The decision that Tokyo will be the place in which karate will at last achieve recognition as a truly global sport is fitting, yet also tinged with irony. Next summer, it will be there, for the first time, that karate practitioners will compete for a place on the Olympic podium. Karate’s journey from an obscure art to its inauguration as an Olympic sport spans centuries and has been aided by some unlikely influences.
The earliest origins of what has become this quintessentially Japanese cultural export lie not in Japan, but in Ming dynasty China. Before landing on Japanese shores, the techniques from which modern karate arose had already undertaken a previous ocean-crossing voyage and many subsequent years of development, evolution, and refinement.
In its original incarnation, karate first emerged in the Ryukyu Islands during the 14th century. Its conception was triggered when an influx of Chinese traders and settlers began sharing their knowledge of Fujian White Crane Kung Fu with Ryukyuan natives. The new martial art born of this cultural exchange, karate, flourished and became culturally embedded throughout the archipelago.
Embraced in Japan
During the latter half of the 19th century, the Meiji Restoration transformed Japan from a feudal backwater into a powerful industrialised nation, and one with imperial ambitions. Japan’s 1879 annexation of the Ryukyu Kingdom sparked a migration of Ryukyuans departing from their home islands to seek work on the Japanese mainland. Just as the Chinese migrants headed for Ryukyu had some five centuries earlier, the Ryukyuans bound for Japan took their martial arts with them.
By the turn of the 20th century, karate’s arrival in Japan had aroused the attention of the Japanese Ministry of Education. In 1922, the ministry invited Okinawan master and founder of the Shotokan style, Gichin Funakoshi, to Tokyo to demonstrate his skills before a delegation of their ministers. The demonstration met the ministry’s approval, and soon karate was soon being taught in Japanese schools and universities.
As karate became established in the mainstream of Japanese culture it underwent a process of institutionalisation. This included the introduction of standardised training robes (gi), the coloured belt grading system, the codification of a formal syllabus, and the decision made during the 1936 Meeting of the Masters to change the name of the practise from “Chinese hand” or ‘Tang hand’ (唐手) to “empty hand” (空手). The new moniker was adopted in an effort to improve compatibility with the militant strain of nationalism that then dominated Japanese politics. In Japanese, conveniently, the old and the new names are pronounced in exactly the same way: karate.
Gains popularity in the West
Following Japan’s defeat in the Second World War, the country became host to several thousand occupying American troops. Many of these servicemen took an interest in karate and began attending training sessions in the dojos of local Senseis. As greater numbers of these servicemen returned home, karate began filtering its way into US public consciousness.
Hollywood soon caught wind of this mysterious eastern martial art and quickly recognised its screen potential. The martial arts movies of the 60s and 70s proved immensely popular. The reach and commercial success of these films sparked an international craze for karate, and by extension, oriental martial arts in general. This craze was fuelled, perhaps in no small way, by the silver screen’s fantastical depictions of oriental martial artists performing feats of superhuman prowess.
Recognition as a competitive sport
Traditionally, karate was practised purely in the pursuit of personal development. Funakoshi described karate as “a way,” that is, a means by which dedicated practitioners could better themselves mentally, physically, and spiritually, and in which competition between practitioners played no part. During the 1950s, however, master Tsutomu Ohshima, a disciple of Funakoshi, devised a system to determine victorious combatants in sparring matches (kumite). For the first time, this system invited the possibility that Karate might also be practised as a competitive sport. The possibility was quickly seized upon. Tournaments soon began spring up all over the world. 1970 marked the inaugural event of what currently remains the biggest: the Global Karate Championship.
In June 2016, the International Olympic Committee decided that competitive karate was sufficiently established, regulated and widely practised for inclusion in the 2020 summer games. Thanks in part to Chinese traders, the Japanese ministry of education, and Hollywood, The World Karate Federation estimates that there are 100 million karate practitioners in the world today. It would seem that this ancient art has found a global home in the modern world.