History of Karate

Hironori Ohtsuka & the History of Karate

Hironori Ohtsuka

"The Way is not meant as a way of fighting. It is a path on which you travel to find your own inner peace and harmony. It is yours to seek and find. " Hironori Ohtsuka. 6.1.1892 ~ 1.29.1982.


Most Western students of Asian martial arts, if they have done any research on the subject at all, will surely have come across references to Bodhidharma. He is known as "Daruma" in Japan and as often as not, this Indian Buddhist monk is cited as the prime source for all martial arts styles or at the vary least, for any style which traces its roots back to the fabled Shaolin Temple. However, the question of his contributions to the martial arts and to Zen Buddhism and even of his very existence has been a matter of controversy among historians and martial arts scholars for many years (Spiessbach,1992).


As legend has it, the evolution of karate began over a thousand years ago, possibly as early as the fifth century BC when Bodhidharma arrived in Shaolin-si (small forest temple), China from India and taught Zen Buddhism. He also introduced a systematized set of exercises designed to strengthen the mind and body, exercises which allegedly marked the beginning of the Shaolin style of temple boxing. Bodhidharma's teachings later became the basis for the majority of Chinese martial arts. In truth, the origins of karate appear to be somewhat obscure and little is known about the early development of karate until it appeared in Okinawa.


Kaizen Karate

 Okinawa is a small island of the group that comprises modern day Japan. It is the main island in the chain of Ryuku Islands which spans from Japan to Taiwan. Surrounded by coral, Okinawa is approximately 10 km (6 mi) wide and only about 110 km (less than 70 mi) long. It is situated 740 km (400 nautical mi) east of mainland China, 550 km (300 nautical miles) south of mainland Japan and an equal distance north of Taiwan. Being at the crossroads of major trading routes, its significance as a "resting spot" was first discovered by the Japanese. It later developed as a trade centre for southeastern Asia, trading with Japan, China, Indo China, Thailand, Malaysia, Borneo and the Philippines.


In its earliest stages, the martial art known as "karate" was an indigenous form of closed fist fighting which was developed in Okinawa and called Te, or 'hand'. Weapons bans, imposed on the Okinawans at various points in their history, encouraged the refinement of empty-hand techniques and, for this reason, was trained in secret until modern times. Further refinement came with the influence of other martial arts brought by nobles and trade merchants to the island.


Te continued to develop over the years, primarily in three Okinawan cities: Shuri, Naha and Tomari. Each of these towns was a centre to a different sect of society: kings and nobles, merchants and business people, and farmers and fishermen, respectively. For this reason, different forms of self-defense developed within each city and subsequently became known as Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te. Collectively they were called Okinawa-Te or Tode, 'Chinese hand'. Gradually, karate was divided into two main groups: Shorin-ryu which developed around Shuri and Tomari and Shorei-ryu which came from the Naha area. "It is important to note, however, that the towns of Shuri, Tomari, Naha are only a few miles apart, and that the differences between their arts were essentially ones of emphasis, not of kind. Beneath these surface differences, both the methods and aims of all Okinawan karate are one in the same" (Howard, 1991). Gichin Funakoshi goes further to suggest that these two styles were developed based on different physical requirements Funakoshi, 1935). Shorin-ryu was quick and linear with natural breathing while Shorei-ryu emphasized steady, rooted movements with breathing in synchrony with each movement. Interestingly, this concept of two basic styles also exist in kung-fu with a similar division of characteristics (Wong, 1978).





The Chinese character used to write Tode could also be pronounced 'kara' thus the name Te was replaced with kara te - jutsu or 'Chinese hand art' by the Okinawan Masters. This was later changed to karate-do by Gichin Funakoshi who adopted an alternate meaning for the Chinese character for kara, 'empty'. From this point on the term karate came to mean 'empty hand'. The Do in karate-do means 'way' or 'path', and is indicative of the discipline and philosophy of karate with moral and spiritual connotations.


The concept of Do has been prevalent since at least the days of the Okinawan Scholar Teijunsoku born in 1663, as this passage from a poem he wrote suggests:


No matter how you may excel in the art of te,
And in your scholastic endevours,
Nothing is more important than your behavior
And your humanity as observed in daily life.


The first public demonstration of karate in Japan was in 1917 by Gichin Funakoshi, at the Butoku-den in Kyoto (Hassell 1984). This, and subsequent demonstrations, greatly impressed many Japanese, including the Crown-Prince Hirohito, who was very enthusiastic about the Okinawan art. In 1922, Dr. Jano Kano, founder of the Japanese art of Judo, invited Funakoshi to demonstrate at the famous Kodokan Dojo and to remain in Japan to teach karate. This sponsorship was instrumental in establishing a base for karate in Japan. As an Okinawan "peasant art," karate would have been scorned by the Japanese without the backing of so formidable a martial arts master (Maliszewski, 1992).


Today there are four main styles of karate-do in Japan: Goju-ryu, Shito-ryu, Shotokan, and Wado-ryu:

Goju-ryu developed out of Naha-te, its popularity primarily due to the success of Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1915). Higaonna opened a dojo in Naha using eight forms brought from China. His best student, Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953) later founded Goju-ryu, 'hard soft way' in 1930. In Goju-ryu much emphasis is placed on combining soft circular blocking techniques with quick strong counter attacks delivered in rapid succession.


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Shito-ryu was founded by Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952) in 1928 and was influenced directly by both Naha-te and Shuri-te. The name Shito is constructively derived from the combination of the Japanese characters of Mabuni's teachers' names - Ankoh Itosu and Kanryo Higaonna. Shito-ryu schools use a large number of kata, about fifty, and is characterized by an emphasis on power in the execution of techniques.


Shotokan was founded by Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) in Tokyo in 1938. Funakoshi is considered to be the founder of modern karate. Born in Okinawa, he began to study karate with Yasutsune Azato, one of Okinawa's greatest experts in the art. In 1921 Funakoshi first introduced Karate to Tokyo. In 1936, at nearly 70 years of age, he opened his own training hall. The dojo was called Shotokan after the pen name used by Funakoshi to sign poems written in his youth. Shotokan Karate is characterized by powerful linear techniques and deep strong stances.

Wado-ryu, 'way of harmony', founded in 1939 is a system of karate developed from jujitsu and karate by Hienori Otsuka as taught by one of his instructors, Gichin Funakoshi. This style of karate combines basic movements of jujitsu with techniques of evasion, putting a strong emphasis on softness and the way of harmony or spiritual discipline.


It would be virtually impossible to discuss and trace the history and origins of Wado Ryu Karatedo without discussing and tracing the life and martial art of its founder, O'Sensei Hironori Ohtsuka. The two cannot be separated, nor should they viewed apart. Like the cloth of a finely sewn scroll or dogi, the two are inexorably woven together -- Ohtsuka Sensei is Wado; Wado is Ohtsuka Sensei.


At the age of six, under the tutelage of his father, Ohtsuka Sensei began his studies of the martial ways, training in the classical art of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu. As his studies progressed, his seemingly natural abilities grew commensurately, eventually bringing his father to the realization that there was nothing further he could teach the boy. If he was to continue, he must do so under the instruction of someone with abilities that surpassed his own. That someone was Yokiyoshi Tatsusaburo Nakayama; a renowned master of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu, and the style's Chief Instructor.



On the 1st April 1897 Ohtsuka started school where he studied Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujitsu, under the supervision of Shinzaburo Nakayama Sensei, the third Grand Master of this style of Jujitsu. The essence of this art lays emphasis upon the nature and the grace of movement. It was originally inspired by Yoshitoki Akiyama Sensei after observing how the willow tree laden with snow yielded to the elements of nature, yet maintained its versatility and flexibility to outside forces without damage. This study of movement impressed upon the young Ohtsuka the importance of natural flowing movements. These lessons play a major part in today's "Wado" karate. In defence and attacking techniques the use of the opponent's body and weight and movement play an equally significant role in defeating your enemy as your own body movements.


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Ohtsuka continued his studies of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujitsu whilst at Waseda University from 1910 to 1917 reading commerce. Ohtsuka also studied different styles of Jujitsu, experimenting between styles concentrating on their "positive quality". During his period at University he was able to examine the techniques of most Martial Arts. He developed and improved certain techniques of the existing arts combining them with other "innovative" techniques. Whilst studying Jujitsu, Ohtsuka learned a great deal about the body's "vital points" both for attacking and healing purposes, he also studied the art of "bone setting".

In 1917 Ohtsuka joined the Kawasaki Bank, during the year he is said to have met Morihei Ueshiba Sensei, the founder of Aikido and this began a deep founded influential friendship. After two years at the bank Ohtsuka Sensei decided to become a full time Martial Artist. His mother, however, opposed this, wishing her son to continue his career in banking. Out of respect for this mother and family he postponed his ambitions, but continued to study Jujitsu.
Ohtsuka was awarded on 1st June 1920 the highest degree of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujitsu, which allowed him to succeed his master's position as fourth Grand Master.

The 1922 sports festival in Tokyo was to continue his obsession with all Martial Arts. For the first time Ohtsuka was to encounter Karate. Gichin Funakoshi Sensei was invited by the Japanese Education Department to demonstrate his style of Okinawan Karate (Tode). Kano Sensei, a renowned Martial Arts Instructor, accepted that the spirit behind karate was the same as Japanese Martial Arts, which served to promote its message and style.
Ohtsuka was impressed with this newly promoted Martial Art. He visited Funakoshi Sensei on numerous occasions during his stay, discussing techniques and other aspects of Karate. Funakoshi Sensei prolonged his visit by invitation from the Japanese Education department. He was "impressed" by Ohtsuka's enthusiasm and determination to understand Karate and agreed to teach him all he knew about Karate. Within the space of a year Ohtsuka Sensei had studied all the katas that Funakoshi had brought from Okinawa, although he found certain movements and techniques difficult to implement and understand. This led Ohtsuka in his search for a deeper understanding of Karate to practice kata with Mabuni Sensei the founder of Shuto-Ryu Karate.

In 1925 Ohtuska's mother died and he was left in a period of indecision about his career. After three years of deep philosophical thought, he left the Kawasaki Bank and set up a "bone setting" practice, similar to a small hospital. His prowess in the Martial Arts had led him to be the Chief Instructor of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujitsu and an assistant instructor at Funakoshi Sensei's dojo. By the year 1929 Ohtsuka was a registered member of the Japan Martial Arts Federation. At this time Okinawan Karate only concentrated upon kata, Ohtsuka thought that the full spirit of Budo, which concentrates both upon defence and attack, was missing. Ohtsuka Sensei meanwhile had been developing Yakusoko Kumite to compensate for the lack of attacking techniques. He thought there was a need for a more fluid type of Karate and decided to leave Funakoshi Sensei to concentrate on developing his own style of Karate, "Wado".


1934 proved to be a major year for Ohtsuka and "Wado" Karate. On February 28th Ohtsuka the 2nd was born. It is uncanny that during this year Wado-Ryu Karate was also "born" and officially recognised to be an independent style. This recognition meant a departure for Ohtsuka from his hospital and a fulfilment of his life's ambition, to become a full time Martial Artist. In 1935 Karate received a further promotion upon Kano Sensei's recommendation to be accepted as a Martial Art, but at first only as an extension of Judo by the Japan Martial Arts Federation.


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Ohtsuka Sensei's personalised style of Karate was officially registered in 1938 after he was awarded the rank of "Renshi-go". He presented a magnificent demonstration of "Wado" Karate for the Japan Martial Arts Federation who were impressed with his style and commitment and successfully acknowledged him as a high ranking instructor. The next year the Japan Martial Arts Federation asked all the different styles of Karate to register their names. Ohtsuka registered the name of "Wado"-Ryu". Other styles to register included Shotokan Ryu, Goju Ryu and Shito-Ryu. The next few years witnessed Wado Ryu karate growing from strength to strength, new dojos were opening and karate was being taught at the Universities. Ohtsuka himself was becoming a recognised figure within the World of Martial Arts. In 1942 he was awarded the title of Kyoshi-go. During that year a future great master Tatsuo Suzuki began training in Wado-Ryu Karate. In 1943 Ohtsuka the 2nd began his pursuits in the field of the Martial Arts. He began Kendo under the strict instruction of an army officer called Miyata Sensei. In 1944 Ohtsuka Sensei was appointed Japans Chief Karate instructor and in 1945 Ohtsuka the 2nd began to receive expert instruction from his father. In 1947 Teruo Kono began Karate but did not start training with Ohtsuka Sensei until 1951 and in 1955 the first all Japan Wado-Ryu Karate championships were held.


Until the 1960s Martial Arts and especially Wado-Ryu karate remained upon the small islands of Japan. It was hardly recognised outside of the East. This was soon to change. In 1963 a three-man team left Japan to conquer America and Europe. The team was composed of Mr. Arakawa, Mr Takashima and Mr. T. Suzuki. The impressions they left upon America and Europe were tremendous, Wado-Ryu Karate became recognised worldwide for its true merits.

Back in Japan in 1966 Ohtsuka Sensei was awarded the title "Kun Goto Suokuo Kyoku jujitsu Shou" by the late Emperor Horohito. It was presented by the Emperor for his dedication to the introduction and teaching of karate.

By the early 1970s karate had become truly established worldwide. Ohtsuka continued to train and instruct in Japan, whilst a team of highly qualified Japanese Sensei's continued to spread the doctrines of Wado-Ryu Karate worldwide.

1972 saw Ohtsuka Sensei historically awarded with an honour never before bestowed upon any Karate master, the president of the International Martial Arts Federation, a member of the Japanese royal family, presented Ohtsuka with the title of "Meijin" - the first excellent Marital Artist in Karate (10th Dan) it was the greatest title possible and bestowed upon him.

In 1980 Ohtsuka Meijin began to think about retirement as the head of Wado Karate and wanted his son to succeed him as Grand Master. However other high level Wado Karateka were not in favour of this and wished for a different leader to be appointed. Although many negotiations took place no agreement could be reached and some of these Wado Karateka broke away and formed their own association.

Ohtsuka Meijin continued to lead the World of Wado-Ryu Karate until the 20th November 1981, when he finally decided to abdicate his possession as Grand Master of Wado-Ryu Karate and nominated his son Hironori Ohtsuka 2nd as his successor. Hironori Ohtsuka Meijin peacefully passed away on 19th January 1982, two months later. Throughout the entire world where Marital Arts are practised he will always be remembered for his enormous contribution and individual devotion to Wado Karate.



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