What is Shotokan Karate?

Shotokan (松涛館) (or Shotokan-ryu) karate is the most widely practiced style of karate in Japan and around the world. In fact, it’s one of the most widely practiced of any martial art worldwide. When someone says traditional Japanese karate, they’re often likely talking about Shotokan.

Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate

Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate

Shotokan was developed in the early part of the twentieth century by founder Gichin Funakoshi by bringing together elements of Okinawan karate styles he had studied. The name Shotokan comes from Gichin Funakoshi’s pen name Shoto (“pine waves,” evoking the wind in the pines) and -kan, which means “hall.” Shotokan was the name of the hall where Funakoshi Sensei first taught karate, so it came to be used as the name for what he taught.

When you look at Shotokan karate basic techniques you will see long, low stances and movements that are big and more straight than round. Efficient motion allows for great speed, and leveraging the lower body translates into devastating power. After years of practice this way we build a foundation to deliver the same powerful techniques even with less formal stances and smaller motions.

An important part of Funakoshi Sensei’s teaching was that karate-do, the way of karate, goes beyond learning the techniques in the dojo. As with bushido and the ideas it adopted from Zen, karate training can also provide a framework for how to live one’s life outside the dojo. Striving to improve our character, valuing hard work, holding respect and remaining peaceful are some of the ideas behind karate-do.

Some of Funakoshi Sensei’s original students went on to teach what they had learned, but Shotokan karate largely owes its international popularity today to one of his top students, Masatoshi Nakayama who became chief instructor of the Japan Karate Association (JKA). In the middle part of the twentieth century Nakayama Shihan developed the JKA’s instructor training program and dispatched professionally trained graduates around the world to teach Shotokan karate. This is one way that Shotokan influenced so many other martial arts. The worldwide interest we see today in martial arts and the influence on popular culture all spring from the Shotokan traditions.