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Updated on January 1, 2010

Accounts of the origin of karate vary, but there is fairly general agreement that it derives from a form of hand-to-hand combat that originated in India and was introduced in China by a Buddhist monk. It then spread to other Asian countries. In the early 1900's, Funakoshi Gichin, an Okinawan and the founder of modern karate, introduced karate to Japan in a series of lectures and demonstrations. The Japanese ideogram that represents the word karate can be translated as "empty" (kara) "hand" (te) or as "Chinese" (kara) "hand" (te). Either interpretation is acceptable.

Hundreds of styles of karate are practiced in Japan and elsewhere. Their practitioners consider them distinct forms of fighting, but a close examination reveals more similarities than differences among them. The Chinese styles of karate include hung fu (also known as gung fu), Shaolin temple boxing, and pa-kua. One Okinawan style of karate is called Okinawa-te. Another, which is a fusion of Chinese and Japanese styles, is called kenpo karate. The best-known Korean karate is toe kwan do. In addition to weaponless fighting techniques, some styles of karate include the use of cutting and stick weapons.

Japanese, Korean, and Okinawan styles of karate are practiced barefoot, and students wear a uniform (gi) made of heavy cotton material. The jacket is cut kimono style, but with shorter sleeves than a kimono's. The pants are loose-fitting, approximately calf length, and tied at the waist with a drawstring. A belt goes around the body twice and is tied in front with a square knot. In the Chinese styles of karate, students usually wear clothes similar to the everyday dress of the Chinese people, and they practice in shoes or slippers.

Hand and Foot Blows

The open-hand blows used in karate include poking and clawing with the fingertips; the heel-of-the-palm blow; and slashing with the side of the hand, a blow popularly known as the karate chop and previously known as the judo chop or the jujitsu chop. Other names for this widely publicized hand blow include the knife-hand, the sword-hand, the butterfly blow, and the thousand-hand blow. Closed-hand blows are struck with the side of the fist (hammer blow) and with the knuckles. The elbow is used for striking, and the forearm is used to hit and to block. Characteristic karate kicks are with the side of the foot and the bottom of the foot, though some styles utilize toe kicks and kicks with the ball of the foot. Spectacular leaping kicks are a feature of many styles of karate, but are rarely used in tournaments.

Hand Conditioning

Hand conditioning is the process of toughening and desensitizing the hands so that they can be used as "weapons." When karate was used for combat, the bare hands of the karate fighter could break through wooden armor to deliver a telling blow. The "iron hand" is one of the terms used to describe a heavily conditioned hand. Conditioning is achieved by striking at hard surfaces until injury occurs. Scar tissue forms as the injury heals. Eventually the conditioned area becomes callused, thickened, and impervious to pain. When this happens, full-force blows can be struck at any target. Spectacular breaking tricks require a great deal of conditioning. In contests, because contact blows are rarely allowed, hand conditioning is not appropriate for tournament training. Although it has no modern application, hand conditioning is still widespread in karate training. Conditioning of the first and second knuckles of each hand is the most common form of conditioning. In some styles of karate, students condition their feet, fingertips, and the sides of their hands.

For self-defense, hand conditioning could have a negative effect. The evidence of conditioned hands indicates that an individual may have aggressive intentions. Furthermore, extreme conditioning of the hands impairs manual dexterity and could cause irreversible injury. Physicians advise against hand conditioning.

"Deadly" Blows

Karate blows are no more "deadly" than other styles of blows delivered with equal force to an equally vulnerable body area. The degree of impact force delivered by any blow is a function of mass and velocity. A boxing blow and a karate blow made with equal power and speed will deliver equal force to the target. Legendary karate "masters" are reputed to have superhuman powers, including the ability to kill small birds with a yell ("the shout of doom"); a secret knowledge of how to touch lightly at a spot on the body to cause death ("the touch of death"); and the ability to penetrate an adversary's body with a bare hand to withdraw his still-beating heart. Though stories of such feats circulate widely, no reliable evidence supports them.

Hard and Soft Styles

While using essentially the same hand and foot blows, many systems of karate have hard and soft styles. The hard styles emphasize training for strength, while the soft styles emphasize training for accuracy and speed. In a hard style, skill might be demonstrated by the ability to break a brick, whereas in a soft style a student might demonstrate skill by extinguishing a candle with a fast hand blow that goes past (but does not touch) the flame.

Forms and Dances

Prearranged, rehearsed series of movements are used for exercises, as learning procedures, and for demonstration of technical skill. These are the forms of karate. In the solo forms (also called dances, and in Japanese karate, kata) the student performs hitting, blocking, parrying, and kicking actions against an imaginary opponent or opponents. In the two-man forms (wazas, in the Japanese styles) the students alternate offensive and defensive actions in prescribed order. Body contact is made in the blocking and parrying actions, but not in the kicking and hitting actions. The movements of any form must be done in exact sequence. Some solo forms are fast and vigorous, and others are performed with slow, graceful movements.

Sparring and Stances

In some systems of karate the forms are the principal training and practice procedure. Other systems include practice in free-style sparring, called kumite in Japanese karate. Sport competition is practiced in many systems of karate. The fighting stances, which have little or no application for self-defense karate, are tactically useful in contests and are sometimes practiced as a means of achieving self-discipline. There are schools in which students take a fighting stance position and hold it for as long as an hour.

Karate Belts

In most styles of karate, students wear colored belts to indicate their degree of proficiency. The novice wears a white belt. Various color schemes are used to indicate the intermediate grades, and the highest levels of proficiency are commonly indicated by a black belt. Within the levels, there are gradations of skill sometimes indicated by belt colors and sometimes by patches, stripes, or other insignia worn on the belt or sleeve. Belt-rank promotions are awarded for formal demonstration of technique (the forms), for winning in competition, and, in some styles of karate, for a combination of formal and contest skill. Belt-grade promotions may also be made at the discretion of the instructor. Belt ranks are recognized only in the school or system in which they are awarded and have no significance outside that system.

The Japan Karate Association was organized in 1948. In the United States, the United Karate Federation, founded in 1965, recognizes U.S. karate schools and institutions.

Karate Contests

In contests, points are scored for unopposed hand or foot blows delivered to within a few inches of the intended target area. In most karate contests, the targets are the head, eyes, face, throat, solar plexus, groin, and kidneys. Kicks or hand blows are permitted to any of the target areas. A token block, such as putting a hand up to defend the target, invalidates the point. An opponent need move only slightly to invalidate a point-scoring attempt. Grappling is not permitted, but grabbing cloth as a preliminary to hitting or kicking is usually allowed.

Making contact is usually illegal and theoretically invalidates a scoring attempt. In practice, players make contact by accident and as a tactic to put the opposing players on the defensive. Some observers feel that the rules for karate contests are not consistent with modern concepts of physical education. Reflecting as they do the original objective of inflicting maximum injury, the point-scoring target areas involve unnecessary danger to the players. In the excitement of competition, two players moving forward simultaneously to attempt scoring techniques can make heavy contact with high risk of injury. Changing the point-scoring areas to the upper back, upper arm, and upper chest would minimize the possibility of injury without diminishing the skill or the physical-development benefits of sport karate.


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