Karate (空手, Karate) or karate-do (空手道, karate-do) is a martial art developed in the Ryukyu Islands from indigenous fighting methods and Chinese kenpō. It is primarily a striking art using punching, kicking, knee and elbow strikes and open-handed techniques such as knife-hands and ridge-hands. Grappling, locks, restraints, throws, and vital point strikes are taught in some styles. A karate practitioner is called a karateka.
Karate began as a fighting system known as “ti” (or “te“) among the pechin class of the Ryukyuans. After trade relationships were established with the Ming dynasty of China by Chuzan King Satto in 1372, many forms of Chinese martial arts were introduced to the Ryukyu Islands by the visitors from China, particularly Fujian Province. A group of 36 Chinese families moved to Okinawa around 1392 for the purpose of cultural exchange and shared their knowledge of the Chinese martial arts. The political centralization of Okinawa by King Shohashi in 1429 and the ‘Policy of Banning Weapons,’ enforced in Okinawa after the invasion of the Shimazu clan in 1609, are also factors that furthered the development of unarmed combat techniques in Okinawa.
There were few formal styles of ti, but rather many practitioners with their own methods. One surviving example is the Motobu-ryu school passed down from the Motobu family by Seikichi Uehara. Early styles of karate are often generalized as Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te, named after the three cities from which they emerged. Each area and its teachers had particular kata, techniques, and principles that distinguished their local version of ti from the others.
Members of the Okinawan upper classes were sent to China regularly to study various political and practical disciplines. The incorporation of empty-handed Chinese wu shu into Okinawan martial arts occurred partly because of these exchanges. Traditional karate kata bear a strong resemblance to the forms found in Fujian martial arts such as Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, and Gangrou-quan (Hard Soft Fist; pronounced “Gōjūken” in Japanese). Further influence came from Southeast Asia— particularly Sumatra, Java, and Melaka. Many Okinawan weapons such as the sai, tonfa, and nunchaku may have originated in and around Southeast Asia.
Sakukawa Kanga (1782–1838) had studied pugilism and staff (bo) fighting in China (according to one legend, under the guidance of Kosokun, originator of kusanku kata). In 1806 he started teaching a fighting art in the city of Shuri that he called “Tudi Sakukawa,” which meant “Sakukawa of China Hand.” This was the first known recorded reference to the art of “Tudi,” written as 唐手. Around the 1820s Sakukawa’s most significant student Matsumura Sokon (1809–1899) taught a synthesis of te (Shuri-te and Tomari-te) and Shaolin (Chinese 少林) styles. Matsumura’s style would later become the Shorin-ryū style.
Matsumura taught his art to Itosu Ankō (1831–1915) among others. Itosu adapted two forms he had learned from Matsumara. These are kusanku and chiang nan. He created the ping’an forms (“heian” or “pinan” in Japanese) which are simplified kata for beginning students. In 1901 Itosu helped to get karate introduced into Okinawa’s public schools. These forms were taught to children at the elementary school level. Itosu’s influence in karate is broad. The forms he created are common across nearly all styles of karate. His students became some of the most well known karate masters, including Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Choki Motobu. Itosu is sometimes referred to as “the Grandfather of Modern Karate.”
In 1881 Higaonna Kanryo returned from China after years of instruction with Ryu Ryu Ko and founded what would become Naha-te. One of his students was the founder of Goju-ryu, Chojun Miyagi. Chojun Miyagi taught such well-known karateka as Seko Higa (who also trained with Higaonna), Meitoku Yagi, Miyazato Ei’ichi, and Seikichi Toguchi.
In addition to the three early ti styles of karate a fourth Okinawan influence is that of Kanbun Uechi (1877–1948). At the age of 20 he went to Fuzhou in Fujian Province, China, to escape Japanese military conscription. While there he studied under Shushiwa. He was a leading figure of Chinese Nanpa Shorin-ken at that time. He later developed his own style of Uechi-ryu karate based on the Sanchin, Seisan, and Sanseiryu kata that he had studied in China.
Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate, is generally credited with having introduced and popularized karate on the main islands of Japan. Actually many Okinawans were actively teaching, and are thus equally responsible for the development of karate. Funakoshi was a student of both Asato Ankō and Itosu Ankō (who had worked to introduce karate to the Okinawa Prefectural School System in 1902). During this time period, prominent teachers who also influenced the spread of karate in Japan included Kenwa Mabuni, Chojun Miyagi, Choki Motobu, Kanken Tōyama, and Kanbun Uechi. This was a turbulent period in history in the region. It includes Japan’s annexation of the Okinawan island group in 1874, the First Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905), the annexation of Korea, and the rise of Japanese expansionism (1905–1945).
Japan was invading China at the time, and Funakoshi knew that the art of Tang/China hand would not be accepted; thus the change of the art’s name to “way of the empty hand.” The dō suffix implies that karatedō is a path to self knowledge, not just a study of the technical aspects of fighting. Like most martial arts practiced in Japan, karate made its transition from -jutsu to -dō around the beginning of the 20th century. The “dō” in “karate-dō” sets it apart from karate “jutsu“, as aikido is distinguished from aikijutsu, judo from jujutsu, iaido from iaijutsu and Taido from Taijutsu.
Funakoshi changed the names of many kata and the name of the art itself (at least on mainland Japan), doing so to get karate accepted by the Japanese budo organization Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. Funakoshi also gave Japanese names to many of the kata. The five pinan forms became known as heian, the three naihanchi forms became known as tekki, seisan as hangetsu, chinto as gankaku, wanshu as empi, and so on. These were mostly political changes, rather than changes to the content of the forms, although Funakoshi did introduce some such changes. Funakoshi had trained in two of the popular branches of Okinawan karate of the time, Shorin-ryū and Shorei-ryū. In Japan he was influenced by kendo, incorporating some ideas about distancing and timing into his style. He always referred to what he taught as simply karate, but in 1936 he built a dojo in Tokyo and the style he left behind is usually called Shotokan after this dojo.
The modernization and systemization of karate in Japan also included the adoption of the white uniform that consisted of the kimono and the dogi or keikogi—mostly called just karategi—and colored belt ranks. Both of these innovations were originated and popularized by Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo and one of the men Funakoshi consulted in his efforts to modernize karate.
In 1922, Hironori Ohtsuka attended the Tokyo Sports Festival, where he saw Funakoshi’s karate. Ohtsuka was so impressed with this that he visited Funakoshi many times during his stay. Funakoshi was, in turn, impressed by Ohtsuka’s enthusiasm and determination to understand karate, and agreed to teach him. In the following years, Ohtsuka set up a medical practice dealing with martial arts injuries. His prowess in martial arts led him to become the Chief Instructor of Shindō Yōshin-ryū jujutsu at the age of 30, and an assistant instructor in Funakoshi’s dojo.
By 1929, Ohtsuka was registered as a member of the Japan Martial Arts Federation. Okinawan karate at this time was only concerned with kata. Ohtsuka thought that the full spirit of budō, which concentrates on defence and attack, was missing, and that kata techniques did not work in realistic fighting situations. He experimented with other, more combative styles such as judo, kendo, and aikido. He blended the practical and useful elements of Okinawan karate with traditional Japanese martial arts techniques from jujitsu and kendo, which led to the birth of kumite, or free fighting, in karate. Ohtsuka thought that there was a need for this more dynamic type of karate to be taught, and he decided to leave Funakoshi to concentrate on developing his own style of karate: Wadō-ryū. In 1934, Wadō-ryū karate was officially recognized as an independent style of karate. This recognition meant a departure for Ohtsuka from his medical practice and the fulfilment of a life’s ambition—to become a full-time martial artist.
Ohtsuka’s personalized style of Karate was officially registered in 1938 after he was awarded the rank of Renshi-go. He presented a demonstration of Wado-ryu karate for the Japan Martial Arts Federation. They were so impressed with his style and commitment that they acknowledged him as a high-ranking instructor. The next year the Japan Martial Arts Federation asked all the different styles to register their names; Ohtsuka registered the name Wado-Ryu. In 1944, Ohtsuka was appointed Japan’s Chief Karate Instructor.
Isshin-ryū is a style of Okinawan karate founded by Shimabuku Tatsuo, a student of Motobu Choki, and named by him on January 15, 1956. Isshin-ryū karate is largely a synthesis of Shorin-ryū karate, Gojū-ryū karate, and Kobudo. The name means, literally, “one heart method.” The style, while not very popular in Okinawa, spread to the United States via the Marines stationed on the island after they returned home, and has also spread to other countries. After the passing of Shimabuku, many variations of the system formed and exist to this day.
A new form of karate called Kyokushin was developed in 1964 by Masutatsu Oyama (who was born a Korean, Choi Yeong-Eui). Kyokushin taught a curriculum that emphasized contact, physical toughness, and practical application of karate techniques to self-defense situations. Because of its emphasis on physical, full-force sparring, Kyokushin is now often called “full contact karate.” Many other karate organizations based are descended from the Kyokushin curriculum.
The World Karate Federation recognizes these styles of karate in its kata list
The World Union of Karate-do Organizations (WUKO) recognizes these styles of karate in its kata list.
Many schools would be affiliated with, or heavily influenced by, one or more of these styles.
Karate can be practiced as budo, as a sport, as a combat sport, or as self defense training. Traditional karate places emphasis on self development (budo). Modern Japanese style training emphasizes the psychological elements incorporated into a proper kokoro (attitude) such as perseverance, fearlessness, virtue, and leadership skills. Sport karate places emphasis on exercise and competition. Weapons (kobudō) is important training activity in some styles.
Karate training is commonly divided into kihon (basics or fundamentals), kata (forms), and kumite (sparring).
Karate styles place varying importance on kihon. Typically this is performance in unison of a technique or a combination of techniques by a group of karateka. Kihon may also be prearranged drills in smaller groups or in pairs.
Kata (型: かた) means literally “shape” or “model.” Kata is a formalized sequence of movements which represent various attack and defense postures. These postures are based on idealized combat applications.
Some kata use low and wide stances. This practice develops leg strength, correct posture, and gracefulness. Vigorous arm movements enhance cardiovascular fitness and upper body strength. Kata vary in number of movements and difficulty. The longer kata require the karateka to learn many complex movements. Diligent training and correct mindfulness lead to real understanding of combat principles.
Kata were developed before literacy was commonplace in Okinawa or China. Physical routines were a logical way to preserve this type of knowledge. The various moves have multiple interpretations and applications. Because the applicability for actual self-defense is so flexible there is no definitively correct way to interpret all kata. That is why only high ranking practitioners are qualified to judge adequate form for their own style. Some of the criteria for judging the quality of a performance are: Absence of missteps; correct beginning and especially ending; crispness and smoothness; correct speed and power; confidence; and knowledge of application. Kata with the same name are often performed differently in other styles of karate. Kata are taught with minor variations among schools of the same style. Even the same instructor will teach a particular kata slightly differently as the years pass.
To attain a formal rank the karateka must demonstrate competent performance of specific required kata for that level. The Japanese terminology for grades or ranks is commonly used. Requirements for examinations vary among schools.
Sparring in Karate is called kumite (組手:くみて). It literally means “meeting of hands.” Kumite is practiced both as a sport and as self-defense training.
Levels of physical contact during sparring vary considerably. Full contact karate has several variants. Knockdown karate (such as Kyokushin) uses full power techniques to bring an opponent to the ground. In Kickboxing variants ( for example K-1), the preferred win is by knockout. Sparring in armour (bogu kumite) allows full power techniques with some safety. Sport kumite is free or structured with no-contact or light contact and points are awarded by a referee.
In structured kumite (Yakusoku – prearranged), two participants perform a choreographed series of techniques with one striking while the other blocks. The form ends with one devastating technique (Hito Tsuki).
In free sparring (Jiyu Kumite), the two participants have a free choice of scoring techniques. The allowed techniques and contact level are usually determined by the age, rank and sex of the participants. Depending upon style, take-downs and sweeps are also allowed.
Free sparring is performed in a marked or closed area. The bout runs for a fixed time (2 to 3 minutes.) The time can run continuously (Iri Kume) or be stopped for referee judgment. Points are awarded based on the criteria: good form, sporting attitude, vigorous application, awareness/zanshin, good timing and correct distance.
In the bushidō tradition dojo kun is a set of guidelines for kareteka to follow. These guidelines apply both in the dojo (training hall) and in everyday life.
Okinawan karate uses supplementary training known as hojo undo. This utilizes simple equipment made of wood and stone. The makiwara is a striking post. The nigiri game is a large jar used for developing grip strength. These supplementary exercises are designed to increase strength, stamina, speed, and muscle coordination. Sport Karate emphasises aerobic exercise, anaerobic exercise, power, agility, flexibility, and stress management. All practices vary depending upon the school and the teacher.
Gichin Funakoshi (船越 義珍) said, “There are no contests in karate.” In pre-World War II Okinawa, kumite was not part of karate training. Shigeru Egami relates that, in 1940, some karateka were ousted from their dojo because they adopted sparring after having learned it in Tokyo.
International competition is well organized. The World Karate Federation (WKF) is recognized by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as being responsible for karate competition in the Olympic games. The WKF has developed common rules governing all styles. The national WKF organisations coordinate with their respective National Olympic Committees.
Karate does not have 2012 Olympic status. In the 117th IOC Session (July 2005), karate received more than half of the votes, but not the two-thirds majority needed to become an official Olympic sport.
WKF karate competition has two disciplines: sparring (kumite) and forms (kata) Competitors may enter either as individuals or as part of a team. Evaluation for kata and kobudo is performed by a panel of judges, whereas sparring is judged by a head referee, usually with assistant referees at the side of the sparring area. Sparring matches are typically divided by weight, age, gender, and experience.
There are other regional, national, and international organizations that hold competitions. The WKF accepts only one organization per country. The World Union of Karate-do Organizations (WUKO) offers different styles and federations a world body they may join, without having to compromise their style or size. The WUKO accepts more than one federation or association per country.
In 1924 Gichin Funakoshi founder of Shotokan Karate adopted the Dan system from judo founder Jigoro Kano using a rank scheme with a limited set of belt colors. Other Okinawan teachers also adopted this practice. In the Kyū/Dan system the beginner grades start with a higher numbered kyū (e.g., 9th Kyū) and progress toward a lower numbered kyū. The Dan progression continues from 1st Dan (Shodan, or ‘beginning dan’) to the higher dan grades. Kyū-grade karateka are referred to as “color belt” or mudansha (“ones without dan”). Dan-grade karateka are referred to as yudansha (holders of dan rank). Yudansha typically wear a black belt. Requirements of rank differ among styles, organizations, and schools. Kyū ranks stress stance, balance, and coordination. Speed and power are added at higher grades. Minimum age and time in rank are factors affecting promotion. Testing consists of demonstration of techniques before a panel of examiners. This will vary by school, but testing may include everything learned at that point, or just new information. The demonstration is an application for new rank (shinsa) and may include kata, bunkai, self-defense, routines, tameshiwari (breaking), and/or kumite (sparring). Black belt testing may also include a written examination.
Gichin Funakoshi interpreted the “kara” of Karatedo to mean “to purge [oneself] of selfish and evil thoughts. For only with a clear mind and conscience can [the practitioner] understand that [knowledge] which he receives.” Funakoshi believed that one should be “inwardly humble and outwardly gentle.” Only by behaving humbly can one be open to Karate’s many lessons. This is done by listening and being receptive to criticism. He considered courtesy of prime importance. He said that “Karate is properly applied only in those rare situations in which one really must either down another or be downed by him.” Funakoshi did not consider it unusual for a devotee to use Karate in a real physical confrontation no more than perhaps once in a lifetime. He stated that Karate practitioners must “never be easily drawn into a fight.” It is understood that one blow from a real expert could mean death. It is clear that those who misuse what they have learned bring dishonor upon themselves. He promoted the character trait of personal conviction. In “time of grave public crisis, one must have the courage…to face a million and one opponents.” He taught that indecisiveness is a weakness.