Skip to Content

History of Karate: 20 Important Moments (From East to West)

Karate is a martial art that has been taught in the Western World since the first half of the 20th century; but where does it really come from, and what is it all about? How much do you really know about one of the world’s most popular martial arts and fitness regimes? 

If you are anything like me, you probably don’t know nearly as much as you think you do. If you are a Karate practitioner or interested in doing Karate, you might want to know a little more about it. I recently got thinking about the history and background of Karate and thought I would share my findings with you. 

Karate is a popular martial art that is practiced all over the world. It is a global sport. It is a martial art. It is a way of life. And at the same time, it is a whole lot more. Let us take a look at some of the highlights of Karate’s history below. 

These are 20 highlights of the History of Karate:

1. Predecessors of Karate were developed in the 17th century.

According to Britannica, during the 17th century, pre-Karate versions were systematized as a form of self-defense. Practitioners were taught it as a weaponless fighting style, and it was used by Ryukyu Island natives.

2. In the 19th century, early versions of Karate were increasingly practiced in the Okinawa Islands as a form of self-defense. 

The word “karate” actually means “empty hands”, which makes a lot of sense when you consider that the art was introduced at a time when the invading Japanese forces banned the use of weapons.

3. In Okinawa, early versions of Karate developed into three different styles, named after the cities where they emerged.

When early styles of Karate first came out in the Okinawan Islands, three main types of Karate emerged from the three cities of Shuri, Naha, and Tomari; which were named Shuri-te, Tomari-te, and Naha-te. These styles morphed and changed, as months and years passed on.

4. Karate was included in physical education programs in Okinawa in 1901.

You might be wondering how on earth Karate made it into PE programs. Well, Anko Itosu, who is considered by many as one of the fathers of modern Karate, advocated for the inclusion of Karate as a physical education requirement in public schools. As a result, the art was included in physical education programs across the Okinawa Islands. 

5. The first public demo of Karate-do was given by Funakoshi in 1917.

The very first demonstration of Karate to the public was held in Kyoto, Japan, in 1917 and put on by Gichin Funakoshi. It was this demonstration and several that followed that made an excellent impression on the larger Japanese population as well as the Crown-Prince Hirohito. Ever since that first demonstration, the popularity of Karate spread rapidly.

6. Japan’s first university Karate club was established in 1924.

In the beginning, Karate clubs were not the norm, and it was only towards the middle of the 1920s that clubs started to increase in popularity. It was the Keio University in Japan that formed the first-ever university Karate club.

7. In 1939, Gichin Funakoshi opened the first formal Karate training school is opened in Japan.

While Karate was growing in popularity, Japan had no official training schools until the late 1930s. The first formal Karate training school in Japan was called Shotokan.

8. Due to Japanese immigration, Karate was introduced in Canada between the 1930s and 1940s.

Believe it or not, Karate is quite popular in Canada too. Masami Tsuruoka, a student of Tsuyoshi Chitose, is known as the father of Canadian Karate. He was responsible for popularizing Karate in Canada.

9. The first dojo was established in the United States in 1946.

After impressing many people, Karate masters decided to take their art to the United States, where it was warmly received. It was Robert Trias who opened America’s first Karate dojo in Phoenix, Arizona.

10. The Japan Karate Association was established in 1948.

The association was formed in November 1948 with the intention of promoting Karate as an art and sport. It was called Nihon Karate Kyokai, which translates to the Japan Karate Association.

11. In the 1960s, Karate makes its way into the United Kingdom.

In the early 1960s, Mitsusuke Harada, a student of Gichin Funakoshi, introduced Shotokai Karate to England. 

12. Karate was formalized in France in 1964.

In 1964, under the leadership of Tsutomu Ohshima, France Shotokan Karate was created. 

13. From the 1960s until the start of the 1990s, Karate is banned and unbanned in the Soviet Union. 

Karate first made its way into the Soviet Union in the late 1960s. It became quite popular to the extent that practitioners where choosing it over other disciplines (like boxing, judo, or sambo). Also, during that time, Karate, which was quite brutal in the USSR, began to be used for criminal activities. 

As a result, there was an official ban on the practice and teaching of Karate in the Soviet Union. It was unbanned and banned several times. In fact, if a person was caught teaching Karate illegally in the Soviet Union, they could be sentenced to up to 5 years in prison.

14. The World Union of Karate-do Organizations (WUKO) was formed in October 1970.

As the popularity of Karate grew, the need for an international governing body became more evident. 

15. The first World Karate Championships was held in Tokyo in 1970.

It was many years after the birth of Karate that the very first World Championships were held. It was in 1970 that the first edition of the World Karate Championships was hosted. The event was attended by 26 nations. 

16. The International Traditional Karate Federation (ITKF) was founded in 1974.

The ITKF, founded under the leadership of Hidetaka Nishiyama, is now known as the World Traditional Karate-do Federation.

17. In June 1985, the WUKO was officially recognized by the International Olympic Committee. 

As a result, the World Union of Karate-do Organizations became the official global organization for Karate.

18. In 1993, the WUKO changed its name to World Karate Federation. 

Currently, the World Karate Federation has about 200 member countries, and it’s the largest international governing body of sport karate in the world.

19. In 2016, it was announced that Karate will be featured in the 2020 Olympics.

Karate has never been an Olympic sport before. Therefore, this caused great excitement among the many martial arts community around the world.

20. Karate debuted as an Olympic Sport in Tokyo 2020. 

Both men and women competed in two different events: Kumite (sparring) and Kata (forms)

All in all 

And there you have it… a relatively thorough, yet easily explained history of Karate. If you were wondering how Karate became the worldwide phenomenon it is today, now you know! Karate is a sport that took over the world not because it was marketed well, but because it offers value to its practitioners. If you are looking for a martial art and sport to get involved in that is healthy, rewarding, and meaningful; Karate is a great option!