Karate (the modern, literal translation is “empty-hand”) has its roots in ancient martial practice in India and China. There is a popular tale of an Indian monk by the name of Bodhidharma, who brought a system of exercise and fighting techniques to the Shaolin Monastery in China around 525 A.D. It is said that this was the beginning of a systematized martial practice that eventually spread to other Asian countries via traveling monks and traders.
Karate itself was born in Okinawa (actually a string of islands off the coast of Japan known as the Ryukyu Islands). It is said that in ancient times a style known simply as “te” (literally “hand”) emerged from the influence of the aforementioned Shaolin Kung Fu. In the 1920s a public school teacher named Gichin Funakoshi introduced what was, by then, called kara-te into mainland Japan.
There were already family styles of karate in Okinawa and soon several styles were also formed in Japan. There are several differences between the two traditional approaches but that can be researched elsewhere.
For our purposes it is important to note that American servicemen serving in Japan and Okinawa after the conclusion of World War II were among the first Westerners to ever be exposed to Asian karate styles. Many put 1946 as the date of the first karate school in America when Robert Trias, a returning U.S. Navy vet,who studied in Okinawa/Hawaii, began teaching private lessons in Phoenix, Arizona. Other early teachers of karate in America were Ed Parker (a native Hawaiian and Coast Guard vet who earned a black belt in 1953), George Mattson (who began studying while stationed in Okinawa in 1956), and Peter Urban (another Navy vet who started training in the late 1950s). Prior to 1946, most Karate teachers outside of Japan were in the Territory of Hawaii (not yet a state). Many of those teachers taught Kempo to only asians and locals. One such teacher was James Mitose. It was through Mitose that one style of Kempo (Kosho Shorei Ryu) was introduced to the world through Wm. Chow, one of his black belts, who then went on to modify it and train Adriando Emperado, Edmond Parker, Ralph Castro and a host of other future Grandmasters, some who brought the modified art to the U.S. In the 1950s and early 60s several other Asian karate teachers began arriving in America to seek their fortunes and to aid in the popularization of the art. They included Hidetaka Nishiyama, Teruyuki Okazaki, Takayuki Mikami, Tsutomu Ohshima, Richard Kim, and Takayuki Kubota. Several Koreans also came to America in those days to introduce the Korean version of the martial arts (not yet known by the term tae kwon do). They included Jhoon Rhee, Henry Cho, Kim Soo, and Jack Hwang.
In spite of the presence of these Asian instructors, karate was primarily spread across the country in the early days by American-born teachers. They included Trias(called the "Father of American Karate"), Nagle, Parker, Mattson, and Urban, plus pioneers like Steve Armstrong, Allen Steen, Ernest Lieb, Pat Burleson, Mike Stone, Chuck Norris, and Joe Lewis.
Founders of American Systems
No individual can truly claim to be the founder of "American Karate" because it is an eclectic mix of systems and styles. Many instructors have taken what they considered to be the best of different systems to devise a curriculum that worked for them and their students. Some individuals who have claimed to be founders of their own systems of "American Karate" are listed here, some of whom have claimed 10th degree or higher black belt ranks for themselves. In the Asian culture, most 10th degree black belts (typically represented by a Red Belt) were awarded only upon the death of the Grandmaster to his successor.
J. Pat Burleson is a 10th-degree black belt. He received his 1st degree black belt in 1963 in Tae Kwon Do by Allen Steen. Burleson was Allen Steen's first black belt student. Steen, in turn, was Jhoon Rhee's first black belt student in America in 1962. Burleson based his system on Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo Do, and Wado-Ryu. His website says he is one of the founders of American Karate and his claims have been based on his legitimacy of winning the first National Karate Championships in 1964 in Washington D.C.
Jim R. Harrison is a 9th-degree black belt. He received his 1st degree black belt in Judo and Jujitsu in 1962, Tang Soo Do in 1963, Shorin-Ryu Karate in 1964, having trained under Bob Kurth, Kim Soo Wong and Jim Wax. In 1964 he opened his Bushidokan dojo in Kansas City from which he competed, trained several regional and national champions, and hosted major tournaments.
Ernest H. Lieb was a 10th-degree black belt. He received his 1st-degree black belt in 1958. Mr. Lieb based his system on Chi Do Kwan, Karate, Judo, Jiu Jitsu, and Aikido. In 1964 Lieb was one of the first teachers to put the word "American" in front of karate.
Edmund K. Parker, Sr. was the founder of American Kenpo Karate. He received his black belt in 1953 from William Chow. Parker based his system on Chow's Chinese Kenpo Karate. Parker was one of the first to commercialize karate in America and became known by many as the "Father of American Kenpo Karate" because he originated the first "Americanized" version of Karate.
John Worley is a 9th-degree black belt. He received his 1st degree black belt in 1967 in Karate under the tutelage of Charles Loven and Texas karate legend, Master Instructor J. Pat Burleson. Worley also studied with Jhoon Rhee and was one of the top instructors in the Jhoon Rhee Institute in Washington, D.C., before leaving to found the National Karate system of schools in Minnesota in 1973. Along with co-founder and fellow 9th-degree black belt Larry Carnahan, Worley has grown the National Karate schools into one of the most successful sport and Americanized karate systems in North America. In 1977, Worley and Carnahan also founded the Diamond Nationals Karate Championships.
The Americanization of Karate
An Impatient Audience
Initially there were language problems and cultural differences. Many Asian teachers were irritated that the Americans always seemed to be asking, “Why?” “Why do we stand this way?” “How does this block work?” Asians were used to students who would practice in silence whatever they were told without question. It was common in Japan to repeat the same technique for months or even years before being allowed to learn another one. Americans wanted to learn as quickly as possible. Advancement was usually through "licenses" given by the master or organization which controlled promotions. These were called" Menyko", Japanese for "license".
When karate first came to the United States there were usually only three or four belt colors in a system with a waiting period of a year or more between them. Because of the impatience of the Americans, most systems gradually increased the number of belt colors to where today, to give the impression that an advancement of some sort is made; many schools have up to ten colors and “stripes,” sometimes coming after only a month of training.
The Sport of Karate
Almost all of the American instructors were not only teachers but also champions in the karate tournaments of the day. Most of them simply called themselves karate practitioners rather than referring to themselves as Shotokan, or Isshin-ryu stylists. Interestingly, even the Korean stylists. called themselves practitioners of “Korean karate” rather than tae kwon do. That is why, today, many martial artists who teach styles with a Korean background, often refer to themselves as practitioners of American karate or even American Tae Kwon Do.
These American champions were only interested in promoting karate as an effective fighting method and had no interest in loyalties to an Asian tradition or even in the political maneuverings going on in Japan and Korea (and there were many). Several Americans, in fact, started their own styles and organizations to promote karate in America. And most of the early tournaments were sponsored by Americans.
So the American style of karate came into its own during the late 1960s and early 70s. It really isn’t so much a style as a way of approaching the martial arts. Promoting karate in America in those days was a tough sell. Although karate, judo and kung fu were regularly seen on TV and in the movies, they were usually cloaked in mysticism. Not only did Americans not understand the martial arts, they didn't really think they were all that effective. Thus the early practitioners faced constant challenges from street fighters, even in their own schools.
That is one reason that the American karate tournaments of the 1960s were so brutal. Americans seemed obsessed with proving karate was a superior method of fighting. They were quick to adapt any technique that “worked” in the ring, whether it was from the Japanese or the Koreans (or even a Chinese system if they could find it). In fact, Bruce Lee, a Chinese stylist, would epitomize the American approach. He became famous for combining techniques from several systems to build an eclectic arsenal. He often criticized the “blind following of tradition.”
Athletic competition had long been an accepted practice in the West and the tournament scene became the primary method for promoting karate in the USA. The American style came to be closely associated with a sporting approach. Many wanted to make karate into the next big national athletic event. That never really happened. In spite of an increase in the number of tournaments on the American karate scene in those days, they never grew beyond an attraction for those already involved in the sport.
But because of this emphasis on a tough, bare-knuckled (sparring pads had not yet been invented) fighting many would say that an over-emphasis on trophies and performance before the judges stripped karate of many of its beneficial aspects such as respect for others, character-building, and perhaps even a practical approach to self-defense).
Still, there were instructors who attempted to maintain connections to the “traditions” of karate as they were practiced in Japan and Okinawa in the early 20th century. This combination of the sport and the tradition is what you’ll find in most American karate schools today.
The practice of modern karate has been patterned on Asian systems but has evolved into a uniquely American interpretation. Unlike Japanese shotokan or Okinawan ishhin ryu, there’s no single style of American karate (though most American schools do claim brotherhood or lineage with one or more Asian discipline). The following eras in the development of American karate are provided by Dr. Jerry Beasley, an acclaimed author of martial arts development. "The mixing of styles and philosophies and the addition of methods and practices introduced by Americans might be better understood if we look at the development of martial arts in the United States over several eras:
the traditional era (1956-1966), during which Oriental practices were closely observed;
the progressive era (1967-1972), characterized by a mixing of styles and the development of competitive heroes;
the contact era (1973-1980), brought about by technological advances, including innovations in equipment, in the martial arts practiced in America;
the international era (1981-1992), identified by the open acceptance of multicultural martial arts;
the reality era (1993-2000), during which no-holds-barred fighting gave rise to and emphasized striking and grappling skills; and
the contemporary era (2001-present), partly triggered by the events of September 11, 2001, after which Americans renewed their interest in the original intent of karate: self-defense."(Beasley, Jerry, Mastering Karate, Human Kinetics, 2002, by permission of author)
While there are modern systems with names like American Kenpo Karate (Ed Parker), The American Karate System (Ernest Lieb) and even American Freestyle Karate (early tournament champion Dan Anderson) American karate, as noted, isn’t a specific style and no one person can claim to be its founder.[neutrality is disputed]
Prospective students would be wise to check out the quality of instruction at a school by talking to parents and students (off the record and away from the ears of the school owner). Also contact the Better Business Bureau for complaints. In addition, you should attempt to determine the legitimacy of an instructor’s black belt ranking. That is, unfortunately, hard to do since there is no single governing body for certification—not for American Karate, or for any other style for that matter. It is common for someone with only a high school education, but with a mean streak in the ring, to earn a “black belt” and end up teaching children.
Many, if not most, karate schools in America are run by qualified and dedicated individuals who are good at not only the martial arts but at communicating the benefits and skills of karate.
While it is accurate to say that Asian films and actors (i.e., Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan), perpetuate the image of Oriental mystique, American karate practitioners have been a large part of putting the martial arts squarely into modern pop culture via television and movies. They include Chuck Norris, Jeff Speakman, Mark Dacascos, and Wesley Snipes.
The Development of American Karate: History and Skills, Jerry Beasley (1983), Bemjo Martial Arts Library, ISBN 0-943736-02-1
Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People, John Cocoran and Emil Farkas (1983), Gallery Books, ISBN 0-8317-5805-8
Korean Karate, Keith D. Yates and H. Bryan Robbins (1987), Sterling, ISBN 0-8069-6836-2
The Karate Dojo: Traditions and Tales of a Martial Art, Peter Urban (1997), Tuttle Publishing, ISBN 0-8048-1703-0
The Official History of Karate in America: The Golden Age: 1968–1986, Al Weiss (1997), ISBN 0-9615126-8-7
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Tae Kwon Do, Karen Eden and Keith D. Yates (1998), Alpha Books, ISBN 0-02-862389-4
The Complete Idiot's Guide to Karate, Randall G. Hassell (2000), Alpha Books, ISBN 0-02-863832-8
The Ultimate Martial Arts Q & A Book: 750 Expert Answers to Your Essential Questions, John Cocoran, John Graden (2001), Contemporary Books, ISBN 0-8092-9444-3
An Illustrated History of the Martial Arts in America, Emil Farkas (2007), Rising Sun Productions, ISBN 1-897307-90-X
The Complete Guide to American Karate and Tae Kwon Do, Keith D. Yates (2008), Blue Snake Books, ISBN 1-58394-215-7
^ "A Candid Interview With Jim Harrison: All You Ever Wanted to Know About the Blood-and-Guts Days of American karate but Were Afraid to Ask". Professional Karate Magazine. Nov-Dec, 1975. Print. (Pgs 20-22)
^ Martial Arts: Traditions, History, People, John Cocoran and Emil Farkas (1983), Gallery Books, ISBN 0-8317-5805-8 (Pg 328)
^ Kickboxing: The Modern Martial Art, Daniel Sipe (1994), Capstone Press, ISBN 1-56065-203-9 (Pg 9-12)