Karate has been one of the most popular martial arts around the world in recent decades, partly thanks to the success of The Karate Kid movies, and partly because it’s so common in Japan – heavily standardised and promoted by the Japanese government, it’s integral to Japanese culture.

Its popularity has been declining fast in the West in very recent years though, as have most traditional martial arts that lack hands-on sparring or similar intensive learning exercises; due to the rise of MMA and related sports like BJJ and Muay Thai, and the frequent claims by advocates of these sports that traditional martial arts are generally useless.

But not all Karate is the same. Some karate teachers are among the best martial artists in the world, even if most are far from it, so it’s really best to judge each Karate teacher on a case by case basis.

Karate moves

Evolution of Karate – from China to Japan

Much like the Japanese language, the Japanese empty-handed martial art of karate was mostly derived from its Chinese counterpart, kung fu – especially White Crane Kung Fu, which was increasingly simplified and hardened as it spread from China to Okinawa and eventually to the rest of Japan.

White Crane Kung Fu is one of the most sophisticated, modern styles of kung fu developed by the Shaolin monastery prior to its destruction ~1645. White Crane became popular in the Fujian province of China and eventually spread to Okinawa and later to mainland Japan.

All popular styles of Japanese Karate prevalent in the West today can trace their routes back to Fujian White Crane and the Okinawan martial arts that were heavily influenced by it. For example:

  • Kwang Shang Fu (Kūsankū) learnt White Crane from a former Shaolin monk, and later became an ambassador to Ryukyu (now part of Japan), living Kumemura, Okinawa where he met and taught kung fu to Sakugawa Kanga, who then taught Matsumura Sōkon, who had multiple students (including Ankō Itosu) who then taught Gichin Funakoshi who is credited with founding Shōtōkan and spreading Karate throughout mainland Japan from 1922 onwards. Note that Funakoshi never named his style anything other than Karate – it was his students who named it Shōtōkan because Shōtō was his pen name, and Kan simply means house or hall.
  • Chōjun Miyagi, founder of Gōjū-ryū, learnt from Higaonna Kanryō who learnt from Ryū Ryū Ko, a White Crane teacher. Note that Gō means Hard, and Jū (as in Judo and Jujutsu) means soft, while ryū means school or style.
  • Shitō-ryū was founded by Kenwa Mabuni who learnt from Ankō Itosu and Higaonna Kanryō (both mentioned earlier). Note, the word Shitō is derived from the initial characters in the names of Mabuni’s two main teachers.
  • Wadō-ryū was founded by Hironori Ōtsuka who learnt from Matsumura Sōkon and Ankō Itosu (both mentioned earlier). Note, Wa means harmony, and Dō means way.
  • Shōrin-ryū was founded by Chōshin Chibana who learnt from Ankō Itosu (mentioned earlier). Note that ‘Shōrin’ is Japanese for ‘Shaolin’.
  • Kyokushin was founded by Choi Yeong-Eui (Masutatsu Ōyama) who learnt from Gichin Funakoshi (mentioned earlier) as well as multiple students of Chōjun Miyagi (mentioned earlier) including Gōgen Yamaguchi and So Nei-Chu. Note, Kyokushin means ‘Ultimate Truth’.

Mas Oyama – Kyokushin Karate – Soshin Dachi Funakoshi – Tekki

Lyoto Machida’s Crane Kick in the UFC

Steven Seagal meets Tetsuhiro Hokama

Steven Seagal (movie star and 7th Dan black belt in Aikido) meets Tetsuhiro Hokama, founder of Kenshikai Karate (one of over a dozen popular divisions of Gōjū-ryū).