Shotokan the history

Shotokan (松濤館流, Shōtōkan-ryū?) is a style of karate, developed from various martial arts by Gichin Funakoshi (1868–1957) and his son Gigo (Yoshitaka) Funakoshi (1906–1945). Gichin was born in Okinawa and is widely credited with popularizing karate through a series of public demonstrations, and by promoting the development of university karate clubs, including those at Keio, Waseda, Hitotsubashi (Shodai), Takushoku, Chuo, Gakushuin, and Hosei.

Funakoshi had many students at the university clubs and outside dojos, who continued to teach karate after his death in 1957. However, internal disagreements (in particular the notion that competition is contrary to the essence of karate) led to the creation of different organizations—including an initial split between the Japan Karate Association (headed by Masatoshi Nakayama) and the Shotokai (headed by Motonobu Hironishi and Shigeru Egami), followed by many others—so that today there is no single “Shotokan school”, although they all bear Funakoshi’s influence.


Shotokan was the name of the first official dojo built by Funakoshi, in 1939 at Mejiro, and destroyed in 1945 as a result of an allied bombing. Shoto (松濤, Shōtō?), meaning “pine-waves” (the movement of pine needles when the wind blows through them), was Funakoshi’s pen-name, which he used in his poetic and philosophical writings and messages to his students. The Japanese kan (館, kan?) means “house” or “hall”. In honour of their sensei, Funakoshi’s students created a sign reading shōtō-kan which was placed above the entrance of the hall where Funakoshi taught. Gichin Funakoshi never gave his style a name, just calling it “karate”.


Shotokan training is usually divided into three parts: kihon (basics), kata (forms or patterns of moves), and kumite (sparring). Techniques in kihon and kata are characterized by deep, long stances that provide stability, enable powerful movements, and strengthen the legs. Shotokan is often regarded as a ‘hard’ and ‘external’ martial art because it is taught that way to beginners and coloured belts to develop strong basic techniques and stances. Initially strength and power are demonstrated instead of slower, more flowing motions. Those who progress to brown and black belt level develop a much more fluid style which incorporates grappling and some aikido-like techniques, which can be found in the black belt katas. Kumite techniques mirror these stances and movements at a basic level, but are less structured, with a focus instead on speed and efficiency.


Gichin Funakoshi laid out the Twenty Precepts of Karate,(or Niju kunwhich form the foundations of the art, before some of his students established the JKA. Within these twenty principles, based heavily on Bushido and Zen, lies the philosophy of Shotokan. The principles allude to notions of humility, respect, compassion, patience, and both an inward and outward calmness. It was Funakoshi’s belief that through karate practice and observation of these 20 principles, the karateka would improve their person.

The Dojo kun lists five philosophical rules for training in the dojo; seek perfection of character, be faithful, endeavor to excel, respect others, refrain from violent behavior. The Dojo kun is usually posted on a wall in the dojo, and some shotokan clubs recite the Dojo kun at the beginning and/or end of each class to provide motivation and a context for further training.

Funakoshi also wrote: “The ultimate aim of Karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of the participant.

Common terms

Many terms used in karate stem from Japanese culture. While many are names (e.g. Heian, Gankaku), others are exclusive to martial arts (e.g. kata, kumite). Many terms are seldom used in daily life, such as zenkutsu dachi, while others appear routinely, such as rei. The Japanese form is often retained in schools outside of Japan to preserve the Okinawan culture and Funakoshi’s philosophies.

However, many schools of JKA (Japan Karate Association) affiliated Shotokan Karate used the full terminology on a daily basis, providing translations also. For example the KUI (Karate Union of Ireland), utilises the full and proper Japanese name for each move and kata in training, grading and competition.


Rank is used in karate to indicate experience, expertise, and to a lesser degree, seniority. As with many martial arts, Shotokan uses a system of colored belts to indicate rank. Most Shotokan schools use the kyū / dan system but have added other belt colors. The order of colors varies widely from school to school, but kyu belts are denoted with colors that in some schools become darker as a student approaches shodan. Dan level belts are invariably black, with some schools using stripes to denote various ranks of black belt.


Kata is often described as a set sequence of karate moves organized into a pre-arranged fight against imaginary opponents. The kata consists of kicks, punches, sweeps, strikes, blocks, and throws. Body movement in various kata includes stepping, twisting, turning, dropping to the ground, and jumping. In Shotokan, kata is not a performance or a demonstration, but is for individual karateka to practice full techniques—with every technique potentially a killing blow (ikken hisatsu)—while paying particular attention to form and timing (rhythm). As the karateka grows older, more emphasis is placed on the health benefits of practicing kata, promoting fitness while keeping the body soft, supple, and agile.

Several Shotokan groups have introduced kata from other styles into their training. The original Shotokan kata syllabus is introduced in Funakoshi’s book “Karate-do Kyohan”, which is the Master Text of Shotokan karate. Dai Nihon Karate-do Shotokai is the official representative of Shotokan karate. Japan Shotokai’s kata syllabus is the same as established in “Karate-do Kyohan” added Gigo Funakoshi’s staff kata Matsukaze No Kon. When the JKA was formed, Nakayama laid down 27 kata as the kata syllabus for this organization. Even today, thousands of Shotokan dojo only practice 26 of these 27 kata. The standard JKA kata are: Taikyoku shodan (sometimes termed Kata Kihon or Kihon Kata, discontinued in most of today’s Shotokan dojos) (太極初段), Heian shodan (平安初段), Heian nidan (平安二段), Heian sandan (平安三段), Heian yondan (平安四段), Heian godan (平安五段), Bassai dai (披塞大), Jion (慈恩), Empi (燕飛), Kanku dai (観空大), Hangetsu (半月), Jitte (十手), Gankaku (岩鶴), Tekki shodan (鉄騎初段), Tekki nidan (鉄騎二段), Tekki sandan (鉄騎三段), Nijūshiho (二十四步), Chinte (珍手), Sōchin (壯鎭), Meikyō (明鏡), Unsu (雲手), Bassai shō (披塞小), Kankū shō (観空小), Wankan (王冠), Gojūshiho shō (五十四歩小), Gojūshiho dai (五十四歩大), and Ji’in (慈陰).


Kumite, or sparring (lit. Meeting of hands), is the practical application of kata to real opponents. While the techniques used in sparring are only slightly different than kihon, the formalities of kumite in Shotokan karate were first instituted by Masatoshi Nakayama wherein basic, intermediate, and advanced sparring techniques and rules were formalized.

Shotokan practitioners first learn how to apply the techniques taught in kata to hypothetical opponents by way of kata bunkai. Kata bunkai then matures into controlled kumite.

Kumite is the third part of the Shotokan triumvirate of kihon, kata and kumite. Kumite is taught in ever increasing complexity from beginner through low grade blackbelt (1st – 2nd) to intermediate (3rd – 4th) and advanced (5th onwards) level practitioners.

Beginners first learn kumite through basic drills, of one, three or five attacks to the head (jodan) or body (chudan) with the defender stepping backwards whilst blocking and only countering on the last defence. These drills use basic (kihon) techniques and develop a sense of timing and distance in defence against a known attack.

At around purple belt level karateka learn one-step sparring (ippon kumite). Though there is only one step involved, rather than three or five, this exercise is more advanced because it involves a greater variety of attacks and blocks usually the defenders own choice. It also requires the defender to execute a counter-attack faster than in the earlier types of sparring. Counter-attacks may be almost anything, including strikes, grapples, and take-down manoeuvres.

Some schools prescribe the defences, most notably the Kase-ha Shotokan-ryū which uses an eight step, three directional blocking and attacking pattern which develops from yellow belt level right through to advanced level.

The next level of kumite is freestyle one-step sparring (jiyu ippon kumite). This type of kumite, and its successor—free sparring, have been documented extensively by Nakayamaand are expanded upon by the JKA instructor trainee program, for those clubs under the JKA. Freestyle one-step sparring is similar to one-step sparring but requires the karateka to be in motion. Practicing one-step sparring improves free sparring (jiyu kumite) skills, and also provides an opportunity for practicing major counter-attacks (as opposed to minor counter-attacks).[12] Tsutomu Ohshima states that freestyle one-step sparring is the most realistic practice in Shotokan Karate, and that it is more realistic than free sparring.

Free sparring (jiyu kumite) is the last element of sparring to be learned. In this exercise, two training partners are free to use any karate technique or combination of attacks, and the defender at any given moment is free to avoid, block, counter, or attack with any karate technique. Training partners are encouraged to make controlled and focused contact with their opponent, but to withdraw their attack as soon as surface contact has been made.This allows a full range of target areas to be attacked (including punches and kicks to the face, head, throat, and body) with no padding or protective gloves, but maintains a degree of safety for the participants. Throwing one’s partner and performing takedowns are permitted in free sparring, but it is unusual for competition matches to involve extended grappling or ground-wrestling, as Shotokan karateka are encouraged to end an encounter with a single attack (ippon), avoiding extended periods of conflict or unnecessary contact in situations where there is likely to be more than one attacker.

Kaishu ippon kumite is an additional sparring exercise that is usually introduced for higher grades. This starts in a similar manner to freestyle one-step sparring; the attacker names the attack he/she will execute, attacks with that technique, and the defender blocks and counters the attack. Unlike freestyle one-step sparring, however, the attacker may then be required to block the defender’s counter-attack and strike back. This exercise is often considered more difficult than either freestyle one-step sparring or free sparring, as the defender typically cannot escape to a safe distance in time to avoid the counter to the counter-attack.

Kumite within the dojo often differs from competition kumite. In dojo kumite any and all techniques, within reason, are valid; punches, knife hand strikes, headbutt, locks, takedowns, kickes, etc. In competition certain regulations apply, certain techniques are valid, and certain target areas, such as the joints or throat, are forbidden. The purpose of competition is to score points through the application of kumite principles while creating an exciting and competitive atmosphere, whereas the purpose of training kumite in the dojo is to be prepared to kill or cripple an opponent in a realistic situation.


Kihon basics is the practice of basic techniques in Shotokan Karate. Kihon Kata, or Taikyoku Shodan, was developed by Yoshitaka Funakoshi, the son of Gichin Funakoshi, as a basic introduction to karate kata. (Yoshitaka also developed Taikyoku Nidan and Sandan) The kata consists of successive restatements of the theme of gedan barai – oi tsuki.



Shōtōkan-ryū founder Gichin Funakoshi.

Gichin Funakoshi had trained in both of the popular styles of Okinawan karate of the time: Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū. After years of study in both styles, Funakoshi created a simpler style that combined the ideals of the two. He never named his style, however, always referring to it simply as “karate.” Funakoshi’s karate reflects the changes made in the art by Ankō Itosu, including the Heian/Pinan kata series. Funakoshi changed the names of some of the kata in an effort to make the Okinawan kata names easier to pronounce in the Japanese Honshū dialect.

In 1924, Funakoshi adopted the Kyū / Dan rank system and the uniform (keikogi) developed by Kano Jigoro, the founder of judo.This system uses colored belts (obi) to indicate rank. Originally, karate had only three belt colors: white, brown, and black (with ranks within each). The original belt system, still used by many Shotokan schools, is:

  • 8th rising to 4th kyū: white
  • 3rd rising to 1st kyū: brown
  • 1st and higher dan: black

Funakoshi awarded the first 1st dan (初段; shodan) Shotokan karate ranks to Tokuda, Hironori Ōtsuka (Otsuka), Akiba, Shimizu, Hirose, Makoto Gima, and Shinyō Kasuya on 10 April 1924.

Famous practitioners

Former UFC Light Heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida holds a 3rd dan black belt in Shotokan karate, while his brother Shinzo holds a 4th dan and their father Yoshizo holds a 7th dan and was head of the Japan Karate Association’s Brazilian branch.

Several other mixed martial artists also have a Shotokan background or utilize Shotokan (e.g., Vitor Belfort, Antonio Carvalho, Mark Holst, Assuerio Silva).

Action movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme holds a black belt in Shotokan and used the style when he competed in full contact karate competitions in the 1970s and 1980s.

What is Karate?

The art of Karate is a system of combat developed on the island of Okinawa. Karate may allow you to defeat an opponent by the use of striking and kicking. The students practice hard physical training to develop fighting skills.This training requires strenuous physical and mental discipline. Karate helps with the development of a strong character and builds a feeling of respect toward our fellow man. The study of Karate, therefore, may be valuable to all people, male and female, young and old alike.

The literal meaning of the two Japanese characters which make up the word Karate is “empty hands.” This, of course, refers simply to the fact that Karate originated as a system of self-defense which relied on the effective use of the unarmed body of the practitioner. This system consisted of techniques of blocking or thwarting an attack and counter-attacking the opponent by punching, striking or kicking. The modern art of Karate has developed out of a thorough organization of these techniques.

Karate as a means of self-defense has the oldest history, going back hundreds of years. It is only in recent years that the techniques which have been handed down were scientifically studied and the principles evolved for making the most effective use of the various moves of the body. Training based on these principles and knowledge of the working of the muscles and the joints and the vital relation between movement and balance enable the modern student of Karate to be prepared, both physically and psychologically, to defend himself successfully against any would-be assailant.

As a physical art, Karate is almost without equal. Since it is highly dynamic and makes balanced use of a large number of body muscles, it provides excellent all-around exercise and develops coordination and agility.

Many girls and women in Japan have taken up Karate because, in addition to its usefulness as self-defense, it is especially good for the figure. It is widely practiced by both children and older people as a means of keeping in top physical condition, and many schools are promoting it as a physical art among their students.

As a sport, Karate has a relatively short history. Contest rules have been devised, however, and it is now possible to hold actual matches as in other competitive sports. because of the speed, the variety of techniques, and the split-second timing it calls for, many athletic-minded people have come to show an interest in competitive Karate and there is every indication that it will continue to grow in popularity.

Western (non-Japanese) students may be interested to know that the Japan Karate Association emphasizes Karate’s character-building aspects, in which respect for one’s opponent (sportsmanship) is the cardinal principle. The maxims which are taught to the students can be summarized in the following five words:






How The Word “Karate” Developed


Prior to the 20th Century, many terms were used to describe certain forms existing in Okinawa. These forms were not found in Japan nor in China but many similarities were found in these countries.

“Chan Fa and Ken Fat”

The meaning of “Kempo” in Japanese is “The Law Of The Fist” or “The Way Of Fist”. “Kempo” is read as “Chan Fa” in Mandarin and “Ken Fat” in Cantonese in China.


The great mighty Tang Dynasty influenced Japan in many ways. Government representatives had been exchanged during the Sui period but it was during the Tang period that the Japanese learned Chinese culture very deeply. There were many buildings built imitating Chinese design. So great was the influence by T’ang that the character “To” (also known as “Kara”) was used as an adjective meaning “T’ang=China.” For example, Kara Ningyo=China doll and To Jin=Chinese people. It is understandable that either Japanese or Okinawans named the fighting forms developed in Okinawa as “Tode” (then also read as “Karate”), not because these forms came from China but because of unknown factors. As a custom, when there was something unknown to Japanese people, they were pleased to believe that it must have come from China.


In 1905 Karate was included in the physical education curriculum of Okinawa’s intermediate schools (junior high). The ideographs (Tode) were standard in Okinawa at this time. In 1905 the Okinawa Master Chomo Hanagi first used the other (Karate) ideograph for his book Karate Soshu Hen.

Meeting in 1936

In 1936 Ryukyu Shimpo, an Okinawan newspaper, sponsored a meeting of Okinawan Karate masters to discuss the status of Karate in Okinawa. Yabu, Kiyamu, Motobu, Miyagi, and Hanagi were invited to Naha, the capital city of Okinawa and also the “Mecca” of the Karate world. In this meeting, the unification of writing was discussed and it was decided to change the name of the art to “Karate” meaning “empty hand”.

Reasons For This Change

1. They would establish the new origin. They believed Okinawan fighting arts could be independent from China even though they recognized that great influence by China that existed.

2. The new ideograph also represented the meaning of “Mu” “Ku” which has a stronger association with Zen philosophy than the old.

3. This was the art of fighting methods using no weapons but only the “empty hand”.


After the meeting, the letter was standardized and has remained unchanged to the present day. The ideograph was used occasionally by people who were reluctant to use changes even in the early 1960’s.

The Beginnings In India

According to legend, in the sixth century A.D., the Indian monk Daruma journeyed from India to China to teach the Liang dynasty monarch the tenets of Zen Buddhism. To endure this arduous journey, Daruma developed the physical and mental powers for which he was later renowned. After delivering the tenets of Buddhism, Daruma remained in China, staying in Shaolin Sze where he taught Buddhism to the Chinese monks. Here he became famous for teaching standards of Buddhism that were very strict physically as well as spiritually.

Although there are many stylistic similarities in the fighting arts of India and China, there is no solid evidence that the Chinese fighting arts came from India as is told in legends. There are Chinese texts documenting the existence of several Chinese martial art forms prior to Daruma’s journey in the 6th century.

I merely wish to affirm that the organized origins of Karate came into being during this time period, and that no known record either verifies or denies this contention.

The Chinese Influence

“Although the goal of Buddhism is the salvation of the soul, the body and soul cannot be separated. In weak physical condition one will never be able to perform the rigorous training necessary to attain true enlightenment.” So Daruma taught student monks Icchin which is regarded as the tool through which is necessary rigorous physical and mental training may be endured.

As a corollary of Daruma’s training, the monks at the Shaolin Temple won the reputation of being the best fighters in China.

Ch’Uen Yuan

Most Chan Fa systems are descendants of the one hundred-seventy hand and foot positions of Ch’ Uen Yuan and they can be traced back to Bodhidharma’s influence.

Branching Out

The Shaolin Chan Fa is listed as one of nine Wai Cha (external schools) of fighting systems and is regarded to be the first established system in China.

1. Shaolin Chan Fa…..Sui period or before

2. Hung Chuan……….Sung period (1127-1279)

3. Tau Tei Yu Tan Tui..Sung period

4. Hon Chaun………..Ming period (1368-1644)

5. Erh-Lang Men……..Ming period

6. Fan Chuan………..Ming period

7. Cha Chuan………..Ming period

8. Mi Tsung Yum……..Ching period(1699-1911)

9. Pa Chuan…………Ching period

In comparison there were the Nei Cha (internal schools), all from the Sung or post Sung Dynasties.

1. Wu Tang Pai

2. Tai Chi Chuan

3. Pa Kua Chaun

4. Hsin Yi Chua

5. Tzu Fan Men

6. Liu He Pa Fa


Sumo is perhaps the oldest known form or system of weaponless fighting in Japan and dates back beyond the mythological era (before 500 A.D.). The earliest legends tell of two god figures, Takeminakata No Kami and Takemikazuchi No Kami, who engaged in power contests. Another story relates the wrestling contests between Nomino Sikune No Mikoto and Taima NoKehaya. These contests are known to be the first between demi-gods and similar mythological beings.

In 607, during the Sui Dynasty, the first official Japanese ambassador was sent to China, and this exchange was maintained through the T’ang Dynasty. During this time Chinese influence flourished in Japan, and it is believed that Chan Fa was introduced along with many other things of Chinese origin.

Many forms of martial arts already existed in Japan during this time period which might carry the influence of Chan Fa in their fighting styles. However, these Chan Fa systems were never developed by the Japanese martial artists of the day. This lack of development was due to the structure of Japanese society. At that time, there was a very strong status system in Japan much like the caste system in India, and only the members of the samurai class were allowed to use weapons for fighting or train in the martial arts.

The samurai were respected because they protected the commoners. They were expected to behave in a respectful and courageous manner.. Through strong government control, the role of the samurai became a sacred trust, carrying “this burden of pride.” Being a member of the samurai class meant lifelong employment unless a samurai was found guilty of wrong doing. In that case, he and his family would lose their jobs permanently.

Samurai constantly practiced weaponry to better themselves and had time for little else. It is easy to see how weaponless fighting systems developed at that time would never gain enough popularity to be properly recognized. Even so, some forms of martial arts were developed like Torite and Ashikeri, and later Yawara and Jujitsu did exist among the lower class police forces. An interesting note is the similarities in the weapons (kobudo) developed in Japan and in Okinawa during this time period.

Early Stages

During the Sui and Tang Dynasties, many Japanese and Chinese representatives traveled with relative freedom between the two countries. This is also when Buddhism came to Japan and gained popularity. Interestingly, during the Heian period between 794-1184, many Buddhist monks were well trained in fighting methods and were used to maintain local law and order. Many became security guards for wealthy individuals in Kyoto. The popularity of Buddism made some temples so powerful that they became involved in many political upheavals. And because of the popularity of Buddism, the monks were untouchable by either the samurai or the government. Many temples became independent and secretive in their administration of religious matters due to the political intrigues.

This is believed to be the time when many martial arts developed in Japan. Wars and battles were still decided by the samurai, but the art of fighting systems was practiced and developed by the Buddhist monks.

Toyotomi Hideyoshi

In 1592, this great general decided to fulfill his dream of conquering the world. He had conquered Japan and sought to continue his quest by marching on to China. Many of his generals were against this plan, and it soon proved to be a disaster as the Japanese faced too many disadvantages. Ships were not powerful enough, the climate was against them, the generals in Korea were not familiar enough with the terrain to plan strategic advances, and resistance was much stronger than expected. The dream was ended with the death of Hideyoshi in 1598 without a single Japanese soldier ever setting foot on Chinese soil.

The failure of this conquest cost Toyotomi not only his life and his fortune, but also his dynasty. Once again the peace of the entire nation was in shambles. The conflict between the remainder of the Toyotomi clan and the rival clan of Tokugawa Dynasty began and was to last for the next three hundred years.

It is oral history that many warriors came back from the failed conquest of China with some kind of hand-to-hand combat system. But as history has revealed, the warriors reached only Korea and not China.


The basic form of self-defense are perhaps as old as mankind. The art of Karate as it is widely practiced today can be traced back to Okinawan martial arts systems called “Te”, meaning “hand”. Te later was renamed Tode, the name it held before it became known as Karate. the Japanese used the name “kempo”, which means “fist way”, and the similar term in Chinese is Chan Fa.

Okinawa is the main island of the Ryukyu Islands, located in the East China Sea between Kyushu, Japan and Taiwan. Okinawa has maintained cultural contact for centuries with both China and Japan. Through a constant influence of Chinese sailors and merchants, the indigenous Okinawan fighting forms were heavily influenced by Chan Fa. Because of its strategic location, Okinawa was invaded several times by both China and Japan. Each country sought to use okinawa as a military and diplomatic base. With these two powerful countries vying for control, it is not surprising that the Okinawan people developed high levels of proficiency in self-defense.

Okinawans have long been known as fierce fighters, and the tragic battles of World War II proved to the world that the Okinawans would rather die than live in disgrace. The spirit of the samurai was well developed in the hearts of these people.

The Legendary Sakugawa

In 1724, a man named Sakugawa journeyed to China from his home in Shuri, Okinawa. He was gone for many years, and his friends and relatives thought him lost or dead. One day to everyone’s surprise, Sakugawa returned home a much changed man. He possessed a mysterious physical strength and a complex form of Chan Fa.Soon many people wanted to become his students. This was the start of the Sakugawa style of Karate.

Thirty Six Families

The emperor of China sent Okinawa an imperial gift of skilled artisans and merchants. These people soon formed into a community known as the Thirty-Six Families. This community was responsible for the rapid spread of Chan Fa throughout Okinawa. It should be noted that “thirty-six” often means “a great many” and may not mean thirty-six numerically.

Chinese Numbering

One Whole, absolute, first

Two Pair, comparison, front and back,

top and bottom, etc.

Three Sanchin, top-middle-bottom, fate,

Mother Nature

Four Directions, square, objects

Eight Multiple directions, many, plenty

Thirty-Six Great many

Sho Hassi

In 1429, Sho Hassi united the kingdom of Okinawa under his rule and renamed North and South. During the era of his grandson Sho Shin, the policy of “Bunji-Kokka”, or government by culture not military force, was put into effect. At this time all weapons were banned except for those used by military forces. The objective was to restore peace and to disarm rival clans.

Civil War In Japan And The Satsuma

After Toyotomi died, Japan was split into two massive forces. One force was the remainder of the Toyotomi clan from the West and the other was controlled by the new leader Tokugawa from the East. In 1600, these two powers met head-to-head at Sekigahara Field to decide the control of Japan. Although most of the Western generals and the Satsuma clan controlled most of Kyushu joined the Toyotomi, the Tokugawa forces won.

Tokugawa allowed the Satsuma-Shimazu family to retain their territories under the edict of unconditional loyalty to Tokugawa. The reason he allowed the Shimazu family to keep their lands was that they were so powerful that trying to destroy them might have proven self-defeating and was not in the best interest of Tokugawa. So instead Tokugawa took the Shimazu family as his allies and sent them to punish Okinawa for refusing to send supplies during the Japan-China war of 1592. It was also a useful way to smooth the honor of the frustrated Satsuma warriors by giving them a new target while keeping them too busy to make any further plays against Tokugawa.

A Ban On All Weapons

Upon seizing control of Okinawa, the Shimazu clan instituted numerous rules of martial law, one of which was a ban on all weapons. This time, however, the ban was on a much larger scale than that instituted by Sho-Shin. Only the Satsuma samurai, who were the invaders and conquerors of Okinawa, were allowed to have weapons.

The methods used by the Satsuma for enforcing the weapons ban were ruthless. Any weapons found in an Okinawan’s possession were immediately confiscated and the owner was severely punished. As part of the ban, the Shimazu also prohibited the Okinawans from participating in the study or practice of the martial arts.

This ban had a number of serious effects on the Okinawan martial arts. All study and participation was forced underground, and all teaching was done by word of mouth only.No written records exist which would allow us to trace the development of the Okinawan arts during this time period. This has led to the creation of many false legends due to the inability to document facts.

Secrecy became such an obsession that instructors hid true techniques from rival schools, as in the changing or hiding of moves in kata. this eventually led to the development of new and unique fighting techniques and systems including the modification of farming and work tools into weapons for combat use. The fighting attitudes in the martial arts schools became very violent due to the suppression of civil liberties and the general sentiment of the times.

And above all, the ban made Karate one of the most practical and effective hand-to-hand combat systems ever developed. The need for practical application kept Karate from degenerating to a mostly theoretical art or a simple or obscure form of exercise.

The Secret Revealed

It is impossible to pinpoint when the secrets of Karate began to be revealed long after rules were changed. However, there was a gradual but steady unveiling and interaction of this magnificent art. Luckily, some schools were not as attached to secrecy as others, and slowly the major schools of Karate became less suspicious and more open. Officially, the Satsuma’s control ended in 1875, but Karate did not become popular or even well known as being an Okinawan art until around 1903.

Intense rivalry within Karate schools did not help to promote the discovery of the art. Karate, primarily developed to maim or kill opponents, was no longer needed in actual combat as conquering Satsuma samurai had departed for Japan.

History of the Samurai

The Origin of the Samurai:

The samurai, a class of highly skilled warriors, gradually developed in Japan after the Taika reforms of 646 A.D. The reforms included land redistribution and heavy new taxes, meant to support an elaborate Chinese-style empire. As a result, many small farmers had to sell their land and work as tenant farmers.

Meanwhile, a few large landholders amassed power and wealth, creating a feudal system similar to medieval Europe’s. This top-heavy system proved unwieldy, and crumbled within a few centuries.

As in Europe, the new feudal lords needed warriors to defend their riches. Thus, the samurai warrior (or “bushi”) was born.

Early Feudal Era Samurai:

Some samurai were relatives of the landowners, while others were simply hired swords. The samurai code emphasized loyalty to one’s master, even over family loyalty. History shows that the most loyal samurai were usually family members or financial dependents of their lords.

In the 900s, the weak emperors of the Heian Dynasty (794-1185) lost control of rural Japan. The country was riven by revolt; the emperor soon wielded power only within the capital. Across the country, the warrior class moved in to fill the power vacuum.

By 1100, the samurai effectively held both military and political power over much of Japan.

End of the Heian Era / Rise of Samurai Rule:

The weak imperial line received a fatal blow to its power in 1156, when Emperor Toba died without a clear successor. His sons, Sutoku and Go-Shirakawa, fought for control in a civil war called the Hogen Rebellion.

In the end, both would-be emperors lost; the imperial office lost all its remaining power.

During this civil war, the Minamoto and Taira samurai clans rose to prominence. They fought one another in the Heiji Rebellion of 1160. After their victory, the Taira established the first samurai-led government, or shogunate, with the emperor as a figurehead.

The defeated Minamoto were banished from the capital at Kyoto.

Kamakura Period :

The two clans fought once more in the Genpei War (1180-1185), which ended in victory for the Minamoto.

Minamoto no Yoritomo established the Kamakura Shogunate, which ruled much of Japan until 1333. While the Kamakura were powerful, they never conquered northern and western areas of the country. The shoguns also faced periodic resistance from other samurai clans.

In 1268, an external threat appeared. Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler of Yuan China, demanded tribute from Japan. Kyoto refused. The Mongolsinvaded in 1274 with 600 ships, but a typhoon destroyed their armada. A second invasion fleet in 1281 met the same fate.

Fall of the Kamakura / Early Muromachi (Ashikaga) Period:

Despite such incredible help from nature, the Mongol attacks cost the Kamakura dearly.

Unable to offer land or riches to the samurai leaders who rallied to Japan’s defense, the weakened shogun faced a challenge from Emperor Go-Daigo in 1318. The emperor was exiled in 1331, but returned and overthrew the Shogunate in 1333.

This Kemmu Restoration of imperial power lasted only three years.

In 1336, the Ashikaga Shogunate under Ashikaga Takauji reasserted samurai rule, but it was weaker than the Kamakura had been. Regional constables called “daimyo” developed considerable power, meddling in the shogunate’s succession.

Later Muromachi Period:

By 1460, the daimyo were ignoring orders from the shogun, and backing different successors to the imperial throne. When the shogun, Ashikaga Yoshimasa, resigned in 1464, a dispute between backers of his younger brother and his son ignited even more intense bickering among the daimyo.

In 1467, this squabbling erupted into the decade-long Onin War. Thousands died, and Kyoto was burned to the ground.

The Onin War led directly to Japan’s “Warring States Period,” or Sengoku. Between 1467 and 1573, various daimyo led their clans in a fight for national dominance. Nearly all of the provinces were engulfed in the fighting.

Azuchi-Momoyama Period / Restoration of Order:

The Warring States Period began to draw to a close in 1568, when the warlord Oda Nobunaga defeated three other powerful daimyo, marched into Kyoto, and had his favorite, Yoshiaki, installed as shogun.

Nobunaga spent the next 14 years subduing other rival daimyo, and quelling rebellions by fractious Buddhist monks.

His grand Azuchi Castle, constructed between 1576 and 1579, became of symbol of Japanese reunification.

In 1582, Nobunaga was assassinated by one of his generals, Akechi Mitsuhide. Hideyoshi, another general, finished the unification and ruled as kampaku (regent).

Hideyoshi invaded Korea in 1592 and 1597.

Tokugawa Shogunate (Edo Period):

Hideyoshi had exiled the large Tokugawa clan from the area around Kyoto to the Kanto region in western Japan. The Taiko died in 1598, and by 1600, Tokugawa Ieyasu had conquered the other western daimyo from his castle stronghold at Edo (the future Tokyo).

Ieyasu’s son, Hidetada, became shogun of the unified country in 1605, ushering in about 250 years of relative peace and stability for Japan.

The strong Tokugawa shoguns domesticated the samurai, forcing them to either serve their lords in the cities, or give up their swords and farm. This transformed the warriors into a hereditary class of cultured bureaucrats.

Meiji Restoration and the Decline of the Samurai:

In 1868, the Meiji Restoration signaled the beginning of the end for the samurai.

The Meiji system of constitutional monarchy included such democratic reforms as term limits for public office and popular balloting. With public support, the Meiji Emperor did away with the samurai, reduced the power of the daimyo, and moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo.

The new government created a conscripted army in 1873; many of the officers were drawn from the ranks of former samurai.

In 1877, angry ex-samurai revolted against the Meiji in the Satsuma Rebellion; they lost the Battle of Shiroyama, and the era of the samurai was over.

The Culture and Myth of the Samurai:

Samurai Culture

The culture of the samurai was grounded in the concept of bushido – “the way of the warrior.” The central tenets of bushido are honor and freedom from the fear of death. A samurai was legally entitled to cut down any commoner who failed to honor him (or her) properly. A warrior imbued with bushido spirit would fight fearlessly for his master, and die honorably rather than surrender in defeat.

Out of this disregard for death, the Japanese tradition of seppuku evolved: defeated warriors (and disgraced government officials) would commit suicide with honor by ritually disemboweling themselves with a short sword.

Samurai Weapons

Early samurai were archers, fighting on foot or horseback with extremely long bows (yumi). They used swords mainly for finishing off wounded enemies.

After the Mongol invasions of 1272 and 1281, the samurai began to make more use of swords, as well as poles topped by curved blades called naginata, and spears.

Samurai warriors wore two swords, together called daisho – “long and short.” The katana, a curved blade over 24 inches long, was suitable for slashing, while the wakizashi, at 12-24 inches, was used for stabbing. In the late 16th century, non-samurai were forbidden to wear the daisho.

Samurai wore full body-armor in battle, often including a horned helmet.

The Samurai Myth

Modern Japanese honor the memory of the samurai, and bushido still infuses the culture. Today, however, the samurai code is invoked in corporate boardrooms rather than on the battlefield.Even now, everyone knows the story of the 47 Ronin, Japan’s “national legend.”

In 1701, the daimyo Asano Naganori drew a dagger in the shogun’s palace and tried to kill Kira, a government official. Asano was arrested, and forced to commit seppuku. Two years later, forty-seven of his samurai hunted down Kira and killed him, without knowing Asano’s reasons for attacking the official. It was enough that he wanted Kira dead.

Since the ronin had followed bushido, the shogun allowed them to commit seppuku instead of being executed.

People still offer incense at the graves of the ronin, and the story has been made into a number of plays and films.


Ansart, Olivier (2007) “Loyalty in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Samurai Discourse,” Japanese Studies, 27:2, 139-154.

Collcutt, Martin (1996) “The ‘Emergence of the Samurai’ and The Military History of Early Japan,” Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 56:1, 151-164.n.”