Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

Does Karate Teach Grappling? (Karate Ground Fighting)

You are probably familiar with striking techniques in Karate, as every demonstration ever features students breaking boards with their punches and kicks. This may have left you wondering about the many styles of Karate, and if there was ever a grappling component to it. So in this post, I am going to answer the question: Is there grappling in Karate?

Yes, there are some forms of grappling in certain Karate styles. Ankō Itosu, an early influencer on karate, spoke of a style of grappling known as Torite, which is based on wrist and small joint manipulation. Another form of grappling close to Karate is known as Tegumi. Although Tegumi is not explicitly a part of Karate, it was practiced by Okinawan karate students as a form of ‘play-fighting’ with the goal of getting the opponent to the ground, similar to randori in Judo.

In the rest of this post, I will discuss the origins of both Torite and Tegumi, and how each relates to karate. I will also compare these grappling styles to similar but more well known martial arts such as Judo and Aikido.

What are Tegumi and Torite?

Tegumi, also known as Okinawan Wrestling, is a form of grappling developed in Okinawa around the same time as Karate. According to karate master Shōshin Nagamine, Tegumi was more than likely the original form of fighting on Okinawa, which later began to incorporate Chinese striking techniques, which later became known as karate.

Two Tegumi practitioners compete in Okinawa, in what is also known as Okinawan wrestling.
Two Tegumi practitioners compete in Okinawa, in what is also known as Okinawan wrestling.

In fact, the naming of ‘Karate’ in Japanese initially used the character for ‘Chinese’ (Kara), and the character for hand (te). The character for ‘Chinese’ was later replaced with the character for ’empty’, implying that Karate does not use weapons.

Anyways, Gichin Funakoshi (known by some as the Grandfather of Karate) described Tegumi in his book Karate-Do: My Way of Life. In the book, he stated that “Tegumi is, of course, a far simpler and primitive sport than karate. In fact, there are few rules… The bout begins, as sumo does, with the two opponents pushing against each other. Then, as it proceeds, grappling and throwing techniques are used”.

He also described how these grappling matches ended saying, “To stop the fight, all that any boy who felt he had had enough needed to do was pat his opponent’s body”. This is very similar to the type of grappling sessions we see today in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, where the submitted person ‘taps out’.

The origins of Torite are not well known, although we do know that it consists of wrist and joint manipulation. A very similar style of martial art would be Aikido, which also teaches various joint locks. Below you can see an image of Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating a joint lock.

Karate influencer Gichin Funakoshi demonstrates an armlock, a signature of Torite.
Karate influencer Gichin Funakoshi demonstrates an armlock, a signature of Torite.

Are Tuite and Tegumi Taught in Karate Schools?

Unfortunately, grappling has not been regularly taught by Karate schools since karate’s growth outside of Okinawa. This became especially true as Karate became known for its striking technique, which makes sense. It is known that at least some schools did include Judo-style throws in their curriculum.

For example, one of Gichin Funakoshi’s students, Shigeru Egami, wrote about the lack of grappling in karate in his book The Heart of Karate-do. In the book he states, “There are also throwing techniques in karate… Throwing techniques were practiced in my day, and I recommend that you reconsider them”.

However, there is evidence suggesting that some kata (forms) are meant to be used in grappling situations. A great example of this is the video linked below, where certain kata are demonstrated empty handed, and then shown again when used on an opponent.

This video demonstrates certain kata that translate into Judo-style throws.

Why the Okinawans Prefer Stand Up Fighting

When karate was being created in Okinawan Japan, it had a clear purpose. That purpose was to survive a violent confrontation.

It was clearly stated by Anko Itosu when he said, “[Karate] is not intended to be used against a single opponent but instead as a way of avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one by any chance be confronted by a villain”. Knowing the purpose of Karate is important, because it gives us an idea of why grappling was not commonly taught.

The reason grappling was not encouraged in karate is because it prolongs the confrontation. If the purpose of Karate is to escape from an attacker, then it doesn’t make sense to hold on to the attacker, which prevents your own escape.

The best way to escape is to strike the opponent so as to limit their movement, and then escape. This is backed up by the fact that Itosu himself said, “Enter, counter, withdraw is the rule for torite.

Martial Arts Similar to Torite/Tegumi

The following is a list of popular martial arts that are similar to Torite or Tegumi. This generally includes martial arts with any type of grappling or submission aspect to them. Quick note, I left wrestling off this list because when used in a fight, wrestling is usually used to maintain position and strike, versus submitting the opponent and escaping.

1. Aikido

A large part of Aikido consists of grappling techniques, especially because its purpose is to subdue an attacker without hurting them. Aikido teaches basic grabs on an opponent, from which the practicioner can execute various locks or throws.

2. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

BJJ is one of the most popular martial arts for grappling worldwide. Jiu-Jitsu is very similar to Tegumi, in that two practitioners can hone their skills by attempting to submit one another through various chokes and locks. Similarly to Tegumi, no strikes are allowed.

3. Judo

Judo is the martial art that is most like Tegumi. It is very similar to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and in fact, BJJ is based on Judo. Judo places more of an emphasis on throws than on submissions, but it teaches both in its curriculum. Randori is a type of sparring specific to Judo, in which two practitioners attempt to get the other to the ground with a throwing technique. This form of sparring (when combined with submissions) is almost identical to what Tegumi has been described as.

In conclusion, Karate does indeed have a history of grappling, albeit a very basic one. If your dojo teaches traditional grappling that was practiced in Okinawa, it can definitely help you in a close confrontation. However, if you wish to pose a real threat while grappling, it is best to practice a martial art focused on grappling, such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or wrestling.

But overall, Karate can provide you with all the skills you need to survive a clinch-style confrontation. Thanks for reading!