About Karate Styles

Karate Styles

When people hear the term “martial art” they generally think of Karate. One of the most popular martial arts, Karate had its roots in China, developed in Okinawa, and was later brought to Japan by Gichin Funakoshi. Karate originated in Okinawa in the 1600s. It was developed from imported Chinese martial arts skills and refined as an advanced means of self-defense because weapons were outlawed on the island. It was originally called Te, meaning “hand.” Later, masters adopted the name Karate, meaning “empty hand” or “Chinese hand” (depending upon which characters are used to write the word).

The word Karate is formed by two characters, the first one kara (empty) and the other te (hand). Kara may be explained several ways. The first way is that through the practice of karate, self-defense techniques are learned, where no weapons are used, other than hands, feet, or other parts of the body. A second way, as explained by Master Funakoshi, “Just as it is the clear mirror that reflects without distortion, or the quiet valley that echoes a sound, so must one who would study Karate-do purge himself of selfish and evil thoughts, for only with a clear mind and conscience can he [she] understand that which he [she] receives. This is another meaning of the element kara in Karate-do.” Another meaning given by Funakoshi is that of always striving to be inwardly humble and outwardly gentle. Finally, Funakoshi also talks about the elemental form of the universe, which is emptiness (kara, ku), “and thus, emptiness is form itself. The kara of Karate-do has this meaning.” It is clear that Karate is much more than mere self-defense techniques.

Toward the end of the 19th century, Gichin Funakoshi trained with various karate masters, and then devised his own system, which he named Shotokan. He spread the style to the Japanese mainland and eventually to the West. Master Funakoshi, inspired by traditional martial arts from the main Japanese islands (such as Kyudo, Kendo, and Judo) modified Karate, which until that moment could have been called Karate-jutsu (a fighting art), and emphasized its philosophical aspects combining Karate techniques with traditional Budo (the martial way). The word Budo is formed by two Chinese characters. Bu is formed by two symbols, a symbol that means to stop is drawn inside another symbol of two weapons, two crossed halberds. Thus, bu means to stop conflict. As stated before, do means a way or a life philosophy. In Master Funakoshi’s own words: “Since Karate is a Budo, this meaning should be deeply considered, and the fists should not be used heedlessly”.

Today it is common to find both “traditional” and “competitive” karate styles. Traditional styles being the formal Okinawan styles, and competitive styles being those involved mostly in tournament competition. Karate is based upon powerful linear kicks and punches. It is considered a “hard” martial art since its blocks and attacks are direct and forceful. Many different styles fall under the karate banner. All include hard style kicks, punches, and blocks, but some emphasize linear movements, while others emphasize circular movements. In virtually every style, kata (patterns) practice and kumite (sparring) play an important role in training.

American Freestyle Karate. American freestyle (named by Dan Anderson) is not really a style, it more of method of non-Oriental training. It stresses training to capitalize on your own specific skills and capabilities rather than training to force yourself to conform to some preconceived idea of what a technique should be.

American Kempo. American Kempo (or Kenpo) (American Fist Law) is an eclectic art developed by Hawaiian Ed Parker. The art combines the Kara-Ho Kempo Karate that Parker learned from William Chow with influences from Chinese, Japanese Kosho Ryu Kenpo, Hawaiian, and Western martial art sources. Parker added many labels to concepts from these arts that originally has no labels. It blends circular motions and evasive movements with linear kicks and punches. It is oriented toward “street” self-defense. The system allows “artistic interpretation” and many American offshoots have evolved from it.

Note: In the Japanese language, the consonants “n” and “m” have the same symbol, thus the English spelling can be rendered either “Kempo” or “Kenpo”. There are several arts in this family, but the spelling is not significant in distinguishing between them.

Cha Yon Ryu. Cha Yon Ryu (Natural Way) is an eclectic, fairly new martial art founded in 1968 by Kim Soo of Houston, Texas. Taekwondo and Shotokan Karate contributes kicking techniques, strong stances and direct, linear strikes and blocks. Okinawa-te movements add techniques with some angularity, and Quanfa Gongfu contributes fluid, circular movements. Hapkido adds defenses against chokes, grabs and armed attacks, as well as various throwing and falling techniques. Students strive to fulfill The Dojang Hun (TrainingHall Oath): Seek perfection of character, Live the way of truth, Endeavor, Be faithful, Respect your seniors, and Refrain from violent behavior.

Full-Contact Karate. Full-contact karate was founded in the early 1970’s by Mike Anderson and Jhoon Rhee. Similar to boxing, the goal is to knockout the opponent or to win on a decision by judges. Unlike boxing, kicks are permitted and a minimum number of kicks must be delivered each round.

Goju-Ryu. Goju-Ryu was founded in the 1930’s by Miyagi Chojun from Okinawan Karate and Chinese Kempo techniques. It is combination of hard “go” and soft “ju” techniques that work together similar to yin and yang. Linear motion is combined with circular movements. Patterns are practiced slowly with emphasis on breathing.

Isshin-Ryu. Isshin-ryu was found in Okinawa in 1954 by Shimabuku Tatso by combining Shorin-ryu (90%) and Goju-ryu (10%) techniques. It uses low kicks, short stances, and awareness of surroundings to be useful for street fighting. It also teaches use of the kusarigama. Isshin-ryu emphasizes:

Kicks and punches that are thrown from natural stances eliminating wasted motions and giving you split-second advantages over opponents using some of the other styles.
Stresses proficiency with both hand and foot techniques, equally, making it a more versatile form of Karate because you have no weak points.

“Close in” techniques useful in “street fighting” making it a more realistic style of Karate.
Snap punches and snap kicks, where the limb does not fully extend and is immediately retracted (preventing excessive strain on the knees and elbows) permitting you to move in and out quickly without committing yourself to a disadvantageous position should you miss or misjudge.

Blocks with muscular portion of the forearm rather than the bone.
Fist formed with the thumb on top rather than wrapped over the first two fingers (this strengthens the wrist to help prevent buckling at the wrist on impact).
The vertical punch, which increases speed and can be focused at any given point.

Karate Connection. An American Kenpo based school created by Chuck Sullivan and Vic LeRoux. It includes techniques from many different styles; a “use what works” mentality.

Kempo. Kempo “way of the fist” (also known as Quan Fa, Chuan Fa, Jiaodishu, Kaiki, and Kenyu) is a Chinese martial art. Its techniques are similar to Karate with a focus on Buddhist philosophy. Other arts, such as archery and swordsmanship are also taught in Kempo schools.

Kenpo (Kosho Ryu). A Japanese based, philosophical art much like Jeet Kune Do but with a Zen influence, meaning lots of mind science material and healing arts. It is not a style of compiled patterns or specific techniques; it is a study of all motion and therefore cannot be stylized to look like a specific teacher or animal movement.

Kenpo is the family style of Grandmaster James Mitose. It was first taught to non-family members in Hawaii during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Mitose called his family style “Kyu-sho-ryu” Kenpo (old pine tree school fist law). According to Mitose, during the invasion of Genghis Khan, the Head Monk of the Shaolin Temple fled China and found refuge with the Mitose family. In appreciation for the kindness of the Mitose’s, he taught them Shaolin Chuan Fa (Shorinji Kempo in Japanese). Then, in 1235, a Shinto priest whom James Mitose calls his first ancestor became enlightened to what we call Kempo. According to Mitose, this man was a martial arts master and a Buddhist monk studying at Shaka In who found it difficult to be both. His religion taught him pacifism; his martial art taught him destruction. He pondered this dilemma under an old pine tree meaning Kosho in Japanese. He became enlightened and was from then on known as, Kosho Bosatsu, the Old Pine Tree Enlightened One. He discovered the relationship between man and nature and also the secret of the escaping arts. He founded the Kosho Shorei Temple of Peace, True Self Defense, and Kosho Shorei Yoga School.

One of James Mitose’s students, William Chow, mixed it with elements of his father’s Chinese style to produce his own style, called “Kara-ho” Kenpo Karate. Kenpo’s techniques were influenced by those of various Chinese, Japanese, and Hawaiian martial arts. Kenpo training emphasizes a scientific approach to combat. Many patterns, rapid-fire hand techniques, and combinations are taught. Ed Parker popularized the style on the mainland by organizing the style and orienting it toward practical street self-defense. Although it is often categorized as an American martial art, the style’s name is written with the same Chinese characters as Chuan-fa, a generic Chinese term for martial arts. The art received a popularity boost after Jeff Speakman, a student of Parker’s, showcased it in the movie, “Perfect Weapon.”

Kempo (Ryukyu). Ryukyu Kempo (which roughly translates into Okinawan kung-fu, or Chinese boxing science) is the original style of martial arts learned and taught by Gichin Funakoshi on the Okinawa, an island in the Ryukyu island chain. It stresses the existence of body points within your opponent that can be struck or grappled for more effective fighting. Funakoshi’s first edition book “Ryukyu Kempo” shows him clearly grappling and touching an opponent. Later editions and current karate books only show a practioner with a retracted punch, where the original shows actively grappling an enemy. It is felt that Funakoshi was the last of the purists, wanting all to learn the art.

Okinawans, who have a culture and history of their own, became disenchanted with the Japanese, and were less inclined to teach them the “secret techniques” of self-defense. When American military soldiers occupied Japan after WWII, they became enamored of the martial-arts. It is theorized that the Japanese and Okinawans were reluctant to teach the secrets of their national art to the occupiers, and so taught a “watered down” version of karate-do usually reserved for children. Contemporary Kempo practioners practice “pressure point fighting” or Kyushu-jitsu and grappling, called Tuite. It is an exact art of striking small targets on the body, such as nerve centers, and grappling body points in manners similar to Jujitsu or Aikido.

There are a couple of physical differences in Kempo and many other styles. One is a three-quarter punch, rather than a full twist. Second is a fist whereby the thumb stops at the first finger, rather than the first two fingers. Third is the sword hand, which has the little finger placed as parallel as possible to the third finger and the thumb straight and on the inside rather than bent.

Kobo-Jutsu. Kobo-jutsu is a Okinawan style of Karate characterized by the large array of weapons it uses. The style makes extensive use of forms to perfect techniques.

Kyokushin-Kai. Kyokushin-Kai is a Japanese style of Karate found by Oyama Masutatsu in the 1950’s. The style was influenced by Kempo, Gojuryu, and Zen. It is powerful art that emphasized breaking, breathing, multiple attacks in quick sucession, and kill techniques.

Shohei-Ryu (formally known as Uechi-Ryu). A traditional Okinawan, Zen based style founded by Kanbum Uechi . Although it has become one of the main Okinawan martial arts and absorbed many of the traditional Okinawan karate training methods and approaches, it is historically, and to some extent technically, quite separate.

The name Shohei-Ryu comes from two Chinese characters, “Sho” meaning “to shine brightly” and “Hei” meaning “fairness”, “equality” and “peace”. The name also refers to two Japanese eras, a past one, Showa, and the present one, Heisei. Ryu (pronounced “roo”) is the Japanese word for “style” or “path”.

Grandmaster Kanbun Uechi was born on May 5, 1877 in Isumi, a small village in northern Okinawa. In 1897, at the age of 20, he fled to Fuzhou, the capital city of Fujian province in China, to avoid being drafted into the Japanese army, which was occupying Okinawa at the time. For ten years, he studied the art of Pangai-noon, meaning half hard half soft, under master Shushiwa, a Buddist priest who had received his training in the Shoalin Temple in Southern China. Pangai-noon was derived from the interwoven movements of the tiger, crane and dragon and it concentrates on the use of the single-knuckle punch, spear-hand strike, pointed kick and circular block. Uechi opened his own school in Nanchon, a city in Fukien Province, where he taught for three years, having the distinction of being the only Okinawan ever accepted in China as a teacher. Disheartened after one of his students became involved in a dispute and killed another person, Uechi vowed never to teach again, and, in 1910, he closed his school and returned Okinawa where he married and, on June 26, 1911, his son Kanei was born. Uechi still refused to teach his art and only once during the ensuing years did he reluctantly demonstrate his kata.

Absorbing some Okinawan Goju-ryu over the decades, Shohei-Ryu still retains its original Chinese flavor, both in its technique and in the culture of the dojo. It is a “half-hard, half-soft” style very similar to such southern Chinese styles as Fukienese Crane (as still practiced in the Chinese communities of Malaysia), Taiwanese Golden Eagle, and even Wing Chun. Conditioning the body for both attack and defense is a common characteristic of both Okinawan karate and southern Shaolin “street” styles, and as such is an important part of Shohei-Ryu training. There is a strong internal component to the practice, including focused breathing and tensioning exercises similar to Chinese Qigong. Shohei-Ryu, following its Chinese Crane heritage, emphasizes circular blocks, low snap kicks, infighting (coordinating footwork with grabs, locks, throws, and sweeps), and short, rapid hand traps and attacks (not unlike Wing Chun). The style incorporates the characteristics of the Wushu animals. It uses circular motions and uses the Phoenix Eye single knuckle punch. Unlike most Karate styles, it uses grappling techniques.

Shorin Ryu. Shorin Ryu is an Okinawan soft style. Known for its light, quick, and agile techniques that are suitable for a person of light body structure. Because of its strict spiritual aspects it is considered a religious sect.

Shorinji Kempo. Shorinji Kempo is a Japanese Karate style that is deeply rooted in Zen meditation. It was created by So Doshin who says it is based on traditional Shaolin teachings. In the 1970’s, the Japanese courts forced So Doshin to the change the name of his school to Nippon Shorinji Kempo. It stresses being calm in action. Students first learn its deep spirituality, then learn the fighting techniques. Because of its combination of Buddhism, philosophy, and martial arts, many consider Shorinji Kempo a religious sect.

Shorei Ryu. Shorei Ryu is an Okinawan hard style. Know for its heavy, powerful techniques and body toughening training. It is known for the its numerous amount of stances. It is more suitable for a person of heavy body structure. It strives to emulate the actions of the 5 traditional animals and teaches all the traditional Okinawan weapons, such as the bo, tonfa, and sai. Some characteristics of shorei-ryu:

  • Stances exceptionally low in kata form.
  • Seiken thrust: slightly downward and in center of body. The rear leg moves slightly forward at the completion of the punch. The moving of the rear leg is automatic and is caused by the power generated by the force of the punch and the forward movement of the hips.
  • Fist: index finger under curled thumb.
  • Hips: rotate with a definite forward movement.
  • Blocks: all start spiraling at wrists and spiral until completion of block.
  • Head snap when turning.
  • Thousand hand, five and six-count rice exercises, and sun fist.
  • High rising block – executed from thigh up.
  • Teeth clenched.
  • Wide-eyed stare.
  • Eight faces: the art of looking or expression (hyojo do). (Confidence, Friendly, Solemn, Unconcerned, Contempt, Shock, Fear, Anger)
  • All kicks, blocks and strikes are 90% circular (point and circles).
  • Kicks: for every forward one there is a reverse one.
  • Te-katana and te-uke covers are very obvious in all Shuri-ryu techniques and katas.
  • Body: always relaxed until exact moment of completing technique.

Shotokai Karate-do. Shotokai Karate-do is a non-competitive style of Karate derived from Gichin Funakoshi’s Karate by Masters Yoshitaka (Gigo) Funakoshi and Shigeru Egami. The word Shotokai is composed of three kanji characters in Japanese. The Sho character is taken from the word matsu which means pine tree. To is the character for waves. Pine Waves is the English translation that tries to express what the original Japanese kanji represent, the sound that is produced by the pine needles when the wind blows through them, a sort of wave sound. Gichin Funakoshi, used Shoto as a pseudonym when he signed his poetry works. The word kai means organization. Thus, Shotokai means the Organization of Shoto, or the Organization of Master Gichin Funakoshi. Kan, means building or house, thus Shotokan is the house or building of Shoto.

Shotokai does not consider Karate a sport so it avoids all type of competitive tournaments. Rather, it stresses Karate as a Budo art that is concerned with personal development through the study and practice of Karate as a Do, a Way of Life, and the development of the internal energy, Ki. Shotokai movements are full of vitality and energy, but they use the principles of harmony and relaxation and avoid the use of brute force. Each Shotokai student in a group, has his or her own way of attaining mind-ki-body unity, in a way that permits all students to learn from each other. In a training atmosphere void of distinctions, communication grows and mutual respect arises unhindered.

Shotokan. Shotokan is the “authorized” Japanese style of Karate. It is an Okinawan style founded by Gichin Funakoshi. Shoto was the pen name of Funakoshi. He combined Shorin and Shorei to a style that would accommodate all body structures. According to Funakoshi “The art of karate strives neither for victory, nor for defeat, but for the perfection of the character of its practitioners.” Shotokan is a “hard” linear style that is a true “empty hand” art”, it does not include weapons training. Although originally known for its a lethal attacks, dynamic entry techniques, and its theory of “one strike, one kill,” similar to other martial arts, it has evolved into a sport. Shotokan training emphasizes mastering a few techniques rather than learning many techniquees.

Shotokai and Shotokan are two names for the same thing. Shotokai is the name of the Organization established in 1935 to raise funds for the building of Funakoshi’s Main Training Hall. Gichin Funakoshi held only two positions during his lifetime: one as Head Instructor of the Shotokan Dojo and the other as director of the Shotokai school.

Shotokan is the name of the building finished in 1936 that was the result of the work done by this organization. In time, people who trained in Karate were not only known for practicing Karate but also began to be related to different “styles”, even though Gichin Funakoshi was against this. His students began to be known as of the “Shotokan”, the place where they trained, or “Shotokan-Ryu”, the Shotokan Style.

After Master Gichin Funakoshi’s death in 1957, Shotokai was heir of his symbol (O-sensei’s Tiger), the Shotokan and Shotokai names, and more importantly all his documents and writings, which is why Shotokai is in charge of editing and publishing his works. Shotokai’s headquarters in Japan is still the Shotokan Dojo, a though it has been reconstructed since the original one burned during a World War II bombing. The Shotokan name has been misused by many groups with no respect for Master Funakoshi or his families wishes. For this reason, many uninformed people relate Gichin Funakoshi with sport karate, something he was strongly against.

Wado-Ryu. Wado-ryu “school of the way of harmony” was founded in the 1920’s by Otsuka Hidenori, one of Funakoshi Gichin’s students. Ohtsuka studied Jujutsu for many years before becoming a student of Gichin Funakoshi, considered by some to be Funakoshi’s most brilliant student. Ohtsuka combined the movements of Jujutsu with the striking techniques of Okinawan Karate, with a strong focus on evasion through body shifting. Style has higher stances and shorter punches than Shotokan. Training stresses spiritual discipline. After the death of Ohtsuka in the early 1980s, the style split into two factions: Wado Kai, headed by Ohtsuka’s senior students; and Wado Ryu, headed by Ohtsuka’s son, Jiro. Both factions continue to preserve most of the basic elements of the style.

From TKD Tudor