Karate is in competition with Taekwondo as one of the most popular martial arts on the planet, which is impressive considering that it has existed outside of Japan for less than a century. So how exactly did this martial art become so commonplace in dojos across the world?

Keep reading to find out some of the reasons why karate is so popular. From its introduction by the US military to its prominent display in many popular films and television shows, karate has caught the public eye for decades.

Karate Was Introduced to the West By the Military

Karate first became popular in America when it was brought back from Japan during World War 2. American soldiers stationed in the occupied country were introduced to the art of karate at Okinawa and elsewhere, then brought the martial arts techniques back with them. (Source: We Are The Mighty)

After karate jumped mainland Japan and ended up in the rest of the world, it gained steady popularity due to its versatile move set. Karate is just as effective in the sparring ring as it is in a barroom brawl.

Karate Was Showcased on Television

Karate’s popularity in America and elsewhere in the world was encouraged by the fact that it came to the West around the same time that televisions became popular household appliances.

Throughout the fifties and sixties, karate became a popular trope in action-adventure television shows from The Green Hornet to The Detectives. Martial arts are even featured in iconic shows like Star Trek. (Source: The National News) Here are a few other shows from this time period that featured karate:

  • The Wild Wild West
  • The Avengers
  • Kung Fu
  • Longstreet

These American TV shows helped popularize karate in the West. These same shows also helped spread the popularity of karate in other parts of the world too since many American shows featuring karate were also popular worldwide.

Since most of the characters in popular culture during this golden age of television were represented as dashing and daring heroes, this encouraged people to seek out karate training of their own so they could imitate their favorite TV stars. Once people started looking seriously into karate training, they also learned how effective this martial art is for exercise and defense.

Kung Fu Films Encouraged the Study of Karate

Television wasn’t the only media outlet that helped to make karate so popular in the 20th century. Kung fu movies reached the height of their popularity during the 1970s, which only served as fuel to encourage more people to try their own hand at martial arts.

It’s ironic that kung fu movies popularized karate rather than popularizing kung fu, but this is largely due to the lack of available kung fu training. Kung fu is considered to be a proto-fighting style that contributes to the techniques learned in karate as one of the older fighting styles originating in China. Karate draws inspiration from the hand-strike techniques in kung fu.

Karate Was Popularized by Blockbuster Films

Karate saw a lot of positive media coverage in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, but it continued to grow in popular culture in the eighties and nineties. This time period generated several karate-related blockbuster films such as The Karate Kid, Bloodsport, The Last Dragon, and Big Trouble in Little China.

Karate instructors quickly took advantage of this moment in the spotlight for karate in popular culture. During this same time period, dojos began to pop up in every city where children and adults alike could try their hand at karate.

My favorite guilty pleasure karate movie is Sidekicks. Chuck Norris was great and the movie had the right kind of cheese.

Even though it was movies and television that sparked interest in karate, it’s the many advantages of the sport that have kept enthusiasts coming back for generations.

Karate Can Be Found In Most Places

Another reason that karate continues to remain popular is that you can now find multiple karate studios even in relatively remote areas. This gives people plenty of options for instruction and encourages competition between dojos. A thriving karate community only serves to encourage even more novices to join in since it makes karate more visible to the surrounding public.

The wide availability of karate classes means that chances are if you take up karate you’ll be able to find at least one karate instructor that can work with your schedule or budget. It also gives you a greater selection of different teaching styles and dojo locations.

Karate Classes Are Reasonably Priced

Compared to some other martial arts training, karate continues to be one of the more reasonably priced martial arts you can pursue. Like Taekwondo, the average cost per lesson for karate is $40. (Source: Lessons.com)

This is in comparison to $200 to train in martial arts such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu, or Krav Maga. The more uncommon a martial art is, the more likely the prices are going to be high to meet the lack of supply compared to the relatively high demand.

In this respect, karate’s popularity is a self-perpetuating system. The fact that there are tons of karate dojos means that they have to keep their prices competitive, which means that you’re not as likely to see dojos overcharging as you might in other martial arts.

Karate Is a Good Martial Art for Self-Defense

Another reason karate has gained so much popularity over the past several decades is because of its reputation as a solid self-defense discipline. Unlike ever-popular Taekwondo, which focuses on flashy high kicks and spinning maneuvers in the ring, karate is intended to be used as a street fighting technique for real close-quarters combat.

Even though it is an effective martial art for self-defense, karate is a little more approachable than other good self-defense styles such as judo and jiu-jitsu. It’s also a popular choice for people who want to learn self-defense without having to grapple on the floor.

Karate’s Popularity Will Only Keep Growing

Based on the explosive growth that karate has seen as a sport over the past eighty years, this martial art is sure to continue expanding in popularity.

Now that karate is an official Olympic sport and martial arts are being incorporated into even more movies and television like Cobra Kai, the market for learning this Japanese fighting style has never been bigger.