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The first fighting systems on earth probably evolved in ancient times. This is evidenced by ancient murals and sculptures showing fighting poses from Egypt, India and Babylon dating as far back as 5,000 years ago. The martial arts as we know them probably did not evolve until the first organized system of offensive and defensive skills were developed in China.

It is widely held that the first martial arts system was developed at the fabled Shaolin Temple in the Hunan province of southern China in the 5th Century AD. An Indian monk named Bodhidharma is credited as the principle source for all martial arts styles, or at the very least, for any style which traces its roots back to this Shaolin Temple.

Legend has it that Bodhidharma traveled to Shaolin-si (small forest temple) China in 526 where he spend many years teaching Zen Buddhism. During this time he introduced a system of physical and breathing exercises which developed into what is now known as Kung Fu (also spelled gung fu and is now a catch-all term for the various styles of Chinese martial arts). Bodhidharma developed the physical exercises by watching and imitating the natural movements of different animals (like the praying mantis, tiger, crane, horse, monkey, snake and dragon). The breathing exercises were developed to keep the inner organs healthy so as to improve one's Chi, the ability to reach inside and to draw power from within the body itself.

Many believe that all forms of kung fu, and even all forms of Asian martial arts, descended from these exercise techniques taught by Bodhidharma. However, ancient Chinese records show that various forms of kung fu existed long before this time. Specifically, there are historical records of studies of various animal movements that are still associated with the Chinese martial arts. Bodhidharma's contributions to the martial arts and to Zen Buddhism and even of his very existence have been a matter of controversy among historians and martial arts scholars for many years.

Because China was a country filled with the spiritual teachings of Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism, intangible elements such as compassion, discipline and self-control were incorporated into the teachings of these fighting skills. As a result, during various periods of Asian history when weapons were banned or outlawed, martial arts prospered as the only means by which a person could defend himself or his family. But even during the most civilized times, martial arts survived,  managing to outlive their violent origins primarily because they taught much more than fighting. Self-defense, physical fitness and competition were not the only benefits practitioners enjoyed, because the true martial arts stressed character development, discipline and respect. The fact that martial arts have endured for so many centuries has given way to the evolution of many different styles.

The origins of karate appear to be somewhat obscure and little is known about the early development of karate until it appeared in Okinawa in the 1600's. Okinawa is the main island in the chain of Ryuku Islands which spans from Japan to Taiwan. Surrounded by coral, Okinawa is approximately 6 mi (10 km) wide and less than 70 mi (about 110 km) long. It is situated 400 nautical mi (740 km) east of mainland China,  300 nautical miles (550 km) south of mainland Japan and an equal distance north of Taiwan. Being at the crossroads of major trading routes, its significance as a "rest stop" was first discovered by the Japanese and later developed as a trade center for all of southeastern Asia.

In its earliest stages, karate was a form of closed fist fighting, originally called Te, or "hand". Te flourished in Okinawa because of frequently imposed bans on the possession and use of weapons by its citizens. For this reason, Te was often trained in secret.

Te continued to develop over the years, primarily in three Okinawan cities: Shuri, Naha and Tomari. Each of these towns was a center to a different sect of society: kings and nobles, merchants and business people, and farmers and fishermen, respectively. For this reason, different styles of self-defense developed within each city, based primarily on emphasis rather than on kind, and subsequently became known as Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te. Collectively they were called Okinawa-Te or Tode, "Chinese hand".

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.

If one man could be credited with the advancement of karate to the position it enjoys today, it would be Gichin Funakoshi. Born in Shuri, Okinawa in 1868, he was trained from childhood by two famous masters of that time. Each trained him in a different Okinawan martial art. He learned Shuri-te from Yasutsune Azato and Naha-te from Yasutsune Itosu. Sometime around the end of the 1800's, he combined elements from both styles and devised his own system, which he called shotokan.

In 1917, at the age of 49, Funakoshi-sensei was asked to publicly demonstrate karate for the first time on the mainland of Japan, at the Butoku-den, a physical education exhibition sponsored by the Ministry of Education in Kyoto. He was asked back again in 1922 by Dr. Jigoro Kano, founder of the Japanese art of Judo, for a demonstration at the famous Kodokan Dojo. He was asked back a third time, but this was a special performance for the Emperor of Japan and the royal family. These and subsequent events, greatly impressed many Japanese, especially Crown-Prince Hirohito, who was very enthusiastic about the Okinawan art. Afterwards, Funakoshi-sensei was asked by Dr. Kano to remain in Japan and to teach and promote his art. This sponsorship was instrumental in establishing a base for karate in Japan. As an Okinawan "peasant art," karate would have been scorned by the upper and middle class Japanese without the backing of the royal family and so formidable a martial arts master.

Funakoshi was a humble man who preached and practiced an essential humility and he was commited to teaching the true art of karate. Irrespective of this, he was not without his detractors. His critics scorned his insistence on hito-kata sanen (three years on one kata) and declared, what they called "soft" karate, to be too much of a waste of time.

One of Funakoshi's students, Otsuka, was reputed to be one of the most brilliant martial arts students in Japan. Otsuka's favorite kata was the Naihanchi, which he performed before the royalty of Japan with another outstanding student named Oshima, who performed the Pinan kata (Heian). One day, when Otsuka was teaching at the Shichi-Tokudo, a barracks situated in a corner of the palace grounds, a student named Kogura, who had a san-dan degree (3rd-degree black belt) in kendo ("way of the sword") and also a black belt in karate, took a sword and challenged Otsuka. All the other students watched to see what would happen. They felt that no one could face the shinken (open blade) held by a kendo expert. Otsuka calmly watched Kogura and the moment he made a move with his sword, Otsuka swept him off his feet. As this was unrehearsed, it attested to the skill of Otsuka and also bore out Funakoshi's philosophy that kata practice was more than sufficient in times of need.

Whenever the name of Gichin Funakoshi is mentioned, the parable of "A Man of Tao (Do) and a Little Man" immediately comes to mind. As it is told, a student once asked, "What is the difference between a man of Tao and a little man?" The sensei replies, "It is simple. When a little man receives his first dan (degree or rank), he runs home and tells everyone that he made his first dan. Upon receiving his second dan, he will jump for joy and crow to everyone about his achievement. Upon receiving his third dan, he will parade through town and climb to the rooftops to shout at the top of his voice that he is san-dan". The sensei continues, "When a man of Tao receives his first dan, he will bow his head in gratitude. Upon receiving his second dan, he will bow his head and his shoulders. Upon receiving his third dan, he will bow to the waist and quietly leave the room, walking alongside the wall so that no one will see him or notice him". Funakoshi was a man of Tao. He placed no emphasis on competitions, record breaking or championships. He placed emphasis on individual self perfection. He believed in the common decency and respect that one human being owed to another. He was the master of masters.

Funakoshi-sensei's shotokan style of Karate is perhaps the most widely taught style of karate in the world. Other popular karate styles currently practiced include kempo, goju­ryu kyokushin, isshin­ryu, shito­ryu, shorinji kernpo, shorin­ryu, uechi­ryu, wado­ryu and washin­ryu. All include hard­style kicks, punches and blocks. Some emphasize linear movements, while others teach circular movements. In virtually every style, kata (forms) practice and kumite (sparring) play an important role in training.

Jujutsu (Ju, gentle, soft, to give way; Jutsu, art, technique) is one of the oldest forms of hand-to-hand combat in Japan. Records of Jujutsu date back over 2000 years. It is one of the martial arts associated with the Japanese Samurai, a high class of warriors who at one time were the rulers of Japan. Although the origin of Jujutsu is not clear, and no fixed date of its first appearance can be ascertained, it is firmly held that it is a purely Japanese art, and furthermore, that it was not derived from any of the ancient Chinese martial arts, as some scholars have proposed. What is known is that the founding of its various schools or "ryu" date from the 8th century to the 16th century. Because Samurai warriors donned armor before entering the battlefield, kicks and punches had little effect. Therefore, chokes and joint locks were the primary techniques used to attack unprotected targets.

Ninjutsu is the art form of Japanese Ninja warriors. With a traceable history of 1000 years, the Ninja were most notable for their skills and activity during the Japanese Civil War periods of the l3th-l6th centuries, when missions of espionage and assassination were often carried out against samurai warlords. Although ninjutsu does include linear and circular empty­hand techniques (often called taijutsu, which encompasses punching, kicking and grappling), much of the art's techniques involve weapons such as the sword, dagger, dart, weighted chain and throwing star. Historically, ninja were masters of camouflage, concealment, horsemanship, explosives and poisons, but such skills receive little, if any, emphasis in modern training.

Judo ("gentle way") had its origins in the ancient Japanese art of jujutsu. Modern judo was founded by Dr. Jigoro Kano at the Kodokan ("school to learn the way") Judo Institute at the Eishoji Temple in 1882 as a martial sport. Kano never viewed the martial arts as a means to display physical prowess or superiority. He was a pacifist, who studied them to find a way to live in peace with other human beings. This is seen in Kano's first principle of Judo, seiryoku zenyo (maximum efficiency in mental and physical energy). One should use the energy of one's opponent to defeat his or her aggression. Judo enjoyed much popularity as its practitioners routinely defeated students of other martial arts. Later, it was adopted into the curriculum of Japanese public schools. In 1964, Judo became an Olympic sport, when the Games were held in Tokyo. Judo training emphasizes throwing an opponent to the ground by grasping his body or uniform. Once down, a variety of chokes and joint locks are used to effect a submission.

Aikido was developed in the early part of the 19th century by Morihei Uyeshiba, now known as O­Sensei (venerable teacher). From the time of his youth, he studied various martial arts, eventually including sumo, kendo (Japanese swordsmanship), spear technique, staff technique, and various styles of jiujutsu, particularly the Yagyu and Daito styles. O-Sensei's life saw Japan involved in some of the most violent conflicts of the 20th century, culminating in the Pacific war. However, it was during this time that he founded Aikido and declared it to be a way of joining the peoples of the world together in peace. Along with incorporating parts of the older martial arts into his new art, he emphasized evasion and redirection of an opponent's attack. In some variations of Aikido, strikes are used to set up an opponent for a throw or joint lock. In others, practice consists of strictly joint locks and throws. The art is popular in Japan because police frequently learn it so they can subdue suspects without injuring them. Some Aikido practitioners may also train with a staff, knife or wooden sword. Contrary to the way it is portrayed in the popular movies of film star Steven Seagal, Aikido has a reputation as a "non­violent" martial art.

Taekwondo ("Tae" meaning foot, "Kwon" meaning fist, and "Do" meaning way) is a relatively modern Korean martial sport. Even though the earliest records of Martial Arts practiced in Korea date back to about 50 B.C., these forms are known as 'Taek Kyon'. Taekwondo was created by Gen. Choi Hong­hi in 1955, from a mix of Japanese karate hand techniques and Korean taek kyon foot techniques. Taekwondo places a heavy emphasis on throwing rapid kicks and body punches. In fact, it is reputed to have the most extensive kicking arsenals of any martial art. In classroom training, breaking, forms, one­step sparring and self-defense are also taught.

Jeet Kune Do is an eclectic martial art created and polished in the 1960s and early 1970s by Bruce Lee. Using a philosophy of "absorb what it useful," Lee borrowed the best skills and techniques from a variety of martial arts, including wing chun kung fu, fencing, loosing and wrestling. Jeet kune do is renowned for its street effectiveness. It is almost never used in competition. Classes include instruction in kicking, punching, trapping and grappling.