Karate’s roots can be traced back to roughly 500 A.D. and the Indian abbot, Bodhidharma. After crossing the Himalayas into China to teach the way of Zen to monks at the Shaolin Temple, Bodhidharma discovered the monks lacked the physical and mental aptitude to endure the discipline required to reach enlightenment. He is said to have instituted a physical fitness program—i-chin-ching—based on the Buddhist doctrine of the inseparability of the mind and body, transforming the monks into the most formidable fighters in China.

As tode (“Chinese hand” or “Chinese boxing”) developed over many generations throughout China, nearby, the Okinawan people faced many hardships. Prior to being called Okinawa—a name bestowed upon the islands after their incorporation into modern Japan—the Kingdom of Ryukyu was invaded in 1609 by the Satsuma clan from southern Kyushu in Japan. One theory suggests that, since firearms were banned from the islands, the Ryukyuans practiced martial arts to eventually overthrow their overlords. However, Mark Bishop, author of Okinawan Karate, suggests the Ryukyuan peasants who remained on the islands were overworked, but generally did not try to usurp power from the new, large upper class. Instead, he says, the aristocracy primarily practiced the martial arts for self-defense and personal development.

During the 1800s the Okinawan king sent Sokon Matsumura, who would become the king’s personal bodyguard, to China to learn their fighting arts, including tode, initiating a continuous information exchange between the Chinese and Okinawans throughout the 19th century. In 1901, the martial arts proliferated throughout Okinawa thanks in part to schoolteacher Anko Itosu, who introduced a less-lethal fighting system to his students. One of them, Gichin Funakoshi, left Okinawa to teach martial arts in Japan, eventually opening the first dojo in Tokyo. It was during this time in the early 20th century that the pre-World War II, nationalistic Japanese wanted to eliminate any references to China; instead of tode, they referred to their martial art as karate—“empty hand.”

Ravaged by the war, the surviving, financially hard-pressed Okinawan masters realized karate’s commercial value by opening their own martial arts schools during the early 1940s. As many American servicemen were stationed in Okinawa during World War II and the Vietnam War, several took up the chance to learn martial arts, and upon their discharge from the military, introduced their arts to the U.S. and elsewhere. Robert Trias, a Navy champion boxer stationed in the Solomon Islands, was one of those servicemen, and is credited with establishing the first karate school in America in 1946.

Today, more than a millennium since its creation, karate still aims to unite mind and body as one. a&s