What is Shotokan?
My choice of martial art when I was young was Shotokan Karate. I have studied a few other martial arts to a level where I have a novice level understanding, but Shotokan is where my expertise lies. It was seeing the technique of experts in Shotokan that kept me coming back for years thereafter.
The word Shotokan is composed of three kanji characters in Japanese. They are properly pronounced “show-toe-kahn.” The SHO character is taken from the word matsu which means pine tree. TO is the character for waves. Pine Waves is supposed to mean “the sound that pine trees make when the wind blows through their needles.” Some people also translate this to mean the waves that pine trees seem to make visually when bending in the wind. The character KAN means building. Why is this popular method of karate named this way? There is a story behind it.
The first karate teacher to arrive in Japan from Okinawa was Funakoshi Gichin. He stepped off the boat in 1922, and through the help of his Japanese sponsors, was supported as he gradually established himself first in Kyoto and then later in Tokyo. One of his other hobbies, besides karate, was the practice of Japanese calligraphy using a brush and parchment to create artistic writings like those you might see hanging on a wall in a Japanese restaurant today. Supposedly, Funakoshi signed his works with a pen name of Shoto. So, the word Shoto in Shotokan is a kind of nick-name for Funakoshi Gichin.
During the late 1930′s, Funakoshi’s students built a rather large karate dojo for their teacher. Over the front door, one of them mounted a wooden plaque that said “SHOTOKAN.” This meant that the building itself was the hall of Shoto, or basically, the Funakoshi Building.
Funakoshi’s students never referred to the karate that they practiced as Shotokan. Instead, they only used the word karate or karate-do to refer to their art. It was Japanese outside of Funakoshi’s circle who referred to his system as Shotokan. Since other instructors were naming their styles of karate things like Shito-Ryu, Wado-Ryu, or Goju-Ryu, it must have seemed strange that the other major style was just “karate,” so they started referring to it as Shotokan Karate. This basically amounts to “The karate they do in the Shotokan.” And that is how the style got its name.
Today, people who practice Shotokan in the West typically refer to it by that name, but the Japanese Shotokan practitioners usually do not use the word, and instead call it merely karate even today.
Unfortunately, those of you who might wish to visit and see the original Shotokan are out of luck. During World War II, an American bombing raid on Tokyo in 1945 annihilated the building, and it was never rebuilt.
Shotokan is not differentiated merely by tracing the people who taught the art to others. Shotokan methods are recognizable visually by linear, direct punching, blocking, and kicking from low stances. Shotokan emphasizes correct posture, correct joint alignment, and formality of basic technique above all else. The Shotokan expert is expected to perform using strictly defined basic techniques even under harsh conditions. Creativity and free-lancing are not rewarded by most Shotokan teachers. Basic techniques are defined to the last detail, and performing them properly is typically given the highest priority.
The general view of Shotokan experts seems to be that purity of raw technique is more important than almost anything else. The ideology is that one elegant technique mastered so completely that it is as natural as flipping a light switch will finish off the opponent quickly and efficiently. In situations where there are multiple opponents, such an ability is believed essential because there may not be time to throw more than one technique per opponent, and grappling and getting tangled up with your adversary when two others are also trying to harm you is probably unwise. Therefore, each karate technique is maximized at the expense of learning more complicated defenses in Shotokan training. Later, after technical execution development has begun to plateau after years of training, more complicated defenses can be uncovered from the kata.
When attacking, the Shotokan expert will drive directly forward with straight punches and kicks while sweeping at the ankles to unbalance the retreating opponent. Shotokan experts are familiar with other types of techniques, but they generally avoid them unless they feel secure in their superior firepower.
When attacked, Shotokan fighters tend to stand their ground, in my experience. They may shift one step to the side in order to flank the attacker, but the most common defense used is a pre-emptive strike against an incoming opponent. While Shotokan is simple, predictable, and lacking in a wide variety of motions, the few techniques are designed to be mastered to such a high degree of precision and ease of use that they become extremely effective weapons.
Shotokan Karate experts are required to learn kata, and depending on the karate association that the student is a member of, that number may be as few as fifteen, or it may be as many as seventy four.
There are six basic kata that all Shotokan organizations acknowledge:
- Heian Shodan
- Heian Nidan
- Heian Sandan
- Heian Yondan
- Heian Godan
- Tekki Shodan
There are four kata, commonly called The Big Four, which are universally practiced as well:
There are several other kata, which together with the preceding, result in The Fifteen Kata which Funakoshi recommends as being all that are necessary for karate practice in his book Karate-do Kyohan. The Fifteen Kata are common to almost all Shotokan karate practice:
- Tekki Nidan
- Tekki Sandan
In addition to The Fifteen Kata are the so-called Free Kata which are believed to have been added to the system by either being created outright or borrowed from documented interactions with Shito-Ryu experts during Shotokan’s formative years. These kata are not practiced by all groups, but most Shotokan experts are aware of them or practice most of them. The Free Kata and The Fifteen Kata together make up The Twenty Six Kata.
It is difficult to find a pictorial kata dictionary for Shotokan which contains all of these kata. In Nakayama’s Best Karate series, Jiin and Wankan were not documented, but this may be because he died as the series was being completed. Another volume might have been planned. In Sugiyama’s Shotokan Kata book, he documents 25 kata.
In addition to The Twenty Six, there are also the six Taikyoku, which are very basic kata created by Funakoshi in order to teach school children. These kata, despite being created by the system’s founder, are not practiced very widely among Shotokan karate organizations.
- Taikyoku Shodan
- Taikyoku Nidan
- Taikyoku Sandan
- Taikyoku Yondan
- Taikyoku Godan
- Taikyoku Rokudan
In addition to all of these kata, Asai Tetsuhiko, an expert of Shotokan Karate, has been creating new kata which he teaches to his students. There are as many as 37 of these kata, and the number continues to grow as he and his students continue adding to their syllabus.
- Gyaku zuki no kata
- Mawari no kata
- Suishu (Mizu no te)
- Kashu (Hi no te)
- Roshu (Nami no te)
- Hushu (Kaze no te)
List courtesy of Andre Bertel of JKS of New Zealand.
Lastly, there are quite a few kata in other systems, such as Shito and Goju, which Shotokan experts branch out and practice as they achieve mastery over the limits of the existing Twenty Six Kata. Practice of such kata is generally not endorsed nor taught by any of the major Shotokan Karate associations. However, practice of them has become quite widespread amongst Western experts.
- Suparinpei (Hyakuhachiho)
There are many others from Japanese and Okinawan systems. As time passes, the core fifteen kata continue to define the Shotokan system, but the number of kata practiced beyond that imaginary boundary is growing, and the distinctions between karate systems seem to be lessening ever so slightly as time passes. In addition to learning other karate system kata, some instructors have even incorporated elements of Chinese martial arts into their advanced practice such as the Tai Chi Long Form.
With all of this expansive study of kata that seems to be going on these days, Shotokan is becoming even more of a time consuming experience than it was, and it was already considerably time consuming as far as martial arts go due the technical demands and long hours of practice necessary to meet them. Considering the size of the syllabus that is already required of students, and the level of detail that is required in performing on an exam, usually there is no time to practice weapons. Most organizations do not endorse the practice of playing with weapons when one should be improving other areas of kata, kumite, and kihon.
The typical attitude toward weapons study in the Shotokan world is that people who waste time with weapons usually are not very good at the empty handed actions of Karate itself. However, after ten years of training or so, many people like to take up a weapon art as another outside hobby, but, you will probably not practice with weapons in a Shotokan club. That is not to say that weapons training has nothing to offer. It simply means that Shotokan practitioners tend to believe that they do not have time for it due to the constraints of practicing long hours at basic karate skills which they hope to not only learn but perfect and make as though natural movements for them.
What is true for the attitude toward weapons is often true toward grappling and throwing as well, although that seems to be changing as time passes. Throwing is covered by most instructors for a brief time, but is usually not a major part of the curriculum of the class. Karate training emphasizes hitting people with various parts of the body, blocking such blows, and occasionally taking people to the ground. Shotokan training in this regard will depend largely on the instructor, but don’t expect much of it. Shotokan experts enjoy attacking someone’s balance, but don’t necessarily require the person to fall hard. The Shotokan attacks to the ankles are only designed to disrupt the opponent’s stability and composure so that punching and kicking will get through.
Some instructors are trying to change this either by introducing ground fighting techniques to their students during some lessons, or by introducing them to the jujutsu related applications of many of the kata techniques. With the emergence of popular reality TV shows and no-holds-barred competitions, more interest in learning the grappling skills that can be reverse engineered from kata has grown. This trend is one I expect to see continue, even though mainstream karate associations still seem to be denying that it is going on.
Despite these modern efforts to expand the scope of Shotokan Karate to include other arts, it remains, for the most part, a deep-stance system of punching, kicking, and blocking with very deep and very narrow study. Shotokan Karate, for this reason, I believe to be a superior system to use as a base for studying any other martial arts, as the skills acquired through Shotokan training are otherwise difficult to learn and seem to be very helpful in almost any endeavor.
Some might say that Shotokan has already realized its Golden Age, and that because of the interference of insurance companies and lawyers, training today is not nearly as grueling and rough as it used to be, and that the practitioners of today are not as skilled or impressive as those of the past. This seems to be a common statement about any modern age, as I have witnessed my contemporaries say “kids today!” the same way that they said it when I was young.
Shotokan remains a dominant method of karate practice in the world, is very popular, and has many adherents. It is a particularly extreme, if I can use that word, style of karate, in my opinion, in that it is so very narrow in scope and the enthusiasts study so little for such long hours, but that is part of what makes it interesting: It is high investment, high risk, and high yield.