The Birth of Today’s Karate

I’m going to begin this post with a story.

What would you say if I told you the following:

Once upon a time there was a guy who was only 17 years old, that wanted to study Ju-jutsu in Japan. He searched hard and long for a teacher, until one day he finally found a good one. His sensei, actually believing that he was not mature enough for more serious training, only instructed him in fundamental technique though.

“Booooring!” the young man thought, and by the time he turned 18 he was tired of drilling basics, so he located an new sensei, named Fukuda, whom he trained under until his untimely death a year later.

The young man continued practising what he had learned from both teachers, and by 21 years old finally got himself a teachers license (kyoshi menkyo), thus “mastering” the art of Ju-jutsu. The following year he and nine of his students set up his first dojo. Two years later, at the mature age of 24, the first “dojo rules” (dojo-kun) were written, and he officially opened his dojo, which he named the Kodokan.

The man’s name was Kano Jigoro, founder of Judo!


I was, when I first found out about this.

Can you imagine?

Why can’t Karate history be as easy? That would save so much time! But… at the same time it would make everything less exciting and mysterious! And we want that, right? Solving the riddles of Karate, tracing the roots… it’s kind of like reading detective fiction, and figuring out who the murderer is.

You never know where it ends.

That’s why I like it.

So what I want to write today is a short piece on the history of Karate. Or rather, I want to write about the exact time and place when I think Karate – as we know it today – was born.

If you feel that you need to refresh your Karate history a little, this post is for you. And if you already know your history, simply consider this post a reminder.

Anyway, the reason why I started with describing the life of Jigoro Kano (pictured to the right) was because if it wasn’t for Judo our Karate would look very different, and in worst case maybe wouldn’t exist.

Of course this is only speculation, but you never know…

Now, let’s begin:

In the land of no chairs (Japan) there exists a saying that goes like this:

“Deru kui wa utareru”

The literal translation of this phrase is “The stake that sticks out gets hammered down” and the meaning is something along the lines of “It’s better to conform than to stick out”. In other words, simply don’t stick your head out, or else it might get chopped off. Encourage conformity.

“Deru kui wa utareru” was basically the most important proverb in Japan during the time Karate was introduced (1920’s) to mainland Japan from the island of Okinawa.

“Introduced by who?” you ask.

Well, there’s more than one person involved in this (it’s not Judo, remember?). During the years between 1921 and 1933, eight individual Okinawans – Gima Shinken, Motobu Choki, Funakoshi Gichin, Chitose Tsuyoshi, Miyagi Chojun, Mabuni Kenwa, Uechi Kambun and Toyama Kanken – traveled from Okinawa to the mainland of Japan in order to introduce their interpretations of their native fighting art (at that time referred to as Karate-jutsu).

Now imagine this:

You are a noble, handsome, rich Japanese man (from an old samurai clan of course), who wants to send your firstborn son to martial arts training. What would you choose, from these three?

  • Kendo –  the noble art of slicing enemies with the samurai sword
  • Judo – the cultivated art of effortlessly disbalancing and pinning your opponent
  • “Karate-jutsu” – a collection of dirty and brutal methods of how to best defend yourself through the use if kicks, punches, joint-locks, strangulations, throws, takedowns, strikes, nasty tricks etc.

Well, most people wouldn’t choose the Okinawan alternative (#3) of Karate-jutsu.


Because when Karate-jutsu was introduced to to the mainland of Japan it was far to rudimentary, individualistic and strange for the average Japanese person.

Moreover, it had no real established training uniform (like the other Japanese martial arts) nor did it have common standards through which to learn, practice, and teach the art (a syllabus). It didn’t even have a tournament system, or ranks!

And to top it off, Karate-jutsu came from a petty island full of short, hairy, people (with darker skin) who even talked their own language (uchinaguchi) that only vaguely resembled Japanese. Also, this was at a time when Okinawans, ainu, foreigners, and to a large extent women, were heavily discriminated in society.

Good luck!

The mere thought of comparing this “Karate-jutsu” to refined arts like Judo, Kendo, Kyudo, Jukendo, Naginatado, and other modern Budo (Gendai Budo) was almost a blasphemy!

In Japan, a stick that protrudes needs to be hammered down (“Deru kui wa utareru”).

Karate-jutsu was a big sharp stick.

It caused waves.

It caused upsets.

So one day in December 1933 the Dai Nippon Butokukai ratified Nihon Karatedo (The Japanese Way of the Empty Hand) as a new martial art, arguably with the same status as Judo, Kendo and other modern Budo arts.

But it came with a price:

It needed to be hammered down.

If Karate-jutsu was to be transformed and accepted by Japan – and in the long run the rest of the world – a few criteria had to be fulfilled.

The four most important being:

  • Change suffix, from “-jutsu” to “-do”.

Jutsu means “practical art”. Do means “way”.

Martial arts, if they wanted to become accepted in a modern Japanese society, had to emphasize following “the way”, meaning the way of enlightenment. The way of our mind, through our bodies, that leads us to the very center of life itself, transcending it. It is not a physical way, rather a never-ending journey on the inside.

So, by adding a little Zen flavour, both the name – and aim – of Karate-jutsu shifted.

  • Introduce the “obi” and “gi”.

No, I’m not talking about Obi-Wan Kenobi. I’m taking about obi, the Japanese term for sash/belt.

The obi had to be introduced (white, green, brown, black etc.) along with the “uniform” known as the gi. This was copied straight from Judo. Except… the gi was made a little lighter, since grips were not as common in Karatedo as in Judo.

  • Introduce the dan/kyu-system.

A way of determining skill level seemed practical, so the system of using dan/kyu ranks was copied straight from Judo (there we have it again) with a little changes here and there.

Maybe the most controversial factor of Karate today?

Well, love it or hate it, it had to be done.

  • Lastly, start competing!

Using the principle of “Ikken Hissatsu”to kill with one strike – the “shobu ippon” kumite system was introduced to test technique and fighting spirit. Resembling a violent game of tag, opponents were to aim at anatomically vulnerable targets and stop a few inches in before impact, in order to avoid injuries.


These four criteria were fulfilled in December 1933.

And Karate as we know it today was born.

Practically stripped of its original Okinawan identity, robbed of its pragmatic self-defense, transformed into a Judo/Kendo clone and used as an abstract form of excercise…

The Okinawan art of the empty hand was definitely hammered down good.

But not dead.

And in the end I guess we should be thankful for that.


  • JamesD
    Not a bad break down, though a bit generalized/simplified. Keep in mind that not all Okinawan sensei agreed to conform to all the above mentioned requirements so as to be 'accepted' by their Japanese counterparts. As far as Okinawan karate not being "dead", I'm not sure what else it could be if you are referring to those systems that conformed (became Japanized). Think about it this way...Kendo is NOT the study of kenjutsu (or even Iaido). Judo and Aikido are a far cry from the original jujutsu systems they are based off of. All of the "Do" systems' supposedly focus more on spiritual growth of the individual practioner, as apposed to Jujutsu's focus more on the practical application (which is what Okinawan karate's focus used to be...until it was watered down/passified.
    • That's true, and yes, I generalized/simplified a lot. ;) Examples are Shindo Jinen (Shizen) Ryu and Kushin Ryu, two "Japanese" styles that never became as popular as Shito/Wado/Shoto/Goju, mainly becauser they weren't interested in competing, but also because they wouldn't write popular books about their style.
  • Diego Romero
    i always resented that silly do vs jutsu argument. it's kinda childish really, like you're saying "my thing is better because it's original and your new thing doesn't work" i practice karate-do and the physical, waza-oriented part of my training has the sole purpose of enabling me to brutalize other human beings should i have the necessity to do so. philosophy is developed in your head, discipline is developed through training methods and respect is developed in the rei, but the training itself consists only on techniques meant to kill people with your bear hands, which is something people often forget and a lot of people tend to dumb down to make the art more palatable, but this only leads to suckers training nukite, shuto and ippon ken then steadfastly denying that they might be training something dangerous. you don't become a better person by training how to punch the snot out of people, you do it by rationalizing, and being sincere and responsible, something that through that reasoning isn't taught in "jutsu", at least in terms of karate. don't know about kendo, aikido, judo or whatnot, since i only do karate and tai chi, but i have the firm opinion that karate-"jutsu" is lesser than karate-"do".
    • I have the idea that many people start Karate-jutsu, but end up with Karate-do - meaning that in the beginning they want to learn self-defense, fighting etc (-jutsu), but in the end they realize that Karate is more than that (-do). And to truly understand the "-do" aspect of Karate, I think it's almost necessary that you begin with the "-jutsu".
      • warrioress
        Me included
        • Josep
          Me too!!
  • JamesD.
    For those of you who are more interested in the 'DO' aspect of the modern martial arts, I highly recomend that you read the Tao Te Ching, the ancient Chinese writings that the Japanese based much of their 'Do' or 'Michi' philosophy off of. It's one of my personal favorites to read. For those of you who are of the opinion that jutsu arts are somehow "lesser than karate "do"" (Or vis versa), I suggest to you to keep in mind, that is your own personal viewpoint, and not a fact. What one's personal goals are, will determin what is best (for that individual). I personally, seek martial knowledge of a more practical nature (self-defense), and find very little of that in many of the modern day budo systems being taught today. But, at the same time, it also depends much on the personal goals of the individual sensei that is teaching the art. Much can be gained from both aspects, depending upon the quality of the teacher.
  • Lenny
    Your description of karate-jutsu would basically also fit the classical judo. It was basically a combination of two jujutsu ryu and featured locks, throws, kicks, strikes, strangleholds, etc. Today's sport-judo is as far away from classical judo as is today's sport karate from the classical no-nonsense karate.
  • Drew
    when we are taught bunkai/applications/jutsu imo they're not the end all be all. Ppl criticize kata applications because they say that it is too specific to a certain situation/condition, often unrealistic i.e do this against this exactly like this and you win. Lots of ppl are like Kata collectors, thinking more is better, remember depth is better than breadth and less is more. BUT knowing more kata increases your knowledge of techniques and body mechanics, they inform each other, just don't get caught up in learning more katas all the time. I know students who when I show them basic applications of basic blocks their eyes light up like "wow that was pretty simple" Understand basics first and how they work in principal is key. You have to be able to adapt it to yourself and different scenarios without having to think. This takes a lot of time of course. Kata Bunkai are not the end all be all of YOUR Karate but yes they are important to know about. I may show a student something and they'll ask "what kata is that from?" or they look at me like did you come to that application from that movement? It's just years of training, repetition, basics and lots of critical thinking. ( also cross training helps ;) I personally don't know all the bunkai to all the katas Ive been taught but I know my basics well. Jutsu and Do meet in the middle and are like two sides of the same coin.

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