For most people, karate is about as Japanese a sport as you can get — but it’s also an extremely global one. So perhaps it’s not so strange that karate’s premier tournament hasn’t been held in Japan since 1977. But all that is set to change this month, with the 19th World Karate Championships taking place at the home of Japanese martial arts, the Nippon Budokan, on Nov 13-15.
The tournament, to be held under the auspices of the World Karatedo Federation (WKF) and the Japan Karatedo Federation (JKF), comes as the sport’s governing bodies are lobbying hard to have karate become an Olympic event. Many believe there is a decent chance that it will be accepted for the 2016 Games (for which Tokyo is one of four candidate cities). In anticipation, China has instructed schools and universities to add karate to their curriculum.
But there are obstacles to overcome before an Olympic debut.
“One of the problems karate has is that it is difficult to understand the scoring,” explains JKF spokesman Shigeru Okada. “In taekwondo, for example, it’s easy to see — but in karate, it’s more difficult to figure out who got the points and why. And as for kata (form), there are no written rules for judging competitors.”
Karate competitions are divided between kata and kumite (sparring). The World Championships also have the following weight categories: 53 kg, 60 kg, over 60 kg and Open for women; 60 kg, 65 kg, 70 kg, 75 kg, 80 kg and Open for men. There are also team events. Scoring is on a point basis, awarded by five judges. Around 100 countries will be represented in at the Budokan, and there will be about 1,000 fighters in the competitions.
So, why so long between World Championships in Japan?
“I don’t really know,” Okada admits. “We hosted the first championships in 1970, but the organization wasn’t so good, and Japanese fighters completely dominated the medals. The Europeans weren’t too happy.”
In part, the decision to hold the championships in other countries reflects how widely popular the sport has become. Around 70,000 people are registered with the JKF in Japan. In contrast, France has around half a million people signed up.
In Europe, France, Italy, Spain and Turkey are strong, while Middle Eastern countries such as Iran have also made significant progress. The current men’s star, according to Okada, is Rafael Aghayev of Azerbaijan (a 70 kg fighter), while Tomoko Araga leads a strong Japan’s women’s team and is two-time defending champion in the 53 kg category. Although it can’t compare in profile to judo, karate remains extremely popular in Japan, and many foreigners come here to study — especially to Okinawa, the birthplace of the sport. Though professional fighting sports such as K-1 have raised the profile of martial arts, Okada points out that the traditional style of karate is officially “non-contact,” so those who prefer the bloodthirsty bouts of MMA may be in for a letdown.
This story originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).