Karate is a time honored martial discipline that originated in Asia. The practice of fighting without weapons originated in China, they called it wu shu. The term means “empty hand” and records show that it dates back more than four millennia, to ancient times. However, the term karate is not Chinese in origin, but Japanese. The Japanese language has a distinct set of characters that divide words into syllables, almost all of which end in a vowel sound. The martial arts emigrated from China to Japan during efforts at cultural exchange that happened around the year 1400 C.E..
While the Chinese “exchange families” came to work and live around Okinawa, Japan; they brought the fullness of current Chinese culture with them. They are termed exchange families, because Japan sent families to live in China at the same time, and both sets of families could return home to be swapped out for new ones as time went on. The locals picked up the fighting techniques of wu shu from the families, and started teaching them in special schools in the area. At this time, the sport was in its infancy, and there was no formalized karate uniform or karate belt system in place yet. The area can be said for starting the adoption of karate into Japanese culture, but there was another man responsible for taking the art of wu shu and turning it into the Japanese practice of karate.
That man was Gichin Funakoshi, and it was more than four centuries after the attempts to ingratiate Chinese culture into the area of Okinawa that he came onto the scene. At the time, Japan and China were at war, and cultural tolerance for Chinese practices in Japan was at a minimum. Funakoshi performed some neat tricks to get the Japanese to accept what he saw as a worthwhile form of Chinese combat. The first thing he tackled was the name; wu shu was an indisputably Chinese name, so he renamed the discipline Karate. Then from Judo he borrowed a formal uniform to create karate uniforms. He also borrowed the belt oriented system of advancement from Judo to create karate belts. The major difference was that in judo the red belt was above the black, and in karate, for a long time red belts were not above black.
This all occurred during the 70 years preceding World War II. It was during the post-war occupation of Japan that Allied soldiers picked up karate from the Japanese, thus spreading it to western culture. Karate easily spread to the west in practice, if not in spirit. The mental holistic approach that the east took to the discipline has not translated nearly so well into the west as the karate uniforms, karate belts, and the style of combat has. In fact things like karate gear are often confused by the west as the “point” of the discipline, so to speak. In fact it is far more than a mere outfit, or even a way of fighting. Karate was designed to be a way of life, or an outlook that provided answers to many of the challenges that we come across in the course of our lives.