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What is Okinawan Karate? An Introductory Guide for Beginners

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Karate has many styles and forms and is usually traced back to two main lineages: Japanese and Okinawan. You may wonder what Okinawan karate is and how it differs from modern variations.

Okinawan karate refers to the earliest karate forms created in Okinawa. When Japan took over the Okinawa islands, Okinawans developed karate to protect themselves from cruel rulers. Karate eventually spread to Japan, and these Okinawan forms became the basis for various styles of karate.

This is just a brief explanation of what Okinawa Karate is. Be sure to continue reading to learn more about its history and how it influenced the birth of other modern karate styles and forms.

The History of Okinawan Karate

The earliest records of the Okinawan style of karate date all the way back to the beginning of the 15th century. Because of its central location, Okinawa has always been the place of trade and cultural exchanges, especially with neighboring countries. When it comes to martial arts, different hand-to-hand and weapon-based martial arts practices usually come from China.

However, in 1429, the three main kingdoms in Okinawa decided to unite and form the Ryukyu Kingdom. A couple of decades after the Ryukyu Kingdom came into power, all martial arts practices would be forbidden due to the fear of widespread teaching negatively affecting the kingdom.

But when Japan’s Satsuma Domain conquered Okinawa Island, Okinawans were not allowed to have any weapons, and martial arts training was also banned. This was when historians believed people in Okinawa started developing Karate, which literally means “empty hands,” as a fighting system to protect themselves from ruthless rulers.

Despite all the restrictions, the people of Okinawa secretly developed various combat systems. They combined the “empty hand” techniques from Chinese martial arts with household and farming tools used as weapons to create combat systems they called “Okinawa-Te” or “Uchinaa-dii.”

Over the years, they have developed different variations of “Te.” The major ones came from the three different villages: Shuri, Naga, and Tomari. To distinguish one variation from the other, they named each one by the village it originates from:

  • Shuri-te
  • Naha-te
  • Tomari-te

Later on, these three original Okinawan styles would influence the birth of dozens of others. Masters from shuri, naha, and tomari-te would form the following four main Okinawan karate styles:

  • Shito-Ryu (originates from Shuri-te and Naha-te)
  • Shorin-ryu (originates from Shuri-te and Naha-te)
  • Uechi-Ryu
  • Goju-Ryu (originates from Naha-te)
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What Are the Major Okinawan Karate Styles?

The following is an explanation of the original karate styles developed in Okinawa. These styles later influenced the birth of dozens of modern ones on the main island of Japan.


Shito-Ryu originated from the Shuri-te and Naha-te schools of Okinawan martial art teaching. It was founded by Kewa Mabuni, a Shuri-te master who adopted the concept of “hard-soft” fighting methods similar to those in Goju-Ryu.

However, in contrast with other styles, Shito-Ryu focuses even more on katas and direct attacks. In total, students need to master over 90 katas, and most of them revolve around different blocks, punches, and kicks. The other key difference is the fighting stance, as the system adopts a low and short stance instead of a wide one.

Next, the techniques are supposed to be executed with full force. But unlike in other styles, Shito-Ryu puts slightly more emphasis on speed and precision.


Goju-Ryu, which was created by Kanryo Higaonna, is thought to be one of the oldest Okinawan styles.As its name suggests, Goju is a mix of hard techniques (go) and moves aimed to be executed in a soft manner (ju). The founder, Higaonna, was a master of the Naha-te fighting style, which he used as a base to develop his own variation. In total, there are 12 core katas in the standard curriculum.

Goju-Ryu is also a very effective form, especially when it comes to close range. This style emphasizes hard striking with direct punches, open-hand strikes, and various types of kicks.

It also includes the basics of grappling attacks, such as throws, wrist locks, and joint locks. The soft part of systems actually refers to circular and linear movements, which are very important in Goju when it comes to maintaining distance.


Uechu-Ryu is also known as “Pangai-noon” which translates to “half-hard, half-soft.” Like most other original Okinawan styles, Uechi-Ryu also adopts the concept of hard direct striking with circular and linear movements.

Chinese martial arts influenced the system, as its founder, Uechi Kanbun, a student of southern styles of Kung Fu, incorporated many elements from Kung Fu. The Kung Fu style from Fujian Province had notably great influences on Uechi-Ryu. In contrast with other styles, Uechi-Ryu has only eight empty-hand katas.


Shorin-Ryu is considered the oldest karate style. Chosin Chibana officially founded it in 1933, but it is believed the system is much older. Shorin-Ryu is heavily influenced by the Shuri-te methods and principles, and there are 18 different katas.

The system emphasizes fast and precise striking and is based on the strategy of evasion. Students are taught how to attack sensitive body points with fast kicks, punches, and hand attacks.

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Okinawan Karate vs. Japanese Karate: What Are the Differences?

Okinawan karate is the original or traditional style of karate, while Japanese karate is a more modern variation that came about much later.

The art of karate started to rise in Japan after the country annexed the Okinawan Islands in 1879. This triggered the migration of people from Okinawa to the main islands, including skilled karatekas who started opening up schools and developing Japanese karate styles. However, these new forms were much different.

Following is a list of some of the key differences between Okinawan and Japanese styles of karate.

Self-Defense vs. Competition

All karate styles developed in the Okinawan Islands are designed solely for self-defense. There is no competition or rule of any kind. These styles teach you all about the physical and mental aspects of real combat and scenarios you may encounter in real life.

Modern Japanese karate is also rooted in self-defense. But the entire concept and learning syllabus have shifted from self-defense to competition over time. This is because karate became an integral part of the educational system in Japan. Karate would also become a very popular sport. In other words, traditional karate needed to be changed, made safer, and simplified.

As a result, the classes and methods of teaching in most Japanese karate styles are designed to align with the rules of competition, the famous “point fighting” rules. This shift to a competition-based style negatively impacted the system’s overall effectiveness and made it much different from the Okinawan styles.

Fighting range

Okinawan styles primarily focus on close-range combat. That’s why all of these systems emphasize short stances, direct striking techniques, and techniques like grabbing, twisting, attacking joint locks, and takedowns and throws. It also involves some brutal techniques, such as hitting the pressure points and nerve bundles, choking the opponent to sleep, etc.

Japanese karate is way different. It emphasizes wide and longer stances, originating from Japanese sword fencing called “kendo.” Students are primarily thought to strike and counterattack from a safe distance and avoid close-range exchanges. That’s why Japanese karate doesn’t involve much grappling or advanced self-defense tactics at close range.

Kobudo weapon-based training

Okinawan styles adopt the concept of “empty hand” fighting techniques. However, most of the masters are also trained in “Kobudo,” which is the art of using different combat tools such as nunchaku, kama, tonfa, sai, and bo.

According to their philosophy, Kobudo is not integral to Okinawan karate or the learning curriculum. However, Okinawa practitioners train in kobudo from time to time to learn how to defend against weapons. Again, the main idea behind this is to increase your self-defense abilities.

Kobudo is left out of most Japanese karate styles. You will have difficulty finding weapon training in Japanese karate dojos in modern times. Even if you do see weapons on display, it’s mostly for aesthetic reasons, as Japanese styles no longer practice kobudo.


The karate styles developed in Okinawa adopt the concept of short and high stances. According to their philosophy, a high stance is a natural one and puts less stress on your joints, such as your knees, feet, and back.

And they believe this type of stance is more practical in self-defense scenarios and close-range combat, while wide stances work well in competition. In some cases, Okinawan stances might be half the length of the ones developed later in Japan.

Okinawans never say Osu

“Osu” is a term developed in Japanese karate that translates to “push.” It means pushing yourself to the limits of endurance, pain, pressure, and other obstacles on your martial arts journey. The term is deeply stamped into the martial arts vernacular in modern times and utilized by other combat systems, such as jiu-jitsu.

In the present day, “Osu” also has many different meanings, such as “hello, goodbye, train harder,” etc.
However, karatekas from Okinawan styles never used or heard about Osu. Instead, they usually use the term “hai.”

Is Okinawan Karate Effective?

Okinawan karate styles are very effective in real combat. Each of the styles is designed to be practical in different combat scenarios. Styles like Goju-Ryu, Shito-Ryu, and Uechi-Ryu all teach effective techniques. You will develop good self-defense skills and solid instincts and reactions.

Unlike modern karate styles, the ones developed in Okinawa do not include any competition. The entire focus of training is on preparing a person for real combat. And these styles also teach a broader range of techniques as a result.

While modern styles emphasize kicks and punches, Okinawan styles are more versatile. These also involve the basics of grappling, ground fighting, and other self-defense tactics. While modern styles prepare you to win matches, the ones in the Okinawan style teach you how to fight.

The entire concept of Okinawan karate is centered on escaping trouble in the most efficient way possible. That’s why the emphasis is on short and high stances, direct and fast striking with full force, using all limbs, including elbows and knees, and grappling techniques.

Does Okinawan karate have grappling?

Okinawan karate teaches a broad range of techniques, including the principles of grappling and ground fighting. Although not as advanced as the ones in wrestling or jiu-Jitsu, these techniques are practical enough to help you handle the attacker if the fight hits the ground at some point.

In the standup, students learn techniques that mostly originate from Judo and Jujutsu. They are taught how to manipulate the opponent’s weight, re-direct energy, secure strong grips and use leverage to either defend or execute a grappling attack. They learn all types of throws, trips, takedowns, and once on the ground, practical joint locks and chokeholds. It basically covers all the elements.

However, you must separate Okinawan teaching methods from the modern Japanese styles. Grappling and ground fighting is not a part of modern Japanese karate.

Which Okinawan karate style is the most effective?

All Okinawan karate styles are designed to be effective and include reality-based techniques. Thus, picking just one is a challenging task. For many people, though, Goju-Ryu is often seen as the most effective style of Okinawan karate, being the most versatile and well-balanced.

And unlike other styles, Goju Ryu focuses on strength training, which improves the system’s overall effectiveness. Students utilize various traditional training tools to enhance both upper and lower body strength. They put a lot of emphasis on improving the strength in their arms (grip strength) and core to prepare for intense grappling exchanges.

Overall, the Goju-Ryu style is considered the most versatile self-defense system among all Okinawan styles because it covers all aspects of fighting. It includes both long and short-range kicking and punching techniques on the feet. But it also involves many takedown, throwing, and joint-locking techniques that other styles don’t use as much.

Students also participate in full-contact sparring, which adds to the system’s realism and teaches you how to apply techniques in real combat.

Related Questions

Which style of karate is most effective for MMA?

Shotokan karate is often seen as the best style if your goal is to transition from karate to MMA at some point on your martial arts journey.

However, remember that relying solely on Shotokan karate skills in MMA won’t help you much. You still need to develop all-around skills to cover other aspects of the game. This includes wrestling, BJJ, boxing, and many other techniques.

Most elements from Shotokan transition well to MMA. But this works best in combination with techniques from other martial arts.

Shotokan styles emphasize:

  • Advanced footwork and movement
  • Fast and direct striking
  • Very effective counter-striking skills
  • Unpredictable attacks

Karatekas who switch over to MMA also have superior:

  • Striking speed
  • Coordination
  • Balance
  • Spatial awareness

UFC fighters like Lyoto Machida and Stephen Thompson are masters at using karate techniques like movement, angles, all kinds of spinning, side and roundhouse kicks, and punches down the middle to win fights.

Shotokan karatekas are very unpredictable, and preparing against this style is challenging. They usually do not use conventional striking combinations and movements, which gives them a big advantage in MMA fights.

What is the most effective karate style for self-defense?

If you want to learn karate solely for self-defense, you should search for Goju-Ryu, Uechi-Ryu, or Shotokan school that embraces traditional teaching methods. Most modern Japanese styles emphasize competition over self-defense, so be sure to do proper research before signing up.

When it comes to self-defense, traditional styles developed in the Okinawan islands are known to be the most practical. These styles focus only on self-defense by concentrating on practical techniques, and they usually teach everything there is to know about fighting.

This includes striking with kicks, punches, open hands, knees, and elbows. And there is the grappling aspect, which involves sweeps, throws, takedowns, and the basic principles of ground fighting defense and offense. On top of that, there are other reality-based fighting moves, such as attacking pressure points like the throat, groin area, kidneys, etc.