The History of Karate

History of Karate

Prior to Karate making its way to Japan, Karate traces back to Daruma or Bodhidharma, who established Zen Buddhism in Western India. Bodhidharma was an Indian Buddhist monk who traveled to China in around 527 CE. History shares, that he stayed at the Shaolin temple of northern China and shared the philosophies and training methods of the Zen Buddhists. The monks of the Shaolin temple then adopted the new shared knowledge and combined them with their Kung fu. Eventually, the combination of the Zen Buddist, Shaolin Kung fu, the Shokei style of southern China, and the Ryukyuan martial arts left us with the early stages of Karate.

Evolution of Karate

The earliest recorded history of Karate reported in Japan was from the late 17th century, when the Samurai rulers of Japan imposed a ban on weapons. Due to the prohibition having strict rules, there is little to no recorded evidence.


A visitor from China, by the name of Kushanku, taught a form of kung fu that blended with the already existing arts ‘te’ (hand) on the Ryukyuan Islands. The early masters in Okinawa, like Kanga Tode Sakugawa and Sokon ‘Bushi’ Matsumura, taught ‘te’ using empty-handed (no weapons) techniques. Since no weapons were allowed on the island and training for martial arts was against the rules, all teaching and training had to be done and kept secret.


In the late 1800s, after trade relationships between China and the islands were established, Chinese families began to settle in Okinawa. Along with the settlers came the introduction of Chinese Kenpō, which later influenced the further development of the already popular and widely used fighting style by the natives of the Ryukyu Islands, ‘te’.

Karate Today

‘Te’ was popular in three cities on the Ryukyu Islands; Shuri, Naha, and Tamara. Each city had its own way of doing ‘te’, and today’s modern styles reflect this.

Shuri-te is the result of incorporating fighting techniques from China, mainly from Shaolin Kung-Fu, combined with original local techniques.


It was primarily solely taught to “nobility” at the royal palace in Shuri. Shuri-te was a fast and dynamic style with an equal emphasis on leg and hand techniques. Shuri-te is where modern styles like Shorin-Ryu, Shotokan, and Wado-Ryu come from.

Naha-te was primarily based on Fujian White Crane Kung-Fu, a Chinese Southern style, and was taught in the old commercial city of the Ryukyu Kingdom, what is now the capital city of Okinawa Prefecture.


Naha-te was a close-range style that used leg techniques rarely aimed above mid-level. It also placed heavy importance on breathing techniques and is the source of modern styles like Goju-Ryu and Uechi-Ryu.

Tomari-te originated in the village of Tomari, Okinawa. It contained internal and external elements of Shuri-te and Naha-te, however, Tomari-te is much closer resembles more Shuri-te.

Shotokan's History

In 1922, Master Gichin Funakoshi, Yoshitaka Funakoshi, Shigeru Egami, and Takeshi Shimoda traveled throughout mainland Japan and staged exhibitions to expand the knowledge of Karate-do as a Japanese martial art.


They organized and established a Dojo that Master Funakoshi’s senior students later associated with teachings under his pen name Shoto (松濤). Shoto means “pine waves” or the movement of pine needles when the wind blows through them. Shoto was then combined with Kan (館) meaning “house” of training and became known as Master Funakoshi’s style Shotokan (松濤館). Today there are many schools and variations of Master Funakoshi’s Karate.

Founded in 1928 and formalized as a school in 1939 by Gichin Funakoshi based on Okinawan Karate, Shotokan Masters have shared this art throughout the world. 

More from our Blogs