Karate: The journey, fight and connection to Japan

Karate 1-Premier League Tokyo Female Kata gold medalist Kiyou Shimizu
Karate 1-Premier League Tokyo Female Kata gold medalist Kiyou Shimizu

It was only half a century ago that the first international karate competition was held at the Nippon Budokan and, come August next year, the venue will once again be part of the sport’s history. 

“The Olympic Games was the aim and dream of the World Karate Federation, and the dream of the karate family,” said Tokyo 2020 Karate Services Manager Aina Kobinata. 

“The goal of one day being included in the Olympic Games is written in the statutes of the WKF.”

Tokyo 2020 Karate Services Manager Aina Kobinata
Tokyo 2020 Karate Services Manager Aina Kobinata

Karate has tried to be part of the last three Olympic Games and originally had missed out to wrestling to be included in Tokyo 2020. However, a ratification of the International Olympic Committees’ rules meant more sports to be included in the Olympic programme.

In August 2016, karate was one of five sports to be included at Tokyo 2020.

“We are extremely happy to be in the Olympic Games,” said Kobinata.

“It’s tough to explain with words but at least 100 million participants around the world are looking forward to watching karate on the Olympic stage.”

The birthplace of karate

Karate originated on the island of Okinawa during the Ryukyu Dynasty, where it was used by soldiers to fight and defend themselves as they were not permitted to use weapons. 

The sport was introduced to the Japanese mainland in the 1920s, before university students created competition rules in the 1950s in order to use the techniques they had learned. By the following decade karate had been introduced around the globe by Japanese instructors. 

Now, there are millions of karate practitioners in over 194 countries.  

Karate consists of kata — where athletes demonstrate one of the 102 recognised series of offensive and defensive movements — and kumite (sparring).

Karate 1-Premier League Tokyo Kata Male gold medallist Ryo Kiyuna.
Karate 1-Premier League Tokyo Kata Male gold medallist Ryo Kiyuna.

“In kumite, we have to control all techniques perfectly, which is a unique feature of karate, while kata movements are all pre-arranged and every single movement has a meaning,” said Kobinata. 

Karate has evolved as a sport since it first came to fruition in the mid-twentieth century but the sport still maintains its traditional principles. 

“I think karate is composed of tradition and innovation,” Kobinata said. 

“Tradition is the technique of fighting, which a lot of people practice every day, so even the karateka who don't compete love to train in the techniques in order to improve. 

“Innovation is the improvement we have made universally to be in the Olympic Games.”

The best to compete in Tokyo

Recently, the best karateka in the world gathered at Nippon Budokan for the highly anticipated Karate 1-Premier League, where over 600 competitors attempted to earn qualification points for Tokyo 2020. 

The final day of competition saw a sold-out crowd of 14,000 locals enjoying everything that karate had to offer. 

While many attending karate at the Olympic Games may be new to watching, Chairman of the WKF Referee Commission, Javier Escalante, has said efforts are being made to ensure all who come will understand what is happening. 

“We will do our best and will have people describing what is happening. This is the best way to teach the public,” he said 

“The scoreboards will also be animated, so they understand what we're doing.”

Two karateka battle it out during kumite
Two karateka battle it out during kumite
Xavier Servolle

The event itself will see the top karateka from across the globe vying to take home a coveted gold medal and write themselves into the history books.

“Spectators can watch the highest level of competition in Tokyo. I'm confident about this,” Kobinata said.

“You feel you should be excited during that competition, it's so quick and powerful. You feel that you can't stop watching.”