Two black belts up close

What is the difference between Karate and Jiu Jitsu?

With Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gyms popping up in every city, you may be wondering, what is the difference between Jiu Jitsu and Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and other traditional martial arts? Which one is better for kids to learn? Which one is better for self-defense? In this article, I’ll do my best to answer these questions and to help you understand which martial art is the best choice for you or your kids.

How is Jiu Jitsu Different from Karate?

Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and Kung Fu are all striking martial arts. This means the primary techniques taught involve punching, hitting, or kicking an opponent while standing. While there are differences between each of the striking martial arts, the primary differences are in which country the martial art evolved. For example, Tae Kwon Do was developed in Korea, Kung Fu is from China, and Karate is from Japan.

Class of karate students
Students practicing striking techniques in a Karate class

Jiu Jitsu also originated in Japan, but instead of striking, it involves grappling, or throwing one’s opponent to the ground and then controlling or holding them there, and possibly applying a submission technique such as a choke or joint lock.

Wrestling and Judo are two other examples of grappling arts. Judo focuses on the goal of efficiently throwing one’s opponent to the ground, and in wrestling the goal is to pin an opponent on the ground. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu practitioners learn to take a combatant to the ground, then to control the person on the ground, and, if necessary, to choke the person unconscious or break a limb.

Students practicing armbars in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class
Students practicing controlling an opponent and applying an arm lock in a Jiu Jitsu class

Martial Arts vs. Combat Sports

Another potential difference between Karate and Jiu Jitsu is whether the techniques are taught as a competitive sport or as a traditional art.

Both Karate and Jiu Jitsu can be considered a “martial art”: a system of traditional fighting techniques originating in Asia. While martial arts techniques were used in hand-to-hand combat for hundreds of years, the word “art” implies more than just self defense. Martial artists seek the development of the mind and soul through the perfection of physical skill, and the cultivation of positive character traits such as discipline, fortitude, and respect are seen as the goal of the practice as much as or even more than being able to win a fight.

Combat sports, on the other hand, are less about developing one’s inner world and more about competition. While character development can be and often is a by-product, training is geared towards being able to defend oneself in case of an assault and/or to defeat an opponent in a tournament. Many traditional martial arts including both Karate and Jiu Jitsu have evolved into competitive sports, but not all martial arts schools encourage or emphasize the sport aspect, since the art can be lost when the goal is to win.

Whether the martial are you’re learning leans more towards competitive or traditional depends mainly on the school where you are training, but from what I understand, modern Karate schools in the United States tend to more emphasize tradition above or along with the competitive sport, whereas Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is more often practiced as a sport or purely for self-defense.

While Brazilian Jiu Jitsu did descend from from the Jiu Jitsu of ancient Japan, the techniques evolved significantly in the 1900’s, and with the increasing popularity of MMA and the UFC, it has became more common to practice Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as a combat sport that is heavily influenced by wrestling and has departed significantly from its roots in traditional Asian culture, with many BJJ schools choosing to altogether abandon traditions such as bowing when stepping onto and off of the mat.

Two men doing no gi Jiu Jitsu
NoGi Jiu Jitsu is a type of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu where grappling attire is worn instead of a martial arts gi.

Sparring in Karate vs. Rolling in Jiu Jitsu

Both karate and Jiu Jitsu include sparring as part of the training, which can be defined as the freestyle practice techniques against a resisting opponent with an object to win, however that may be defined.

Since karate techniques are intended to inflict harm, sparring in a karate class involves safety measures such as wearing protective gear and not striking at full force. Still, sparring gives karate students the opportunity to practice the timing and strategy that would be necessary in a real fight.

In Jiu Jitsu, the goal is not to harm the other person but to escape from a bad position (such as being underneath the person) and advance to a controlling position while defending against strikes. When sparring (or “rolling”) in Jiu Jitsu class, students practice just that, up to the point where they are beginning to apply a choke or joint lock and the other person is forced to “tap out” to end the match. Still, safety is a priority, with students being encouraged to take care of their training partners and to “tap early and often”.

Is Cobra Kai Karate or Jiu Jitsu?

Karate was recently brought to the forefront of public awareness with the popularity of Cobra Kai, a TV series based on the 1980’s movie The Karate Kid and its sequels. As the name of the movie would imply, the martial art practiced in Cobra Kai is Karate, not Jiu Jitsu. However, there is a cute scene that was cut from the show where one of the characters from Cobra Kai comments on Brazilian Jiu Jitsu:

Is Jiu Jitsu Better Than Karate?

The answer to the question, “Which is better, Jiu Jitsu or Karate?” requires a follow up question: Better for what?

Is Karate or Jiu Jitsu Better for Self Defense?

If your goal is to be able to defend yourself against an attacker, you’ll want to consider your size and fitness level in determining which techniques will work best for you. Additionally, it’s a good idea to consider the types of situations you are most likely to need to defend yourself in. While knowing how to land a punch might help you in a bar fight, it isn’t as likely to help a small woman who has been pinned to the ground with a large man on top of her, which for her may unfortunately be the more likely scenario.

It’s also worth considering the potential ramifications of needing to use one’s skills. At their root, karate techniques are designed to injure another person. Inflicting a lifelong injury or accidentally killing someone is not an ideal outcome if it can be avoided. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, on the other hand, teaches techniques that are specifically designed to help a smaller person escape from and/or control a larger attacker without injuring them. This is one of the reasons that Jiu Jitsu is used by many police officers.

However, it is important to distinguish between competitive Jiu Jitsu and Jiu Jitsu for self-defense, and to understand that a technique that may help a person win a Jiu Jitsu tournament could make one vulnerable to receiving a life-threatening kick to the head in a real-life self-defense situation. If Jiu Jitsu for self-defense is your goal, you will want to make sure to choose a school that emphasizes the self-defense aspects of Jiu Jitsu, and you might also consider training Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), which teaches Jiu Jitsu techniques in the context of defending kicks and punches.

A woman tapping out a man with a bow and arrow choke
A woman using a Jiu Jitsu technique to choke a man while using her legs to control him

Who Would Win in a Fight–Karate or Jiu Jitsu?

Answering the questions such as “Which is the best martial art?” and “Can a wrestler beat a boxer?” was the goal of the first Ultimate Fighting Championship in 1993. The show featured matches between top-level practitioners of various combat arts including karate, tae kwon do, sumo wrestling, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt Royce Gracie ended up winning the competition, defeating multiple opponents who were much bigger than he was.

More than 30 years later, UFC fighters, who are allowed to use any fighting style they choose, all include Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as part of their training for the reason that no other fighting style has proven as effective as Jiu Jitsu for defeating an opponent on the ground.

In a fight between a karate black belt and a Jiu Jitsu black belt, the karate fighter would need to land a kick or a punch before being taken to the ground. As long as the Jiu Jitsu athlete could avoid kicks and punches long enough to throw or take down their opponent (which practitioners of Jiu Jitsu are trained to do), the Jiu Jitsu fighter would most likely win on the ground because fighting on the ground is not part of traditional karate training.

Is Karate or Jiu Jitsu Better for Kids?

Karate and Jiu Jitsu both offer similar benefits for kids in that they encourage the development of persistence, self-confidence, and other positive character traits. Kids karate and Jiu Jitsu classes both tend to be very safe for kids, with rules in place to prevent injury. They are also both a good way for kids to have fun exercising and interacting socially.

The main advantage Jiu Jitsu has over karate for kids is as a practical form of anti-bullying self-defense. In Jiu Jitsu class, kids learn how to avoid punches, gain a dominant position, and escape the situation or safely control an attacker until help arrives, as opposed to fighting back with kicks and punches, which in a case of bullying could result in injury as well as suspension.

Karate and other traditional martial arts such as Tae Kwon Do and Kung Fu may offer benefits that Jiu Jitsu does not through increased emphasis on discipline, structure, tradition, and respect, but teaching kids to defend themselves against a bully or an adult attacker is not the primary goal.

Which Should You Choose: Jiu Jitsu or Karate?

Whether learning Jiu Jitsu or Karate is right for you or your kids really comes down to what you’re hoping to get out of your training.

If you enjoy structure and tradition and want learn a physical skill to develop your mind and body, you might enjoy a more traditional martial art like karate. On the other hand, if you are feisty, like the idea of being able to tap out people who are bigger and stronger than you, and enjoy a workout that’s such a puzzle for your brain that you forget how physically intense it is, then give Brazilian Jiu Jitsu a try.

Regardless of which martial art you choose, you’re sure to benefit from increased exercise and from being part of a community.

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