What Are the Origins of Karate?

Feb 24th, 2022

Martial arts isn’t just a physical endeavor. Students often want to know about the cultural and historical aspects of the martial art they practice. As students progress in their training, they usually deepen their practice by learning about martial arts history, such as the origins of karate. What makes a simple history lesson so important for successful training? 

It’s a well-known fact that one of the biggest obstacles to learning martial arts is plain old consistency. Struggling with consistency isn’t uncommon; people often drop out of any practice that challenges them. It’s easy to be excited and engaged for the first few months of anything but  much harder to continue past that initial excitement.

Cultivating a deeper understanding of the history of the martial art you’re practicing is more valuable than you might realize. Your knowledge of the culture surrounding the martial art you practice strengthens your training; it can help you continue striving to practice even when you feel tired or demotivated.

We’ve got the crash history course on the origins of karate to deepen your practice with a better understanding of this popular martial arts.


Ancient Origins of Karate

Like many martial arts, the most ancient origins of karate are found in mainland China. Much of Japanese culture traces back to mainland China, though it has evolved and differentiated itself and is a distinct culture today. To understand this, look at the Japanese writing system; you’ll note that one of their three writing systems—kanji—is based on Chinese characters.

Karate traces its origins to an island in the far south of Japan—Okinawa. Okinawa is part of the Ryukyu Islands which were ruled by China until the 1800s. The people of Okinawa have a distinct regional culture that’s different from mainland Japanese culture. 

The scholar-officials of the island of Okinawa traveled back and forth to mainland China in the centuries before Okinawa became Japanese. During this time, the fighting system that would eventually be known as karate most likely evolved from the White Crane style—a southern Chinese form.


Modern Origins of Karate in Japan

Many Okinawans traveled north to the main islands of Japan in the early twentieth century in search of work. They brought the Okinawan style of martial arts to the main Japanese islands. Students of karate may know that the Japanese word means “empty hand.” During the early history of karate, the name was written as “Tang hand” or “Chinese hand.” What brought about this name change? 

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Japanese were becoming more militarized and nationalistic, as well as correspondingly more at odds with China. Karate began to be taught to students and members of the military. As such, they began to write it as “empty hand” instead of “Chinese hand.”


Modern Origins of Karate in America

Aikido, Judo, Jujutsu, and even Sumo wrestling are all Japanese martial arts you’ve probably heard of. You may have trained in these martial art forms or you have seen them in popular media like movies and comic books, making an understanding of martial arts history even more interesting to learn.

Karate is the best-known Japanese martial art and the most popular outside of Japan. The reason for karate’s international popularity requires understanding the origins of karate, which eventually reaches the point where America occupied Japan after the second World War.

Readers and martial arts trivia buffs: take one guess where a main American military base ended up being located in Japan? Okinawa.

Americans learned karate and participated in the ancient martial art both on the mainland and on Okinawa. When they returned to America, some former military and government servicemen decided to open dojos. Karate became one of the first mainstream martial arts practiced in America. It’s also why you know the famous martial arts movie as “The Karate Kid” and not the “Aikido Boy” or the “Judo Teen.”

In more recent times, different Japanese martial arts practices have gained in popularity, but karate is one of the oldest martial arts in the Western world and continues to grow in popularity.


Start Practicing Karate Today 
Are you ready to include this ancient and international martial art practice in your life? Karate is a powerful practice to increase your physical and mental health—just find a local Premier Martial Arts studio near you and start reaping the benefits. Now that you know the origins of karate, it’s time to experience the power of training in karate.


ONLY $39

We make it easy to try our martial arts programs. Our start-up offer includes two private lessons with a PMA expert trainer to explore your ability level and find the right programs to help you meet your goals. We even include a uniform – everything you need to make a positive change!


"*" indicates required fields