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Karate – Mastery of Martial Arts


The Art of Karate


Karate is a type of martial arts that was created in Japan. It is a striking martial art, with full contact, semi contact, and light contact variants for modern competition. While many Eastern martial arts are designed either purely as sport and a physical training form, such as kendo, or a purely self-defense technique, karate merges the two in order to create a unique martial arts technique.


Karate is practiced worldwide today, both as a form of self-defense and as an art form, and has gained a significant amount of popularity over the course of the last fifty years. While popular media has depicted karate as an almost supernatural style of fighting, with mysterious techniques allowing the wielder to kill in a single blow, Shigeru Egami (Shotokan Dojo's chief instructor) says that “the mass media present a pseudo art far from the real thing.” Shoshin Nagamine, a soldier and master of karate, describes the martial art as “the conflict within oneself,” adding that karate requires “self-discipline, hard training, and one's own creative efforts.”


While karate in the East refers to a specific style of combat, in the West it has come to mean any generalized form of Eastern striking-focused martial arts technique. To be more precise, karate translates as “empty hand,” and is distinct from martial arts in which weapons are used. Karate primarily makes use of punches, kicks, strikes from the knees and elbows, and specialized hand strikes.


The History of Karate


The birth of karate can be traced back to Okinawa, in a fighting system known as “te.” The development of karate as a martial art owes much to the interplay between Chinese and Japanese influences between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. While practitioners of martial arts in each country eventually took certain techniques and developed their own schools, the trade routes and invasions that connected the two countries lead to a combination of fighting styles and movements, and karate is largely a result of the best of the fighting styles of each.


Modern karate, at least as the majority of the world recognizes it, is based on a form of karate called Kyokushin. Kyokushin was created during the mid-twentieth century by Masutatsu Oyama, a Korean-born martial arts master. Kyokushin combines aspects of Shotokan and Goju-ryu, and is traditionally practiced in a full-contact format. However, the four primary schools recognized by the World Karate Federation include Shotokan, Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu, and Wado-ryu. There are many more specialized and varied schools of karate, and dozens of variants can be found in different schools around the globe.


Techniques and Forms of Karate


Karate can be practiced as a self-defense martial art, a physical art form, a combat sport, or any combination of these. The traditional emphasis of karate is on the development of the self, both physical and mental, which in the martial art is known as budo. Karate also incorporates mental training alongside the physical, with a few major tenets being a strong will, endurance, and leadership. Some modern schools also incorporates weapons alongside more traditional unarmed techniques.


Kihon refers to the fundamentals of karate, and includes all the basic forms and stances that beginners are expected to learn before moving on to more advanced techniques. Different schools emphasize kihon to varying extents, depending on the level of contact and the purpose for which students are learning the martial art. Kihon can be practiced alone, with a partner, or in groups. In a group format, kihon are often performed in unison, which builds group unity and helps everyone develop fundamentals the same way.


Kata translates to “model” or “shape,” and refers to the movement and stance of a practitioner. Each posture represents either an offensive of defensive sequence, and are designed to be applied in a certain scenario during combat. Kata are present not only in the combat and sport application of karate, but in the art form as well. During a sparring or competitive match against an opponent, kata are collectively known as bunkai. Bunkai is the analysis of the collective kata of each competitor or martial artist, and can be used to judge performance or score points.


Kumite, or “meeting of hands,” is a sparring match in karate. Kumite can be performed both in sports competitions and in training for self-defense. Depending on the context, contact in kumite can vary between full contact (knockout or knockdown karate) and light contact, which is primarily a training or art form. Structured kumite is also called yakusoku, and uses a predetermined series of techniques which are choreographed to show off certain kata, typically ending with a takedown.


Some forms of karate feature dojo kun, which are guidelines and rules that karate students are expected to follow. The term translates to “training hall rules,” and each school or dojo can have its own specialized rules. Shotokan dojo kun, for example, features five primary rules: strive for better character, be faithful and truthful, be strong of spirit, show respect and good form, and avoid violent behavior. Each of the other schools has its own set of dojo kun, though there are a few central concepts that carry over through almost every individual school of karate. Obedience, appreciation, and introspection are almost always present in some form, as these are central to the tenets of karate.


Sport Karate and Rankings


Karate is frequently practiced as a combat sport, though this was not the case until relatively recently. Before World War II, kumite was not a part of karate practice, and in fact some some practitioners who adapted kumite into their style were forced to leave their dojos. Today, karate sport competitions are broken up by style, with tournaments ranging from an international to local scale. Tournaments will often be held between members of different schools, with representatives for each school attempting to earn a title for their own particular dojo.


Competitors within tournaments are divided by age, ranking, and sex. Tournaments can also be open, which means that any style karate is accepted, or closed, which only allows certain styles to be practiced. Karate uses the dan system for ranking, which has been adapted from judo. Ranks are represented by different colored belts, and range from kyu (apprentice) to dan (skilled).


Kyu rankings increase in descending order, meaning a kyu rank one is better than a kyu rank five. Dan rankings increase in ascending order. Dan levels seven and above are an honorary system, and are typically awarded for teaching, performance merits, or having practiced for a number of years. Practitioners that reach dan level are typically called yudansha, and are characterized by the black belt that many people use to refer to them.


Karate's Philosophy


As with many other Eastern martial art forms, the philosophy of karate is very important to its study. One of the goals of karate is to cleanse the mind of negative thoughts, and to achieve inner peace through outer force. Funakoshi, a scholar of martial arts, writes that practitioners of karate should be “inwardly humble and outwardly gentle.”


The philosophy of karate relies on the practitioner being able to train their body and mind simultaneously, as it requires intense mental focus whether being practiced as an art form or as a combat sport. Concepts of honor, discipline, and determination are also important to the art of karate. Funakoshi also states that someone who practices karate must not allow themselves to be “easily drawn into a fight,” as someone skilled in the martial art could potentially injure or even kill an unsuspecting opponent if the proper restraint is not maintained.


Karate Today


Today, karate is primarily practiced as a combat sport, due to the amount of popularity it gained through popular culture and media throughout the last few decades. Karate is used in everything from mixed martial arts competitions to personal training regimens. The World Karate Federation claims that there are roughly one hundred million practitioners of karate around the world at present, and is present in some form almost everywhere on Earth.


Karate is popular among youths as a form of exercise and self-defense training, and martial arts schools are a good way to teach young people discipline, endurance, and strength of character. The spiritual and philosophical components of karate vary by school, with some focusing quite heavily on the non-physical techniques and others glossing over them.


Karate is also featured quite often in popular media such as films and games. Perhaps the most famous movie that features karate as a primary plot point is The Karate Kid, which was so successful that it spawned several sequels and remakes. Several famous actors and martial artists are also credited with popularizing karate, such as Chuck Norris (Shito-ryu fighting style), Wesley Snipes (Shotokan fighting style), and Sean Connery (Kyokushin fighting style). Martial artists in films who exhibit expertise in a range of fighting styles also frequently use karate, with a few notable examples being Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li.