History and Evolution of
the Term “Kara-Te”
In its original form, karate, or kara-te is a term for a group of weaponless martial arts systems – unarmed combat forms – that developed in the Okinawan islands. Okinawa is an island archipelago that lies roughly mid way between Japan and mainland China. Its original name, as named by its inhabitants, was the Ryukyu Islands. In Okinawa, a variety of unarmed fighting systems developed and are grouped under the names of Uchinadi, and also Ryu-Te. “Te” means “hand”, so Ryu-Te refers to the system of hand-to-hand fighting indigenous to the Ryukyu islands. For most of its history, Ryukyu, or Okinawa, was closely allied to China, and while not perhaps a part of China proper, it was at least in the category of a protectorate.
Trade and cultural exchange between China and Ryukyu, or Okinawa, was common, and this included the martial arts. Instructors from Okinawa visited China to study, and it is also known that Chinese instructors came to Okinawa to teach. Over time, the traditional methods of Okinawa were combined with the imported Chinese forms to produce something called Kara-Te, which meant “Chinese Hand”, or the Chinese-enhanced version of Ryu-Te.
In the fullness of time, Japan decided to invade the Ryukyu islands at a time when there was a great deal of political upheaval taking place in China. The Chinese government made a conscious and deliberate decision to not defend the Ryukyu islands, and Ryukyu/Okinawa has been a Japanese possession ever since.
In the early 20th century, the Japanese Emperor visited Okinawa and was impressed by the physical fitness and fighting ability of practitioners of Kara-Te in a demonstration of the local arts that was prepared for him. One of the instructors, a man named Gichin Funakoshi, was invited to Japan and began teaching in the university there, in essence to prepare the Japanese officer corps for World War II, which Japan was planning as early as the 19-teens.
When karate was exported to Japan, the Okinawan instructors, primarily Funakoshi, made a few crucial changes to what they taught. First was the name. It was changed from “kara-te” to “kara-te”. What’s the difference, you ask? It is only apparent when written in Asian characters. The character “kara” for “Chinese” was dropped and replaced with a character that, while it sounded the same, “kara”, it was a completely different written character which meant “empty”. This was done primarily to not offend the Japanese government who were the hosts for Funakoshi and other instructors that eventually joined him. Empty-Hand was far less offensive than Chinese-Hand, since Japan was preparing for a war with China.
The content of instruction was also changed by Funakoshi, to emphasize the physical fitness aspects of the training, as well as the development of the fighting spirit. In this process, many of the most brutal and effective self defense aspects of Karate were simply omitted from the training. The name Funakoshi gave his modified system was Shotokan. In the almost 100 years since that time, several generations of Japanese martial artists who were experts in karate have lived and died, never knowing that the art they practiced was missing many key pieces from its original Okinawan version.
The term “Xerox” was once applied to a very specific brand of photocopier, the very first to hit the market back in the 1960s and 70s, by the way. It later came to be used synonymously for every other brand of photocopier on the market. It was used as both a noun and a verb (“go Xerox a copy of this letter”). Over time, the popularity of Japanese martial arts in the world, particularly karate, has led to its spread to almost everywhere. Karate is possibly now the most well-known martial art in the world.
As a result of this, in the same way, that Xerox became the standard name for all photocopiers, the name Karate has come to be used generically for virtually every type of hand to hand martial art system, both self defense systems as well as sport systems. This is true even if these systems have no actual links or ties back to Okinawa, the original home of the original form of Karate.