Why Is It Inaccurate To Call Karate A Martial Art? (Historical Reasons)

Martial arts is popular all over the world, with lots of people taking up the different kinds and practicing their individual systems and traditions of combat.

On top of that, loads of people tune in to watch notable martial arts matches on the television, or go to the events in person and feel the heat up close.

Why Is It Inaccurate To Call Karate A Martial Art?

Karate is one of the most popular “martial arts”, though a lot of martial arts enthusiasts actually wouldn’t classify it as a martial art in itself.

Why do they think that term is inaccurate? What should it be called instead?

Well, we’ve got the answers for you! In our handy guide below, we’ll tell you all about the definition of a martial art and whether karate can fit into that parameter.

On top of that, we’ll look at what karate might more accurately be called. Read on!

What Defines A Martial Art?

To find out why it might be inaccurate to classify karate as a martial art, we need to know what a martial art actually is.

So, let’s have a look at defining it, and understanding what a combat system needs to have in order to come under the “martial arts” category.

When it comes to martial arts, there appear to be two schools of thoughts: violence and non-violence. 


For the latter, a lot of teachers of martial arts believe that their techniques should not be used to attack or hurt other people.

Instead, they feel that the martial arts techniques they use are to be employed as a way to protect yourself, allowing you to escape someone else’s attack. In this sense, martial arts are to be used as a method of self-defense. 

Similar to this idea, martial arts is often also taught as a system to help you improve yourself.

It’s a spiritually important thing to do, and practicing martial arts will help you improve your mind and personality. Training in it should help better you as a person in many ways.

For one, it will help to increase your understanding of the world around you, as well as building your confidence.

Practicing martial arts with instructors and classmates will help improve your social skills, allowing you to make friends and demonstrate respect to elders. 

On top of that, martial arts as a way to spiritualism will help you encourage you to seek peaceful resolutions to conflict, stemming away from violence, and instead demonstrating understanding and patience with others.

It will discipline you, making you show compassion and respect to your fellow men and women. In this way, martial arts is a spiritual power (see also ‘What Is The Most Powerful Martial Art?‘) rather than a physical one.

Combat And Violence

However, some people view martial arts as a mode of combat. It’s a way to overcome others with combat and power, rather than seek peaceful resolutions or save yourself with self-defense.

Part of the reason people think of it as a combat sport is because martial arts are often included in the training for the military, as well as in police programs.

Taekwondo and Muay Thai are regularly included in the training, as is karate – whether it’s a martial art or not. 

On top of this, many other combative sports are often called “martial arts”. Sports like sword fighting and stick fighting, as well as archery, are regularly referred to as martial arts rather than hand to hand combats.

This hasn’t helped the image of martial arts as something used for combat and violence rather than self-defense and self-improvement. 

Why Is It Inaccurate To Call Karate A Martial Art?

Is Karate A Martial Art?

With these two definitions of martial arts, we can now have a look at whether karate could be considered one, or whether it should be categorized as something else altogether. 

However, karate itself has evolved and changed a lot over the years, making its classification even more difficult to pin down.

Karate first originated around 527 AD in Asia, where a Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma (later referred to as “Daruma”) taught Shaolin monks a series of exercises in order to strengthen their minds as well as their physical power.

He did this because he had noticed that they did not have the physical strength to be able to meditate for long periods, which he thought necessary. 

His teachings gained popularity and then spread throughout China and beyond, eventually coming to be an important part of Japan.

The most common style of karate today is probably the Okinawan form, which originated from Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands back when karate was first spreading.

When Japan invaded Okinawa, only samurai could carry swords, so the Okinawans needed a different way to define themselves and their land. Japan took over, but the karate that the Okinawans had learned grew in popularity.

Is Karate A Sport?

Sports are often defined as competitive athletic activities, which train physical skill. In a way, this matches karate, which is also athletic and all about skill.

In karate competitions, people win based on their skill at performing the techniques, rather than their body count and violence.

Practicing karate is all about improving your character and your mind, rather than getting better at hitting and hurting people. Sports, too, is about developing yourself.

For decades, karate was not included as one of the Olympic Games’ sporting events. This might tell you that karate is not a sport, and instead a martial art, but this isn’t quite true.

In 2020, karate was finally added to the Olympics, suggesting its status as a sport. 

Final Thoughts

So, is karate a martial art? It depends on how you see martial arts really: are they for combat or are they for self-defense/self-improvement?

Karate is all about skill and self-improvement. As such, it’s probably better defined as a sport, which is always about those.

Christopher Anderson
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