About: History, Origins and Evolution back...


What is karate and where is it from? - In More Detail
Which style of karate is Kin Shin Kai?
What do the names mean?
Why is the serious study of Karate generally called "Karate Do"?

What is karate and where is it from? - In More Detail

Modern day Karate is the culmination of around a millennium of cultural exchange and adaptation. It would seem to have begun when an Indian Buddhist named The Bodidharma came to teach Buddhism in China around 600AD and is said to have introduced a system of Martial exercises to both strengthen the monks to withstand the rigors of meditation and also to protect them against random external physical violence.

This practice was systematized by the Shaolin monks when they apparently identified thirty six major defensive themes and seventy two variations as being comprehensive and necessary to protect the monks against the foreseeable random physical threats of the time. They apparently had a system of eighteen exercises/kata to cover the practice of suitable comprehensive defensive principles. Unfortunately we are not sure which current exercises/kata originate from or resemble those as they have been lost in history.

It would seem however that the kinds of Chinese martial arts which Karate took its lead from were very much influenced by this original Shaolin philosophy of training for self defence, self improvement and health, as opposed to promoting aggressive and ego driven behaviours.

This latter ego driven model of Martial Arts is popular in Chinese martial arts mythology and it's notoriously unreliable history (and movies!) and is more in tune with the idea of fighting for it's own sake rather than simply defending oneself if necessary. Karate was not designed to produce champion professional fighters (although in some modern day Karate organisations that is mainly what they try to do).

It would seem in fact that the early Karate teachers also saw the potential danger of the techniques they were teaching being in the hands of a student with poor self control or too much aggression. As a result these teachers usually taught a peaceful, spiritual philosophy to go with the devastating techniques they were teaching. This philosophy was probably partly or largely drawn from an old Chinese text named The Bubishi or "Bible" of Karate. This book was originally only passed down from masters to selected Senior students who copied it by hand, but is now available in English translation by Patrick McCarthy.

Back to history. The Chinese in around the 14th century sailed to Okinawa and established a presence there to collect tribute and develop trade and influence. This lasted till the late 19th century. Throughout this time there appears to have been an influence of various Chinese Martial Arts on the indigenous Okinawan Martial Arts, made all the more necessary by the banning of the private ownership of weapons from about the 16th century. There is however scant documentation of this influence and our first concrete evidence comes really in the early nineteenth century with reasonably detailed accounts of how Okinawans either travelled to Southern China or used Chinese in Okinawa to learn various martial arts in popular practice in that Southern part of China at the time. These combined with varying amounts of Okinawa's indigenous martial arts formed the basis for the first recorded practise of Karate or "Toude" (China Hand) as it was then called. Why did the name get changed? For the answer to that we will have to discuss the other major influence on Okinawa's history and confront the power of nationalist politics in the other country concerned, namely Japan.

About the 17th century, Japan got in on the act of controlling Okinawa (or the Ryukyu islands as they were then known). By the late nineteenth century they had simply annexed Okinawa and then provided the major influence on Karate's development in the 20th century. The Japanese took Karate in a direction away from its origins and used it for purposes it had never been intended, as well as denying its origins. The reasons for denying China's role in Karate's development lay in Japan's nationalist pride and the disrespectful political history between the two countries.

The first Okinawans who introduced Karate to mainland Japan in the 1920's quickly realised their way to acceptance by the mainland Japanese lay in mentioning the Chinese influence as little as possible and instead highlighting the role of regional Okinawan towns in the development of different "styles". Similarly, whereas the original name for Karate used by the Okinawans was "Toude" or "China hand", the Japanese characters for Toude were reinterpreted as Karate or "Empty Hand". Also the purpose of training moved away from civil self defence against random violence (which was not and still is not nearly as important in a relatively law abiding Japan), to the promotion of martial spirit and character. The aim of this was to develop strength of body and mind to be used for nationalistic development purposes including war.

Repetition, precision, neatness and uniformity were all pushed while the messier, more complex, brutal and versatile original applications were neglected. The Japanese made the Okinawans incorporate the Kyu/Dan grade system and "Dogi" training suit from Judo as well as many of its formalities. They also introduced competition (with a much more limited range of technique) and pushed the idea of the irresistibly powerful punch or kick to replace the more varied use of vital points, cavity seizes etc to control and overpower opponents.

Specifically, some Okinawan teachers at the turn of the century pushed their Japanese masters for the inclusion of Karate into the school curriculum on the basis that students would already be partly trained for military duty when they finished school. To help them to agree to the idea, Karate pioneer and master Itosu Anko is said to have simplified the more complex kata around at the time into the Pinan or Heian series which could more easily and safely be taught to school children. There were five kata in the series, one for each year of school at the time.

Karate was introduced to Japan itself in the 1920's where it was modified as stated earlier. Strength of spirit, and blind and total obedience to instructor's commands were stressed while questioning and innovation were discouraged.

As recently as 1985 when I visited the Meiji University Goju Kensha dojo, these same principles were stressed. The fierceness of spirit and blind, extreme and warlike acknowledgement of all commands were in one way very scary. Never mind our comfortable floors and rubber mats, these students happily trained on the rooftop of one of the University's high rise buildings on a mixed surface of broken asphalt and concrete.

The point of all this is to show that while Karate probably started life as a brutal form of self defence against everyday violence in a more lawless society, these days it is a tool which can and is used for many purposes. Purposes include self defence, recreation, competition, art for arts sake, personal development, health and fitness, nationalistic development (as in Japan), competition, belief system replacement (not advised) and as a part or full time business (shouldn't be the primary goal of training in our opinion).

Within Kin Shin Kai we use it mainly for the original self defence and health and fitness reasons (with a little recreation thrown in). But bear in mind that both these major goals ask for personal and character development as a component of their higher levels of expression.

In a real situation our aim is to stop the attacker/confrontation as quickly and as safely as possible, so that we and our loved ones have less chance of being hurt and that violence overall is minimised. As we avoid or block an attack, or escape a grip, we try to work our attacker into a vulnerable position where we have some control over them. From there we may counter attack strongly to exposed weak areas or "vital points" on the attacker's body or restrain them as is necessary and possible. We always aim to escape as soon as it is safe to do so.

In the dojo (training hall) we develop our skills in a variety of ways including developing strong basics, improving fitness strength and flexibility, learning Kata (forms) and Bunkai (self defence techniques from kata), practising simpler self defence for beginners, drilling prearranged partnered practise of a variety of allied self defence concepts and techniques, and participating in various forms of sparring.

In class we always aim to stop our attacks without hitting our partner's body. This CONTROL is an important part of karate development. It is relatively easy to hit someone but needs much greater skill to attack strongly and stop just short of a TARGET. This is called non contact karate. All of our regular karate practise aims to be non contact for the long term health and safety of participants. It is important to do contact work to test striking techniques so we use striking pads often in class practise.

In normal Dojo Karate our main competition is with ourselves. Even if we are good, we must train to improve. If we train without pushing ourselves to improve and without constantly raising our intensity, we will never experience the essence of Karate.