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What Is Shotokan Karate? Easily Explained For Beginners


Karate is a very popular martial art practiced by millions of people all around the world. It is a combat system that has a long history, tradition, and various styles and forms out of which “Shotokan” is the most famous one. But what is Shotokan karate?

Shotokan Karate is one of four major styles of karate developed in Okinawa, Japan. It is a versatile style where the emphasis is on long and wide stances, linear techniques, speed, mobility, and quick and direct attacks. Modern Shotokan teaching emphasizes competition rather than self-defense.

Shotokan students also learn the basics of grappling like trips and throws. Keep reading this article to learn more about Shotokan karate. We will explore its history, pros, and cons of training, and much more about this unique karate style.

History of Shotokan karate

The story of Shotokan begins when Japan annexed the Okinawan Islands in 1879. This started the migration of people, including skilled karatekas, to the main islands of Japan. One of them was a karate master Gichin Funakoshi who arrived on the main islands in the 1920s with a mission to teach and popularize karate. Funakoshi was trained in two styles of karate called “Shorei-Ryu” and “Shorin-Ryu”.

Gichin Funakoshi

Prior to moving to the main islands, he was working on creating his own style. His main idea was to develop a simple style that would be a mix of soft and hard techniques from Okinawan styles and Japanese budo. Later on, he would open a gym called “Shotokan” in 1936 to teach and promote this new style. The name of the style came naturally as his dojo and the style he was teaching became so popular that people started calling it “Shotokan karate”.

The name translates to “Shoto” (pine-waves) and “Kan” meaning “house”. During the 1920s and 1930s, Funakoshi would travel through the country to teach and promote his new style. The biggest breakthrough came when he got the chance to perform at “Kodokan”. At the time, Kodokan was the biggest martial art center in Japan owned by Kano Jigoro, the founder of judo. Later on, he would also demonstrate karate to the Crown Prince, who would later become the Emperor of Japan.

Funakoshi became a very popular figure, so much so that he is often seen as a “father of karate” in Japan. But during WW2, he would lose his son Gigo, and the allied bombing run would destroy his dojo. Just two years after the war, he would also lose his wife and decide to move to Tokyo and start all over again.

The biggest moment came in 1948 when, thanks to Master Funakoshi and his efforts, the first “Japan Karate Association” was founded.

What is the difference between traditional karate and modern Shotokan karate?

Before you start discussing Shotokan karate and how practical it is, you must separate the traditional from the modern form because these two differ a lot, notably regarding self-defense. The traditional style was the one developed in Okinawan islands, while the modern ones are the ones developed on the main island of Japan. Here is a brief comparison:

Self-defense: The traditional style was created for self-defense. Thus, the entire concept of training revolves around preparing a person for real combat and various scenarios they may face on the streets. There are very little flashy moves as most techniques are designed to be effective.

In modern Shotokan, however, self-defense is also present, but not that much as the real emphasis is on competition and the character development. Students spend a lot of time learning how to compete under strict rules, instead of how to fight. They do very little self-defense training or any other drills dedicated to fighting outside of tournaments. But this may also vary between the schools.

Power and damage: In the traditional style, students used to spar full-contact and utilize brutal techniques such as knees and elbows, even dirty tactics like kicks to the groins, all while wearing limited safety gear. Most of the time, they would just wrap their hands, and that’s it.

Due to the importance of competition, modern form focuses more on light contact, and delivering fast and direct punches and kicks. The main point is to learn how to move in to land a strike or take the opponent down, and get out without being caught with the counter. To receive a point and win a match, Shotokan contestants do not have to use a lot of power as long as the strike lands on the right spot. In fact, you might get penalized for utilizing too much force in a match.

Sparring (Kumite): The traditional style puts a lot of emphasis on hard sparring. In fact, it visually looks like a freestyle match because contestants utilize all types of striking and grappling techniques together. They spar at all ranges using all limbs as weapons, including knees and elbows. They are also allowed to throw each other down to the ground, and even strike each other on the ground.

The modern style focuses more on light contact striking with kicks and punches without elbows and knees. Students never spar using full force and they always have to wear protective gear like padded gloves, head guard, mouthguard, and shin pads.

Katas (forms): Traditional style also includes katas. However, they also do a lot of “bunkai” which is a part of training where students learn how to apply katas in real life. In some way, katas without bunkai are not effective.

Performing kata
Photo by Claus Michelfelder/CC BY-SA 4.0

The modern form differs a lot here because it only includes katas used in competition, and students rarely do any bunkai.

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What are the advantages of Shotokan karate?

Here are some of the crucial benefits of Shotokan training:

  • Solid self-defense skills – Shotokan is a versatile combat system designed to be practical in real life. You will learn how to use all limbs as weapons to throw fast and precise punches, all types of kicks, as well as knee and elbow strikes. Though it is not a full-contact style, the speed, timing, and precision you develop are often more than enough for you to deal with an attacker. The system covers all the ranges but it is fair to say that it works best when you are in the open and have space to move.
  • Footwork and stances – Shotokan karatekas stand in wide and deep stances which differ quite a lot from other styles. This type of bladed stance has certain pros and cons in combat sports, but the trick is to mix it with quick footwork and movement. Skilled karatekas are always on the move, never stick in one place for more than 2 seconds, and always bouncing around. They use this type of stance and movement to keep their range, avoid strikes, and set up attacks.
  • Speed, timing, and precision – Shotokan karate is not a full-contact system. Or in other words, you won’t see two students striking each other with full power in sparring or during the match. Instead of knocking each other and causing injuries, the main point is to overwhelm the opponent with the high output, accuracy and speed, and defeat them without causing severe injuries.

What are the disadvantages of Shotokan?

Here are some of the biggest disadvantages of training in Shotokan karate:

  • Too much emphasis on competition – Shotokan is a practical system but only if you train in a dojo that embraces traditional methods of teaching. The modern practice has, to some extent, moved away from traditional methods of training, and with that, the benefits of training have changed a lot. Instead, competing and winning matches has become the first priority in a lot of schools. This is bad because learning how to score points limits your fighting abilities. Among all other things, it has a negative impact on your ability to apply techniques in a real fight, timing, and ability to absorb or do damage in a real fight.
  • The lack of hard sparring and aggression – in Shotokan, students must be careful not to throw strikes with full force and hurt each other. Instead, the focus is on light contact, speed and technique. In fact, they might receive a warning or point deduction if they throw hard shots. On one side, this forces students to focus on developing perfect techniques. It also prevents many injuries, including the bad ones like fractures or concussions.

    But on the other side, this is bad for real-life fighting where keeping it all light and easy does not work really well. First, you won’t be able to condition your mind and body enough to absorb hard shots with light sparring. This means that you can easily get hurt in a self-defense scenario, or panic once you absorb a hard shot to the face and your nose starts bleeding. Next, there is no scoring points or the referee to reset the action when you are fighting for your life. You will be on your own on the streets, and must forget about the rules and philosophies and be aggressive to protect yourself.
  • No fluid action – there is a lot of sparring in Shotokan training. However, there is no fluid action because the sparring resets every time one of the students scores a point by landing a clean strike. On one side, this is great if you want to compete under the point fighting rules. But on the other side, this is one of the main reasons why so many people think that modern karate is not effective.
  • A lot of katas and almost no “bunkai” – Shotokan, as well as most other styles of karate, includes a lot of katas. This is a solo exercise where students practice techniques alone. Why do they do this? Well, the main point is to learn how to execute combos with proper technique and to stamp the moves into your muscle memory. But katas only provide certain benefits when combined with “Bunkai” teaching, which is learning how to apply katas in a real fight. But in modern practice, students rarely do any bunkai and they practice only katas they use in competition.

Is Shotokan Karate effective in MMA?

Shotokan karate is more than present in modern MMA. However, you must separate the traditional and modern forms. Traditional style and methods of teaching are more in line with freestyle combat and with that, modern MMA.

Still, bear in mind that this style is not as advanced as some other martial arts that work better in MMA like the following four:

Therefore, Shotokan skills alone won’t help you much, but, if you mix some of its elements with one or more martial arts presented above, it may work really well. What Shotokan brings to the table in MMA are two key skills:

  • High-level footwork
  • Fast and precise striking

Fighters trained in Shotokan style are masters in keeping their range using footwork and different kicks or straight punches. They are also very good at catching their opponents coming in, fighting from both stances, and creating angles to attack.

Although Shotokan works quite well at distance, its biggest downside remains fighting at close range. In fact, most MMA fighters trained in this style have a bad habit of keeping their hands low and extended in front. Their striking defense is quite bad because holding your hands low leaves your chin and body exposed. They also do not have a strong clinch game and are prone to takedowns.

Is Shotokan Karate effective for self-defense?

The right answer is based on the style of Shotokan. The traditional style is a combat system created with self-defense in mind and it teaches you valuable self-defense tactics. It is a versatile system that covers most of the scenarios you may face on the streets. Modern style, on the other side, neglects the self-defense aspect because it focuses more on the competition.

If you want to learn self-defense tactics, be sure to do your research and find a traditional dojo. Here, you will learn how to strike with all limbs, including elbows and knees, and even some basics of grappling. Bear in mind that these techniques are not as advanced as the ones you may find in MMA, or BJJ, but are more than enough to protect yourself on the streets. 

On top of that, training involves a lot of sparring where two students simulate a real-life fight. This allows you to learn how to apply karate moves in a fight, and condition your body to absorb hard shots.

However, most modern dojos neglect the self-defense aspect. Instead of teaching you how to fight, modern form prepares you for a match where you need to score points using soft but fast and precise striking. It is much softer than the traditional style, and with that, far less effective for self-defense.

Shotokan vs Kyokushin – What are the key differences?

Kyokushin is a full-contact style that is physically much harder than Shotokan, and often seen as a better option if you want to learn self-defense. Here is a detailed comparison. 

Kyokushin karateShotokan karate
History and originsKyokushin emerged in the 1950 and it was founded by Mas Oyama. Shotokan is one of four major styles developed in the Okinawa in the 1928. 
TechniquesKyokushin is a mix of all types of kicks, punches and knee strikes. However, fighters are only allowed to punch the upper body area below the neck. Kicks and knees to the head are allowed. Shotokan is a versatile system where students learn how to use all limbs to strike the body area both above and below the waist. They also learn the basics of grappling.
PowerKyokushin is a full-contact style where students are allowed to strike each other with full force. They throw each strike with a lot of power and intention to hurt or knock out the opponent.Shotokan is a light contact style as it emphasizes technique, speed, and accuracy. Students are not allowed to throw strikes with full force both in training and in competition.
Protective gearKyokushin students do not wear any gear, which combined with full-contact striking makes this style more brutal. But in some modern schools, students are allowed to wear gloves. Shotokan students spar while wearing full protective gear that includes padded gloves, shin pads, head guard, mouthguard and chest protector. 

How long does it take to get a black belt in Shotokan Karate?

On average, Shotokan students need between 3.5 and 5 years to progress from the beginner white belt all the way to the black belt rank. The time you need to reach a black belt rank depends on many factors. For example, some students are more talented, dedicated, and consistent than others, and with that, can reach a black belt rank in less time.

Also, the promotional criteria differ between dojos and even countries. In some, students may reach a black belt rank in less than 3 years, but they would be not as skilled as the students who train in dojos where the belt system is more strict.

Get the full report on Karate Belt Ranking System – EASILY Explained For Beginners

Which karate style has the least kata?

Uechi-Ryu is a karate style that has the least kata, just 8. It is a style developed in Okinawa by Master Uechi Kanbun at the beginning of the 20th century. The other karate style that doesn’t have katas is “Ashihara Karate” which is a modern style developed in the late 1970s in Japan.

Ashihara is a full-contact style that has origins in Kyokushin and is also known as “street karate”. It is a very versatile style that apart from kicking and punching, also includes elements of Pankration and Jujutsu.