Several Karate instructors I've spoken to indicate that Karate originated in the Okinawa region of Japan.

However, when visiting the region and speaking to some of the local Karate students, they seemed to be not aware of this bit of history.

Did Karate really originate in the Okinawa region of Japan? Is there historical evidence pointing to this fact?

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    If the students weren't aware that karate originated in Okinawa, did they have a different idea of what the history was or were they just ignorant of it?
    – user15
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 18:37
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    As far as I could tell, they used the word "karate" to refer to any home grown martial arts system, and assumed that each corner of the world has its own. Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 20:52
  • That's sort of what the term "kung fu" is like too (which can also be used in contexts unrelated to martial arts). It's a colloquial term that encompasses a wide breadth of systems and styles instead of one "kung fu" type, so I wonder if "karate" is like that too.
    – user15
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 14:37
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    "Kung Fu" actually just means "hard work" (that is, it is the characters "Time" and "Effort"). Karate means "Empty hand" or "Chinese hand" -- so it's not quite the same thing at all. Anything into which you put time and effort represents Kung Fu. Someone who spends his entire life painstakingly creating matchstick models does kung fu, as @MattChan indicated. The correct chinese term is 'Chuan Fa': en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chuan_fa
    – Anon
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 20:20
  • @Trevoke that's the story and I'm sticking with it. Sadly, I have heard non-martial-artist native Chinese speakers use "gong fu" the way Americans use "karate" or "gong fu" to mean "martial arts". Kids there grow up wanting to be computer programmers these days. Lots of these traditions are disappearing, fast. These days, I hear old school martial artists use simply "fu", as a code-word for the old meaning of "gong fu". Commented Jun 12, 2012 at 20:03

4 Answers 4


Here are bits that we do know:

Gichin Funakoshi, born and raised in Okinawa, is the man who opened the first official, public karate dojo, and he did so on the main island of Japan. Prior to that, it was mostly studied at night, in secret. This was due to Japanese occupation - making the carrying of weapons illegal. Like all resourceful people do, they started to hide their weapons within what they had with them (Similar to the birth of Capoeira). Farm implements make wonderful weapons. So do oars.

Now, karate? Here's a few fun facts.

  • Karate today is made of two characters which mean open/empty hand
  • Karate, until Funakoshi made it public and official, was made of two characters which meant Chinese hand*
  • The Okinawan had a fighting style of their own which was called Nahate.
  • Oh, and one called Shurite
  • Oh, and one called Tomarite

Feel free to check out Okinawan Martial Arts, the Wiki article. Okinawa had the advantage of having easy trade with both Japan and China, so it was also the main place for cultural exchanges to happen, rather like a filter of sorts. I hope this helps you a bit in your search.

* Note: Dave Liepmann in a comment mentions Funakoshi may not in fact be the originator of the "Open Hand" characters: Chomo Hanashiro's "Karate Kumite," first published in August 1905" according to a former instructor of mine.

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    The Okinawans had a number of arts called Tii (Te, now), generally named for the region from which they were taught (Naha-Te stemmed from the Naha region, etc.). These were largely influenced by fighting styles learned from the Chinese they were trading with.
    – stslavik
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 18:27
  • Well, I did not want to rewrite what was in the Wiki article :-)
    – Anon
    Commented Feb 6, 2012 at 18:47
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    Interestingly too, it was Funakoshi who also is first credited with writing Karate as 空手 ("empty hand"), from the previously common 唐手 ("China/Tang hand", denoting the connection to the Chinese origins).
    – stslavik
    Commented May 7, 2013 at 19:16
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    @stslavik "Many people incorrectly credit Gichin Funakoshi as the first to write "karate" using ["open hand" kanji]. However, in 1922, his first book, "Ryukyu Kenpo Tode" used the characters 1 and 3 (Chinese hand). There is also evidence that the first black belt certificates Funakoshi gave out in 1924 used the 'toude' characters as well." "When was this formal change in meaning and kanji made? The earliest known document is Chomo Hanashiro's "Karate Kumite," first published in August 1905" according to a former instructor of mine: fightingarts.com/reading/article.php?id=197 Commented May 8, 2013 at 18:09
  • Fascinating. Sounds like a lot of resources need updating.
    – stslavik
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 21:27

The site https://www.karatebyjesse.com/free-karatebyjesse-ebook-the-matsuyama-theory-feat-sensei-patrick-mccarthy/ is an interesting (cheesy too!) read on the topic. It seems plausible to me, and goes a bit more in depth into the origins of Karate than just "from Okinawa, originally from China" that's usually disseminated.

The TL;DR version is that it specifically coalesced in Matsuyama Park where people would practice/fight together. Incidentally, if you were to go there today you wouldn't see anyone practicing Karate, which reflects your experience with Okinawan students not knowing about it.

That might also be a tendency among martial artists to overemphasise the importance of a particular style in its country of origin. I've talked to some Thai people who were slightly annoyed that some people assumed they knew Muay Thai just because they were from Thailand.


Long story short: The martial art with the name Karate started in Okinawa, but was/is made up of elements from different martial art, like the previous okinawan arts, kung fu, etc.

As with all martial arts today, karate was developed from and influenced by many other arts, just like southern shaolin kung fu for example originally started as a way for local monks to defend themselves from forest animals using their tools.

You see, it really depends on what you see as the origin, but that's the case with most things in general and martials arts specifically.


I have done extensive research into karate, this research concluded that karate was derived from kung-fu. Different styles of karate emerged from all over japan, but yes Okinawa is considered to be the birthplace of karate, even though it was only the birthplace of one of the many styles.

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    Welcome to the site! The first sentence make for a poor answer. Do you have a summary of your research? Anything published? What are your sources? Making bold claims is easy and unless you can bake them up, it makes what you have to say irrelevant. I do not mean to be mean, just pointing out how to improve your answer. Hope this help. Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 8:54
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    Like @Sardathrion, I'd like to learn more of the research.
    – MCW
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 10:39
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    Welcome @minimatt! Please have a look at our faq to get a better idea of what this site is and how it works. Sources or research of some kind would be extremely beneficial and make this a better answer. Don't just give the "what" but also provide a how/why behind your answer.
    – user15
    Commented Oct 22, 2012 at 18:04

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