Karate has origins which can be traced back to the island of Okinawa, further back to China and India. The information about these ancient origins is very sparse and steeped in legend.

The development of modern karate took place on the islands of Okinawa which were under Japanese rule from the 1600’s. It is said that the traditional Okinawan martial arts called Okinawa Te and Chinese Kenpo (boxing)  were blended together and developed into Karate. Okinawa Te underwent significant developments in Okinawa based on several factors, including the policy of banning weapons following the political centralization of King Shoshin (1477-1526) and the Satsuma Clan's invasion of Ryukyu (1609).

Modern Karate is based on three main Okinawan styles which developed around the cities of Naha, Shuri and Tomari.

Naha-Te: (Goju-Ryu)

Naha-Te (or Shorei-Ryu) was founded by Higaonna Kanryo Sensei who travelled to China in 1868 and became “uchi deshi” (private disciple) to Master Ryu Ryu Ko , a renowned master of Southern Chinese Martial Arts in Fuzhou.  After 13 yrs. of diligent study with his teacher he returned to Okinawa, and Naha where his martial arts became known as Naha-te.

Miyagi Chojun Sensei began training in karate under Higaonna Kanryo at the age of 14, in 1902. Miyagi Chojun became 'uchi deshi' (private disciple) of Higaonna Kanryo Sensei. He studied with his teacher for 14 years before his teacher's death in 1915. Miyagi Chojun Sensei journeyed to Fuzhou, China, in 1915, the city where his teacher had studied the martial arts, to further his research. This was one of three trips he made to China during his lifetime.

On returning to Okinawa he began to teach the martial arts at his home in Naha. He was responsible for structuring Naha-te (which he later named 'Goju-Ryu') into a systemized discipline. After his death a number of his senior students began their own schools giving rise to a number of schools of Goju-Ryu. GOJU means Hard (Go)/ Soft (Ju). The style is characterised by softer circular movements combined with strong linear techniques.

Shuri-Te: (Shorin-Ryu)

Shuri-Te and Tomari-Te were very similar systems practised in these cities. The greatest exponent was Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura who studied under a number of Chinese exponents. He had a number of notable students who carried on with the development of the style, later resulting in the formation of various Shorin Ryu schools. The style is characterised by harder linear movements compared to Goju-Ryu

New Okinawan styles were also created, such as Shito-Ryu and Isshin-Ryu, by people who combined their studies of Goju-Ryu and Shorin-Ryu.


One practitioner of Shorin Ryu, Gichin Funakoshi , travelled to Japan in 1917 and made the art of Karate more well known to the Japanese. He and his son changed the forms of Shorin Ryu to be more rigid with longer lower stances, resulting in the Shotokan style and the formation of the Japan Karate Association (JKA) in 1957. The JKA were largely responsible for transforming karate to a sport in Japan by introducing rules for competition, although Funakoshi himself was against the competition aspects. In time new Japanese styles were formed as derivatives of the Okinawan forms. Japanese based traditions were adopted by the Okinawan styles, such as the wearing of the Gi (traditional Judo suit) and the awarding of the Black Belt (Dan rank – also adopted from Judo).

Apart from the experiences of some US Servicemen stationed in Okinawa after WW II, little was known in the west about Okinawan karate until the 1970’s. In the 1950’s-60’s Japan began “exporting” their knowledge of karate giving rise to the notion that karate was a Japanese Martial Art. Later in the 1970’s some western martial arts practitioners began to realise the true origins of karate and began to study and teach the Okinawan forms.

However, today many of the Okinawan forms are indistinguishable from the Japanese forms as their essence has been diluted by an emphasis on competition and sport.

Nahate Ryoku Chojun Bushi Funakoshi
Higaonna Kanryo
Master Ryu
Ryu Ko
Miyagi Chojun Sensei Sokon "Bushi"
Gichin Funakoshi
WW2-1 WW2-2 WW2-3
Karate training in Okinawa Pre and Post World War II