Karate has a rich and fantastic history, and has branched out into many different styles and genres. Karate is a specific type of martial art and not a style in and of itself. The word karate (or two words, if I’m being specific) is Japanese for “empty hand”, meaning that a practitioner is said to be studying karate do, and the practitioner is known as a karateka.
One important detail to discern is that there are two main branches of karate: Japanese and Okinawan. And although they are similar, there are some important discrepancies between the two. Here are some of the more important differences:
- We’re More Traditional: Okinawan karate uses karate as a way of life as opposed to a being interpreted as a sport. All the original systems of karate came out of Okinawa, and when they hit mainland Japan, the Japanese took these styles and began altering altering a number of things including the forms and techniques. Although highly effective, one of the things that Japanese karate changed was striking for points. And yes, Okinawans also compete in modern times, but it isn’t always so;
- We Use Weapons: Okinawa was a pretty brutal place way back in the day, and the use of weapons by the criminal element was pretty prominent. This meant that martial artists had to incorporate weapons into their training as well. After all, it’s hard to defend against a weapon unless you have one as well. For this reason, most practitioners of Okinawan karate also studied Okinawan Kobudo, which a style of weapons training. Although the use of weapons has diminished significantly over the decades, Japanese karate doesn’t use weapons at all;
- We Have More Natural Movements: Okinawans practice karate in ways that accentuate the natural movements of the body. Our stances are high and natural, our blocks use our opponent’s energy and we prefer to execute techniques at close range rather than from a distance. Japanese karate does very much the opposite, by focusing on low stances and approaching combat from farther distances from their opponents;
- We Don’t Yell Constantly: Although I will admit that there are kiai in Okinawan karate (a kiai is a single-syllable yell to focus energy during an attack), we practically never use them. Most Japanese karate styles use a form of kiai known as “osu”, which drives absolutely bat-shit crazy. Styles like Kyokushinkai use the term “osu” constantly and for everything. Osu did NOT originate in Okinawa and is widely misused in modern karate, especially in the western hemisphere; and
- We Focus On Our Students: Okinawan karate is particular, because the Sensei will spend one-on-one time with his or her students. Japanese karate, by contrast, teaches to large masses of students at once. This is why some Okinawan techniques are significantly more involved than their Japanese counterparts; because they are individually taught to the student, as opposed to a large group of students at once.
One last detail I’ll provide is that karate refers specifically to Japanese or Okinawan empty-hand styles of martial arts. If someone is teaching a Chinese or Korean style of martial arts, it rightfully shouldn’t be referred to as karate.
I’m not saying that Japanese karate isn’t as effective or as good as Okinawan karate, they’re just different. It’s like how a revolver and a pistol are both handguns, but their features, pros and cons are quite different from one another. Know the background and history of the art you’re looking to study, and make sure you choose the style that’s right for you. ☯