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Karate is probably one of the best known Japanese sports, largely due to the various movies which have centred both on the thinking behind it and the training and physical side. It was originally developed from a Chinese martial art which moved through Okinawa island into the southern tip of Japan. Each level of karate is marked by a different colour belt with the top level being the black belt and subsequent levels within the black belt divided into 'dans'.

Karate means 'empty hand' and, while advanced practitioners of this sport can split wood or even bricks with their bare hands, its emphasis is on mental strength rather than physical.

The history
Karate, originally known as Okinawa-te, developed around 400 years ago in the island Okinawa, located halfway between Japan and China. When King Shohashi united Okinawa, he also ordered the burning of all weapons to prevent armed uprisings and inadvertently led to the development of unarmed combat skills amongst the population. Two hundred years later, when Okinawa was again conquered, the ban on weapons was renewed. By the mid-1500s, the population had developed unarmed combat to the point where they could kill an armed warrior by striking at vital points on the warrior's body.

The early Okinawan fighting styles were named after the locations where they developed; naha-te also known as goju ryu (named after Naha), shuri-te or sho-rin ryu (named after Shuri), and tomari-te or isshin ryu (named after Tomari). These methods were heavily influenced by Okinawa's proximity to China where records show that the Shaolin Temple monks had been practising unarmed combat skills since the 7th century. This mix of styles in the 14th century led to the development of karate within the island. During the late 1800s, it became practiced throughout Japan and, after World War 1 spread to the rest of the world. There are now many and varied forms of karate in existence.

The mental training of karate
While karate seems to be a purely physical sport, the intention is one of self-improvement both in physical skills and mental strength through concentration and control. The intent is that these skills aid the individual in day to day life.

So while Western movies like Karate Kid have undoubtably glamorised and mystified the concept of karate, they have also served to make it more accessible to a huge audience who might otherwise never discover its strength.