My blogospheric friend, Dr. Pat Parker--cardiac rehab guy, martial artist, notorious Presbyterian, and jalapeno-grower extraordinaire--occasionally posts video clips and or commentary answering the question, "What is karate?" They are always informative and interesting and have inspired me to take a stab at answering the question in my own way.
What is karate? The simplest answer is that, as far as my reading is concerned (I don't pretend to be an expert, or to have actually been to Okinawa, or to speak the language, etc., etc., etc.), it is the unarmed portion of the warrior-class martial arts of the Ryukyu archipelago, though it is not really easy to totally separate it from the weapons arts of that area, and in my not-so-expert opinion, they really should be considered together.
On a technical level, karate is a multifaceted art, comprised of a blend of indigenous Okinawan technique influenced by the continuous importation and reimportation of Chinese martial arts. Okinawan ti and tegumi seem to have influenced it, and it soaked up what the famous Chinese families of Kuninda brought to Okinawa, and what visiting Chinese emissaries and merchants brought--Monk Fist and Tiger Fist and White Crane, and probably others. As far as I can tell--and God knows this isn't authoritative, it is just my opinion--some of its footwork and certain other elements may have been influenced by the sword handling of the Japanese.
It makes brilliant use of the mechanics of human perception, that is--by the closest analogy I can make--like stage magic, it takes advantage of the way people naturally perceive and react to movement, so that often, the person on the receiving end of a technique never really sees it coming. Nerve techniques are everywhere, in the strikes, locks, and throws. All of this was "cooked," if you will, into a state of extreme efficiency by the pressures of dealing with the Okinawan political situation in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
Obviously, this body of knowledge is better preserved in some modern karate organizations than others. Some, including some of the largest and most famous, seemed, until recently, to have been completely unaware that their formal exercises, or kata, contained much in the way of joint locks, for example, let alone nerve techniques. It will come as no surprise to regular readers that I am convinced that this body of knowledge is best preserved in RyuTe.
But that is not all there is to karate. Karate, certainly as it has been taught to me in RyuTe, and generally throughout Okinawa, to judge from what I have heard and read, is also characterized by a profound respect for the value of human life--not only the defender's life, not only the lives of those being defended, but also the attacker's life. It is true that karate has its share of potentially lethal and disabling techniques, but killing and crippling opponents is not its goal. Its goal is to protect life. Ultimately, it is an expression of mercy--mercy shown to your own family, in the act of going home alive and unharmed, that you may continue to contribut to their well-being and development; mercy toward the defenseless, whom you may end up protecting, that they may do likewise; and mercy to attackers, that they might live to see the error of their ways and to embrace a new way of living.
The goal in karate is to protect human life wherever possible. It is mercy in conflict, mercy in the arena, mercy in the melee.
That's what karate is.