How Karate Got Its Name

Do you know how Karate got its name?jesse_enkamp_kururunfa

It’s pretty interesting…

Many people think Karate is an ancient martial art.

But actually, “Karate” is less than 100 years old.

Including its name.

(Stuff like belts, ranks, uniforms, terminology, gradings and styles are also new inventions.)

Yet, in spite of its relative youth, Karate has no shortage of misconstrued facts that conceal its actual origins, depth and essence.

For example, the name ‘Karate’ itself.

Let me explain:

Karate comes from Okinawa, an island south of Japan.

Okinawa was an important historical trade hub between many Southeast Asian countries, like Siam (modern day Thailand), Burma, the Philippines, Taiwan and Korea.

But…

The #1 country that Okinawa vibed with was China.

Chinese culture was considered the ultimate sophistication.

Every person, idea and product that came from China to Okinawa was treated with utmost respect – including its martial arts.

The Chinese fighting arts were referred to as ‘Toudi’ by the Okinawans.

Toudi (also written Tode, Tuidi, Tote etc.) literally means ‘Chinese Hand’ in the Okinawan language.

toudiNow listen:

The first character (‘Tou’) can also be pronounced ‘Kara’ in regular Japanese.

Why? Because Japanese characters can have several pronounciations.

This is where our story takes an interesting turn…

You see, after cultivating Toudi for many years in Okinawa, a handful of local practitioners (including Funakoshi Gichin, Mabuni Kenwa, Miyagi Chojun, Motobu Choki etc.) wanted to spread this art to mainland Japan.

Unfortunately, Japan was in historical conflict with China at this time.

Anything that had connections to China was disliked by the Japanese.

So…

In order to make Toudi accepted by the Japanese public, several things had to change.

Including the name.

The first character (‘Tou’/’Kara’) was replaced with an alternative character – also pronounced ‘Kara’ – but with the meaning ‘Empty’ instead of ‘Chinese’.

karateJackpot!

‘Chinese Hand’ became ‘Empty Hand’.

On October 25 in 1936 at 4 pm, a historical meeting was held with Okinawan masters, where they officially decided to change the name from ‘Toudi’ to ‘Karate’.

meeting_of_masters_1936_okinawa

It was agreed that ‘Karate’ would be easier to market and promote in mainland Japan.

In fact, not only was ‘Karate’ easier to pronounce in Japanese, but it also made more sense for the general public, as its new meaning (‘Empty Hand’) was more aligned with the Zen approach of modern Japanese society.

Lastly the ending ‘Do’ was added.

‘Do’ is Japanese for ‘Path’/’Way’, and signified that Karate was a philosophical journey of enlightenment now – not just a fighting method anymore.

The Way of the Empty Hand.

In other words, Toudi’s self-defensive Chinese roots become replaced by Karate-Do’s self-developmental Japanese values.

From self-protection to self-perfection.

Modern Karate was born.

51 Comments

  • Edo van Deest
    Dear Jesse, Thanks for this article, I was intending to write about this topic to. Still Toudi wasn't the only term which was used. I think that the article of Simon Seegan gave a long but good article about the history and the names. He describes that in the mid 1700 there where already: -Emono-jutsu - Udundi (priviliged classes) and Toshu jutsu (Quan-fa) This resulted in a new more Okinawan method referred to as Uchinadi and still also Toshu-jutsu or Tode Jutsu. There is still more to say but that's to much for this comment :-)Greets and keep on doing your great job.
    • Thanks for chiming in Edo-san! Having lived, studied and trained in Okinawa myself, it makes me happy to hear that more people are starting to discover the roots of Karate. Without understanding the cultural context, social setting and historical backdrop of Karate's origins, we are doomed to forever scratch its surface. Like one of my friends in Torihori (Shuri Castle district) once told me: "Karate is part of our cultural identity". This was truly a BFO (Blinding Flash of the Obvious) for me at that time. Keep "nerding" Edo-san!
      • Thank you to educate me sensei oss
  • Pat Pusateri
    Hello Jesse I respect and appreciate your messages and your tutorial snipets. I do however, challenge your summary that karate is a young martial art. I understand your perspective but see the history of karate in a different perspective. The sharing of defensive and offensive skills of the Okibawan people and China goes back much more than 100 years. The art is much more than just the words or kanji used to refer to it. Much study research and personal human sacrifice went into the development of the skills. To make it sound like a bunch if guys got together for some agenda equates karate with the foolish blending of of non compatible skills that is often taking place in modern day. That is disrespectful to the practioners who paved the road for both your journey and mine.
    • Thanks for commenting Pat-san! You are correct that the intellectual exchange of ideas between China and Okinawa in the pursuit of martial excellence goes further back. However, the aim of this article was to shed light on the fact that the way modern "Karate" is taught, preserved and practiced in majority of dojos is a more recent phenomenon than most people realize. To deliver this fact, I chose to let the history of the name "Karate" speaks for itself. Does this make sense? At the end of the day, there is no disrespect intended – every article I write is only a stepping stone in the neverending search for truth, knowledge and understanding. I believe this mindset is far more in line with the spirit and aims of the Okinawan pioneers, than it is to blindly follow contemporary assumptions based on the inherent historical and cultural ambiguities of this fascinating art."Don't seek to follow in the footsteps of the men of old, but rather seek out what they sought." – Matsuo Basho (1644 – 1694)
      • Laurence Lance
        I agree. "Modern" karate, being the tournament based systems are about 140 years old. The foundation of them being when Japan took control of Okinawa in 1879. Fragments of the old teaching continues today but only is semi obscure systems.
    • RDavey
      With respect, I believe you misunderstood Jesse-san's point. He's saying the more modern version of karate-do that is more widely known and practiced today - the version with the dan/rank system, competitive sparring, and "empty hand" as its kanji rather than "Chinese hand" - that's what is less than 100 years old.
  • Daniel
    Hello Jesse-San, stances can be very powerful in determining the overall performance of your kata and I personally would like to improve mine and I’m sure I speak for others aswell in saying that ,so, while I dislike asking people to do things, would you mind writing another article on how to improve another stance, preferably Shiko-Dachi, I say that because I am a Shito-Ryu practitioner, no worries, thank you
    • Daniel-san, in my latest video for Karate Nerd Insider™ (my private online video club) I demonstrated the best exercises to improve your shiko dachi & kiba dachi. Are you not subscribed? Click here to join and get new videos every week.
  • Nice one! Chinese history is always fascinating...Guess who's gonna call his martial arts 'Toudi' from here on out...Cheers, Raihaan
  • Ben Brown
    Greetings Jesse -San , Was curious, if "kara" means empty where does the "te" come from . Does it also have a meaning?
    • Thanks for asking Ben-san! "Te" means hand in Japanese, just like "di" does in the Okinawan language. It symbolizes a fighting method or martial art.
  • Ossu! I find languages fascinating. Thanks for combining two of my nerdy interests in one article!
  • ML
    "Toudi" was not writen alone, the complete name was "Kenpo Toudi"(kenpo=fist law). Kenpo is the japanese pronounciation of the chinese ideograms "Quan-fa" which is just another way to say Kung Fu.The story says that, when the kung fu teachers arrived to Okinawa, they were fealing that kung fu was too artistic and acrobatic, couldn´t be used by most people and was not very practical for self defense. So they decided to cleaning it up, eliminating everything that was not useful in a defense situation. That was the origen of kenpo toudi and in the long run of okinawan karate.Kenpo and Okinawan Karate (as both exist nowadays as separate although very similar martial arts) are focused in self defense.
  • Akshat chaudhari
    Thx pretty interesting ...
  • maryam
    Hi Jesse I like your articles a lot. I appreciate it deeply. I love karate and I practice karate every day. My style is Shotokan. I perform kata. I'm so powerful but I'm too hard. I don't know how I can be flexible. Thank you Jesse Best wishes
  • Oliver
    Perhaps as an addition, the first Chinese version of Kara Te that you mention is pronounced as Tang Shou in Chinese. Tang as in Tang dynasty. Tang Shou Dao (dao=way) again sounds very much like Tang Soo Do, which is the Korean form of Karate. Korean Tae Kwon Do was in fact derived from Karate when Korea was occupied by Japan. By the way, the today's version of Karate Do is called Kong Shou Dao in Chinese.
    • Great input Oliver-san! The history of the Korean arts have a lot in common with the Japanese. In fact, many people use the term "Korean Karate" in the US especially.
  • Karate girl
    Hey! It is so good...Jesse maybe you can write about your filings when you do karate or about your karate life.
    • karate girl
      what do you thing about my preposition?
  • Ken Norwood
    I realize this was a "short" narrative on the history of Karate but think you should have included Naha Te, Shuri Te and Tomari Te. Especially since they were so influential in the development of Shotkan.
  • And they discarded a major element in the "Hand" method itself. So indeed, they brought "Empty" Hand to Japan.
  • Sam
    interesting article. I'm slowly growing my nerd collection of knowledge and this is a great addition.I'd really love to understand the developments of the different styles, for example Japan has had Jujitsu for centuries so i'm keen to understand why Karate was developed and jujitsu saw a decline? surely Jujitsu carries similar techniques so i'm interested to know why Karate took off where Jujitsu failed.Also, Judo - born from Jujitsu completely seperate from Karate but seemingly there are cross overs between the two. I study Judo as well as Karate and it's very interesting to see similar footwork in many of the Kata as used in Judo - Heian Godan and Ippon Seoi Nage for example. Yet, judo and karate did not share their origin.So my curiosity is based around the three arts: Karate, Ju jitsu and Judo. Are they really separate or are the three each individual chapters of the same story?I've found Judo has really helped my Karate but I see Judo as a part of judo. By this I mean i'm merely practicing techniques that i'm sure where in Karate originally - break falls, throws, locks etc. They're all in there somewhere right?SO.. is Karate really Karate? or have the styles born of the name "karate" shrunk what was a diverse art into a very small pigeon hole.by doing Judo and Karate am I a mixed martial artist or a rounded Karate-ka?I find the topic interesting indeed
  • Matt S.
    Weren't the characters for empty hand used by Hanashiro Chomo as far back as 1905. In his writings on Kumite? :)
    • Hugo
      Yes. The first teacher who used the term Karate ?? with the kanji meaning "Empty Hand" was Hanashiro Chomo In a 1905 publication "Karate Shoshu Hen".
    • Yes indeed! In the context of fighting without weapons (empty hand fighting), which may very well have provided inspiration for the later adoption of "Karate" as the general term of the fully modernized art.
  • Ben brown
    Domo Jesse-San , Also I'd like to add that the Bubishi is a must, must read for all martial artists. Compiled by Mr.Patrick McCarthy,it has an extensive amount of karate lineage and history.Ben Brown
    • Thanks Ben-san, I had the honor of writing the foreword for the new 2016 revised publication of Bubishi by P. McCarthy and cannot recommend it enough.
  • La
    Speaking of the Bubishi, I recommend the work by Ken Penland and published by George Alexander.I knew Ken for over 25 years. We discussed his research many times over those decades.Ken, a former US Army Ranger, was the head of the Ken Shin Kan Okinawa karate group for the USA under Master Fuisei Kisi, and also regional director for Master Yuichi Kuda. He was also chief instructor for the Los Angles Police Department and awarded "Man of The Year" for his many contributions to his community.http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/3964744.Ken_Penland
  • Hitorikko
    Jesse-san, please write about karate styles, especially Kyokushinkai ^__^
  • Michael Loughrie
    Holy cow, you charge 100$ a year? That's how much my dojo charges every week! D:
  • Glicerio
    Muito interessante, não sabia dessa parte... tenho grandiosa vontade de passar uma temporada jo Japan aprendendo mais a fundo sobre o karatê e suas histórias, nesses seus posts mim sinto um pouco lá :D
  • Daniel Raftö
    Great article! I've heard of an explanation of kara-te-do that the meaning is understood to us westerners read backward sounding 'the way of the hand to emptiness' i.e. a higher mental state. Have you heard of this too, or if not can you comment on it?
  • Miguel
    Great article.It is the same story with Tang Soo Do and Tae Kwon Do.Actually, Tang Soo Do is the korean pronunciation for "Karate" but, Tang Soo Do still means "The Way of the Chinese Hand"
  • Sujith Kumar
    Hello Jesse I am a Karate Nerd myself and love karaate. The article is well written, Great job. I would like to ask you about the symbolic meaning of number 108 and it's factors in eastern culture. Thanks Sumaks
  • Lachlan Hill
    I actually just finished writing a three thousand word essay for a university assignment on the history of karate! Still have to give a presentation on it too so it's great to pick up little facts (not that the renaming is little) to throw in! Thanks for a fantastic article, as always Jesse-san!
  • Matthew
    Great article! Sources / bibliography? Curious to read more on this
    • Filip
      Hi, I think it is based on my thesis when I was doing research at the International Budo University, which I send to Jesse a couple a years ago. "The Evolution of Karate: From Secret Martial Art to Worldwide Cultural Sport." You can get a free copy, mail me at filipswennen1@gmail.com Cheers.
      • This article was based on the research of P. McCarthy, the western world's #1 Karate historian & author. Look up his work! :-)
  • Stephen Home
    Very interesting article. Can you put names to the gentlemen in the photograph for me? Regards
    • Laurence Lance
      I can identify these men sitting far left; Chotoku Kyan, Kentsu Yabu, Chomo Hanashiro, Chojun MiyagiStanding far left: Shinpa Shiroma, Tsuyoshi Chitose, Chosin Chibana, Genwa NakasoneI have dates on these men along with the systems and genealogy. Laurence Lance
  • Dear Sensei Jesse,There's something I wanna ask about sparring. How can I get over my fear of going to spar? I love Karate so much and I don't want fear to separate me from this art.
  • ROB sweeney
    Funakoshi became a subject of some controversy only a few years after relocating to Tokyo. For centuries, karate had been written two different ways in Japanese. One way used the characters for "Chinese hands," and the other used the characters for "empty hands." Although both were pronounced "karate," they were written differently. Funakoshi agreed with the obvious historical allusion in the "Chinese hands" characters, but he felt that the use of "empty hands" not only emphasized the art of self-defense without weapons, but also characterized the sense of emptying one's heart and mind of earthly desires and vanity. When he wrote his first book, Ryukyu Kempo: Karate, in 1922, he used the "empty hands" characters exclusively. Funakoshi is credited with standardizing the writing of karate, a feat which, though angering several martial arts masters at the time, met with eventual universal approval.I believe the several martial arts master are in this picture
    • ROB sweeney
      He changed the name of karate to mean "empty hand" instead of "China hand" (as referred to in Okinawa); the two words sound the same in Japanese, but are written differently. It was his belief that using the term for "Chinese" would mislead people into thinking karate originated with Chinese boxing. Karate had borrowed many aspects from Chinese boxing which the original creators say as being positive, as they had done with other martial arts. In addition, Funakoshi argued in his autobiography that a philosophical evaluation of the use of "empty" seemed to fit as it implied a way which was not tethered to any other physical object.Funakoshi's interpretation of the word kara to mean "empty" was reported to have caused some recoil in Okinawa, prompting Funakoshi to remain in Tokyo indefinitely
    • Ryukyuan martial arts were not a monolithic entity called "toudi", any more than there is one martial art in China called "kung fu" (or more precisely, "quan fa"). There were two major schools of Ryukyuan martial arts; one based in the capital city (Shuri-te) and one based in the major port (Naha-te). * "Toudi", or more commonly "tote", is Uchina Guchi (native Okinawan language) equivalent of quan fa (Mandarin) or Kempo (Japanese). ** It is a generic descriptor of multiple styles. It should also be noted that these earlier systems were true martial arts, and not the modern sports derived from them: that is, they were weapon-based, with unarmed combat a secondary consideration.Ryukyu was repeatedly conquered by Japanese forces over its history, and gradually assimilated Japanese language and culture. The Okinawa “to-te” was gradually replaced with the Japanese “Kara-te”, written with the characters meaning “China hand.” During this period, unarmed combat and improvised weapons also became more significant in training, due to the Japanese prohibition on weapons. Naha-Te also divided into two schools, which are today called “Goju Ryu” and “Uechi Ryu”.After World War II, Ryukyu voluntarily repatriated to Japan as the Prefecture of Okinawa. A council of karate masters, not wanting to show disloyalty to their new nation, decided that the name “Kara-Te” would be kept, but the characters would be changed from “China hand” to “empty hand”. This also helped with the concern of appearing overly-belligerent in post-War Japan, as they removed the weapons curriculum entirely, forming a different art called “kobujutsu” (literally, “the old way of fighting”).Today, there are a mix of schools on Okinawa which teach the more traditional karate-jutsu/kobujutsu, and those who have adopted Funakoshi’s “-do” philosophy.*Today, Shuri is a neighborhood in Naha, and the capitol is Okinawa-shi, a bit farther north. **This does not mean "fist law". That is some nonsense Ed Parker made up to sell books. It means "fist technique".
  • Scot Demarest
    I'm not sure where you got your information. But, it Ginchin Funakoshi who officially changed the name from Okinawa-te to Kara-te. After being the only Karate accepted to teach in Japan at the time, he change the name in hopes it would be embraved by the Japanese people.Funakoshi Gichin Sensei, of karate-do, was born on November 10, 1868 in Shuri Okinawa. From about eleven years old he began to study to-te jutsu under Azato Anko and Itosu Anko. He practiced diligently and in 1912 became the president of the Okinawan Shobukai. In May 1922, he relocated to Tokyo and became a professional teacher of karate-do. He devoted his entire life to the development of karate-do. He lived out his eighty-eight years of life and left this world on April 26, 1957. Reinterpreting to-te jutsu, the Sensei promulgated karate-do while not losing its original philosophy. Like bugei (classical martial arts), so too is the pinnacle of karate “mu” (enlightenment): to purify and make one empty through the transformation from “jutsu” to “do”. Through his famous words "???????" (karate ni sente nashi) meaning There is no first attack in Karate and ???????? (karate wa kunshi no bugei) meaning Karate is the martial art of intelligent people,Karate developed on the Ryukyu Islands in what is now Okinawa, Japan. It was brought to the Japanese mainland in the early 20th century during a time of cultural exchanges between the Japanese and the Chinese. It was systematically taught in Japan after the Taish? era.[4] In 1922 the Japanese Ministry of Education invited Gichin Funakoshi to Tokyo to give a karate demonstration. In 1924 Keio Universityestablished the first university karate club in mainland Japan and by 1932, major Japanese universities had karate clubs.[5] In this era of escalating Japanese militarism,[6] the name was changed from ?? ("Chinese hand" or "Tanghand")[7] to ?? ("empty hand") – both of which are pronounced karate – to indicate that the Japanese wished to develop the combat form in Japanese style.[8] After World War II, Okinawa became an important United States military site and karate became popular among servicemen.Gichin Funakoshi played a major role in introducing karate from Okinawa to Japan, adjusted to reduce injury and merged with approaches for athletic training. On May 27, 1949, some of his senior students, such as Isao Obata, Masatoshi Nakayama, and Hidetaka Nishiyama, formed a karate organization dedicated to research, promotion, events management, and education: the Japan Karate Association.[3] Funakoshi, then around 80 years old, held a position equivalent to emeritus chief instructor. Nakayama designated as the chief instructor. The JKA emerged from karate clubs at Japanese universities located in the Tokyo region. Most of these universities, however, distanced themselves from the JKA during the 1950s. Takushoku Universityalways kept strong ties with the JKA, being the alma mater of many of the senior JKA instructors, such as Nakayama, Nishiyama, Okazaki, Asai, Kanazawa, and Enoeda, who were responsible for the JKA's consolidation during the 1960s and 1970s.[3][4]
    • Thanks for sharing the history of Shotokan. Keep researching! :-)
  • Gene Ervin
    The most interesting post I've seen to date regarding the history of Karate. I began my study in 1968, in Los Angeles with Sensei Isidro Adlawan. His teacher was Sensei Jack Damate, who was taught by Paul T. Sagawa from Okinawa. The sytem of Sensei Sagawa was called Sagawa Kara-Fu. We had a belt system to indicate what level the practitioner had achieved. White, Purple, Blue, Green, Brown and Black. The first three belts were the basics, and hard style karate training. Green through Black, the training became pure Chinese Gong Fu style, internally oriented. The final step was learning a Taijiquan modality and a personal Kata, tailored for the shodan by Sensei himself. The journey from White to Black took a course of four years of training in the dojo every Saturday and Sunday morning from 8:00AM to 4:00Pm. My one great memory is taking an hour off from training to see the Moon landing on Sensei's TV. Unfortunately, I had to leave training L.A. after only attaining a Blue Belt, but it set me on course for the rest of my life in other styles that I studied down through the years. At 80 years old, I still do several Qigong Forms (Five Animal, 13 Grand Preservers and Yang Jia Taijiquan as taught by Yang Chengfu to Zheng Man-Qing, who passed it on to William C.C. Chen, who taught my sifu Gregory Brodsky of Santa Cruz Ca.) My main kata is Nifanchin (Inner Divided Conflict) which I practice daily as my only karate exercise. My sensei once told me, " Learn this kata. Use it daily. it is all one needs."Jesse....you rock. Stay in touch.
  • Marquinn McDonald
    Hi Jesse, is there any truth to the word "Te" many "fist" and or "hand"? I've been reading a few articles about the history of Karate and some of the writers have said "Te" could have or did mean "fist" at one point, is there any fact to this?

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