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A Brief History of Karate

From the traditionalist point of view, Funakoshi must be considered the father of Japanese karate-do, as it is he who was responsible for making many important innovations to akrate-jutsu and who brought this Okinawan art to the Japanese, and later, the western world.

In 1933, Funakoshi changed the concept of 'kara', which was originally written with the Chinese character meaning 'China hand', buy substituting another character for 'kara' signifying 'void' or empty. Therefore, the new karate-jutsu developed by Funakoshi meant 'empty'.

Two years later, Funakoshi discarded the word 'jutsu' in favour of the word 'do' ('the way of'). Thus karate-do (along the lines of ju-do and aiki-do) was born in Japan. The literal meaning is 'empty hand way', emphasizing the lack of conventional weapons in this fighting art.

Spreading Popularity

It was during the American armed forces' occupation of Japan after World War II that Westerners gained their first sight of karate-do. Many US servicemen found the exercises and drills carried out by the Japanese ex-servicemen fascinating, so much so they wanted to join in and find out what the Japanese were doing. And so these US servicemen became early members of Japanese karate-do.

Although there was Japanese resentment towards foreigners in the classes, they had no option but to teach the Westerners (gaijin), fearing that rejection of the new students would result in the closure of classes and an obvious loss of income and therefore the art.

Once accepted by the Japanese, the US servicemen were taught the finer points of karate-do, making it possible for their knowledge to be passed on when they were posted back to the United States.

The goal of many of the se Japanese instructors was to see their art flourish worldwide, and they could see the benefits of teaching Americans. Indeed, many Americans did set about teaching this strange new art of karate-do upon their return to the United States, and thus karate was introduced to the Americans in the early 1950's.

With Japanese and American trade expanding rapidly after the war, many senior Japanese karate-ka (one who practices karate) visited the United States and some settled there permanently. Today, every style of Japanese karate has a school some-where in the United States, and practitioners numbers many thousands.

A Worldwide Practice

A Frenchman called Henri Plee is credited with introducing karate to Europe, in 1957. Plee is acknowledged as being the first person to bring a Japanese expert in karate-do to Europe from Japan.

The person credited with first bringing karate-do to the United Kingdom was Vernon Bell, who trained under Plee in Paris and later brought over Japanese experts, such as Kanazawa sensei, a Shotokan stylist from Japan.

By the mid 1960's, the demand for karate was so great worldwide that many Japanese karate-ka were invited to numerous countries to teach on a permanent basis, as it was felt that the standard of karate-do needed to be raised. As a result, there are Japanese instructors resident right around the world, especially in the styles of Shotokan, Wado-ryu, Goju-ryu adn Shito-ryu.

Today, it seems as if there is not a country in the world that does not have at least one karate club. In the past 50 years, the popularity of this art has attracted millions of people from every walk of life. Funakoshi could never have dreamt that his beloved art would leave his small island of Okinawa and be studied and taught by people of every race.

Reproduced with kind permission from Chris Thompson.

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