You may not know it, but October 25 is considered World Karate Day. The date was chosen and decreed by the Okinawan government, to host the first karate Olympic games in Japan. What many karateka doesn’t know is the reason behind the specific date.

Almost 85 years ago, karate masters from Okinawa gathered to decide the future of karate. The meeting was hosted by the Ryukyu Shinpo, the official newspaper of the Ryukyu kingdom (now Okinawa). At the time, karate was still called “Toudi,” meaning Chinese Hands or only “Te,” meaning “fighting / striking hands,” but you will soon see that this was about to change.

The meeting of Okinawan karate masters in 1936

As mentioned before, the gathering was hosted by the Ryukyu Shinpo on October 25, 1936. What follows is a transcription of part of the meeting — the documents are currently displayed at the Karate Museum in Okinawa.

These notes also appear as an appendix in the book, “Karatedo Dai Hokan” written by Kanken Toyama. Pages 377-392 (Tsuru Shobo, 1960). Initially translated to English by Yamada Kiyotaka “Sanzinsoo”, we reformatted the text for clarity.

Date and Time: October 25, 1936 (11th year of Showa Era) at 4:00 p.m.

Location: Showa Kaikan Hall, Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture
The Organizers: Ryukyu Shimpo Newspaper Company

[List of] Attendees

Karate Masters

Guests

Chojun Miyagi, Kyoda Juhatsu and Choki Motobu
Chojun Miyagi, Juhatsu Kyoda, and Choki Motobu

The Meeting Excerpt

Genwa Nakasone: When karate was first introduced in Tokyo, the capital of Japan, “karate” was written in Kanji (Chinese character) as “Chinese Hand”. This name sounded exotic, and gradually accepted among people in Tokyo. However, some people thought this Kanji “Chinese Hand” was not appropriate at schools. Some karate dojo wrote “karate” in hiragana (Japanese phonetic letters) to avoid the use of this kanji. That is an example of the temporary use of the word.

In Tokyo, most karate dojo use the kanji “The Way of Empty Hand” for karate-do, although there are still a few dojo using the kanji “Chinese Hand.” To better develop Japanese martial arts, I think kanji for “karate” should be “Empty Hand” instead of “Chinese Hand,” and “karate-do” should be the official name. What do you think?

Chomo Hanashiro: In the old days, we, Okinawan people, used to call it “Toudi” or “Tode”, not “Karate”. We also called it just “Ti” or “Te”. It means fighting with hands and fists.

Original Translator’s note: Pronunciation for the kanji written as “Chinese Hand” has two ways: 1) Toudi or Tode (Okinawan dialect) 2) Karate. Pronunciation for the kanji written as “Empty Hand” has only one: 1) Karate 

Ota: We, too, called it “Toudi” or “Tode”.

Shimabukuro: Mr. Nakasone, I hear nowadays people call it “karate-do,” instead of karate. Does this mean people added the word “Do” ( literally translated to The Way) to the name “karate” for emphasizing the importance of spiritual training as with Judo and Kendo?

Nakasone: They use the word “karate-do,” meaning the cultivation of the mind.

Ota: Mr. Miyagi, do you use the word “Chinese Hand” referring to karate?

Chojun Miyagi: Yes, I use the kanji “Chinese Hand” as most people. It has little meaning [for us]. Those who want to learn karate from me come to my home and say, “Please teach me ‘Ti’” or “Please show me ‘Te’”. So I think people are used to calling “Ti” or “Te,” instead of karate. [However,] I believe “Karate” is right as for the meaning of the word.

As Mr. Shimabukuro said, the name “Jujutsu” changed to “Judo.” In China, in the old days, people said Hakuda or Baida for Chinese kungfu, Kenpo or Chuanfa (Quanfa). Like those examples, names change according to times. I think the name “karate-do” is better than just “Karate.” However, I will reserve my decision on this matter, as I think we should hear other people’s opinions. We had a controversy on this matter at the meeting of Okinawa Branch of Dai Nippon Butokukai [Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society], which we shelved. In the meantime, we, members of the Okinawa Branch, use the name “Karate-Do” written in kanji as “The Way of Chinese Hand.” Shinkokai [a karate promotion center] will come to fruition soon, so we would like to have a proper name.

Chomo Hanashiro, Choshin Chibana and Shimpan Gusukuma
Chomo Hanashiro, Choshin Chibana and Shimpan Gusukuma

Oroku: Mr. Miyagi, did you go all the way to China to study karate?

Chojun Miyagi: In the beginning, I had no plan to practice kungfu in China, but I found the kungfu excellent, so I leaned it.

Oroku: Have we had our own “Te” [practice] here in our prefecture, Okinawa, for a long time?

Chojun Miyagi: There have been “Te” in Okinawa. It has been improved and developed like Judo, Kendo and boxing.

Kyoda Juhatsu: I agree with Mr. Nakasone’s opinion. However, I am opposed to making a formal decision right now at this meeting. Most Okinawan people still use the word “Chinese Hand” for karate, so we should listen to karate practitioners and karate researchers in Okinawa, and also, we should study it thoroughly at our study group before making a decision.

Chojun Miyagi: We will not make a decision immediately at this meeting.

Matayoshi: Please express your opinion with honesty.

Chomo Hanashiro: In my old notebooks, I found [myself] using the kanji, “Empty Hand” for karate. Since August 1905, I have been using the kanji “Empty Hand” for karate, such as “Karate Kumite.”

Goeku: I would like to comment, as I have a relation with the Okinawa branch of Dai Nippon Butokukai. 

Karate was recognized as a fighting art by the Okinawa branch of Dai Nippon Butokukai in 1933. At that time, Master Chojun Miyagi wrote karate as “Chinese Hand.” We should change his writing into “Empty Hand” at the Okinawa branch if we shift the kanji into “Empty Hand.” We would like to approve this change immediately and follow the procedure, as we need to have the approval of the headquarters of Dai Nippon Butokukai.

Ota: Mr. Chomo Hanashiro is the first person who used the kanji “Empty Hand” for karate in 1905. If something becomes popular in Tokyo, it will automatically become popular and common in other parts of Japan. Maybe Okinawan people do not like changing the kanji of karate. But we would be marginalized if the word “Chinese Hand” was regarded as a local thing, while the term “Empty Hand” is considered to be a common name for karate as a Japanese fighting art. Therefore, we better use the word “Empty Hand” for karate.

Nakasone: So far, the speakers were those who have been living in Okinawa for a long time. Now, I would like to have a comment from Mr. Sato, the director of the School Affairs Office. He came to Okinawa recently.

Sato: I have almost no knowledge about karate; however, I think the word “Empty Hand” is right, as the name “Chinese Hand” has no ground, according to the researchers.

Furukawa: Written as “Empty Hand,” the kanji is attractive for us who came from outside of Okinawa, and we think of it as an aggressive fighting art. I was disappointed when I saw the kanji “Chinese Hand” for karate.

Nakasone: This time, I would like to have a comment from Mr. Fukushima, the Regimental Headquarters Adjutant.

Fukushima: The kanji “Empty Hand” for karate is appropriate. The kanji “Chinese Hand” for karate is difficult to understand for those who do not know karate.

Ota: There is no one who doesn’t like the word “Empty Hand” for karate, but there are people who do not like the word “Chinese Hand” for karate.

Chojun Miyagi: Well, when I visited Hawaii, Chinese people there seemed to have a friendly feeling towards the word “Chinese Hand” for karate.

Shimabukuro: Here in Okinawa, we used to call “Ti” or “Te” for karate. To differentiate from it, we called “Toudi” or “Tode” for karate brought from China.

Nakasone: I think we are very clear about the naming of karate. Now we would like to discuss the promotion of karate. Regrettably, karate is not popular in Okinawa at present. We need to find a solution to promote karate in the fields of physical education and martial arts education.

Furukawa: There are a lot of Ryu or styles in karate now. I think we have to unify them at any cost. I hear there are small differences between the karate style from Shuri [Shuri-te] and Naha [Naha-te]. I think both methods should unify, and we should perform kata from Japanese Karate-do. In the old days, we had about 200 styles of kendo (swordsmanship), but now they all have been unified, and we have the standard kata of Japanese kendo. 

I think karate would become popular all over the country if we had united kata. For example, we can establish ten Kata as Japanese Karate. We should change the name of each Kata into Japanese, such as Junan-No-Kata (soft and stretch kata), Kogeki-No-Kata (offensive kata), and so forth. In this way, we can conform the names of kata to its content. And I also think we should make karate a competitive sport, so we should study how to hold a karate competition. We would like to make a karate uniform and standardize contents and training.

Chojun Miyagi: I agree with your opinion. Concerning karate kata, I even submitted a notice explaining it to the Dai Nippon Butokukai headquarters, when its Okinawa branch was established. As to karate uniforms, we also would like to manufacture them soon as we often have problems. As for the terminology of karate, I think we will have to control it in the future. I am also advocating for it, and I have been producing new technical words and promoting them.

Regarding kata, I think we should preserve traditional kata as an old or classic kata — for the nationwide promotion of karate. I suggest we create new kata. We will create both offensive and defensive kata which are suitable for students of primary schools, high schools, universities and youth schools. Mainly, we, the members of Shinkokai (karate promotion association), will make new kata and promote them throughout Japan. We also have the Physical Education Association and the Okinawa Branch of the Butokukai. There are also senior students of karate and those who are interested in it. We will, therefore, cooperate with them to study and promote karate. 

If such organizations and experts study karate thoroughly, we can make a decision about the karate name issue and karate uniform relatively soon. I think old kata should be preserved without any modification while new kata should be invented; otherwise, I am convinced that no one will be interested in karate any longer in the future.

Ota: How many karate organizations are there in Okinawa, currently?

Chojun Miyagi: There are the Okinawa Branch of Dai Nippon Butokukai, the Physical Education Association of Okinawa Prefecture and the Physical Education Association of Shuri City.

Ota: Mr. Chibana, how many students do you have now at your karate dojo?

Choshin Chibana: I have about 40 students at my karate dojo.

Chojun Miyagi: There is an insistent opinion that there are two Ryu or styles in karate, namely, Shorin-Ryu and Shorei-Ryu. I think such a view is wrong or false, as there is no evidence at all. 

However, if we have two styles in karate, we can categorize them by their teaching methods. In one form, they do not even differentiate between Fundamental Kata (such as Sanchin, Tensho and Naifanchi) and Kaishu Kata (kata other than Sanchin, Tensho and Naifanchi). They teach karate unsystematically and unmethodically. In the other style, they clearly differentiate between Fundamental Kata and Kaishu Kata. They teach karate systematically and methodically. My teacher (Master Kanryo Higaonna) taught me karate in the way of the latter.

Ota: Karate masters we know did not go to China to study karate.

Chojun Miyagi: I have heard that Master Matsumura went to China and practiced karate there.

Choshin Chibana: Our teacher taught us Naifanchi as a Fundamental Kata.

Ota: Mr. Motobu, who taught you karate?

Choki Motobu: I learned karate from Master Itosu, Master Sakuma and Master Matsumora of the Tomari village.

Ota: I thought you created your karate on your own, without learning from karate masters.

Choki Motobu: (laughing) No, I did not create my karate on my own.

Nakasone: Now, we confirmed that every karate master [present here] agreed to the plan to establish an association to promote karate. As Mr. Furukawa told us, we think the other people also seem to agree to this plan. So we would like members to start the preparation for establishing it.

The meeting notes end here.

Bonus Content!

If you, like us, practice shotokan karate, you may have noticed that Gichin Funakoshi sensei — the founder of our style — was never mentioned. And that is correct because Funakoshi did not participate in the meeting on October 25, 1936.

Karate masters sitting around a table during a meeting.
Yet another meeting of karate masters. This time with the participation of Gichin Funakoshi.