The many historical names of Karate

One important thing to understand is that the name of karate, and it’s various styles, have changed many times throughout history.

When it comes to the names of individual styles, such as Shotokan, Goju Ryu, Matsubayashi Ryu, etc. we have to remember that on Okinawa this wasn’t really a thing until after Karate was introduced to mainland Japan. Mainland Japanese were very focused on individual styles and these styles were usually registered with governing bodies, such as the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. However this isn’t really how Karate-ka did things in Okinawa. So the first registered and specific style of Karate was Goju Ryu, which was officially named after a demonstration event in Kyoto, Japan that took place in 1929.

Some say that before this point it was more common to refer to karate-ka and karate “styles” by their regional flavors. The three most common are Shuri-Te, Naha-Te, and Tomari-Te, or in Uchinaaguchi: Suidi, Nafandi, and Tumai-Di. However there is credible research to suggest that this naming scheme wasn’t really made popular until the 1900s as the world outside of Okinawa began taking an interest in the art. This holds true especially in the 1920s, as this naming convention became more used in modern times to understand where kata and instructors were from, than anything else. However there are several problems with this naming convention. It is important to remember that these three villages are only roughly three miles apart. Even in the past, you could easily walk from one to the other to the other all in one day. As such, it was relatively common for practitioners who taught or trained in one of these “styles,” to actually live or work in a different village. For example, Anko Itosu lived in all three at different points of his life. Even when this naming convention was relatively new, Itosu was living in Naha but supposedly teaching Shuri-te, and some of the Shuri-Te he was teaching were kata he learned when he lived and trained in Tomari. Another example would be Choki Motobu, who lived in Shuri but trained in “Tomari-Te” under Kosaku Matsumora, as well as “Shuri-Te” under Anko Itosu (who lived in Naha at the time). So we see how easily this naming convention falls apart.

Now for the big two: Karate (空手) VS Karate (唐手). Empty Hands VS Chinese Hands, or more specifically Tang Hands as the character 唐 refers to the Tang Dynasty of China rather than China itself. We know that in 1935 there was, “The Meeting of the Masters,” as it is commonly called, where one of the topics discussed was officially deciding on which of these two to use. Why was such a decision needed? Around this time in Japan there was a very strong Anti-Chinese sentiment (remember the Sino-Japanese war broke out in 1937 and lasted till 1945), and referring to the art as “Chinese Hand” was considered off putting and distasteful. Thus it was unanimously decided at this April 1935 meeting that the art shall be officially named “Empty Hand.” This being homage to Hanashiro Chomo who had been using the characters 空手 since 1903, if not even earlier, as documented in a Newpaper article he published in that year. Between 1903 and 1935 most people who published articles and books on the art had used 唐手, which can also be pronounced Tō-te, or more correctly, Tō-di. However it is important to note that it is highly likely that the use of 唐手 was first used by Anko Itosu as a way to make Karate seem more refined, as historically, in Japan and Okinawa, Chinese goods and philosophies were considered high quality and refined.

So far we have tackled a lot, the founding of individual styles, regional styles, Empty Hand, and Chinese Hand, but here’s the thing, throughout the longest time in history the martial arts which we talk about was simply called Hand. Not Empty Hand. Not Chinese Hand (Tang Hand, but you get the point). Not Village XYZ Hand. Just Hand. According to the resercher Scot Mertz, the oldest known reference to Ryukyuan (the name of the Kingdom Okinawa was a part of before it was taken over by the Japanese) Hand comes from a 17th century author. Two hundred years before we see any of the others I’ve mentioned being used. As we should remember, historically, Karate is a mixed martial art. Absorbing influences from many martial arts and refining it to suit the Okinawan people, and they just called it Hand. In standard Japanese (which they didn’t speak) that is Te. In Uchinaaguchi (the main language spoken in Okinawa prior to the Japanese takeover) that is Ti or, when used as a suffix, -Di.

Published by mattskaratecorner

A martial arts student and instructor. A school teacher and researcher. A curmudgeon with a lot on his mind.

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