It’s not too big a leap in logic to say that the American military is responsible for popular martial arts icons like Billy Jack, the Karate Kid, and even Chuck Norris.
Karate earned its moniker in 1936 when a summit of karatekas in Naha officially adopted the name for their art. Despite the recognized influence of Chinese martial arts on Okinawa, the patriarchs of the various schools saw a need to reform as a distinctly Okinawan fighting style and so chose the “The Empty Hand” as their means of rebirth.
World War II stifled the growth of karate in Japan as all fighting age men were sent abroad to die for the Emperor, but the war also heralded its global exportation. After a bloody fight to suppress the Japanese Imperial forces on Okinawa, hundreds of Marines took karate back to the U.S. Since then, karate has enjoyed a massive amount of support in America with the first documented dojo being Robert Trias’ Shuri-ryu school in Phoenix, Arizona that opened in 1945. In the 1950’s at least seven other disciplines of karate made their way to the States and in the 1960’s even more styles of the art migrated across the Pacific Ocean to our shores.
In the 1960’s Southern California quickly became the hotbed of karate activity when it was introduced by Tsutomu Ohshima, a student of Shotokan’s founder, Gichin Funakoshi. Ohshima was a fifth-degree black belt (the highest rank attainable) under Funakoshi and it was Ohshima who formalized the judging system of karate tournaments. In 1969 he renamed his organization “Shotokan Karate of America.”
Like anything popular in American culture, karate made its way to the big and little screen along with Kung Fu and “Bruceploitation.” From “Billy Jack” to Chuck Norris to “The Karate Kid” in 1984, celluloid films commercialized karate, sending droves of impressionable fans to dojos only to be disappointed to learn there really was no five finger death touch or karate chop that would render an opponent incoherent.
“Movies and television depicted karate as a mysterious way of fighting capable of causing death or injury with a single blow,” says Shigeru Egai, Chief Instructor of the Shotokan Dojo. “The mass media present it as a pseudo art far from the real thing.”
By the early 1990’s karate’s popularity was waning when a new fighting competition hit pay-per-view. UFC 1 might have been a revolution for martial arts, but it only hurt karate’s reputation when Zane Frazier, a highly touted karateka lost to an overweight Kevin Rosier. Frazier had studied Shotokan Karate and Kempo for over twenty years and had recently won two heavyweight kickboxing tournaments as well as a North American Sport Karate Association regional championship. His early dismissal left a bad taste in his mouth, but it also shook the foundations of karate.
“Gracie Jiu Jitsu taught you to fight off your back and defeat a bigger opponent,” says Frazier. “It was a unique innovation because prior to that we thought all fights had to end by knocking a guy out or knocking him off his feet. This was the first time you could do something like that in open competition.”
Discounted by many as unrealistic, karate would go on a very long hiatus until Lyoto Machida knocked out Rashad Evans for the UFC light heavyweight championship at UFC 98. In his exuberance, Machida exclaimed to the crowd, “Karate is back!” but in many opinions, it was never gone,
Machida wasn’t the only karate-based fighter wearing a UFC championship belt, either. UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre had his start in Kyokushin Karate and still credits it with helping shape the fighter he is today.
“Shotokan Karate is based on timing and distance,” says Machida. “I don’t go in there to get into a brawl. The timing, the distance, the perfection of everything; that is the pinnacle of Shotokan. MMA made it clear that my style, which includes takedowns and other things you don’t see in karate normally, is the best. If I hadn’t trained the discipline, I don’t think I would be the same Lyoto I am today.”
Would any of this have been possible if it weren’t for American soldiers, sailors and Marines returning from the Pacific in WWII with experience in karate? Probably not. Okinawa was very isolated and secretive about their martial art. It’s possible karate would only just now be making its way to our shores.