Undoubtedly the most known traditional martial art in modern popular culture, almost to the point of antonomasia, karate has hundreds of millions of practitioners around the world and is mostly governed by the World Karate Federation. The "mostly" part comes from the fact that, unlike other mainstream martial arts, there is no unanimous conception or ruleset about the art: instead, it is composed of a myriad of independent schools and associations around the world and most of them manage their business in their own way, with the WKA being relegated to host unified sport competitions which every school might comply or not to compete. This is due to the traditional and decentralized evolution of karate, which can be traced to its very roots.
Although it is considered a quintessential aspect of Japanese culture, karate was actually born in the Ryukyu Kingdom before it was conquered by Japan, and it was shaped by the influence of the more geographically nearby China, with Southern Chinese kungfu being its main inspiration. After weapons were banned by its conquerors, Ryukyu and especially Okinawa developed a series of unarmed fighting styles (as well as some based on makeshift weapons) in order to fight back the invader. Karate remained thus as a very regional characteristic for centuries until an Okinawan scholar by the name of Gichin Funakoshi introduced it to mainland Japan. Soon, other schools both old and new followed, and the sport was established.
Practitioners of the sport are called Karateka. Equipment consist solely of a white uniform called the karategi or keikogi (sometimes abbreviated as "gi"), composed of a loose jacket and pants tied with a belt called an obi, which actually comes from and was adopted from the judogi used in Judo. The practice of the art itself can be separated into kata (sets of individual, rehearsed movements designed to build muscle memory), bunkai (interpretation of kata to create functional techniques), and kumite (good ol' sparring, equivalent to randori in judo and jujutsu).
As mentioned, karate is divided on schools or styles, most of them diverging a lot in their approaches to things like philosophy and technique. Those are the main ones:
- Shotokan: founded by the aforementioned Gichin Funakoshi, Shotokan was the first modern karate school, and the founders of many other styles actually studied this before establishing their own. Technically speaking, Shotokan emphasizes more on finesse and long range attack, requiring practitioners to be both nimble and well-balanced. Most of its competitions are ruled in points and demonstrations of skill over rough finishes.
- Kyokushin: the hardest style, this school embodies what people tend to believe about karate as crazy men beating down each other and breaking things. Its founder Mas Oyama loved to fight, so the school is strongly oriented towards sport fighting and has solid ties to Kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts. It is characterized by its full contact, knock-down style, meaning the matches are strictly scored on KO's and damage inflicted to the opponent.
- Shito-Ryu: a traditional yet unifying school founded by Kenwa Mabuni. It consists of an incredibly large and complex curriculum of techniques created in an attempt to combine elements of both power and technique, although it values speed and high posture over most other things.
- Goju-Ryu: a style with strong Chinese heritage created by Chojun Miyagi. It is mainly based on the kungfu concept of hard/soft duality, and as such it incorporates a balanced and divided moveset, drawing from the alternation between soft circular movements and hard lineal attacks at close range.
- Wado-Ryu: created by Hironori Otsuka, this karate school stands out for owing to traditional Japanese jujutsu just as much as to karate itself. Its founder was a jujutsuka, and it can be noted in its fondness for soft, harmonious body shifts and an unique set of paired kata, similar to those found in judo.
Tropes associated with karate
- Artistic License Martial Arts:
- Despite its omnipresence in media, karate used to suffer (and still suffers) from a variety of misrepresented portrayals, often showing it as composed of only spectacular flying kicks and supposedly lethal but otherwise robotic-looking hand strikes. Odds are that, every time a character is shown kicking butt with karate, a Diving Kick will be his first choice of attack. Actually, karate uses very few spinning kicks and even less aerial attacks, if any (those are actually Taekwondo's field of expertise).
- It's common in fiction for karateka to use the "karate chop" as a straightforward strike like a punch or kick, often chopping their opponents on the top of their head,or swinging wildly at a moving target. This is extremely unrealistic, as that would do very little if any damage to the opponent and be quite painful for the chopper's hand. The knifehand strike is intended for precise blows to vulnerable areas, like the back of the neck or inside of joints, as the focused wedge of force is more effective on soft or fragile targets than hard surfaces. This misconception may come from misunderstanding the purpose of breaking exercises, where karateka chop wooden boards or even stones in half to prove conditioning, precision and focus. At the end of the day, the classic karate chop is just one of the many hand strikes that are taught, and is actually one of the rarest to see in competition.
- Beat Them at Their Own Game: In 1964, three karateka from the Kyokushin school (Tadashi Nakamura, Akio Fujihira and Kenji Kurosaki, the last being a last-second replacement for an injured Hirofumi Okada) travelled to Thailand in order to answer to a challenge made by the Muay Thai community. Pitted in the Lumpinee stadium against three Thai fighters, the Japanese won soundly two of the matches, with the third being a doctor stoppage over Kurosaki that he would call questionable because he was ahead. (It must be mentioned the karate fighters were also judo black belts and did a few judo throws during their matches, but muay thai is hardly alien to sweeps and throws itself.)
- Blood Knight: Mas Oyama loved a good fight, and his life story has been unceasingly portrayed in media as a quest to find the strongest fighter. It's reputed that he left both the Shotokan and Goju-Ryu because he felt they weren't tough enough.
- Boring, but Practical: Most of karate striking can be described this way, as it usually features very lineal and simple attacks, yet also precise and potentially powerful ones.
- Combat Pragmatist: Though karate's modern self-defense applications are a neverending debate, some styles are known for endorsing interestingly violent techniques, among them fish hooks, low blows and eye strikes.
- Don't Think, Feel: Mushin is a karate concept (not limited to karate, actually, but to most martial arts) which means a state of no-mindness in which the fighter chooses his course of action not through conscious strategy, but through trained instinct. It endorses feeling as opposed to thinking in order to avoid possible distractions like fear, anger or confusion.
- Dueling Dojos: Pretty common in ancient times.
- The Giant: Semmy Schilt is possibly the best modern example of a karateka who is both immense and immensely powerful.
- Good Old Fisticuffs: Contrarily to popular belief, most karate styles actually use hand strikes at least as much as kicks, and although they dont feature the emphasis found in boxing, they are still the main tool in their box.
- Heroes Fight Barehanded: This is the meaning imbued by Gichin Funakoshi to the karate word, which went from meaning "Chinese hand" to "empty hand."
- Invulnerable Knuckles: As full contact karate is traditionally fought barehanded, many old school karateka train to strengthen their hand bones by striking stones and logs. The continuous micro-breaking and healing of the bones makes them stronger (see Wolff's Law), but it is a long and grueling process. Other people prefer to use open palm strikes, which are less damaging for the hands than traditional punches, rather than undergoing this method.
- Kung-Fu Clairvoyance: Another philosophical concept in karate, the zanshin, enforces a continuous state of relaxed alertness and awareness of one's surrounding and enemies while being prepared to react.
- Meaningful Name: Schools often have fancy names that refer to some element of their foundation.
- "Shotokan" could be poetically translated as "The Hall of the Wind between the Pine Needles". Shoto, meaning the movement of pine needles when wind blows through them, was Gichin Funakoshi's pen name.
- "Kyokushin" means "Society of the Ultimate Truth," which is coherent with Mas Oyamas ideal of discipline, hard training and fighting.
- "Shito-Ryu" translates as "Shito Style", shito being composed by the first kanji character of two important karateka who taught its founder Mabuni.
- "Goju-Ryu" means an oxymoronic "Hard Soft Style," reflecting its characteristics.
- "Wado-Ryu" means "Harmonious Way Style," just like its jujutsu roots.
- One-Hit Kill: The concept of Ikken Hissatsu is used in karate to express a philosophy in which the fighter should hit every strike looking to finish the opponent with it. Naturally, only great practitioners of the style can boast of having downed dudes with a single strike.
- Roundhouse Kick: Rarely employed, but still present in the most mobile styles.
- Sadist Teacher: Karate in Japan (well, everything in Japan) has a long tradition of having sadistic bastards in charge of the teaching.
- Warrior Poet: Gichin Funakoshi, who was a writer aside from a karateka.