Shotokan Karate Do

What is Shotokan Karate Do? A Definition

Shotokan (松濤館) is a Japanese martial arts. It belongs to the fighting and self-defense system Karate (空手). Karate itself has been developed on the islands of Okinawa. According to the famous karate blogger, Jesse Enkamp, Shotokan is the “world´s most popular style” of Karate.

Shotokan Karate comprises a wide range of techniques like:

  • Keri-waza (kicks),
  • Uchi-waza (punches), and
  • Uke-waza (blocks).

Karateka execute all techniques from a variety of stances called tachi waza. Fighting on the ground and the application of an elaborated set of tosses and throws like in Judo, Aikido, and Wrestling is not part of the style. The focus lies on kicking, punching, and blocking. However, Shotokan karate knows also a couple of throwing techniques. Especially in bunkai and self-defense they can become vital elements. Therefore, some dojos prefer to practice them more often than others. In general it can be said that most of the Shotokan karateka prefer to face opponents in a standing position and from a leg length distance.

  • The picture shows Miki Suetsugu doing a Shotokan Karate Do technique called Shuto Uke.
  • The picture shows Yuki Nocilla and Keigo Shimizu during Shotokan Karate Do training.
  • The picture shows Mirjam Widmer teaching children Shotokan Karate Do
  • The picture shows Koichiro Okuma teaches the application of Kanku Sho at the 2nd Düsseldorf Special. Kanku Sho is a kata of Shotokan Karate Do.
  • The picture shows Ildiko Redai doing a Yoko Geri Keage a kicking technique from Shotokan Karate Do.

The tachi-waza distinguish Shotokan clearly from other karate styles. Shotokan applies deep stances in order to generate more power and being more dynamic. While it also offers a variety of short range strikes, kicks, and blocks its main focus lies on mid- and long-range techniques. Therefore, Shotokan seeks to keep opponents out of ones own critic perimeter. As a result, it offers smaller and weaker people an effective mean to defend themselves. Above all, many practitioners deem the long and strong techniques as very aesthetic.

Beside the physical dimension Shotokan consists of an elaborated set of ethical and moral concepts and rules. These become emphasized by adding the word Do to Shotokan Karate. Therefore, the art of Shotokan is often called Shotokan Karate Do. The term Do should not be confused as a suffix. Do means literally translated “way” (道). Therefore, it expresses that Shotokan Karate is a way of life. As a result, propositions and philosophical convictions like the refrain from physical violence and the seek for justice build its foundation. They are the guiding principles for practitioners in and outside of training.

Where does Shotokan Karate come from? A Brief History

Gichin Funakoshi: Founding Father of Shotokan Karate

Gichin Funakoshi (1868–1957), an assistant teacher trained in Chinese and Japanese philosophy from Okinawa, and his son Yoshitaka (Gigo) Funakoshi (1906–1945) developed the style of Shotokan. However, the development took place from the 1920´s onward. Further generations added pieces and aspects to the art. However, Gichin and Yoshitaka Funakoshi laid the foundation of Shotokan.

The picture shows Gichin Funakoshi doing some Shotokan techniques during kumite
Gichin Funakoshi (right side) doing some Shotokan techniques during kumite. Funakoshi was already in his 80`s when this picture was taken.

In the 19th century, karate was already an established and diversified martial art in Okinawa. Gichin Funakoshi learnt different styles of the art from different Okinawa karate masters like Anko Asato and Anko Itosu. Thus, the exposure to different styles gave him an overview about the versatility of karate.

Further Development of Shotokan Karate on Mainland Japan

In 1922, Gichin Funakoshi migrated to mainland Japan. Although Okinawa had been occupied by Japan for some time, karate had not been introduced to the mainland. As a result, it was unknown back then. Other martial arts like Kendo, Aikido, and Judo already achieved a wide public recognition.

The picture shows the Island of Okinawa which is located in the western Pacific right in front of China. Her the foundation of Shotokan was developed.
The Island of Okinawa is located in the western Pacific right in front of China.

Together with other Okinawa masters he introduced the martial art to the Japanese population. At the beginning, however, was deemed as profane and provincial.

It was in Japan that he began to form his own style of Karate based on the teachings he received in Okinawa. Especially the 1930´sbecame a formative period for the art. Yoshitaka (Gigo) Funakoshi had an innovative influence on the style and introduced several techniques that still distinguish the style from the Okinawa versions. For instance: Mawashi Geri (roundhouse kick).

For Gichin Funakoshi Shotokan, however, consists of more than self-defense. While this had a high priority during the formation of the style. Philosophical aspects also became relevant. Thus, Funakoshi coined the style with Buddhist and East-Asian philosophy (see below). Above all, to make ones character perfect stands at the center of Shotokan teaching.

What does “Shotokan” mean?

In Japan, Gichin Funakoshi became a professional Karate teacher. He taught in his own dojo (trainings hall) and hold several appointments at Tokyo universities. He opened his dojo in spring 1935. Since then, he and Yoshitaka Funakoshi taught several classes per week and became the central location for the further development of the still.

Above all, the name Shotokan derives from Gichin Funakoshis pen name and the Japanese term kan which stance for hall or gym. As an author Funakoshi chose the name Shoto (松濤). That means: “waving pines”. According to the legend, his students put up a sign at his dojo that stated: Shoto-Kan.

Later, the students called the whole style after the dojo of Gichin Funakoshi.

The Three Parts of Shotokan Karate: Kihon, Kata, Kumite

What is Kihon? The Basics And Foundation of Karate

The term kihon (基本) means “basics” or “fundamentals. Here karateka learn the basics and the right execution of techniques. It comprises blocks, punches, kicks, stances, and movements. Usually, students train kihon without a partner. Therefore, partner training belongs to kumite (see below). Therefore, kihon shares many aspects with shadow-boxing. However, while shadow-boxing focuses on a free execution of techniques and combinations kihon follows preset sequences.

Two Ways to Train Kihon: Kamae and Jiyu Kamae

Kihon can be conducted in two ways:

  • Kamae
  • Jiyu Kamae

The word kamae (構え) means “posture”. It refers to the fact that every technique in Shotokan can be executed in a formalized (kamae) or a free (jiyu kamae) posture.

The formalized kamae focuses on a static execution of techniques. Beginners start their techniques and combinations usually from this position. They conduct the whole kihon session in this posture. Because it offers more focus and control on the details of the techniques and emphasizes the critical stages during their execution. Therefore, it belongs to the 101 of Shotokan. Most of the time, instructors choose gedan barai (下段払い) as a first position. Gedan barai blocks a low front kick or punch.

Jiyu kamae (自由 構え), however, focuses on the free and dynamic execution of techniques and combinations. Advanced students and belt ranks start their techniques from this position and stay in this posture throughout the whole kihon session. Jiyu kamae requires a very good routine and execution of techniques. Therefore, only higher and advanced students apply it. It can also be understood as the fighting position. So, kumite, the fight against one or more opponents, also takes place in jiyu kamae.

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.

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.

What Are the Important Physical Aspects of Kihon?

  • Right execution of techniques: Shotokan Karate emphasize the right technical execution of movements. The reason for this emphasize results in the higher efficiency of well executed techniques. To make ones own technical execution perfect belongs to the major goals of kihon.
  • Kokyu (呼吸): The term means breathing in and out. Breathing supports or initiates every movement in Shotokan. Its importants 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.
  • Speed and power: Gichin Funakoshi understood Shotokan also as physical education and workout. Thus, kihon improves health and stamina. However, it also leads to the physical foundation necessary to withstand physical conflicts.
  • Kime (決め): The term means decide, focus of power, or finish. It refers to the intentional sudden tension of body in the final moment of a technique. Kime aims on the transmission of ones own force to the opponents body trough a shockwave (see here for a more elaborated description).

What Are the Important Mental Aspects of Kihon?

  • Zanshi (残心): The state of mind, a Shotokan Karateka should cultivate during, kihon is zanshin which means: being aware and alert. That does not mean to be nervouse but to await changes and difficulties. Zanshin requires a mental presents in the situation and the momemt accompanied by a general openness to the surrounding circumstances.
  • Mushin (無心): On the other hand, students learn to stay calm under stress and pressure. This calmness is call mushin or inner silence. Like zanshin it focuses the attention of the karateka on the presents and opens the mind for changes in the situation. Once a Shotokanka reaches mushin his or her mind does not get distracted from own but unnecessary thoughts as well as unnecessary events in the environment.
  • Toshi (闘志): The termn means fighting spirit. Kihon cdevelops toshi in an excellent way. Because instructors bring students to their physical and mental limits and even push them trhough their boundaries. Toshi itself consists of self-confidence, persistence, determination, control, risk-taking, and competitiveness. All these aspects become important to withstand and to succeed in challenging situations.

What Is the Role of an Instructor During Kihon?

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

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

What is Kata? The Fight Against Imaginary Opponents

Kata () is the most essential part of Karate in general and Shotokan Karate in particular. The term means “form”. Kata simulates a fighting situation 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.

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:

  • Self-defense
  • learning of basic techniques
  • Physical education
  • Body control
  • Mental control: Zanshin, mushin, toshi

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.

Embusen: The Fingerprint of A Kata

Every Shotokan kata has a unique flow of techniques and sequences. They also have unique lines of movement. Like a fingeprint every kata can be recognized in this regard. In Japanese they use the therm embusen (演武線) in order to descrip this route or line of movement. An embusen can be depicted as a diagram. While their a very simple embusen, others can have a high degree of complexity.

Embusen of the Shotokan karate kata heian shodan.
Embusen for the kata heian shodan.

The embusen defines from which starting point the karateka has to begin to execute a certain kata. In addition, the starting point defines also the ending point in every kata – they are similar. Therefore, the karateka can immidiatly check whether he or she executed the kata in a right way. If so he or she must arrived at the same spot where they departed.

Embusen of the Shotokan Karate kata Kanku dai.
The embusen of the kata kanku dai – of the longest katas.

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.

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


Due to the abstract natur of all katas, their application must be interpreted. In Japanese they use the term bunkai (分解) in order to describe this process. Bunkai literally means “analysis” and “disassembly”. Especially advanced students are encouraged to analyze the potential self-defense options katas offer. While karateka need some degree of creativity to apply kata to a real-life conflict. Applicability and efficiency is the paramount aim in bunkai. Therefore, every good bunkai follows has a economic rule: Efficiency and effectiveness first, creativity second.

What is Kumite? The Fight Against Real Opponents

Kumite (組手) means “grappling hands”. In Kumite, students learn to fight against one or more attackers. Kumite becomes increasingly complex as experienced the students be. The most simple form is gohon kumite (5 Step kumite). This form of kumite applies defined sequences of movements like attacks and blocks. Students learn to interact with an opponent. Like in kihon the practice of kumite can also distinguished in a standardized and pre-arranged form and a free form.

The first formalized form is called yakusoku kumite (約束組み手). It consists of:

The second form, which focuses on a free application of Shotokan techniques, comprises:

While gohon kumite possess the lowest degree of freedom, jiyu kumite, on the other has the free. This is because jiyu kumite takes place as a free fighting situation. However, we must distinguish between a jissen (実戦), an actual fight like a street fight, and kyogi (競技), a sportive tournament. While first happens completly without rules, in the second the athlete is limited by the tournament regulations. For instance, certain dangerous strickes are prohited from application on tournaments.

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

A Brief History of Shotokan Kumite

The 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 efficitivity and efficiency.

The Importance of Yoshitaka Funakoshi For 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 kumite 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 kumite 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 collaborated with the Imperial Japanese Army in the 1930´s in order to educate soldiers in Shotokan. Thus, he had to develop Shotokan into an effective fighting system that was easy to learn and to apply.

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 kumite discipline. From a present standpoint, it sounds very odd that tournament kumite had to be developed. However, Shotokan karateka practices randori (free sparring) and goshin-jutsu. Rules and a modus needed to be invented. Masatoshi Nakayama came up with the shobu ippon kumite 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.

Holly Rye has a won several international competitions in Shotokan karate.
Holly Rye is attacked with a de ashi barai during a tournament. However, her quicke reaction make her avoid the attack.

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

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

Shotokan Karate as Budo

“Spirit first, technique second.”

Gichin Funakoshi, 20 Precepts of Karate Do

The style of Shotokan Karate is also a philosophical paradigm with the two major concepts of spirit and Budo at its center. This is indicated by the suffix Do. Thus, many practitioners call it also Shotokan Karate Do.

Budo and Do

Shotokan Karate Do seeks to be more than a system of self-defense. It is a moral philosophy that comprises ethical propositions and guiding principles for a specific way of life. So. with this conceptualization Shotokan Karate relates to the Japanese term Budo which stance for “martial way” and is indicated by the ending Do. While Budo can easily misinterpreted as a philosophy of violence and war (martial) it aims on the complete opposite.

French Aikido master Guillaume Erard recently described Budo as

“a path of personal development through the study of traditions and techniques originating in the arts of war of the samurai (侍).”

Guillaume Erard, Real Fighting is Not The Primary Purpose of Budo, April 2018

At the center of the Budo stance the control over one´s body and mind as well as the cultivation and civilization of one´s convictions and behavior. This foundation leads to the execution of good and just actions.


All that should take place in the light of fighting spirit or “spirit of effort”. This spirit is characterized by endurance, perseverance, persistence, self-confidence, determination, risk-taking, competitiveness. Thus, to not give up or to give in is constitutive for the attitude of Shotokan Karate. Spirit makes the difference between winning or losing in many cases. Hence, Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of the Shotokan style, favored spirit over technique.

The Landscape of Shotokan Karate Associations

Today, people all over the global practice the style of Shotokan karate all over the globe. This can be attributed to the efforts of Gichin Funakoshi´s students. Many of them founded dojos, associations, and went abroad in order to spread the style. Especially Masatoshi Nakayama became an important figure in institutionalizing the art. He was driving force and later chief instructor of the Japan Karate Association (JKA), which is the biggest Shotokan association in the world.

The Stratification of Shotokan Associations

Other students like Hidetaka Nishiyama, Hirokazu Kanazawa and many more established with the International Traditional Karate Federation (ITKF) and the Shotokan Karate International Federation own organizations on a global scale. As a result, a myriad of associations and independent Dojos offer and practice Karate Do worldwide today. But for the most of them the aspect of Do is the defining feature of the art. Others, on the other hand, find more satisfaction in a sports-oriented version of the art. In addition, different masters have also caused to changes and different interpretations of the original techniques and teachings in the past. Therefore, the global field of Shotokan is heterogeneous and constantly evolving.

The Present Field of Shotokan Associations

Currently, there are several Shotokan Karate associations. Important orgainzations like the SKIF and ITKF were already found in the 1970´s. However, a political power struggle broke out among high-ranking Shotokan instructors in the 1990´s. Some are still at odds with each other. Even lawsuits were filed. The trouble emerged after the death of Masatoshi Nakayama. He did not sufficiently declare a successor. On the other hand, the JKA had no mechanism in place to elect one among his Shihankai members. Different peope claimed the position. But the power struggle led to a fragmentation of the JKA and several other organizations emerged from there.

List of Authors:

Dr. Christian Tribowski