Karate is a martial art developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom. It developed from the indigenous Ryukyuan martial arts under the influence of Chinese Kung Fu, particularly Fujian White Crane.

Karate is now predominantly a striking art using punching, kicking, knee strikes, elbow strikes and open-hand techniques such as knife-hands, spear-hands and palm-heel strikes.

Historically, and in some modern styles, grappling, throws, joint locks and vital-point strikes are also taught. A karate practitioner is called a karateka.

The Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan in 1879. Karate was brought to the Japanese archipelago in the early 20th century during a time of migration as Ryukyuans, especially from Okinawa, looked for work in Japan.

It was systematically taught in Japan after the Taishō era (1912-26).

In 1922, the Japanese Ministry of Education invited karate practitioner Gichin Funakoshi to give a karate demonstration

Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate, is generally credited with having introduced and popularized karate on the main islands of Japan.

He was a student of both Asato Ankō and Itosu Ankō, who had worked to introduce karate to the Okinawa Prefectural School System in 1902.

In 1924 Keio University established the first university karate club in mainland Japan and by 1932, major Japanese universities had karate clubs.

However, this was a turbulent period in the history of the region which had already undergone numerous changes, starting with Japan’s annexation of the Okinawan island group in 1872.

Other major developments throughout the period included the First Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, the annexation of Korea, and the rise of Japanese militarism (1905–1945).

Japan was invading China at the time, and Funakoshi (pictured left) knew that the art of ‘Chinese hand’ would not be accepted; thus the change of the art’s name to ‘way of the empty hand.’

The suffix implies that karate-do is a path to self-knowledge, not just a study of the technical aspects of fighting.

Funakoshi changed the names of many kata and the name of the art itself (at least on mainland Japan), doing so to get karate accepted by the Japanese budō organization Dai Nippon Butoku Kai.

Funakoshi also gave Japanese names to many of the kata. The five pinan forms became known as heian, the three naihanchi forms became known as tekki, seisan as hangetsu, Chintō as gankaku, wanshu as enpi, and so on. These were mostly political changes, rather than changes to the content of the forms, although Funakoshi did introduce some such changes.

Funakoshi had trained in two of the popular branches of Okinawan karate of the time, Shorin-ryū and Shōrei-ryū. In Japan he was influenced by kendo, incorporating some ideas about distancing and timing into his style.

He always referred to what he taught as simply karate, but in 1936 he built a dojo in Tokyo and the style he left behind is usually called Shotokan, after this dojo.

After World War II, Okinawa became an important military site and karate became popular among servicemen stationed there.

The martial arts movies of the 1960s and 1970s served to greatly increase the popularity of martial arts around the world, and in English the word ‘karate’ began to be used in a generic way to refer to all striking-based Asian martial arts.

Karate schools began appearing across the world, catering to those with casual interest as well as those seeking a deeper study of the art.

However, at times this lead to misunderstanding and a departure from the original aims and ideas of the art.

Shigeru Egami, one of Funakoshi’s earliest students and later Chief Instructor of Shotokan Dojo, opined that “…the majority of followers of karate in overseas countries pursue karate only for its fighting techniques … Movies and television…depict karate as a mysterious way of fighting capable of causing death or injury with a single blow…the mass media present a pseudo art far from the real thing.”

As Japanese author and karateka Shōshin Nagamine explains: “Karate may be considered as the conflict within oneself or as a life-long marathon which can be won only through self-discipline, hard training and one’s own creative efforts.”

On 28 September 2015, karate was featured on a shortlist along with baseball, softball, skateboarding, surfing, and sport climbing to be considered for inclusion in the 2020 Summer Olympics.

On 1 June 2016, the International Olympic Committee’s executive board announced they were supporting the inclusion of all five sports (counting baseball and softball as only one sport) for inclusion in the 2020 Games.

This exposure can only boost the appeal of a sport which is already enjoyed around the globe.

Web Japan (sponsored by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs) claims there are 50 million karate practitioners worldwide while the World Karate Federation estimates the figure to be nearer 100 million practitioners.

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