Shotokan Karate is a dynamic martial art style created by the late, great Gichin Funakoshi. The style is characterized by highly concentrated striking, forthright blocking, powerful stances, and a series of captivating kata. Shotokan is a form of self defense that is built like a strong house – first a formidable foundation is molded within a student, and then one brick is layered on at a time. Rather than including endless variations and techniques, the style focuses on a handful of powerful blocks, strikes, and kicks – and then perfecting the body alignment and concentration required to place them within an actual fight.
This guide is designed for complete beginners to the style. You will be introduced to the style’s beginnings, the purpose of the various training types, along with some practical knowledge on its basic movements. This is a crash course in the white belt level of the style – focusing on the foundational movements, rather than the complex combinations and sequences (kata).
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Gichin Funakoshi was born in 1868 in Okinawa (an island South of mainland Japan). In his childhood, his studied karate under two masters (Master Itosu and Master Azato). In this period, the transfer of knowledge of a martial art was more secretive and not a public affair. It was a deep honor to have the opportunity to learn from a true master. As a young man, Funakoshi became a school teacher. The practice of karate was become more recognizable and desired by the masses. Seeing this an as good moment of time to spread the art to others, Funakoshi introduced karate into the public school system in Okinawa.
Everything changed for karate in 1922. It was then that the Japanese Ministry of Education held a martial arts demonstration in Tokyo. Funakoshi was invited to demonstrate his style of karate – it was a hit. He received so much interest that he decided to stay and open the first karate school in mainland Japan. (Back in this time, Judo was much more popular in the country). The dojo was called Shotokan (“Kan” means “building”, “Shoto” means “pine waves”, which happened to be Funakoshi’s pen name).
He authored the book titled, “Karate-Do : My Way of Life” as a more mature instructor. His teachings transcended the physical, and tended to guide his students toward mindfulness and spiritual improvement. Since passing away in 1957, the martial arts landscape has been dramatically changed, due to Funakoshi’s impact and teaching philosophy. Some shotokan students have drifted in the direction of competition sparring, whereas others adhere to his original practice of kata and self-mastery.
Students begin their shotokan training for a variety of reasons, but they tend to boil down to one thing: self-improvement. In other styles, a student might be driven by fear or street-ready self defense (Krav Maga, for example), or to become more athletic or attend the Olympics (Tae Kwon Do). Before you start training, hold a vision for where you are trying to go with this, so that you can check your own progress along the way.
Some training goals that you should set for yourself:
For students who will be training in a local dojo, there is some traditional etiquette that should be followed. This can vary depending on association, instructor, and location. It is always best to ask your local instructor. Let’s review some below:
The official shotokan syllabus is broken down into different curriculum sections. These are different types of training, each with their own purpose.
Basics (Kihon) – At each belt level, you will learn a set of basic techniques. These are the Stances (Tachikata), Punches (Tsuki), Blocks (Uke), and Kicks (Geri). You will learn the sequence of body movement, proper targets, correct stances, practical applications, and other subtleties.
Forms (Kata) – A cornerstone of shotokan karate is the kata. A kata is a pre-arranged fight or choreographed training sequence. The techniques are demonstrated the same way, in the same pattern, every time. With a goal of constant improvement in the technical proficiency and effectiveness of the movements within the predefined sequence. Kata training grew out of a need for effective training, while mitigating the injury on training partners, and has been used since the day of the samurai (for kenjutsu – sword training).
Sparring (Kumite) – Students will begin with a simple, controlled form of self defense and counterattack practice called Ippon Kumite (One Step Sparring). As you move through the belts, you will graduate to Sanbon Kumite (Three Step Sparring), Gohon Kumite (Five Step Sparring), Kaeshi Ippon Kumite (Counter-Attack Sparring), and eventually Jiyu Kumite (Freestyle Sparring).
Self Defense Kata (Goshi Jutsu) – Advanced students will also learn specialized techniques to address: wrist grabs, chokes, holds, blunt, bladed, and firearms.
Now let’s jump into the beginner stances of shotokan karate. There is no skipping over this section. Without a strong foundation the rest of your techniques will diminish in value.
Attention Stance (Musubi-Dachi) – vee-stance, heels together, toes apart. This is a beginning attention stance, from which we bow (rei).
Natural Stance (Shizentai) – Used as a ready stance. In preparation for the next movement or as a semi-relaxed position for static training.
Front Stance (Zenkutsu-Dachi) – The front stance, used for lunging or forward moving strikes or blocks. Also, very common in kata.
Now we will begin learning the basic punches. Before you can throw proper punches, you need to know how to make a proper fist:
Straight Punch (Choku-Zuki) – A straight punch practiced from a natural stance (shizentai), rather than lunging forward or defensively.
Front Lunge Punch (Oi-Zuki) – With this punch, we essentially execute a straight punch (choku-zuki), while stepping out into a front stance (zenkutsu-dachi).
Reverse Punch (Gyaku-Zuki) – Punching with the back arm (opposite to the leg that is in front), from a front stance.
Down Block (Gedan Barai) – A downward block to stop an incoming low-line strike such as a kick.
Rising Block (Age-Uke) – A powerful upward block to redirect to stop an incoming descending strike or high line attack to the head.
Front Snap Kick (Mae-Geri Keage) – A snapping kick that uses the ball of the foot as the weapon. Usually targeted at the knee, groin, solar plexu, or perhaps chin.
If you are interested in earning accredited rank in shotokan karate, you will need to complete a test. Whether you attend a local dojo or an online dojo, there are certain requirements that will need to be met before you can even test. These usually include: a minimum of hours or time trained before you are eligible to test, earning required stripes, and a level of attendance.
A shotokan test typically involves:
The key to passing a test is preparation. It is also important that you don’t create unnecessary anxiety or stress regarding the testing process. Testing is really just a marker for your own personal progress on your black belt journey. It also gives your instructor the opportunity to push you to a new level of excellence, while opening up many opportunities for useful feedback.
Onward (Next Curriculum Sections)
Now that you’ve been introduced to the basic fundamentals of shotokan, such as the stances, blocks, punches, and a kick – it is time to look onward. The next section of your training will include:
In the beginning, your focus will be simply learning where everything goes. The sequence of movements, how they relate to your body’s motion, and the proper stances to use. You will then integrate all of this knowledge together into a dramatic body of work, called a kata. The kata is used to help perfect your techniques in a combined way. Another layer is breaking down the kata, and really understanding what your movements are doing – we call this bunkai. The final layer is taking the techniques to a realistic fighting leve, and practicing kumite with partners, and building up the confidence that you are prepared for anything.
Choose an Organized Training Program
To continue your shotokan journey, you will need an organized training program and instructor to guide you and hold you accountable. Here are a few options:
Local School – If you have any friends, ask for a personal referral to a great local dojo. If you don’t, do some web searches. Take the time to read every Google or Facebook review of the school. Watch clips of classes, check out photos, and research the school’s website. If there is a major lack in a web presence, this is usually a red flag. However, there are still some very small clubs that are not interested in making it easy to find them, and a phone call or free clas can be a worthwhile endeavor. Typically, you want to feel that the school’s culture and instructor’s personality will be a good fit for your learning styles and goals.
Online School – If there is no qualified school nearby, or you are unable to attend their class schedule or afford their tuition, consider an online school. Learning karate online is becoming more and more possible with extremely comprehensive video lessons, classes, and instructor feedback. Choose a program that has a well-laid out complete curriculum from white to black belt, plenty of training material (such as classes, workouts, and other extras), an interactive community, a rigorous testing system, instructor feedback, and a self-paced model.
Want even more? Sign up for our Free Online Shotokan Karate Course, to learn even more techniques and to even do full follow-along classes like you’re in a dojo. You’ll get access to free training as you continue your Shotokan Karate journey.