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Zach_MB's picture
Karate, not a martial art?

Hear me out on this. We had a discussion the other day in class that brought up an interesting point about what makes a martial art. Historically a martial art is a system of fighting designed to be used on a battlefield. An excellent example being Aikido as it is the open hand variation of Japanese sword work. Karate on the other hand was originally designed as civilian defense against trained soldiers. Based on this definition, Karate is not martial art.

So what is then? These are just initial thoughts, I haven't thought critically on this as much as I'd like to, but I'm curious to see what others have to say. My current thought is that Karate is simply a "Counter Martial Art", drawing from the aforementioned background. But an instructor of mine like to think of Karate as a "Combative System", which seems to separate much of the inward reflection that comes with immersion training in "true" martial arts, when compared to inwards arts such as Aikido.

So what do you guys think? Has the definition of martial arts changed to a degree by which it can now include Karate? Has karate changed to adapt qualities of a "true" martial art?

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Zach_MB wrote:
So what do you guys think? Has the definition of martial arts changed to a degree by which it can now include Karate? Has karate changed to adapt qualities of a "true" martial art?

“Martial Art” is one of those phrases that has both a both an everyday usage and stricter definition. In everyday speech I think it would be fine to refer to karate as a “martial art”, but if we are being strict with out terminology then karate is most definitely not a martial art.

The word “martial” comes from the roman god of war “mars”; hence “martial” means “war like” or “relating to war”. Karate is a civilian system and was never intended for use on a battlefield or in war.

As Motobu said, “The techniques of kata were never developed to be used against a professional fighter, in an arena or on a battlefield. They were, however, most effective against someone who has no idea of the strategy being used to counter their aggressive behaviour.” Itosu also said, “[Karate] is a method of avoiding injury should one, by chance, be confronted by a villain or ruffian.”

Karate is a civilian self-protection system; not a military system. Being strict with terms, it would therefore be wrong to label karate as being “martial” in nature.

Not wishing to move too far from the main topic of this thread, but the “art” bit also deserves a brief mention. I think whether that “art” part is an accurate label or not depends upon whether personal development and challenge are included in the goals of training.

Bottom line though is that I would say karate was originally a “civilian self-protection system” and not a “martial system”. Very big differences between the two:

Civilian self-protection system: Emphasis on escaping danger, designed to address civilian violence, emphasis on the lone individual, etc.

Martial system: Emphasis on killing enemy, designed to address battlefield situations, emphasis on the role within the team, etc.

As I say, I’d be happy to label karate a “martial art” in everyday speech, but when being strict and when communicating with other practitioners, I’d say karate was not a martial art.

All the best,


MrWintersho's picture

Dear Iain,

reading your post made me think about origin of any so called martial art. I agree to make a difference between civilian threat and active military combat. In nature conflicted with a threat you take the role of defender, in war you are educated to act, so you take the role of aggressor. I am fine with this, but following this argumentation than systems like Kung-Fu, wing-tsun, Judo, Aikido and so on don´t fit the definition of MA., infact, in my opinion every weaponless style would not fit into. (I know, that their are Lots of forms using differnet weapons in Kung-Fu).

So now, what is the purpose of martial arts? It is , in the civilian way, to overtake an enemy, if there is no other chance to get off using principles whitch are the same if you would try to aggress him. It is the intention which makes the difference, not the word. To the attribute "art" I just want to say, that in this case it reffers to ability and knowledge, what to do in certain cases, not an expression of a philosophy. Infact, philosophy directs your intention

With this it is up to us, whether we gain something calling us a martial artist or a big defender. Same question as fighter or warrior for me. We have to choose our philosophy to use (or better not to use) the knowledge we gained by education and studying effective moves and techniques.

With respect to all of you



Leigh Simms
Leigh Simms's picture

Hi All,

Whilst I agree with all what has been said by the thread starter and Iain, I think comes down to language. How and what we mean by "Martial Arts".  I label my karate as a mix of "Self-Protection, Combat & Martial Art". Iains distinction between Self-Protection System and Martial Art is an necessary one because it re-enforces what karate was originally intended for (and what it is not for).

I do think that Funakoshi brought a lot of the philosophy of Kendo (A Martial Art) and this had an influence in karate, I think too much of an influence as it overtook the original self-protection goal. So I use the term "Martial Art" to encompass all the discipline, ettiquete, uniforms, bowing, aiming for perfection etc... Thats not to say that a selfprotection system cannot have these, its just that I class that as the "art" side fo the system. Maybe labelling it as "Art" would be better, but it is just easier to call it Martial Art as it has a meaning of its own nowadays.

Gary Chamberlain
Gary Chamberlain's picture

I don't teach karate as a martial art, or as a self-defence system.  I teach it as a combat sport.

Now before anyone recoils in horror at my 'selling out' the principles of some long dead master, or points out that someone lived for thirty years under a waterfall doing pinan ni and eating leaves until he was unbeatable etc etc, I'll just make some brief explanations.

First:  'Combat athletes' focus and drill what does the job as efficiently as possible.  If they don't prepare properly for a full contact event, they can't win decisively and it gets painful very quickly.

Second:  I've seen kids in karate classes being taught how to stomp faces and soccer kick heads in the name of teaching an all inclusive system.  While it would be stupid to criticise the effectiveness of such methods I just don't feel right teaching them.  I'm too nice.  They're not in the combat sport rules so I can side-step that stuff.

Third:  Successful combat athletes have discipline and self-control.  They have to build that alongside their physical prowess or they get disqualified and lose to less capable but sensible people. 

I expect many will think I've lost the plot but in view of the above I'm happy to call what I teach a combat sport.  It's not easier than traditional training, far from it, as many a traditionalist or tough guy has found out when they've entered a knockdown tournament or sabaki challenge.  Combat athletes require skill, fitness and fighting spirit, coupled with thinking correctly under pressure and self-control. 

I'd like to think those attributes are useful for life in general, even if they're not Budo or civilian self-defence. 


miket's picture

To me, several points  bear here:

1)  any typical 'martial art' as it is referred to in popular lexicon (be it karate, judo, aikido, boxing or whatever), is in fact a 'system' as it is typically no more than 'an organized body of ideas about how to approach the subject of human interpersonal combat'.   As a system, it is first and foremost inanimate, i.e. it requires a 'practitioner' to actualize its potential (read 'use its knowledge in an effective manner').

2)  All systems, regardless of origin, legacy, heritage, inheritance, profligation, or what not, are instructor specific.   What I mean is:  they are only EVER experienced by a person we'll call 'the student' at the level of the person doing the teaching.  What I mean here is:  You can see Anderson Silva make something called "MMA" work for him on TV, and yet, when you go to study something called "MMA" (/ karate / judo/ etc.) at your neighborhood garage, you might get something else entirely.  MMA is a good example, actually, because it is 'mixed'.  So the point here is, you might get a differnet 'mix' than the one Silva uses to such great effectiveness in the cage.  And, in reality, that mix is instructor specific. 

3) As an inanimate system, a 'martial art' exists primarily for one purpose:  to take a person from Point A (which we might call 'unskilled in the art') to Point B (which we might call 'skilled in the art').  This is the entire purpose and 'reason for being' of the system.

4)  Finally, as a body of ideas which require a practitioner to 'actualize' them, there can be no effective or inneffective systems.  (I know this isn't exactly to the point of the question, this is more to wrap up the conclusion logically...).  So, there are no better/ worse, effective / inneffectvie,  supreme / subordinate individual ARTS, only indivual COMBATANTS.

So, based on all of the above, we might define a typical "martial art" as:  'an instructor-specific, practictioner-centric inanimate body of ideas about approaching human interpersonal combat'.

That's it.

Kick like 'this' because we say its 'correct' based on this and that and the other thing.  Punch like 'that' because of X, Y and Z. 

Some of these ideas are intuitively, experientially, or otheriwse verifiable as a result of effective training.  Others are not.

And, as such, now I will answer the question you posed:  Is karate a martial art/ counter martial art, etc.  And my answer would be that:  "karate" is not homogenous.  So, while a person can make a few occassionally useful generalization, you can never really 'define' it beyond the level of the indiividual instance of the instructor-student pairing.

'Some' out there teach karate as combative sport, self-improvement, self-defense (all of which are defined specifically at different levels).  Some mix in BJJ and then 'find' it in their katas.  Some teach point fighting as "self-defense".  Others teach "self-defense" as military CQB. 

Some of these applications of this body of ideas may be more or less "effective" for specific purposes.  The poin t is:  There are no absolutes.

The pertinent questions then become:  a)  why am I training and what do I want out of the experience and b) what does this instructor offer, vis a vis those goals? 

Everything else is relative.

Bruce Lee was right:    Paraphrasing, 'It doesn't matter what you call it'.

It s not that its a bad question.  Its just that all answers are relative; at least IMO.  That's my 2c anyway.

shoshinkanuk's picture

Some interesting points given - when people ask me what I do I say martial arts, when they ask what type I say karate.

No one has ever asked me to define it more than that (with the exceptions of 'are you a blackbelt' and 'do you do competitions').

However I do explain, as we train a classical line of Okinawan karate, and we are considered 'different' in how, and why we train than from the majority of karate. Most people (even martial artists) then look blank at me and clearly think im insane.

So I stick with karate is a martial art, as 99% of the public would call it that.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

As is often the case in many discussions here, semantics / differing definitions tend to play a part i.e. “kata” “kumite” “sparring” “karate” etc, etc all mean differing things to differing people. It should therefore be no surprise that the term “martial arts” has differing interpretations too. It’s seems that everyone agrees that in everyday speech it would be fine to refer to karate as a “martial art”. However we have differing views on whether that term is still actuate when subjected to more detailed scrutiny.

I wonder if “martial art” could be seen to have both a common usage and a more specific one within the martial arts community? If so, it would be like the common usage and the scientific usage of the word “theory”. In common usage “theory” means an unsupported bit of thinking (i.e. “it’s only a theory”); whereas in scientific terms it means something that fits with all the available data / evidence and has been subjected to rigorous testing (i.e. “the theory of gravity”). Same term, but very different definitions depending on who is using the term.

Could “martial arts” be seen in a similar way and have differing definitions to the martial artist and the general public?

All the best,


Gavin Mulholland
Gavin Mulholland's picture

I think the actual meaning has probably changed over time. It's rarely used to describe a martial art like fencing for example, but often used to describe a sport like judo.

Personally, I do see karate as a martial art as the root of the term is, as Iain said, Mars, the God of war. For me Martial arts refer more to 'warrior' arts, than real arts of 'war' - so more single combat than say, sniping or tank strategies.

As karate was developed as a fighting system - albeit civilian - to my mind that counts as I'm not sure who you are training to fight is overly relevant.

Black Tiger
Black Tiger's picture

Some excellent posts here, a lot of issues already covered and I agree with most of what is said

I describe Karate as a Asian Fighting System, "Empty Hand" and that's it!

Martial Art is just what has become the label for all the Ryu, Ab bit like "OSU" being used by KnockDown KarateKa and most not know why they just do to be accepted by the rest of the group!

miket's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
It seems that everyone agrees that in everyday speech it would be fine to refer to karate as a “martial art”. However we have differing views on whether that term is still actuate when subjected to more detailed scrutiny.

I wonder if “martial art” could be seen to have both a common usage and a more specific one within the martial arts community?

I agree Iain. There is no getting around the popular lexical use of the terms "the martial arts" to refer to the generalized summary of 'combatives training'; or of "martial arts [like]" or "a martial art" to refer to individual styles.

Personally in recent years, I have tended to adopt a definition for martial Art (singular, and capped for emphasis) that Bruce Lee set down, as in 'something personal that one makes'.  So to me, as noted above, upon analysis, and upon an attempt at specificity of terminology (precisely because terms tend to be so convoluted), what is typically referred to as a "style" of fighting is more correctly, to my read, labeled an inanimate 'combative system'. 

"Style" then becomes the custom tailoring of an individual combative system to fit a specific practitioner, the same way it is typically used to refer to a 'personal' style of dressing or speech, for example.  So your 'style' and my 'style' might be different, even though we are members of the same school, and have the same instructor:  you prefer to kick from the outside, I prefer to run in and clinch, etc. even though we are both 'using' karate.

"Martial Art" then becomes the highest expression of [Shu Ha] "Ri"--   the creative expression of SELF mastery using the combative system as the physical MEDIA [medium?] for communication.  So 'art' is personal the same way that 'your' method of painting or playing the guitar and the subsequent 'art' it produces might be different than my own.  The 'artistic' goal of practice, I believe, being for combatives study to 'liberate' the individual's creativity, not force them into a systemic peg-hole.

Then by contrast, "Martial Science" becomes, I beleive, a more effective term to identify the empirical study of pragmatic human interpersonal combatives as a whole, e.g. what Drager called "Hoplology".

So I agree, the terms tend to mean one thing in popular culture, but a more specific use is generally called for when attempting to describe what one means.  And no, I am not saying that such definitions should be 'universal', nor am I attempting to buck the trend of popular cultural usage; what I am saying is that it is beholden on people making an argument  or attempting to discuss a topic to clearly identify how they are approaching terms for clarity's sake all around.  The above construct is simply what I have settled on after some years.

Greg's picture

Hi all,

was truly fascinated when I began to read this forum topic and though I would add my two cents. As westerners, I think we have the culture of putting things into very particular boxes an labeling things.

A great example of this is the strangle in Judo. The Japanese are more than happy to simply refer to them as “Shime-Waza” which encompasses all kinds of neck compressing techniques. However, us westerners are more than happy to further break this down into strangles and chokes based on wether the technique compresses the airway (choke) or the carotid artery (strangle).

Have we simply done the same to fighting? Is not all fighting the same be it on the battlefield or a civilian setting? After all, the same objectives are usually being aimed for: to escape, or if escape is not possible, finish an opponent. 

If you are reading this and recoiling at the prospect of escaping being an option for a modern or ancient warrior please allow me to clarify. If a combatant is fighting unarmed on an ancient or modern battlefield, then something has gone horribly wrong. In such a case, to fight unarmed would be done so a means to simply survive and retreat (just as a civilian would do so on say the street) or to gain purchase of a weapon. In such a battlefield scenario, no soldier would choose to fight empty handed, and if they were to find themselves in such a scenario would only do so for as minimal a time as possible. 

What is more, is there really a difference between military based unarmed combat techniques and karate based “civilian” ones? To hear such a concept would very easily lead one to believe that there are a set of combative methods which are infinitely more effective than those of karate. However, I beg to differ on two account. 

To begin with, karate was fine tuned and developed by those whom specialized in the area of unarmed combat. As Okinawan’s were forbidden to carry weapons (ok with the exception of Kubodo) during the Japanese occupation, their area of speciality by default became unarmed combat. Samurai, on the other hand would have primarily been trained in the art of the Katana, Naginata, Yari, Yumi etc. This is not to say that the Samurai did not have training in unarmed combat, but rather that their focus was on the armed as this is what they were most likely to use.

In relation to that, there area of unarmed combat which they chose to train in was mainly grappling based systems. It is far more simple to dislocate a fully armored Samurai’s should than it is to hit him in his very well protected jaw!

Secondly, the reason why I believe that there is no difference between military and civilian forms of self-protection in relation to effectiveness would be the simple question of where are these techniques? If there was a method of unarmed combat so lethal and effective then would it not be taught to our nations forces? 

Well, on the one hand you could argue that militaries today simply do not spare the time for their troops in the dojo that could be used honing their skills on the rifle range. However, one clear example where this is not the case is the MCMAP program. MCMAP (marine corp martial arts program) is a course set to instill and develop unarmed combat techniques to US marines. They have the time, resources and manpower to train large bodies of soldiers in whatever system which they would so choose. As such, they have compiled a set of techniques which are taught to marines to allow them to be anything from lethal in response to less lethal. There is even a belt system which accompanies it much the same as in traditional martial arts. 

However, despite all of this there are not techniques within the system which appear to be unknown or not seen in other martial arts. The point I am trying to get across is that if there were a set of extremely lethal ancient battlefield techniques which date back to the Samurai then they would be seen in this system. However, they simply do not.

Am begging to think that I may have gone around in circles a little so will take this as hint to conclude.

In short what I am trying to get to is that as westerners we should just brand any form of unarmed combat as a martial art regardless of where it is intended to be used. It is all designed to achieve the same goal, to protect ourselves while doing damage to those whom would injure us. In relation to the differences in the way that the Samurai fought unarmed and the way that civilians did, it is not a matter of which is deadlier but rather honing a particular set of methods (style?) which is most practical for the situation. Samurai would focus on grappling as it was more effective (when fighting in armor) than striking, for example. 

If any of that is unclear (as I feel it may be) please do not hesitate to question it and I will do my best to clarify. Likewise to my Japanese history.

Many Thanks,


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Greg wrote:
In short what I am trying to get to is that as westerners we should just brand any form of unarmed combat as a martial art regardless of where it is intended to be used. It is all designed to achieve the same goal, to protect ourselves while doing damage to those whom would injure us.

I’d agree that it is OK, in general terms, to use the phrase “martial arts” as a cover all term. I’d also agree that all systems – regardless of origin and intent – will have methods of doing damage and methods of protecting ourselves. It’s the “all designed to achieve the same goal” part that I’d disagree with.

The tactics used in one environment can be disastrous in another and it’s vital to clearly define what the objective is. Is it to kill the enemy? Is it to capture a give person? Is it is protect others? It is to restore order? Is it to escape unharmed? And so on.

A police officer, for example, will have techniques and tactics that allow them to work as part of a team to restrain violent individuals. Those techniques and tactics are highly effective in achieving that specific goal. They would be entirely inappropriate / extremely ineffective for a civilian in a self-defence situation who is not working as part of team and who should be seeking to escape rather than stay and restrain.

What is “effective” and “ineffective” can never be divorced from context. Because we have differing goals, we have different ways of best achieving those goals. What is most effective always depends on the goal and there is no universal “one size fits all” approach that would apply to all contexts.

When we have a clearly defined goal, we can clearly define the best ways of achieving that goal. If we are not focused on the goal, then the actual training itself is also sure to unfocused.

I think the general label “martial arts” for all things is OK, but it could be a problem if the goal of training (or a given part of training) gets obscured / blurred as a result. It’s for this reason that I like to mark the distinction between “martial” and “civilian” (and other aspects too) as I think it helps us to remain goal focused. It’s may come across as a little “pedantic” to some, but I see lack of focus on the objective to be one of the biggest problems we face today and hence I tend to be pretty strict with it.

All the best,