Karate is not a martial art. Neither is judo, aikido and many other of the, uh, whatever-they-are arts. OK, fighting arts.
Strictly speaking, ‘martial’ is something that pertains to war. So martial arts are war arts.
In feudal Japan, martial arts would include systems using swords, spears, bows and arrows, even later guns and other weapons.
A samurai on the battlefield would not willingly give up his weapons. If he, through really bad luck, lost his long sword, short sword and knife, he might resort to last-ditch grappling. This is where some of the first ju jitsu moves came from.
Image a troop of empty-handed karate guys in the middle of a hairy battle. The general has sent them out to be slaughtered, because that’s what would happen. They would be sacrifices to draw the enemy out, so the real counterattack could be launched. Ridiculous, yes, but you get the point.
And forget those demonstrations you’ve seen where the karateka catches a sword stroke between his two palms and then subdues his attacker. This would never happen. An expert karateka facing a modestly talented samurai, using a super sharp sword, would be sliced to pieces. Running is the only skill the karate man could successfully employ. Even Okinawan kobudo weapons (bo, sai, etc.) wouldn’t stand a chance against samurai armaments. The Okinawan weapons came into use after their real weapons were outlawed. They were no one’s first choice for fighting.
Neither karate nor its companion art of kobudo are meant to face the weapons of the battlefield. They are civilian methods of self-defence. If you are attacked by a drunk hooligan in Naha or Toronto, karate provides a way to protect yourself—effective if you’ve practised hard. The older battlefield arts were considered bujutsu (martial science) and their later offspring fall under the category of budo (martial way). While the former were purely practical war arts, the budo mixes self-defence skills with rigorous personal discipline, meant to refine the body, mind and spirit.
The spirit, philosophy and techniques of battlefield arts inform the civilian self-defence methods. And I would argue that a fighting art that gets away from practical self-defence applications – to become some sort of body awareness or health exercise – is no longer a fighting art, and therefore not budo.
Some people feel that more modern fighting arts lack the effectiveness of the battlefield methods. In truth, the battlefield arts are irrelevant in an era of modern warfare, and it is the civilian methods of self-defence that become important. But the pursuit of self-refinement must be yoked to constant striving to make one’s technique really work. If this isn’t done, then karate becomes a partial art.