Is Karate Japanese or Chinese? A Karate Origin Story

Is Karate Japanese or Chinese? A Karate Origin Story

Karate is an ancient martial art developed in East Asia many centuries ago. The roots of Karate stem from even older Chinese martial arts. However, the technique, the movement, and the discipline were refined so much, you can only see slight similarities between the old Chinese arts and Karate. So, is Karate Japanese or Chinese?

Karate is classified as Japanese martial art even though it has developed with roots in Chinese martial arts. Only some of the elements are similar but utilized very differently. Also, many new techniques were put into the mix, making a whole new art.

If you look at Karate today though, you will see that it has evolved in all sorts of different directions. Some of them created new styles and martial art teachings, while some are known as sub-categories of Karate. Let’s get deep into the history of this magnificent martial art and track it down up to the point where Karate is at today.

Origins of Karate

While the exact date of the start of Karate’s development is hard to determine, it is well known how and why it came to be. It all started in a Shaolin temple in China, where the monks practiced a specific set of exercises that included meditation and self-defense drills. After the temple was attacked and destroyed, the monks that survived spread across China and started teaching their art by opening schools.

At the same time in Okinawa, Japan, the Sho dynasty was ruling the land. Under the shogun Hanoshi, there was a law that forbidden everyone except his royal service to carry or possess a weapon of any sort. However, Okinawa was often a target of pillagers and other attacks, so the people had to find a way to defend themselves without weaponry.

Seeing that Shanghai, China was the closest place to go to and learn martial arts (almost twice as close as Nara and Kyoto, Japanese capitals at the time), many people did just that. There, they were able to learn the old Shaolin monk teaching that included meditation and defensive drills. 

Other schools were popular as well, and when returning to Okinawa, the people combined the elements they learned in China with new elements they invented to perfect their craft. They started teaching their peers a newly developed martial art they named Te, meaning “hand” in Japanese.

Early Development of (Kara)Te

As the Okinawans started teaching Te, several schools were opened, resulting in three main versions of Te: Naha-te, Shuri-te, and Tomari-te. Naha, Shuri, and Tomari are all the names of the places where the style developed. All thy styles had the base basics but used different techniques and movements.


Naha-Te is the style that resembles its root martial arts the most. It is a defense-oriented type of Te that uses a lot of circular movements and specific throws resembling the old Chinese martial arts. However, the movement has been refined to suit quick and simple finishing and incapacitation of the attacker. It was probably the most wide-spread style of Te at the time, with Naha being one of the biggest spots in Okinawa.


While using the same basis, Shuri-Te went in another direction when it comes to movement. This style is recognizable by replacing the circular movements of ancient Chinese martial arts with brisk, straight movements, and direct strikes instead of hooks and roundhouse. 

Also, the philosophy of Shuri-te is not to wait for an attack and work out of a defensive stance, but rather going into the offensive and work while moving forward. It was not rare to see Shuri-te practitioners use weapons such as nunchucks, tonfas, or kamas both in training and combat. This style was very effective for soldiers, especially in close combat.


The third style that developed slightly later than Naha-te and Shuri-te were Tomari-te. It was a bit less popular and less known and didn’t bring that many new things to the table. However, it combined the best of both Naha and Shuri styles to create a hybrid method, working both as an offensive strategy and a counter-attack measure.

After some time, the styles started to merge a bit up to the point where only two distinct styles remained. Shorin-Ryu is the first, stemming from Shuri and Tomari, and Shorei-Ryu, coming out of Naha.

The Beginning of Modern Karate

The beginning of modern Karate, as we know it today, started a couple of centuries later. Exactly, in 1905., when Te was included in schools and physical education programs in Okinawa. The soldiers from Okinawa learned Te as well. The story after that states that a military doctor was astounded when seeing how physically and mentally fit the Okinawa soldiers were.

He asked around to learn what the reason for their pristine conditioning was, and hear of a new martial art called Te. He brought the fact to the attention of his superiors, and the word got up to the top to the Japanese emperor himself. He called upon the Okinawa masters of the Te art to demonstrate their craft publicly in Japan.

It was the beginning of the 1920s when master Gichin Funakoshi held a presentation in Japan and introduced martial artist there with the new art. Shortly after that, he started working with dr. Jano Kano, the founder of Japanese judo, and they taught their art together, and it started to grow from there.

Funakoshi changed the name for Te to Karate in 1930., meaning “empty hand”. He wanted Karate to be a craft without weapons, and as peaceful as a martial art can be. His Karate is not designed to hurt the opponent, but to incapacitate him as quickly as possible, with as little damage as possible. Shortly after, the craft was introduced to Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union.

From that point, numerous styles and branches of Karate developed, combining it with other martial arts and even creating whole new techniques. Kenpo Karate, Kobudo, and many other arts turned up, making Karate one of the most diverse martial arts in history. However, we will continue to focus on the development only of Karate itself, not the branches and new styles that developed from it.

Three parts of Karate

There are three parts of Karate training each practitioner has to learn to master the art and become a Sensei. Those parts are Kihon, Kata, and Kumite. Each part is crucial for the development of the other, and they complete each other in various ways. Let’s get a bit deeper into each of the parts


Kihon roughly translates to “the basics” or “the basic technique”. That is ultimately what Kihon is for Karate. It is a set of all the basic techniques that you have to master as a Karate practitioner to progress further with your training. These basics include strikes, blocks, movements, and fundamental stances. They are taught individually and later translated into combinations and strategies.

To help you learn how to fluidly combine the singular elements into combinations, you learn Kata parallel to learning Kihon. There is no other way to learn Kihon to perfection than to repeat the techniques over and over again to gain the perfect stance, body form, and focus for every strike or block. You will improve your balance, strength, quickness, and concentration while practicing it.

The other part of Kihon is also the mental preparations and getting into the right mindset. Although it’s used in combat, Karate is a peaceful art. It avoids any unnecessary damage and teaches you to remain calm in the most difficult situations, which translates to your everyday life as well. That is why Karate is often known as not only a martial art but a way of life.


Kata is the spine of Karate. It puts Kihon into motion and teaches you how to combine each element with the other without losing balance, power, or speed. Also, it teaches you how to stay protected even when going into the offensive.

There are distinct principles and procedures that ought to be learned by every practitioner. There are 26 Kate in existence, getting more and more complex and layered. One should never underestimate the importance of Kata, because it will help you know how to react instinctively in certain situations, both for self-defense on the streets and in professional combat in sport Karate.


Finally, the last part of Karate is Kumite or battle. Kumite means “the meeting of hands”, again showing the peaceful nature of the art. The goal is to defend yourself from damage while avoiding injury to your opponent. You want to stay safe, but unlike many other martial arts, Karate is the complete opposite of aggressive. It can be seen within the techniques you learn in Karate.

There is a big difference between Kumite in competition, and Kumite learned for self-defense in the dojo. The majority of the moves and techniques in Karate that you learn are not allowed in competition, due to the unified ruleset. That doesn’t mean that Karate is not great for self-defense, but only if utilized properly, and with the right mindset along with physical condition and skill.

Institutionalizing Karate As A Sport

The institutionalizing of Karate as a recognized martial art and sport began in 1949. when the Japan Karate Association was born. Note that, at that time, Karate has spread across the globe already, and dojos were teaching its principles in multiple states. But, this was the first official National Association for Karate as a sport.

The rapid development of the art made the World Karate Federation (WKF) possible only 21 years after the JKA was founded. WKF is founded in 1970., and is still today the leading organization for sport Karate. The biggest honors are won in their tournaments. Also, the WKF united the rule sets and developed a system of regulations and scoring held in all the competitions in sport Karate in the world.

It was not recognized as an Olympic sport, but it will make its first appearance in the next Olympic Games. They were supposed to be held in Tokyo, Japan in 2020, but the Games were canceled and will probably be held in 2021. The location stays the same, though, which is perfect – to induct Karate into the Olympics in the native country where the art was developed.

Karate Today

When it comes to KArate as a sport and the main competitions that are being held in the sport, WKF leads the way as the main organization. There are strict rules that each fighter has to adhere to, especially in combat Karate. The competitions are held in semi-contact, meaning that full-contact strikes are not allowed. 

Therefore, the focus is more on technique and quickness. You don’t win by knocking down your opponent, but by scoring more points. Specific techniques are worth a specific amount of points, and you win if you take an 8 point lead in front of your opponent, or if you have more points scored before the time runs out. After each point scored, the fight is reset by the referee and restarted until the next point is scored, or until the referee is forced to stop the bout.

There is another type of WKF regulated competition, and that is the Kata category. The practitioner presents the techniques as perfectly as possible and is then graded by the referees in several different criteria categories.

As for Karate in dojos, you can learn an immense amount more than it is allowed to use in Karate combat competitions. There are many different styles of Karate being taught, but only four are considered as the main styles:  Goju-Ryu, Shotokan-Ryu, Wado-Ryu, and Shito-Ryu.


This style has been founded and developed in the 1930s and is based almost exclusively on defense and counter-striking. You learn how to parry and block incoming attacks in ways that open up the space for a counter. You use circular blocks that often resemble jujitsu, and the striking techniques vary from hard and brisk to soft and fluid, depending on the situation.


Often known simply as Shotokan, this was a style of Karate developed by its modern father, Gichin Funakoshi. There are 8 basic techniques in Shotokan, and everything else you learn is built upon those techniques. The stance is a bit wider here, and a lot less circular movement is used. You utilize quick, linear methods of attacking and moving. It is the most popular style in the world today.


The Wado-Ryu technique has been developed from Shotokan. However, instead of brisk, powerful strikes, it highlights the movements between the strikes as the most important part of the art. You learn more evasive techniques instead of blunt blocks, and the stance is more narrow when comparing it to other styles.


If there is a style of Karate known for power, it would be Shito-Ryu. The strikes that you mainly utilize are practiced to perfection to deliver the most power with the best possible accuracy. That is why the Shito-Ryu technique is very emphasized and not that easy to master. Even the slightest finesses can make a huge difference. 

Remember that we mentioned 26 Kate in Karate, well, Shito-Ryu teaches its practitioners 50 Kate, to perfect the complex techniques used. You will need to be very strong physically to make the most out of Shito-Ryu because the moves can be very demanding for the body.

Karate vs. Other Martial Arts

As we mentioned, Karate is a peaceful sport. The mindest is as important – if not more important – than the physical skill and toughness. That is why it is a martial art suitable for all ages, from children to older folk. To add to it, the competitions aren’t full contact, which is why many people suggest that it is an inferior martial art when matching it up with other arts as well.

However, that is simply not true, and there is a lot of evident examples that dispute those claims. Karate can be a very effective and dangerous craft if you wish to use it in full-contact free fighting. If you aren’t conditioned by rules to hold off on the power of your strikes, Karate techniques have been proven to match any other martial art out there.

Though not an ideal presentation, we can use the highest form of MMA as a nice example of what Karate can do when matched with other arts – and that is the UFC.

Successful UFC fighters using Karate

Although you cannot rely only on one martial art to be competitive in MMA, there are a lot of fighters that were primarily Karate practitioners that found success in the UFC.

Lyoto Machida is the fighter most famous for his Karate moves in the cage. He was the UFC light-weight champion and always relied on his Karate to dominate his opponents up on the feet. Robert Whittaker, one of the best middleweight MMA fighters ever also trained Karate for a long time, and he was also a champion for a long time. We have to mention Chuck Liddell too, who trained Karate and Kenpo Karate for a long time, and he was also a champion, considered one of the best of all time.

However, the best fighter in UFC welterweight history and possibly the greatest pound-for-pound fighter of all time is Georges St-Pierre. He is a Karate black belt and even though he used a lot of his wrestling to beat his opponents, he never lost his Karate stance on the feet that enabled him to move quicker and more fluidly, destroying his opponents from the first second.

There are many more Karate fighters that found success in the UFC, such as Stephen Thompson, Guy Mezger, or Bas Rutten. These examples show that Karate can be matched with other martial arts undoubtedly if given the freedom to utilize full contact and all the available techniques.

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has been training in the art of kickboxing for over seven years, holds a Taekwondo black belt, and has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. He's a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster.
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Vladimir Vladisavljevic

Vladimir Vladisavljevic has a master's degree in sports and physical education. He has been training in kickboxing for over seven years and holds a Taekwondo black belt. He's also a huge mixed martial arts fan. Vladimir is a big deal in Bulgaria as a mixed martial arts commentator, analyst, and podcaster. He was known as The Bulgarian Cowboy in the Western world. In addition, he has a YouTube channel where he talks about his love of esports, one of the fastest-growing fields in the world. Our testing and reviewing method.
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