What is Karate?
Karate is a Japanese martial art. Originating from the island of Okinawa, Karate spread first to mainland Japan and then to the whole world from there.
The martial art is a self-defensive art consisting of mainly strikes such as kicks, punches and open hand strikes (such as chops).
Karate became very popular in the 80s when there were many movies promoting the martial art. It still remains popular and there are many karate schools around the world.
Karate remains one of the most well known martial arts in the modern day.
Karate can be translated to ‘empty hand’ in English. Reinforcing how Karate is a martial art that doesn’t require the use of weapons!
- The origins and history of Karate
- How Karate spread to America and then to the world
- Different styles of Karate
- Basic principles of Karate
- What is the difference between Karate and Kung Fu?
- What equipment do I need when starting Karate?
- Basic rules of Karate in competitions
- Why train in Karate over other martial arts?
- What are the benefits of Karate?
- How to get started and find a Karate class!
The origins and history of Karate
Early signs of Karate
The origins of Karate are quite unclear. It remains a mystery how Karate really did start to develop.
Some archaeological discoveries have unearthed evidence to suggest that at around 2500 BCE, the king of Urak in Babylonia started to create his own system of unarmed combat.
It is believed that he was a great warrior, but scholars don’t link this directly to Karate and the Okinawan roots we now associate with the martial art.
China and Japan build trade relationship on Ryuku Islands
The earliest evidence we have about the origins of karate stem from the 14th century. China and Japan began to build a strong trade relationship with the Ryukyu Islands, which we now know as Okinawa.
This was due to the location of the island, being in close proximity to both countries. China especially had a large impact on the development of martial arts in the area.
Throughout this time both China and the Ryukyu islands had strong cultural and economic ties. China did not want to interfere with Ryukyuan domestic affairs, maintaining a strong relationship with the island.
This resulted in many Chinese people migrating to Ryukyu either for business reasons or due to being sent there by the government.
In 1392, the Chinese Emperor granted permission for a group of families from Fujian to immigrate to Okinawa. This included people who were craftsmen, writers, scholars and martial artists who would go on to share their knowledge with the Ryukyuan people.
Martial arts specialists taught the Ryukyuan different forms of Kung Fu such as Fujian White Crane. It is also believed that the Ryukyu kings sent some of their upper-class members to go and study in China.
Whilst in China they picked up different Chinese martial arts and brought them back to the Ryukyu kingdom. This included the likes of Peichin Takahara and Sakugawa Kanga, who are all credited with bringing valuable knowledge back to Ryukyu from China.
The emergence of Karate styles
In 1477, the king banned the carrying of all weapons. People then started to focus on developing arts of unarmed combat. From all their learnings they began to develop their own styles.
The first three styles came from the three key cities of the island, Shuri, Naha and Tomari. Each city would refer to this style as their own ‘Te’ (or Tode). Therefore, there were three key styles Shuri-Te, Naha-Te and Tomari-Te.
Shuri-Te is based on the style of the old capital city of the Ryukyu islands, Shuri. Techniques are said to be like those that influenced Shaolin Kung Fu.
It was regarded as a style practiced by the ‘noble’ with an emphasis on both hand and leg techniques making it a great long-range style. Shuri- Te has influenced modern Karate styles such as Shorin- Ryu, Wado-Ryu and Shotokan.
Naha-Te is the style of the city of Naha, which nowadays is the capital city of Okinawa. This style is believed to be based on Fujian White Crane Kung Fu.
There were not many leg techniques in this style, it was close-range combat. Naha-Te also emphasised the importance of breathing techniques. It has influenced modern day Karate styles such as Goju-Ryu and Uechi-Ryu.
Tomari-Te was established in Tomari, a village in the island. This style was a mix of both Shuri-Te and Naha-Te. Taking elements from both styles to create their own way. All three styles combined would be known as ‘Okinawan Te’.
Karate spreads to mainland Japan
In 1609, Japan invaded the Ryukyu kingdom. The Ryukyuans were unable to fight off the strong samurai army. In 1879, Ryukyu became a part of Japan and became known as ‘Okinawa’.
Following the invasion, various forms of Te (Tode) emerged from the initial three styles. They included the likes of Shito-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, Wado-Ryu, and Shotokan.
Karate then spread to mainland Japan. Many refer to Gichin Funakoshi as the ‘father of modern Karate’. Funakoshi and other Karate masters decided to change the name from ‘Te’ (Tode) which meant ‘Chinese Hand’ to ‘Karate’ which means ‘empty hand’.
They realised this name would be easier to popularise in Japan. The names of many techniques were also changed to Japanese names because of this. Funakoshi was taught by two great Karate masters, Anko Itosu and Anko Asato.
Funakoshi would be invited to Japan in 1922 to demonstrate Karate. Here he would meet Judo founder, Jigoro Kano. From here Funakoshi would continue to spread Karate, holding demonstrations at many universities across Japan.
Funakoshi would become the founder of the Shotokan style. ‘Shoto’ was the name of his pen which meant ‘waving or billowing pine’. In 1933, Karate became an official Japanese martial art by the decree of the Butoku Kai (Japanese martial arts committee).
Karate then went on to adopt the uniform used by Kano’s Judo in 1935. Finally in 1936, Funakoshi opened the first Karate dojo in Tokyo, Japan.
Karate had finally become a martial art practiced by the Japanese. But how did it spread across the world? Find out in the next section!
How Karate spread to America and then to the world
Karate started to spread to America post World War 2. Martial arts such as Judo became compulsory for American soldiers to learn particularly the Air Force’s Strategic Air Command Division. The soldiers then spread what they had learned back home.
Many regard Robert Trias as the ‘Father of American Karate’. He has helped to spread the concept of martial arts throughout America.
Creating his own style ‘Shuri-Ryu’ which stems from the original Okinawan roots. Trias was also one of the first in America to get his black belt in Karate.
Trias learned about martial arts during World War 2 where he served for the United States Naval Reserve. Trias was already practising boxing and had been the ‘Middleweight Navy Champion of the All-Services Boxing Champion’.
He met Tung Gee Hsiang in the Solomon Islands. Hsiang taught Trias Okinawan Shuri-Te Karate. Trias brought his learnings back to America, continuously practising them by teaching martial arts in his garden!
In 1946, Trias then opened the first American Karate school in Arizona.
In 1948, Trias went on to establish the United States Karate Association (USKA), which was the first major martial arts organisation in America.
In 1963, the first ever national karate tournament was held at the University of Chicago. Many rules that were established in this tournament are still used to this day.
People also credit Bruce Lee for popularising martial arts in general at this time in America. He started to display martial arts to the American public. Especially with some of his big hit movies in the 1970’s.
Karate was used as a blanket term at this time for martial arts in America. Even though it is not correct to apply this as a blanket term, it allowed Karate to grow as people were intrigued by the crazy moves they were seeing in the movies and wanted to be able to learn them!
Karate would spread to Europe through Henry Plee who is considered the ‘Father of European and French Karate’.
He learned different Japanese martial arts such as Judo, Karate, Aikido and Kendo.
In 1955 he created his Karate dojo known as the ‘Karate Club de France’. Here he taught the likes of Vernon Ball. Ball also was a judoka who learnt under Kenshiro Abbe, a prominent master of Judo.
In 1957 Ball became the first British Karate black belt and went on to create the British Karate Federation (BKF).
Karate spread through different masters moving from Japan to different countries after being invited to demonstrate their martial art. Nowadays Karate is practised worldwide!
Different styles of Karate
Karate has many different styles that have emerged over the years. Here are some of the most popular styles that are practiced across the globe:
Founded by Funakoshi, this is one the most famous Karate styles. Both the upper and lower body are utilised using strikes with the hands and legs. Practitioners are taught to focus on elements such as their speed, balance and breathing.
Check out this video of Shotokan Karate!
This style uses both hard and soft strikes such as punches and open hand strikes. There is a focus on breathing and using a lot of flowing and circular movement in order to deflect opponents strikes with angles.
Give this a video a watch, it shows Goju-Ryu Karate!
Founded by Uechi in the early 1900s, this style has been largely influenced by Chinese martial arts. Using low kicks, open hand strikes and using upright stances.
This video shows Uechi- Ryu Karate!
Wado means ‘the way of harmony’. This style has been influenced by Jujitsu and includes some elements of the martial art. There is a focus on sharpening the mind of the practitioner by evading strikes and countering with kicks and punches. This style emphasises the importance of discipline and having a peaceful mind.
Check out this video that goes through Wado-Ryu Karate!
This method insists on the importance of maintaining physical and mental balance. Practitioners learn to avoid strikes with body movement and then counter-attack.
Watch this video which displays some Shorin-Ryu Karate techniques!
This means ‘ultimate truth’ in Japanese. This style is aggressive. Using full contact sparring including knees to the body and kicks allowed to the head and legs too.
Check out this crazy Kyokushin Karate tournament final!
This style was founded in 1920’s by Mabuni and is still a popular form of Karate practised in Japan. There is a focus on fluidity and speed. Stances also include low stances closer to the ground and strikes such as punches, kicks and elbows.
This video shows some highlights from the Shito-Ryu Karate world championships!
Basic principles of Karate
As shown above there are many different styles of Karate! We have only named a few! But all Karate schools follow these three principles, Kihon, Kata and Kumite:
This means the basic fundamentals of the martial art. This includes learning how to kick, punch, block and the different stances. Learning these basics will give you a good grounding in the art, allowing you to progress up the belt levels.
This is a form or sequence of movements that are performed. These sequences are like a pattern that must be memorised. This trains and improves the practitioner’s direction, techniques, speed, power and rhythm. Many forms of Kata were developed as self-defence movements that can be applied to different situations.
Once practising and applying both the Kihon and Kata, the skills learnt can be displayed in Kumite. This refers to sparring or training with a partner. Practitioners can use their strikes in real life situations and practice their defensive moves too.
Karate also focuses on the mind as well. Allowing people to build up their character by emphasising the importance of self-control, respect and concentration.
What is the difference between Karate and Kung Fu?
Many people confuse Kung Fu with Karate, and vice versa but these are completely different styles!
Kung Fu is not strictly a martial art but an overall term given to Chinese martial arts collectively.
The term Kung Fu literally means ‘achievement through hard work’, so anything that you accomplish (of course through hard work!) could be classified as ‘Kung Fu’!
Many different Chinese martial arts fit under the umbrella term Kung Fu such as Shaolin Kung Fu, Tai Chi, Wing Chun and Wushu. These are all different martial arts with their own principles, philosophies and techniques.
People could be referring to Wushu when saying Kung Fu as this is another name for the martial art. But generally, Kung Fu is pretty much an umbrella term for all Chinese martial arts!
Whereas Karate, as we have stated above, is a martial art in and of itself. In fact, ‘Kung Fu’ heavily influenced the origins of Karate in the Ryukyu islands. Especially Chinese martial arts styles such as Fujian White Crane.
People also believe Kung Fu uses more circular motion and their styles have a higher emphasis on defence and reacting to attacks. Many regard Kung Fu as being ‘softer’ than the likes of Karate. In Karate practitioners are also taught to move forward and strike.
Here we can see there is a clear difference between both! Kung Fu being an overall term for Chinese martial arts and Karate being an actual Japanese martial art.
Both do offer physical and mental benefits. So next time you hear someone say they are the same, make sure to tell them the difference!
Give this video a watch to see both Karate and Kung Fu practitioners exchanging techniques!
What equipment do I need when starting Karate?
Practitioners who train in Karate must wear a ‘Gi’. This has become a popular item of clothing for many martial arts (many martial arts adopted the Gi from Kano who started using it in Judo).
This is a white uniform you will need to buy once you have committed to training in Karate.
Once settled in and you start to begin sparring (Kumite), extra equipment will be needed. This includes protection for your head, chest, hands, shins, feet and a mouth guard.
Also, if you are a male, groin guards are recommended. All this equipment will allow you to partake in sparring without hurting yourself or your fellow martial artists.
This equipment will also be required for competitions depending on the rules. This can all be purchased online or you can find out if there are any local suppliers from your chosen Karate school. They should be able to help you get everything you need!
Basic rules of Karate in competitions
Karate has become very popular as a competitive sport. It will finally become an Olympic sport making its first appearance in the ‘2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics’. However, competitions have been frequent occurrences even before Karate became an Olympic sport.
Karate will be broken down into two sections in the Olympics. Kata and Kumite. As we know, Kata is a sequence of movements that are performed displaying the practitioners’ skills.
We will focus on Kumite, which is the physical competition of Karate.
The main governing body is the World Karate Federation (WKF). They hold many tournaments around the world at all levels (national, continental and world) and will be the governing body for Karate in the Olympics.
Competitors usually win by outpointing their opponent. We will go through some key points regarding the pointing system and the rules:
Scores are awarded on the criteria of the techniques being of good form, good timing, accuracy and maintaining a respectful attitude.
Competitors can be awarded from one to three points:
- 3 points (Ippon)- a kick to the upper level or any scoring technique performed whilst the opponent is falling or being thrown
- 2 points (Wazari)- mid level kicks
- 1 point (Yuko)- mid or upper-level punch
Karate fights can be won by having more points than your opponent at the end of the fight, securing an 8-point lead in the fight or if your opponent is disqualified or cannot continue. If points are equal at the end, the referee and judges will decide on a winner.
Rules of Karate competition
Here are some key rules for Karate competition:
- Matches take place on 8x8m matts with 1m extra on the sides (the extra part is known as the safety area).
- Both competitors should exchange bows before the fight.
- The referee will shout when he deems a technique point worthy, all action must be stopped and re-started at the centre. Judges will review this and either agree or disagree.
- If a competitor is up by 8 points the match is stopped by the referee.
- Fights will go to points if no winner is declared or to the referee and judge’s decision if even.
Fights usually are 3 rounds consisting of 2 minutes, but this depends on different factors such as the age of the fighters and the rules.
Check out this video by WKF to see how the pointing system works!
Why train in Karate over other martial arts?
All martial arts are similar in the respect that they teach you ways of defending yourself and how to control both the mind and the body.
People like to choose Karate as a martial art to practise due to the number of schools there are available. Karate is a very popular martial art, with there guaranteed to be a Karate school near to you!
Therefore, it is more convenient for people as they don’t have to travel far to train in Karate.
Karate has many different styles as you’ve found out reading this post so far! Many other martial arts styles don’t have the depth of styles that Karate does.
Usually, martial arts have a few styles. There are so many different styles to learn from in Karate. You can’t stop learning!
Karate is also very good for both parents and children to do together. It teaches kids good morals and builds up their confidence. As well as building mental and physical strength in both kids and adults!
If you are competitive, Karate is also a good martial art to do! There are many competitions throughout all levels to motivate you to test your abilities.
Karate has also now become an Olympic sport, making its debut in 2021. This will be a dream many people will want to accomplish: to become an Olympic champion!
What are the benefits of Karate?
There are many benefits of training in Karate. We will go through some of the key benefits:
- Learn self-defence- Karate is widely practised by people who want to learn how to defend themselves. It provides people with both offensive and defensive techniques with a wide variety of strikes taught and even throws!
- Improve your strength and stamina- Their will be some tough workouts when training in Karate! Due to the amount of physical exercise you need to do, strength and stamina will definitely increase!
- Makes you more confident in yourself!- Through regular training in Karate, your self-confidence is bound to go up! You will constantly be pushing the boundaries. Maybe even surprising yourself with what you are really capable of!
- Improve your mental health- Regular training can help to reduce stress you may have and uplift your sprits by providing you a way of expressing yourself through the martial art. It can help combat depression and anxiety.
- Both striking and grappling elements are taught- In Karate you learn numerous different strikes including open hand strikes, elbows and much more! But with Karate you also learn some grappling techniques too such as throws! Making it a martial art good for both striking and grappling. Usually, martial arts only stick to one (either a striking or grappling martial art)!
- Karate can be practised by all- There is no age limit on Karate! It is suitable for all ages. It has benefits for everyone and anyone!
How to get started and find a Karate class!
Anyone can start Karate, no matter how old or fit you are. Finding a Karate class is a simple process! Make sure to check online for nearby Karate schools in your area, as most will have an online presence.
Contact the school (if they have contact details) if you have any questions you want to ask. Find out which session you would like to attend by contacting them if possible. If not, then just turn up and see how the class is for yourself!
After going to a few classes and trying this martial art Karate may not be for you. Don’t worry, there are many other martial arts out there! Be sure to check out our ‘MARTIAL ARTS…WHAT ARE THEY?’ post to gain a good understanding of other popular martial arts too!
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We have gone through Karate in this post. In our next few posts on the Martial Arts Series, we will cover other individual martial arts. Make sure you subscribe to our blog to keep up to date with the latest posts!