Karate-do (空手道), or karate for short, literally means “The Empty Hand Way” in Japanese. It is a form of unarmed combat which employs a wide repertoire of techniques such as strikes, joint-locks, throws, take-downs and ground-fighting techniques to overcome an opponent. Practical and effective, karate has evolved from its origins as an art practised by the nobility in the Ryukyu Kingdom before the 20th Century, into one of the most widely practiced martial arts in the world today.

Okinawa, the birthplace of karate, is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands. Karate was derived from a form of unarmed combat known phonetically as “Te” or “Di”, which meant “Hand” (手) in the Okinawan language. It was a combat system practiced by the Shizoku, or nobility within the Ryukyu Kingdom. Contrary to the popular myth in which Karate was created because a weapons ban imposed upon the Okinawans deprived them of their weapons, the Shizoku practiced “Di” in conjunction with weapon-based fighting systems for the sword or saber, the spear and the bow until the 19th Century.

With more than six centuries of economic and cultural interaction between the Ryukyu Kingdom and its neighbors, Ryukyu martial arts were hybrid systems comprising of a mixture of indigenous and imported fighting techniques and concepts. The chief amongst those foreign influences upon Okinawan “Di” came from South East Asia, China and Japan.

The influence of South East Asian martial arts on “Di” probably occurred early in its development and remained throughout the rest of its history. These include karate’s preference for punching over the open-handed strikes preferred in Chinese Boxing (Quanfa), and kicking with the bare-foot. These influences were preserved in the Okinawan “Di” tradition and when Chinese Boxing was introduced into Okinawa subsequently, Okinawan masters replaced most of the open-handed strikes with punches.

The most pervasive influence on Okinawan martial arts came from China. The Chinese exerted major economic and political influence on the Ryukyu Kingdom between the 16th and early 19th Century. Historical records about the Okinawan “Di” master Sakugawa Kanga (1786-1867) indicated that he traveled to China frequently on official business on behalf of the Ryukyu kingdom. In the course of his travels he studied Chinese Boxing and merged it with Okinawan “Di” to produce a hybrid system. He became known as “Toudi” Sakugawa, whereby “Tou-di” meant “Chinese Hand” (唐手) in the Okinawan tongue. The art he taught was named “Toudi” in recognition that it was different from the indigenous Okinawan “Di”. Many other masters subsequently studied Chinese Boxing in China and brought their knowledge and skills back to the Ryukyu Kingdom. Notably, these masters were almost exclusively members of the nobility who traveled to China as officials or traders, and “Toudi” remained an art practiced by the nobility.

By the early half of the 19th Century, with a few exceptions, indigenous Okinawan “Di” had all but merged with “Toudi”. In the same century, as “Toudi” spread and more foreign influences were incorporated, it developed into three main styles based on location. The first style was known as Shuri-Te (首里手) by later-day historians, and it was named after the old capital-town of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Shuri (首里), which was located on Okinawa Island. Of the three styles of “Toudi” of that period, Shuri-Te was the oldest style and it retained some of the elements of the old indigenous “Ti”. The second style, Naha-Te (那霸手) developed mainly in the vicinity of Naha(那霸), a newer port-town which gained prominence as a commercial center of Okinawa after the 18th Century. Naha-Te was heavily influenced by Chinese Boxing from the Fuzhou region in China in the 19th Century. Naha-Te was originally dominated by the Kojo-family style, but it had lost much of its influence by the latter half of the 19th Century due to the waning political influence of the pro-China faction in Okinawan society. It was then re-established as a dominant influence in Okinawan martial art circles almost single-handedly by Kanryo Higaonna through his sheer ability. Today the styles of karate which can attribute a part of their lineage to Kanryo Higaonna include Goju-Ryu, Shito-Ryu, Tōon-ryū, Isshin-Ryu and Kyokushin-Kai Kan Karate. A third and less widely understood style known as Tomari-Te (泊手) was also in existence at that time, named after the port of Tomari (泊) several miles north of Shuri. Historians believe that Tomari-Te was heavily influenced by the fighting systems of Chinese immigrants living in the Kume village near Tomari.

Front Row (Left to Right): Kyan Chōtoku, Kentsu Yabu,Chōmo Hanashiro,Chojun Miyagi Kyoda Juhatsu instructing a class in the Naha Commercial School Shimpan Shiroma teaching in the courtyard of Shuri Castle Miyagi Chojun watching his students perform Saifa

In the aftermath of political reforms in Japan, the Ryukyu Shizoku (nobility) class system was abolished altogether in 1879. Their traditional way of living was further compromised by land reforms which were implemented after the local peasant uprising of 1903.  Concerns that traditional Okinawan Toudi may eventually be lost in the changing times moved several leading masters of the art to begin a movement to modernize and spread Toudi to the general populace. In a process which took several decades, Toudi incorporated Japanese Budo concepts and was later renamed “Karate-do” (the Empty Handed Way) in 1936.

In around 1930, Chojun Miyagi became the first Toudi (Karate) master to give his style a name. Taking it from a phrase in an old martial arts manual called the Bubishi, he named his style “GOJU-RYU TOUDI”. Following his lead, other masters began to name their own styles or “Ryu”. This move complied with the requirements of the Japanese Martial Arts governing body, and it  paved the way for Toudi (Karate) to be accepted by the Japanese Martial-Arts establishment. Between 1933 and 1934, Goju Ryu became the first style to be formally registered as a form of budo with the official Japanese Martial Arts Association, known as the Dai-Nippon Butoku Kai (At around the same time the Dai-Nippon Butoku Kai established a branch organization in Okinawa to administer to the newly named Okinawan Toudi styles). This development allowed Toudi ( Karate) to gain wider acceptance within the Japanese society and allowed Toudi (karate) to be taught with official endorsement in Japanese schools. In 1934 a number of Toudi masters such as Chojun Miyagi (宮城長順), Yasuhiro Konishi (小西康裕) and Sannosuke Uejima (上鳩三之助) were officially promoted to the third-rank title of “Renshi” (Practitioner Expert) within the Butoku-Kai.

In 1936, due to the rising tension between Japan and China which would eventually lead to war between these two countries, the Japanese martial arts establishment decided that the name “Toudi” implied a close association with China and it had to be changed. The word “Chinese” (唐) which was pronounce “Tou” in the Okinawan language was pronounced as “Kara” in Japanese; at the same time, another word meaning “Empty” (空) was also pronounced as “Kara” in Japanese. Therefore, upon the proposal from some karate pioneers such as Giichin Funakoshi, Toudi (唐手)was officially re-named Karate-Do (空手道, meaning the Empty-Handed Way).

By 1937 Chojun Miyagi (宮城長順), Yasuhiro Konishi (小西康裕) and Sannosuke Uejima (上鳩三之助) became the first karate pioneers to be promoted to the second-rank title of “Kyoshi” (Master Teacher) within the Dai Nippon Butoku-kai, a further affirmation of karate’s rise within the Japanese martial-arts establishment. In the same year, Giichin Funakoshi was awarded the rank of “Renshi” (Practitioner Expert) by the Butokukai.

By the last two years of the Second World War, karate instruction had come to a halt. In the aftermath of the Second World War, a few Okinawan karate dojo began to teach karate again by 1946. By 1948 Karate training was resumed within the Okinawan law-enforcement personnel training centers (such as the Naha and Shuri Police Academy). As society normalized again under the American Administration, karate became popular again in Japan and Okinawa. Due to the efforts of a new generation of karate masters who traveled widely around the world to teach karate and many foreign students who learnt karate in Japan or Okinawa who returned home to propagated the art in their own countries, karate became a widely practiced martial art.

However, karate also became a multi-faceted entity as many practitioners taught and practiced a simplified version of karate as a competitive sport, and others, merely as a form of exercise to maintain health .

By the 1960s and 1970s a handful of world renowned Okinawan masters such as Morio Higaonna Sensei, were concerned that traditional Okinawan karate as a fighting art and as an intrinsic part of Okinawan culture, was disappearing. They therefore formed organizations, such as Morio Higaonna Sensei’s IOGKF, with the express objective of preserving and propagating traditional Okinawan Karate as a fighting art in the way it was intended by Okinawan masters of old.

In 1990, with the support of the Okinawan government, the first World Okinawan Karate and Kobudo Budosai was held in Naha, whereby for the first time, all the major Okinawan styles were represented by their most senior masters and presented to the public in its authentic form. Thereafter the efforts to introduce the raw power and deadly effectiveness of Okinawan Karate and its wealth of content resulted in the increase in awareness and the recognition by karate practitioners across the world that at its roots, karate as the Okinawan masters had developed it, is a deadly discipline with an invaluable philosophical core and it should never be transformed into a sport.

A resurgence of Traditional Okinawan Karate into the mainstream began to quicken with the coming of the information age, where styles and techniques could be compared with comparative ease. In recognition of the nature of true karate as a traditional martial art and discipline, the most prestigious of Japan’s martial-arts governing body, the Japanese Kobudo AssociationIn began to recognise karate styles and include them in the ranks of other traditional martial arts.

In 1998, in recognition of its importance in the history and development of karate, Goju-Ryu Karate-Jutsu and the IOGKF was recognized as a member style of the Japanese Kobudo Association. Morio Higaonna Sensei was elected as the representive of the Goju-Ryu Style in the Japanese Kobudo Association. Today, Okinawan Karate is once again the most dominant influence in the preservation and development of karate in the world .

Morio Higaonna Hanshi leading a Gassuku in Naha City Budokan Karate’s world appeal apparent in the IOGKF 2010 Gassuku in South Africa.