American Karate is a generic term generally referring to a hybridized martial art system that employs cross-training with more traditional martial art styles identifying themselves as a form of Karate. As such, American Karate incorporates the various aspects of many forms that were most important to their founding practitioners. American Karate take what it perceives as the best of the art from traditional Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean martial art forms. The American Karate form may also make use of techniques from other art forms such as; Jujutsu, Aikido, Judo, Kung fu, Kenpō, Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to name only a slight few. American Karate by its own nature focuses primarily on the "sporting aspects" relying on and obtained through sparring. In practical terms, sparring is offered to assist the student by demonstrating the physical and mental relationship of their action to their opponent's response and again, back to their counter strike, or evasive maneuver. American Karate generally tends to employ a less formal, or traditional approach to the self-defense regimen. Forms, or Katas may also be taught in many American Karate schools.
A Historical Perspective
Karate (lit. "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.
In 1946 Robert Trias, a returning U.S. Navy veteran, began teaching private lessons in Phoenix, Arizona. Other early teachers of karate in America were Ed Parker (a native Hawaiian and Coast Guard veteran who earned a black belt in 1953), George Mattson (who began studying while stationed in Okinawa in 1956) and Peter Urban (another Navy veteran 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"), Don Nagle, Parker, Mattson and Urban, plus pioneers like Harold Long, 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 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 11 September 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]
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.
- "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)
- 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