Karate Sports Gets Olympic Recognition After Centuries
Nippon Budokan in Tokyo is a respected budo, or Japanese martial arts, karate sports facility. A pedestrian walkway runs through the stone castle woodlands of Kitanomaru Park, a natural retreat initially created only steps away from some of the city’s busiest arteries. The Budokan, constructed for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, looms above the vegetation like a modernist pagoda: It was inspired by the Hall of Dreams, one of Japan’s most historic and famous Buddhist temples, and its octagonal roof, whose form is meant to resemble Mount Fuji, is capped with a golden onion-shaped kibosh, a traditional adornment thought to ward off evil spirits. However, the peacefulness of a pre-Covid visit vanishes the instant you approach the gates during a karate match. Dressed in white uniforms and colored belts, the cavernous arena echoes with the roar of 10,000 spectators cheering on six competitors as they spar simultaneously in three courts beneath enormous video screens, their dancelike steps mixed with the regular kicking, punching, and chopping.
is slated to make its Olympic debut this summer in this arena. Compete in two kata, or ritualized solo exercises, and six kumite, or sparring, which is more recognizable to international spectators. Although karate is not on the agenda for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, this is still a noteworthy milestone for the sport’s estimated 100 million worldwide practitioners. And it’s a nice touch that karate made its debut in the Tokyo Games, in the same venue where the first World Karate sports Championship was held in 1970.
However, it is also a chance to study the martial art’s fascinating historical intricacies. Though many people outside of Japan consider karate a sport, the uniforms and the hierarchy of expertise denoted by colored belts were developed in the 1920s. Only 86 years ago, Japan officially recognized karate as a combat art. And it was founded on the islands of Okinawa, a long-independent kingdom whose culture was significantly impacted by China but still retains its own identity today.
In reality, karate sports’ lack of widespread appeal in Japan enabled it to thrive after WWII, avoiding the demilitarization program implemented by the Allied occupying forces that had crushed other old fighting disciplines.
Karate’s long journey to international stardom is thought to have arrived in Okinawa, a ring of subtropical islands ringed by white sand beaches. The Ryukyu Kingdom was established shortly after, with its language, attire, food, and religious traditions. Even after 1609, when samurai from Japan converted Ryukyu into a puppet kingdom, its close cultural links to the mainland were preserved. Okinawans were barred from carrying swords. Therefore underground organizations of young male nobles formed to improve unarmed fighting as a hidden resistance, merging local and Chinese methods and, according to local tradition, sometimes employing agricultural items like scythes and staffs as weapons. (There are still variations in karate, such as the rice flail becoming the nunchaku or nunchucks.)
This hybrid martial technique became known as karate sports, meaning “Chinese hand.” There were no uniforms or colored belts, no ranking system, and no standard style or curriculum. The training emphasized self-discipline. Even though karate might be dangerous, instructors stressed restraint and avoiding conflict. This peaceful approach was ultimately formalized as the “no first strike” doctrine.
“Okinawan karate sports has never been about defeating your opponent or earning the victory,” Miguel Da Luz, a representative of the Okinawa Karate sports Information Center, launched in 2017 to highlight the art’s indigenous roots. “It focuses on personal growth and character enhancement. This represents the Okinawan people’s personalities. To settle problems, the island mindset has traditionally been polite rather than combative.”
Any illusions of Okinawa’s independence were dashed during the catastrophic change that followed 1868 when Japan embarked on a fast industrialization drive that resulted in creating a modern army and navy. Tokyo abolished the previous kingdom of Ryukyu in 1879 and set out to effectively conquer the archipelago, suppressing its customs and imposing Japanese culture via schools and conscription. Most Okinawan karate sports masters accepted the inevitable and promoted their martial art, incorporating it into the island school system and volunteering for military service.
Initially, the alien style made only little gains in xenophobic Japan. Doctors screening Okinawan applicants for military duty discovered that karate practitioners were in significantly superior physical condition, and reports started circulating on the mainland in the early 1900s. Choki Motobu, an Okinawan karate teacher of royal ancestry, became a celebrity in Osaka after seeing an exhibition match between a European boxer and Japanese judo masters. He grew so enraged by the boxer’s triumphs that he stormed the ring and challenged the foreigner, Crown Prince Hirohito, the future Emperor of Japan, who visited Okinawa in 1921 and was fascinated with a high school karate display in the historic Shurijo Castle.
The Japanese Ministry of Education asked an Okinawan master, Gichin Funakoshi, to perform karate sports at a Tokyo show the following year. Funakoshi, a quiet, middle-aged schoolteacher, poet, and Confucian classics student with a penchant for calligraphy was an unusual convert. However, his performance delighted Japanese government officials and judo gurus, and he chose to remain on the mainland to teach karate sports. He struggled at first, living hand-to-mouth for many years and working as a janitor. According to one source, most Japanese viewed karate sports with contempt and distrust as “a heathen and barbarian art.” On the other hand, Funakoshi started recruiting university students and white-collar office professionals, who were more open-minded and receptive and gained adherents. Dai Nippon Butoku Kai, the budo organization that supervised ancient Japanese martial arts such as sumo wrestling and kendo (a sort of samurai-style fencing with bamboo sticks), officially approved karate in 1935.
However, the triumph altered karate forever. The 1930s’ ultranationalistic atmosphere permeated many sectors of culture. To make the imported method more recognizable and appealing, Funakoshi and his disciples embraced judo trappings like training clothes, colored belts, and ranks. As tensions between Asia’s two major empires rose and the threat of full-fledged war loomed, its Chinese roots were especially dubious. The written sign for karate in Japanese was changed to a homophone—a word pronounced similarly but with a distinct meaning—in 1933. Karate was renamed “empty hand” instead of “Chinese hand.” “It’s a remarkable example of what historians refer to as ‘manufactured tradition,'” Frost adds. “Many features we consider vital to karate were introduced just a century ago.” Nonetheless, he claims karate sports remains one of Japan’s lesser-known martial arts. It retained a slight fragrance of the foreign, even a little thuggish air, according to classical purists.
This outsider position proved the key to karate’s following phase as a runaway worldwide success after WWII. During the Allied conquest of Japan in 1945, one of Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s first moves was to ban military instruction and exercises, essentially shutting down all martial arts—except karate. “Budo was viewed as the wellspring of the Japanese military and warrior mentality,” explains Ral Sánchez-Garca, a social sciences professor at Madrid’s Polytechnic University and author of The Historical Sociology of Japanese Martial Arts. The practice had been used to instill in the armed forces the ancient samurai values of blind loyalty, self-sacrifice, and total refusal to surrender, forming the ideological basis of wartime banzai charges, kamikaze attacks, and seppuku, ritual suicides, as well as Japanese officers’ contempt for prisoners of war. “However, karate was considered a peripheral, new arrival, more akin to calisthenics and unrelated to the samurai culture,” Sánchez-Garca explains.
Consequently, it was the only publicly performed martial art from 1945 to 1948, when tens of thousands of American G.I.s were exposed to it while protecting the tranquil Japanese people. “Karate was a real interest for the American military,” Sánchez-Garca observes. “It was studied and taught on military bases in the United States.” The most significant shift was the promotion of competitions to make karate resemble a “democratic” karate sports in the Western sense, with victors and losers.
Karate sports has grown into a multibillion-dollar global business, with dojos in shopping malls from Sydney to Paris and a thriving market for equipment and lessons. Its popularity shows no signs of abating. Some experts believe it has met a profound current need in the United States. The exotic tales, ritual performances, and physical self-discipline inherent in martial arts training, according to anthropologist John J. Donohue, may help establish a feeling of purpose and the illusion of control in a contemporary world that may frequently seem hostile and spinning out of control. Mark Tomé, owner of Evolutionary Martial Arts in central Manhattan, sees a more significant appeal. “A substantial portion of the American populace admires Eastern philosophy, religion, and culture in all forms—from meditation to yoga to Japanese manga comics and anime flicks,” he adds. “Karate sports helps individuals feel unique, as though they stand out.” Sports update.
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