Japan for the Uninvited

Japanese culture from a bemused foreign perspective


KarateKarate is the world’s most famous martial art, but it’s actually a relatively new one. It’s a hybrid of traditional Okinawan martial art and Chinese techniques introduced by visiting sailors and merchants. It focuses on clean striking techniques.

When karate came to Japan from Okinawa in 1922, the exotic sport faced a fight for acceptance. New kanji were adopted to make it seem less foreign to the nationalistic Japanese people. Elements of Zen Buddhism were introduced, including meditation and the focus on composure and awareness. White uniforms were borrowed from judo.

By World War II, karate had found nation-wide popularity and was introduced to high schools. Its popularity was spread to the West after the war, when returning US soldiers took it back to America.

Unlike judo, karate has no single set of rules or techniques. Modern karate is broadly split into traditional styles and full contact styles, and hundreds of different schools. The most famous traditional forms are Shotokan, Gojo-ryu, Wado-ryu, and Shito-ryu. Kyokushin-kaikan is the most popular contact style.

Karate is not an Olympic sport. The martial art is so diverse that an international governing body is impossible. However, there are individual and team competitions in kata (fixed set pieces) and kumite (sparring).

In kata, points are awarded for style and quality of the performance. In kumite, two fighters face off in bouts lasting 3 to 5 minutes. Scoring and rules depend on the style, a scoring point in a full contact style might be illegal in a traditional, half-contact style.

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