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Round 1. Fight!

I split the atom with my high kick, baby
I am a master 'cause I practice daily
With aaaaatoooomiiiiic karate!
Tupper Ware Remix Party, Atomic Karate

Karate (translated originally as "Chinese hand" and later as "empty hand") is a Japanese martial art and combat sport. It is based mainly around striking, utilizing plenty of strikes of all sorts with the hands and feet (and more rarely knees and elbows), as well as some kinds of throws and joint locks in certain styles.

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).

    Karate styles 
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 most relevant ones:

  • Shotokan: founded by the aforementioned Gichin Funakoshi and developed by his son Gigo, Shotokan was the first modern karate school, and the founders of many other styles studied this before establishing their own. It was also the style who popularized high kicks and spinning attacks in karate, as well as competitions ruled on points rather than damage (both of which have been speculated to be influences from the savate practised by the Japanese military's French instructors). Technically speaking, Shotokan emphasizes more on finesse and long range attack, requiring practitioners to be both nimble and well-balanced.

  • 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 combat and has solid ties to Kickboxing and Mixed Martial Arts, having given birth to several offshoots dedicated to those fields, like Ashihara, Daido-juku, Seidokaikan and Shidokan. 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 kung-fu 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 former jujutsuka Hironori Otsuka, this karate school stands out for owing to traditional Japanese jujutsu just as much as to karate itself, to the point it initially billed itself as "karate-jujutsu". This can be noted in its fondness for soft, harmonious body shifts and an unique set of paired kata, similar to those found in judo. Its other main influence was Shotokan karate, which Otsuka studied under Gichin Funakoshi.

  • Shorin-Ryu: rooted on seriously ancient lineages of karate, it was developed by Choshin Chibana, who had studied under the same teacher as Funakoshi, and favors flexibility and circular movements. Note that, although its name is the Japanese renderization of the Chinese term shaolin, it is not related to Shaolin kung fu in any way, nor to Shorinji Kempo, which is a martial art related to Shaolin kung fu created by Doshin So.

  • Uechi-Ryu: an Okinawan style founded by Kanbun Uechi, notable for its unique fighting stance, hardcore body conditioning, and its emphasis on toe-kicks, knuckle-strikes, and spear-hand techniques. Features just eight kata, of which only three are from Uechi's original teachings. Though akin to Goju-Ryu, this style has an even stronger Chinese heritage, owing to the founder directly learning a kung fu style whilst in Southern China; as such, though related to the Naha-te styles, Uechi-Ryu actually developed mostly independently from them.

  • Ashihara: founded and named after its founder; Hideyuki Ashihara in 1980 after being expelled from Kyokushin. His style differs from Kyokushin by his emphasis of Sabaki, a concept of controlled movement and positioning that involves using footwork and techniques to either turn an opponent's attack against them by way of their own power and momentum or to avoid being punched or kicked while repositioning oneself to the opponent's "blind" spot to launch counterattacks. While full contact sparring is used in training and gradings, the style is aimed to prepare for real life street encounters, either by single or multiple attackers.

  • Enshin: a direct offshoot of Ashihara, it was founded by Joko Ninomiya who wanted to take Ashihara's methods and combine it with Ninomiya's judo background as well as strategies and other ideas of his own into full contact competition. It is known for its tournaments called the Sabaki Challenge, full-contact single elimination tournaments that are basically Kyokushin bouts with the addition of throws, sweeps, takedowns and one-handed grabs.

  • Seidokaikan: one of the most famous offshoots of Kyokushin, though technically its more of a direct offshoot of Ashihara since its founder Kazuyoshi Ishii had left with Ashihara at the same time and stuck with him until he decided to form his own style. Established in 1981 and focusing on the sport aspect of full contact karate that Ashihara didn’t appeal to, it made a name for itself by sending their fighters to other martial art tournaments, particular his former art of Kyokushin while also holding tournaments that invited fighters from other organizations to compete under their full contact rules. In 1988, at their 7th All-Japan Knockdown Open tournament, new rules were used for the first time allowing face strikes wearing boxing gloves for extension rounds, basically making them compete in kickboxing, which eventually led to the creation of the K-1 organization in 1993 to provide a platform exclusively for kickboxing. Afterwards it returned to traditional full contact karate roots once K-1 took off in popularity.

  • Shidokan: as mentioned above, this is a popular school of competition karate founded by Kyokushin karateka Yoshiji Soeno, who branched off wanting more open rules. It emphasizes the sport aspect of the contest, hosting matches in a ring and using gloves. Uniquely unlike Kyokushin, it allows three seconds of stand-up grappling for clinching, throws or takedowns and also allows ten seconds of ground-based grappling for submissions attempts, making its competitions a form of bare knuckle MMA. It has somewhat of a reputation to be the type of karate preferred by Yakuza, although those ties actually trace back to Kyokushin itself.

  • Daido-Juku: founded by another Kyokushin karateka seeking freedom, Takashi Azuma, this school transitioned from a style of karate to its own martial art, referred to as kudo (previously had several names - Kakuto, Hokutoki and Daido-Juku, among others). Known by its futuristic-looking protective helmets, it can be described as the Japanese answer to combat sambo, allowing for submissions, ground and pound, elbows and even headbutts.

  • Kyokushin Budokai: another Kyokushin offshoot, this time founded by Dutch pioneer Jon Bluming. Also known as All-Round Fighting to avoid confusion with another organisation that uses the same name, it is a full contact bare knuckle karate style that also allows grappling, groundfighting, and submissions due to Bluming's training in Judo, but also allows palm strikes to the head and face unlike Kyokushin, which is kind of Hilarious in Hindsight as Bluming and his students later became involved in the shoot style wrestling movement that also featured this as part of their ruleset by sheer coincidence.

  • Zendokai: an offshoot of Daido-juku founded by Takashi Ozawa (not to be confused with the Zen Do Kai system founded by Bob Jones). The main difference between this style and Daido-juku is that it allows for a slightly longer time for groundfighting and that the protective helmet is only used by those under the age of 18 and those over the age of 35. Due to the success of some fighters who represented the style in MMA competition, it has also been known as Real Fight Karate (which is also the name of their tournaments) or Vale Tudo Karate.

  • Wajūtsu Keishukai: another offshoot of Daido-juku founded by Yoshinori Nishi. Originally named Karate Kakutojutsu Keishukai as he still represented Daido-juku at the time, it was Nishi's loss to Rickson Gracie at the Vale Tudo Japan 1994 event where he decided to expand his style with techniques from kickboxing, BJJ and even shoot wrestling. It eventually transitioned to teaching modern MMA and expanded into a multi-gym network and is probably the largest chain of MMA gyms in Japan today. It also used to promotion MMA events where fighters wore the gi, like the famous Lumax Cup: Tournament of J events and the ORG rules at Greatest Common Multiple (GCM) Communication's The Contenders events, which also featured submission grappling, both single and Tag Team.

  • Nippon Kempo: another karate style later turned into its own martial art, it was founded by Muneomi Sawayama, an apprentice to both Mabuni and Miyagi who wished to create a sort of modernization of ancient Japanese battlefield jujutsu. Appropriately, it trains in protective gear and features some throws and groundwork, and was adopted as the predominant hand-to-hand style of the Japanese Self-Defense Forces.

  • Byakuren: a full contact karate style founded by Shorinji Kempo practitioner Masayasu Sugihara. While Sugihara did train in judo and a traditional style of karate in his youth, he eventually became a bodyguard and close student of the founder of Shorinji Kenpo; Dōshin Sō. However, Sugihara was eager to test his skills in real competition, but since his master forbid his followers to take part in full contact competitions, he entered the All Japan Karate Championships organized by Seidokaikan in 1983 using the name Byakuren Kaikan as a pseudonym for his school. He ended up in third place, but the truth was soon to be discovered and to avoid further trouble with his school, he decided in 1984 to break away establish his own style and used his previously made up name for it. While the style's competitions are based on Kyokushin's rules, in training the style also teaches throws, pins, and submission techniques and kata is said to be more limited compared to other styles.

  • F.S.A. Kenshinkan: a school founded by another former Shorinji Kempo practitioner in Takeyuki Hayama. The FSA is an acronym for Full-Contact Submission Arts, as such the style is more of a MMA-oriented karate style. In addition to hosting competitions that include Kyokushin rules, Glove karate rules, Bōgutsuki/Koshiki karate rules (refered to as "Chaos Safety Rules"), and a MMA with gi ruleset referred to as "Musashi", it also once had a unique ruleset called "Absolute rules" which allowed bare knuckle punching to the face, standing submissions, throws, headbutts, even groin shots and strikes to the eyes while only wearing face masks that protect the eyes. It is also best known for being the style associated with the defunct Chaos Mad Max promotion, whose rules were basically the Japanese answer to Lethwei.

  • Rishin-Juku: a school founded by Yoshiharu Murai, a competitive full contact karateka and street fighter. It is known as the style associated with the PRO-KARATEDO Federation, which features a ruleset called "Master rules" that is sort of a successor to the "Absolute rules" of F.S.A. Kenshinkan above, as it that allows everything except the strikes to the eyes, but also allows groundfighting, essentially making it the Japanese answer to old school vale tudo, though soccer kicks, open hand and palm strikes, biting, grabbing the hair and strikes to the back of the head are banned. It also has another similar ruleset called "PRO-KARATEDO rules" that makes fighters wear MMA gloves.

  • Gensei-Ryu: founded by Seiken Shukumine, who combined classic Shuri-te techniques with his own innovations that were inspired from his time as a kaiten pilot during WWII, thus developing the special characteristics of unique to the style with a philosophy that says "to do something unanticipated or unexpected is the secret to victory", which basically makes this style real Confusion Fu. However, Shukimine would eventually come to realize the shortcomings of this system and served as foundation to Shukimine's much more well-known style, Taido. The style still exists today as a few students of his rejected Taido and thus continued teaching the style without his input.

  • Taido: as stated above, it's another karate style that later turned into its own martial art. Convinced that the limitations of karate were due to its linear mode of training, Shukumine introduced spinning and twisting movements, gymnastic maneuvers, speedy and effective footwork, and changing body angles for both attack and defense in order to create a martial art that he believed would equip his students to function at a high level in society. When fighting Taidokas are supposed to be the constant movement, in order to maintain distance and gain a feasible offensive positions, which at times can look very similar to Capoeira of all things. Competition bouts are semi-contact, with the head not being a legal target to strike at and there are no weight classes because a taidoka must be able to fight against all and any kinds of opponents. Not to be confused with a style of Aikido also named Taido.

  • Pro Fight Karaté: a French pro full contact karate organization created by Guy Sauvin and Alain Setrouk. Fighters wear only their gi pants and belts with MMA gloves, and allows punching, open hand and palm strikes, kicks, knees, limited clinching, throws and a limited form of ground-and-pound.

  • Karate Combat: an organization that claims to promote the first professional full-contact karate league, founded by Michael De Pietro and Robert Bryan, with its rules developed by Hungarian karateka Ádám Kovács. Bouts are contested in the specially designed pit and consists of 3 rounds each lasting 3 minutes with the possibility of 2 additional rounds for championship fights. It allows punches, kicks (except the only low kicks allowed are calf kick), knees, limited clinching, sweeps, reaps and throws (except suplexes or others that go over the head), but submissions, open hand (other than ridge-hand strikes) and elbows are not permitted. A grounded opponent may use upkicks while the standing opponent can punch a grounded opponent, with a time limit of 5 seconds allowed on ground. Also it is not allowed to use the pit wall as a platform to latch attacks.

  • Taekwondo: See its page for more.

  • Algaput: a martial art developed in Azerbaijan by Vasif İmran oğlu Namazov that is said to be based on traditional Turkic Martial Arts and the founder even calls it a “Turan martial art”, though it is also very obviously based extensively on his own training in Kyokushin, Ashihara and Enshin karate, as well as judo, sambo and MMA. Fighters wear modified gis called "chapans" and white gi pants with Algaput logos. The art has five competition systems, with each match lasting 3 minutes, though tournament finals bouts contain two rounds of 3 mintues, it should also be noted that those that include striking all ban punches and elbows to the head and face just like Kyokushin, despite fighters wearing headgear, shin guards, and gloves for those; 1) Ayça (also Aycha or Aypara) - striking with throws, sweeps and trips with fighters wearing MMA gloves, though it disallows clinching and grabbing the legs with two hands, 2) Batur - MMA rules with a 20 second limit for groundwork and the aforementioned ban on head punches and elbows. 3) Caymaz - more like kickboxing as it is done with boxing gloves and also allows ankle trips (without grips), again with the aforementioned ban on head punches and elbows. 4) Gurshag or Gurash - submission grappling with 20 seconds for groundwork and starting positions feature the left hand on the opponent’s belt and the right hand raised up. 5) Kachut - this contains several things; demontrations of yörtem (unarmed and armed forms), archery, rope, self defence against one and against groups, and also competitive one-on-one simulated weapon fights featuring yatagan (stick), shamshir (sword) and akınak (knife).

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.
  • Arsenal Attire: Averted, mostly with the traditional styles as despite the modern uniform being based off the judogi, most traditional styles do not include techniques that use the gi at all. The notable exceptions are the more MMA-oriented ones like Daido-juku and other Kyokushin offshoots.
  • Attack! Attack! Attack!: In two of its most popular styles. Shotokan has defensive methods, but teaches fighters to strike hard and fast at openings, ending a fight as quickly and cleanly as possible. Kyokushin insists on constant offensive pressure as its main tactic and hearty body conditioning as its main defense, meaning Kyokushin fighters advance unflinchingly and never take a backwards step, trading blows until someone breaks.
  • 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 Hirofumi Okada, who was either injured or unavailable depending on the version) 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.
  • 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. He stressed the importance of physical conditioning and full contact sparring to create effective fighters, so Kyokushin still has a well-earned reputation for pumping out robust brawlers.
  • 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.
    • When Ed Parker founded Kenpo karate in the 20th century, he did so by examining moves from the viewpoint of the attacker, the defender, and a bystander, and used this information to create a more practical style with fewer flashy moves.
  • 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.
  • 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 don’t 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 Oyama’s 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.
    • "Karate" itself is a Meaningful Name. As described above, it was originally written as "Chinese hand" to reflect the influence of Chinese martial arts on the style. It was changed to be written as "empty hand" in around the turn of the 20th century to avoid then-current political connotations of all things connected to China.
  • Mighty Glacier: Kyokushin Karate espouses the virtues of ferocity and courage, training fighters to pressure opponents with continuous offense instead of countering or waiting for their opening. As such, Kyokushin Karate places heavy emphasis on full body conditioning, giving them a reputation for being tough and unshakeable, frowning even on tactical retreat.
  • 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.
  • Rival Dojos: Pretty common in ancient times.
  • 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.
  • Simple, yet Awesome: Ed Parker invented the idea of an "alphabet of motion." Movements can be used on their own or combined to form "words" and "sentences" of motion.
  • Warrior Poet: Gichin Funakoshi, who was a writer aside from a karateka.

Karate as depicted in fiction:

Anime and Manga

  • Booty Royale: Never Go Down Without a Fight!: Main character Haebaru Misora is from Okinawa and was trained in traditional-style karate by her late father, and uses primarily the more historically accurate straight punches than acrobatic kicks. Her match against Muay Thai practitioner Chompoo Shinlat is called out by the Tournament Arc's organizers as a reenactment of a 1964 exhibition match between Japanese and Thai competitors that led to the incorporation of techniques from other arts into modern karate—practiced by secondary character Kujioka Mika among others.
  • Kenichi: The Mightiest Disciple: Some of Kenichi's earlier opponents are karateka, and one of his masters, Shio Sakaki, is a 100th-dan black belt (and no one dares to question him).
  • Holyland: The two major characters with a background in Karate are Masaki and Shougo. The latter deliberately did not take the black belt test, since black belt-holders are legally considered "armed" and face harsher penalties if they're arrested for assault. The protagonist is initially a Boxing Battler until he also learns karate kicks.

Film — Live-Action

  • In general, Chinese movies with Japanese antagonists will often have the villains using karate (often poorly, especially when they're not played by Japanese actors) against the Chinese heroes' traditional kung-fu styles.
  • Ip Man Film Series: The main antagonists of Ip Man and Ip Man 4 are karate masters.
  • The Karate Kid, of course. Nariyoshi Miyagi-sensei is from Okinawa and uses the environment and chores to teach muscle memory to his Italian-American protege Daniel LaRusso. He's also a strong Martial Pacifist for whom martial arts is as much about philosophy and self-knowledge as self-defense. Meanwhile the Thug Dojo Cobra Kai—the antagonists of the first and third films and the subject of the self-titled sequel TV series—teaches a highly attack-oriented athletic sport form of modern karate, similar in spirit to the kyokushin school, although stylistically it's based on Tang Soo Do.

Literature

  • Alex Rider: The Teen Superspy protagonist is a black belt in karate. However, his relative lack of size, strength and fighting experience (aside from occasional school bullies) means he's outclassed in straight-up fights against more grown-up adversaries. He usually resorts to ambushing mooks with a spinning back kick or roundhouse kick.

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