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Shotokan Karate Handbook: History of Traditional Karate

Karate-do, or 'the way of the empty hand' originated in Okinawa. Okinawa is a small island that lies between China and Japan. Its geographical location, made it a place where social and cultural intercourse between China and Japan took place. In 1609, the country was invaded by the Japanese, who established their political presence. The various leaders of Okinawa were taken back to Japan for internment. At the same time, Japanese military and police authorities took control of most of the major urbanized areas, including the Capitol of Naha. It was during this time the Japanese confiscated all arms owned by the Okinawan people.

Unfortunately, the Japanese invaders did not take into account the ancestral heritage of the Okinawan people - that of their martial arts. Because of Okinawa's close commercial and social ties to China, it acquired the Chinese fighting art of Chuan-fa (kung-fu). Chuan-fa origins can be traced back more than 1,200 years. In time the Chinese fighting art eventually became known as to-de in Okinawa. The use of to-de allowed the Okinawan people to defend themselves quite successfully against the more numerous Japanese fighting forces.

Gradually, the Okinawan people grew resigned to the fact that they were fighting an up hill battle against a more modern and large Japanese army of occupation. So they accepted, somewhat reluctantly the Japanese occupation with distaste, but allegiance. In 1868, Gichin Funakoshi was born, son of a minor political figure in Okinawa. Young Funakoshi grew up learning the martial art skills of to-de from Master Azato. By the time he was in his late twenties, Funakoshi had not only mastered the art of to-de, but completed his education and become a teacher. Following a demonstration of to-de, a visiting school administrator was so impressed that he authorized Funakoshi to put the martial arts into the Okinawan school system. The once banned martial arts now at last was in the open.

Japan's introduction to what is now known as karate had to wait until 1912. By chance, Admiral Dewa of the Imperial Navy, along with many of his sailors were housed at a school where Funakoshi taught. Funakoshi would put together impromptu karate demonstrations to keep the sailors entertained. It was through these demonstrations that karate became the talk of Tokyo. Nearly ten years later, the Emperor of Japan invited Funakoshi to give a demonstration at the Royal Palace. Following the demonstration, the Emperor was so impressed he invited Funakoshi to return to Japan and teach his art in various universities. By the time he returned to Japan he was approaching 60 years of age. His first club was known as Shotokan or 'house of shoto'. Funakoshi previously used the pen-name of Shoto when he wrote poetry. It literally means 'waving pines'. The word kan means house, so logically we can see how shotokan karate-do got its name. It is easy to understand why shotokan karate-do became one of the most popular Japanese martial arts. In 1930, the original name of Okinawan art of to-de was changed to read karate-do, or 'the way of the empty hand'.

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