Karate is practiced in over 160 countries by about 50 million people.
Karate’s roots are said to be a fusion of the traditional Okinawan martial art of Tii with Kempo fighting arts imported from China.
The Ryukyu island kingdom prospered through sea trade due to its location midway between Japan and China.
But between the 15th and 16th centuries, this trade was under constant threat from marauding pirates known as Wako. These pirates attacked both shipping and villages along the coast.
To fight off pirate attacks, the Okinawans always carried weapons, and in this period they developed systems of self defense unique to these islands.
Elements from Chinese, Southeast Asian, Korean and Japanese martial arts were incorporated with Okinawa’s own old martial art of Tii and systematized into karate and kobudo.
Early karate developed in three locations Shuri-te in the royal castle of Shuri, Naha-te in the commercial city of Naha, and Tomari-te, named for a village between Shuri and Naha. Each style produced many famous martial artists.
In the 15th century, King Shou Shin confiscated all civilian swords to suppress insurrection, and then in 1609, the invading Satsuma clan banned the carrying of all weapons. The Ryukyu warriors responded by developing kobudo, a secret martial art using common household, farming or fishing tools as weapons.
Another effect of the Satsuma ban on martial activity was to drive karate underground, where its practitioners continued to train in secret.
For about 250 years, the secrets of karate were handed on behind closed doors. It was only after the 19th century Meiji Restoration that the kobudo arts surfaced, and the systematization of modern karate began.
The masters who contributed most to this revival were Sokon Matsumura of Shuri-te, Kosaku Matsumora of Tomari-te and Kanryo Higaonna of Naha-te.
In 1908, Anko Itosu wrote the Ten Precepts of Karate. The influence of this work led to karate becoming part of the official school sports system.
The era of karate as a secret closed-door martial art had come to an end.
In the early 20th century, karate spread throughout Japan thanks to masters such as Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan-ryu, Kenwa Mabuni, founder of Shito-ryu, Kanbun Uechi, founder of Uechi-ryu, and Chojun Miyagi, founder of Goju-ryu.
In Okinawa, karate flourished due to the efforts of masters like Chotoku Kyan, Choki Motobu, and Choshin Chibana, founder of Shorin-ryu.
In the years after World War II, active Okinawan karate styles included Shorin-ryu, Goju-ryu, Uechi-ryu and Shorin-ryu. Shorin-ryu and Isshin-ryu started spreading in the central Chubu part of Okinawa.
1969 saw the first All Japan Karate Championships. At the 1994 Asian Games, karate was recognized as an official event. From their roots in Okinawa, karate and kobudo had now become popular worldwide sports.