Karate and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) are very different fighting styles and the question of which one is better for self-defense is often debated amongst martial art enthusiasts and this is the question I’m going to answer in this post.

I will firstly cover these two martial arts’ origins and self-defense characteristics before making a comparison and answering the controversial question: Karate vs BJJ: which one is better for self-defense?

I have written the section below looking at karate as a self-defense system in a previous post on Karate vs Wing Chun but repeat it here for ease of reference.

Karate as a self-defense system

The origin of karate

Karate is a Japanese form of martial arts that began as a fighting system known as Okinawa te practiced by inhabitants of the Okinawa Island (part of the Ryukyu kingdom at the time).

Through trade relations, study, and cultural exchanges with China that started around 1340 and lasted for about 500 years, elements of Chinese Kempo were introduced and incorporated into Okinawa te.

Chinese delegations were regularly sent to Okinawa and amongst the delegates were many masters of Chinese Kempo and other skilled practitioners. These masters taught Chinese Kempo to Okinawan noblemen.

Ryukyu ships with delegations of noblemen were also sent to China frequently.

To protect these ships from pirates, crew and delegates were well-armed and trained in martial arts. So, Okinawa te had real-life applications and purposes then and were not just mere physical exercises.

During the ban of all weapons in Okinawa, imposed by King Sho Shin from around 1507 and maintained by Japan when it invaded the island in 1609, Okinawa’s fighting art was practiced in secrecy and empty-hand techniques were further developed.

Over time, three distinctive styles of karate emerged from three Okinawan cities called Shuri-te, Naha-te, and Tomari-te.

There were no major differences in the three styles, only different emphases. Collectively, they were generally referred to as “Todei” meaning “Chinese hand” or “Karate“.

Naha-te later became Goju Ryu while Shuri-te and Tomari-te later came together as Shorin Ryu.

Traditional Okinawan karate vs Japanese karate

After the Ryukyu kingdom became a Japanese prefecture in 1879, karate was gradually introduced to mainland Japan and subsequently spread to the rest of the world.

There is no doubt that spreading karate to mainland Japan has greatly helped the development of karate into a popular and beloved martial art practiced by millions of people worldwide today.

However, the spread of karate to mainland Japan has resulted in a karate style that is distinctively different from the traditional Okinawan karate.

While traditional Okinawan karate remains an art of self-defense that emphasizes mental development and character building, Japanese karate has become more of a competitive sport.

There are also many technical differences between traditional Okinawan karate and modern Japanese karate.

Japanese karate uses low and long stances, favors long-distance fighting and explosive movements, relies on linear patterns, and focuses more on attacking and scoring than self-defense.

Traditional Okinawan karate, however, uses higher and more natural stances, favors close-range combat, and utilizes many circular movements.

Traditional Okinawan karate teaches many unbalancing, throwing, and grappling techniques and techniques aiming at vital pressure points.

Body conditioning and the use of traditional training tools remain a big part of traditional karate training. Tournaments and competitions are not a prominent feature in traditional Okinawan karate.

Due to some major differences between Japanese karate and traditional Okinawan karate, in answering the question of whether Karate or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is better for self-defense, I will use traditional Okinawan karate for comparison purposes.

Traditional Okinawan karate as a self-defense system

True to its origin, traditional Okinawan karate is a very effective self-defense system because:

It teaches you zanshin, the state of being present and aware of the surrounding environment and recognizing dangers

It emphasizes the importance of receiving or defending techniques and teaches you a range of techniques for this purpose including deflecting, blocking and evading techniques

It incorporates body conditioning which helps you withstand heavy blows in actual combat and keep going.

For this reason, many traditional training tools such as chishi, nigire game, ishi sashi, and makiwara are still used.

Sanchin, a kata that aims to develop muscle strength and mind-body control to help karate practitioners to withstand blows from an opponent, is an important part of traditional Okinawan karate curriculum

It favors high natural stances which are what people would usually be in actual fighting context

It teaches many unbalancing, throwing and grappling techniques. Kakie, a sensitivity training to feel or learn of an opponent’s strong or weak point and their intention, is a regular feature of training.

Techniques aiming at vital pressure points are also incorporated through many kata applications

It teaches you close-range fighting skills which are useful in actual combat. Sparring practice in a traditional Okinawan karate dojo is mostly close-range fighting which, unlike competition sparring, closely resembles street fighting.

In summary, traditional Okinawan karate remains a very effective self-defense art.

BJJ as a self-defense system

The origin of BJJ

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu originated from Judo which came from Jujutsu, so let’s first briefly look at the origin of Jujutsu and Judo.


Jujutsu or Jiujitsu means gentle art or yielding art.

Jujutsu’s core principle in fighting is using softness to conquer hardness.

Jujuitsu emphasizes the use of an attacker’s own force against themselves to throw them off balance and then use techniques such as joint locks, holds, chokes, and strangulation to immobilize them.

According to some historical sources, Jujutsu was first mentioned during the Nara period circa 770s and, similar to Karate, was heavily influenced by Chinese martial art. At the time, Jujutsu was a combination of Sumo techniques and elements of various Japanese martial arts.

Jujutsu was said to have emerged due to the fact that when being forced to fight in close quarters without weapons, samurai wore protective armor so striking techniques could not be used. In these situations, throwing, takedowns, joint locks, and chokes would be more effective.

The first Jujutsu style was created around 1130 and later on various styles of Jujutsu emerged.

Jujutsu continued to evolve during the Edo period (1603 – 1867) when, in an attempt to reduce war, weapons were banned for all except for the samurai. As a result, unarmed combat techniques shot up in popularity.

To cater for unarmed combat in civilian life where attackers wore ordinary clothing (e.g. kimonos), new techniques were also introduced such as vital-striking techniques aiming at the opponent’s eyes, throat and back of the neck.

However, towards the end of the Edo period, the number of striking techniques was reduced substantially because they were considered ineffective and requiring too much energy.


When Japan was forced to open to foreigners post-Edo period ending 200 years of isolation, Jujutsu experienced a period of decline.

The main reason for this was that people didn’t see the point of learning unarmed combat techniques that were associated with old times and had little use in modern Japan of this era.

Jujutsu could have died out, had it not for the effort of one man, Jigoro Kano and his Kodokan Academy.

Jigoro Kano (1860 – 1938) sought to train in jujutsu when he experienced bullying at school but had difficulty finding a willing teacher because many jujutsu teachers had either been forced to seek alternative careers or became disillusioned with the art.

Kano succeeded eventually and studied jujutsu with a few influential masters before founding a school called Kodokan (meaning “a place to teach the path”) five years later.

With his academic upbringing and having studied Confucian texts, Kano formulated a jujutsu style that combined the positive aspects of classical jujutsu and the best elements of different jujutsu styles with his own ideas and inspirations.

Kano’s version of jujutsu emphasizes the principle of “maximum efficient use of energy” which aims to achieve the best possible outcome with minimum effort.

In addition, Kano saw jujutsu as an art not only for self-defense and physical development but also for cultivating moral behavior and character development.

Kano felt that the name Jujutsu did not sufficiently encompass the vision he had for his style of jujutsu and changed the second character from jutsu meaning “art” to do meaning “way”. And so Judo was created.

I have repeatedly stressed that the ultimate goal of Judo is to perfect the self, and to make a contribution to society … The worth of all people is dependent on how they spend their life making contributions.

Jigoro Kano

According to some historical sources, Kano’s judo might have been influenced by karate to some degree.

Kano was present at a karate demonstration by Gichin Funakoshi and others in 1922 and was so impressed with it that he asked for and received private lessons from Funakoshi for several months.

Judo training has three aspects:

  • Judo techniques include throwing techniques (nage waza), grappling techniques (katame waza) and striking techniques (atemi waza). Judo is mostly known for its throwing and grappling techniques
  • Randori or free practice includes pre-arranged practice where one lets the other throw without resisting to hard practice which is more like competition judo
  • Kata or pre-arranged patterns of techniques. They include basic principles and techniques of judo and can be practiced with partners or alone.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

Mitsuo Maeda was a top student of Jigoro Kano.

In 1914, Maeda traveled to Brazil where he became a friend of Gastao Gracie, a local politician.

In 1917, Carlos Gracie, Gastao Gracie’s eldest son, happened to watch a judo demonstration by Maeda.

Impressed, Carlos decided to learn and Maeda taught him for several years before his younger brother Helio also joined.

Helio was of smaller size and they resorted to altering some of the techniques to suit him.

The brothers would later on develop techniques that help smaller people defeat larger opponents and, from what they learned, they had some great success in challenging other martial artists.

More members of the Gracie family joined and, in 1925, Carlos opened the first BJJ academy.

Later on, BJJ spread to the U.S. which greatly helped its popularity. BJJ came to prominence in the U.S. when Royce Gracie (Helio’s son) won several UFC championships facing bigger fighters with various martial art backgrounds.

BJJ is different from judo in several aspects including its particular focus on ground grappling and changes in the scoring system to turn it into a more competition-oriented sport.

BJJ focuses on bringing a fight to the ground using takedown techniques and then immobilizes the opponent with ground fighting techniques such as joint-locks, chokeholds and submission holds.

On the ground, physical disadvantages can be compensated for by proper grappling techniques. Less emphasis is placed on standing techniques such as striking and throwing.

BJJ as a self-defense system

While knowing BJJ is a great complementary skill for any fighter, BJJ itself is not a well-rounded effective martial art for general self-defense due to its narrow focus on ground fighting techniques.

A characteristic of a good fighter is his or her ability to adapt and deal with different situations and different opponents. With its one-dimension focus on ground fighting skills, BJJ doesn’t train its fighters as such.

If you are well-trained in ground fighting, you might be tempted to bring a fight to the ground. However, it is not always a good idea or possible to successfully bring a fight to the ground.

What if your opponent is equally or better at grappling? You’d be in trouble.

What if your opponent has a knife or other weapons? It’s not a good idea to bring the fight to the ground even if you are the best BJJ fighter in the world.

What if you are facing more than one opponent? It’s not a good idea to bring the fight to the ground. You’ll get kicked in the head, jumped on, and smashed.

What if you are fighting on rubble ground full of broken stones which can all become dangerous weapons at any time? You might want to fight in a standing position instead.

What if your opponent is double your size and towering over you? May not be the best idea to try and bring the fight to the ground.

In general, when facing an unknown attacker, it is never a good idea to make assumptions about his or her ability or where a fight would end up.

Instead, be like water, like Bruce Lee once said.

Be present, be flexible, make the best use of what you have depending on the situation.

And before you find yourself in an actual life or death situation, prepare the best you can. Learn different techniques and practice fighting a lot with partners of different sizes, different abilities, and different fighting styles.

A BJJ fighter would have an advantage when facing a single unarmed attacker who doesn’t know or is not as good at grappling techniques. However, this is not what usually happens with street fights which often involve multiple attackers, knives and other weapons or people with boxing backgrounds.

However, in an environment like UFC bouts, fighters trained in BJJ will definitely have an advantage over those without grappling skills because:

  • they face a single unarmed opponent
  • the ground is even and safe
  • they can bring the fight to the ground and are free to use their grappling techniques to immobilize the opponent
  • they are protected by rules prohibiting the use of dangerous techniques such as eye gouging, strikes to the back of the neck and head, headbutting, joint manipulations, and groin strikes.

In summary, BJJ is good for rule-based fighting, competition, and law enforcement but BJJ itself is generally not good for self-defense.

Karate vs BJJ: which one is better for self-defense?

From the above discussion, you have probably guessed my view.

In my opinion, Karate is better than BJJ for self-defense purposes because it is a more well-rounded martial art that equips you with a broader range of techniques, trains you to use your body parts as weapons and has exercises to condition your body to withstand heavy hits.

1. Karate teaches you a broader range of techniques

Traditional Okinawan karate teaches you a range of techniques including blocking, striking, throwing, and grappling whereas BJJ training is centered around grappling techniques only.

If you spend a lot of time practicing a particular set of techniques (e.g. grappling techniques), you will be very good at it, but it doesn’t mean it will make you better at defending yourself as discussed above.

A lot of techniques do mean it takes time to master them all. However, to the Okinawan people, karate is very much a way of life rather than merely a self-defense art.

It is expected that karate students would spend their lifetime studying the art rather than just quickly learning a few practical techniques.

And if you dedicate your life to studying the art of Karate, you will be able to master this vast range of techniques and become a better fighter for it.

2. Karate trains you to use body parts as weapons

As Karate is an art of the empty hands, it emphasizes training various body parts such as fingertips, knuckles, hands, toes, shins, feet to become weapons themselves. And they can definitely become deadly weapons at that for dedicated Karate practitioners.

In hand-to-hand combat, the one who can use his or her body parts as weapons will have an advantage over the one who can’t.

The video below shows how a karate instructor uses bamboo, pebbles, wooden board, and concrete board to harden various body parts.

3. Karate training conditions your body to withstand heavy hits

Traditional Okinawan karate emphasizes the importance of body conditioning through many targeted exercises and Sanchin kata practice to help students withstand heavy hits in actual fights. BJJ has none of these in its curriculum.

In the video below, you will see various exercises that karate students use to condition their bodies and turn parts of their bodies into weapons when the need arises.

In addition to these body conditioning exercises, Sanchin kata is also regularly practiced.

Sanchin is the most important kata of traditional Okinawan karate. It has the simplest techniques of all the katas but is the most difficult to master because it requires total mental concentration and coordination of the mind and body. It helps build a stronger body and trains a karate student to withstand heavy blows to the body.

This is very important in actual fighting. When fighting against an opponent of equal technical capability, you are likely to get hit at some point in time. The one that can take the hit and keep going will have an advantage over the one whose body hasn’t been prepared for such situations.

In addition, if you are able to take hits to the arms, legs, and torso without problems, you can focus your defense on protecting vital points like the head and the throat.

In the old-time, new karate students were required to practice Sanchin kata only, days in, days out, for a few years before they learn any other katas.

In the video below, Meitetsu Yagi sensei’s grandson performed Sanchin kata while Yagi sensei shime which is a method of checking out posture, strength, and concentration. If you perform Sanchin correctly, you can withstand hits to the shoulders, arms, legs, chest, and groin without being hurt.

Towards the end, you’ll see that, though being not particularly muscular, Yagi sensei’s grandson was able to withstand a solid wooden bo hitting his leg without any problem. The bo snapped in half, however.

If you are looking for a martial art to try out, the priority should be to find a good dojo with good instructors and a good environment, whether it is BJJ, Boxing, Aikido, Wing Chun, or Taekwondo.

I believe martial art principles transcend martial art styles and a good instructor will teach you valuable fighting principles not just techniques.

The most important thing is to get started. If you find a style lacking or doesn’t interest you, you can always look elsewhere. But if you don’t start, you will never find out.

I love karate but I have tried my best to give a fair review of the two fighting arts in this post and I hope you enjoy reading this post.

If you know someone who might be interested in reading this post, please consider sharing it with them, I would appreciate that a lot.

Please also check out my library of other karate articles which is updated regularly.


Traditional Karate-Do: Okinawa Goju Ryu Vol. 1: The Fundamental Techniques

The Historical Origins Of Karate (theculturetrip.com)

The Japanization of Karate? Placing an Intangible Cultural Practice

New World Encyclopedia – Jujutsu

History of Jujitsu

History of Jiu Jitsu: Judo Travels the World and Maeda Meets Gracie

The history of jiu-jitsu – Graciemag

History of Kodokan Judo

The Human Body Armor | Sanchin | 人体防具 | Meitetsu Yagi | 剛柔流サンチン|八木明哲先生


How to condition parts of your body | Uechi-ryu Kiyohide Shinjo | 新城清秀先生| Okinawa karate

Body conditioning with bamboo, stones, and a partner

Wikipedia – Karate

Wikipedia – Braziilian Jiu Jitsu

Wikipedia – Judo

Wikipedia – Kanō Jigorō

Gichin Funakoshi – the father of modern karate

Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957)

The influence of karateka Gichin Funakoshi on Jigoro Kano and Taekwondo leaders