The picture shows the term Karate and its Japanese Kanji.

What is Karate?

Karate is a Japanese martial art. It consists of a wide variety of physical techniques (Waza) for self-defense like punches, elbow strikes, kicks, knee strikes, blocks, throws, arm bars, joint locks, and choke holds. Most of the time, Karate practitioners, so called “Karateka”, fight and protect themselves without weapons. In some styles weapons like Nunchakus, sticks (Bo), and Sai become occasionally utilized.

Karate had been developed on the Islands of Okinawa in the 19th century under the influence of Chinese martial arts in the 19th century. At the beginning of 20th century, Okinawa masters introduced Karate to mainland Japan.

Both in Okinawa and Japan Karate has been evolving. As a consequence a variety of styles with distinctive features has emerged. The most prominent Karate styles are:

  • Shotokan
  • Shotokai
  • Goju-ryu
  • Shito-ryu
  • Shorin-ryu
  • Wado-ryu
  • Kyokushinkai
  • Seidokaikan
  • Sport karate

What does Karate mean?

Karate is Japanese (/kəˈrɑːti/) and means literally: empty hand. In Japanese Kanji it is written 空手, while (Kara) means “empty” and (Te) means “hand”. This meaning shall express the weaponless and defensive character of Karate.

However, the meaning of Karate changed in the early 20th century. Due to his Chinese roots the art was called Tode/Tuidi/Tote, which literally means “Chinese hand” or “Tang hand” referring to Chinese Tang dynasty in the language of Okinawa. In Japanese Kanji it was written: 唐手. The can thereby be pronounced either “Todi” for Tang Dynasty and China or as “Kara”, which also stands for China or the Han state.

The pronunciation of as “Kara” built a linguistic bridge to its later meaning as empty hand. Because in Japanese like in many languages a spoke term can have different meanings and writings. Then “Kara” can also be written with the Kanji ““, which means empty. By exchanging the Kanji the “Chinese hand” became the “empty hand”.

The change of the meaning took place rather gradually within the Karate community. On October 25, 1936, the a group of Okinawa Master and officials met at Showa Kaikan Hall in Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture because the Ryukyu Shimpo Newspaper invited them to discuss the change of the meaning.

The seriousness of the name change becomes clear by the consideration of the attendees list. Among the Karate masters Chomo Hanashiro, Kyan Chotoku, Choki Motobu, Chojun Miyagi, Juhatsu Kyoda, Choshin Chibana, Shimpan Gusukuma, Chotei Oroku, Genwa Nakasone (Karate Kenkyusha affiliated with Shudokan of Kanken Toyama) took part. As guest attended:

  • Koichi Sato, Manager of Educational Affairs Department
  • Zenpatsu Shimabukuro, Director of Okinawa Prefectural Library
  • Kitsuma Fukushima, Regimental Headquarters Adjutant
  • Eizo Kita, Chief of Okinawa Prefectural Police Affairs Section
  • Chosho Goeku, Chief of Okinawa Prefetural Security Section
  • Gizaburo Furukawa, Supervisor of Physical Education of Okinawa Prefecture
  • Sei Ando, author
  • Choshiki Ota, President of Ryukyu Shimpo Newspaper Company
  • Kowa Matayoshi, Chief Editor of Ryukyu Shimpo
  • Zensoku Yamaguchi, Director of Ryukyu Shimpo Newspaper Company
  • Tamashiro, a reporter of Ryukyu Shimpo

The major argument for the change gave Genwa Nakasone:

When Karate (written as “empty hand”) was first introduced in Tokyo, it was introduced as Toudi (written as “Chinese hand”). At that time Karate was a novel tradition that took some time before becoming popular. Schools contended that Toudi was not a suitable term and had, when writing the first ideogram of the term, used Hiragana rather then the ideogram. Some Dojo are being called “Nihon Karate Kenkyukai (translated as Japan ka ra (Hiragana) Hand Research Society). However, that was during the transition period. Now, just about all Dojo in Tokyo areas, including the two principal Dojo, are using the new term, Karate (“empty hand”). Most university clubs are also using the new term.

The reason for changing Toudi to Karate is simply because it defines a tradition in which one uses his empty hands, or Karaken (“empty fist”). With that in mind, I would like to recommend that the current name “Karatedo” (“the way of the empty hand”) become the standard in consideration of Karate´s future development of a Japanese budo.

Patrick & Yuriko McCarthy 1994: The [1936] Meeting of the Okinawan Karate Masters. In: International Ryukyu Research Society.

According to Genwa Nakasone the change took place because it was logical to call it empty hand. Some commentators, on the other hand, see the reason for the change of the meaning of Karate in the growing Japanese nationalism during the 1930´s pre-war era. While this might be true for some groups it is also plausible that many practitioners were convinced about the logical validity of the argument.