Mississippi Isshinryu Karate
Backgrounds, biographies, pictures and insights of Shimabuku's Isshin-Ryu

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History of Karate


 3 Original Traditional Okinawan Styles

Shuri-te Hard techniques (Go) influenced by Kenpo, seen more as an offensive system.
Naha-te Softer techniques (Ju) of Kenpo, plus strong breath control and is regarded as more of a defensive system, with grappling, throws, and locks.
Tomari-te The hard and soft techniques of Kenpo.

  Most Western students of Asian martial arts, if they have done any research on the subject at all, will surely have come across references to Bodhidharma. He is known as "Daruma" in Japan and as often as not, this Indian Buddhist monk is cited as the prime source for all martial arts styles or at the vary least, for any style which traces its roots back to the fabled Shaolin Temple. However, the question of his contributions to the martial arts and to Zen Buddhism and even of his very existence has been a matter of controversy among historians and martial arts scholars for many years (Spiessbach,1992).

      As legend has it, the evolution of karate began over a thousand years ago, possibly as early as the fifth century BC when Bodhidharma arrived in Shaolin-si (small forest temple), China from India and taught Zen Buddhism. He also introduced a systematized set of exercises designed to strengthen the mind and body, exercises which allegedly marked the beginning of the Shaolin style of temple boxing. Bodhidharma's teachings later became the basis for the majority of Chinese martial arts. In truth, the origins of karate appear to be somewhat obscure and little is known about the early development of karate until it appeared in Okinawa.

Okinawa Map - Click to enlarge

    Okinawa is a small island of the group that comprises modern day Japan. It is the main island in the chain of Ryukyu Islands which spans from Japan to Taiwan. Surrounded by coral, Okinawa is approximately 10 km (6 mi) wide and only about 110 km (less than 70 mi) long.

     It is situated 740 km (400 nautical mi) east of mainland China, 550 km (300 nautical miles) south of mainland Japan and an equal distance north of Taiwan. Being at the crossroads of major trading routes, its significance as a "resting spot" was first discovered by the Japanese. It later developed as a trade centre for southeastern Asia, trading with Japan, China, Indo China, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and the Philippines.

In its earliest stages, the martial art known as "karate" was an indigenous form of closed fist fighting which was developed in Okinawa and called Te, or 'hand'. Weapons bans, imposed on the Okinawans at various points in their history, encouraged the refinement of empty-hand techniques and, for this reason, was trained in secret until modern times. Further refinement came with the influence of other martial arts brought by nobles and trade merchants to the island.

     Te continued to develop over the years, primarily in three Okinawan cities: Shuri, Naha and Tomari. Each of these towns was a centre to a different sect of society: kings and nobles, merchants and business people, and farmers and fishermen, respectively. For this reason, different forms of self-defense developed within each city and subsequently became known as Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te. Collectively they were called Okinawa-Te or Tode, 'Chinese hand'. Gradually, karate was divided into two main groups: Shorin-ryu which developed around Shuri and Tomari and Shorei-ryu which came from the Naha area. "It is important to note, however, that the towns of Shuri, Tomari, Naha are only a few miles apart, and that the differences between their arts were essentially ones of emphasis, not of kind. Beneath these surface differences, both the methods and aims of all Okinawan karate are one in the same" (Howard, 1991). Gichin Funakoshi goes further to suggest that these two styles were developed based on different physical requirements Funakoshi, 1935). Shorin-ryu was quick and linear with natural breathing while Shorei-ryu emphasized steady, rooted movements with breathing in synchrony with each movement. Interestingly, this concept of two basic styles also exist in kung-fu with a similar division of characteristics (Wong, 1978).

     The Chinese character used to write Tode could also be pronounced 'kara' thus the name Te was replaced with kara te - jutsu or 'Chinese hand art' by the Okinawan Masters. This was later changed to karate-do by Gichin Funakoshi who adopted an alternate meaning for the Chinese character for kara, 'empty'. From this point on the term karate came to mean 'empty hand'. The Do in karate-do means 'way' or 'path', and is indicative of the discipline and philosophy of karate with moral and spiritual connotations.

     The concept of Do has been prevalent since at least the days of the Okinawan Scholar Teijunsoku born in 1663, as this passage from a poem he wrote suggests:

No matter how you may excel in the art of te,
And in your scholastic endeavors,
Nothing is more important than your behavior
And your humanity as observed in daily life


Selected References
Farkas, Emil & Corcoran, John (1983), The Dictionary of Martial Arts, Overlook, New York

Frederic, Lois (1991), A Dictionary of the Martial Arts, Tuttle, Vermont

Funakoshi, Gichin (1935), Karate-Do Kyohan, Kobundo Book Company, Tokyo

Funakoshi, Gichin (1975), Karate-Do: My Way of Life, Kodansha International, Tokyo

Hassell, R.G. (1984), Shotokan Karate: Its History and Tradition, Focus Publications

Higaonna, Morio (1987), Traditional Karate-Do-Okinawa Goju Ryu, Volume l, Minto Research an Publishing, Tokyo

Maliszewski, Michael (1992), Meditative-Religious Traditions of FightingArts & Martial Ways, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Volume 1, Number 3, Via Media Publishing Company, Erie Pennsylvania

Nagamine, Shoshin (1976), The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do, Tuttle, Tokyo

Nakaya, Takao (1986), Karate-Do History and Philosophy, JSS Publishing, Texas

Reid, Howard & Croucher, Michael (1991), The Way of the Warrior, The Overlook Press, New York

Spiessbach, Michael (1992), Bodhidharma: Meditating Monk Martial Arts Master or Make Believe?, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Volume 1, Number 4, Via Media Publishing Company, Erie Pennsylvania

Wingate, Carrie (1993), Exploring Our Roots: Historical and Cultural Foundations of the Ideology of Karate- Do, Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Volume 2, Number 3, Via Media Publishing Company, Erie Pennsylvania

Wong, James (1978), A source book in the Chinese martial arts: History, philosophy, systems and styles: vol. 1, Koinonia Productions, Stockton, California

This article has been written to supplement the Karate History article in the NCCP Technical I Manual by Rick Jorgensen

Kevin Northrup & Joy Ang

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