The History of Karate

masters of karate

from left to right, Kanken Toyama, Hironori Otsuka, Takeshi Shimoda, Gichin Funakoshi, Motobu Chōki, Kenwa Mabuni, Genwa Nakasone, and Shinken Taira (1930, Tokyo)

Karate developed widespread popularity in the United States in the 1960’s and 70’s. During that time, karate was romanticized from the infamous Bruce Lee films of the time, along with other martial arts Hollywood flicks that came out. When most common people think of karate, they instantly incorrectly refer to Kung Fu and Karate as the same thing due to Hollywood. But karate has a much deeper role than it’s impact in Hollywood. Although Bruce Lee was a superior martial artist and astounding athlete, besides making Hollywood movies he played little influence in actually bringing karate schools to America.

The true widespread growth of karate started in the early 1900’s. Gichin Funakoshi was hugely responsible for naming karate empty hand and bringing it to Tokyo, where from there, it spread all over the world to Europe and America. But let’s take a look even farther back.

Martial Arts Before Christ


Pankration – form of martial arts dating back to approx. 300 B.C.

For many years, my masters always claimed karate originated in India, and then spread to China. Although this is very true in some aspects where did karate really come from? Recently my master, Shihan William Viola told us that karate dated back the Roman Empire, where Alexander the Great was a martial arts practitioner himself. Although we all know the history of Japanese karate very well and how it came to America, there’s not much to be said about where karate came from before it was made in America.

The truth is Alexander the Great did practice karate, and karate was very much alive during the B.C. era. This style of martial art was known as Pankration (pronounced “Pan-Cray-She-On“), and was a style of hand to hand combat introduced in the Greek Olympic Games. The translations of Pankration is “All Powers”.


Pankration leg kick and trap, illustrating combat in the Greek Olympic Games

This pottery with a painting (pictured right) dates back to the Roman Empire. It clearly displays two combatants fighting in hand to hand combat. But one even more shocking picture is the next one on the left, which illustrates one practitioner doing what looks like a front kick with the other one doing a leg trap with one hand in the shuto position, and even a judge watching the fight.


The Roman Empires were the true first ones using martial arts in a fashion similar today. They had instructors, gyms where other learned Pankration, and they even shockingly practiced an ancient form of kata. Pankration was very similar to the Mixed Martial Arts of today. It involved alot of grappling and wrestling, but still had the punches and strikes of karate. Also, Pankration had no rules, allowing everything from eye poking, groin kicking, and even biting into it.

Martial arts was behind the ferocity of the Roman Empire. They were ruthless, well trained warriors, and it is only obvious that they had to have some kind of training system to back their superior combat skill with. There are many stories of great heroes of the time who used Pankration and won impossible combat challenges using it.

The Timeline of Karate

What came first, the chicken or the egg? A classic question often revolving around how life came to be. It can also be applied to karate. What came first, Chinese Monks creating karate or The Roman Empire? Or does hand to hand combat date back to the days of the caveman? Here is a general timeline of how karate was created (COMING SOON).


Karate in Japan and the United States

Robert TriasGichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate, is known as the father of modern karate. Funakoshi took karate from Okinawa to Tokyo, Japan, where he opened the first karate school ever in Tokyo. During his time in Tokyo, Funakoshi trained several legendary Japanese martial artist who spread karate to Europe, Russia, Africa, and the United States.

In 1946, Robert Trias was the first person to open a karate school in the United States, in Phoenix, Arizona. Later on, great masters such as Masters Nakayama and Okazaki brought Japanese karate into the United States as well. All of these people were pioneers of modern karate.

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