Karate 101: History

Karate 101: History
Posted at 9:18 AM, Mar 12, 2021

The exact history of karate as we know it is unknown, but it is believed that the roots of it date back thousands of years. Okinawa, Japan, is regarded as the home and birthplace of karate, though it was influenced by Chinese martial arts.

Buddhist Roots

The Chinese Shao Lin fighting art developed from training methods used at the Shao Lin monastery, which were designed to build endurance and strength and to uphold a disciplined life encouraged by Buddhism. Shao Lin spread to neighboring Okinawa, Japan, where it blended with the Okinawan style of "empty-hand" fighting.


Born in Okinawa in 1868, Funakoshi Gichin started practicing karate as a child and ultimately became a karate instructor. When the Japanese Ministry of Education held a martial arts demonstration in Tokyo in 1922, Funakoshi was asked to help bring karate to the national level. He ultimately opened a small dojo in Tokyo in a university lecture hall and made karate more accessible to the wider population, streamlining the components of training to cater to all ages.

Considered the father of modern karate, he is also credited with developing a new style of karate, Shotokan, that is still practiced today. He pushed karate from a system of fighting to become both a sport and an art, one that emphasized improving a person's character through vigorous training and discipline. His supporters pooled enough money to open the first free-standing dojo in Japan in 1936.

Karate goes global

The Japan Karate Association (JKA) was formed in 1948 to spread the study of karate both in Japan and internationally. Karate's spread to the U.S. in the 1950s is largely credited to returning GI's who had been stationed at bases in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan after World War II.

Karate grew globally in the 1960s and karate leaders began to see the need for an international governing body to unify the different styles, rules and protocols. The presidents of the Japan Karate Federation and European Karate Union proposed a series of meetings that led to the first unified international rules for karate as a sport and established the World Union of Karate Do Organizations (WUKO) in 1970. The first WUKO World Championships were held in Tokyo that same year, with athletes from 33 countries. Only men's team and individual kumite competitions were included. In 1980, women's events were added to the world championships program for the first time and kata was added as a discipline.

In 1992, as WUKO membership increased to include 150 national federations, the name of the international organization was changed to the World Karate Federation (WKF). In 1999, the IOC recognized WKF as the sole governing body for the sport of karate.