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The History of Karate: From Ancient Origins to Modern Pop Culture


How Karate as We Know It Today Came to Be When most of us think of karate, images of Bruce Lee, colourful belts, action-packed film […]

Person wearing traditional karate garb

How Karate as We Know It Today Came to Be

When most of us think of karate, images of Bruce Lee, colourful belts, action-packed film sequences and the Karate Kid often dance through our heads. But what you may not know is that Karate has come a long way since it was first invented. This ancient art, which today can be classified as both a sport and a discipline, has a long and fascinating history.

Origins of Karate

To understand how karate became what it is today, let’s take a trip back through time to ancient China. Many believe that karate originated solely in Japan, but it was actually influenced by a combination of Chinese, Japanese, and Okinawan martial arts, specifically kung fu. The techniques that are associated with karate today did not come from one person in particular, but from dozens of masters of various backgrounds including Itosu Anko, Kanga Tode Sakugawa, and Sokon ‘Bushi’Matsumura.

The story began in the Henan Province of China around 527 A.D., when a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma traveled from India to impart the teachings of Buddhism to the monks of the Shaolin Temple. The monks were too weak to undergo the hours of intense meditation that was required of them, so Bodhidharma began teaching them exercises to strengthen their bodies and minds.

At this time, the practice was not yet known as ‘karate.’ Back then it was referred to as ‘bushi no te’ or ‘bushi nu tii,’ which translates to ‘the hands of the gentleman warrior.’ From its inception, karate’s main purpose was to be a gentleman first and a warrior second. These styles eventually found their way to various parts of China and eventually to Japan.

Evolution of the Sport

Martial arts truly came into prominence in Okinawa, the southern most islands that would eventually become part of Japan. During much of the 18th and 19th centuries, Okinawa was occupied by both Japan and China, and it was this Chinese influence in Okinawa that lead to the development of “Te” (translated as Chinese Hand), which was trained in secret and passed on from father to son, or taught to Okinawan nobility. This was the beginning of the concept of karate we know today.

Okinawa Te was introduced to mainland Japan around 1922 by Okinawan school teacher Gichin Funakoshi, who was instrumental in adapting the art to suit Japanese culture, including changing the name from Chinese characters to Japanese kanji. Funakoshi is known as the “Father of Modern Karate”.

However, the first recorded usage of the word ‘karate’ didn’t actually occur until 1935, when the masters convened to decide on a new name for their art, marking the beginning of a new era for karate and martial arts as a whole.

Karate was first introduced to North America in the years immediately following the Second World War. Many servicemen were introduced to karate by Japanese karate masters while overseas. When the war ended, they took their newfound skills home and established their own dojos. Around this time, many Japanese karate instructors were also sent to popularize karate in North America.

By this time, it was largely unnecessary to use karate as a form of actual combat, especially in North America. As a result, the techniques were adapted into a new format suitable for tournaments and sporting events. Thus, modern-day karate was born!

Modern Karate

Despite its ancient roots, karate as we know it is actually more of a sport than the lifetime of study and pursuit it once was. Today’s karate focuses more on form and discipline rather than its use for genuine combat. Both traditional and modern karate are valuable tools for learning to control the mind and body. However, they differ on their objectives, set-up and techniques.

Traditional karate is rooted in self-defence. It is based around the concept of “the finishing blow,” a technique sufficient to incapacitate your opponent and end the fight quickly. On the other hand, modern karate uses a multi-point system, eliminating the requirement for a finishing blow. The addition of weight categories is also a relatively new practice, as they are not required in traditional karate.

There are also some pretty big differences in technique. Modern karate uses fluid and reactive movements designed for modern-day sport. Much like its traditional counterpart, the techniques of modern karate are practiced repeatedly, step-by-step, to perfect them.

Karate in Pop Culture

Karate has essentially set the tone for the popularity of all martial arts in the West. Popular culture, especially film, has been a big contributor to that. For example, the 1984 film The Karate Kidplayed a major role in introducing karate to western audiences and popularizing it as a sport.

The movie’s iconic moments like ‘wax on, wax off’ and Mr. Miyagi’s fly-catching scene have become well-known, timeless additions to most of our pop culture repertoires. It serves as a testament to karate’s usefulness as a tool to stop childhood bullying, and since then there have been many references in other pop culture staples like Stranger Things, How I Met Your Mother, and Family Guy.

Before The Karate Kid, Hong Kong-American actor and martial artist Bruce Lee was already a household name. His legendary titles include Enter the Dragon, Fist of Fury, Game of Death,and The Big Boss. Bruce Lee was also the creator of Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid martial arts philosophy drawing from various combat disciplines including karate that paved the way for modern mixed martial arts (MMA).

On a more subtle note, elements of karate have been used to choreograph fight scenes in many popular movies, including the Star Warsfranchise. The creators of Star Warsactually brought on masters of karate and other martial arts as consultants to help coordinate the complex light sabre battle scenes.

Music has also been a pretty big contributor to the western karate craze. Songs like Kung Fu Fightingby Carl Douglas(which is associated with karate by many) and Karate Chopby Future have helped to make ‘karate’ a household word.

Although these pop culture portrayals of karate are fictionalized and tend to embellish its history, they have undoubtedly been important elements in bringing karate to prominence on the global stage.

The Takeaway

Today, karate is practiced by millions of people around the world. It’s a great tool for students of all ages to learn discipline and focus, overcome anger and build confidence. Karate can even help us develop important life skills that can be used both at the dojo and in everyday life.

Although the lines are often blurred between karate facts and legends, the contribution made by the old masters and those who followed them should never be forgotten.

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Scott Bullard