Many people are aware that there are several different styles of karate, the most popular being Wado Ryu, Shotokan, Kyokushinkai and Goju Ryu, in no particular order. But did you know that different types of karate have developed through the history of its evolution?
Since its beginnings in Okinanwa, karate grew in popularity as an efficient form of self-defence suitable for civilian ‘street’ violence. Training sessions were for small groups and techniques taught could easily be adapted for individuals. There are no real rules in traditional Okinawan based karate. Elbows, grappling, groin kicks, biting and gouging eyes were all part of the training back then.
If you study kata closely, you’ll discover many of these self-defence techniques are hidden within. The practice of these techniques in self-defence training is called ‘bunkai’. Some karateka only see kata as a physical form of exercise or for competition and miss these finer teachings.
Okinawan karate was ‘modernised’ when it was introduced to mainland Japan (Honshu) in 1922. Gichin Funikoshi is famous as the man who founded karate in Japan. This Okinawan karate needed to be repackaged before it was introduced to the people of Honshu because they looked down upon their poor Okinawan neighbours. They viewed them as coarse and uneducated. Funikoshi renamed the katas and techniques to appeal to the ‘posh’ mainlanders.
At this time, Japan was going through a transitional period politically. The days of the old samurai were numbered. Western military experts were brought in to modernise the army. Funikoshi introduced this new karate to schools and universities and it fitted in with modern Japanese political ideologies.
There wasn’t so much a need for self-protection in Japan now, more self-perfection. Karate was taught to big classes. This ancient form of combat developed with underlying principles of nurturing the spirit, conditioning the body and self-improvement. The ultimate aim of karate training now was to aspire to live by a set of core beliefs and values including courage, loyalty, self-control, honour and justice.
Much of the teachings, effective in a real life fight, became lost. Karate became a martial art with the focus on the holistic teachings rather than brutal violence. Rules were introduced. The white suit (gi) was worn and coloured belts (kyu grades) were achieved in gradings. Techniques were standardised and some of the practical ‘street’ fighting techniques were stripped away because it was difficult to teach to the masses.
This second type of karate had a different purpose to the first. It wasn’t meant to be used on the ‘street’ against a thug.
The third type, sport karate, developed because people love to compete. More rules were introduced. Referees, judges, points scoring, time limits, a matted dojo and only a limited amount of techniques being used. Bouts were made with an equally sized opponent and actual contact was minimal. It became very popular and soon spread to the West. High kicks, great for scoring 3 points in competition, are impractical in a self-defence scenario. If you compare a karate bout with a real fight, you’ll see a big difference. I’d estimate that 90% of UK karate clubs just teach sport karate.
It’s impossible to compare the three types of karate as they all have different aims. The traditional Okinawan form is a civilian self-defence based art. The modern Japanese form is a martial art, still retaining some practical fighting skills but with more emphasis on character development. The third, sport karate, is solely for competition and largely ineffective as a form of self-defence. The type of karate that suits you depends on what you’re looking to achieve from training.
At Loughton Karate Club we follow the modern syllabus of Wado Ryu, est. 1939, (which originates from Okinawa but is considered modern) with an emphasis on traditional Okinawan based self-defence teachings. Bunkai is taught when learning kata. There are no medals and trophies to be won except our ‘Student of the Year’ award. Our syllabus is safe to learn yet practical for ‘street’ violence. Sparring consists of wrist locks, throws and grappling as well as the usual punching and kicking expected in karate. I think it’s a good balance that works well for the needs of today’s society.