Karate History

By Robert Hunt

Robert Hunt


Karate history – For more than four hundred years the art of karate has been part of the culture of Okinawa. In modern times, though, it also has evolved into a pastime for much of the rest of the world. So strong is its appeal, in fact that since the end of the Second World War the word “karate” has developed into nearly a household term recognized throughout the world.

But, after a hundred years of exposure to the outside, and with millions of people having practiced the martial arts, karate is still incredibly misunderstood, and by nearly everyone involved, including most of the people who teach it.

The reasons, as always, are complicated, wrapped up in factors as diverse as Japan’s drive for Asian domination at the beginning of this century, to America’s movie culture. In addition to being confused regularly with such martial arts as the Korean Tae Kwon Do (actually an off-shoot of karate) and Kung Fu, the more or less generic term for Chinese martial arts, karate has been twisted into a media creation and exploited almost to death.

Although Hollywood has been the main source of spreading karate, Hollywood films have also been the primary corrupting factor, so much so, in fact, that real karate is all but unknown to the general public.

Karate was born on the tiny island of Okinawa, only ninety miles south of the southernmost tip of Japan.  The Okinawan people have a unique attitude and philosophy, tempered by centuries of being a tiny spec in the path of two major world powers – Japan and China -and trying to accommodate both.

Karate was imbued with that attitude and for most of its existence reflected the Okinawan way, the embodiment of morality and gentle strength.  It was taught in secret until the turn of the 19th century into the 20th, when this once hidden art became known to the world, initially to Japan.

The Japanese saw this Okinawan martial art as a way to train soldiers, having been impressed with the strength of the Okinawan conscripts who practiced the art.  Then, after the war, they saw in its popularity a way to spread Japanese culture and influence throughout the world.

But, since, in the beginning, they were busy trying to conquer Asia, they had to rid the art of its Chinese association (for example the name change in the 30’s from karate being the “Chinese hand” to karate as the “empty hand”).

The Okinawans were torn by this. They had looked for centuries to China for their written language and culture, not to mention the root of their martial art, and now they were dominated by a giant military machine preaching the superiority of Japan over the rest of Asia – specifically China.

The ramifications were numerous. It is held, by some, that the Okinawan teachers never passed on their entire martial art to the general Japanese public (or anyone else) and that what the Japanese have built into their rendition of karate, and passed to much of the rest of the world, is really just a watered down version of the art. There are numerous Japanese instructors, in fact, who are even now visiting Okinawan teachers to learn the part of the art that they had heretofore missed – its essence.

Be that as it may, as one Okinawan put it, the world owes a debt of gratitude to the Japanese for the spread of karate. If it had been left to the Okinawans themselves, the art would never have spread worldwide, and most of us who now practice may never even have seen it, such is the Okinawan tendency, honed by four hundred years of brutal occupancy, to keep information secret.

In 1964 I stumbled onto this art when a friend started teaching classes in our college gymnasium.  In those days, we knew very little about karate or karate history, our primary exposure to any martial art having been the “Dim Mak” advertisements of Count Dante on the backs of comic books.

But this esoteric art attracted me as nothing had before and I have  studied it ever since.  I believe that it has an incredible amount to teach us, but I also believe that no more than a handful of instructors have a real grasp of what that is. But such is the way with almost any pursuit.

I don’t pretend to know the answer.  I don’t pretend to have arrived at any great understanding through the practice of the arts.  But I know it can be achieved, not in trophies and awards, not in belt promotions and titles, not in Olympic committees and make-believe styles, but it can be achieved.

It can be achieved through kata, the life blood of the art. It can be achieved through sweat.  It can be achieved under the watchful eye of a dedicated teacher who understands that there is a path that few have found, but that exists nevertheless, a teacher who is true to that path and knows that it will lead to an ability in karate and an understanding of life that most can hardly even imagine.

When Higaonna died, Miyagi spent the rest of his life looking for another teacher.  A lot of people I know have spent most of theirs doing the same thing.  We only hope that we spend ours that way, too, since, in the search itself, we may eventually stumble upon the real art and learn the true way – the art and the way of karate.

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