Shotokan or Shotokai


In view of my son’s and my impending travel to Japan for the 60th anniversary of the establishment of Master Kawanabe Kenjiro’s dojo in Tokyo, I thought I would briefly discuss a topic that is generally not properly understood in Shotokan circles.

Master Kawanabe, now in his 86th year, is a 10th Dan Shotokai Karate who still teaches budo (martial arts) at his Atsugi dojo. His approach is based on study directly under Master Funakoshi Gichin, the founder of Shotokan-ryu and widely acknowledged as the father of modern karate, and other luminaries in the arts of Shin’eiTaido (Jujitsu) and Kendo. From 1950 to 1954 Master Kawanabe studied English Literature at Waseda University, joining the University Karate Club where he first met Master Funakoshi. In 1953, Master Kawanabe became captain of the Waseda University Karate Club. His studies under, and association with, Master Funakoshi were to have a significant impact on his martial development, and the posture and direction he adopted later in life.


The roots of Japanese karate are to be found in Okinawan-Te – Naha-Te, Shuri-Te and Tomari-Te; styles that were based on a confluence of socio-cultural values, and close-quarter battle methods developed under Chinese influence and in accordance with Chinese fighting methods. Okinawa-Te did not develop the massive following that karate would later acquire. Te was centred exclusively in the school education system and training was restricted to the performance of kata.

Shotokan (松濤館), or more particularly Shotokan-ryu, is a style of karate developed from various martial arts by Master Funakoshi Gichin (1868–1957) and his son Gigo (Yoshitaka) Funakoshi (1906–1945). Master Funakoshi was born in Okinawa and is widely credited with popularising Karate-Do through a series of public demonstrations, and by promoting the development of university karate clubs, including those at Keio, Waseda, Hitotsubashi (Shodai), Takushoku, Chuo, Gakushuin, and Hosei. However, Shotokan is not a karate style; it is actually the name of the first official dojo built by Master Funakoshi; a dojo that was destroyed in 1945 as a result of allied bombing during World War II.

Shotokai (松濤會) is the organisation formed in 1930 by Master Funakoshi to teach and spread the art of Karate-Do. The association promotes a style of karate that adheres to Funakoshi’s teachings, in particular the notion that competition is contrary to the essence of karate.

Shotokai, Shotokan and JKA

In the early 20th century Master Funakoshi Gichin re-located from Okinawa to ‘mainland’ Japan, where he conducted karate exhibitions. The first was in 1916 at the Butoku-Den in Kyoto. In 1924 he established the first University Karate club at Keio University, and eventually went on to establish Clubs at Keio, Waseda, Hitotsubashi (Shodai), Takushoku, Chuo, Gakushuin, and Hosei universities.

In 1938, at the age of 70 years, Master Funakoshi’s first dojo was inaugurated in Tokyo. While reference is made to Shotokan-ryu (ryu meaning ‘school’), Master Funakoshi never gave his system a name; he just called it Karate. However, in honour of their Sensei, his students created a sign reading shōtō-kan which they placed above the entrance to the hall where Master Funakoshi taught. The name ‘Shotokan’ is composed of ‘Shoto’, Master Funakoshi’s pen name which literally means ‘the sound that the wind produces when it goes through pine needles’, and ‘Kan’, which means house or meeting place.

Master Funakoshi also founded the ‘Shotokai Association’, the suffix ‘kai’ meaning group, meeting or method. The original name was Dai Nihon Karate-do Kenkyukai, but since 1936 it has been known in Japan as Dai Nihon Karate-do Shotokai. Although Shotokai is not an official style of karate, the students who trained at the Shotokan were members of this association.

In 1949, a student and friend of Master Funakoshi, Isao Obata, founded the Japanese Karate Association (Kyokai), appointing Master Funakoshi in an honorific post as chief instructor, although he remained director of the Shotokan Dojo and the Shotokai group.

The ‘Split’

Unlike other Masters, dissension among his various groups commenced during Master Funakoshi’s lifetime. Differences not only included technical aspects but also the way the martial art was being focused. In 1950 the Kyokai began to develop the rules for competition, and in 1951 began the practice of Jiyu Kumite (free sparring). Master Funakoshi, who favoured kata practice and paired practice (Yakusoku kumite, Kihon kumite) was opposed to this new approach. The Kyokai’s inclusion of free sparring was intended to further popularise the art beyond Japan’s borders, and to establish a competitive (sports) element within karate.

On the very day of Master Funakoshi’s passing on 26 April 1957, his students split into two dominant factions: the Nihon Karate Kyokai (Japan Karate Association, JKA – headed by Masatoshi Nakayama) and the Shotokai (headed by Shigeru Egami). While there were other contributing factors, it appears that one of the primary reasons for the split was Shotokai’s notion, in accordance with Master Funakoshi’s philosophy, that competition is contrary to the essence of karate.

In 1957, following Master Funakoshi’s death, the first Japanese Karate championship was held. Master Funakoshi, who was opposed to tournaments, also maintained an opposition to the differentiation of schools. In his words:

“There is no place in Modern Karate for different schools. I know that there are instructors that claim the right to call themselves founders of ‘schools’. I myself have heard people talk about our schools as Shotokan but I firmly oppose this type of differentiation.”

The Distinction

Shotokai continues to refrain from competition because its founder, Master Funakoshi, was also a Confucianist philosopher and scholar, who taught that there are ‘no contests in karate’.

The Shotokan (Nihon Shotokai Headquarters), while fundamentally maintaining the style taught by Master Funakoshi, now encompasses more fluid and elastic movements, using low stances and positions, together with long and interconnected attacks with a long influence radius. This evolution required each attack or defence to extend to its maximum; a positional exaggeration intended to accumulate maximum energy.

Shotokai Karate differs much from other Shotokan branches (JKA, SKI, ITKF, SKA) in that it also emphasises spiritual practice over competitive tournaments. The traditional 15 kata proposed by Master Funakoshi are practiced in the same way as in other forms of karate, although Shotokai emphasises smooth, flowing movements rather than the sharp, snappy, rigid movements of other styles. This does not mean that the style is gentle, but rather it emphasises ‘decontraction’ for effective hand and foot strikes. Master Egami found that executing movements in a relaxed state of mind and body, focusing on suppleness and relaxation, was superior to an approach that focuses on tenseness to generate force.

While competition (sports karate) is shunned, kumite practice certainly exists in Shotokai schools; although it does not form the basis for karate practice. Shotokai kumite often emphasises full strength / full contact attacks; activities that are tightly controlled in order to reduce the chance of injury.

However, the essence of Shotokai is found in the tactic of ‘sen no sen’ – ‘irimi – the ability to predict an opponent’s intent. A seasoned practitioner should be able to predict, anticipate and, if necessary, respond to a threat often before there is any visible movement. This is the ultimate representation of Master Funakoshi’s statement: ‘there is no first attack in karate’.

L.S. Gray
Hanshi, 8th Dan