Karate was originally written as “Chinese hand” (literally “Tang dynasty hand”) in kanji. It was changed to a homophone meaning “empty hand” in 1935. The original use of the word “karate” in print is attributed to Anko Itosu; he wrote it as “唐手”. The Tang Dynasty of China ended in AD 907, but the kanji representing it remains in use in Japanese language referring to China generally. Thus the word “karate” was originally a way of expressing “martial art from China.”

Since there are no written records it is not known definitely whether the “kara” in karate was originally written with the character 唐 meaning China or the character 空 meaning empty. During the time when admiration for China and things Chinese was at its height in the Ryukyus it was the custom to use the former character when referring to things of fine quality. Influenced by this practice, in recent times karate has begun to be written with the character 唐 to give it a sense of class or elegance.

Gichin Funakoshi Sensei

The Ryukyu Kingdom

The Ryukyu Kingdom was a kingdom in the Ryukyu Islands from 1429 to 1879. It was ruled as a tributary state of imperial Ming China by the Ryukyuan monarchy, who unified Okinawa Island to end the Sanzan period, and extended the kingdom to the Amami Islands and Sakishima Islands.

The Ryukyu Kingdom played a central role in the maritime trade networks of medieval East Asia and Southeast Asia despite its small size. The Ryukyu Kingdom became a vassal state of the Satsuma Domain of Japan after the invasion of Ryukyu in 1609 but retained de jure independence until it was transformed into the Ryukyu Domain by the Empire of Japan in 1872.

The Ryukyu Kingdom was formally annexed and dissolved by Japan in 1879 to form Okinawa Prefecture, and the Ryukyuan monarchy was integrated into the new Japanese nobility.


In 1872, the Japanese government established the Ryukyu han under the jurisdiction of the Foreign Ministry and in 1875, jurisdiction over the Ryukyus changed from the Foreign Ministry to the Home Ministry. Then, in 1879, the Meiji government announced the annexation of the Ryukyus, establishing it as Okinawa Prefecture and forcing the Ryukyu king to move to Tokyo. When China signed the Treaty of Shimonoseki after its 1895 defeat in the First Sino-Japanese War, China officially abandoned its claims to the Ryukyus.

The Ryukyu Flag until 1875

American military control over Okinawa began in 1945 with the establishment of the United States Military Government of the Ryukyu Islands, which in 1950 became the United States Civil Administration of the Ryukyu Islands. The Ryukyu Provisional Central Government then became the Government of the Ryukyu Islands which existed from 1952 to 1972. Administrative rights reverted to Japan in 1972, under the 1971 Okinawa Reversion Agreement.

The development of Shotokan

A number of key people were involved in the development of karate as we know it today.

By the 18th century, different types of Te (“hand”) had developed in three different villages in Okinawa, namely Shuri, Naha and Tomari.

The styles were named Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te, respectively.

Shotokan karate’s ancestor style is Shuri-te.

Takahara, Peichin (1683 – 1760)

Takahara was apparently revered as a great warrior and is attributed to have been the first to explain the aspects or principles of the word do (“way”).

These principals are: 1) ijo: the way – compassion, humility and love. 2) katsu: the laws – complete understanding of all techniques and forms of the art, and 3) fo: dedication seriousness of the art that must be understood not only in practice, but in actual combat. The collective translation is: “One’s duty to himself and his fellow man.”

Most importantly, he was the first teacher of Sakugawa, Kanga “Tode” who was to become known as the “father of Okinawan karate.”

Kusanku (Kwang Shang Fu ~1761)

Kusanku is a Chinese diplomatic title. Kwang Shang Fu, was a Chinese martial artist who lived during the 18th century. This emissary was a military official, who travelled to Okinawa, as documented in 1761. He instructed Tode (“Chinese Hand”) after the death of Takahara. Kusanku’s name is associated with several katas in the Shorin-Ryu styles.

Sakugawa, Kanga (1733 – 1815)

In 1750, Sakukawa (or Sakugawa) began his training as a student of a Ryukyuan monk, Peichin Takahara. After six years of training, Takahara suggested that Sakugawa train under Kusanku, a Chinese master in Ch’uan Fa. Sakugawa spent six years training with Kusanku, and began to spread what he learned to Ryukyu in 1762. He became such an expert that people gave him the nickname Tode (“Chinese Hand”).

His most famous student, Matsumura Sokon, went on to develop the Shuri-te which later developed into a number of karate styles including Shotokan, Shito-ryu, and Shorin-ryu.

Matsumura, Sokon (1809 – 1899)

Matsumura Sokon (“Bushi”) was one of the original karate masters of Okinawa. The years of his lifespan are reported variously as c.1809-1901 or 1798–1890 or 1809–1896 or 1800–1892. However, the dates on the plaque at Matsumura’s tomb, put there by Matsumura’s family, clearly state that he was born in 1809 and died in 1899.

Matsumura Sokon was born in Yamagawa Village, Shuri, Okinawa. Matsumura began the study of karate under the guidance of Sakukawa Kanga. Sakukawa was an old man at the time and reluctant to teach the young Matsumura, who was regarded as something of a troublemaker. However, Sakukawa had promised Kaiyo Sofuku, Matsumura Sokon’s father, that he would teach the boy, and thus he did. Matsumura spent five years studying under Sakukawa. As a young man, Matsumura had already garnered a reputation as an expert in the martial arts.

Bushi (“Warrior”), made several trips to China to further study the fighting arts. He is credited, by several sources, for making the most singular contribution, katas, to the development of Okinawan karate. The Shuri-te system of katas that are still practiced today in the Kobayashi Shorin-Ryu system are Naihanchi (1 and 2), Passai Dai, Chinto and Gojushiho.

Itosu, Anko (1831 – 1915)

Anko Itosu (Okinawan: Ichiji Anko, Japanese: Itosu Anko, 1831 – 11 March 1915) is considered by many the father of modern karate. This title is also often given to Gichin Funakoshi because of the latter spreading karate throughout Japan, but only after Anko sensei had introduced the art of Okinawate to the country.

A low-rank Ryukyuan Pechin, Itosu was small in stature, shy, and apparently introverted as a child. He was raised in a strict home of the keimochi (a family of position), and was educated in the Chinese classics and calligraphy. Itosu began his tode (karate) study under Nagahama Chikudun Pechin. His study of the art led him to Sokon Matsumura. Part of Itosu’s training was makiwara practice.

Itosu served as a secretary to the last king of the Ryukyu Kingdom until Japan abolished the Okinawa-based native monarchy in 1879. In 1901, he was instrumental in getting karate introduced into Okinawa’s schools. In 1905, Itosu was a part-time teacher of To-te at Okinawa’s First Junior Prefectural High School. It was here that he developed the systematic method of teaching karate techniques that are still in practice today. He created and introduced the Pinan forms (Heian in Japanese) as learning steps for students, because he felt the older forms (kata in Japanese) were too difficult for schoolchildren to learn. The five Pinan forms were (allegedly) created by drawing from two older forms: kusanku and chiang nan.

According to Chibana Chosin, Itosu may also have expanded on the existing Naihanchi forms (Tekki in Japan) to create the third form, which would become Naihanchi Sandan. In 1908, Itosu wrote the influential “Ten Precepts (Tode Jukun) of Karate,” reaching beyond Okinawa to Japan. Itosu’s style of karate, Shorin-ryu, came to be known as Itosu-ryu in recognition of his skill, mastery, and role as teacher to many.

While Itosu did not invent karate himself, he modified the kata (forms) he learned from his master, Matsumura Sokon, and taught many karate masters. Itosu’s students included Choyu Motobu (1857–1927), Choki Motobu (1870–1944), Kentsu Yabu (1866–1937), Chomo Hanashiro (1869–1945), Gichin Funakoshi (1868–1957), Moden Yabiku (1880–1941), Kanken Toyama (1888–1966), Shinpan Shiroma (Gusukuma) (1890–1954), Anbun Tokuda (1886–1945), Kenwa Mabuni (1889–1952), and Choshin Chibana (1885–1969).

Funakoshi, Gichin (1868 – 1957)

Gichin Funakoshi was the founder of Shotokan karate-do, perhaps the most widely known style of karate, and is known as a “father of modern karate”. Following the teachings of Anko Itosu and Anko Asato, he was one of the Okinawan karate masters who introduced karate to the Japanese mainland in 1922, following its earlier introduction by his teacher Itosu. He taught karate at various Japanese universities and became honorary head of the Japan Karate Association upon its establishment in 1949.

His father’s name was Gisu. After entering primary school he became close friends with the son of Anko Asato, a karate and Jigen-ryu master who would soon become his first karate teacher. Funakoshi’s family was stiffly opposed to the Meiji government’s abolition of the Japanese topknot, and this meant that he would be ineligible to pursue his goal of attending medical school (where topknots were banned), despite having passed the entrance examination. Being trained in both classical Chinese and Japanese philosophies and teachings, Funakoshi became an assistant teacher in Okinawa. During this time, his relations with the Asato family grew and he began nightly travels to the Asato family residence to receive karate instruction from Anko Asato.

Funakoshi had trained in both of the popular styles of Okinawan karate of the time: Shorei-ryu and Shorin-ryu. Shotokan is named after Funakoshi’s pen name, Shōtō (松濤), which means “waving pines”. Kan means training hall or house, thus Shōtōkan (松濤館) referred to the “house of Shōtō”.

This name was coined by Funakoshi’s students when they posted a sign above the entrance of the hall at which Funakoshi taught. In addition to being a karate master, Funakoshi was an avid poet and philosopher who would reportedly go for long walks in the forest where he would meditate and write his poetry.

To Japan

In the early 1920’s karate was little known in Japan. Traditional martial arts of kendo, ju jitsu, judo and the like were commonly practiced and then in May 1922, when Funakoshi was 54 years old, he performed a demonstration of his karate at the First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo which was organised by the Japanese Education Ministry. By chance, the Crown Prince of Japan Hirohito was present and was suitably impressed. On June 3rd, the Tokyo Nichinchi Shinbum newspaper described the demonstration as “a mysterious martial art” and what was supposed to be a simple demonstration at a physical education exhibition turned out to be a huge success so much so that Funakoshi was asked to remain in Japan to promote and demonstrate his martial art across the country.

In 1924 Funakoshi opened his first dojo named Mesei Juku followed by the second in 1926 and by 1930 ten dojo had been opened. All in all 30 dojo were opened and in 1936 the first Shotokan dojo was opened by students of Funakoshi.

Tree View of Karate Development