What is Shotokai Karate?

What is Shotokai KarateShotokai is the name of the association formed by Gichin Funakoshi “the father of modern karate” in 1935 and has since become a style of karate whose practitioners believe accurately reflects the teachings of Master Funakoshi.  This move to a formal style of karate was solidified in 1956 when Genshin Hironishi became the President of the Shotokai and Shigeru Egam became the Chief Instructor, in direct opposition to the Japan Karate Association (JKA) , which they believed, followed a corrupted version of karate.

Gichin Funakoshi (1868 – 1957) is known as the “father of modern karate”.  He was born in Okinawa, one of the small islands of Japan,  and grew up studying two local fighting styles Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū. He went on to teach his own  karate style and in his efforts to spread its popularity, ventured to mainland Japan in 1917 and 1922.

In 1935, Gichin established the Shotokai, meaning literally Shoto’s Association.   Shoto was the pseudonym Master Funakoshi gave himself: “Sho” translates as pine tree, whilst “to” means strong waves.  It symbolised his desire to be dignified like a pine tree and as strong as waves crashing onto rocks.

The association was formed as a way of collecting funds in order to establish his own Dojo, or training hall. 

This was built on 29th January 1939 in what is now Tokyo.  A simple sign was placed above the door – Shotokan, meaning ‘the place of Shoto’.  Those that trained there were known as the Shotokan and, in time, this was abbreviated to Shotokan.

Amongst its lead instructors were Shigeru Egami and Genshin Hironishi, as well as Gichin Funakoshi son, Yoshitaka (Gigo) Funakoshi.

As his father began to age, Gigo took an increasing role in running the Dojo.  From 1935 to 1945, he introduced a number of key changes to the way in which Karate was practiced.  

An increased emphasis was placed on the stances in karate which became longer and deeper.  Hip movement became more important in transferring the power of the entire body into techniques.  Kata with Chinese names were renamed in Japanese.  Perhaps most controversially, Gigo looked at other martial arts such as Judo and Kendo and incorporated an increased emphasis of Jyu Kumite (free sparring) into the Karate curriculum. 

Gigo died at the age of 39 from tuberculosis in 1945, and in that same year the Shotokan dojo was burned down in an allied air raid.

Following the war, karate was being taught at the Japanese Universities. Gichin Funakoshi at this time was now 80 years old and rarely attended the Universities to teach Karate. 

In 1949, the Japan Karate Association (JKA) was formed in an attempt to unify the various brands of Karate being taught at the Universities.  Gichin Funakoshi was given the figurehead role of Honorary Chief Instructor.  Masatoshi Nakayama became the Chief instructor and had the single aim of standardizing the different types of Funakoshi’s karate being taught and to spread it around the world.

These changes did not sit well with everyone, including Gichin Funakoshi  himself.  In addition, neither Egami nor Hironishi, two of the main instructors at the original Shotokan, decided not to join the JKA.

In the 1950, the JKA started to develop the rules of competition and the following year started to encourage free Kumite (sparring).  In many respects, Masatoshi Nakayama was continuing the work initiated by Gigo.   

Gichin Funakoshi had always been opposed to free Kumite, favouring the practice of kata and paired practice instead.  

In response, Egami and Hironishi began to promote their style of karate, Shotokai, as being the true form of karate as taught by Gichin Funakoshi.  Hironishi became the President of the Shotokai and Egami became the Chief Instructor.

There were now two different schools that both argued that they were continuing Gichin Funakoshi’s teachings:  the Japan Karate Association (JKA) and Shotokai.

Gichin Funakoshi could not stand the tension between the two schools and in 1956, he resigned from the JKA.  This must have had a significant effect on the leaders of the JKA: a year later Funakoshi died and the JKA boycotted his funeral.  This act cemented the rift between the JKA and Shotokai, which lasts until this day.

Shotokai vs Shotokan

What is the difference between Shotokan and Shotokai?

As we have seen, Shotokai originally referred to Gichin Funakoshi’s association (‘Shoto’ being his pen-name and ‘kai’ meaning group) which he established in 1935 to raise funds for a training hall (which was called the ‘Shotokan’).

Today, these names are used to describe two different methods of practicing karate. What are some of these differences?

Performance of technique

Shotokan’s techniques are performed with a definite snapping motion, with its power directed towards a fixed point on or in an attacker’s body.  At the moment of impact, the karateka’s body is tensed, a practice known as ‘kime’.  This gives the effect of the body being as rigid as an iron bar at the moment the practitioner either blocks an attack or delivers a counter-strike.


In contrast, Shotokai’s techniques are performed in a much looser fashion.  There is no ‘kime’ on the execution of a technique and even on impact, the Shotokai student’s body continues to remain relaxed.  

Even the muscles of the hand look loose when performing punches: the front punch is delivered with the lower joints of the finger protruding and yet it still has considerable impact.  This gives the style a much more fluid feel to it.  Here’s very rare footage of Egami performing Shotokai techniques:



Both styles of karate share the same katas with a couple of exceptions.  Both the Ten No Kata or the Taikyoku Kata are not performed by the Japan Karate Association (JKA).

These Kata were developed by Master Funakoshi’s son, Yoshitaka (Gigo) Funakoshi, whilst Masatoshi Nakayama was away during the Second World War.  Since he was not involved in their development, he failed to incorporate them into the JKA syllabus. 

These kata can be seen below:




The performance of the kata in Shotokan is done in a very crisp manner with ‘kime’ at the conclusion of each technique where the body tenses and focuses the energy of the movement towards a fixed point on or in an imaginary attacker’s body.

In Shotokai, the movements are completed in a much more relaxed and looser fashion.  There is no ‘kime’ at the end of each technique and each movement flows into the next one with little to no pause.

Competition vs Spiritual Practice

Perhaps the key difference, is the involvement in competition karate.

The Japan Karate Association has  actively encouraged free sparring and competition since 1951.  It was instrumental in developing the shobu ippon or ‘one ippon’ competition system.  

An ippon is seen as a definitive strike that, if it made forceful contact, would lead to the opponent’s demise. 

In contrast, Shotokai see any involvement with commercialism and competition as a distortion of the true karate taught by Gichin Funakoshi, “the father of modern karate”.

Master Egami wrote: “First of all, we must practise Karate like a combat technique and then, with time and experience, we will be able to understand a certain state of soul and will be able to open ourselves to the horizons of ‘jita-ittai’ (the union of one with the other) which lay beyond fighting. This is the principle of coexistence which enables us to live together in prosperity.”

Shotokai karate is found in the principle of “sen no sen” – “irimi”.  This is the skill to predict an opponent’s intended attack, moving into it and catching the opponent just as they’ve started to initiate the strike.  A skilled seasoned Shotokai practitioner can  anticipate an  opponent’s intentions even when there has been limited visible movement.  In this way, Shotokai karateka believe they are fulfilling Funakoshi’s teaching that:  ‘there is no first attack’ in karate. 

Use of Weapons

It is known that Gichin Funakoshi studied the use of a number of weapons, including the sai, bo and nunchuku as part of jutsu.  He went on to teach these to his son, Yoshitaka (Gigo) Funakoshi.  Subsequently,  Gigo went on to develop a bo kata.  Shotokai preserves this tradition and still incorporates a bo kata.



Masatoshi Nakayama, the original Chief Instructor at the Japan Karate Association (JKA) was not involved in developing the bo kata and thus weapons training remains outside of the JKA.

Summary: What is the difference between Shotokan and Shotokai karate?

There are a number of key differences between Shotokan and Shotokai:

  • Shotokai karate is carried out in a very loose, and relaxed manner and does not involve ‘kime’
  • Shotokai incorporates additional kata including Ten No Kata and the Taikyoku kata
  • Shotokai does not practice karate as a form of competition
  • Shotokai incorporate weapons training and includes a bo kata.

Both styles argue that they were continuing and adhering to Gichin Funakoshi’s teachings, the “father of modern karate”.


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