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What Are The Different Styles of Karate? Simply Explained

Photo by Claus Michelfelder (Left Photo)

Karate is, perhaps, the most popular martial art, well spread all around the world. It emerged in the Okinawan Islands in the 14th century and is a national sport in Japan. However, the term karate is a bit confusing as there are many different styles, forms, and rules.

Karate has dozens of different styles and forms. But, there are four major styles created in the Okinawan Islands that later influenced the birth of other styles and forms that came later. These four main styles are:

  • Goju Ryu
  • Shotokan
  • Wado Ryu
  • Shito Ryu.

Keep reading this article to learn more about different types of karate, and find out which are the best and most effective.

History of Karate

The earliest records of karate go all the way back to the 14th century in the Ryukyu Kingdom. Its story has started when a large group of families moved from China to the Ryukyu Islands (present Okinawan). Some of these people were skilled martial artists who began teaching Chinese martial arts upon arriving on the island. In the 15th century, the King would ban all the weapons so unarmed martial art practices started to evolve at a high rate.

This was a time when the three initial forms of karate appeared, named by the three main cities they emerged from:

  • Shuri-te
  • Naga-te
  • Tomari-te

Moving to the 19th century, one of the most important figures was Matsumura Sokon. He was a student of Shuri-te and Tomari-te karate, and he used this as a base to create the fourth style “Shorin-Ryu”. Later on, one of his students, Itosu Anko, would play a big role in the rise of karate on the main island of Japan. First, he helped karate to get recognition from the government. And shortly after that, karate katas became a part of Okinawan public schools. This is the main reason why Anko is often seen as the father of modern karate.

The biggest change came when Japan annexed the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1879 and many Okinawans started migrating to the main islands of Japan. Karate started spreading fast with many teachers opening schools all across Japan, and some of the most famous ones were:

  • Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-Ryu)
  • Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan karate)
  • Kanken Toyama (founder of Shudokan)

At the beginning of the 20th century, karate started to rise at a high rate. In 1922, the “Japanese Ministry of Education” accepted Karate to be a part of Japanese universities. From this point, karate would start to grow and evolve fast, and it became the national sport in Japan. This was also a time when the name was changed from “Chinese Hand” to “Empty Hand”, which in some way marks the beginning of Japanese karate.

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How Many Different Styles of Karate Are There?

Karate is well spread all across the world and there are dozens of different styles and forms. Yet, it’s crucial to remember that the four major styles of karate influenced the birth of most other styles. Here is a short explanation of each one:

  • Shotokan — is a style created by Gichin Funakoshi who is often seen as a pioneer of karate in Japan. Born in Okinawa, Funakoshi later moved to Tokyo, where he founded Shotokan in 1938. The emphasis of this style is on wide stances and linear methods, and attacking in a blitz using elbows, knees, kicks, and punches. It has three main elements: Kihon (basics), Kumite (sparring), and kata (forms). In modern times, it is by far the most popular among people who want to learn self-defense.
  • Wado-Ryu — is a style founded by Hironori Otsuka in 1939. It is famous for its emphasis on hand and foot strikes, joint locks, and throws. It has origins in Shotokan and Shito-Ryu styles of karate and its throws and joint locks come from Ju-jitsu. It differs from other styles as it focuses more on fluid movements and much shorter stances.
  • Shito-Ryu — is a style founded by Kenwa Mabuni in 1934 and is one of the most technical styles of karate. Students learn around 94 different katas and the main goal is to move from one technique to another in a flow. Training includes a lot of sparring and teaches a person how to strike with all limbs, grapple, and attack with joint locks.
  • Goju-Ryu — is a style developed by Chojun Miyagi in 1930 and is a mix of hard and soft techniques. The emphasis of this style is on fast and precise counter-attacks, breathing power, and both circular and linear movements. It consists of hand and foot strikes, as well as takedowns, throws, and joint locks. 

Some other popular styles of karate are:

  • Kyokushin
  • Shorin-Ryu
  • Enshin
  • Uechi-Ryu

What Is The Hardest Style of Karate?

Kyokushin karate is the hardest style of karate. While most other styles consist of both hard and soft techniques, Kyokushin is all about power and damage. It embraces a hard method of training and hard sparring without the gear. Karatekas trained in this style learn how to kick and punch bare-knuckle, which is what makes it brutal and even dangerous in the eyes of the layman. But at the same time, they are all very strong, durable, and have superb conditioning.

Kyokushin is a modern style created in 1964 by Mas Oyama. It has origins in Goru-Ryu and Shotokan, and despite being brutal, it is also a very technical style. The emphasis is on striking utilizing hard kicks. Students learn how to rotate their hips and weight transition to generate a lot of power in every strike without using much energy. Like in all other styles, they utilize advanced footwork, angles and are very, very accurate.

Since it is oriented towards full contact and damage, Kyokushin is among the most effective styles for self-defense. Its hard method of training and lack of protective gear train both your mind and body for real combat. Back in the day, students could also throw punches to the head. But this was just too brutal and caused a lot of serious injuries. In modern times, Kyokushin doesn’t include punches to the head, only to the upper body area below the neck.

How Many Belts Are There In Karate?

The number of belt ranks differs between the styles of karate, schools, and even countries. However, most styles and schools have from seven to ten belt ranks called Kyu which means “lower belts”. For instance, Shotokan has 8 Kyu ranks, Shito-Ryu has 9 while Goju Ryu has 10 ranks. Here is a list of the belts and how long does it take to progress through all the ranks:

BeltHow long it takes to get it
White3 months 
Yellow6 months 
Orange6 months
Green9 months
Blue12 months
Brown12 – 18 months
Black Belt12-18 months

Total time to reach a black belt: around 5 to 6 years

Once they reach a black belt, students then move to the advanced grades called “Dan levels”. In some way, this is where the most important journey begins, and the grades vary between styles and can go from 6th to 10th Dan. Here is a list of all:

RankMinimum ExperienceAge
1st Dan (Shodan)1 year 
2nd Dan (Nidan)1 year training 
3rd Dan (Sandan)2 years 18 and over
4th Dan (Yondan)3 years
5th Dan (Godan)4 years
6th Dan (Rokudan)6 years
7th Dan (Nanadan)7 years50 and over
8th Dan (Hachidan)7 years60 and over
9th Dan (Kyudan)8 years
10th Dan (Judan)9 years
Karate Belt Ranking System – EASILY Explained For Beginners

What Is The Difference Between Kihon, Kata And Kumite?

Kihon, Kata, and Kumite are the three parts of karate training. Here is a brief explanation of each one:

  • Kihon — means basics of karate. Beginners must spend a lot of time learning the basics to build a strong base. They endlessly drill stances, punches, kicks, and blocks until they get it right. All students must master all the basics before they can progress to the advanced levels.
  • Kata — is a set of forms where each form stands for a sequence of martial arts movements. Karateka practice kata alone, and they do this to memorize and perfect the movement and techniques. Depending on the type of kata, they perform different stances, punches, and kicks.
  • Kumite — means sparring between two karateka. This is a part of training where the main goal is to apply techniques in a real fight. But of course, the focus is on light contact and executing techniques the right way.

How Long Does It Take To Get A Black Belt In Karate?

On average, students need around 5 years of training in karate to reach the black belt rank. But bear in mind that this depends on the style of karate, school, your talent, dedication, and passion for learning. That said, some people may earn a black belt in less time while some need up to 7 years. Beginners start from the white belt rank, and depending on the style, must progress through six more ranks before reaching a black belt.

The progression through the ranks is slow and the promotional criteria is very strict. Once a student feels ready and wants to go to the higher rank, he/she has to pass the exam where they need to display a certain level of competency to pass on to the next rank. In most karate schools and styles, the grading is held around four times per year.

Is Karate Effective For Self Defense?

Karate is a martial art created for self-defense and its techniques are designed to work in street fighting. One style of karate that clearly differs from the others in this aspect is Kyokushin that is a full-contact karate style. It embraces a hard method of training and throwing each strike with violent intention and goal to knock the opponent out. Its concept and methods of training are really effective for street fighting. 

Traditional forms of karate, the ones from Okinawan Island were designed specifically for street fighting. But over the years, notably in modern times, the emphasis has moved from self-defense to sports karate and competition. 

In this day and age, most karate dojos are heavily oriented towards tournaments and competition, while traditional self-defense methods are slowly falling into oblivion. To prepare for tournaments, karatekas develop skills, habits, and automatic reactions that they can’t use on the streets. The rules of karate competition differ so much from real fighting that it would be dangerous to apply the same moves in a street fight. This is the main reason why modern-day karate (sports karate) is not that practical for street fighting.

Even when they do teach self-defense, modern methods are much softer than traditional ones. Students learn how to beat the opponent with technique rather than using power and landing hard strikes. This approach allows you to win a fight on the streets without causing injuries, which sounds nice on paper.

But bear in mind that fights on the street are chaotic brawls where you can lose your life or get seriously hurt in a split of a second. You need to be aggressive, even violent in some cases to protect your life or the lives of your loved ones. Once the fight breaks out, the last thing you need to do is to rely upon the automatic reactions that you have developed for scoring points in tournaments. 

Is Karate Effective In MMA?

Karate is more than present in modern MMA. There have been many successful UFC fighters trained in specific styles of karate. In fact, it’s fair to say that karate is one of the very few traditional martial arts that have found its place in the world of cage fighting. Still, it’s worth pointing up that it is not the most effective as other martial arts like Muay Thai fit better within the rules.

What most karate styles bring to the MMA is fast footwork, blitz attacks, and laser precision. MMA fighters trained in karate are always on the move bouncing in all directions, striking with kicks and punches from both stances, and are very hard to hit. It’s really hard to cut their movement or land a clean strike because they never stick in one place.

They are masters in keeping their range, moving in to land a strike, and moving out without being hit back and delivering fast counters. This is why karate fighters are a tricky matchup for any fighter, and so hard to beat inside the cage.

Of course, fighters like Stephen Thompson are also good in other aspects of MMA like grappling and have a decent BJJ defense. You can’t expect to switch over from karate and succeed or go far without developing an all-around set of skills. But overall, karate represents a solid base for MMA.

Which Style of Karate Is The Best For MMA?

In order to see which style of karate may be the best style, let’s look at some of the most famous karate based fighters in MMA and their style of karate:

Lyoto Machida— Lyoto Machida is a former UFC 205 lbs champ and one of the pioneers of karate in modern MMA. There were a couple of fighters before him, but it’s fair to say that Machida put karate on the map when it comes to MMA. “The Dragon” grew up on the mats training in Shotokan karate from a young age and is a 3rd dan black belt in Shotokan. His father Yoshizo Machida was highly ranked in the Japan Karate Association and a master in Shotokan karate as well. 

Stephen Thompson —  Thompson holds black belt ranks in Kempo karate. Thompson is one of the most talented UFC fighters in history. When it comes to the new generation of fighters and fans, he is the face of karate in MMA. Thompson prefers to stay in a wide stance, keep his hands low, bounce around in all directions, and attack in a blitz. He is, perhaps, the best instance of how effective karate is in MMA. In his career, he fought two times for the UFC title but failed on both occasions.

Robert Whittaker — is one of the best 185-pound fighters in the history of the sport that has a strong background in karate. When he was just seven years old, his father enrolled him in Goju-Ryu karate dojo to learn self-defense tactics. Whittaker went on to train hard for eight years, and earn a black belt before moving to Hapkido.

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