21 Japanese words you absolutely need to know for karate

The beginner's guide to basic Karate terminology!

18 Japanese words you absolutely need to know for karate 18 Japanese words you absolutely need to know for karate

If you're planning to start training Karate or recently started, there are some words that you absolutely need to know in order to be able to follow your sensei's teaching.

Karate terminology might seem intimidating at first, but everything new is, so don't worry, I've got your back! I have put together this list of the most commonly used Japanese words in Karate. Let's get started!

If you're interested in learning Japanese, discover the resources that I personally use to learn Japanese on my own, and also check out my favorite program to learn Japanese. You'll speak basic Japanese in no time with these resources.

Dojo (道場)

The dojo is a training hall, and it literally means the "place of the Way" - the place where you develop both your body and your spirit. The Dojo should be treated like a special place where students should hold themselves to a higher standard of behavior. The dojo is not strictly reserved to martial arts like Karate, Judo or Kendo, most Japanese practices or craft are studied in a dojo - Zen meditation, shodo (black ink painting), ikebana (floral arrangement), just to name a few.

Sensei (先生)

Sensei is an honorary term that can be loosely translated as "teacher". In Japanese, it literally means "a person born before another" or "one who comes before". The word sensei is used not only used to refer to a Karate teacher but can also be used to demonstrate respect towards someone who has reached a certain level of mastery in an art form, a craft or some other profession.

Gi (着)

The gi or Karate-gi is a traditional uniform used during Karate training. Sometimes known as dogi, the gi is generally white and is made of thick cotton or canvas. Its design is based upon the traditional Japanese kimono and was first created for Judo by Kano Jigoro. The gi is composed of three parts - a jacket (uwagi), pants (shitabaki) and a belt (obi).

Rei (礼)

Rei means "bow", and is one of the most important practices of Karate and is an important aspect of the etiquette. Bowing is not only a sign of respect and gratitude but is also a way to discipline the mind and bring it in the present moment. Bowing should always be performed with sincerity of the heart and mindfully, not mechanically. There are two ways to bow in Karate:

a) Ritsurei (立礼)

This bow is performed standing, with the back straight and the arms alongside the body. Traditionally, the degree of inclination at which you bow depends on the person in front of you.

b) Zarei (座礼)

Zarei, literally "seated bow", is performed on the floor from the formal sitting posture of seiza. Karate practitioners always perform zarei in the dojo at the beginning and ending of a class or practice session.

There is a famous saying in Japanese martial arts that says "Karate wa rei ni hajimari, rei ni owaru" - Karate start and finish with a bow.

Seiza (正座)

Seiza is the traditional Japanese way of sitting on the floor, kneeling. It's the primary way of sitting in Karate and should it should be done with great attention. People who are not used to sit in seiza style may become uncomfortable after a few minutes, but with time, the position gets more comfortable. There are many benefits sitting seiza including strengthening your core and back muscles, fix slouching posture, improve circulation and enhance concentration and mindfulness.

Mokuso (黙想)

Mokuso is the martial art meditation performed at the beginning and end of each Karate class and other Japanese martial arts. The practice finds its origin in Zen Buddhism meditation where its called Zazen. Mokuso is practiced to calm the heart and focus the spirit. The meditation is practiced sitting on the floor in seiza posture, with the back straight and with the hands positioned in hokkaijoin. The goal of mokuso is to be fully present in the moment, through the breath and let go of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Discover how to do Mokuso the proper way.

Kihon (基本)

Kihon means “basics” or "fundamentals” in Japanese. It's a term that is used to define the training and routine of the basic techniques of Karate. Kihon can be performed individually or in large groups and is something that will be practiced as long as one practices Karate. The practice of basics is essential as it helps develop and master blocking not only postures and breathing but also punching, striking, and kicking techniques. Kihon strengthens the whole body, quickens reflexes, improves coordination, builds endurance and overall good health.

Kata (型)

Kata, a Japanese word meaning "form", is a system of solo training incorporating practical combat techniques and notions that have been developed and refined for centuries. To an inexperienced person, kata can appear to be dance-like drills, but in fact, they contain the fundamental principles and concepts of Karate like stances, footwork, punches, kicks, blocks, holds, and throws. Kata is very important as it develops proper body mechanics, builds muscle memory, develops proper breathing and favors mindfulness. Each Karate style has its list of Kata. Read more about the purpose of kata in Karate.

Kumite (組手)

Kumite literally translates as "grappling hands" and is one of the three main areas of Karate training, together with Kata and Kihon. Kumite is a practice in which a person trains against an opponent, using the techniques learned during the practice of Kihon and Kata. In the Western world, we call this "sparring". Depending on Karate styles, different types of kumite can be practiced like ippon-kumite (one step sparring), sanbon-kumite (three step sparring) or jiyu kumite (free sparring). Kumite should be performed as realistically as possible always with a self-defense mindset.

Dachi (立)

Dachi means "stance' in Japanese. Karate has many different stances, each used for different purposes and different situations. Stances are fundamental and represent the foundation of a good Karate. Okinawan Karate uses more 'natural' stances as opposed to Japanese (mainland) Karate that uses deeper and longer positions. The most common Karate stances are musubi-dachi, kiba-dachi, zenkutsu-dachi, sanchin-dachi, kokutsu-dachi, and neko-ashi-dachi. Check out my list of Karate stances.

Kamae (構え)

Kamae is a term found in Japanese martial arts and various performance arts like dance or theater. It can roughly be translated in English as "base", "pose" or "posture". In Karate, kamae refers to a posture and state of mind and represents a defensive "on-guard" position or self-defense posture. Beginners and intermediate Karate students generally use one kamae, but there are actually many types of kamae, each with its own benefits and circumstantial usages.

Counting (1-10)

Many Karate schools require their students to know basic Japanese numbers as they often use the Japanese counting system during Kihon or Kata practice. Usually, numbers from one (1) to ten (10) are used.

One – Ichi (一)
Two – Ni (二)
Three – San (三)
Four – Shi (四)
Five – Go (五)
Six – Roku (六)
Seven – Shichi (七)
Eight – Hachi (八)
Nine – Kyu (九)
Ten – Ju (十)


In most Karate or Kendo dojo, the "level" or height at which a technique will be performed will be stated by the Sensei. Levels related to blocking techniques as well as attacks. There are three general heights commonly referred to in Karate.

a) Gedan (下段)

It roughly means "lower level", and refers specifically to the lower part of the body, from the belt and below.

b) Chudan (中段)

It roughly means "middle level", and refers to the lower part of the body, from the waist to below the shoulders.

c) Jodan (中段)

It roughly means "high level", and refers to the upper part of the body, from which the shoulders and above.

Hajime (始め)

Hajime is a verbal command used in various martial arts like Karate, Judo, and Kendo. It is given to start or mark the beginning of Kihon, Kata, Kumite or any other practices. It literally means "begin" or "let's begin". Hajime commands must be carefully observed and obeyed.

Yame (止め)

Yame literally means "stop" in Japanese. Like hajime, yame it's a verbal command given by the Sensei in order to stop Kihon, Kata, or Kumite or again, any other practices. Yame, like any other command, must be carefully observed and obeyed.

Kiai (気合)

Kiai is a Japanese term used to describe the quick and powerful shout used in martial arts when performing an attacking move. A well-executed kiai doesn't involve the use of the throat, but of the diaphragm that expels air out of the lungs. At a higher, more advanced level, the kiai manifest itself into the simultaneous union of body and the spirit. Kiai should not but confused with other breathing techniques or kokyu.


Some Karate dojo uses Japanese words in order to tell the students the physical direction toward which an attack should be performed, or to describe a particular type of attack.

Mae (前) - front, before.
Yoko (横) - side, besides, aside.
Ushiro (後) - back, behind, rear.


So, not that bad right? By now, you should have a better understanding of these basic yet fundamental Japanese words. You'll be hearing and using these words for as long as you practice Karate. Reread the list a few times, and you'll be ready for your next Karate class. Also, remember that your Sensei and advanced students are there to help you, so don't hesitate to ask for help if the need arises.

Enjoy your training!

PS: I know you passionate about Karate, but if you're like me, I guess you probably want to learn the Japanese language too. Check out the tools that I used to learn Japanese on my own as well as the best program to learn Japanese. You'll thank me later. ;-)

Thank you for reading!
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Hi, my name is Martin Jutras. I've been studying and practicing Karate, practical self-defense and Zen Buddhism for more than 35 years.

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