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Definition: karate from The Chambers Dictionary

a traditional Japanese form of unarmed self-defence using blows and kicks, now a popular combative sport. [Jap, literally, empty hand]

■ kara'teist

■ kara'teka

an expert in karate.

❑ karate chop

a sharp downward blow with the side of the hand.

❑ kara'te-chop

from Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation

After karate was taken from Okinawa to Japan during the late 1910s and early 1920s, it underwent a radical change. This in turn set the stage for karate's expansion and popularity in the decades after World War II (1939-1945). These changes may be viewed from three perspectives: cultural, historical, and psychological. While each of these perspectives has distinct characteristics, all are intertwined. Thus, it helps to view this structure as interlocking circles. Strict demarcations between the perspectives cannot realistically be achieved.


Although Japan annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879, thereby creating the modern Okinawa Prefecture, the Okinawan culture that developed karate was and is distinct from Japanese culture. The Okinawan dialect (hogan) is different from Japanese. Known as Uchinaguchi, this is the language still used by Okinawan karate-ka to discuss the finer points of karate. Indeed, some Okinawans say this is because the Japanese language has no words to discuss the art properly (Higaonna 1996). That answer is unlikely; just because the speaker does not know the words does not mean the concepts do not exist. Nonetheless, it does suggest that the ways in which concepts are communicated are different between cultures.

One difference involves the manner of instruction itself. In Okinawa, karate was considered to be an individual pursuit, and teaching was done on an individual basis. True, instruction often took place in groups, but the instruction was communicated from teacher to individual student according to the characteristics of the student. Basic kata (kihongata) such as Naihanchi (in Shorin styles) or Sanchin (in Shorei styles) were taught to all beginning students. After they satisfactorily learned these basic forms, students were assigned individual kata from the repertoire of kaishugata (traditional kata), each according to his (there were few girls or women in karate in those days) strengths and weaknesses. Teachers expected that these kata would be mastered, and it was rare that any student ever learned more than a few kata. The master teacher (shihan) passed along all of the kata in his system only to the student he expected to follow him as master teacher.

Beneath the instructor were senior (sempai) and junior (kohai) students. Seniors had responsibility for the instruction of junior students. On Okinawa the relationship was not based on rank but on seniority. As far as is known, no formal ranking system existed in Okinawa before the twentieth century. Although there is some indication that the manner of wearing an obi (belt worn as part of daily dress) indicated social rank (Funakoshi 1982), this had little to do with karate; instead, it had to do with social and cultural traditions. Well into the twentieth century, karate had no special uniform. Instead, training in Okinawa was done in loose daily apparel. The modern equivalent would be T-shirts and sweat pants. This practice of training in daily clothing indicated karate's utilitarian and civil combative function.

Finally, on early twentieth-century Okinawa, karate was a pragmatic undertaking. One practiced for self-defense, to build a strong body, or simply for exercise. There were not many sports, as we know them today, in Okinawa before the twentieth century.

When karate went to Japan, it was proclaimed a do (way or path). It was given standardized dogi, meaning the uniform one wears when practicing the way. Color belts were adopted from judo, and the sempai/kohai relationship changed from older brother/younger brother to one of upperclassman/underclassmen, complete with hazing rituals. In addition, in Japan, karate was seen mostly as a civilian fighting art, perhaps with sporting applications. In one sense, it was seen as a “uniquely Japanese” kind of boxing. Further changes included naming individual systems ryu (literally flows, but figuratively, styles) or kan (associations), changing the traditional Okinawan names for kata to new Japanese names, and finally, changing the name of karate itself. Before going to Japan, it had been known as Todi (Chinese Hand, written in ideograms that could be pronounced kara-te), but by the 1930s, it was becoming known as empty-hand, using other ideograms that were pronounced kara-te.

All these changes were undertaken in good faith, for the purpose of expanding the influence of karate and establishing it as a legitimate part of Japanese culture. The changes accomplished that purpose, but at a significant cost to the traditional fighting art. Japanese proclivities favored the concept of wa (harmony), which dictated things run smoothly. Wa is best achieved by everyone acting (outwardly, at least) in the same manner. In Imperial Japan before World War II, this meant a preference for group instruction and hierarchical management. Gone were the days of individualized instruction based on students' personal strengths and weaknesses, where personal success meant the reward of additional individualized instruction and the opportunity to ask new questions or learn new kata. Instead, everyone was expected to perform what their fellows were performing. The Okinawan cultural practice of training students toward individual successes was no longer desired. Instead, it was supplanted by the Japanese practice of training students to become a part of a harmonious group.

In addition, new kata were developed and taught as a part of a standardized advancement plan. This new, standardized way of practicing karate had its roots in the militarization of Japan. After 1931, the Japanese Empire was increasingly militarized, and the Japanese military found it more productive and effective to train people as groups and hold their communities collectively accountable than to attempt individualized instruction and accountability. The individual nature of karate as a personal fighting art was replaced by karate as group enterprise.

As karate began to be taught to large groups, in-depth understanding of the kata was lost. In traditional karate, kata are the primary vehicles for transmission of karate principles. Learning kata amounts to a cognitive apprenticeship, and understanding kata comes about only through training with a teacher. Although anyone can learn the outward movements of a kata in a relatively short time, the interpretation of the movements (kaisai) can be learned only through personal study with a master teacher. Group instruction limited this relationship with the instructor and created a system where knowledge of techniques within the kata (bunkai) became more important than being able to interpret techniques according to the changing situations of combat (hyomengi). As such, kata naturally came to be viewed as old-fashioned exercises rather than as rich troves of understanding that could be applied to the innumerable fluctuating situations in combat.


The change from Todi to karate represented more than a change in the characters used to write the name; it also represented a change in philosophical attitudes. Closer political affiliation with Japan necessitated karate distancing itself from the Chinese influences that had originally helped to create and shape it. The Japanese fought wars with China three times between 1879 and 1945, and Japanese society was extensively militarized between 1937 and 1945. Thus, Chinese practices were not in good political standing in Japan during most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The decision to change the characters for karate helped smooth the way of karate in Japanese society and culture.

From 1937 to 1945, Japanese educators and soldiers both emphasized karate's utilitarian value, and during the 1940s several karate instructors were hired as trainers for Japanese commandos. The effect of this militarization on karate should not be underestimated. At the same time, many older instructors died or lost interest in the martial arts. Miyagi Chojun (1888-1953) had chosen Shinzato Jinan (1901-1945) as his successor in Goju Ryu karate. This plan ended when Shinzato was killed during the Battle of Okinawa (March to June 1945). Afraid that his karate would die with him, Miyagi subsequently began to dispense his knowledge more freely among his students (Higaonna 1996; Toguchi 1976). In addition, he also instituted changes in his kata. In particular, Sanchin, the fundamental kata of Goju Ryu, was altered. There now exist what are known as prewar and postwar versions of Sanchin (Toguchi 2001).

The period following World War II saw the spread of karate throughout the world. Okinawa was in shambles, and young men were eager to earn money any way they could. This included teaching foreign servicemen. Consequently, karate soon came to mean any sporting endeavor that involved punching and kicking. This was due, in part, to the karate learned by the early proponents of karate, who took the simplistic karate they had learned back to their own countries. Much of this misunderstanding of karate was due to the lack of communication skills between Japanese instructors and non-Japanese students. Not only were there language barriers and cultural difference; there were also time constraints: foreign students and servicemen simply did not stay in the community forever. Before World War II, it was expected that kihongata would be the basis of karate practice for years. The idea was to develop the body and mind in preparation for the kaishugata. This practice was abandoned after the war, ostensibly to foster the spread of karate. Finally, many young people, Japanese as well as non-Japanese, saw karate simply as a method of physical exercise with a martial flavor (such as boxing or wrestling), or as a source of presumably practical self-defense techniques. Their patience with years of repetition of the same form was limited.

Although civilian self-defense was close enough to the original Okinawan concept of karate, teaching karate to high school and college students required different teaching methods. During the period 1937-1945, the Japanese military stressed that martial arts were a form of paramilitary training. Foreign servicemen and veterans readily took to these wartime methods of instruction because their own military training had been based on similar models. The servicemen and veterans then took that method of teaching karate home with them—by now, it was traditional. However, youths in school or after-school programs wanted sports.

Free sparring (jyu-kumite) became very popular during and after World War II. Free sparring was invented in Japan, Korea, and Manchuria during the 1930s and 1940s. Originally, on Okinawa, sparring had been prearranged. The methods for this were known as kiso kumite (fundamental sparring). Defender and attacker, and the methods they used, were predetermined. Practice was generally one-step (ippon), three-step (sanbon), or five-step (gohon). The step drills helped students understand movements drawn from kata. The advent of free sparring not only helped spread karate into universities, high schools, and industrial athletic leagues but also defined its future. New methods that were not found in kata were developed, while older methods found in kata were discarded because they did not work easily in free sparring. This pragmatic aspect directly influenced the development of kickboxing and, indirectly, the mixed martial arts venues that are widely popular today.


The rapid spread of karate through the world following World War II suggests that it spoke to something within the mid-twentieth-century human psyche. Something in it crossed cultural barriers and made it able to flourish. Something within karate was flexible enough to fulfill basic human needs without losing its essential, martial nature, which itself speaks to basic needs.

It probably helped that, during the 1920s and 1930s, the Japanese made karate into a -do (Way). When this happened, karate became more than a utilitarian fighting art from Okinawa. Not only was it imbued with a cultural, historical, and psychological significance; it was now on a par with other Japanese martial arts. This development was important because the Japanese define their cultural identity, in part, on their martial arts (budo)—and not totally because of the militarization of Japan during World War II; otherwise, martial arts would have declined after the victorious Allies proscribed the practice of budo. Nonetheless, the Japanese openly continued to practice karate and other martial arts; thus, the headline to a newspaper article published in the Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin in March 1947 reads “Japanese Still Are Taught Art of Breaking Arms.”

Defeat rarely changes the beliefs of the conquered. Instead, it causes those beliefs to be sublimated. In this case, people saw that martial arts could be a sport and exercise. Through sport, the Japanese could rebuild karate, just as they rebuilt Japan itself, and in the process, they could win.

Meanwhile, for foreign students, part of karate's allure was its exoticism. In 1947, karate was essentially unknown outside Japan and Korea. Even in Hawaii it was rare. So, as the Spanish Jesuit Balthazar Gracián (1601-1658) put it in The Art of Worldly Wisdom (1647), at first, even a needle brought from afar is valued.

The combative nature of the art was also helpful. This was the era of the Cold War, civil rights movements, and wars of national liberation. The U.S. military sponsored karate training; so did various “freedom fighters.” For both sides, the reason was that karate was a physically demanding activity that had a stockpile of fighting techniques. This appeal was not unique to karate but was fulfilled by karate.

In short, karate fulfilled psychological needs. For soldiers and freedom fighters, the needs were often as simple as “this protects us from them.” For the commercial karate class, the need was simply to provide paying customers with (1) the illusion of training in self-defense, (2) outward recognition through belt ranking, (3) peer relationships through belonging to a group, (4) the opportunity to learn new things combined with the freedom to quit, and so on.

Of course, reality has a way of intruding. Whenever special classes are offered in self-defense in a karate dojo, it is a good bet that what is being taught is not the traditional karate of Okinawa (or even the transplanted karate of 1930s Japan). Moreover, feelings get hurt over things as silly as who got promoted, teachers and students sometimes have emotional issues, and schools go out of business.

This is mentioned because the presentation of karate as a Way of Life allowed it to be used (or at least presented) as a spiritual path. The karate explosion that occurred in the 1960s was not simply related to the development of sport-based karate. The 1960s were a period of countercultural experimentation. Karate was no exception. For example, Goju-Kai karate leader Yamaguchi Gogen (1909-1989) combined yoga, Zen Buddhism (as well as other religions), and karate to create Goju-Shinto. “Doing one's own thing” was another cultural value of the 1960s, and it gradually seeped into the practice of martial arts. This was most famously done by Bruce Lee (Li Xiaolong, 1940-1973), with his conceptualization of Jeet Kune Do, but Lee's popularity allowed other martial arts instructors to do their own thing, and the result was that a plethora of new karate styles began to emerge, each with its new O-Sensei (great teacher).


Karate started out as a civilian martial art in the ports and towns of the Ryukyu Kingdom. During the 1920s and 1930s, it spread to Japan, Korea, and Manchuria. As a result of the general militarization of Japan during that period, karate became a paramilitary martial art. After World War II, the Japanese, Koreans, and Okinawans were enthusiastic exporters of karate, and as a rule, the product was received partly as an example of an exotic culture, and partly as a sport. Over time, karate has changed. Sparring, for example, changed from one-step drills to noncontact point fighting, then to point fighting with limited targets, and finally to kickboxing and mixed martial arts. Training has also changed. Sometimes, classes are taught in the old way, with personal relationships. Other times, classes are taught as military drill. And sometimes, training is simply punch/kick calisthenics. Through it all, karate has proven adaptable to its environment and retained its essential utility.

See also: Kenpo Karate; Korea: Taekwondo; Okinawa: Karate (in Volume I); Globalization of Martial Arts; Asian Martial Arts in the United States and Canada; Jeet Kune Do; and Social Aspects of Kata and Waza (in this volume).

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  • Gichin, Funakoshi . 1981. Karate-do Kyohan. New York: Kodansha.
  • Gichin, Funakoshi . 1982. Karate-do: My Way of Life. New York: Kodansha.
  • Goodin, Charles. No date. “Hawaii Karate Seinen Kai,”, accessed October 17, 2009.
  • Higaonna, Morio. 1996. The History of Karate: Okinawan Goju Ryu. Westlake Village, CA: Dragon.
  • Fusei, Kise . 2003. The Spirit of Okinawan Karate. Tilton, NH: Sant Bani.
  • Shosin, Nagamine . 1991. The Essence of Okinawan Karate-do: Shorin-ryu. Rutland, VT: Tuttle.
  • Noble, Graham. 1998. “Gichin Funakoshi and the Development of Japanese Karate,” Dragon Times 3 (11), 7-9, via, accessed October 17, 2009.
  • Seikichi, Toguchi . 1976. Okinawan Goju-ryu: Fundamentals of Shorei-kan karate. Burbank, CA: Ohara.
  • Seikichi, Toguchi . 2001. Okinawan Goju Ryu II: Advanced Techniques of Shorei-Kan Karate. Santa Clarita, CA: Ohara.
  • Williamsport Gazette and Bulletin. 1947. “Japanese Still Are Taught Art of Breaking Arms,” March 10, 12, via, accessed October 17, 2009.
  • Gogen, Yamaguchi . 1999. Goju Ryu Karate Do Kyohan [Goju Ryu Karate Master Text], translated by Andrea Lee. Hamilton, Ontario: Masters Publication.
  • Mottern, Ron
    Copyright 2010 by ABC-CLIO, LLC

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