The Origins of Karate: How Did This Martial Art Become So Popular?

Karate is one of the most popular and practiced martial arts in the world today. In addition to its physical properties, karate is known for its philosophical elements, such as target-focused mindset and self-defense techniques. But, despite its global presence and largely positive connotations, few people are aware of karate’s complex history and its progression to the mainstream.

In this article, we will explore the evolution of karate and uncover the key milestones that have made it what it is today. We will look at the various forms and schools of thought behind karate, as well as the important figures that helped shape and solidify the martial art over the centuries.

A Brief History of Karate

Karate is believed to have originated in the Ryukyu Kingdom, which is now Okinawa island, Japan. According to ancient documents, the martial art was developed by indigenous people as a means of self-defense against oppressive invaders and samurai. During this period, karate was largely practiced in secrecy to prevent discovery by those in power. In fact, records indicate that the art was not formally taught until the 1930’s.

By this time, the style had adopted modern characteristics and was categorized into various format styles, such as ‘Shuri-Uechi’, ‘Shorin-Ryu’ and ‘Naha-Te’. These formats became even more established when Chojun Miyagi travelled to China in 1924 and further developed his own karate system. His style was known as Goju-Ryu, which adopted characteristics from both Chinese martial arts and Okinawan fighting techniques.

The Spread of Karate

In 1936, Gichin Funakoshi organised a demonstration of karate techniques at the Japanese Sports Festival in Tokyo. Although this is widely viewed as the first formal introduction of karate to mainland Japan, karate had previously been introduced to students of the Meiji martial arts school by Yoshitaka Hideyoshi Kanazawa in 1927.

By 1960s and 70s, karate had become popular in both Asia and the Western world. Its status as a sport grew when it was included in the Asian Games in 1974, and again when it became an independent sport in 1988. Around the same time, international organisations such as the International Sports Karate Association (ISKA) began to support the development of karate clubs across the world.

Today, karate has come a long way since its inception in Okinawa. Governments now provide national governing bodies and there are international championships and world-level professional leagues. Over a century since its introduction to Japan’s mainstream public, karate is more popular than ever before with millions actively practicing and competing all over the world.

The Three Pillars of Karate

Karate is built on three main underlying principles which contribute to its presence in today’s society. These pillars are ‘kihon’ (basics), ‘kata’ (form) and ‘kumite’ (sparring).

Kihon is the first pillar and consists of basic techniques and stances that form the foundation of karate practice. This includes techniques such as punches and kicks, stances such as zenkutsu-dachi (long stance) and tensho (rolling punch) and their various permutations prescribed by each style. Additionally, kihon incorporates mental exercises to help strengthen focus and precision during practice.

The second pillar is ‘kata’ which refers to preset sequences of movements designed to reinforce proper technique and execution. Kata are performed solo but contain elements that can be translated into practical applications against opponents. Each style has its own individual kata which emphasise different aspects of its particular form of karate.

Finally, ‘kumite’ is sparring between two individuals during which practitioners do their best to develop a comfortable honing of their already ingrained skills into functional fighting technique. Kumite often takes a tournament-style format which allows practitioners to practice pre-defined rulesets or remain freeform for unstructured ‘sparring for learning’ sessions.

The Figures that Shaped Karate

Karate has been shaped by many hundreds of practitioners over hundreds of years. However, certain individuals stand out for their contributions to karate history.

Chojun Miyagi is one such figure who is often credited for being a pioneer in Okinawa. His development of Goju-Ryu is one of the most widely practiced forms in modern times and his frequent visits to China have been integral in the spread of Chinese martial culture into Okinawan karate.

Gichin Funakoshi is sometimes referred to as the ‘father of modern karate’. He was a prominent figure who is thought to have started training as early as age 11, becoming an instructor at 18. His demonstration at the 1936 Tokyo Sports Festival popularised kate among mainland Japan’s elite; he was subsequently invited to teach karate at universities in Tokyo and contributed greatly to spreading its acceptance all over Japan and beyond over his career.

Other prominent figures devoted to karate are sake masters Hironori Otsuka and Soichi Sakagami; Okinawan Choki Motobu; Okinawan Anbuken Taira; Japanese Kenwa Mabuni; Japanese Masaaki Ueki; Chinese Li Jun Fan; and numerous others all across China and the Ryukyu Islands.


Karate has grown immensely since its introduction to mainland Japan in 1936. Its popularity continues to spread across all generations of practitioners with more advanced levels being discovered as time goes on. By looking at its evolution from Ryukyu Islands martial art to modern international sport, we can better appreciate some of the important figures that helped shape karate from its humble beginnings up until today’s international phenomenon.

The Origins of Karate: How Did This Martial Art Become So Popular?

Karate is a popular martial art that originated in Okinawa, Japan, and has since been adopted and practiced throughout the world. It is a combination of different fighting styles and techniques that were developed over centuries on the island. In this blog post, we will answer some of the most frequently asked questions about the origins of Karate, and how it became such a popular martial art.

What is the history of Karate?

Karate originated in Okinawa, Japan, during the Ryukyu Kingdom era, which lasted from the 15th century to the 19th century. At that time, Okinawa was an independent kingdom, and its people were not allowed to carry weapons. As a result, they developed an unarmed form of combat that became known as „Te,“ which means „hand“ in Okinawan.

Te was a combination of indigenous Okinawan fighting techniques and martial arts and Chinese martial arts that were brought to the island by traders and travelers. The practice of Te was preserved and passed down through generations, and over time, various masters developed their unique styles and techniques, which eventually came to be called Karate.

What does Karate mean?

The word „Karate“ is made up of two Japanese kanji characters: „kara,“ which means „empty,“ and „te,“ which means „hand.“ Therefore, Karate is often translated as „empty hand“ or „open hand,“ which refers to the practice of unarmed combat.

However, there is another interpretation of the word „Karate“ that is less well-known but equally valid. The kanji character „kara“ can also be translated to mean „China,“ which would make „Karate“ translate to „Chinese hand“ or „China hand.“ This interpretation would reflect the strong influence of Chinese martial art on the development of Karate in Okinawa.

Who is considered the father of modern Karate?

Gichin Funakoshi is often credited with bringing Karate to Japan and making it popular in the early 20th century. Funakoshi is also considered the father of modern Karate because he was instrumental in the development and promotion of the martial art in Japan.

Funakoshi was born in Okinawa in 1868 and began to study Karate under some of the most prominent masters of the time. In 1922, he was invited to demonstrate Karate at the first National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo, which helped to popularize the martial art in Japan.

Funakoshi went on to establish the Japan Karate Association (JKA) in 1949, which became one of the largest and most influential Karate organizations in the world. He also wrote several seminal books on Karate, including „Karate-Do Kyohan“ and „The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate,“ which are still widely studied and respected today.

How did Karate become popular in the West?

Karate first began to spread to the West in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly through the efforts of Japanese masters who traveled to the United States and Europe to teach and promote the martial art.

One of the most famous of these early Karate masters was Masutatsu Oyama, who founded the Kyokushin Karate style in 1957. Oyama traveled to the United States in the early 1960s and put on demonstrations that captured the imaginations of many Americans. He also founded the International Karate Organization (IKO), which helped to spread Karate throughout the world.

Another reason for Karate’s popularity in the West was the rise of popular culture icons like Bruce Lee, who practiced and promoted a range of martial arts, including Karate.

What are the different styles of Karate?

There are many different styles of Karate, each with its unique techniques, forms, and training methods. Some of the most popular styles include:

– Shotokan Karate: This is one of the most widely practiced styles of Karate and was founded by Gichin Funakoshi. Shotokan emphasizes strong, linear movements and powerful strikes.

– Goju-ryu Karate: This style was founded by Chojun Miyagi and focuses on a combination of hard and soft movements, including circular blocks and strikes.

– Shito-ryu Karate: Founded by Kenwa Mabuni, this style combines elements of both hard and soft movements and emphasizes high-level kicks and strikes.

– Wado-ryu Karate: This style was founded by Hironori Otsuka and emphasizes fluid, evasive movements and joint locks.


Karate has a long and fascinating history that stretches back centuries. It is a martial art that has evolved over time, combining elements of indigenous Okinawan fighting techniques, Chinese martial art, and Japanese martial art.

Today, Karate is practiced all over the world and has become an essential part of many people’s lives. Whether you are interested in it for self-defense, fitness, or personal growth, Karate has something to offer everyone. With its rich history and diverse styles, Karate continues to captivate and inspire people of all ages and backgrounds.

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