The History and Style of Shotokan Karate

How Gichin Funakoshi exposed the masses to this form

Girl practicing martial arts
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The history of the martial arts style Shotokan karate begins with Gichin Funakoshi, a man who not only started the form but also helped to popularize karate in general. More recently, a UFC fighter by the name of Lyoto Machida has done quite a bit to bring the art of Shotokan to the forefront as well. Let's put it this way: Machida knows how to strike with devastating force before anyone realizes he's planning to do so. In a nutshell, that's what Shotokan karate looks like in battle.

Early History of Shotokan

Gichin Funakoshi was born circa 1868 in Shuri, Okinawa, Japan. While in elementary school, he became friends with the son of martial artist Anko Asato and started karate training with Asato. Later, Funakoshi would train under Shorin-ryu master Anko Itosu.

Interestingly, Funakoshi never named the fighting style that he refined from Itosu and Asato's teachings. He simply used the general term "karate" to describe it. But when he started a dojo in 1936, his pen name of shoto (meaning pine waves) was used along with the term kan (house) by his students in the sign above the entrance, which said Shotokan.

Legacy of the Funakoshis

Beyond creating the foundation of Shotokan, Funakoshi served as an ambassador of karate, eventually helping to popularize it through public demonstrations and by working to bring it to karate clubs and universities. He's best known for outlining the philosophical points of the style, which is known as the Twenty Precepts of Karate, or Niju kun.

Funakoshi's third son, Yoshitaka, later refined the art tremendously. By changing several aspects (such as lowering stances and adding more high kicks) Yoshitaka helped to separate Shotokan from the other Okinawan styles.

Goals of Shotokan Karate

Many of the goals of Shotokan can be found in Niju kun. Precept No. 12 states. "Do not think of winning. Think, rather, of not losing." This is an idea one could imagine another martial arts master, Helio Gracie, touting. Additionally, in "Karate-do: My Way of Life," Gichin Funakoshi remarks, "The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory or defeat, but in the perfection of the character of the participant."

In combat, Shotokan is a striking style that emphasizes stopping an opponent with powerful kicks or punches quickly and without injury.

Shotokan Characteristics 

In a nutshell, Shotokan teaches practitioners self-defense through a series of kihon (basics), kata (forms) and kumite (sparring). Shotokan is known as a hard martial arts style (rather than soft) because it emphasizes strikes, long stances and sparring techniques. Higher belts also learn some grappling and jiu-jitsu style techniques.

Famous Practitioners

In addition to Gichin Funakoshi and his third son, Yoshitaka Funakoshi, famous Shotokan karate practitioners include Yoshizo Machida, a master in the discipline and the father of UFC fighter Lyoto Machida. Lyoto has shown the world just how effective Shotokan can be by winning the Ultimate Fighting Championship.