Practicing Wado Ryu Karate since 1988
Practicing Wado Ryu Karate since 1988
British Wado-Ryu Karate Union
British Wado-Ryu Karate Union

A brief history of Karate and Wado-Ryu

The Meaning of 'Karate'


Karate was originally written as 'Chinese hand' - It should be noted that use of the written character is possibly linked to the origins of karate from China.

Originally the use of the term 'Chinese hand' was a reflection of the Chinese influence on Karate. The first documented use of the term pronounced 'kara' can be found in a book by Chomo Hanashiro; 'Karate Kumite' was published in August 1905.

In the early 20th century Japan did not have good relations with China and, in 1932, Japan attacked China and occupied its northern territory. At that time referring to the Chinese origins of Karate was considered politically incorrect.

In 1933, the Okinawan art of Karate was recognized as a Japanese Martial Art by the Japanese Martial Arts Committee known as the 'Butoku Kai'. Until 1935 'Karate' was still written as 'Chinese Hand'. However, in 1935 the masters of the various styles of Okinawan Karate conferred to decide a new name for their art. They decided to call their art 'Karate' written in the Japanese characters meaning 'empty hand'.

A further significant development in the naming of 'Karate' came when the term 'Do' was added. 'Do' is a suffix which has various meanings in Japanese such as 'road', 'path' and 'way'. Therefore, the pratcice of KarateDo is more than just empty hand techniques, it is indeed 'The Way Of The Empty Hand'. 'Do' in Karate terms is generally translated as "the way of' thus highlighting that Karate is more than just a fighting system, but when promoted as a discipline contains spiritual elements.


The History of Karate


Karate or Karate-Do is a Martial Art which was developed in the Ryukyu Islands. It derived from fighting methods blended with Chinese Kenpo. The art primarily involves striking techniques such as punching and kicking as well as knee and elbow strikes. Open-handed techniques such as knife-hands and ridge-hands are also practised. Some Karate styles do include grappling, locks, restraints, throws, and vital point strikes within their syllabus. A person who practisces Karate is known as a 'Karateka'.

Amongst the Pechin class of the Ryukyuans, Karate was a fighting system known simply as 'te'From 1372 many forms of Chinese Martial Arts were introduced to the Ryukyu Islands, mainly by the visitors from China and in particular the Fujian Province. Around the time of 1392 some 36 Chinese families went to Okinawa from China. Not only did the Chinese share their culture with the Okinawans but also their Chinese Chinese martial arts.

Other significant developments were the political centralization of Okinawa by King Shohashi in 1429, and in 1609 Okinawa was invaded by the Shimazu clan which led to a policy of Banning Weapons. Unarmed combat fighting methods were therefore further developed in Okinawa.

A few formal styles of 'te' existed, however, many practitioners studied with their own methods. Early styles of Karate are often generalized as Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te. Each style named after the cities where they had been developed. Each city or area, and the Sensei from that area, had particular kata, techniques, and principles that distinguished their local version of 'te' from that of the other cities.

The Okinawan upper classes regularly visited China to study various political and practical disciplines. This led to an incorporation of empty-handed Chinese Wu Shu with Okinawan Martial Arts. The traditional kata of Karate-Do have a strong resemblance to the kata practised in Fujian Martial Arts such as Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors and Gangrou-quan (Hard Soft Fist; pronounced "Gōjūken" in Japanese).

Further influences have come from Southeast Asia and in particular Sumatra, Java and Melaka. It is widely believed many Okinawan weapons such as the Sai, Tonfa, and Nunchaku may have originated in and around Southeast Asia.


The History of Wado-Ryu


Wado-Ryu Karate began in 1934 when Hironori Ohtsuka registered the style of Karate he had developed. Mr Ohtsuka had spent much time studying many Martial Arts. He combined his knowledge of these arts with his own ideas and innovations to develop the style we know as Wado-Ryu.

Hironori Ohtsuka was born on the 1st June 1892, and was first introduced to martial arts by a family member who began teaching him Jujitsu.

Ohtsuka continued his study of Jujitsu at school. He was made aware, through his study of Jujitsu, of the importance of natural flowing movements, which were the essence of Jujitsu. These lessons stayed with Ohtsuka and formed the basis of his style of Karate, Wado-Ryu. The foundations of Wado-Ryu are based around the principle of minimum movement for maximum effect. An exponent of Wado-Ryu will learn to use his opponent’s body weight and movement to his own advantage.

Ohtsuka continued his study of Jujitsu at university between 1910 and 1917. During these years he experimented with different forms of Jujitsu as well as examining many other martial arts. At this time he began to look at ways to improve certain areas of his art, whilst combining them with other innovations.

On the 1st June 1920 Mr Ohtsuka was awarded the highest degree in Shindo Yosin Ryu Jujitsu, and he followed his own teacher to become Grand Master.

In 1922 Ohtsuka was introduced to Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern day Karate. They spent many hours discussing techniques and various aspects of Karate. Very quickly, Ohtsuka had learnt the kata's from Funakoshi. Some moves very difficult to understand, leading Ohtsuka to study further the practice of Karate. He went on to study kata under Sensei Mabuni, the founder of Shito-Ryu.

By 1925 Ohtsuka was both the Chief instructor of Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujitsu and an assistant instructor at Funakoshi sensei's dojo and by the year 1929, Ohtsuka was registered as a member of the Japan Martial Arts federation.

At this point Okinawan Karate was only concerned with the practice of kata. Ohtsuka felt that the true budo spirit was missing. He felt that Karate should concentrate on both attack and defence. This led to Ohtsuka developing Yakusoko Kumite as a way to develop attacking techniques.

It was Ohtsuka's belief that Karate should be more fluid than the styles practiced at that time. Ohtsuka decided that the time was right to leave Funakoshi and develop his own system of Karate, namely Wado-Ryu.

In 1934 Wado-Ryu was officially recognized as an independent style of Karate. This breakthrough allowed Ohtsuka sensei to become a full time Karateka and Martial Artist. The following year Kano sensei, the founder of Judo, recommended that Karate be accepted as a Martial Art by the Japan Martial Arts Federation. In the early stages this was only as a satellite of Judo.

The major breakthrough for karate came at the end of the 1930's. In 1938 Ohtsuka sensei gave a demonstration of Wado-Ryu to the Japan Martial Arts Federation, who recognized him as an official high ranking sensei. The following year the different schools of Karate were asked to register their names, and Ohtsuka registered the name 'Wado-Ryu'. In 1944 Ohtsuka sensei was appointed Japans Chief Karate coach. It was at this time that Ohtsuka's son began to receive instruction from his father.

Karate remained upon the Japanese Islands until the early 1960's. In 1963 a team of 3 Japanese sensei left Japan to introduce Karate to the western world. These men were Mr. Arakawa, Mr Takashima and Mr T. Suzuki. Thanks to these 3 men, Wado-Ryu Karate has now become recognised throughout the western world.

Ohtsuka continued to promote his art and, in 1966, his dedication was rewarded when he received an honour from Emperor Horohito. He was awarded the title 'Kun Goto Suokuo Kyoku Jujitsu Shou'. Ohtsuka and his team continued to promote Wado-Ryu worldwide and by the beginning of the 1970's Wado-Ryu was firmly established as a major school of Karate.

One of Ohtsuka sensei's most coverted awards came in 1972. The president of the International Martial Arts Federation, who was also a member of the Japanese royal family, awarded Ohtsuka the title 'Meijin' (The first excellent martial artist in karate, i.e. 10th Dan).

As we moved into the 1980's there was much debate as to who would eventually succeed Ohtsuka as the head of Wado-Ryu. Ohtsuka himself wanted his son to take over, but this was not the choice of some high ranking Wado-Ryu instructors. Opinion was divided and, even after much debate, no settlement could be reached. This led to some Wado-Ryu exponents breaking away to form their own association practicing Wado-Ryu Karate.

On the 20th November, 1981, Ohtsuka passed on the title of 'Grand Master of Wado-Ryu' to his son, Ohtsuka 2nd. Ohtsuka sensei died peacefully on 19th January 1982, 2 months after handing the title to his son.

Ohtsuka will always be remembered through Wado-Ryu karate. 


Significant people of Karate


Sakukawa Kanga (1782-1830)

Sakukawa studied boxing and staff (or 'bo') fighting in China (one version of events claims that this was under the guidance of Kosokun, originator of 'kusanku' kata). In 1806 he begun teaching in the city of Shuri a fighting art which he called 'Tudi Sakukawa' translating to 'Sakukawa of China Hand'.

Around the time of the 1820s one of Sakukawa's most significant students, Matsumura Sokon (1809–1899), taught a combination of 'te' and Shaolin styles. This system later became the Shorin-Ryu style.


Anko Itosu (1831 - 1915) - the Grandfather of modern Karate.

One of the people Matsumura taught his art to was Anko Itosu. Itosu adapted two kata he had learned from Matsumara, namely 'kusanku' and 'chiang nan'. He created the ping'an forms, which are known in Japanese as 'heian' or 'pinan'. These forms are simplified kata for students beginning their training. In 1901 Itosu helped to get Karate introduced into Okinawa's public schools, with his forms being taught to children at the elementary school level. The forms Itosu created are common to nearly all styles of karate.

Some of Itosu’s students went on to became some of the most well known Karate masters. These have included Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Choki Motobu. Itosu was, therefore, sometimes referred to as 'the Grandfather of Modern Karate'.

Higonna Kagryo (1853 - 1915)

In 1881 he returned from China after years of instruction with Ryu Ryu Ko and founded what would become Naha-te. One of his students was the founder of Goju-Ryu, Chojun Miyagi. Chojun Miyagi taught such well-known Karateka as Seko Higa (who also trained with Higaonna), Meitoku Yagi, Miyazato Ei'ichi, and Seikichi Toguchi.



Kanbun Uechi (1877 - 1948)

In addition to the three early 'te' styles of karate, a fourth Okinawan influence is that of Kanbun Uechi. At the age of 20 he went to Fuzhou in Fujian Province, China, to escape Japanese military conscription. While there he studied under Shushiwa. He was a leading figure of Chinese Nanpa Shorin-ken at that time. He later developed his own style of Uechi-Ryu Karate based on the Sanchin, Seisan, and Sanseiryu kata that he had studied in China.


Karate in Japan


The founder of Shotokan karate, Gichin Funakoshi, is generally credited with having introduced and popularised karate on the main islands of Japan. However, many Okinawans were actively teaching karate and are equally responsible for the development of karate. Funakoshi was a student of both Asato Anko and Itosu Anko (who had worked to introduce karate to the Okinawa Prefectural School System in 1902). During this time period, prominent teachers who also influenced the spread of karate in Japan included Kenwa Mabuni, Chojun Miyagi, Choki Motobu, Kanken Toyama, and Kanbun Uechi. This was a turbulent period in the history of the region. It includes Japan's annexation of the Okinawan island group in 1874, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), the annexation of Korea, and the rise of Japanese expansionism (1905–1945).


Japan was invading China at the time and Funakoshi knew that the art of Tang/China hand would not be accepted; thus the change of the art's name to 'way of the empty hand'. The '-do' suffix implies that karatedo is a path to self knowledge and not just a study of the technical aspects of fighting. Like most martial arts practiced in Japan, karate made its transition from '-jutsu' to '-do' around the beginning of the 20th century. The '-do' in 'karatedo' sets it apart from 'karatejutsu'. Just as aikido is distinguished from aikijutsu, judo from jujutsu, kendo from kenjutsu, iaido from iaijutsu and Taido from Taijutsu.


Funakoshi changed the names of many katas and the name of the art itself (at least on mainland Japan). This was in an effort to get karate acceptance from the Japanese budo organization 'Dai Nippon Butoku Kai'. Funakoshi also gave Japanese names to many of the kata. The five pinan forms became known as heian, the three naihanchi forms became known as tekki, seisan as hangetsu, chinto as gankaku, wanshu as empi, and so on. These were mostly political changes rather than changes to the content of the forms, although Funakoshi did introduce some such changes. Funakoshi had trained in two of the popular branches of Okinawan karate of the time, Shorin-Ryu and Shorei-Ryu. In Japan he was influenced by kendo, incorporating some ideas about distancing and timing into his style. He always referred to what he taught as simply karate, but in 1936 he built a dojo in Tokyo and the style he left behind is usually called Shotokan after this dojo.


The modernisation and systemisation of karate in Japan also included the adoption of the white uniform that consisted of the kimono and the dogi or keikogi (mostly called just karategi) and colored belt ranks. Both of these innovations were originated and popularized by Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo and one of the men Funakoshi consulted in his efforts to modernise karate.


In 1922, Hironori Ohtsuka attended the Tokyo Sports Festival, where he saw Funakoshi's karate. Ohtsuka was so impressed with this that he visited Funakoshi many times during his stay. Funakoshi was, in turn, impressed by Ohtsuka's enthusiasm and determination to understand karate, and agreed to teach him. In the following years, Ohtsuka set up a medical practice dealing with martial arts injuries. His prowess in martial arts led him to become the Chief Instructor of Shindo Yoshin-Ryu jujutsu at the age of 30, and an assistant instructor in Funakoshi's dojo.


By 1929, Ohtsuka was registered as a member of the Japan Martial Arts Federation. Okinawan karate at this time was only concerned with kata. Ohtsuka thought that the full spirit of budo, which concentrates on defence and attack, was missing, and that kata techniques did not work in realistic fighting situations. He experimented with other, more combative styles such as judo, kendo, and aikido. He blended the practical and useful elements of Okinawan karate with traditional Japanese martial arts techniques from jujitsu and kendo, which led to the birth of kumite, or free fighting, in karate. Ohtsuka thought that there was a need for this more dynamic type of karate to be taught, and he decided to leave Funakoshi to concentrate on developing his own style of karate: Wado-Ryu. In 1934, Wado-Ryu karate was officially recognised as an independent style of karate. This recognition meant a departure for Ohtsuka from his medical practice and the fulfilment of a life's ambition - to become a full-time martial artist.


Ohtsuka's personalised style of karate was officially registered in 1938 after he was awarded the rank of Renshi-go. He presented a demonstration of Wado-Ryu karate for the Japan Martial Arts Federation. They were so impressed with his style and commitment that they acknowledged him as a high-ranking instructor. The next year the Japan Martial Arts Federation asked all the different styles to register their names; Ohtsuka registered the name Wado-Ryu. In 1944, Ohtsuka was appointed Japan's Chief Karate Instructor.


Isshin-Ryu is a style of Okinawan karate founded by Shimabuku Tatsuo, a student of Motobu Choki, and named by him on January 15, 1956. Isshin-Ryu Karate is largely a synthesis of Shorin-Ryu Karate, Goju-Ryu Karate, and Kobudo. The name means 'one heart method'. The style, while not very popular in Okinawa, spread to the United States via the Marines stationed on the island after they returned home and has also spread to other countries. After the passing of Shimabuku, many variations of the system formed and exist to this day.


A new form of Karate called Kyokushin was developed in 1964 by Masutatsu Oyama (who was born a Korean, Choi Yeong-Eui). Kyokushin taught a curriculum that emphasised contact, physical toughness and practical application of Karate techniques to self-defense situations. Because of its emphasis on physical, full-force sparring, Kyokushin is now often called 'full contact Karate'.



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