Brief Overview of Karate

Image of Karate

The most Famous Martial Art of Japan
Karate (also known as karatedo), a martial art and a combat sport developed in Japan, is characterized as a striking art that uses kicking. Today, karate is loved as a martial art, combat sport and sport with worldwide popularity. World Karate Federation has more than 184 member countries, and it is said Karate has more than 80,000,000 players around the world. In addition, famous sport "Taekwondo" is originated from Karate.

There are Two Styles of Karate
The currently prevailing karate can be divided into two categories based on the differences in match rules:“dentoha karate” (traditional-style karate), which adopts the “sundome” (non-contact) rules, and full-contact karate, which adopts direct-attack rules. The modern karate is a combat sport characterized mainly by a striking art, but the traditional Okinawan karate embraced grappling techniques called “toitee, or torite,” as well as throwing techniques.

Karate includes the Art of Weapon
Also, at one time the exercise of “buki jutsu” (the art of weapons), together with karate, such as “bo-jutsu,” (the art of using a stick as a weapon) “sai-jutsu,” (the art of using traditional Okinawan weapon) and “nunchaku-jutsu” (a traditional martial art with two linked fighting sticks), was long a general practice.

Karate practice at Shuri Castle, Okinawa
Karate practice at Shuri Castle, Okinawa
Karate Sai (traditional Okinawan weapon) and Karate Bo (Traditional Karate Stick)
Karate Sai (traditional Okinawan weapon) and Karate Bo (Traditional Karate Stick)
Must See Videos
Video Contents
1. Documentary "The Spirit of Karate" (48:59)
2. Documentary of Karate masters (28:00)

Kata and Kumite

The Two Basic Skills of Karate
Kata and kumite are basic components of karate, and since early times it has been the standard practice to exercise both skills. As for which one is more important than the other, opinions have changed with the times. Previously, the practice of kata was valued most, but recently there has been a growing trend toward kumite due to the introduction of tournaments.

Karate KataKata refers to karate’s solo practice and demonstration style. In kata, practitioners exercise or demonstrate various techniques in a particular sequence, with the duration of each kata varying from several seconds to several minutes. It is said that through kata practitioners do not just master karate's basic skills and posture, but also acquire the body movements peculiar to karate--which is a prerequisite for the practical application of karate--such as kumite. There were originally several dozen kata; however, some of them disappeared, and some were invented after the Meiji period (e.g. binan). There are differences in the same kata depending on the organization and circle, or between Okinawa and the Japanese mainland. Today, tournaments for kata are also held, and the practice and demonstration of kata itself has become a game.

Karate KumiteKumite refers to the face-to-face karate practice style (sparring), mainly done as a duo. There are “yakusoku kumite” (prearranged sparring), where players try techniques alternately based on designated procedures; “jiyu kumite” (freestyle sparring), where players use techniques freely; and “kumite shiai” (kumite match), where players fight to decide who is the winner and who is the loser.

Sundome Style Kumite
The match style called “sundome,” or “kime,” is one in which the contestants, as a general rule, should stop a punch before it hits the opponent’s body deeper than his/her skin to prevent injury. This style is adopted mainly by traditional-style karate organizations and circles, which are affiliated with the Japan Karate Federation. In some matches, players are required to wear protective gear, but direct attack isn’t allowed.

Full-contact Style Kumite
The match style called “full-contact” is one in which the contestants are allowed to use direct attacks. Contestants wear no protective gear and fight with bare hands and bare feet. Attacks to vulnerable parts, however, are prohibited, such as punches to the face, kicking the groin and kicking the knee joints.

Karate Tobigeri (Jump Kick)
Karate Tobigeri (Jump Kick)

History of Karate

Era of Tee in Ryukyu

Two Theories for Origin of Karate
Introduced by the 36 Families of Kume' theory
It is said that in 1392, in the era of the Ming Dynasty, a professional group called the '36 Min families' immigrated from Fusian Province to the village of Kuninda in Naha City. They introduced advanced arts, science and technologies to the Ryukyu Kingdom, and according to this theory Chinese martial arts, from which karate originated, were introduced at the same time.

Developed from Country Mekata' theory
Mekata, a word from the Okinawa dialect, refers to 'dance.' This theory asserts that a country-style Ryukyu dance having an element of a martial art developed into 'tee,' a martial art peculiar to Okinawa, which in turn developed into karate. This theory was espoused by Anko AZATO and his pupil, Gichin FUNAKOSHI.

The Era of Tee in the Ryukyu Kingdom
The "Kyuyo" (the chronicles of Ryukyu) introduces an episode in which, during the sixteenth century, when Jikki KYOAHAGON was assaulted by an assassin he kicked the assassin in the groin through an art of 'kushu' (空手), which is considered to be an unarmed (bare hands) martial art prior to toudee, although there is no clear depiction of such an art. Also, the names of a handful of seventeenth-century martial artists have been passed on by word of mouth, but there are no clear descriptions of what kinds of martial arts they practiced. It was during the eighteenth century that the names of many specific martial artists were clearly identified as practitioners of tee. They include Master Nishihira, Master Gushikawa, Michinobu SORYO, Shinunjo TOKASHIKI, Yomasa AOI and Choken MAKABE. Also, it is known that "Oshima Hikki" (the notes of Oshima, 1776), which Yoshiteru TOBE, a Confucian scholar at Tosa Province, wrote based on interviews with Ryukyu warriors who had been washed up to Tosa, reads that Koshokun, a Chinese martial artist, showcased the techniques of the martial art called 'kumiai-jutsu' when visiting the Ryukyu Kingdom in the previous year. It is considered that Koshokun was a military attaché to the Chinese palace who visited the Ryukyu Kingdom as one of the Sakuho Shisetsu (entourage of Chinese diplomats for the creation of peerage) in 1756, and there is a theory that the beginning of karate can be traced to this visit by Koshokun to the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The Era of Toudee
Era of toudee in RyukyuThe name 'toudee' came into use in the nineteenth century. However, the differences between toudee and 'tee' have become blurred. It is said that until the beginning of the Meiji period 'tee,' which had existed prior to toudee, was called 'Okinawa-te' or 'uchina-dee,' and that it was distinguished from toudee, but it isn't known what differentiated the former from the latter. The following were famous toudee practitioners after the nineteenth century: in Shuri City, Kanga SAKUKAWA and his pupil Sokon MATSUMURA, Master Morishima, and Yamashiro ABURAYA; in Tomari City, Taka UKUYOSHI and Zo TERUYAKI; in Naha City, and Isei KOGUSUI. Particularly, Shokon MATSUMURA, also known as 'Ryukyu's Musashi MIYAMOTO (a famous swordsman),' is said to have been the greatest karate artist in the era of the Ryukyu Kingdom. He worked as a military attaché to the King of Ryukyu and allegedly served as the king's martial-arts coach.

Around the same time, traditional Japanese martial arts, which were introduced to Okinawa via Satsuma Province, allegedly influenced the development of toudee. In the late Ryukyu Kingdom era, some of the Ryukyu warriors learned swordsmanship, such as the Jigenryu line and its offshoots, from Satsuma officers staying in Ryukyu, and some of them, like Sokon MATSUMURA, migrated to Satsuma Province to master the Jigenryu line. The karate technique 'makiwara tsuki' (punching the punching board) is said to have been modeled on the 'tachiki-uchi,' (hitting a hard wood stick to train for attack power), a technique adopted by the Jigenryu line. Also, there is a belief that the concept 'killing with one thrashing' espoused by karate was fostered under the influence of the Jigenryu line.

Karate circles and organizations did not appear until the end of the Taisho period, when karate was introduced to the Japanese mainland. Previously, karate was merely divided into three loose groups by areas in which karate was popular: Shuri-te, Tomari-te and Naha-te. This grouping, however, shouldn't be taken seriously because there were cases in which Shuri warriors learned Shuri-te, Tomari-te and Naha-te simultaneously.

Chomo Hanashiro

Disclosure of Karate (Meiji period)
Traditionally, toudee was passed down in secret among the warrior class of the Ryukyu Kingdom, but upon the disappearance of the Kingdom based on the overthrow of the Ryukyu royal family in 1879, toudee too was in danger of disappearing. Except for a handful of affluent families, the warrior class of the Ryukyu Kingdom, a champion of toudee, soon went into ruin, leaving them no room for the practice of toudee. Certain discontented warriors fled to China of the Qing Dynasty (diasporas to Qing), and some of them led independence campaigns there. The Civilization Party (reformists) and the Resolute Party (conservatives) cut each other's throats, shaking the foundation of the warrior class. It was Anko ITOSU who saved toudee from this critical situation. Based on Itosu's efforts, toudee was initially adopted as a subject of gymnastics classes at Shuri jinjo Elementary School in 1901 and then at Okinawa Kenritsu Dai-Ichi Middle School (presently Shuri Senior High School) and the Normal School (college of education) of Okinawa in 1905. On this occasion, the pronunciation was changed from 'toudee' to 'karate.' Toudee survived the danger of disappearance through Itosu's introduction to the general public and through the adoption of characteristics that were more similar to sports than to martial arts. Itosu's passion for reforms also extended to the creation and refinement of "kata" (the standard form of movement, posture, etc., in martial arts, sports, etc.). For example, he created the kata called 'binan' (the form of peace) for children and students to ensure easier learning while getting rid of dangerous techniques such as attacks to vulnerable body parts and the breaking of joints due to the existing kata. Apart from this movement, some Okinawans who went to China opened a toudee training hall in China, while others learned Chinese martial arts there and brought them back to Okinawa. Examples of the latter are Isei KOGUSUKU, Kanryo HIGAONNA and Kanmon KAMICHI. Some modern researchers, however, have begun to cast doubt on the introduction of Chinese martial arts by the latter group, as it has become widely known, due to the dissemination of books and videos about Chinese martial arts, that the martial arts they introduced to Okinawa don't resemble Chinese martial arts very much, and because prototype Chinese martial arts weren't identified despite several dispatches of investigative teams from Japan to China after the normalization of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

To the Japanese Mainland (Taisho period)
Karate Masters in japan mainlandAccording to the latest studies, it is said that karate was first introduced to the Japanese mainland during the Meiji period by former Ryukyu warriors who boarded at the Tokyo residence of Tai Sho, the Marques of Okinawa. They, upon invitation, gave a karate demonstration at the residences of other domains, or taught the techniques of striking and kicking arts at training halls of the Yoshin-ryu school or the Kito-ryu school, or on the streets. However, full-fledged karate education developed after the Taisho period, when Gichin FUNAKOSHI and Choki MOTOBU migrated to the Japanese mainland. At the First Gymnastics Exhibition in May 1922, which was hosted by the Ministry of Education, Funakoshi gave a karate demonstration. This was the first public exhibition of karate in the Japanese mainland. This demonstration drew great attention from martial artists in the mainland, such as Jigoro KANO, a judo expert. The following June, Funakoshi was invited to the Kodokan Judo Institute, where he gave a karate demonstration and explanatory session to more than 200 black-belt judo experts, including Jigoro KANO. Funakoshi then settled in Tokyo and taught karate there. At about the same time, Choki MOTOBU stole the show in the Kansai area by showcasing his karate skills before the public. In November 1922, during a leisurely visit to Kyoto, Motobu happened to notice a fight show between experts in judo and boxing and appeared in the show without prior application, and with one thrashing he defeated his challenger, as Russian boxer. He was 52 years old at that time. This incident made the headlines in newspapers and magazines, and it is said that karate, which had been known only to some of the martial artists, became known nationwide overnight. The following year, Motobu began to teach karate in the Kansai area. After inspired by the actions of Funakoshi and Motobu, university students set up karate clubs at their universities, one after another. In Okinawa, the Karate Study Club was set up in 1924 and developed into the Okinawa Karate Club in 1926, whereby karate grand masters in Okinawa gathered together to promote the exchange of karate techniques and carry out collaborative research on karate on a trial basis. Many karate superstars were among the participants, such as Chomo HANASHIRO, Choyu MOTOBU, Choki MOTOBU, Chotoku KYAN, Chosin CHIBANA, Kenwa MABUNI, Chojun MIYAGI, Juhatsu KYODA and Kenki GO.

Honbe Master

The Birth of Karatedo by fusing with Mainland Martial Arts (early Showa period)
In the early Showa period, Kenwa MABUNI, Chojun MIYAGI and Kanken TOYAMA migrated to the Japanese mainland and taught karate there. In 1933, karate was acknowledged by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (Greater Japan Martial Virtue Society) as one of the Japanese martial arts. This was a revolutionary event since karate, which had developed in a small region like Okinawa, was certified as a Japanese martial art, but at the same its significance was tainted by the fact that karate was categorized as one variety of judo/jujutsu and by the humiliating condition that karate ranks and titles should be judged by judo experts. In 1929, a karate club at Keio University, where Gichin FUNAKOSHI taught as a grand master, announced that the Chinese spelling of karate would be changed to '空手' based on the philosophy of 'ku (空) (tentative self, ephemeral life)' espoused by Hannya Shingyo (Heart Sutra), and this spelling was authorized by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai in 1934. Also, it was decided that the suffix '-do,' which was adopted by other Japanese martial arts, would be added to karate, with 'karate-jutsu' being changed to 'karate-do.' Karate, in the Japanese mainland, concentrated on a striking art by getting rid of the techniques called 'toutee,' which had characteristics similar to jujutsu, so as to differentiate karate from judo, partly because karate was classified as a variety of judo by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. At the same time, supplementary arts of weapons, such as bo-jutsu and nunchaku-jutsu, were abandoned. Some karate circles made alterations to the posture and movement of kata or embraced Japanese-style names for kata. Additionally, new types of kumite (paired karate kata) were created by karate practitioners in the Japanese mainland, because Okinawan traditional kumite weren't fully introduced, resulting in the birth of modern karatedo. As for the evaluation of these reforms, some acknowledge that reforms contributed to the popularization of karate in the Japanese mainland but others criticize that reforms resulted in deviation from the traditional way of karate.

After the World War II
During the period of allied nations' occupation, the activities of karate grew stagnant temporarily because of the 'Notice of Ban on Martial Arts such as Judo and Kendo' issued by the Ministry of Education under the orders of the General Headquarters (GHQ). However, because the word 'karate' wasn't printed in this notice, the MOE was persuaded to announce that karate wasn't banned, and karate was able to resume its activities earlier than other martial arts.

Dochin Funakoshi

The Birth of National Karate Organizations and Karate for Tournaments
Although attempts to introduce karate tournaments (matches) were pursued before WWII, an organizational effort to promote tournaments wasn't achieved because some karate experts rejected the idea of a tournament. However, in 1954 Kanbukan (presently the All Japan Karatedo Federation Renbukai) hosted the first National Karatedo Tournament under the "bougtsuki karate" (karate with protective gear) rules, followed by the first All Japan Student Karatedo Championships (under the traditional-style (sundome) rules) in 1957, which was hosted by the All Japan Student Karatedo Federation established in 1950. In 1957, the Japan Karate Association hosted the National Karatedo Championships. In 1962, the karate expert Tatsuo YAMADA hosted the first Karate Competition at Korakuen Hall, whereby karate practitioners with gloves fought games under direct-attack rules, ahead of the ensuing full-contact karate. In 1964, the Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF) was established. In September 1969, the first All Japan Charted Contest, hosted by the JKF, was held at the Nippon Budokan under the traditional-style (sundome) rules. That same month, Masutatsu OYAMA, the founder of Kyokushin Kaikan, who, having become skeptical of traditional-style karate, was pursuing the realization of karate tournaments under direct-attack rules based on his own philosophy, generated a great buzz throughout the karate realm by hosting the first Open Tournament All Japan Karatedo Championships at Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Yoyogi, whereby contestants, who were prohibited from wearing any protective gear, fought with bare hands and bare feet under direct-attack rules (attacks to the face were prohibited, except with kicking). The JKF, meanwhile, hosted the first International Karatedo Championships the following year.


The Upsurge of Organizations and Circles, and the Diversification of Karate
As can be seen above, karate steadily developed on the national and organizational levels. On the other hand, since joining the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, karate--traditionally, karate is said to have no schools and circles--saw an increase in the number of organizations (schools) and circles. In 1948, the Japan Karate Association (Shotokan-ryu school), the largest organization, was set up in Tokyo by pupils of Gichin FUNAKOSHI and was upgraded to a legal entity on April 10, 1957 by the Ministry of Education. In 1958, Motonobu HIRONISHI and others, who were opposed to karate tournaments, reconstructed the Shotokai school, which had existed prior to WWII, and parted company with the JAS. Other organizations and circles experienced similar schisms and fragmentations. Some karate experts such as Kanken TOYAMA espoused the philosophy of karate with no affiliation, but they failed to become the mainstream. Also, backed by practitioners who were dissatisfied with the JKF's so-called 'sundome (kime)' match rules, there emerged organizations and circles that advocated full-contact karate--as represented by the Kyokushin Kaikan founded by Masutatsu OYAMA--which was characterized by a direct-attack style (attacks to the face were prohibited), and these organizations came to have power in the karate realm. However, the Kyokushin Kaikan, which was known for its bond of solidarity when Masutatsu OYAMA was alive, split into several factions, which called themselves 'Kyokushin,' and after the death of OYAMA many members left the organization and set up their own circles. Also, as represented by Daido Juku Kudo (derived from the Kyokushin Kaikan), there emerged organizations and circles that, while serving as the antithesis of the modern karate that concentrates on the striking art, sought the return to a comprehensive martial art like the traditional Okinawan karate, by incorporating grappling and throwing techniques into karate.

Ranking System of "Dan"and "Kyu"

Practice of Karate

Black Belt System are Modeled on Judo
Karate’s Dan and Kyu rank certification system and colored-belt system are modeled on judo’s systems. It is said that Gichin FUNAKOSHI introduced Dan ranking system for the first time in 1924. As for belts, black and white belts were introduced first. The black belt was for advanced practitioners (with dan ranks) whereas the white belt was for novices. Many Karate organizations have introduced the brown belt in-between (one to three kyu ranks). Additionally, below the brown belt, colored belts such as green, yellow and blue were originally introduced for children, but such colored belts have become common in the present day. Addition to the Dan and Kyu rank system, there are titles comprise Hanshi (grand master), Kyoshi or Tatsushi (master) and Renshi (semi-master).

Kuro-obi (Black Belt) Master
Kuro-obi (Black Belt) Master
Must Visit Spots

For More Information
google plus
See Also
Encyclopedia of Japan