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The Olympic Debut Of Karate In Tokyo Is A Nod To Its 700-Year-Ago Origins

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The ancient martial art of karate made its debut at the Tokyo Summer Olympics this week. The sport was added as a nod to the country where it developed 700 years ago. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports from Tokyo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Vocalizing).

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: There are two types of karate at these Olympics - kata and kumite.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TSUGUO SAKAMOTO: (Speaking Japanese).

DEL BARCO: Sensei Sakamoto Tsuguo explains in a video for olympics.com that kata is performed solo with an imaginary rival. The hand and leg movements are slow and precise. But kumite is sparring, kicking and punching at an opponent.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Vocalizing).

DEL BARCO: The 72-year-old sensei runs a dojo, a karate academy, in Okinawa. That's where the martial art developed centuries ago. At the time, Okinawa was controlled by a clan that outlawed weapons, says Kenshin Iwata, who runs a dojo in a section of Tokyo known for ancient samurai warriors.

IWATA KENSHIN: Without weapons, they wanted to know how to fight against those bad samurais who tried to fight with the swords and other weapons. That was the current origin. In fact, karate is literally meaning empty hands - like, no weapons, just hands.

DEL BARCO: Iwata runs the International Karate-Do Kenshinkai. He says different forms of karate developed, including one that started with Okinawans using farm tools to fight. Later, they developed sticks and nunchucks.

IWATA: Karate is what we call the art of killing - so one fist, one blow.

DEL BARCO: Iwata demonstrates his technique.

IWATA: (Vocalizing).

DEL BARCO: He says karate masters have been very secretive about their styles, but one of his instructors moved to California and introduced karate to Hollywood. In fact, he was a stunt double in the 1984 movie "Karate Kid."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE KARATE KID")

PAT MORITA: (As Mr. Miyagi) Wax on, right hand; wax off, left hand.

IWATA: Hollywood movie is not actually karate karate. It's more like a stunt, right? So he arranged the karate techniques to show - kind of exaggerating expression to have those people who watched actual movies being more excited. You know, it's entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The new champion, Daniel.

WILLIAM ZABKA: (As Johnny Lawrence) You're all right, LaRusso.

DEL BARCO: Iwata says "Karate Kid" and the recent Netflix series "Cobra Kai" have helped make karate more popular around the world. But he says the real martial art of karate is about spirit training and discipline.

IWATA: You are not supposed to show off how strong you are. It's more like quiet and static. Real master of martial arts is more, like, mentally cool and always how you can control yourself whatever the situation is.

DEL BARCO: Iwata demonstrates again, bowing first before going through a series of movements and blows that come a half an inch from me.

IWATA: (Vocalizing).

DEL BARCO: The karate at the Olympics, he says, is more of a sports technique. He's encouraging his students to watch the games on TV as motivation. He notes that Europeans are now dominating in world competitions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).

DEL BARCO: As heard here on NBC, it was actually karate champs from France, Spain and Bulgaria who claimed the first ever Olympic gold medals this week. Karate will not be at the Paris Olympics in 2024, but some enthusiasts hope to see it back at the games in Los Angeles in 2028. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.