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Hanashiro Chomo
Also known as Karate-dō (空手道)
Focus Striking
Country of origin Flag of the Ryūkyū Kingdom Ryūkyū Kingdom
Creator Sakukawa Kanga; Matsumura Sokon; Itosu Anko; Gichin Funakoshi
Parenthood Chinese martial arts, indigenous martial arts of Ryukyu Islands (Naha-te, Shuri-te, Tomari-te)
Olympic Sport No

Karate (空手) or karate-dō (空手道), is a martial art developed from indigenous fighting methods from the Ryūkyū Islands, Chinese kempo, and classical Japanese martial arts. It is known primarily as a striking art, featuring punching, kicking, knee/elbow strikes, and open-handed techniques, but grappling, joint manipulations, locks, restraints/traps, throws, and vital point striking are taught with equal emphasis, depending on the school. A karate practitioner is called a karateka (空手家).


Modern karate training is commonly divided into kihon (basics or fundamentals), kata (forms), and kumite (sparring). Another popular division is between art, sport, and self-defense training. Traditional karate, while used to address a broad scope of traditions, typically does not break karate into discrete components, but rather derives self defense training directly from kata and application practice. Weapons (kobudō) comprise another important training area. Modern Japanese-influenced training often emphasizes the psychological elements incorporated into a proper kokoro (attitude) such as perseverance, fearlessness, virtue, and leadership skills.

Kihon (Basics)

Choki Motobu in Naihanchi-dachi, one of the basic karate stances

Choki Motobu in Naihanchi-dachi, one of the basic karate stances

Karate styles place varying importance on kihon, which typically involve the same technique (or combination of techniques) being repeated by an entire group of karateka. Kihon may also involve prearranged drills between smaller groups, such as pairs, of karateka.

Kata (Forms)

Kata (型:かた) means "form" or "pattern," and is a set sequence of techniques. Characteristics of these include deep stances to develop leg strength and large body motions to develop cardio-vascular and upper-body fitness and power. Some kata are lengthy and complex, and thus function as training in memory skills and thoughtfulness in the midst of kinetic activity.

Kata are also patterns of techniques that demonstrate physical combat principles—they may be thought of as a sequence of specific karate movements that address various types of attack and defense under ideal circumstances. Kata were developed before literacy was commonplace in Okinawa or China, so physical routines were a logical way to preserve this type of information. The moves themselves may have multiple interpretations as self-defense techniques—there is no 'right or wrong' way to interpret them, but interpretations may have more or less utility for actual fighting. Kata by the same name are often performed with variations between styles, within schools of the same style, or even under the same instructor over time.

There are many types of kata. Depending on the current grade of the karateka, a specific kata must be practiced and ready to perform at a grading for one to grade to the next Kyū or Dan level.

Kumite (Sparring)

Kumite (組手:くみて) literally means "meeting of hands," and has many incarnations. Sparring may be constrained by many rules or it may be free sparring, and today is practiced both as sport and for self-defense training. Sport sparring tends to be one-hit 'tag'-type competition for points. Depending on style or teacher, takedowns and grappling may be involved alongside the punching and kicking. Levels of physical contact during sparring vary considerably, from strict 'non-contact' to full-contact (usually with sparring armor).

Dojo Kun

In the bushidō tradition, a dojo kun is a set of guidelines for kareteka to follow—both in the dojo (training hall) and out of the dojo (in everyday life).


Okinawan karate uses traditional conditioning equipment known as hojo undo. These are simple devices, made from wood and stone, such as the makiwara (striking post) or the nigiri game (large jars 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. This varies depending on the school or 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.

Karate competition has three disciplines: sparring (kumite), empty-handed forms (kata), and weapons forms (kobudō 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.

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.

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 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 a Kyū/Dan system, the beginner grade is a higher-numbered kyū (e.g., 9th Kyū) and progress is 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 technique before a panel of examiners. Black belt testing is commonly done in a manner known as shinsa, which includes a written examination as well as demonstration of kihon, kumite, kata, and bunkai (applications of technique).


The "kara" of Karate-do was also interpreted by Gichin Funakoshi 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 also believed that one should be "inwardly humble and outwardly gentle." Only through humility could one be open to Karate's many lessons, by listening and being receptive to criticism. He considered courtesy of prime importance. He believed that "Karate is properly applied only in those rare situations in which one really must either down another or be downed by him." To Funakoshi, it was not unusual for a practitioner to use Karate for real perhaps once in a lifetime, as Karate practitioners should "never be easily drawn into a fight." To him, one strike by an expert could mean either life or death. He who misuses the techniques brings dishonor upon himself. He also believed in conviction, that in "time of grave public crisis, one must have the face a million and one opponents." He believed that indecisiveness was a shameful trait.


Some people claim that, due to the generic meaning of "karate" (i.e., "empty hand"), any unarmed combat system or sport could accurately be called karate. This is a controversial argument, complicated by attitudes toward philosophy and competition, questions of lineage and primacy, and questions of nationalism and identity.

Chinese Hand

Karate was originally written as Chinese hand in kanji, but was later changed to a homonym meaning empty hand. The word "karate" was used for some time verbally before it was written. The first use of the word karate in print is attributed to Anko Itosu, who wrote it with the kanji (Chinese characters) 唐手:からて (Tang Dynasty hand) rather than the present usage of 空手:からて (empty hand). The Tang Dynasty of China ended in AD 907 (centuries before Funakoshi), but the kanji representing it remained in use in Okinawa as a way to refer to China generally. Thus, the writing of "karate" was originally a way of expressing "Chinese hand," or "martial art from China."

Funakoshi claimed in Karate-do Nyumon:

Since there are no written records, it is not known for sure whether the kara in karate was originally written with the character 唐 meaning "China" or the character 空 meaning "empty". During the time when admiration for China and things Chinese was at its height in the Ryukus, it was the custom to use the former character when referring to things of fine quality...

Actually, no evidence exists linking the use of the character with the origins of karate. In the past, people did not necessarily have specific Chinese characters in mind when they spoke of karate.

Empty Hand

The original use of "Chinese hand," "Tang hand," “Chinese fist,” or "Chinese techniques" (depending on interpretation of 唐手) reflects the documented Chinese influence on karate. In 1905, Hanashiro Chomo (1869–1945) began using a homophone of the logogram pronounced "kara" by replacing the character meaning "Tang Dynasty" (唐 から) with the character meaning "empty" (空 から).

In 1933, the Okinawan art of karate was recognized as a Japanese martial art by the Japanese Martial Arts Committee known as the "Butoku Kai". Until 1935, "karate" was written as "唐手" (Chinese hand). But in 1935, the masters of the various styles of Okinawan karate conferred to decide a new name for their art. They decided to call their art "karate" written in Japanese characters as "空手" (empty hand).

The Way and the Hand

Another nominal development is the addition of (道:どう) to the end of the word karate. is a suffix having numerous meanings, including "road," "path," "route," and in this case, "way." It is used in many martial arts that survived Japan's transition from feudal culture to modern times, and implies that these arts are not just fighting techniques but have spiritual elements when pursued as disciplines. In this context, dō is usually translated as "the way of," as in aikido (合気道:あいきどう), judo (柔道:じゅうどう), and kendo (剣道:けんどう). Thus, "karatedō" is more than just "empty hand"; it is "the way of the empty hand".



The relationship between Okinawa and Japan is complex and, in the context of karate, it is appropriate to consider them as separate entities. Japan annexed the nominally-independent Ryūkyū Islands in 1874, after centuries of strong Japanese influence over the kingdom following the invasion by the Japanese Satsuma clan in 1609.

The Okinawan martial art "ti" (or "te") was practiced by Okinawan royalty and their retainers for centuries before, and alongside, later Chinese influences. There were few formal styles of ti, but rather many practitioners with their own methods. One surviving example is the Motobu-udun di 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 disciplines, both political and practical. The incorporation of empty-handed Chinese kung fu into Okinawan martial arts occurred partly because of these exchanges. To this day, karate styles from some areas bear a striking resemblance to Fujian martial arts such as Fujian White Crane, Five Ancestors, and Gangrou-quan (Hard Soft Fist; pronounced "Gōjūken" in Japanese), while some karate looks distinctly Okinawan. Further influence came from Southeast Asia— particularly Sumatra, Java, and Melaka. The similarities between karate and silat may be found not only in the unarmed forms, but the weapon forms as well. Many Okinawan weapons originated in and around Southeast Asia including the sai, tonfa, and nunchaku.

Sakukawa Kanga (1782–1838) had studied pugilism and staff (bo) fighting in China (according to one legend, under the guidance of Koshokun, originator of kusanku kata). In 1806, he started teaching a fighting art in the city of Shuri that he called "Tudi Sakukawa" (at that time meaning "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.

Ankō Itosu Grandfather of Modern Karate

Ankō Itosu
Grandfather of Modern Karate

Matsumura taught his art to Itosu Ankō (1831–1915), amongst others. Itosu adapted two forms he had learned from Matsumara (viz., kusanku and chiang nan) to create the ping'an forms ("heian" or "pinan" in Japanese) as simplified kata for beginning students. In 1901, Itosu was instrumental in getting 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, and his students included some of the most well-known karate masters, including Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Choki Motobu. Itosu is sometimes known as the "Grandfather of Modern Karate."

In addition to the three early ti styles of karate, a fourth Okinawan influence is that of Kanbun Uechi (1877–1948), who at the age of 20 went to Fuzhou in Fujian Province, China, to escape Japanese military conscription. While there, he studied under Shushiwa, the 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.


Masters of karate in Tokyo (c. 1930s) Kanken Toyama, Hironori Ohtsuka, Takeshi Shimoda, Gichin Funakoshi, Choki Motobu, Kenwa Mabuni, Genwa Nakasone, and Shinken Taira (from left to right)

Masters of karate in Tokyo (c. 1930s)
Kanken Toyama, Hironori Ohtsuka, Takeshi Shimoda, Gichin Funakoshi, Choki Motobu, Kenwa Mabuni, Genwa Nakasone, and Shinken Taira (from left to right)

Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan karate, is generally credited with having introduced and popularized karate on the main islands of Japan, although many other Okinawans were actively teaching, and thus equally responsible for transmission. 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, including 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 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 - around the beginning of the 20th century. The "" 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.

Gichin Funakoshi Founder of Shotokan Karate

Gichin Funakoshi
Founder of Shotokan Karate

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 the Shotokan dojo in Tokyo and the style he left behind is usually called Shotokan.

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 the 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 jujitsu 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-Ryu is a style of Okinawan karate founded by Shimabuku Tatsuo, a student of Motobu Choki, and named by him on 15 January 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 when 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 Federation of All Japan Karatedo Organization recognizes four traditional styles of karate:

Styles that do not belong to one of these schools are not necessarily considered to be 'illegitimate' or 'bad' karate, but simply not one of the traditional schools. For example, the styles listed by the World Union of Karate-do Organizations (WUKO) are Gōjū-ryū, Shitō-ryū, Shōtōkan-ryū, Wadō-ryū, Shōrin-ryū, Uechi-ryū, Kyokushinkai, and Budōkan. Many schools would be affiliated with, or heavily influenced by, one or more of these traditional styles.

Karate outside Japan


Due to past conflict between Korea and Japan, most notably during the Japanese occupation in the 20th century, the influence of karate on Korean martial arts is a contentious issue. During the occupation, many Koreans went to Japan and were exposed to Japanese martial arts. After regaining independence from Japan, many Korean martial arts schools were founded by masters with training in Chinese, Japanese, and Korean martial arts.

For example, Hong Hi Choi, a significant figure in taekwondo history had studied Shotokan karate under Gichin Funakoshi. Karate also provide an important comparative model for the early founders of taekwondo in the formalization of their art inheriting some kata and the belt rank system.

Soviet Union

Karate appeared in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, during Khruschev's policy of improved international relations, and the first Shotokan clubs were opened in Moscow's universities. In 1973, however, the government banned karate—together with all other foreign martial arts—endorsing only the Soviet martial art of sambo. Karate schools went underground and lost all international contacts, evolving and mutating wildly. Failing to suppress these uncontrolled groups, the USSR's Sport Committee formed the Karate Federation of USSR in December 1978. This was an exclusive, state-controlled organization with rules and methods intentionally incompatible with all foreign karate federations. On 17 May 1984, the Soviet Karate Federation was disbanded and all karate became illegal again. In 1988, karate practice became legal again, but under strict government regulations. Only after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992 did independent karate schools resume functioning, and so federations were formed and national tournaments in authentic styles began.

United States

Karate entered the United States mainly through members of the US military, who had learned it in Okinawa or Japan and then opened schools upon their return to the United States. The United States now has hundreds of karate centers in each state.

United Kingdom

In the 1950s and 1960s, several Japanese karate masters began to teach the art in the United Kingdom. In 1965, Tatsuo Suzuki began teaching Wadō-ryū in London. In 1965, Keinosuke Enoeda of the JKA travelled to Liverpool, where in 1966 he established the Karate Union of Great Britain (KUGB) which at the time was affiliated to the JKA. After Enoeda’s death in 2003, the KUGB elected Andy Sherry as Chief Instructor. Shortly after this, the JKA severed links with the KUGB and set up a new association, the JKAE.

Karate in film and popular culture

Karate spread rapidly in the West through popular culture. In 1950s popular fiction, karate was at times described to readers in near-mythical terms, and it was credible to show Western experts of unarmed combat as unaware of Eastern martial arts of this kind. By the 1970s, martial arts films had formed a mainstream genre that propelled karate and other Asian martial arts into mass popularity.

The Karate Kid (1984) is a film relating the fictional story of an American adolescent's introduction into karate.

Some well-known stars who have related styles are:

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