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Karate/Why Was Karate Created?


Hello my name is Jay Wachala and I was wondering if you could spare some time for a question I had about Karate?

How long have you been studying Karate?

Why was Karate invented?

What are the purpose of Katas?

Thank you very much Michael for your time.



Thank you for your questions.  First, might I say, "Wow".  You've cut to the chase and asked two excellent questions that I'm afraid don't have easy, short answers.  At least not complete answers.  But I shall try...

To answer your first question, I have been studying karate for 33 years.  My core style is Okinawan, but I have also had the opportunity of studying Japanese karate as well.  It is sad to say, but even today, with the proliferation of books and magazine articles that have been published, many folks still do not know that karate’s origins lie in Ryukyu archipelago, specifically the large island of Okinawa.

And that leads me to your second question: Why was karate invented?  Again, not an easy answer because there really is no consensus as to the one true origin/reason.   There are many theories on the how and why karate developed on the small island of Okinawa.  Unfortunately, much of karate’s true history was glossed over, or just plain fabricated, by many early 20th century writers.

That said, the best explanation is that karate, like all inventions, was developed out of a need.  In karate’s case, that need was for an effective means of personal defense.  Unlike other modern budo, or martial ways, Okinawan karate was never a military art.  It was not developed by professional soldiers for use on the battle field.  All other modern budo, such as kendo (kenjutsu), kyudo (kyujutsu or archery) or judo (jujutsu), have their roots in the martial caste of old Japan.  Instead, Okinawan karate was developed by Okinawans (or more appropriately, Ryukyuans) as a civilian method of self-defense.  Karate was heavily influenced by the plebian Chinese fighting arts which were brought to Okinawa in 1393 by thirty-six families of Chinese emigrates that chose to settle in Kume village.  It is believed that these families brought several fighting arts with them, such as white crane and monk fist boxing, and taught this knowledge to the Okinawan’s.  These fighting styles are believed by most scholars and martial historians to have been a major influence on the developing indigenous Okinawan fighting arts.  

There is also some confusion as to who on Okinawa, the peasant class or the elite class, is most responsible for creation of karate.  While much of its early history is vague, pretty much everyone agrees that te (the indigenous name for karate prior to 1900) existed on Okinawa for several hundred years prior to its migration to Japan in the early twentieth century.  We can also agree that on more than one occasion the Okinawans were forced to practice their empty hand art by the cover of darkness and behind closed doors, and that these skills would often only be taught to family members to insure the secrecy of the art’s techniques and practice.  Why the confusion?  Because many of today’s karate masters relate stories passed to them by their Japanese or Okinawan teachers claiming the peasant class of Okinawa is responsible for the development of karate.  The majority of these stories are oral tradition with little or no historical documentation to back them up.  Nevertheless, they are firmly imbedded in karate’s history and are retold with every new generation of karateka.  The truth is that the majority of written historical documentation concerning the origins and development of karate that we have to refer to was produced in the early 20th century.  Most historians attribute this lack of pre-1900 documentation to karate being a secret art on Okinawa, thereby necessitating the absence of written records.  Some scholars assert that pre-1900 documentation did exist in the form of personal journals or secret family documents, but speculate that much of it was destroyed during the Pacific battles of World War II, of which Okinawa endured more than its fair share of devastation.  As with the true origins of karate, we may never know which theory is correct.

In fact, the popular notion that karate was developed by Okinawan peasants to fight their oppressors, both foreign and domestic, has pretty much been invalidated among serious scholars.  Modern historians and scholars have shown that the poor Okinawan farmers and fishermen who spent the majority of their time cultivating their fields, casting their nets and tending their wares, would have had little time to devote to developing and practicing such a complex fighting method.  And while it is not inconceivable that some commoners could have learned a limited amount of karate, there is no credible evidence to support the assertion that they contributed significantly to its development prior to 1879.  Thinking about this logically and looking at documentable historical facts suggests a greater influence may have come from the elite caste nineteenth century Okinawan bureaucrats.  Upon examination of verifiable historical documents, we see that the mid-nineteenth century karate masters, at least those most responsible for shaping and teaching karate as we know it, all held some level of office in Okinawa’s central government.  Matusmura, Azato, Itosu, Kyan (Chofu), and Arakaki (Seisho) to name but a few were all ranking government officials, or pechin.  Other familiar karate names, which were not part of the king’s inner circle or court, can be identified as part of his internal security force.  Names such as Oyadomari, Matsumora, Kinjo, and Kiyuna can be found in the records of palace guards and local police officials, both of which did their jobs for the most part unarmed.  

All of these men played a role in and are considered the forefathers of what would eventually become modern karate.  None of these men were peasants.   The fact is, just about every name linked to the development of karate prior to 1879 can be found to have worked in or around the royal palace.  They only became poor farmers, fisherman, merchants or laborers after the dissolution of the Okinawan monarchy in 1879, when their government jobs, property and guaranteed stipends were capriciously taken from them.  So what did they do?  Some of these men chose to retire or left Okinawa in search of greener pastures.  Some faded into history and are lost forever.  However, many were forced to find work as farmers, schoolteachers, spice traders, artisans, and even pulling rickshaw.  It was hard times indeed.  It was during this time, circa 1879 or shortly thereafter that most of the masters associated with modern karate began their training.  And it was just over twenty years later that karate would go public in Okinawa, and eventually the world.

So why does most everyone believe that karate was developed by poor farmers to fight against their oppressors, both foreign and domestic?  Remember that most of what we know about karate on pre-1900 Okinawa came from the early to mid-twentieth century karate masters, such as Funakoshi, Miyagi, Nagamine, Oyama, and Yamaguchi, among others.  These men along with most of their contemporaries were all born just before or in some cases well after 1868, the year marked as the beginning of the Meiji Era.  This is an important date, as it also marks the beginning of the end of the social class system in Japan, and ultimately on Okinawa.  The abolishment of this system caused drastic and sweeping changes for Okinawa.  Within just a few years after 1868, nearly all of the Okinawan samurai, bureaucrats, and nobles began to see their way of life slipping swiftly from their grasp.  By 1879, the quasi-independent government of Okinawa had been officially dissolved, the last Okinawan king had been deposed, and along with him, all of the remaining nobles and bureaucrats lost their jobs.  This of course meant no more guaranteed privilege or income.  These once affluent men now found themselves faced with certain poverty.  This group included many of the teachers and families of our revered twentieth century karate masters.  

So why have I told you all this?  So that you may better understand the history of karate and to reinforce this point: karate was invented (or developed) as means of personal defense.  Period.

As to your last question, what is the purpose of kata, that answer I can keep fairly short.  Kata are the life blood of virtually every Eastern martial art, in particularly karate.  Kata are karate’s ritualized methods through which the secrets of self-defense have been recorded and transmitted for generations.  Virtually all of the eastern fighting systems employ the use of kata to train and indoctrinate students in their particular form of fighting.  To the uninitiated, a kata appears as nothing more than a catalog of techniques, strung together in seemingly dance-like patterns.  However, each kata contains distinct principles, strategies and applications addressing a myriad of self-defense scenarios intended for use in life-or-death self-defense situations.  The techniques found in a single karate kata can be used to restrain, render unconscious, damage, maim or even to kill, based on the needs of the situation and skill of the karateka.

But kata practice holds numerous other benefits for the karateka.  In addition to teaching all-important fighting principles and techniques, kata practice is a means to improving one’s health, build strength and increasing flexibility, stamina and endurance.  In fact, the motions and breathing patterns utilized in kata have been shown to increase circulatory and respiratory functions, develop balance and coordination, stretch and strengthen muscles and tendons, and increase overall energy levels.  Indeed, for this reason many have come to view kata more as therapeutic exercises rather than vessels of secret knowledge.  

To the karate masters of old, the therapeutic benefits of kata practice were essential to unlocking and applying the devastating self-defense principles and applications contained within the kata.   The karate adept understands that in addition to committing movements and principles to memory, the continued practice of kata teaches one to build, retain and ultimately to release his vital energy, or ki, as needed.  In addition, the patterns of footwork and body movement serve as the physical engine of karate, teaching the karateka to generate physical power by coupling motion (momentum), torque and gravity.  Through proper body alignment, hip rotation and vibration, the experienced karateka can generate and deliver devastating power.

I hope I haven’t rambled too much and I sincerely hope that I have satisfactorily answered all your questions.  If you need anything else please don’t hesitate to ask.

Good luck in your quest!



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Michael Cummings


I am available to answer your questions in regard to the history, philosophy, technique and practice of Okinawan and Japanese karate, jujutsu, kenjutsu and iaijutsu. I also have knowledge and experience in Okinawan kobujutsu and traditional Japanese. I also have a good foundation to answer general questions concerning various other Japanese, Okinawan, Korean and Chinese martial arts, including their traditions, history and philosophy.


I have a diverse background with over 30 years of study and practice in Japanese and Okinawan bujutsu (martial arts). I presently hold licenses/rankings in karate, iaijutsu, kenjutsu, jujutsu and Okinawan kobujutsu. I have also studied several Chinese systems, including Hung Gar tiger/crane and wing chun, and hold a black sash (shodan) in Song Shan Kempo. I have been fortunate to have studied and trained with a number of highly qualified and revered practitioners, sensei and sifu from several different martial traditions. I am also an amateur marital arts historian and student of hoplology.

Bachelor of Science in Psychology Black Sash Song Shan Kempo Chuden/Mokuroku (Karatejutsu/Jujutsu/Kobujutsu) Tengu-Sho-Oku (Kenjutsu/iaijutsu)

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