Shotokan Karate is a system of Karate developed in Japan from Okinawan Shorin-Ryu. It was transplanted there when Funakoshi Gichin relocated from Okinawa to the home islands of Japan. Funakoshi brought with him a particular variety of Shorin-style Karate which he learned training with Azato Yasutsune. Through Azato, Funakoshi was exposed to the teachings of Itosu and other lesser-known Okinawan instructors.
Modern day Shotokan has little in common with the teachings Funakoshi brought with him from Okinawa. His students are largely responsible or further developing and refining the art, even though they have historically credited him as the source of their material. Three of his students in particular have developed three different schools of thought which make up the bulk of Shotokan Karate practices.
Egami Shigeru led a movement in Japan called Shoto-Kai (Funakoshi Club) which takes Funakoshi's practices and introduces several significant modifications. Egami preached against attempting to make techniques powerful through strength, practiced much longer and narrower stances, and taught his students to lean into their techniques.
Nakayama Masatoshi led a movement which ended up the Japan Karate Association. He modified Funakoshi's teachings by emphasizing an upright posture at all times, taught strength as a method of making techniques powerful, and taught wider, shorter stances.
Ohshima Tsutomu moved to Los Angeles and founded Shotokan Karate of America. His performance is a middle ground between the two with less emphasis on technical precision and tension than Nakayama and yet more than Egami.
Of the three systems, Egami's is closest to the Karate practiced by Funakoshi, Ohshima's is next, and Nakayama's is only loosely based on his methods. Only Oshima is still alive as of this writing in 2007.
The general view of Shotokan experts seems to be that purity of raw technique is more important than almost anything else. The ideology is that one elegant technique mastered so completely that it is as natural as flipping a light switch will finish off the opponent quickly and efficiently. In situations where there are multiple opponents, such an ability is believed essential because there may not be time to throw more than one technique per opponent, and grappling and getting tangled up with your adversary when two others are also trying to harm you is probably unwise. Therefore, each karate technique is maximized at the expense of learning more complicated defenses in Shotokan training.
Later, after technical execution development has begun to plateau after years of training, more complicated defenses can be uncovered from the kata. When attacking, the Shotokan expert will drive directly forward with straight punches and kicks while sweeping at the ankles to unbalance the retreating opponent. Shotokan experts are familiar with other types of techniques, but they generally avoid them unless they feel secure in their superior firepower.
When attacked, Shotokan fighters tend to stand their ground, in my experience. They may shift one step to the side in order to flank the attacker, but the most common defense used is a pre-emptive strike against an incoming opponent. While Shotokan is simple, predictable, and lacking in a wide variety of motions, the few techniques are designed to be mastered to such a high degree of precision and ease of use that they become extremely effective weapons. Shotokan Karate experts are required to learn kata, and depending on the karate association that the student is a member of, that number may be as few as fifteen, or it may be as many as seventy four.
Uniform and Required Equipment
The uniform used for Shotokan Karate is a white cotton canvas uniform composed of two parts: a jacket and a pair of pants. Usually the construction of the uniform is very basic. Shotokan players generally prefer their uniforms unadorned except for perhaps a single patch or embroidery on the lower jacket hem and over the left breast. The uniform comes with a white belt. Belts colors are given for passing tests and accumulating tenure in a club or organization. The belt colors used vary by club, although white is always first, brown is next to last, and black is the last belt.
For competition, more equipment is required. The player is encouraged to use a protective athletic cup and mouth guard. Knuckle-covering hand pads, much less bulky than typical dipped-foam protective gear used by Tae Kwon Do players, are also fairly standard. The feet are usually left uncovered.
Shotokan is a system with extensive documentation. Of all martial arts, Shotokan is the most heavily documented, with numerous professional publications in the form of books, DVDs, video tapes, magazines, and web sites which address the millions who practice it around the world.
Shotokan is also highly systemized such that an experienced player from one club will find a familiar experience almost anywhere he goes with a predictable pattern of training from session to session as well.
Shotokan is an elegant system which takes a simple approach. The punching and kicking methods are generally highly effective in the hands of a skilled, experienced, athletic practitioner and can be put to use with excellent results in a self-defense situation where exchanging blows is necessary.
Shotokan suffers from a Japanese cultural tendency toward over-indoctrination, and players are often unwilling to consider the weaknesses inherent in the system or revisit the effectiveness of some of their practices. Innovation and creativity are generally frowned upon or punished outright. Shotokan is overseen by a multitude of organizations which are famous for their lack of cooperation and recognition of common standards.
Shotokan makes for a fun sport; however, competitions are long (usually 8 hours or longer) and competition is single-elimination tournament style, so less talented players find themselves training for months, waiting for hours nervously, and finally competing for only 2 minutes or less with no hope of recovery if they lose. Some find this high risk competition very exciting.
Another issue is that Shotokan is still largely seen as having its content dictated by standards organizations in Japan, and thus refereeing and competition victories are often claimed to be heavily biased in favor of Japanese competitors. Most seem turned off by this. As a result, such Karate tournaments fail to attract spectators who are not the relatives of the players and have received little attention from sports broadcasters.
Shotokan is a heavily marketed and practiced martial art that requires little in the way of personal contact and is practiced by a very diverse group of people, many of whom have no interest in competition or actual fighting. Shotokan suffers from a large population of mystics who focus their teachings and practice around impractical concepts which provide them with a sense of accomplishment rather than face the reality that they are simply less athletically talented and less physically capable then others.
Some of the standard doctrine of Shotokan theory is dubious from a scientific perspective. Because Shotokan practices are impossible to practice and test against humans without violating laws and morals held close by humanity around the world, much of the practice methods are based on pure theory. Upon close examination, some of these theories appear to be very weak when subjected to peer review and logical reasoning. Tests are impossible, so these disagreements cannot be resolved as they can in Judo, Jujutsu, boxing, and other styles where full contact engagements are common.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of Shotokan is the tendency of players to view being of the Japanese race as the primary qualification for expertise in the art. While this feeling is not universal to every player by any stretch of the imagination, it is prevalent enough that innovation in Japan is lauded while innovation elsewhere is generally decried as unauthentic or watering-down of a traditional Japanese martial art. This has resulted in Shotokan's development stagnating for the most part since the 1960's.
Because of this, Shotokan continues to focus on the Japanese interest in competitive sport rather than the current world movement toward integrating Jujutsu and Karate capabilities for multipurpose, mixed fighting arts. Some Western experts are attempting to override this imperative to seek guidance from Japan, but for the most part, Shotokan remains a standing punch/kick system with a large gap where some wrestling training would serve for more comprehensive self-defense.
The Bottom Line
Shotokan is highly effective at what it is: A punching and kicking system of combat which trains individuals to leverage their own body mass and speed and focus their energy into elegantly simple techniques which can be devastating in the right hands. The emphasis on the technical as well as timing and distancing make Shotokan experts formidable opponents who are often capable of pulling off victories before their opponents have fully committed to their attack. Shotokan is largely sport focused, and lacks wrestling or jujutsu style training, so if the high-risk, high-yield techniques fail, the Shotokan stylist may have to reach for a different skill set in order to defend themselves.
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