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Definition & History

Karate (Jap., "empty hand"), martial art of unarmed self-defence in which directed or focused blows of the hands and feet, accompanied by special breathing and shouts, are dealt from poised positions. More than a method of combat, karate emphasises self-discipline, positive attitude, and high moral purpose. It is taught professionally at different levels, and under different Asian names, as a self-defence skill, a competitive sport, and a free-style exercise.

Karate developed in Japan, the name originating as recently as the 1930s. However, the techniques are very ancient, and derive from the 6th-century Chinese art of Shaolin boxing which was further developed on the Japanese island of Okinawa in about 1500 into "Tang hand" which enabled the islanders to fight bare-handed against armed Japanese oppressors. In the 1920s Tang hand was introduced to Japan by Funakoshi Gichin who adopted the word karate. The style he practised became known as Shotokan, now one of the five major styles of Japan; the others are Wado-ryu, Gojo-ryu, Shito-ryu, and Kyukushinkai. Each places different emphases on technique, speed, and power.

Technique and Training

Karate is related to judo and jujitsu, but stresses techniques for striking, with lethal kicks and punches, rather than wrestling or throwing an opponent. The three elements of speed, strength, and technique are vital to karate expertise. Constant alertness and a keen sense of timing and surprise are also requisites.

Great attention is given to knowing the most vulnerable points of the human body, which may be attacked by the hands, elbows, knees, or feet. These areas include the face, neck, solar plexus, spinal column, groin, and kidneys. In ordinary karate competitions or exhibitions, only the area of the body above the waist is allowed as a target, and all blows are to be pulled. The most common blows used are chops or knife hands, knuckle punches, hammerblows, finger jabs, and front, side, back, round, jump, and stamping kicks. In actual fighting, any of these blows can be fatal. The ability of a karate master (sen sei) to break boards or bricks with a chop of the bare hand is proverbial.

The karate trainee toughens hands and feet by driving them into containers of sand, rice, or gravel and by striking sandbags and special punching boards. Constant exercises are important for limbering up and for strengthening the muscles of the body. Deep-breathing exercises are also useful because exhalation and sudden shouts accompany the directed blows, particularly the final or so-called killing blows. Such breathing and cries help the rhythm of the karate attack, focus more force in each blow or block, and psychologically invigorate a person while disconcerting the opponent.

Instruction and Achievement

The language of karate is chiefly Japanese. A karate training hall or gym is called a doj o, and the white, pyjama-like garment worn in all training is called the gi. More than 200 specific Japanese terms are used for the various blows and moves that are employed in movement sequences called kata.

Degrees of achievement are formally recognised in karate training, each represented by a cloth belt of a particular colour worn around the gi, the usual colours being, in ascending order, white, green, purple, brown, and black. Qualifications for belts differ from school to school, depending upon the style and standard of karate taught. The black belt, or Dan, signifies the highest proficiency in karate and, like the other belts, is itself qualified by degrees of honour or skill, the highest Dan being the ninth or tenth degree.


In 1949 Funakoshi Gichin founded the Japan Karate Association which held the first All-Japan championships in 1957. Karate spread to the West in the 1950s, and the All-Japan Karate-do Organisation (FAJKO), founded in 1964, staged the first multi-style world championships in 1970. Such high standards have now been attained that Europeans have frequently defeated Japanese opponents, although the Japanese still have supremacy in the kata movement routines. Women first took part in the world championships in 1980. Karate has also been incorporated into training programs for the police and armed forces of many nations.