History Of Karate

Karate History

Martial arts

The all-purpose phrase martial arts is used for various fighting methods that evolved from ancient Asian combat skills. The present-day forms have a wide range of applications. These forms are practiced for physical fitness, recreation, and self-defense; as law-enforcement tactics; as competitive sports; and as spiritual disciplines. The teaching methods, selection of technique, style of performance, procedures of play or practice, and underlying concepts vary according to the specialty, the instructor, and the environment. Even in a single specialized branch of the martial arts, differences in style, techniques, attitudes, and objectives exist. Despite expressed adherence to ancient tradition in the martial arts, adaptation to new situations and different cultures is frequent.


There is little agreement about the origins and history of the martial arts. Records--dating from at least 2,000 BC--of similar fighting methods existing throughout the world have been uncovered, but the specifically Asian styles are generally acknowledged to have come to China from India and Tibet, where they were used by monks for exercise and as protection against bandits. From China the martial arts spread to the rest of Asia, reaching Japan last because of its geographical isolation. Although Japan was among the last of the Asian countries to acquire knowledge of the martial arts, they flourished there. In the Tokugawa era martial arts training was reserved for warriors serving feudal lords and was forbidden to peasants, who practiced in secret. Because of the secrecy and illegality, legend and myth flourished along with cultic practices. During the nationalistic period preceding World War II, martial arts were incorporated into Japan's military training programs. Practice of martial arts was banned after the war until the mid-1950s, when they were legalized and reinstated in physical education classes.


Although hundreds of names exist for different styles and specialties of the martial arts, there is a relatively small group of techniques. All weaponless martial arts methods consist of one or more of the following: hand blows (using the fist, knuckles, fingertips, or the side or palm of the hand); arm blows, blocks, and parries (using the wrist, forearm, and elbow); foot blows (using toes, instep, ball, side, or heel of the foot); knee kicks; throws, trips, and takedowns; grappling and immobilizations (holds, locks, twists, levers, chokes, and escapes). Weapons are used in some martial arts, alone or in conjunction with weaponless techniques. Weapons include stones, sticks, staffs, swords, spears, lances, bows and arrows, and thrown cutting objects.

Colored Belts

The designation of skill or rank by colored belts was first used in judo in the late 19th century. No standard belt-ranking system exists among the martial arts specialties or among the different schools and styles of the same specialty. A white belt commonly indicates novice status; a brown belt is widely used for advanced rank; a black belt indicates expert proficiency. Many systems use blue, yellow, orange, green, and purple belts in varying patterns of progression for intermediate levels between white, brown, and black belt ranks. A colored belt awarded in one school or system cannot be compared with and has no significance in a different system. In some systems belts are awarded solely through competition: winners are promoted. In other systems promotion is achieved by demonstration of technical skill in a series of fluid, dance like movements called kata. Other systems require contests and formal demonstrations for ranking. Belt-rank promotions and demotions can be made at the discretion of the instructor, the sensei.

Karate, Kung Fu, and Tae Kwon Do

These are probably the most widely known of the martial arts. The principal techniques are hand and foot blows. Kung fu is the earlier, Chinese form; Tae kwon do is the Korean form, emphasizing kicking to a greater degree. Karate is used as a generic term for many styles of hand-and-foot fighting methods developed in Asia, particularly the Japanese forms. Hundreds of styles and substyles exist, and all use similar hitting and kicking techniques. Some styles (the "hard" schools) emphasize power and strength training. Other styles (the "soft" schools) train for speed and precision. In some, handblows are preferred, while others stress foot blows. In some styles contests and tournaments are the favored training method; in others kata are preferred.
In many karate tournaments individuals compete by age, rank, and even weight categories. Competitors may fight (kumite), do form (kata), or perform with traditional weapons (Kobudo). Safety equipment, consisting of special boots and gloves, is required in many events. In general, legal target areas include the head and torso, and points are scored with controlled strikes using the hands and feet. There are hundreds of local, regional, and even national karate competitions held in the United States, and competition rules vary. Some organizations host tournaments open only to their members and tend to be very traditional, requiring certain attire and having very specific standards for performance and judging. Other events are open to any club regardless of style or affiliation.


Judo is a relatively recent activity synthesized--from several jujitsu methods--by Jigoro Kano, a late-19th-century Japanese educator and sports enthusiast. Originally, it had two forms--one for self-defense and a separate, distinct form for physical conditioning.

Today the word judo is applied almost exclusively to the sport variant. Throws and grappling are the principal techniques. Safety falls are practiced in a dojo (a practice hall) so that skilled practitioners can receive a fast, high throw and fall onto the mat with little risk of injury.

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In contests points are awarded to tori (the thrower or initiator of the action) for throws performed with good technique; for putting uke (the receiver of the throw) on his side or back; for applying a hold or choke that immobilizes uke for thirty seconds or until he signals for release; or for a combination of throwing and grappling.In old-style judo, players were matched by belt-rank, resulting in contests between players of varying or similar levels of skill. In modern judo events there are qualifying matches, and contestants compete in weight classes. The first Olympic Games judo competition took place in 1964, and judo became a regular event in 1972.


Although widely regarded as a specialty within the martial arts, jujitsu is a generic term referring to many systems with considerable differences among them. Some jujitsus favor hitting and kicking to such a degree that they cannot be distinguished from karate. Other styles of jujitsu bear a striking resemblance to judo. Jujitsu systems range from those using only one category of techniques, such as throws, to those using techniques from all the weaponless categories as well as stick and cutting weapons and thrown objects.


Aikido is possibly one of the most sophisticated martial arts. It is a highly stylized form of jujitsu employing wrist, elbow, and shoulder twists in a formal manner. Proponents of aikido believe that it is a way of developing coordination of the mind and body, with the purpose of creating a more fully integrated individual. Developed by Master Morihei Uyeshiba, aikido is based on Japanese warrior arts called Bujutsu, and is an effective means of self-defense. The techniques provide effective defense against an unprovoked attack by one or even several opponents. A technically skilled practitioner is able to subdue an attacker without inflicting serious injury. Aikido employs circular movement, as well as joint locking, to neutralize an opponent.

Tai Chi Chuan

Tai Chi Chuan, or t'ai chi, is a physical conditioning exercise that enhances the flexibility of body movement. The slow, graceful, elegant gestures of tai chi chuan routines hardly resemble the original hand and foot blows and blocks and parries they represent. There is little likelihood that tai chi chuan could be used for practical, modern self-defense. In China it is widely practiced by individuals and by groups who gather in public squares to perform the movements in unison.


This highly stylized sport is derived from ancient Japanese sword-fighting. In contests players use a shinai (a bamboo sword bound with leather and held with both hands). For training and practice a bokken (wooden sword) is used. Technique is limited to a few actions executed in a formal manner. Points are scored by calling out and striking a target area: the head, the side of the body, the throat, or the wrists. Protective clothing and equipment and the rules of contest prevent injury. Kendo is practiced on a wooden floor; players wear a lightweight cotton jacket, a hakama (loose, flowing, full-cut pants), and head, throat, chest, and wrist protectors. Kata forms of kendo are practiced using the bokken and a shorter, one-hand sword.

Hand Conditioning

One of the prerequisites for performing the sensational, bare-handed board-, brick-, and tile- breaking tricks is hand conditioning, which is achieved by striking hard surfaces until injury occurs. Scar tissue forms in the healing process. Eventually, the conditioned area becomes calloused, enlarged, and insensitive to pain. When karate was used as weaponless combat against an armed and armored enemy, hand conditioning was necessary to enable the bare hands of the karate fighter to break through wooden armor and deliver a single, incapacitating blow. Hand conditioning has no practical present-day function. Extreme hand conditioning injures and permanently disfigures the hands, as well as impairing manual dexterity. The damage is irreversible.

Alice McGrath and Bruce Tegner Reviewed by Michael J. Campos
Bibliography: Christensen, Loren W., The Way Alone: Your Path to Excellence in the Martial Arts (1987); Cramer, Lenox, War with Empty Hands (1991); Farkas, Emil, and Corcoran, John, The Overlook Martial Arts Dictionary (1985); Inusanto, Dan, Guide to Martial Arts Training (1989); Kauz, Herman, The Martial Art Spirit: An Introduction to the Origin, Philosophy and Psychology of the Martial Arts (1988); Mitchell, David, The Overlook Martial Arts Handbook (1987); Tegner, Bruce, Bruce Tegner's Complete Book of Self-Defense (1975) and Self-Defense: A Basic Course (1979); Throckmorton, Ann, A Fairer Sex

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