The origin of Karate

So Karate means “Empty Hand”. At least today it does.

But that was not always the case. How come that experienced practitioners start using Kobudo weapons as well? Not so empty handed any more.
Well, the answer isn’t that easy.

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The history of this term leads back to another meaning. The Kanji 空手 (Kara Te) that we all know were actually written differently.

To begin with, we need to make clear that Karate itself is not that old.
We all have heard that it came from Okinawa to Japan. But what was before that?
Okinawa is a small island in the middle between Japan, Taiwan, Korea and China. Its geographical location suggested that it had substantial business and exchange with these and other asian countries.

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One of the things that made it to the shore of Okinawa was Southern Chinese Kung Fu.
In these days Chinese culture was supposed to be the peak of civilization, a martial art from there was more than welcome and passed on.

This form of martial art got adapted by the people of Okinawa and it was referred to as 唐手 (To Di, Tang Te).
The characters 唐手 literally mean “Tang Hand”, as in Chinese Tang Dynasty.


At the beginning of the 20th century it found its way to Japan where the characters 唐手 read Kara Te.
The conflict in these times between Japan and China lead to the disliking of anything Chinese amongst the Japanese people, and in 1936 it was Funakoshi himself that changed the name of karate from “Tang hand” (唐手) to “empty hand” (空手). This change was very approved by Japanese society.

There certainly is more to it than meets the eye, but let’s consider this as a chunk of historical information.

Dr. Stanley Surjono

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