The History of Karate

History | Bodhidharma | Higashionna | Miyagi | Yamaguchi | Crest | Points on the Crest | Kata | Points on Kata | Kumite | Yamaguchi's 5 Key Ingredients | The Ultimate Aim


The history of martial arts is difficult to specifically pin down. It is generally accepted that the lineage of today's martial arts dates back to the Monks of the Shaolin Temple. Originally built during the North Wei Dynasty (386 - 534 A.D.) in China's Honan province, the temple serves as a home to the monks. (After being rebuilt a number of times over the centuries, the temple still stands and operates today.) A Zen Buddhist monk, named Bodhidharma, arrived at the temple around 520 A.D. from his native India. He found that the monks had tremendous mental and spiritual abilities, but were sadly lacking in physical ability. Unfortunately, this left them vulnerable to the attacks of roaming bandits. Bodhidharma proceeded to lead the monks in exercises to strengthen their conditioning, derived from the Yoga exercises of India.

Legend has it that, while he trekked across the Himalayas, Bodhidharma was forced to defend himself against wild animals. This led him to study the characteristics of different animals - from which he developed a complete system of fighting. This system was based on five animals - the tiger, leopard, monkey, crane and snake - and was the early basis for what would become known as Kung Fu.


Over time, outsiders would come across the teachings of the Shaolin Temple while crossing trade routes in China. By the 14th century, this knowledge arrived in Okinawa, an island south of Japan. The Okinawans, who were socially oppressed by the dominant Japanese, in turn developed their own style of self defense based on their study of the Chinese system. The island of Okinawa was under the thumb of the leaders of feudal Japan, who enforced their will through the use of Samurai warriors. At the time, the Japanese rulers had enacted a complete ban on metal weapons for everyone except the Samurai. After years of Japanese invasions, the people of Okinawa were forced to develop a system of self defense against the Samurai, with little else but their bare hands. Their system was originally known simply as 'Te', meaning 'Hand'. Naturally, some forms of Te would differ from region to region, so the developers would add the name of their village to their style to distinguish it from the others. In the late 1800s, Sensei Higashionna returned to Okinawa from China and formulated a system called Naha-Te, named for the village where he was born and raised. This would in turn become the foundation for Sensei Miyagi's system of Goju-Ryu.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the Japanese government underwent what is known as the Meiji Restoration, in which the long-standing feudal era of the Samurai and Japan's multiple class system was eradicated. The kingdom was unified and Okinawa became a province of Japan. Various styles of Te arrived in mainland Japan and were collectively described by the Japanese kanji character 'Kara' which loosely translated to mean 'from Chinese descent'. 'Kara-Te', or Karate, was born. Interestingly enough, the kanji character was later changed to mean 'Empty' in an effort to shed any reference to China. Karate-do, 'Empty Hand Way', was formed.

Tracy WarrenerBodhidharma (4?? - 539)
Bodhidharma was the Zen Buddhist Monk who was credited with first developing a system of Martial Arts. Bodhidharma taught this system tto the Monks of the Shaolin Temple. Legend has it that he once spent 9 years of his life meditating in a cave. He became so obsessed with meditation that he cut off his own eye lids to keep from falling asleep.

Tracy WarrenerKanryo Higashionna (1853 - 1916)
Sensei Higashionna was a native of Okinawa and was quite diminutive in stature. He began studying the martial arts as a young boy, around the same time that his father was killed in a fight. Higashionna spent much time in China from which he developed his system of 'Naha-Te'.

Higashionna was the first teacher of Chojun Miyagi.


Tracy WarrenerChojun Miyagi (1888 - 1953)
Sensei Miyagi was born in Naha, Okinawa, and began training in martial arts at the age of nine. He later studied in China where he gained more knowledge which he used to formulate his system of 'Goju-Ryu' upon returning to his homeland.

Sensei Miyagi's fist is the symbol used to identify Goju-Ryu Karate-Do worldwide.


Tracy WarrenerGogen Yamaguchi (1909 - 1989)
Sensei Yamaguchi was instrumental in expanding Goju-Ryu across mainland Japan after inviting Sensei Miyagi to come and teach him.

Yamaguchi is credited with the introduction of free-style sparring to karate. This paved the way for the competitive aspects of point fighting. Sensei Yamaguchi was also known as 'The Cat'.


Tracy WarrenerGoju-ryu Crest
Once satisfied that his newly developed system was complete, Sensei Miyagi felt the need to create an insignia which would well represent the style. He simply traced his right fist. This crest is recognized worldwide as a symbol of Goju-Ryu.

Points on the Goju-Ryu Crest
The fist is partly closed and partly open. This represents the balance between the Hard and Soft techniques incorporated in the system. Sensei Miyagi's fist is slightly crooked, due to a previous injury. The crest should be worn on the left side of your karate-gi, over your heart. The kanji characters on the top row say Go / Ju / Ryu. The second row of characters say Kara / Te / Do. The crest itself is made up of three colours. The centre is white, the outline is black and the writing is red. The white represents the beginner in karate, the black represents the level of instructor and the red represents the highest level of proficiency, Master.

Kata are practised in all Japanese martial arts (kendo, judo, etc.), but karate is the only one where kata are performed individually. There are forms which are studied right from white belt and new forms are added at each full belt level above. Virtually every technique used in karate is represented in the katas. When performing a kata, it should be announced with feeling and performed with full intensity using the best basics you are capable of. Your focus should be unwavering and nothing should distract you. For this reason, you should never stop in the middle of a kata.


Points on Kata
There are six points which need to be incorporated into your katas.

Eyes - Look where you are headed before you move.

Pace - Learn the proper rhythm of the kata. This is usually set for the lower forms, but open to interpretation in the high forms.

Breathing - It is surprising the number of times you will need to be reminded to breathe. Inhaling and exhaling at the proper points is an important part of everything you do in karate.

Focus - Maintain your concentration on what it is that your are doing. Eventually, you should be able to perform a kata without actually 'thinking about it'.

Technique - Everything comes back to basics. Every stance, every strike, every kick - execute them to the best of your ability.

Kiai - Remember, you are simulating a fight against multiple attackers. Learn the proper kiai points in your katas and yell them out!

Until the mid 1900s, kumite consisted of stationary partner drills which concentrated on singular attacks and defenses. Modern karate has developed a system of 'free-style' fighting which allows students to move about and throw a wide variety of techniques and combinations. Free-style sparring is likely the best way to work on timing, distancing and reflexes. It is also generally accepted as the most interesting element of karate from a spectator's viewpoint!

Sensei Yamaguchi's Five Key Ingredients
1. Always be in the best shape you can possibly be in.
2. Always strike with total commitment.
3. You must have a calm mind.
4. See through your opponent's moves.
5. React as quickly as possible to your opponent's moves.



Maria Dasilva Jordan testimonial"Holly and Brayden have been training in the kids' Karate program at Don Warrener's Martial Arts Academy for two years and they still look forward to coming to classes. They have both have stated to me that their goal is to be a Karate Sensei when they grow up. At first, my wife, Krista, needed lots of convincing to allow the kids to join. Now she has been a strong force to encourage them to train regularly in their classes. I did train a little in karate as a teenager and finally started training again about a year ago and absolutely love it. Krista finally decided to join herself and has been training in classes for the last 2 months. Now it's a regular family affair!" ~ Jim Appleby




Gichin Funakoshi


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