karate: All You Need To Know
Karate is one of the most popular and relatively modern martial arts in the world.
Why relatively? Because the first bases of karate date back to the period 1400-1700, but the modern karate we know today is linked to the 20th century. Awesome, isn’t it?
In this blog post, we will discuss the origins of karate, the different styles, and the basics.
We will also explore the disciplines, rules, and ranking system of karate.
And finally, we will ask the question: is karate a sport or a martial art?
Table of Contents
History and Origins
Karate is a martial art that originated in the Ryukyu Islands in what is now Okinawa, Japan.
It is said that it was developed from the indigenous martial artists of Okinawa and China.
Karate is also known as “empty hand” because it does not use any weapons.
But.. let’s start from the beginning:
Originally the fighting method that is the basis of today’s practices was called To-de (Chinese hand), in the continuation of the development of this art, it becomes Kara-Te (empty hand).
The first recorded mention of karate was in the book Ryūkyū-koan (1683), which described the activities of a group of Japanese merchants who visited Ryukyu Island (present-day Okinawa).
There are three main theories about the origins of karate:
- The first theory is that karate was developed by the indigenous people of Okinawa
- The second theory is that karate was developed by the Chinese who visited or lived in Okinawa.
- The third theory is that karate was developed by both the indigenous people of Okinawa and the Chinese.
It is most likely that karate was developed by both the indigenous people of Okinawa and the Chinese.
This is because there are similarities between karate and both Okinawan and Chinese martial arts.
For example, karate uses techniques such as punches, kicks, and blocks, which are also found in Okinawan and Chinese martial arts.
The principles of karate are:
- Kime (focus): The ability to direct all of your energy into one single strike.
- Zanshin (awareness): The ability to be aware of your surroundings and your opponent at all times.
- Fudoshin (immovable mind): The ability to remain calm and focused in the face of adversity.
- Shinken shobu (serious fighting): The belief that karate is a martial art and not a sport, and that it should only be used for self-defence.
There are an unbelievable number of styles of karate.
The four main styles are Shotokan, Wado-Ryu, Shito-Ryu, and Goju-Ryu.
- Shotokan is the most popular style of karate. It was developed by Gichin Funakoshi, who is considered the father of modern karate. Shotokan is characterized by powerful linear techniques and deep stances.
- Wado-Ryu was developed by Hironori Otsuka. It combines elements of karate and jujutsu (a Japanese martial art that uses grappling techniques). Wado-Ryu is characterized by circular techniques and lighter stances.
- Shito-Ryu was developed by Kenwa Mabuni. It combines elements of Shotokan and Shorin-Ryu (another style of Okinawan karate). Shito-Ryu is characterized by its use of both linear and circular techniques.
- Goju-Ryu was developed by Chōjun Miyagi. It is very similar to Shito-Ryu but it focuses more on the combination of soft and hard techniques.
3 K: KIHON, KATA AND KUMITE
In karate, a kihon is made up of fundamental moves that are repeated over and over again.
The Kihon method of karate training can be applied to a variety of situations:
- as a method of teaching more complicated techniques by breaking down gestures.
- as a particular method for resistance training.
- as a form of speed strength training when used in connection with some equipment.
Aside from karate, every sports practice kihon! Kihon is just more repetition of the fundamentals, which is a part of every sport’s culture.
Think about that:
a boxer performing pre-ordered combinations in front of the mirror
a basketball player throwing the ball to the basket
a football player doing the same skill a hundred times…
they’re all doing kihons!
The term Kata is composed of the kanji 型 or 形, and is translated as form, or pattern.
It is precisely the meaning of form, and model, that makes the idea of Kata.
Kata is a model of gestures that enables the replication of the initial (original) gesture when repeated as designed.
As a result, just like in the original model, the practice enables the transmission of a gesture, tactic, or strategy through repeated execution (kata).
There exist more than 200 katas, adding the different styles, different schools and variations.
These are the number of katas in the styles we’ve seen before:
- 26 Shotokan Katas
- 59 Shito-ryu Katas
- 18 Goju Ryu Katas
- 15 Wado Ryu Katas
The term Bunkai means to disassemble, to break down.
Bunkai in Karate is considered the application of Kata, but in reality, it is something different and much more complete and there are three different types: Omote, Ura and Honto.
Omote means surface, simple.
Omote bunkai are very simple and direct, they directly reflect what you see in the kata.
When you observe a block (uke) and a counterattack, the Omote meaning is that: that is, an attack and a counter-attack.
Ura means behind, secret or in any case advanced level bunkai.
So something invisible/hidden is contained in the meaning of the Kata block.
Honto means real, true.
Hence the true and original meaning of the technique.
Usually explained as the self-defence bunkai where each application must be close to the “street” defence situations and not only in the Dojo.
Kumite is a sparring match between two opponents.
Kumite is made up of the words kumi and te, which together mean to put together and hand. Kumite, then, refers to a hand-to-hand conflict.
Regarding the styles, it is difficult to understand which one is an athlete practising by looking at his way of fighting.
We can therefore say that the styles influence kata more than kumite.
Kumite can be either controlled contact or full contact.
Let’s discover more about this.
What does controlled contact mean?
It means that you can hit your opponent, but the Knockout is not allowed, so you have to be careful to control your shots, especially on the head.
This this type of Kumite is the one that was possible to watch at the Tokyo Olympics 2020.
Since it is controlled contact, the regulation requires athletes to wear protective gear.
Since the kumite is in contact, the athletes must wear safety protections such as:
- The bodice for the abdomen
- Shin guards and foot guards
- For males, the shell.
Full contact karate is a reality that is closest to MMA as both have a common goal, to knock out the opponent.
Full contact is practiced in many different styles, but Kyokushin Karate is probably the most well-known.
In this case, no protection is allowed.
As many other sports, there are basics in karate as well.
You cannot skip the basics to perform more complex movements.
Do you think it is possible to learn a poem without first learning the alphabet?
The basic techniques in karate are punching, kicking, and blocking.
- Punches are thrown with the fist. The most common punches in karate are the oi-tsuki (a quick, straight punch) and the giako-tsuki (a powerful, straight punch).
- Kicks are thrown with the foot. The most common kicks in karate are the mae-geri (a quick, rising front kick), the yoko-geri (a powerful, sideways kick), and the mawashi-geri (a roundhouse kick).
- Blocks are used to defend against punches and kicks. The most common blocks in karate are the age uke (high-block), the chudan uke (medium-block) and the gedan barai uke (low-block).
The basic stances in karate are different for each style, but the most famous and commons are: shikodachi, nekoashi-dachi, kibadachi, zenkutsu-dachi.
- Shikodachi and Kibadachi are very similar, they’re both known as “the cavalier stance“. They are respectively from the Shito-Ryu style and Shotokan style, and the main difference is that in the first one the feet are opened at 45°, and in the second one the feet are parallel in front of you.
- Nekoashi-dachi is known as “the cat stance“. For each style of karate, this stance can have a little variation, but the main concept is that the main weight of your body is supported by your back leg. The front leg has the only goal to hold the balance.
- Zenkutsu-dachi is known as “the long stance“. As Nekoashi-dachi, this stance has many variations for each style of karate. Unlike the nekoashi-dachi, the body weight here is 60% distributed on the front leg, the remaining 40% on the back leg. The front knee must be flexed, while the rear completely extended; both feet must be oriented to the front.
After the meeting with the first techniques of Karate, and perhaps memorising some Kihon, we meet now the concept of Kime.
The Japanese verb Kimeru (決 め る), which means to choose, is known as Kime (決 め).
This verb itself is derived from the Old Japanese verb kimu (決 む), which means to be resolved, to come to a conclusion, or to be determined.
Kime, by definition, is:
It is a short isometric contraction, where a simple example can be done with the execution of a tsuki (fist), without moving anything, closing the hand very tightly and putting a lot of tension on our muscles.
You will see that when the muscle tension is very high, the arm starts shaking!
Therefore, the idea of Kime is to have a very short isometric contraction, without touching the high intensity of the isometric contraction.
Have you ever seen martial artists screaming? Well, that’s kiai, but it is not a simple scream.
The word Kiai is made up of the two Japanese Kanji letters: Ki (気) and Ai (合).
- Ki (気) – means spirit, mind, energy, and strength.
- Ai (合) – is a contraction of the verb “Awasu” which means “to merge”.
So the word Kiai means “united spirit” or “union of energy“.
When you do a kiai, you are not just screaming, you are compressing and quickly releasing your stored energy.
THE GREETING (BOW)
The Japanese bow, performed standing or kneeling, is famous all over the world.
One of the most well-known traditions in the martial art of Karate is undoubtedly the greeting.
After the belts and the karategi, the Japanese greeting is unquestionably a representation of this martial art and oriental culture.
Although it is not required in karate, greeting others is a sign of respect for them and the dojo.
There are only really two ways to greet someone in karate: standing or kneeling.
The most popular greeting is the standing Karate bow, which is less formal and easier to perform.
The kneeling greeting is typically used during formal training sessions, internships, and ceremonies.
The standing Karate salute, known as Ritsu rei, is performed by bringing the heels together and spreading the toes apart slightly (about 45 degrees), spreading the hands along the thighs with the arms extended, and bending the body forward without going past flexion.
The zarei, or kneeling karate greeting, was inspired by the typical poses found in Japanese homes.
Men should kneel with one leg at a time, while women should, if at all possible, place both knees on the ground simultaneously.
- Seizà: In the seated greeting, the leader (Senpai) orders to kneel down saying: “seizà” (sit quietly)
- Mokuso: The Senpai orders Mokuso, a moment of absolute silence, where everyone meditates, keeping their eyes half closed and breathing deeply.
- Mokuso Yame: signal that ends meditation
- Shomei ni rei: greetings addressed to the founder of the school and to the master trainers who have succeeded each other in the history of karate.
- Sensei ni rei: greeting to the actual master of the dojo.
- Otagai ni rei: greetings among the students, to represent the respect, unity and equality that we owe to others.
- Kiritzu: all stand up, always starting from the Master to follow the higher degrees.
- Oss/Osu: this term is used in the dojo in many ways. To greet the Master or the teammates; before walking in the Dojo; to express approval or confirmation; as a sign of understanding of what is being explained; as a sign of respect for the path that is taking place.
Considering the WKF rules, athletes are divided into specific age categories:
- Under 14: -14 yearS
- Cadets: 14-16 years
- Juniors: 16-18 years
- Under21: -21 years
- Seniors: 16-99 years
Competitive activity is therefore not only reserved for younger athletes, but also for more experienced Karatekas who can thus continue to keep their competitive spirit active!
Considering the senior age category, we can find 16 different categories:
- Kata Team Male
- Kata Team Female
- Kumite Male -60kg
- Kumite Male -67kg
- Kumite Male -75kg
- Kumite Male -84kg
- Kumite Male +84kg
- Kumite Male Team
- Kumite Female -50kg
- Kumite Female -55kg
- Kumite Female -61kg
- Kumite Female -68kg
- Kumite Female +68kg
- Kumite Female Team
Try to imagine a football match without a referee or rules, it would be impossible to play, the same in karate.
Although the rules are constantly updated, here is a general guideline on how karate competitions work.
- Athletes must wear white karategi, colored karategi are not allowed.
- Athletes are differentiated with red (aka) and blue (ao) belts.
- The competition tatami must be 8×8 meters of mats.
- Accessories such as bandanas are not allowed.
7 Referees placed in line in front of the athlete give a judgment on the technical performance that is multiplied by 0.7 and a judgment on the athletic performance that is multiplied by 0.3, the two scores are added together and the final score is obtained.
4 referees placed at the corners of the tatami + 1 moving centre follow the fight and assign the points made by the athletes.
In the event of a tie, the referees vote for the most deserving athlete by raising the red or blue flag.
In karate, there are two ranking systems.
The first one is for beginners, and it goes from the white belt to the black belt.
- White belt
- Yellow belt
- Orange belt
- Green belt
- Blue belt
- Brown belt
- Black Belt
Then, there is the ranking system for the masters, and here is where the real journey begins.
- first dan (black belt),
- second dan,
- third dan,
- fourth dan,
- fifth dan,
- sixth dan, (half red and half white)
- seventh dan,
- eighth dan,
- ninth dan.
- tenth dan (red belt)
The higher the level, the more experienced the karateka is.
To be promoted to a higher level, a karateka must first pass an exam. The exams test the karateka’s knowledge of karate techniques (optionally, a dojo may also require principles and history)
Karategi is the official uniform of Karate. In many films or series, you may see coloured uniforms, but in karate, especially in competition, only white one is allowed. Do you know why?
(Many dojos can adopt coloured uniforms, but this is not what the tradition wants)
The main materials used in making karategi are cotton, usually 100% cotton.
With the expansion of karate into the sporting world, various manufacturing companies have begun to manufacture karategi of synthetic blends that are much lighter than those made of cotton to improve the performance of the athletes.
Usually, the kata karategis are much heavier and harder (they can reach about 2kg), to emphasize the “snap“, the sound produced by the kime.
Kumite karategi are much lighter than kata karategi, so light it feels like you’re not wearing a uniform.
The place where martial arts are practised, or rather where the “way” is sought, is called Dojo. Do is translated as the way, and Jo as a location.
The Dojo is a place where training takes place, but it is also a place where the practitioner develops a special connection with the art he practices, where perfection in training is sought, where the mind is purified, and where he dedicates himself to the art in all of its forms.
The dojo typically has one of two types of flooring: parquet or tatami.
The type of flooring that must be present in your dojo is not specifically outlined in any rules, so you can practice everywhere.
- Access to the dojo is only possible for those who want to practice.
- Do not wear accessories such as earrings, necklaces, bracelets or watches.
- Be punctual, when you arrive late wait for the consent from the teacher first to enter.
- Contribute to the cleaning of the dojo.
Karate has had an hard experience with the Olympics.
Karate was first introduced as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea. It became an official Olympic sport at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.
It was removed from the list of Olympic sports for 2024 in Paris but was repurposed for the 2028 Olympic games in Los Angeles.
BEST WKF ATHLETES
In the history of karate, there have been hundreds and hundreds of great athletes. Since we can’t mention them all, we will mention the most famous WKF athletes at the moment.
- Ryo Kiyuna (Japan): kata practitioner, he is the only karateka to have won four world championships in a row, the first Olympic gold medal in kata male.
- Sandra Sanchez (Spain): kata practitioner, she is a two-time world champion and the first European woman to win a gold medal at the World Championships, the first Olympic gold medal in kata female.
- Rafael Aghayev (Azerbaijan): kumite practitioner, he is a three-time world champion and six-time European champion, silver medal at Olympics in kumite male -75kg category.
- Luigi Busa (Italy): kumite practitioner, he is a two-time world champion and four-time European champion, gold medal at Olympics in kumite male -75kg category.
BEST MMA ATHLETES
We talked about the best athletes in the karate scene, but even outside we can find amazing fighters who have stood out in MMA scene.
- Lyoto Machida (Brazil): Lyoto Machida is the first name that comes to mind when you think about Karate in MMA. Lyoto, known as “The Dragon”, is a karate specialist since he is a third Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate. He has 26 wins (11 KO).
Georges St-Pierre (Canada): Georges St-Pierre holds a third Dan black belt in Kyokushin karate and is one of the most versatile athletes in UFC history. He is considered a legend in MMA, he was a two-division champion in the UFC, having won titles in the welterweight and middleweight divisions. He has 26 wins (8 KO).
- Stephen Thompson (US): Stephen, the “Wonderboy”, holds a fifth-degree black belt in Tetsushin-ryū karate. He has 16 wins (7 KO)
- Conor McGregor (Ireland): special mention for Conor McGregor, who for those who may not know the other 3, will surely know Conor. Although he is a very versatile fighter, in some of his fights it is possible to trace back to karate techniques. He has 22 wins (19 KO)
MORE SPORT OR MARTIAL ART?
Karate is both a sport and martial art. It can be practised as a sport, to compete in kata or kumite tournaments.
Or it can be practised as a martial art, to learn self-defence techniques.
Mostly in Europe and United States, karate has not had the right visibility it should have and this leads the youngest people to avoid it since it is considered less important than other sports.
This is the answer to the asked question: karate federations are trying to make this martial art more exciting as possible to grow its audience all over the world.
So there you have it! A brief introduction to karate – all you need to know!
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