The Empty Hand

Judo can be directly attributed to Jigoro Kano. Sambo was the work of Vasili Oshchepkov and Viktor Spiridonov. Karate is not so lucky. It’s a nebulous maze of styles that lacks a clear path back to a single man or even to a group of men, its lineage traceable only as far back as the turn of the last century. It almost certainly began as a fighting system centuries ago among the Pechin class of the Ryukyu islands (present day Okinawa), who were the equivalents of the Japanese Samurai. But two eras of repression and the absence of Okinawan cultural records cloud its history, fuel unrealistic legends, and give martial arts historians volumes to debate about. On top of that, karate is probably the most fractured martial art today, with many styles vying for recognition and power. These obstacles make it difficult to understand karate’s history, at least that part of its history before the late nineteenth century, when karate blossomed into the most popular martial art on the planet.

Located halfway between Japan and Taiwan, the Ryukyu Kingdom comprised a series of islands, and was able to maintain its sovereignty for hundreds of years by establishing good relations with both China and Japan. The Ryukyu Islands’ strategic location was like owning a Ferrari in East St. Louis. Invasion was inevitable. It’s no small wonder that the native Ryukyuans became proficient at self-defense and developed a handto- hand fighting system known as te or ti. Author and karate legend Patrick McCarthy classified these early styles as the “original five fighting arts of the Old Ryukyu Kingdom period”—ti’gwa, kata, torite, tegumi, and buki’gwa.

In 1392 these fighting styles were undoubtedly influenced by thirty-six Chinese families that were sent to Ryukyu to foster “better relations” between the two nations. Made up of artisans and merchants, this group was relocated for the purpose of cultural exchange; and it’s believed that these families brought with them the Chinese combat arts of wushu and chan fa, both empty-handed fighting systems.

But the development of what would eventually become karate would suffer setbacks in 1429 and in 1609 because of bans on weapons, in the first instance by King Sho Hassi and in the second by the Satsuma clan. The Satsuma had been given Okinawa as a reward for assisting the Tokugawa Shogunate, and they were instructed to punish the Ryukyans for not supporting the Japanese in their invasions of Korea from 1592 to 1598 . Under both bans, only the Samurai class was allowed to train, with or without weapons, as it was their job to protect the commoners. But the Samurai focused on swordsmanship, and spent little time on hand-to-hand combat.

Like pankration and muay thai, both of which experienced long periods of repression, karate found new ways to survive. During these bans, the art was preserved in isolated areas, though the techniques varied from place to place and from teacher to teacher. Almost no records were kept about the art because it was illegal to practice it, but also because the styles were very secretive. “Karate books were not written because the techniques were private and only shared with the immediate group of Sensei and students,” says karate historian Charles Goodin. Rival schools hid moves not only from the Satsuma, but also from each other to maintain the uniqueness of their fighting systems.


Even though the ban on the combat arts was lifted when the Satsuma departed in 1875, many forms karate remained unrevealed. Only in a few areas did teachers of te emerge. Kanbun Uechi , who had fled to China to escape military conscription, returned to Okinawa to start his own fighting style, called uechi-ryu. In 1881, Kanryo Higaonna also returned, after eight years in China, and re-established his system of naha-te in Okinawa’s capital city, Naha. One of his best students was Chojun Miyagi, who would eventually rename the style “goju-ryu.” This was a revolutionary style in that it pitted hard body parts against soft ones and used closed-fist strikes as well as open-hand techniques. For example, hard fists were used to strike the soft groin area, while the soft part of the open hand was used to strike the hard head.

One of the most popular styles on the island was born from a legend that varies from source to source. Kanga Sakukawa traveled to China for several years sometime in the eighteenth century and returned to Okinawa with a fighting art that was a synthesis of naha-te, shuri-te, and Shaolin wushu. He called his style tudi sakukawa, meaning “Sakukawa of China Hand,” and he taught it in the city of Shuri around 1806 despite the ban on martial arts at the time.

It’s widely accepted that one of Sakukawa’s students, a royal bodyguard named Sokon Matsumura , took Sakukawa’s ways and blended in Shaolin moves to make the shorin-ryu style. Fiction becomes fact with Matsumura’s student, Anko Itosu (1831-1915), who is considered the grandfather of modern karate. Itosu adopted two of the forms handed down from Matsumura to develop his own style, which he eventually taught to karate legends Kenwa Mabuni ; Choki Motobu ; and Gichin Funakoshi , later the founder of shotokan karate. Itosu is also credited with being the first to use the word “karate” in print, meaning the “empty hand.”


At that time, karate was not what we think of it today. It consisted of two aspects: kihon and kata. Kihon was a prearranged demonstration between two or more karateka to show certain techniques to an audience.

Kata consisted of static positions and formalized routines developed for the most likely attacks a karateka would encounter. Various katas differed in length and difficulty. The higher a karateka rose in rank, the harder the katas became, and the more training was required. Like muay thai’s interpretive dance, the Ram Muay, each kata had a subjective application that varied from teacher to teacher, and even from year to year by the same teacher. Only the upper echelons of the karate hierarchy were authorized to judge the kata forms, and each developed his own criteria for what was right and wrong.

Though kata and kihon were the major tenets of karate, this fighting style was not limited to just these two forms. Early karate was a means of self-defense, and before the twentieth century there was no sport aspect at all. “Early karate was the MMA of the day,” says Goodin. “It was a system where ‘everything goes.’ The techniques ranged from stand-up to takedowns to ground work.”

But that would change in 1901, when Anko Itosu successfully spearheaded an effort to get a few modified karate katas introduced into the elementary school system of the islands, and eventually into the school system in Japan as well. This was uniquely valuable in gaining mainstream acceptance for karate, much like Jigoro Kano’s efforts to incorporate judo into Japanese public schools in 1910. But it was not necessarily a step forward in the evolution of the art. As McCarthy contends, “Kata literally became a political tool through which to funnel physical fitness and social conformity in support of Japanese nationalism and her war campaign.”

Karatekas knew the depth of their art was not only about physical training. At the turn of the century, karate styles added the suffix, “do” to their names, and were frequently called karatedo instead of just karate. The “do” at the end of the word signified that karate was a path to self-enlightenment and contained spiritual elements, as with judo and kendo. This also set it apart from martial arts with a “jutsu” suffix, like aikijutsu and jujutsu (i.e., jiu-jitsu). Many of the great karate masters sought to teach karate as a holistic form of improving oneself in all aspects of life.

;Karate taught me a lot about discipline, respect, and persistence,” says UFC light heavyweight champion and shotokan black belt Lyoto Machida. “You always greet everyone when you come in the dojo; young, old, whoever, and when you leave also. I learned to respect everyone. I brought that and the essence and philosophy of karate into my life. It helps make me a better man.”

The Japanese philosophy of selfimprovement was a facet of most martial arts, and karate was no different. Funakoshi in particular believed that the martial arts made better people through discipline and decisiveness. He taught his karateka to be selfless, courteous, humble, outwardly gentle, and to maintain sustain the principle that the cardinal sin of karate was its misuse, which was a grave dishonor. His autobiography was fittingly titled, Karate-do: My Way of Life.


After Hironori Ohtsuka saw a demonstration of goju-ryu karate at the Tokyo Sports Festival in 1922, he felt it lacked something. He thought that karate needed a way to test itself in a free-flowing environment, like judo’s open sparring style of randori. In 1929, he instituted kumite (similar to sparring) into his style. Kumite provided the spirit of budo, but it also provided a more realistic means to evolve the sport by allowing karatekas to experiment, create, and adapt their methods. In 1934, Ohtsuka branched off to develop wado-ryu karate, which was a milestone in the history of the art.

Until this time, karate was considered both a non-contact sport and a means of self-defense, but the infusion of kumite gave it a third aspect—that of a full-contact combat sport. Funakoshi, the founder of shotokan, disapproved of wado-ryu’s sparring techniques because he did not see karate as a contest. However, you can’t hold back innovation. Funakoshi’s unwillingness to evolve was inevitably bucked by his karatekas, who tried sparring without his consent. This had the unfortunate consequence of getting them banished from their dojos. It also gave birth to karate competitions, which was not a welcome development for everyone.

“Karate prepared a student for an unexpected attack, not for a staged or arranged fight,” says Goodin. “In selfdefense, there were no rules. Kumite immediately resulted in rules and limitations. Imagine MMA with no rules at all. That was more like early karate.”

“It was tragic,” adds McCarthy. “It helped destroy a perfectly functional art in order to bring about rule-bound, limiting practices, and all just to appease the Japanese budo community.”

In 1957 another significant form of karate was developed by Masutatsu Oyama , who saw the futility of rehearsed katas and the need for kumite to develop realistic skills. Called kyokushin, Oyama’s form is mostly a hybrid of shotokan and goju-ryu, but its lessons are taught through a curriculum of tough love. Full-contact sparring and physical endurance are the cornerstones of kyokushin, and the goal in tournaments is to get your opponent to the ground. So it’s no surprise that one of its greatest students was former UFC heavyweight champion Bas Rutten.

“I had done other forms of karate, but I knew how hard kyokushin was, so I spent a few years studying it.” says Rutten. “Let me tell you, getting punched with bare fists and getting kicked in the hips was a tough way to learn karate.”


“Karate” finally earn its moniker in 1936, when a summit of karatekas in Naha officially adopted the name for their art. Despite the recognized influence of Chinese martial arts on Okinawa, the patriarchs of the various schools wanted to develop their art as a distinctly Okinawan fighting style, so they chose the term “empty hand” as its means of rebirth.

World War II stifled the growth of karate, as all fighting-age men were sent abroad to die for the Emperor, but the war also heralded its global exportation. After a bloody fight to suppress the Japanese Imperial forces on Okinawa, many members of the US Marine Corps took karate back to the States. Since then, karate has enjoyed support in America. The first documented dojo was Robert Trias’s shuri-ryu school in Phoenix, Arizona, which opened in 1945. By the 1950’s at least, seven other disciplines of karate had made their way to the States, and in the 1960’s even more styles of the art emigrated across the Pacific Ocean.

In the US, southern California quickly became the hotbed of karate activity. The Golden State took to it the way the Gracie family took hold of jiu-jitsu when it was introduced by Tsutomu Ohshima , a student of Funakoshi, in 1959. Ohshima became a fifth degree black belt (the highest rank attainable) under Funakoshi, and it was Ohshima who formalized the judging system in karate tournaments. In 1969, he renamed his organization Shotokan Karate of America.


In the 1950s, karate’s international expansion was fast and furious. By the 1960’s, Europe was leading the world in the burgeoning styles, and in 1963 held the first European Karate Congress in Paris, with seven nations attending. It was from this meeting that the European Karate Federation was born, but it lacked any Japanese support. By 1970 the federation had grown to include most of Europe, and it struck a deal to merge with the Federation of All-Japan Karate-Do Organizations (FAJKO) to become one organization called the World Union of Karate Organizations (WUKO). This behemoth held the first World Karatedo Championships in Tokyo later that year.

But with success comes money and struggles for power. Despite having “world” in its title, the WUKO is only one of many karate organizations that make up the disparate landscape of the sport. By 1990 the WUKO had changed its name to the World Karate Federation (WKF) in an attempt to mollify the International Olympic Committee. A new WUKO rose from its ashes in 2005, which promptly splintered into the WUKO and WUKF (World Union of Karate-Do Federations). While these organizations were splitting, others were merging. The World Karate Council became the World Karate / Kickboxing Council and the International Sport Karate Association morphed into kickboxing and pseudo-MMA.

Confusing, isn’t it? The morphing into so many sub-styles and organizations has left karate completely fractured, and several groups at the global, national, and even regional levels all claim to be the premier authority for the sport. In reality, all of them are divided by their respective styles, which rarely overlap.

For example, the Isshin-Ryu World Karate Association is based on the isshu-ryu style, and it does not allow fighters using other styles to compete in its tournaments. This is a common thread across the sport: Karatekas are not allowed to cross between styles or organizations. So it would be a misnomer to call someone who wins a shotokan tournament a world karate champion, because he would actually be a champion of shotokan only.

“It’s bad for the sport,” says Machida. “All of the different organizations is its weakness. Instead of unifying the sport, it breaks it apart. It’s already the biggest martial art in the world, and if everyone could compete as a whole, it would create a better karate.”

To make matters worse, the larger organizations do not always recognize each other’s sub-organizations, so while the WUKO recognizes eight styles of karate (shotokan, shito-ryu, goju-ryu, wado-ryu, shorin-ryu, uechi-ryu, budokan, and kyokushin), the WKF only recognizes four (shotokan, shito-ryu, goju-ryu, wadoryu). Karate is simply big business, and with Olympic recognition hanging in the balance, everyone wants to be the karate equivalent of the UFC.

“It’s a bit of a dichotomy,” says McCarthy. “On the one hand, I think the sporting e
lement is counterproductive to the art, and yet, without it many would never learn of or discover the art within.”


Like anything popular in American culture, karate made its way to the big and little screen, in this case along with kung fu and “Bruceploitation.” From Billy Jack to Chuck Norris to The Karate Kid, celluloid films commercialized karate, sending droves of impressionable fans to dojos only to learn that there really was no five-finger death touch or karate chop that would render an opponent incoherent.

“Movies and television depicted karate as a mysterious way of fighting capable of causing death or injury with a single blow,” says Shigeru Egami , chief instructor of the Shotokan Dojo. “The mass media present it as a pseudo art that’s far from the real thing.”

By the early 1990s, karate’s popularity was waning, and a new fighting competition hit pay-per-view. UFC 1 might have been a revolution for martial arts, but it only sealed karate in a coffin of apathy when Zane Frazier, a highly touted karateka, lost to an overweight Kevin Rosier. Frazier had studied shotokan karate and kempo for over twenty years, and he had recently won two heavyweight kickboxing tournaments, as well as a North American Sport Karate Association regional championship. His early dismissal left a bad taste of crow in his mouth. Even more, it also shook the foundations of karate.

“Gracie jiu-jitsu taught you to fight off your back and defeat a bigger opponent,” says Frazier. “It was a unique innovation because, prior to that, we thought all fights had to end by knocking a guy out or knocking him off his feet. This was the first time you could do something like that in open competition.”

Discounted by many as unrealistic, karate would go on a very long hiatus.


Karate enthusiasts rejoiced like Chicago on Election Day when Lyoto Machida knocked out Rashad Evans for the UFC light heavyweight championship at UFC 98. In his exuberance, Machida exclaimed to the crowd, “Karate is back!” But in many opinions, especially Frazier’s, it had never been gone.

“One of the biggest secrets of karate is that it incorporates all forms in Japan,” says Frazier, who echoes the sentiments of other karate historians and experts. “True karate has a system already in place that mirrors moves from the other styles, like judo, muay thai, Greco-Roman wrestling, and boxing. It’s all part of Japanese karate. Here in the US we only get part of it: the commercial version.”

For Machida, the win over Evans was the sweet wake-up call at the end of a long sleep. “I get really excited when people would say karate is not as efficient as other styles,” says Machida. “I wanted to prove everyone wrong, so I trained hard because I wanted to show people that karate could be just as effective as any other discipline.”


achida is not the only karate-based fighter wearing a UFC championship belt. UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre had his start in kyokushin karate, and still credits it with helping shape the fighter he is today. Machida feels the same way.

“Shotokan karate is based on timing and distance,” he says. “I don’t go in there to get into a brawl. The timing, the distance, the perfection of everything; that is the pinnacle of shotokan. MMA made it clear that my style, which includes takedowns and other things you don’t see in karate normally, is the best. If I hadn’t trained in the discipline, I don’t think I would be the same Lyoto I am today.”

Given that so many experts now believe that there is more to karate than what we see in the movies, and that there is a newly crowned UFC champion with a karate pedigree, perhaps there’s more to this mysterious art than the general public knows. Maybe karate is back.


Knock Down Karate

“I always wanted to end my career by winning a hundredman kumite,” says Bas Rutten. El Guapo studied a version of karate that had less physical contact before getting the kyokushin rude awakening. Established in 1953 in a Tokyo dojo, kyokushin was a physically arduous form of karate that bordered on sadism. Its founder, Mas Oyama, believed in severe training and mental discipline, and he passed that philosophy on to his students through ritualistic pain and sacrifi ce. How severe was Oyama? He once spent eighteen months in isolation on Mount Kiyosumi just to dedicate his life to training in karate. When he came down from his perch, he started bullfi ghting…with his bare hands. Oyama wanted to show the world what his karate could do, and over three years he fought fi fty-two bulls, killing three instantly and taking the horns of the other forty-nine with knife-hand blows. It’s no wonder that his Spartan philosophy bled over into the kyokushin tournaments, which began in 1969 and are still considered the toughest in the sport. The goal of these tournaments is not to out strike your opponent, as in other styles, but instead to knock him to the ground with punches or kicks. The pinnacle of kyokushin is a test of mental and physical endurance called the “hundred-man kumite,” in which a karateka has to face a hundred men in a hundred rounds of two minutes each. Only eighteen men have ever accomplished this feat. Oyama did it three times.

Comments are closed.