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The JAPAN Forward Guide to Karate in the 2020 Olympics

Karate is a graceful and disciplined fighting form derived from martial arts, and it is featured for the first time at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.



Karate is an Olympic sport at the Tokyo 2020 Games.



Many people who have been watching the Olympics on TV who are not familiar with the rules of sports like judo and karate, may find the rules, and the hand gestures of the referees hard to understand. With the addition of karate for the first time at this year’s Olympics, we decided it would be a good idea to explain the rules of the events before they begin. 

The rules adopted for the Olympics are based on the rules of competition kumite (fighting) and kata (forms) of the World Karate Federation (WKF). However, karate is currently only planned for this Olympics and will only feature individual events. There will be no team kumite or kata events. Karate will not feature in the next Olympics in Paris 2024, and it is unclear when it will be included again.


Kumite (Fighting)

Kumite involves two athletes fighting for an initial three minutes on a mat. There are separate categories for men and women with each category divided by weight class. The WKF weight divisions were changed for the Olympics by merging some of the divisions. 

The men’s weight divisions are Under 67 Kgs, Under 75 Kgs, and Over 75 Kgs. The women’s weight divisions are Under 55 Kgs, Under 61 Kgs, and Over 61 Kgs.

To distinguish the fighters, they wear either a red or blue belt with matching colored protective mitts and boots. Each bout can be a duration of three minutes. 

During the first round of the Olympics, a pool system will be used and match ties (hikiwake) will be accepted. However, once the competition moves on to the knockout rounds, a winner will be decided at the end of a three-minute match. Pool winners will go on to fight in the semi-finals. 

The winners of the semi-finals will compete for the Gold and Silver medals, while the losers of the semi-finals will both receive a Bronze medal. A victory is decided if an opponent scores an eight points advantage before their opponent within the three-minute time limit. If not, whoever has the most points when the three minutes expires is the winner. 

In the case of a draw, the winner that scored first in the bout will be declared the winner. This decision is called senshu


However, if neither opponent has scored any points, the judges will decide a winner by either raising their red or blue flag. The majority of red or blue raised flags will denote the winner, hantei.  

Points are scored by successful attacks or counter attacks of your opponent. 

(Credit: WKF Referee Guide)

Yuko: One point

This is awarded for a successful punch or strike to the head or neck, or to the front, side or back of the torso. 

(Credit: WKF Referee Guide)

Waza-ari: Two points

This is awarded for a successful kick to the front, side or back of the torso. 

(Credit: WKF Referee Guide)

Ippon: Three points

This is awarded for a successful kick to the head or neck, or for the combination of a sweeping technique followed by a successful secondary technique to the downed opponent.  

Referee Warnings

All techniques must be controlled. Warnings, removal of points and/or disqualifications will be given in the case of strikes below the belt, excessive contact, or leaving the competition area (jogai). 

Excessive contact warning
(Credit: WKF Referee Guide)

Additionally, non-engagement, feigning or exaggerating injury, or breaches in etiquette (including discourteous behavior towards a referee) will receive warnings in relation to their seriousness. 

Keikoku warning
Jogai warning

(Cedit: WKF Referee Guide)

There are three levels of warning before a final disqualification. However, depending on the seriousness of the offense it is possible to skip the initial warnings.

  • Chukoku: First Level Warning ー This warning is given for a minor or first offense.
  • Keikoku: Second Level Warning ー This warning is given for a second, or more serious offense.
  • Hansoku-chui: Warning of Pending Disqualification ー This warning is given for a third offense, or a first serious offense.
  • Hansoku: Disqualification ー With this declaration, the offender forfeits the bout.

The first ever Olympic karate kumite competitions will be held on Thursday, August 5 through to Saturday, August 7.


Kata (Forms)

The kata section is also separate categories for men and women with one competition for each sex regardless of weight.  

The purpose of kata is to perform a series of predetermined moves (a form) that originates from one of the designated styles of karate that are recognized for the Olympics. These styles are:

  • Shotokan,
  • Wado-Ryu,
  • Goju-Ryu, and 
  • Shito-Ryu

This is a sequence of techniques devised to cultivate the mind and technique through facing multiple virtual opponents. There are 102 WKF approved kata from which the competitors can choose from.

The competitors will be divided into two pools. In the initial round they will be asked to perform two kata and the winners will be decided by the highest average scores. For the next round, secondary pools will be formed. 

The winners of each pool will compete for the Gold and Silver medals. The competitors that ranked 2nd and 3rd respectively in each pool will compete against each other for a Bronze medal. 


Competitors are judged upon the level of difficulty of the kata, the overall consistency of the correct use of technique, and the correct level of spirit and intensity (their interpretation) for the different sections of their chosen form.

Competitors wear red or blue belts and perform their kata in front of a panel of judges. The same kata cannot be performed twice by the same competitor. The winners are decided by the majority of a panel of judges who indicate their decision by the raising of a red or blue flag. 

The first ever Olympic Karate Kata competitions will be held on Thursday August 5 (women) and on Friday August 6 (men).

(The World Karate Federation (WKF) is a source of additional information. Find them on Facebook and on Twitter.)

Author: Paul Martin

Paul Martin is a former English Karate International Team member and a three times English Champion in the under 65 Kgs lightweight division. For other articles by the author, see his Japanese Sword Column at this link.

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