Japanese Sports – Karate

Sport has a long history in Japan, and many of the country’s most traditional sports are martial arts, such as sumo, kendo, judo and karate. Recognised today as one of the most popular disciplines of martial arts, karate can be traced back over a thousand years through diverse cultures.

Origins of Karate

Karate translates quite literally to ‘empty hands’, which identifies it today as a sport defined by its lack of weapons, and relying more on the skill of the human body. Karate was not created as a sport, however; it originated on the islands of Okinawa (south of mainland Japan) in a time where the islands were under the jurisdiction of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The Ryukyu Kingdom was an important trade partner between Japan and China, and as such, it was highly influenced by these cultures. Not only was the Ryukyuan life shaped by Chinese and Japanese influences, so were its martial arts.

The conditions that created karate were quite particular; the Kingdom of Ryukyu had been imposing a weapons ban since 1507 to discourage lethal fights and keep the peace between neighbouring islands. This was when bare hands fighting styles became popular, as a sport as well as a method of defence against invaders.

The style of karate is inspired by Buddhist exercises, which were first introduced to strengthen the bodies of monks for sessions of exhaustive meditation. These were the Shaolin monks in 527 A.D, and their exercises not only to inspired Shaolin boxing, but also influenced karate, as the practice spread across the trade routes, all the way to Okinawa.

Karate had to be practiced secretly during the 17th century, after a Japanese clan of warriors known as the Satsuma invaded and seized control of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The Satsuma prohibited all martial arts, with or without weapons, and so the art of karate could only be practised in secret during the night.

Without the dedication of these Ryukyuan warriors, we might not know karate as we do today.

Aharen Beach on Tokashiki Island in Okinawa, Japan.

Modern Okinawa, home the Ryukyu Kingdom


How Karate is Scored

Karate became popular in mainland Japan only after the islands of Okinawa were brought under Japanese sovereignty in the late 19th century. Since then, karate has become popular worldwide and will even feature in the 2020 Olympics.

As a martial art, karate is primarily a self-defence method which involves punches, knee and elbow strikes. Some, but not all, variants of karate also permit the use of throws, locks and grappling. Those who practice karate are known as karateka.

In order to win a match of karate, the karateka must defeat their opponent through punches, kicks or throws to score points. The winner is whoever has the most points, or whoever is the first to reach an eight-point lead over their opponent. The skills necessary to compete successfully in a karate competition include dexterity, speed and a lot of skill and experience.

one asian young man exercising martial arts karate vietvodao in silhouette studio on white background

Karate is not solely about defeating the opponent; it is also about fighting with skill and beauty, and the points scored are measured on where hits land, as well as whether they show good form, timing and distance. More than simply striking the opponent, however, contestants are also judged on whether they are able to display a vigorous application of moves, alongside sporting attitude and awareness. Modern karate is as much about aesthetics as it is about the art of fighting.


Karate in Pop Culture

Since entering mainstream Western culture, karate continues to be widely popular. There are many famous names who have studied the art of karate, including the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley.

Presley practised for around twenty years, starting during his stint at an army station in Germany, and continuing his studies on his return to America, where he met Kenpo master, Ed Parker. The two trained together until Presley’s death in 1977.  Elvis earned his first-degree black belt in 1960, later earning a seventh-degree black belt and opening his own Karate Institute in Tennessee.

Elvis certainly wasn’t alone in his love of karate; it’s an art that has inspired films, celebrity fitness, and young athletes. We can’t wait to see the high level of competition that will be taking place in the 2020 Olympics.

Karate at the 2020 Olympics

The 2020 Olympics will be karate’s first appearance on the Games programme; competitors will fight at the Nippon Budokan, which is the spiritual home of Japanese martial arts, and also a venue that was used for the Tokyo 1964 Games.

The inclusion of karate in the 2020 Olympics is not permanent, but we hope that it will be an opportunity to further promote the practice of karate worldwide, and to encourage existing karateka to aspire to compete on the world stage.

Karate isn’t the only piece of Japanese culture that’s packing a punch worldwide; our sensational sushi is famous too, and can be sampled at either our sushi bar in Manchester or our sushi bar in Liverpool.

We will be continuing to write on the latest news on the Olympics through our blogs, so stay tuned! If you want to learn more about Tokyo 2020, you can read our blog about Getting Excited for the Olympics.