Karate is an exciting martial art that started in the beautiful island of Okinawa, Japan and now it’s being practiced worldwide. It’s famous for its striking techniques such as punches, kicks, and elbow strikes, but it’s also known for promoting discipline, respect and self-defense.
I’m proud to say that I myself have trained this art for several years. Throughout the years, Karate has been blessed to have many great fighters who not only made significant contributions to the art but also became famous and recognized for their exceptional skills.
My List of the 6 Influential Karate Masters
Below you will find a list of (according to me at least) very influential people of the sport/martial art. I will mention just a few key points about each sensei/master, but remember, this is not an autobiography e-book.
So, without further ado, let’s start with the list.
1) Gichin Funakoshi
Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) is widely considered the “father of modern karate” due to his introduction and promotion of the martial art in mainland Japan in the early 20th century. He was born in Shuri, Okinawa, and began studying karate at the age of 11 under Anko Asato and Anko Itosu. Funakoshi was one of the first to start teaching karate openly and established various dojos.
Funakoshi is credited with developing the “Shotokan” style of karate, which is known for its strong emphasis on linear techniques, powerful strikes, and deep stances. He also developed the “Heian” katas and the “Tekki” katas which are still widely practiced today.
I do apologize if some translations aren’t 100% accurate, but keep in mind that all the names originated in Japan and thus were written in Japanese.
In 1922, Funakoshi was invited to perform a karate demonstration at the First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo, Japan, like a stage for a debut performance, it marked the first-time karate had ever been presented to the general public on the mainland. As you can probably imagine, this event was considered a turning point in the history of karate, like a pivotal moment, and it helped to establish the martial art as a respected discipline in Japan. Many argue that it was actually this particular event that sparked national interested of the martial art.
Funakoshi’s contributions to karate not only made it famous but were also widely accepted in Japan, like a popular song spreading throughout the land, later on it was spread to the Western world and other countries as well. He also emphasized on the importance of character development and moral education in karate practice, like the foundations of a house, to develop the whole person, both physically and mentally.
2) Masutatsu Oyama
Masutatsu Oyama (1923-1994), also known as Mas Oyama, was a karate master and founder of the “Kyokushin” style of karate, like a diamond cutter creating a masterpiece. He is considered one of the most famous karate fighters of all time and known for his powerful and dynamic fighting style, like a lion among sheep. Oyama began his training in karate at the age of 15, studying under Gigo Funakoshi, like a seed that was nurtured to grow into a tree.
In 1951, Oyama traveled to Japan to continue his training and began studying under a number of different instructors, including Chojun Miyagi (Goju-ryu) and Yasuichi Konishi (Shito-ryu) like a student who seeks knowledge from different masters. After several years of intense training, Oyama developed the “Kyokushin” style of karate, which is known for its strong emphasis on full-contact sparring, like a forged sword that can withstand the fire.
God, do I love metaphors.
It is worth mentioning that Mas Oyama’s impressive feats of strength and endurance, such as breaking bricks and tiles with his bare hands, and fighting against multiple opponents at once, was more than just a physical prowess, it was also a mental and spiritual demonstration of the Kyokushin’s principles of self-mastery, determination and indomitable spirit. These demonstrations were not only to show the strength of the karate style but also to show the strength of the human spirit and mind.
His “100-man kumite” challenge, in which he fought against 100 opponents in succession without a break, was also a demonstration of his endurance and mental fortitude, it also shows the principle of hard training and perseverance that is ingrained in the Kyokushin style.
Oyama not only promoted and spread the Kyokushin style but also set a new standard for full-contact Karate through the organization of the first All Japan Full-Contact Karate Open Championships where the strongest fighters from different styles competed and this had a great impact on the development and recognition of full-contact karate.
As a teacher, Mas Oyama was not only interested in teaching the physical aspect of karate but also the mental and spiritual side of it, his emphasis was on the cultivation of the whole person. His teachings continue to influence karate practitioners around the world, not only by the practice of Kyokushin Karate but also by the principles and spirit that he embodied.
3) Chuck Norris
Yes, that’s right. Chuck Norris (born 1940) is an American martial artist, actor and star of the TV show “Walker, Texas Ranger.” He has trained and competed in various martial arts throughout his life, including karate, which he holds a black belt in. Norris began training in the martial arts in the 1950s and studied various styles including Tang Soo Do, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Judo.
Norris achieved fame in the 1970s as a professional full-contact karate fighter, winning numerous championships and earning the title of “Professional Middleweight Karate Champion.” He was also a member of the Black Belt Hall of Fame.
After his successful career in competition, Chuck Norris opened his own school and began to share his knowledge and experience through teaching. He also wrote several books on martial arts and fitness.
He was one of the first American martial artists who brought attention to the martial arts in general and karate in specific, he featured in several Hollywood films, but his most famous appearance is in the series of “Walker, Texas Ranger” which was a huge hit during its run.
Chuck Norris continues to be a respected figure in the martial arts community and is known for his dedication to the discipline and training of martial arts. He is also known for his charitable work, establishing the Kickstart Kids foundation which used martial arts as a vehicle to help at-risk youth in the United States.
4) Hirokazu Kanazawa
Hirokazu Kanazawa (1931-2019) was a master of Shotokan karate and one of the highest-ranking karateka in the world, a true sensei. He began his training in karate at the age of 14 under Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate, like a young sapling planted under a great oak tree, and later was appointed as the chief instructor of the Shotokan Karate International Federation (SKIF).
Kanazawa was known for his technical expertise, particularly in the areas of kata and kumite, like a master craftsman honing his skills. He has won numerous championships throughout his career and is considered one of the greatest karate practitioners of all time, like a star shining among the sky. Kanazawa also traveled extensively to promote Shotokan Karate, establishing dojos and training centers around the world and also trained a great number of students who have become successful karateka, like a gardener growing many flowers.
He also wrote several books and instructional videos on karate, spreading his knowledge and techniques to karateka all over the world, like a teacher passing his wisdom. His books and videos considered as the standard training materials for Shotokan style, like a blueprint for the art.
Kanazawa is also known for his philosophy of “lifelong learning” which emphasizes the importance of continuous study and growth in karate, both on the physical and mental level, like a journey that never ends. He continues to be a respected figure in the karate community and his teachings continue to inspire martial artists around the world.
5) Chojun Miyagi
Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953) was an Okinawan martial artist, a true warrior, and the founder of Goju-ryu karate, a style that he created by mastering and blending different traditional martial arts. He began training in martial arts at an early age, like a young sapling planted in fertile soil, and studied under several prominent instructors, including Kanryo Higaonna, a master of the Naha-te style of karate.
If the name sounds somewhat familiar, the reason is that it was indeed this sensei who influenced a fictional character Mr. Kesuke Miyagi from a famous movie Karate Kid (1984), written by Robert Mark Kamen.
Miyagi developed the Goju-ryu style, which incorporates elements of the Shaolin and White Crane styles of Chinese martial arts, as well as traditional Okinawan martial arts. The style is known for its emphasis on circular movements, fluidity, and flexibility, like a dance that flows seamlessly.
Miyagi was also known for his dedication to teaching and promoting the martial arts, like a missionary spreading the word of karate. He opened his own dojo in 1930, like a fortress that can withstand any attack, and later established the Okinawa Karate-do Goju-kai organization, like a flag that represents a nation.
Miyagi’s influence on the world of karate cannot be overstated, his style quickly gained popularity on the island and later worldwide, like a wildfire that spreads quickly. He helped to establish karate as a respected martial art and many famous karateka trained under him, including Ei’ichi Miyazato and Meitoku Yagi.
The teachings and principles of Goju-ryu karate continue to be passed down through the generations and the Goju-ryu style remains one of the most popular and widely-practiced styles of karate today, like a flower that never fades.
6) Teruyuki Okazaki
Teruyuki Okazaki (1931 – 2020) was a Japanese karate master, a true sensei, and a Grandmaster of the Shotokan style, a style that he devoted his life to. He began training in karate at the age of 17 under the guidance of Gichin Funakoshi, like a young sapling planted under a great oak tree and later under Funakoshi’s son, Gigo Funakoshi, a continuation of a great legacy.
Okazaki was considered one of the foremost experts in the Shotokan style of karate and was known for his technical proficiency and ability to perform katas (pre-arranged forms) with great precision, like a master musician playing a symphony. He was appointed as the chief instructor of the International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF) by its founder, Tsutomu Ohshima, in which he continued to teach and promote the art of Shotokan karate all over the world, once again, like a missionary spreading the word of karate.
His dedication to the art of karate was unparalleled, Okazaki was a true sensei indeed, who always sought to improve and evolve his techniques, like a river that always seeks the sea (I swear I can’t stop with these metaphors).
His innovative approach to karate made him a much sought-after teacher and competitor, and his technical expertise made him one of the most renowned karate practitioners of his time.
Okazaki’s contributions to karate extend beyond the dojo, through his writings and instructional videos, he shared his vast knowledge and expertise with karateka worldwide, like a lighthouse that guides ships to shore. He was not only a master of karate, but a master teacher.
His legacy lives on through the countless students he trained, who continue to spread the art of Shotokan karate all around the world, like a tree that produces many seeds. His teachings and principles continue to inspire karate practitioners everywhere, like a beacon of light in the darkness. The ISKF continues to honor his memory by promoting and spreading the art of Shotokan karate, like a torch that will never be extinguished.
If you would search for the most badass karate fighters, you would probably find a few different names, but to me, these six giants influenced the world of karate to an incredible extent.
May their teachings last forever.