Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate, is generally credited with having introduced and popularized karate on the main islands of Japan. Actually many Okinawans were actively teaching, and are thus equally responsible for the development of karate. Funakoshi was a student of both Asato Ankō and Itosu Ankō (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, Chōjun Miyagi, Motobu Chōki, Kanken Tōyama, and Kanbun Uechi. This was a turbulent period in history in the region. It includes Japan’s annexation of the Okinawan island group in 1872, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), the annexation of Korea, and the rise of Japanese militarism (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 dō suffix implies that karatedō is a path to self knowledge, not just a study of the technical aspects of fighting. Like most martial arts practiced in Japan, karate made its transition from -jutsu to -dō around the beginning of the 20th century. The “dō” in “karate-dō” sets it apart from karate “jutsu”, as aikido is distinguished from aikijutsu, judo from jujutsu, kendo from kenjutsu and iaido from iaijutsu.
Funakoshi changed the names of many kata and the name of the art itself (at least on mainland Japan), doing so to get karate accepted by the Japanese budō 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, Chintō 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-ryū and Shōrei-ryū. 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 modernization and systemization 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 modernize 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 Shindō Yōshin-ryū 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 budō, 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: Wadō-ryū. In 1934, Wadō-ryū karate was officially recognized 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 personalized style of Karate was officially registered in 1938 after he was awarded the rank of Renshi-go. He presented a demonstration of Wadō-ryū 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 Wadō-ryū. In 1944, Ohtsuka was appointed Japan’s Chief Karate Instructor.
Isshin-ryū is a style of Okinawan karate founded by Shimabuku Tatsuo, a student of Motobu Chōki, and named by him on January 15, 1956. Isshin-ryū karate is largely a synthesis of Shorin-ryū karate, Gojū-ryū karate, and Kobudō. The name means, literally, “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 formally founded in 1957 by Masutatsu Oyama (who was born a Korean, Choi Yeong-Eui). Kyokushin is largely a synthesis of Shotokan and Gojū-ryū. It teaches a curriculum that emphasizes contact, physical toughness, and full contact sparring. Because of its emphasis on physical, full-force sparring, Kyokushin is now often called “full contact karate”, or “Knockdown karate” (after the name for its competition rules). Many other karate organizations and styles are descended from the Kyokushin curriculum.
The World Karate Federation recognizes these styles of karate in its kata list
The World Union of Karate-do Organizations (WUKO) recognizes these styles of karate in its kata list.
Many schools would be affiliated with, or heavily influenced by, one or more of these styles.