A Brief History Of Karate

Our students have a natural interest in the background, history and culture of the Karate that is taught at Martial Arts For Life. It is important to study Karate in context and understand how this martial arts has travelled from China, Japan and Okinawa to arrive in Harrogate, Leeds, Knaresborough and Tadcaster over the last 150 years or so.

For historical, political and technological reasons, the history of Karate is frequently obscure and difficult to understand. In particular, the effects of World War II and mystique which practitioners have engaged in over the last 150 years have obfuscated some of the facts. This brief introduction is in no way a complete history of our art, but is presented as an introduction to base your own studies on.

Our Lineage

To understand Karate in context, it is important to comprehend our own lineage in the martial arts. Our Chief Instructor is Master Janet McKenna. Master McKenna was awarded her 5th Dan in 2009 by Master Tony Johnson of Johnson's Karate. Master McKenna was awarded this grade in the style of Kong Sudo which is a Korean translation of the more common term "Karate-do". Karate-do means "The Way Of The Empty Hand". This is a relatively modern term for our martial art, the older term being Tang Soo Do or Tang Te which means "The Way Of The Chinese Hand". The founder of modern karate, Gichin Funakoshi recounts in the book "Karate-Do: My Way Of Life" that the reference to China in Tang Te was politically unacceptable and so the word "Chinese" was replaced with the word for "Empty". This is an illustration of the effect of global politics on martial arts!
Further information on Johnson's Kong Sudo

Master Tony Johnson

Master Johnson had many martial arts instructors, most importantly including Master Hwang Po. Master Hwang Po was a Korean teacher of Tang Soo Do (the Korean form of Karate). Master Hwang Po was one of many instructors who travelled from Korea after Word War II to the UK, USA and other countries to spread their martial art.

Master Hwang Po

Master Hwang Po's instructor was Grand Master Hwang Kee, the founder of Korean Tang Soo Do (founded in 1947). Unfortunately, national politics and World War II again interfere with a clear picture of the history of our art at this point. Nationalist sentiment was very much against Japan (and therefore Okinawa) at the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea. Hwang Kee could therefore not easily advertise the Japanese / Okinawan roots of his Tang Soo Do martial art. It is not easy to trace who may have taught him this obviously Okinawa martial art, however, popular theory suggests that the most likely candidate was Won Kuk Lee, although this is far from certain! Grand Master Hwang Kee is also notable for refusing to change the name of his martial art to Tae Kwon Do as other instructors did under nationalist pressure from the Korean government (circa 1955).

Master Won Kuk Lee

Master Won Kuk Lee was well known in Korea for teaching Chung Do Kwan Tae Know Do. In particular he was known for teaching police officers. Won Kuk Lee is known to have studied various martial arts, most importantly studying Karate under Sensei Gichin Funakoshi. At some point, either Won Kuk Lee or Hwang Kee introduced modern, high, circular kicks into the Korean version of Karate which we still practice today.

Sensei Gichi Funakoshi

Sensei Gichi Funakoshi is widely known as the founder of modern karate. He is responsible for taking a classical, Okinawan martial art and teaching it in Japan and the world beyond. Most modern Karate practitioners trace their lineage back to Gichin Funakoshi. Gichin Funakoshi organised the core of a Karate syllabus that is known throughout the world. It was designed to be taught to large numbers of civilians rather than being taught to the military or individual students in one-on-one situations. He also removed the teaching of traditional weapons from the syllabus, presumably because it was not deemed a suitable topic for children! It is also speculated by many that he simplified the Kata that he taught and removed more deadly techniques. Kata analysis indicates that this is not the case as many lethal techniques clearly exist within the Kata as Gichin Funakoshi taught them.

Master Anko Itosu And Master Anko Asato

Gichin Funakoshi had two highly influential teachers. They were Anko Itosu and Anko Asato. Of the two, Itosu is the best known in martial arts circles. Itosu created the Pyong Ahn forms (proably based on Kong Sang Kun) to better stage the teaching of Karate. Itosu was a school teacher and as such taught Karate on a large scale basis to school children at a time when Karate was traditionally taught on a one-to-one basis.

Sokon (Bushi) Matsumura

Anko Itosu and Anko Asato were both students of the (almost) legendary Sokon (Bushi) Matsumura. Matsumura's life time is the subject of some debate, but he probably lived for about 90 years at some time in the 19th Century. Matsumura is the beginning of the linear Karate that is practiced around the world today. Matsumura studied Karate and adapted it to suit his own experience of fighting as bodyguard to the Kings Of Okinawa. There are many fascinating stories of Matsumura including the creation of the Chinto form that is practised today. All of the forms of Karate derived from Matsumura can be categorised as Shuri-Te Karate (named after the village Shuri in which Matsumura taught Karate) or Shorin-Ryu. Shorin-Ryu (Shaolin style) possibly refers to either the Chinese origin of the martial art, the Pine trees around Okinawa or even the Okinawan Kings of the Sho dynasty. So much time has passed that it is hard to be sure which of these theories is true. It should be noted that it is entirely possible that the Shorin-Ryu name was derived from all of these theories.

Kanga (Karate) Sakugawa

It is believed that Matsumura learned Karate from an Okinawan Kanga (Karate) Sakugawa. Sakugawa was well known for feats of great strength and reknowned through the island of Okinawa for his fighting prowess. It is likely that Sakugawa was training in Karate from around 1750 in Okinawa.


It is also likely that Sakugawa trained under Peichin Takahara and Kushanku. Kushanku was a Chinese attache to Okinawa in the 18th Century and well versed in White Crane Kung Fu. The form Kong Sang Kung is named in honour of Kushanku (and is indeed named Kushanku in some styles of Karate) and is said to contain the fighting techniques of this master of the martial arts. Since the modern Pyong Ahn forms appear to be based on Kong Sang Kung, we can clearly see the influence of this 300 year old martial art on our modern Karate.


As you can see, we can draw a line from Kushanku to the early 18th century to Master Janet McKenna in the early 21st century when tracing our lineage. It is important to see our modern martial art in context as a living breathing martial art that has changed significantly over the last three hundred years. It is more than likely that it will continue to grow and evolve over the next three hundred years!