BJJ vs Karate: Key differences and similarities

Karate and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) are two of the most widely practiced martial arts in the world. Each one has fantastic qualities and can be great choices to practice and learn self defense techniques.

In this article we are going to compare Karate and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. We’ll show how they are similar and how they are different in terms of their origins, philosophies, techniques, rule sets, and how they match up against each other.

Table of contents

The origins of BJJ

BJJ was created a little over a hundred years ago in Brazil. There are a few different origin stories, but the most widely told one starts with the Gracie family.

A Judo master named Mitsuyo Maeda immigrated to Brazil to teach the art of Judo in 1914-1915. While trying to immigrate into the country, he met and befriended a Brazilian politician named Gastao Gracie.

Gastao helped Maeda become a citizen and organize Judo demonstrations within some Brazilian cities. After a demonstration in Belem, Brazil, Gastao’s son Carlos became interested in Judo and became Maeda’s student.

A few years after Carlos took classes, he showed his brother Helio some of the techniques he had learned. Helio was small in stature and couldn’t do many of the Judo moves that required athleticism. So he and his brother started altering the techniques to benefit his body size.

An example of a BJJ sparring round.

The techniques the brothers created supposedly helped smaller people defend themselves against larger opponents. By using leverage and body positioning, a smaller person could control bigger opponents and submit them.

Helio and Carlos would spend decades creating their system, taking on students and challenging other martial arts to prove their effectiveness.

The martial art really started to take off once Helio’s son Rorion moved to the United States in 1978. There, Rorion started to spread the teachings of Gracie Jiu Jitsu, taking on new students and any would-be challengers.

BJJ’s first exposure to the world was in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). In this event martial artists of all backgrounds competed in no holds barred fights. Rorion’s brother Royce was chosen to represent BJJ.

The comparatively smaller Royce won the competition of bigger men with ease. After this, the first explosion in BJJ’s popularity began.

The second boom in BJJ popularity is currently underway and this is accredited to the increasing popularity of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) competitions like the UFC. Today, BJJ has become one of the most popular martial arts with schools around the world.

Origins of Karate

Karate is the Japanese term for “empty hands.” Aspects of Karate were created as a form of self defense in the Okinawan islands after the government banned weapons in the period between 1609-1879.

At first it was a hand fighting style used by natives of the Ryukyu Islands. Later it was developed and influenced by Chinese families that settled in Okinawa, who knew Chinese Kenpo.

No one is really sure exactly where the origins of Karate come from. Some experts say it came from India, but it’s a hotly contested issue.

An example of a karate class.

What we do know is in 1905 Karate was included in Okinawan physical education programs. This was helped in part by Itoso Anko, who is considered the grandfather of Karate.

Anko taught notable Karate masters like Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Motobu Choki. Funakoshi is considered the father of modern karate and developed the Shotokan Karate form.

Three other forms would be created, the Goju, Wado, and Shito Karate forms. These were created as self defense forms of Karate that were predominantly counter attack-based.

Karate was created to counter a variety of different attacks using a combination of strikes and sweeps. Today, Karate is practiced all over the world and as of 2020 is now an Olympic event.

Strategic differences between BJJ and Karate

Karate is a traditional striking-based martial art. Karate schools predominantly teach punches, kicks, knees, and elbows. Little to no grappling is taught.

BJJ is the opposite of Karate and is a grappling-based martial art. Where Karate’s goal is to strike an opponent, in BJJ the goal is to get an opponent to the ground, control them, and submit them. 

The belt system and progression of BJJ vs Karate

Both BJJ and Karate measure progress using a belt system, but the colors and how you earn belts are different in each art. There are also differences in the length of time it takes to earn a belt in each art. You can see the belt systems of the two martial arts below.

Karate Belt System (Adults)

  • White
  • Yellow
  • Orange
  • Green
  • Purple
  • Blue
  • Brown
  • Black – After black a student goes into degrees or dans starting with 1st degree and moving upwards

Source: Shotokan Karate International Australia

BJJ Belt System (Adults)

  • White (1-2 years to Blue)
  • Blue (2-4 years to Purple)
  • Purple (2-4 years to Brown)
  • Brown (1-3 years to Black)
  • Black – BJJ is similar to Karate in that you go through degrees once obtaining your black belt. The highest you can go is 9th degree, and 10th degree is designated for pioneers of the martial art.

You can find out more about the BJJ belt system in our guide.

As you see, there are quite a few differences in color ranking between BJJ and Karate. For adults, there are 8 belts in Karate compared to 5 in BJJ. 

In BJJ, the average time it takes to reach black belt is around 10 years or so. Generally this is also the same timeframe for Karate. Although, there are some Karate schools that will guarantee a black belt in less time.

The other major difference between the two arts is in Karate, you usually have to test or “grade” for belts. In BJJ, there normally isn’t a belt test and instead you’re usually rewarded with a new belt for showing you have the skills of the next belt in your regular training and/or competition.

Class formats of BJJ vs Karate

BJJ and Karate classes are generally broken up into different phases:

  • Karate. Traditional Karate classes are usually divided into kihon (fundamentals), kata (forms), and kumite (sparring).
  • BJJ. The three phases of a BJJ class include warm ups, drilling techniques, and rolling (sparring rounds).

Clothing and equipment in Karate vs BJJ

Both BJJ and Karate generally use a “gi”, which is a robe-style uniform worn in many traditional martial arts. In BJJ, there is also a “no gi” option explained below.

In Karate, the gi is called a “Karategi”. This is a thin, breathable cloth jacket with the sleeves stopping at the forearm area, and pants made from similar material.

The BJJ gi is similar, but is thicker to withstand the pushing and pulling of grappling. In no gi, the uniform is a wetsuit-like fabric shirt called a rashguard along with shorts, which are similar to boardshorts. 

BJJ vs Karate rules

BJJ competition rules

Most BJJ competitions are point-based matches with a certain time limit depending on experience levels. Only certain types of submissions are permitted in competition. The IBJJF is one the biggest BJJ federations and enforces specific rules, the basics being:

Position / techniquePoints earned
Takedowns, sweeps (reversals), knee on belly2 points
Guard passes3 points
Mount, back mount and back control4 points
Source: IBJJF

Another type of competition is a sub-only rule set, where you can only win by submission. In these competitions generally all submissions are allowed. The EBI rules set is probably the most used, but for an example of how these rules are implemented see the Australian-based Aus Sub Only rules

Karate competition rules

Traditional Karate sparring competition is almost full contact, where you can strike an opponent from the waist up. Kicks are allowed to the head/body, and punches are only allowed to the body. The World Karate Federation has a full rulebook explaining this in detail, but the basics are:

TechniqueAwarded forPoints earned
IpponJodan kicks. Jodan being defined as the face, head and neck. Any scoring technique which is delivered on an opponent who has been thrown, has fallen of their own accord, or is otherwise off their feet3 points
Waza-ariChudan kicks. Chudan being defined as the abdomen, chest, back and side.2 points
YukoAny punch (Tsuki) delivered to any of the seven scoring areas. Any strike (Uchi) delivered to any of the seven scoring areas.1 point
Source: WKF

There are also non sparring competitions, where competitors compete for best kata. Each competitor goes through their kata and the one with the most precise form wins. The criteria is listed below.

  1. Technical performance: stance, techniques, transitional movements, timing, correct breathing, focus (KIME), Conformance.
  2. Athletic performance: strength, speed, and balance

Source: WKF

The pros and cons of BJJ and Karate

BJJ

BJJ may be one of the most effective martial arts you can learn with a large list of benefits, but it does have some shortcomings.

Pros

  • Proven to be effective. BJJ has shown its effectiveness time and time again in real life MMA situations.
  • Self defense. The core belief of BJJ is to control and restrain an opponent using an array of strangles and appendage locks
  • Community. BJJ has a wonderful community that are loyal friends to one another.
  • Health. BJJ is a great way to stay in shape or get healthy.
  • Mental Benefits. Martial arts like BJJ can be a sort of therapy for its practitioners. Training can relieve stress and build your ability to deal with pressure.
  • Great for kids. BJJ is a great activity for kids, and can help kids build discipline.
  • Lots of competition opportunities. There are many organisations constantly running BJJ competitions around the world, so there are plenty of opportunities to compete each year.

Cons

  • No striking. BJJ doesn’t include striking, which means it’s arguably not a complete fighting system.
  • Sport Jiu Jitsu. BJJ is a great martial art, but some schools teach a form of BJJ called “sport Jiu Jitsu.” Sport Jiu Jitsu is a form of BJJ that teaches techniques for competition rather than for self defense. Some sport Jiu Jitsu techniques get you seriously hurt or killed in a real life altercation.

Karate

Like with BJJ, Karate has a number of advantages and shortcomings you should be aware of.

Pros

  • Self defense. Some would argue karate is a good form of self defense. The difference between BJJ and Karate is that it is striking based.
  • Health. Like BJJ, some styles of karate can be a good way to get in shape.
  • Great for kids. Karate is also great to keep kids active and in a stimulating environment outside of school.

Cons

  • Some Karate schools. Karate is a fantastic martial art, but over the last 20-30 years the art has been tarnished by schools called “mcdojos.” These schools care more about profits than teaching the self defense techniques Karate was founded upon. They have arguably tarnished the image of Karate and it has been a hard journey for Karate to regain its respect.
  • No ground techniques. The vast majority of karate schools do not teach takedowns or ground-fighting techniques.

BJJ vs Karate: Which is more popular?

This question is difficult to answer using data. Anecdotally, if this question was asked 20 – 30 years ago, the answer would undoubtedly be Karate. But today, BJJ seems to be the more popular of the two.

This chart below from Google Trends 2004 to 2020 shows a graph of the “interest over time” between Karate and BJJ in the US. The chart shows that there has been a steady decline in the popularity of Karate and a steady rise in BJJ. 

Source: Google Trends

Today in 2020, BJJ seems to be the more popular of the two martial arts, especially in the USA. A quick Google search tends to show more BJJ schools in major cities compared to Karate schools.

BJJ competitions have also become more common and each major city will generally have at least one a month. There are still Karate competitions every few months in major cities, but they seem to be geared more towards kids.

One favourable point Karate has in its favour is that it is now an official Olympic sport. It was recently approved for the 2020 Olympic games in Tokyo. Some BJJ organizations like the Sports Jiu-Jitsu International Federation (SJJIF) aim to get BJJ into the Olympics but BJJ is not currently an official Olympic sport.

So which is better: Karate or BJJ?

This question is often asked, but the answer will depend on what you’re looking for in a martial art. Karate is a great martial art with a lot of good qualities and BJJ has shown to be quite effective too.

In competitions between the two, however BJJ has generally been the winner. BJJ has an edge over Karate because of the grappling aspect of the martial art. Generally many real life situations end up in a grappling match.

There are plenty of video examples of fights or demonstrations between BJJ and karate practitioners. The example below is taken from a longer video showing some of the Gracie family in challenge matches against practitioners from different martial arts.

This other example shows older matches between the Gracies and some karate practitioners.

Can you cross train in both karate and BJJ?

In the 80s and 90s cross training between Karate and BJJ was largely unheard of. Today, thanks to the popularity of MMA it is now more common than ever to see cross training between all styles of martial arts, including BJJ and Karate. For example, Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson is one the most diverse fighters in the UFC blending his high level Karate with Jiu Jitsu to make quite a unique fighting style.

What MMA shows is that you need to know both striking and grappling. Being a well rounded martial artist that knows striking and grappling is very important. Knowing both will make you better prepared in a real life situation.

The best online resources to learn more about BJJ and Karate

Karate

If you want to learn more about Karate, then one of the best resources is Black Belt wiki. The  section on Karate covers everything you need to know about the art of Karate including techniques, kata, and different Karate styles. There’s also other good Karate blogs, YouTube channels and online resources including:

BJJ

For BJJ, there is a long list of great resources available on the internet including:

What’s next?

Hopefully what you have taken from this article is that BJJ and Karate are both fantastic martial arts you should consider practicing. If you want to learn more about BJJ or Karate check out our other articles or the resources listed above and make a decision for yourself. We’d love to see you on the mats training!

Leave a Comment