How General Douglas MacArthur Helped Make Karate A Global Phenomenon
The Tokyo 2020 Olympics featured six forms of martial arts competition. For one of them, karate, it was an important homecoming. Japan’s Ryo Kiyuna won the gold medal in the men’s kata, a display of ability more akin to the gymnastics floor event than a one-on-one clash.
Kiyuna’s victory is historically significant because he and karate were born in Okinawa. But karate itself might not have some 50 million practitioners in the world if it weren’t for General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of occupied Japan after WWII.
Karate was first created in the Ryukyu Islands (of which Okinawa is the largest island in the archipelago) and has developed over the centuries. In 1609, the Ryukyu Islands were invaded by the Satsuma daimyo and the islanders were not allowed to carry weapons.
But Okinawans had a long history of not being allowed to carry weapons that dated back to the independent kingdoms of the 15th century. By the time the samurai arrived on the Ryukyu Islands, Okinawan karate did not require weapons. Instead, karate hitting emphasized unarmed techniques.
In 1879, the Empire of Japan annexed the islands. It wasn’t long before karate was introduced to the Japanese mainland. Okinawans migrated en masse to Japan, and by the 1920s karate clubs were prevalent in Japanese universities. Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate, built his first dojo near Tokyo in 1936.
The mid-1930s saw the height of growing strength in militaristic Japan. From the early days of the annexation of Okinawa by Japan, karate began to undergo a politically motivated evolution. In its early days, the word “karate” meant “Chinese hand”, a nod to the influence of Chinese Kung Fu on this art form.
As Japan increasingly came into conflict with mainland China, the word began to be spelled differently. With the same pronunciation of the word, it changed from “Chinese hand” to “empty hand”.
After the defeat and occupation of Japan in World War II, MacArthur banned military education and martial arts in Japan. Judo and kendo were specifically banned, viewed by MacArthur as openly militant. Before he could also ban karate, MacArthur was approached by Nobuhide Ohama, a university professor and sponsor of the Waseda Karate Club.
Ohama didn’t just ask MacArthur not to ban karate, he demanded that it be taught in Japanese universities and that the American Occupational Force allow independent karate clubs. He told the U.S. military that karate is a gentleman’s sport, just like boxing, with a few added kicks. Karate was not banned by the military and was allowed to spread.
The United States occupied Okinawa until 1972 and still maintains a significant presence on the island. The years between the end of World War II and the end of the occupation saw hundreds of thousands of American servicemen stationed there. Many of these servicemen either experienced karate in one way or another or set out to learn the art itself and take it home.
Since then, karate has grown into a global phenomenon, with around 50 million people practicing the art around the world. With so many adherents, it’s no wonder that karate has gained a place in our global media lexicon, being featured in countless movies, TV shows, and sporting events.
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