The picture shows the term Karate and its Japanese Kanji.

What is Karate?

Karate is a Japanese martial art. It consists of a wide variety of physical techniques (Waza) for self-defense like punches, elbow strikes, kicks, knee strikes, blocks, throws, arm bars, joint locks, and choke holds. Most of the time, Karate practitioners, so called “Karateka”, fight and protect themselves without weapons. In some styles weapons like Nunchakus, sticks (Bo), and Sai become occasionally utilized.

Karate had been developed on the Islands of Okinawa in the 19th century under the influence of Chinese martial arts in the 19th century. At the beginning of 20th century, Okinawa masters introduced Karate to mainland Japan.

Both in Okinawa and Japan Karate has been evolving. As a consequence a variety of styles with distinctive features has emerged. The most prominent Karate styles are:

  • Shotokan
  • Shotokai
  • Goju-ryu
  • Shito-ryu
  • Shorin-ryu
  • Wado-ryu
  • Kyokushinkai
  • Seidokaikan
  • Sport karate

What does Karate mean?

Karate is Japanese (/kəˈrɑːti/) and means literally: empty hand. In Japanese Kanji it is written 空手, while (Kara) means “empty” and (Te) means “hand”. This meaning shall express the weaponless and defensive character of Karate.

However, the meaning of Karate changed in the early 20th century. Due to his Chinese roots the art was called Tode/Tuidi/Tote, which literally means “Chinese hand” or “Tang hand” referring to Chinese Tang dynasty in the language of Okinawa. In Japanese Kanji it was written: 唐手. The can thereby be pronounced either “Todi” for Tang Dynasty and China or as “Kara”, which also stands for China or the Han state.

The pronunciation of as “Kara” built a linguistic bridge to its later meaning as empty hand. Because in Japanese like in many languages a spoke term can have different meanings and writings. Then “Kara” can also be written with the Kanji ““, which means empty. By exchanging the Kanji the “Chinese hand” became the “empty hand”.

The change of the meaning took place rather gradually within the Karate community. On October 25, 1936, the a group of Okinawa Master and officials met at Showa Kaikan Hall in Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture because the Ryukyu Shimpo Newspaper invited them to discuss the change of the meaning.

The seriousness of the name change becomes clear by the consideration of the attendees list. Among the Karate masters Chomo Hanashiro, Kyan Chotoku, Choki Motobu, Chojun Miyagi, Juhatsu Kyoda, Choshin Chibana, Shimpan Gusukuma, Chotei Oroku, Genwa Nakasone (Karate Kenkyusha affiliated with Shudokan of Kanken Toyama) took part. As guest attended:

  • Koichi Sato, Manager of Educational Affairs Department
  • Zenpatsu Shimabukuro, Director of Okinawa Prefectural Library
  • Kitsuma Fukushima, Regimental Headquarters Adjutant
  • Eizo Kita, Chief of Okinawa Prefectural Police Affairs Section
  • Chosho Goeku, Chief of Okinawa Prefetural Security Section
  • Gizaburo Furukawa, Supervisor of Physical Education of Okinawa Prefecture
  • Sei Ando, author
  • Choshiki Ota, President of Ryukyu Shimpo Newspaper Company
  • Kowa Matayoshi, Chief Editor of Ryukyu Shimpo
  • Zensoku Yamaguchi, Director of Ryukyu Shimpo Newspaper Company
  • Tamashiro, a reporter of Ryukyu Shimpo

The major argument for the change gave Genwa Nakasone:

When Karate (written as “empty hand”) was first introduced in Tokyo, it was introduced as Toudi (written as “Chinese hand”). At that time Karate was a novel tradition that took some time before becoming popular. Schools contended that Toudi was not a suitable term and had, when writing the first ideogram of the term, used Hiragana rather then the ideogram. Some Dojo are being called “Nihon Karate Kenkyukai (translated as Japan ka ra (Hiragana) Hand Research Society). However, that was during the transition period. Now, just about all Dojo in Tokyo areas, including the two principal Dojo, are using the new term, Karate (“empty hand”). Most university clubs are also using the new term.

The reason for changing Toudi to Karate is simply because it defines a tradition in which one uses his empty hands, or Karaken (“empty fist”). With that in mind, I would like to recommend that the current name “Karatedo” (“the way of the empty hand”) become the standard in consideration of Karate´s future development of a Japanese budo.

Patrick & Yuriko McCarthy 1994: The [1936] Meeting of the Okinawan Karate Masters. In: International Ryukyu Research Society.

According to Genwa Nakasone the change took place because it was logical to call it empty hand. Some commentators, on the other hand, see the reason for the change of the meaning of Karate in the growing Japanese nationalism during the 1930´s pre-war era. While this might be true for some groups it is also plausible that many practitioners were convinced about the logical validity of the argument.


What is Kata?

Kata () means “form”. Kata simulates a fighting situations against several imaginary opponents. The fight, however, is stylized. That means:

  • All techniques applied are formalized and not executed in a jiyu-kamae (free) fashion
  • They follow a dramaturgy with a preset sequence of motions and a rhythms
  • The fighting situations and the application of the techniques are abstract
  • As a result, the real-life application, called bunkai (see below), depends on the interpretation of the karateka.
Shihan Osaka, who holds the nickname “the textbook” of Shotokan, shows the performs the kata kanku sho. Kanku shi beongs to the advanced katas of Shotokan.

Why are Kata Stylized?

Kata serve several purposes within Shotokan karate. To combine all these purposes in one routine the techniques and their execution had to be adjusted an harmonized. The aspects are:

A legend also says that karate training was prohibited back in Okinawa. Therefore, karate masters had to find a way to teach their techniques secretly. One way to do this was to disguise the actually training as some sort of physical routine or dance.

Every kata has a specific embusen.

What Kata Shotokan Karate consists of?

In sum, Shotokan comprises 26 katas with different approaches and aims. Within the 26 katas their exist six families of katas: Heian, Tekki, Bassai, Kanku, Gojushiho, and the Ji-family with Jion, Jitte, and Jiin.

Most Shotokan katas have a predecessor from Okinawa Karate. Tekki Shodan, for instance, also exists in the Karate system from the peninsula. In Okinawa they call it Naihanchi. Similarly, Jion has a Okinawa equivalent. However, both kata slightly differ as you can see in the following video with Tatsuya Naka.

Tatsuya Naka compares the Shotokan Jion with the Shito-Ryu Jion.

The following list shows all Shotokan kata and their family.

Heian Katas

Name Jap. Kanji Steps/Moves Engl. Name
Shodan平安初段 21 Peaceful Mind One
Nidan 平安二段 26Peaceful Mind Two
Sandan平安三段 20 Peaceful Mind Three
Yondan 平安四段 27 Peaceful Mind Four
Godan 平安五段 23 Peaceful Mind Five

Tekki Katas

NameJap. KanjiSteps/MovesEngl. Name
Shodan鉄騎初段23Iron Horse One
Nidan鉄騎弐段24Iron Horse Two
Sandan鉄騎参段 26Iron Horse Three

Bassai Katas

NameJap. KanjiSteps/MovesEngl. Name
Dai 拔塞大 42Penetrating the Fortress-Big
Sho 拔塞小 27Penetrating the Fortress – Small

Kanku Katas

NameJap. KanjiSteps/MovesEngl. Name
Dai 観空大 65 To look at the Sky – Big
Sho 観空大 48 To look at the Sky – Small

Gojushiho Katas

NameJap. KanjiSteps/MovesEngl. Name
Dai五十四歩大6754 Steps – Big
Sho五十四歩小6554 Steps – Small


NameJap. KanjiSteps/MovesEngl. Names
Jion慈恩47Love (and) Goodness
Jiin慈陰38Mercy (and) Shadow
Jitte十手24Ten Hands

Katas Without A Direct Relationship

NameJap. KanjiSteps/MovesEngl. Name
Enpi燕飛37Flying Swallow
Gankaku岩鶴42Crane on the Rock
Hangetsu半月41Half Moon
Chinte珍手 32Incredible Hands
Sochin 壯鎭41Preserve Peace
Meikyo明鏡33Mirror of the soul
Nijushiho二十四步2424 Steps
Wankan 王冠24Crown of a king
Unsu雲手 48Cloud Hands

Every kata can be applied to fighting situation. The application is called bunkai.

Further Readings:

Crawford, Peter: Gojushiho Dai and Sho: The Solution of the Confusion. The Shotokan Times 2019.

Wiessmann, Florian: The Relation Between Kihon, Kata, and Kumite? Some Answers. The Shotokan Times 2019.

Wiessmann, Florian: “Learn to Move”: Kata as A Movement Based Learning Approach. The Shotokan Times 2019.


Kihon (基本) means “basics” or “fundamentals. It describes a mod of practice which focuses on the teaching of the foundational principles and techniques of Shotokan. At the center of kihon stands the right execution of waza (技, techniques). Precision, accuracy, smoothness, and the efficient utilization of the body are part of it.

It consists of uke waza (受け技, blocks), uchi waza (内技, punches), keri waza (蹴り技, kicks), tachi waza (立ち技, stances), and movements. Usually, students train kihon without a partner. Partner training belongs to kumite (see below). Therefore, it shares many aspects with shadow-boxing. However, while shadow-boxing focuses on a free execution of techniques and combinations kihon follows preset sequences.

The repertoire of techniques, which become trained in kihon, is very rich. Shotokan consists of round about 25 keri-waza (kicks) and more than 60 ude-waza (arm techniques). Therefore, Shotokan offers a very versatile set of self-defense options. It is up to the instructor to combine and use this techniques in order to achieve maximum learning effects for their students.

How does a kihon session takes place?

It usually begins in shizentai (自然体): a natural upright position. A sensei (master) or senpai (higher student), who conducts a regular kihon session, gives the command to prepare for the next part of training. First, they show and explain techniques in front of the class. For this purpose the use technical Japanese Shotokan terminology. Beginners will learn it very fast. Then, the students are supposed to execute the techniques. The instructor gives commands, sets the pace, corrects the students, and controls the right execution of the techniques. He also decides how many times and which technique will be trained.

While beginners usually train one technique at a time and progress slowly towards simple combinations of techniques, advanced students focus on complex combinations. In kihon students, therefore, train already situation and sequences that become later relevant in fighting.

Shihan Masao Kawasoe (8th dan) shows kihon practices begining in shizentai and then starting from gedan barai kamae.

What Are the Important Physical Aspects of Kihon?

What Are the Important Mental Aspects of Kihon?

The Role of the Instructor

The instructor has several tasks during kihon practice, which require a deep and profound education in Shotokan karate.

  • Setting learning goals for Shotokan students
  • Translating these goals into a practical curriculum
  • Turning the curriculum into sub-sets of kihon tasks for students
  • Delivering the full range of technical versatility of Shotokan karate
  • Presenting (and explaining) the techniques and combinations to the students
  • Knowing the right execution and the purpose of techniques
  • Motivating the students to reach and lead them to their performance limits
  • Considering physical and mental health during every step in training
  • Enforcing the rules (dojo kun) and etiquette of Shotokan karate
  • Being a role model

List of Authors:

Dr. Christian Tribowski

Kihon Ippon Kumite

Kihon ippon kumite (基本一本組み手) means basic (kihon) kumite with the focus on one attack and an immediate block and counter. It is one of the major Shotokan Karate Do Kumite types. In gohon and sanbon kumite a sequence of forward and backward steps becomes executed.

Kihon ippon kumite, on the other hand, creates a more dynamic and realistic fighting situation than gohon and sanbon kumite. For instance, an attacker attacks with a punch to the head (jodan oi-zuki). The defender steps back, blocks the punch and immediately counterattacks.

Attackers start from gedan-barai kamae.

The attacks and counter-reactions are still pre-set. But the complexity increases. Because the defender has for every attack a repertoire of response he or she can apply. Therefore, it poses the first step towards free sparing.

Kihon ippon kumite in the SKIF version.

List of Authors:

Dr. Christian Tribowski


Kokyu (呼吸) means “breathing in and out”. Breathing supports or initiates every movement in Shotokan. Its importance results from the internal pneumatic pressure it generates. This pressure effects the activity of other muscle regions. It can lead to tension or relaxation. Rightfully applied it gives the provides the advantages between a good and a very good technique.

List of Authors:

Dr. Christian Tribowski


Kumite (組手) is Japanese and means “grappling hands”. In general it refers to fighting against one or more opponents. Together with Kihon and Kata it belongs to the three foundational elements of Karate. However, karateka apply the techniques they learn during kihon and kata in kumite. Therefore, kihon and kata precede kumite.

In kumite the self-defense and competitive fighting character of Shotokan karate turns into practice. For the purpose of training Shotokan masters have developed several types of kumite. Unexperienced students become exposed to simple forms of kumite. As more they progess in their studies as more they become exposed to complex, uncertain, and challenging fighting and self-defense situations. To make this progress possible and to create the capability to defend themselves Shotokan masters have developed several types of kumite. They all have different characteristics which reflect different teaching and training functions and aims.

Types of Kumite and Their Characteristics

Shotokan karate consists of several different forms of kumite. All focus on a certain and distinct modus operandi in order to teach different aspects of fighting.

The most simple types of kumite belong to the category of yakusoku kumite (約束組み手), which literally refers to “formalized” and prearranged patterns of fighting. Here karate students develop the technical and behavioral foundation for the later free sparring and self-defense applications. It consists of:

The most complex types, which focuses on a free application of Shotokan techniques, comprises:

While gohon kumite possess the lowest degree of freedom for the karateka, jiyu kumite, on the other features free fighting. This is because it takes place as a free fighting situation.

However, we must distinguish between a jissen (実戦), an actual fight like a street fight, and shiai (試合), a sportive tournament. While first happens completely without rules, in the second the athlete is limited by the tournament regulations. For instance, certain dangerous strikes are prohibited from application on tournaments.

Following we also distinguish jissen jiyu kumite from goshin-jutsu. Although, both become applied in real-life conflict situations, they follow different strategies and Shotokan karateka apply different techniques.

Sensei Dormenko shows an advanced kumite combination of Shotokan karate.

Yakusoku Kumite

According to researchers, the exact date of the foundation of yakusoku kumite cannot be determined. Formalized fighting routines we pre-set roles took already place in the practice of Kung Fu and Wushun in ancient China. Therefore, the assumption seems plausible that yakusoku kumite is as old as karate itself.

Gohon kumite

The most simple form of kumite is gohon kumite (5 Step fighting). This form applies defined sequences of movements like attacks and blocks. Students learn to interact with an opponent. Like in kihon the practice of fightingcan also distinguished in a standardized and pre-arranged form and a free form.

Randori and Jiyu Kumite

Randori as Jissen

Shiai: Kumite Competition

Goshin-jutsu and practical Karate

History of Shotokan Kumite

Okinawa karate masters conceptualized karate as a self-defense systems. Real-life fighting situations served them as references. Karate should give its practicioner the skills and power to withstand an attack by an offender. Choki Motobu (1870-1944), one of the most famouse Okinawa karate masters stated:

Nothing is more harmful to the world than a martial art that is not effective in actual self-defense.

Choki Motobu

Therefore, the founding fathers designed karate according principles of competitive effectiveness and efficiency.

According to research, Hanashiro Chomo mentioned the term kumite in his book Karate Kumite 空手組手 first in 1905.

Yoshitaka Funakoshi and the Development of Kumite

Gichin Funakoshi, however, had a very pacifistic attitude. For him karate and especially Shotokan served the purpose of physical, mental, and ethical education. His son Yoshitaka developed Shotokan into the direction of a comprehensive self-defense system. Yoshitaka also introduced gohon, sanbon, kihon and jiyu ippon as well as jiyu kumite. Yoshitaka himself was very much inspired by kendo techniques and the fighting strategy of kendo. Therefore, he also changed the way to move in it and its general strategical approach. While Okinawa karate prefers high stances and close-range situations, Yoshitaka pushed the style towards lower stances and longer techniques. As a result, Shotokan shares more similarities with fencing. Okinawa karate, on the other hand, comes closer to boxing.

But Yoshitaka´s influence on the way, how Shotokanka fight, goes even further. He also took inspiration from judo. Yoshitaka also introduced sweeping techniques like de ashi barai (出足払), a technique widely unknown in Okinawa karate. How importance of kumite for Yoshitaka becomes clear if one considers that he also colaborated with the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1930´s in order to educate soliders in Shotokan. Thus, he had to develop Shotokan into an effective fighting system that was easy to learn and to apply.

The Japanese Army still learns Shotokan karate as self-defence system.

Masatoshi Nakayama Developed Tournament Kumite

Tournament kumite, however, developed rather late in the 1950´s. Especially, Masatoshi Nakayama pushed for the establishment of a tournament fighting discipline. From a present standpoint, it sounds very odd that tournament fighting had to be developed. However, Shotokanka practices randori (free sparring) and goshin-jutsu. Rules and a modus needed to be invented. Masatoshi Nakayama came up with the shobu ippon system. It focuses on one point the contenders have to make (see below). The judges only give the point for a truly devastating but controlled techniques. Neither of the opponents should be seriously injured.

The 1st JKA All Japan Karate Championship took place in Tokyo in October 1957. Since then, other associations have adopted the shobu ippon kumite. However, the World Karate Federation has introduced another style of tournament fighting. Karateka have to fight in an 8-point-system with a full protection gear.

Unfortunately, the rise of tournaments has pushed out aspects of self-defense. Goshin-jutsu has become a seldomly teached part of Shotokan karate. It depends highly on the instructor whether students learn it. In most associations the testings do not require goshin-jutsu.

Further Readings:

Correia, Jonas: Does Shotokan Karate Work in Full Contact Fights? The Shotokan Times 2019.

Ehrenreich, Michael: We Fight the Way We Practice! Shotokan Karate as a Fighting Art. The Shotokan Times 2019.

Tribowski, Christian: Ueda Daisuke, Sen no sen, and Ikken Hissatsu. The Shotokan Times 2019.

Tribowski, Christian: “Shobu Ippon is not a game like Sports Karate.” Thomas Prediger about Kumite. The Shotokan Times 2019.

Wiessmann, Florian: The Relation Between Kihon, Kata, and Kumite? Some Answers. The Shotokan Times 2019.

List of Authors:

Dr. Christian Tribowski