Given its rich nature, everyone can find concepts and techniques that suit them in karate. It is not surprising, therefore, that over the years a variety of styles specific to the grand masters has emerged. These variants are distinguished by the emphasis they put on certain katas and techniques (stances, moves, blocks and strikes).
The best-known styles are Shorin-ryu, Shotokan, Shito-ryu, Goju-ryu, Wado-ryu, Kyokushinkai and Uechi-ryu. Apart from Goju-ryu and Uechi-ryu, the other styles are derived from the Shorin-ryu of Matsumura.
Matsumura Sokon (1809-1896) was the founder of Shorin-ryu. In Okinawan, Shorin means “from Shaolin” and ryu means “school”. Matsumura, who was born into the Okinawa nobility, began studying Shuri-te when he was about ten under the supervision of master Sakugawa. He was very gifted, and at nineteen he became an instructor of the Shuri palace guard. He was also the bodyguard of the last three kings of Okinawa.
Thanks to his many voyages to China, Matsumura was able to enrich his technique. He systemised his art in order to be able to teach it and created katas such as Chinto, Gojushiho and Naifanchi.
Itosu Anko, Matsumura’s successor, introduced the Te into the schools in Okinawa. In 1907, in order to improve the teaching of Te, Itosu created five simplified katas known as the Pinan. These were inspired by the higher katas, mainly Kushanku, Passai, Chinto and Jion. Itosu also created the Naifanchi nidan and sandan katas. He had numerous disciples, including Gichin Funakoshi and Kenwa Mabuni.
Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) was the man behind this style. The term Shotokan, devised by his pupils, simply means “the house of Shoto”. Shoto, which was Funakoshi’s pen name, translates as “waves of pines”, an allusion to the wooded valleys of Okinawa where Funakoshi liked to walk and write.
The Shotokan style resembles that of Shorin-ryu, which is explained by the fact that Funakoshi was a pupil of Itosu. Funakoshi is often considered as the father of modern karate, because he was one of the first proponents of the art outside Okinawa.
In 1922, Funakoshi was chosen to represent karate at a demonstration in front of the Crown Prince of Japan. He subsequently left Okinawa and moved to Tokyo to teach and disseminate his art. He wrote one of the first books on karate to meet the demands of students.
Funakoshi’s son, Yoshitaka, lay behind numerous changes in style. His goal was to adapt karate for competition, something that his father had objected to until his death, convinced that it would distance practitioners from the core values.
The Shotokan style has evolved since the time of Gichin Funakoshi. Today it is characterised by full movements, low stances with great stability, lightening-quick accelerations and the search for the killing blow. The entire body is used in the strike, which must be precise and directed towards the central axis of the body and perpendicular to the point of impact.
The Japan Karate Association (JKA) was founded in 1949 under the direction of Gichin Funakoshi. Its aim is to promote and develop karate-do. In 1956, the JKA introduced its training and teaching programme for instructors at the Honbu dojo in Tokyo. The association was officially recognised by the Japanese Ministry of Education in 1957. The JKA emphasises some of the fundamental characteristics of karate:
— Ippon: the quest for the “killing blow”;
— Kime, which means focusing energy. This involves swift accelerations and the engagement of the whole body, reflected in sweeping movements, the twisting of the pelvis and “hikite”. Above all, there is no kime without contracting the body at the moment of impact;
— Control: the blow must brush the target or stop at a distance of less than 5 cm, whilst demonstrating that it is within reach;
— Zanshin: corresponds to an absolute state of alertness before, during and after the attack;
— The moral values of budo (dojo kun: integrity, honesty, effort, respect and self-control).
Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1953) was the founder of this style. Born in Okinawa, Mabuni was descended from a family of Samurais. He was a pupil of Itosu (Shuri-te) and Higaonna (Naha-Te). Mabuni’s profession as a policeman encouraged him to favour techniques involving soft hands, such as circular blocks, close-range attacks with fists and slips. Mabuni was hungry for knowledge, also studying Kobudo with the masters Aragaki and Sakumoto.
After the death of Higaonna and Itosu, Mabuni left Okinawa for Osaka to open a school called Shito-ryu in tribute to his two masters. Shi is the pronunciation of the first kanji of Itosu and To of the first kanji of Higaonna.
Kenwa published several books on Shito-ryu, and his very rich style included numerous katas. Indeed, he was the creator of several katas, including Aoyagi (focused on female self-defence). Following his death, Mabuni passed the torch to his two sons, Kenei and Kenzo.
Goju-ryu means the school (ryu) of the hard (go) and soft (ju). Goju-ryu, which has its origins in Naha-Te, was founded by Chojun Miyagi in 1926. In 1935, Miyagi sat the official exam to become a bushido master before the Dai Nippon Butokukai and was the first karateka to obtain the title of kyoshi. He thereby gave concrete form to Funakoshi’s plan: to incorporate karate into the budo family.
This relatively traditional style is characterised by exercises that involve breaking objects; natural, stable and powerful stances (such as sanchin dachi); strikes and movements that are often circular; kicks that are exclusively low; and heavy abdominal breathing.
Wado-ryu (the school of the “way of peace”) is a style created in 1939 by Hironori Ohtsuka.
It is a synthesis of jiu-jitsu, Shotokan karate and Shito-ryu. Ohtsuka modified the Shotokan of Funakoshi and developed a less rigid style with fewer hard blocks and more slips.
The school of “the ultimate truth” is a style created in 1964 by the Korean Masutatsu Oyama from Goju-ryu and Shotokan. It is a spectacular style distinguished by contact fights and tests based on breaking objects. For the record, master Oyama, who was known for his strength, is said to have defeated several bulls.
Kanbun Uechi, of Okinawan origin, spent many years in China in the Fujian region, where he studied with master Chou-Tzu-Ho. Uechi-ryu is a synthesis of Okinawan karate and Pangainoon and is based on the boxing movements of the tiger, crane and dragon. It is distinguished by open-hand techniques based on open hands, blows struck with the tip of the toes, thrusts to the eyes and circular blocks. Uechi-ryu focuses on simultaneous attacking and defensive techniques. It also works on hardening the body, especially using the Sanchin kata.
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