Those extremely passionate about martial arts tend to be quite strict about what exactly qualifies as a martial art.
Laypeople who don’t take the art of combat as seriously may be surprised to learn that many enthusiasts and practitioners don’t count karate as a martial art at all. After all, when most people think of “martial arts,” isn’t a fierce karate-kicking hero the first thing that comes to mind? Why wouldn’t it be a martial art?
Here we will explain what defines a martial art, whether karate meets that definition, and if not, what category might it fall under instead.
What is a Martial Art?
Before we determine whether or not karate is a martial art, we have to define what a martial art is. Fortunately, there are several possible definitions for us to take into consideration.
Some people define martial arts as practices that are effectively used for military combat. Karate, like several other martial arts such as taekwondo and Muay Thai, has a history of being included in military and law enforcement training programs.
In this school of thought, there is only one objective to learning martial arts: beating down your opponent until victory is secured.
Many others, especially today, tend to have a more lenient definition. They include practices such as archery, swordsmanship, and stick-fighting as martial arts instead of only counting hand-to-hand combat.
They also view martial arts as not primarily a mode of combat, but as a method of self-defense and self-improvement.
Many martial arts instructors teach their students that the techniques learned in class are never to be used to attack or brutalize others, only to get out of a dangerous situation by incapacitating an attacker just long enough to escape.
They also emphasize the spiritual importance of martial arts. Training with a good instructor and classmates has many benefits unconnected to combat, such as:
- Building a student’s confidence
- Helping them make friends
- Develops peaceful conflict resolution skills
- Broadening their understanding of the world
- Teaches them patience, discipline, respect, and compassion
This definition of martial arts emphasizes the betterment of self rather than building physical power.
Does Karate Qualify as a Martial Art?
Though it is often called a solely Japanese martial art, the history of karate is a bit more complex. Looking back at its first iterations, you might not recognize it. It took centuries of cultural blend and development from multiple schools of practice to reach what we know today as karate.
Karate originated in East Asia around 527 AD. The Buddhist monk Bodhidharma (now called Daruma in Japan) observed that Shaolin monks in China did not have the physical strength to meditate for long periods.
He taught them exercises to strengthen them mentally and physically, which spread throughout China and to Okinawa and the other Ryukyu Islands which would one day be part of Japan.
The style most people are familiar with is Okinawan karate, which was first utilized by the people of the Ryukyu Islands in the seventeenth century when Japanese imperial forces invaded the kingdom. Only samurai were permitted to carry swords, so Okinawans trained in bare-handed combat instead, blending local styles and Chinese teachings.
After Japan assimilated the Ryukyu Islands into itself, the practice was popularized throughout the nation. In the next few centuries, karate clubs and dojos began to spring up around Japan, not to build military might but to improve practitioners’ bodies and minds through training.
Can You Be a Martial Artist Without Martial Art?
Some argue that while karate itself may not be a martial art, its practitioners are still martial artists. While martial arts as a concept has combat and military origins, martial artists themselves are defined not by how many opponents they beat but by their lifelong dedication to growth through the discipline they practice.
Your conclusions will depend on what we discussed earlier: your definition of what qualifies as a martial art. However, before you make up your mind, consider also that there is another category that karate may fit into better: sports.
Is Karate a Sport?
Considering everything we have learned, we can also say that karate fits the definition of a sport better than it does the definition of martial art.
A sport is generally defined as a competitive athletic activity that focuses on skill or physical prowess, performed independently or as part of a team.
Karate is a demonstration of athletic skill, flawless technique, and the beauty of the art. In competition, practitioners are judged not on how fast or how brutally they take down their opponent but on how well they perform the moves themselves. Like many other sports, it is also a show of cultural pride.
As stated by Miguel Da Luz, an official at the Okinawa Karate Information Center, “Okinawan karate has never been about beating your opponent or winning victory. It focuses on personal development and the improvement of character.
This reflects the personality of the Okinawan people. The island mentality has always been about being diplomatic rather than aggressive to resolve disputes.”
After decades of lobbying for its inclusion, the Olympic committee recognized karate as an official event. Karate debuted at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, split into Kumite (one-on-one matches won by acquiring points) and Kata (individual demonstrations of forms) competitions.
Even so, we are not saying that karate is inefficient for real combat. Karate techniques are essential to styles like mixed martial arts (MMA), especially powerful striking techniques such as the side kick and front kick.
Building on these essential basic moves can mean the difference between victory and defeat in a match. Because karate is already a blend of several different styles, you could say it’s the perfect discipline to train in if you want to succeed in MMA.
Now that you have learned more about the history and purposes of karate, you can understand better why it is more accurate to call karate a sport instead of martial art.
We hope that we’ve sparked your curiosity, too! There is so much more to learn about the complexity of karate and other disciplines around the world.