Compared to more than a thousand years of Okinawan Te,Japanese karatedo with about ninety years of existence is a relative new development. (Mainland) Japan has its own different, more than a millennium-old, martial arts and bushido tradition:

Japan is the Birthplace of Bu-Jutsu, Okinawa is the Birthplace of Karate-Jutsu

The specific role and purpose of a lethal empty-hand martial art that served as a part of a warrior's education in ancient mainland Japan was not represented by karate; it was bujutsu, better known as jujutsu. Karate was essentially unknown in mainland Japan until the early 1920s, though some Chinese military ch'üan fa representatives may have visited before that, and some Okinawan karate instructors may have travelled there sporadically.

However, Japan, the "karate-reproducing" country is—and used to be—the superior political power governing the "karate-inventing" and culturally autonomous region Okinawa; first as the occupying force of the Ryukyu kingdoms, and thereafter as the central government overseeing Okinawa Prefecture. Until today, the Okinawans have not 100 percent assimilated into Japanese society. A boundary remains, a dichotomy of culture and citizenship endures, and nothing indicates that it will disappear in the future.

Japan's commendable strategy of not destroying Okinawan traditions during centuries of occupation and control created favorable conditions to maintain an Okinawan sub-culture, which can be found in tangible and intangible symbols like Shisa figures, the performing arts, traditional rituals, and celebrations. Okinawan karate, however, unlike other tangible and intangible symbols of Okinawan subcultural identity, was never left alone by Japan. On the contrary, Okinawan karate faced a serious Japanese takeover.

The Mainland "Japanized" Okinawan Karate in the 1920s

Japan's pre-war hegemonic view of its own militaristic superiority and its presumption―based on its noble samurai and bushido traditions―of owning martial art per se, with corresponding treatment of occupied territory, may explain Japan's policies and actions to claim karate as its own genuine Japanese martial art. This is of course correct in terms of the nation's governmental sphere, but it is not correct in terms of sub-cultural heritage and sub-cultural identity, and it fails to give appropriate credit to the karate-inventing and karate-cultivating region of Okinawa.

Okinawan karate entered Japan with Funakoshi Gichin Sensei in 1922, when he demonstrated the art before a large gathering of interested Japanese spectators. However, as he describes in his book Karate-Do: My Way of Life, it took him almost another decade, after much struggle, to promote and shape his karate approach, later named Shotokan by his students, to gain broader public interest.

Other Okinawan karate masters followed and taught on the mainland. They all deserve credit for helping win respect for the new art among Japanese government institutions and budo associations—however not without significant modifications to assimilate the path of other traditional Japanese martial arts forms into their sports-alterations (judo, aikido, kendo, etc.).

Moreover, traditional Okinawan karate, coming from Japan's farthest and poorest region, was considered crude and rural by Japanese martial arts officials, compared to the elegant, sophisticated, and philosophically substantiated arts of koryu bujutsu, and was therefore supposed to be socially acceptable on the mainland only after its conversion into its Japanized form. This assimilation and conversion represents the Japanization of Okinawan karate.

The Reasons behind the Politics

The process of Japanization is motivated by a combination of reasons, such as:

  • Governmental cultural integration efforts to create some homogeneity within the cultural sphere of the nation (as pointed out by academic socio-cultural research).
  • Political and business considerations to create an Olympic discipline as well as business opportunities (as showed by several academic studies).
  • Sport-political efforts to create a Japanese"punch and kick alternative" to the then-popular Western sport of boxing. This aspect was enforced when fifty-year-old Motobu Choki Sensei defeated a big non-Japanese heavy-weight boxer/wrestler with an open-hand punch—this spectacular victory was then incorrectly attributed to Funakoshi Gichin Sensei in the press (documented by historic research); supposedly to support the latter's role of spreading his Japanized version of Shotokan karate on the mainland.

In the mid-1930s, karate was officially accepted as a Japanese martial arts discipline on the mainland, after meeting the requirements of the governing Japanese budo associations:

The Essence of Japanization: Self-Perfection Replaces Self-Protection

As a result of the required adaptions, the initial Okinawan concept of self-protection underwent two revisions that distinguish Japanese karatedo considerably from its Okinawan origin and generated the change of Karate-Jutsu into Karate-Do:

  • Change of purpose from self-protection to self-perfectionin terms of health, spiritualism, and character development.

    The resulting Karate-do, a Japanese athletic-meditative and recreational path differs significantly from the classical Okinawan "Karate-jutsu" self-protection concept.

  • Change of techniques from "creating the most possible damage in the most effective way" to speedy, fencing sport moves with tagging contact.

    The resulting new sports-karate, with its speedy fencing moves and tagging contact, differs significantly from the classical Okinawan Karate-jutsu self-protection concept.

The Resulting Change of Karate's Purpose and Moves

Several martial arts historians claim that the leading Okinawan karate masters, for instance Funakoshi Sensei's famous and influential sensei, Itosu ("Anko") Yasutsune, permitted some of their students to teach the secret mortal art in mainland Japan but advised them to change Okinawan karate, to disarm it, and to keep specific techniques hidden. Funakoshi Sensei represented this Itosu-derived trend of removing or hiding the most effective and brutal aspects of Okinawa Te—even moving further to alter, to Japanize, the entire self-defense purpose into the spiritual way, into the Do, of Japanese budo arts. He turned Okinawan karate-jutsu into karate-do, transforming it from a tough and effective art of self-defense into a means of spiritual perfection.

Consequently, many Okinawa karate's techniques were eliminated in Japanized karate, especially throws and sweeps, groundwork, nerve suppression, joint locks, and limb, head, or neck manipulations. Other techniques seem to have been radically altered—either per request of the Japanese budo associations, by Funakoshi Sensei himself, or by following sensei generations—and the essence of the original, Itosu-based style was lost in its transition from Okinawa to mainland Japan.

Instead, budo-specific philosophical Zen and health-related superstructures for karate became more important than the art's original self-protection purpose. In Patrick McCarthy's exploratory words to his Bubishi translation: "This radical period of transition represented the termination of a secret self-defense art that embraced spiritualism and the birth of a unique recreational phenomenon" (p. 147).

To establish karate as sport was initiated and heavily pursued by the official Japanese budo and karate associations, especially after the second World War , as part of their political efforts to establish martial arts as an Olympic discipline―an effort that finally succeeded in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.

Many Okinawan authorities of traditional karate deplore this development until today. For instance, Yagi Meitatsu, Hanshi, 10th Dan Goju Ryu, states in his 2018 interview with Classic Fighting Arts magazine: "In the case of sport karate, they are only interested in speed to score points. They also have 'safety zones' where attacks are not permitted and where penalties are given even for accidental contact. Therefore, they are not martial art in any way."

Sport Karate is Not Combat Karate

In contrast to sportsmanship, true combat does not have rules, and terms like "fairness" or "equitableness" do not apply when it comes to surviving a life-threatening situation—which contradicts these pointless stand-off scenes propagated in action movies, where a noble hero doesn't act on an advantage while combatting a villain but even drops a weapon to level the fight. As soon as any kind of rules are implemented, combat changes into some kind of game. Life-protecting fighting is no game. Life-protecting fighting is not pretty. Life-protecting fighting is ugly, pure violence, and pitiless full-power action.

That does not mean, however, that honor is excluded in combat. Honor remains a core value of an individual code of ethics for every karateka. Acting honorably in combat is a matter of individual choice with all its consequences, as the Japanese bushido philosophy as well as the moral guidelines introduced by Okinawan karate legends aptly explain.

The above is an excerpt from Analysis of Genuine Karate: Misconceptions, Origins, Development, and True Purpose by Hermann Bayer, Ph.D., publish date October 2021, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594398438.