The 2020 Tokyo Olympics featured six forms of martial arts competition. For one of them, karate, it was a significant homecoming. Japan’s Ryo Kiyuna won the gold medal in the men’s kata, a display of ability more akin to the gymnastics floor event than a one-on-one matchup.
Kiyuna’s win is historically significant because he and karate were born on Okinawa. But karate itself might not have some 50 million practitioners worldwide if it weren’t for Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the post-World War II commander of occupied Japan.
Karate was first created in the Ryukyu Islands (of which Okinawa is the archipelago’s largest island) and developed over the course of centuries. In 1609, the Ryukyu Islands were invaded by the daimyo of Satsuma, and the islanders were not allowed to carry weapons.
But the Okinawans had a long history of not being allowed to carry weapons that dated back to the independent kingdoms of the 15th century. By the time samurai came to the Ryukyu Islands, the karate of Okinawa didn’t require weapons. Instead, the striking of karate emphasized unarmed techniques.
In 1879, the empire of Japan annexed the islands. It didn’t take long before karate was introduced to the Japanese mainland. Okinawans migrated en masse to Japan, and by the 1920s, karate clubs were prevalent at Japanese universities. Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate, built his first dojo near Tokyo in 1936.
The mid-1930s saw the height of militaristic Japan’s growing power. Since the first days of Okinawa’s annexation by Japan, karate began to undergo a politically motivated evolution. In its early days, “karate” as written meant “Chinese hand,” a nod to Chinese Kung Fu’s influence on the art form.
As Japan increasingly entered conflict with mainland China, the word started to be written differently. With the pronunciation of the word the same, it was changed from “Chinese hand” to “empty hand.”
After Japan’s defeat and occupation in World War II, MacArthur banned military education and martial arts in Japan. Judo and kendo were banned specifically, considered by MacArthur to be overtly militant. Before he also could ban karate, MacArthur was approached by Nobuhide Ohama, a university professor and sponsor of the Waseda Karate Club.
Ohama didn’t just ask MacArthur not to ban karate, he asked that it be taught at Japanese universities and that the American Occupational Force allow independent karate clubs. He told the U.S. Army that karate was a gentleman’s sport, just like boxing, with some kicking added in. Karate was not banned by the Army and was allowed to spread.
The United States occupied Okinawa until 1972 and still maintains a significant presence on the island. The years between the end of World War II and the end of the occupation saw hundreds of thousands of U.S. service members stationed there. Many of these service members either experienced karate in some way or took to learning the art itself and taking it home with them.
Since then, karate has become a global phenomenon, with an estimated 50 million people practicing the art worldwide. With so many adherents, it’s no wonder that karate has earned a place in our worldwide global media lexicon, being featured in countless films, television shows and sporting events.
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