When was the first karate invented?

What is karate

Karate as we know it today has developed under Chinese influence over the course of several centuries on the island of Okinawa (Japan).

Since there is basically no written material from the development of karate, we neither know who invented it and developed it further, nor where it came from. Its earliest history can only be derived from oral legends. And these legends tend to be fanciful and imprecise. Karate was probably invented in China, as the Japanese characters already show. Kara means China (Chinese) and te means hand - the whole word is then paraphrased as "China hand". But as you know, Japanese characters mean something different depending on how you pronounce them. It is the same with the signs for karate. However, Te always means hand.

Bushi no, which means warrior, also stood for Kara. So we already have three names for karate, China or Chinese hand, empty hand and hand of the warrior.

The story goes that the beginning of karate related to the Ryukyu Islands, which are now part of Okinawa Prefecture (Japan). The law forbade residents of this island to carry weapons. In order to be able to defend themselves anyway, they invented karate or adopted it from students from China, developed it and spread it. This reason for developing a martial art can be more easily understood when one knows a little about the history of Japan. From the origin of the country to World War II, there were always wars. Was it civil wars or a power struggle for a shogunate (empire) or to prevent an occupation of the Mongols in their own country. For centuries there was oppression and fighting in Japan.

In fact, there were two prohibitions preventing the possession and carrying of weapons; one was proclaimed about 500 years ago, the other 200 years later. Before the first decree was announced, the Ryukyu Islands were divided into three warring kingdoms: Chuzan, Nanzan, and Hokuzan. It was the monarch of Chuzan who, after he had succeeded in uniting the three kingdoms, banned all inhabitants of the islands from possessing weapons (even old, rusty swords). He invited all the famous scholars and statesmen of the three kingdoms to Shuri, the new capital, where he established a central government that would last for the next 200 years.

In 1609, the ruling king of the dynasty had to equip an army to repel an invasion of the islands undertaken by Shimanzu of Satsuma. The freshly armed warriors Ryukyu fought with remarkable bravery and chivalry against the soldiers of the Satsuma clan, who were known and feared throughout the country for their war skills. But after initial successes in smaller battles, a quick landing by Shimanzu's forces sealed both the fate of the islands and their shogun, who had to surrender.

Since Shimanzu renewed the prohibition on weapons, many residents of the Ryukyu Islands began to secretly practice a form of self-defense in which the hands and feet were the only weapons. What kind of self-defense it was exactly can only be guessed at. However, it is known that Okinawa had trade with Fukien Province in the south of China for centuries, and it is likely that Chinese Shaolin Kempo (Chinese boxing) spread across the island.

Today's karate developed from this Shaolin Kempo. It was first known as Okinawa-te, only later it was also called Kara-te (the Kara means China in this case). During the years of the ban on carrying arms, Satsamu, the current ruler, sent guards to the islands to ensure that the ban was strictly observed. So it is hardly surprising that karate (which, when it was further developed, enabled a person to kill without weapons) could only be practiced in secret.

In the ancient folk dances of Okinawa there are a number of movements similar to those of karate. It is believed that initiates who practiced this martial art introduced these movements into the dances to further confuse the authorities. Okinawa's dancers, male and female, used their hands and feet far more vigorously than has been seen in forms from other dances. Entering and leaving the dance floor is also very reminiscent of the beginning and the end of a karate kata.

Indeed, the essence of art has been summed up in the words: Karate begins and ends with courtesy. Okinawa itself has been considered by its residents for centuries as the place where all forms of etiquette were most strictly observed.

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