Karate history and the origins of the kanji for karate


Karate history in brief and Karate kanji origins
by Jason Armstrong, 6th Dan

Karate is an art which developed in Okinawa, an island south of Japan mainland.  The word karate consists of two kanji (Chinese characters).

karate kanji

Therefore, a literal meaning may be taken as the art of empty hands (weaponless).  This has some appropriateness as karate developed on the island of Okinawa as an empty handed martial art due to a long-standing law prohibiting weapons. However, the explanation of the meaning of the kanji is deeper than that stated above.
Karate was not always written using the two kanji depicted above.  There have been at least two earlier names for the art.  The first of these was Okinawa-te (Okinawa hand).  This name represented the style of martial art which developed in Okinawa over a period of about 1000 years (as reported by Master Funakoshi in Karate-Do Kyohan, 1935 and Karate-Do: My Way of Life, 1956).  Later the name karate came into being using the kanji representing Chinese and hand.
This name resulted from the blending of Okinawa-te and Chinese boxing.  It has been proposed that the best of Chinese martial arts and Okinawa-te were combined to produce a more refined martial art: Karate.
As early as 1905, in Okinawa, it had been suggested that the kanji for kara be changed from the character meaning "Chinese" to the character meaning "empty".  This change would reflect that karate, like all traditional martial arts, acts as a vehicle for passage along the Way (the Zen path leading to enlightenment).  The Keio University Karate Club officially substituted the kanji "empty" for the kanji "Chinese" in 1929. This act was then consolidated in 1935 with Funakoshi publishing Karate-Do Kyohan.  Kara was briefly discussed in terms of emptiness and the Way.  For example, "empty of self, being synonymous with the truth of the universe".
Emptiness and the Way is a complex subject, one which cannot be written about, but only experienced.  Therefore, I will simply list some Zen verses relating to this topic.
Zen master Yagyu, "Suppose you are shooting and you think about shooting while you are shooting: then the aim of the bow will be inconsistent and unsteady"...  "When the archer forgets the consciousness of shooting, and shoots in a normal frame of mind, as if unoccupied, the bow will be steady."
 "Realization of emptiness, therefore, does not mean withdrawal from the world, but rather the capacity for change, the potential for progress."  A sentence taken from a translation by Thomas Cleary of Shosan's Writings.
 "Empty like the hollow bamboo yet straight, pliant and unbreakable..." Funakoshi
The Japanese term often used for "empty mind" is mushin.  Be careful when attempting to understand mushin, as Shosan said, "People misunderstand the Zen term 'no thought' and use it to become absent minded dolts.  This is a big mistake.  You should keep a strong mind."
Karate is more correctly written as Kara-te-do.  These three kanji are listed below.

karate do calligraphy kanji Karate-do calligraphy kanji sample artwork by Mayuko Sumida

Today there are numerous major karate styles including Shito-ryu, Shotokan, Gojo ryu, Kyokushin, Shorin-ryu, and Wado ryu. They all have their origins in Okinawa and developed from the 3 major forms of weaponless self-defense styles in Okinawa: Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te (all derived from the geographic areas in Okinawa where they were practiced). Shorin-ryu and Shotokan were derived primarily from Shuri-te. Wado-ryu evolved from Shotokan. Shito-ryu developed as a combination of both Naha-te and Shuri-te.