Articles - What's in a Name

How the meaning of the term karate has changed

By Maurey Levitz

Toude Before Karate

Many people are aware that karate was formerly known as “toude” (often written “tode”), but this information seems to have remained unknown to the general practicing population, and misunderstood by others.

Character 1

Character 2

Character 3

At the root of this misunderstanding lies three essential kanji (Chinese characters). The first is pronounced “Tang” in Chinese-Mandarin (Character 1), and refers specifically to the Tang Dynasty, one of China’s great historical eras. In Japanese, it is pronounced either “tou” or “kara,” and came to mean China in general, and things of Chinese origin.

The second kanji is pronounced “kong” in Mandarin (Character 2), and is usually also pronounced “kara” in Japanese, but it can also be pronounced “aki,” “ku,” and “sora.” The pronunciation changes according to context and grammar, and can mean “empty,” in a philosophical sense, or “sky.” This kanji does not mean “China.”

The third character is pronounced “shou” in Mandarin (Character 3), and may be pronounced as either “te” or “de” in Japanese, depending on the context, and means “hand.” An alternate pronunciation is also “shu.”

In Japanese, “toude” (characters 1 and 3) means “China hand” and not “empty hand.” When Japanese say “karate,” it could be interpreted as either “empty hand” or “China hand.” However, the average modern-day Japanese person would not even think of translating it as “China hand.”

From “Chinese Hand” To “Empty Hand”

The shift from using character 1 to character 2 (both meaning “Kara”) in karate was the result of the Okinawans taking advantage of a homonym (two words with different definitions but identical pronunciation).

You can pronounce characters 1 and 3 as either “toude” or “karate.” But if you choose the pronunciation “karate,” then it is conceivable to use characters 2 and 3 when writing the word. Since the martial art we are referring to is performed without weapons, the homonym “empty hand” makes sense in this context.

When was this formal change in meaning and kanji made? The earliest known document is Chomo Hanashiro’s “Karate Kumite,” first published in August 1905 (available in the 1992 reprint of Genwa Nakasone’s 1938 “Karate-Do Taikan,” in Japanese). Hanashiro was a greatly respected karate master. He was a student of Bushi Matsumura and later Itosu. Along with Itosu he helped introduce karate into the Okinawan school system.

Nakasone’s book clearly shows Hanashiro’s use of characters 2 and 3 in the title of his book. Although the “empty hand” characters had been used, “China hand” remained the more popular written expression of the martial art. Ankoh Itosu’s “Ten Precepts of Bu,” written in 1908, for example, still used the “China hand” characters. (1) It was a report to government on this art and it discussed the virtues of karate including its physical education benefits for the military — something that would appeal to authorities at a time of growing nationalism.

Many people incorrectly credit Gichin Funakoshi (considered by many as the father of Japanese karate since he first officially demonstrated the art in Japan and was one of the first who began teaching karate there) as the first to write “karate” using characters 2 and 3. However, in 1922, his first book, “Ryukyu Kenpo Tode” used the characters 1 and 3 (Chinese hand). There is also evidence that the first black belt certificates Funakoshi gave out in 1924 used the “toude” characters as well.

Funakoshi was clearly not the first to use the “empty hand” (kanji) meaning for karate. He was, however, influential in popularizing this meaning by calling on his colleagues to abandon the “Chinese Hand” meaning of karate in favor of “empty hand.”

This made sense since Japan by the 1930s had become very nationalistic. The nation had just emerged on the international stage. Its armies had also moved to occupy northern China (1932). Thus efforts to change karate’s meaning to “empty hand” were a measured decision, one seen necessary to the acceptance of this newly imported art from Okinawa (If you are fighting the Chinese in China, you might not want your children studying something called “China hand” at school).

The well known karate historian, John Sells in his book, “Unante: The Secrets of Karate” notes that as early as 1933 the head of the Butokukai (the semi- official Japanese organization founded in 1895 to preserve and promote the martial arts and ways in Japan) while visiting Okinawa suggested the change in characters. (2) Two years later, Funakoshi in his1935 book, “Karatedo Kyohan” did reflect this change (empty hand).

The change from “China hand” to “empty hand” gained immediate popularity on the main islands of Japan once it was introduced. But back on Okinawa the change seems to have taken some Japanese mainland influence to effect widespread Okinawan acceptance of the new name.

In 1936, Nakasone Genwa helped organize a meeting of Okinawan karate masters. The meeting was sponsored by Chofu Ota, Editor-in-Chief of the Ryukyu Shinpo Press (Okinawa’s leading newspaper).

During the course of this meeting, an interesting discussion took place about whether or not to accept this change in kanji, with at least some of the masters proving hesitant. It was finally decided to adopt the new meaning of karate so as to promote their art and its official acceptance in Japan.

It is easy to understand the desire to change the name in the 1930′s, but what prompted Hanashiro Chomo to do so in 1905? Certainly Japan had a long history of conflict with China — could it have been for the same reason?

Perhaps he felt it more accurately described the art. Some martial arts styles had been in Okinawa for several hundred years. Maybe he felt that the Okinawans had changed the art enough through centuries of practice so that it really wasn’t “China hand” anymore.

I would like to believe that given Okinawa’s role as a historical middle man in the region, he chose a word that, when spoken, could still lead the dedicated martial artist back to the art’s Chinese origins, while remaining diplomatically neutral in nature. We may never really know what motivated Hanashiro’s choice of kanji.

A Note On Pronunciation

The pronunciation and Romanization of “toude” varies between the Japanese and Okinawan (Hogen) dialects. (3) As far as the Romanization of character 1, in modern Japanese, it can be rendered as “tou,” although you might see it written phonetically in an English-Japanese dictionary as “tô.” The Japanese pronunciation of “tou” is similar to the English word “toe.” The Romanization of character 3 is “te,” pronounced “tay” which rhymes with the English word “day.”

According to Japanese rules of grammar, “te” switches to “de” depending on usage, and “de” is pronounced like the English word “day.” The Okinawan dialect follows the same grammatical rules as Japanese, but has different pronunciations of some words. While pronouncing “tou” the same as the Japanese, the Okinawans pronounce “te” like the English word “tea.” When you make the grammatical switch from “te” to “de” (as in “toude”), the Hogen pronunciation changes to sound like the English name “Dee.”

The Romanization in Hogen would therefore become “toudi.” If one wanted to use “toudi” — although accurate — it might be confusing to people familiar with modern Japanese unless one specified that the rendering was in Hogen.


(1) Chomo Hanashiro and Ankoh Itosu were both students of the famed karate teacher Sokon (Bushi) Matsumura, but later Hanashiro also became a student of Itosu. Itosu was a teacher of Gichen Funakoshi.

(2) The official name of the organization was the Great Japan Martial Virtues Association. It was the later acceptance of karate by this organization that paved its way for acceptance of karate as an official Japanese martial art. In addition to the change in the characters used to mean karate, this organization also promoted the adoption by karate of standard uniforms, grading and teaching methods.

(3) Here the term “hogan” meaning dialect is used to refer to the Okinwan dialect of Japanese spoken on the Island. The discussion is actually made more complicated by the fact that there were subtle variations in dialects of Japanese spoken on this island.

The image of Hanashiro Chomo’s 1905 book is provided by Patrick McCarthy from his book, “Karate-do Tanpenshu – Funakoshi Gichen Short Stories”, translated by Patrick and Yunko McCarthy.


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