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The word karate is a combination of two Japanese characters: kara, meaning empty, and te, meaning hand; thus, karate means "empty hand." Adding the suffix "-do" (pronounced "doe"), meaning "way," i.e., karate-do, implies karate as a total way of life that goes well beyond the self-defence applications. In traditional karate-do, we always keep in mind that the true opponent is oneself.

Karate may be defined as a weapon-less means of defence. It consists of dynamic offensive and defensive techniques using all parts of the body to their maximum advantage. Karate can also be described as a martial art, or fighting method, involving a variety of techniques, including blocks, strikes, evasions, throws, and joint manipulations.

Karate practice is divided into three aspects:

In each category the student is given instruction at the most basic level until the techniques become spontaneous. As the student progresses technically, they progress physically and practice demands greater stamina. At this stage students involve themselves with the more intricate and difficult katas and more dynamic forms of kumite. As the student approaches black belt level, technique, stamina, speed and coordination become natural as a result of strong practice. It is at this stage that the serious student discovers that they have only just begun their study of karate. The object of true karate practice is perfection of oneself through the perfection of the art.