on the monks under him at the
monastery of Shaolin. His students and their successors became famous for their physical prowess
as well as their mental discipline and Shaolin was to give its name to one of the foremost schools
of Chinese boxing. Shaolin boxing was introduced into the Ryukyu Islands, of which Okinawa
is the main island, in either the fifteenth or the sixteenth century.
These were tough times in the Ryukyus. A succession of tyrannies, for their own
preservation, had made the possession of weapons by any member of the civilian population a
state offence. Understandably this boosted the interest in unarmed combat, producing a system
called Okinawa-te, a mixture of Chinese and indigenous influences.
There were in fact many different ‘schools’ of Okinawa-te, each one carefully guarding
its secrets from the others. Secrets had also to be kept from the ruling classes and from any
individual who might have misused them. Therefore, all training was carried out in the early
morning or late at night, or else behind locked doors. No beginner was accepted until his good
character had been established.
Thus modern karate is the outcome of centuries of interchange between China, the
Ryukyus and Japan. It only recently came to be openly taught to the public first in Okinawa and
later in Japan. During 1917 and 1922 the late Gichin Funakoshi, President of the Okinawa
Bushokwai, demonstrated his powers in Tokyo. Funakoshi was to become Supreme Instructor of
the new Japan Karate Association and by 1935 karate clubs were established at most of the
leading universities in Japan.
The contact with intellectual life at university was invigorating for karate. New techniques
were developed, old ones improved, and elements which had always been regarded as mysterious
and supernatural were regarded in a more rational light. It must be remembered, however, that
karate students now more than ever derive moral and spiritual strength from their training.