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Karate: A Japanese Martial Art (Origins, Self-Defense,…)

If you are anything like me, you are quite taken by combat sports where students get to learn a skill to protect themselves but seem every so graceful at the same time. I can’t get enough of watching Karate and especially because I have always believed it to be an ancient martial art with a deeper meaning to it (other than two people just sparring, that is). But is it really? 

Someone recently challenged that thinking, which in turn got me thinking about whether or not Karate is a martial art. I decided to investigate a bit more into the background of Karate and where it comes from and was pleasantly surprised to find that my thinking has been right all along.

Karate is an official Japanese martial art. It was originally developed in the Ryukyu Kingdom but was not always an official martial art since it was created. That changed, though. The Japanese Martial Arts Committee, Butoku Kai, officially recognized Karate as a Japanese martial art in 1933. Karate has therefore been taught as a martial art all over the globe, and, more recently, as a sport, as well.

If you have always thought that Karate is a martial art; well done! You got it right! Officially speaking, Karate is indeed a martial art. However, I couldn’t help wondering what makes it a martial art, and why is it that some people see fit to argue the point?

I absolutely had to know more about who created Karate, why it was created, and why it was officially recognized as a martial art in 1933. If you also want to find out a bit more, read on below. You will find a bit more information on the background of Karate and why it is considered a martial art.  

The Early Days of Karate

Karate’s history is somewhat twisted into both Japanese and Chinese history. It was created during a tumultuous time, and as such, it is always an interesting read when searching for answers. The short of it is that Gichin Funakoshi is responsible for introducing Karate (Shotokan Karate-Do) to Japan. Before Karate made it to Japan, it was developed by the Ryukyu Kingdom and derived from their martial arts under the influence of Kung Fu.

Karate is based on the indigenous fighting methods of the Okinawan people, and it originally meant (or translated to) “Hand”. The art is based on striking, punching, kicking, knee and elbow strikes as well as open-handed techniques. 

While Funakoshi is known as the father of modern Karate, it is said that he actually learned it from another Master as a child called Ankō (Yasutsune) Itosu. His Master receiving him as a sick and weak boy provided him with an array of herbal remedies and started teaching him a form of Karate in order to strengthen him physically and mentally. As a student of Karate, Funakoshi became a strong, disciplined student.

Martial Arts & Karate

There is no denying that when you look up martial arts, Karate comes up on every single list. In fact, when it comes to martial arts forms, Karate is the number one choice for many. Besides being a useful and effective form of self-defense, it is a disciplined way of life that gives students focus, mental strength, and a desire to be dedicated. 

The name Karate, when broken down, is “kara”, which means “empty” and “te”, which means “hand”. When it is directly translated, “Karate” means “empty hand”. 

A definition of Martial art

“Martial art” is a term that can be considered a blanket term. It is mainly used to classify a collection of physical arts that originate from Korea, China, Japan, Indonesia, and other Asian countries. In general, the term means “fighting art” or “war art”, and while it is practiced for self-defense, it is also important for physical and mental health, fitness, and competition.

If you turn to Google for the definition of martial art, here is what you will find (on Wikipedia): 

“Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practiced for a number of reasons such as self-defense; military and law enforcement applications; competition; physical, mental and spiritual development; and entertainment or the preservation of a nation’s intangible cultural heritage.

Although the term martial art has become associated with the fighting arts of East Asia, it originally referred to the combat systems of Europe as early as the 1550s. The term is derived from Latin and means “arts of Mars”, the Roman god of war…”

Wikipedia – Martial Arts

I found this snippet from Wikipedia particularly interesting as one always associates the term “martial art” with East Asian practices. This implies that the origin of the term martial arts is not quite what we all believe it to be. It’s an interesting avenue of investigative reading if one has the time and inclination. That aside, in terms of the definition of martial art, Karate seems to fit quite nicely into it in the following ways:

  • Karate is a form of combat.
  • Karate is used for combat competitions.
  • Karate is focused on both body and mind, making it an art practiced for mental and spiritual development.
  • Karate is part of Japanese culture and therefore practiced to preserve the nation’s cultural heritage.

It seems to be all about history and culture when it comes to this martial art. Karate has been taught for several generations, and for someone to be a Karate Master is a great honor that takes a considerable amount of hard work and dedication. 

Karate is a Popular Martial Art

If you Google search “what is the most popular martial art in the world?” you will see that, on most results, Karate pops up as one of the most popular. You can visit forums, blogs, community pages, and even professional martial art websites, and they all say the same thing: Karate is one of the most popular forms of martial arts. 

Karate is considered a less complex martial art to learn than other types, and of course, lessons are easily accessible. Some schools even offer Karate lessons as part of their extra-curricular programs. 

It is interesting to note that after the Second World War, Okinawa was a popular place for American military servicemen. Here, servicemen were taught the art of Karate as a form of self-defense. 

The fact that Karate is a self-defense technique that is based on war skills really makes it stand out as a martial art form. The practitioners are carrying out moves and reactions designed to protect themselves, and while they can be conservative in how they use these moves, they can also be deadly. 

Karate is More than a Martial Art

But it is not all about the fight when it comes to a martial art. Martial art is about more than just the physicality of a fight. 

If you look into the publications out there, you will find that the general consensus when it comes to martial arts is that a fighting technique on its own, even if for self-defense or for war skills taught to a group, does not make that technique a martial art – that simply makes one a fighter. In order for a person to be involved in a “martial art”, they must be able to do more than just fight physically. It is about more than that.

Learning Karate techniques is about a practitioner’s synching body and mind. It is about being at one with each movement and being in the right, controlled mindset even in challenging and potentially nerve-wracking situations. 

According to an interesting article that I found by Psychology Today, it is suggested that Karate and other forms of similar martial arts demand a whole lot more from their practitioners than just physical strength and stamina. The article mentions that martial arts demand the following from practitioners over and above physicality:

  • A sense of personal responsibility.
  • Self-discipline and the willingness to put in the time and effort required.
  • Perseverance to progress through each of the Karate levels. 
  • Values based on the principles of Karate.
  • Positivity in each and every lesson and practice.
  • Humility to understand that there are other practitioners better skilled than you are.
  • Confidence to trust yourself in a confrontational situation.
  • Respect for yourself, the art, and potential opponents. 
  • Goal setting to ensure that you level up through each stage of the art efficiently.
  • Flexibility, which is only possible through regular exercise and pushing oneself.
  • Balance to be light-footed while carrying out kicks and turns without falling.
  • Work ethic to keep working hard, regardless of the challenges and disappointments along the way.
  • Wisdom to know when to use your Karate skills and how to use them.
  • Courage to take the required steps in confrontation or dangerous situations.
  • Leadership to help others reach their goals in the art.
  • Creativity to apply the skills and techniques used in everyday life.
  • Open-mindedness to be truly open to the skills taught and the concepts shared.
  • Mindfulness to be fully present in the current moment in lessons and practices. 
  • Situational awareness to know your surroundings and be aware of the risks or dangers that exist.
  • Taking action toward your goals.

That is quite a long list of things that martial arts demand from practitioners, and you will find that Karate requires each and every one of these things from its Karatekas too.

Last Word

Karate is, by all means, a martial art. Are you ready to learn one of the world’s most popular forms of martial art? Get ready and good luck!