What are Karate Styles? The four major karate styles and their history explained.


Motenas Representative
Motenas Representative

I heard there are different styles of karate, how are they different?

I want to explain it to a foreigner, but I don’t understand it.

Many people do not know how to explain karate.

When you want to tell people about the appeal of karate, it is easier to explain about karate styles.


This article describes the four major styles of karate and then explains the differences between them.

Please refer to it when explaining karate to your friends or foreigners. You will understand it better if you know it when you experience it.

There are four karate styles

Karate has been and continues to be divided into four schools: Shotokan-ryu, Goju-ryu, Shitoryu, and Wado-ryu.

The roots are in the Ryukyu Kingdom in present-day Okinawa, but as time went by after it was introduced to mainland Japan, the number of schools increased and differences appeared in the way of thinking and rules of the game.

Knowing the differences between them will help you enjoy karate even more. The following is an introduction to the four major styles of karate.

Shotokan (style of karate)

Shu-tokan-ryu is one of the most studied styles of karate in the world today.

It was named after a dojo called “Shoto-kan” founded by Gichin Funakoshi in Zoshigaya, Tokyo in 1939.

It is said to be the origin of Tae Kwon Do. Funakoshi’s legacy is that “Be faithful to the kata, there are no matches in karate,” and the school still follows a training system that emphasizes kata, which is distinct from the sport-oriented styles.

It is a dynamic style in which every single movement, including attacking and receiving techniques, is characterized by one-hit-kill attacks from a distance.


Goju-ryu is said to have been named by Miyagi Choujun in 1929, when his disciples asked him about the name of the school, by quoting Ho-Go-Ju-Ton-Du from the Eight Essentials of Kenpo.

He is good at striking from close quarters and grabbing and throwing, and is famous for his cat’s paw stance to protect the metal target. Another characteristic of this style is that in addition to defense by circular movements, many of its movements are based on the principles of snap and leverage.

Physical training is the foundation of the training, and the training is repeated to build a strong body.

While it is considered one of the four major karate schools, it is also one of the three major Okinawan schools.

Itoto-ryu (school of archery, inc. horseback archery)

Shitoryu was originally founded by Mabuni Kenwa, who established the dojo “Yoshukan” in Osaka.

Ito-To-Ryu was named after the initial letters of “Ito” from Itoshu Yasugaki, who studied Shuri-Te, and “Higashi” from Higashi Onna Kanryo, who studied Naha-Te.

Since the founder, Mamunin, issued many master licenses, there are many branch schools and techniques that have been passed down from one school to another, resulting in a wide variety of kata.

It is characterized by not only thrusting and kicking, but also throwing and reverse techniques, making it like a mixed martial art due to its many techniques.

Shitoryu also emphasizes spiritual education, and offers instruction aimed at improving the formation of an amicable personality.

Wado-ryu (school of Japanese martial art)

Wado-ryu is a school whose founder, Hironori Otsuka, combined karate techniques derived from Shotokan with jujutsu and swordsmanship to create a highly developed style, characterized by many techniques similar to jujutsu and judo, such as throwing and footwork.

It is a groundbreaking school that combined the teachings of karate from Gichin Funakoshi of the Shoto-kan school and Mabuni of the Shitoryu school, and koryu swordsmanship from Gihachiro Kubo (Kubogihachiro), and added their own bodywork.

It is the only one of the four major styles of karate that is highly original, with techniques that are derived from Japanese jujutsu, and is one of the more active styles in holding tournaments today.

Differences outside of karate schools

It is believed that there are around 200 karate schools in total, in addition to the four major schools.

Moreover, since they are widely spread throughout the world, the total number cannot be fully ascertained.

When considering the classification of karate, it is helpful to understand and explain the two most common classifications in addition to the four major schools.

From here, we will explain the differences between “traditional karate” and “practical karate,” which are differences other than the styles.

traditional karate

Traditional karate is the general term for a form of shunto karate in which no direct blows are made. It is also called non-contact, and is characterized by the principle of stopping briefly during kumite and the wearing of protective gear such as “menho” (face protection) and “protector” (body protection).

Winning or losing is determined by points, which vary depending on the game, such as “the player with more points wins within the time limit” or “the player wins by 8 points”.

Although there are no violent fights, the sharpness and speed of the techniques are spectacular, and the sport has been adopted for the Olympic Games.

It’s a great spectacle to see big foreign players with big physiques teaming up for karate.

The four major styles introduced earlier, such as Shoto-kan and Goju-ryu, are schools that follow traditional karate.

Practical Karate

Jissen karate is also practiced in kata, but as the name implies, it is a form of karate that emphasizes practice, and is increasingly being referred to as “Kyokushin karate.

Traditional karate is called noncontact, whereas full-contact karate involves striking the opponent.

The aim of this competition is to damage the opponent and bring him down without wearing any protective gear.

The winner is considered to have won by one point if the opponent is “down for more than three seconds” or if he “loses his will to fight,” similar to martial arts.

Although it is highly dangerous because it is based on the premise of inflicting damage, and thrusting and kicking are done with body weight, the goal is to “develop mental strength by understanding each other’s pain.

Practical karate is represented by schools such as Kyokushinkaikan and Shinkyokushinkai.

History of Karate

The origin of karate-do began in the Ryukyu Kingdom (present-day Okinawa Prefecture) from the 15th century onward.

At that time, traditional martial arts that were introduced from China and arranged in Ryukyuan style were called “Okinawa-te (or tee)” and Chinese martial arts were called “karate (or tode)” to distinguish them.

The Kingdom of Ryukyu was annexed to the Empire of Japan by the Meiji government in 1879, and Okinawan culture was introduced to mainland Japan.

While retaining the Okinawan hand of content, the name changed from “karate” to “karate,” and karate was introduced to mainland Japan as one of the martial arts.

Today, there are two types of karate: traditional karate, which consists of kata (forms) and kumite, and jissen karate, which is derived from kata and kumite, and has different rules.

At the Tokyo Olympics, two events were made official: karate kata, in which kata are performed, and kumite, which is based on sun stop.

Where you can experience karate

Karate can basically be experienced at a dojo. Some dojos specialize in children’s karate, and some even allow foreigners to experience karate, allowing them to choose according to their objectives.

If it is for children, ask your local dojo if they accommodate children.

In most cases, the process is that the child is introduced to the program after a trial. It is recommended that the child first try it out, and if he or she is interested in it and enjoys continuing it, then continue.

There are also many dojos that offer experiences for foreigners. In Tokyo, there are dojos in the 23 wards of Tokyo that offer English-language classes. The experience can last from one to two hours, covering everything from preparatory exercises to kata practice and demonstrations.

Motenas Japan has experience in planning and arranging karate experiences for “team building” purposes, so please contact us for more information.

Read more about Team Building

About Karate Terminology

Finally, I will explain some karate terminology. There are many terms that you may know but do not know in depth. Here is a brief introduction to karate terminology.

paired karate kata

Karate in the form of a one-on-one match between two competitors at a dojo or other venue is called “kumite. This term refers to so-called matches, which are contested in either “traditional karate” or “practical karate” as mentioned earlier.

There are also two types of kumite: jiyu kumite and kyakusoku kumite, but in most cases, jiyu kumite is used in matches.

The speed of the kumite is exciting to watch, as the players use thrusts and kicks to attack their opponents and then parry the attacks.


Kata is a martial art performed by individuals and is said to maintain the harmony of body and mind trained through practice.

By mastering kata, students can acquire the common sense needed in general society, such as patience, cooperation, and civility.

The judges will evaluate the performance of each competitor, who will be asked to imagine a virtual opponent as he or she attacks and defends. Judging is based on how well the competitor is able to demonstrate and execute the techniques correctly.

Ryo Kituna won the gold medal in men’s karate and Kiyo Shimizu won the silver medal in women’s karate at the Tokyo Olympics.


Moku-so (meditation) is the act of sitting in seiza before and after practice, closing one’s eyes and concentrating one’s mind with the call of “moku-so”.

Breathe in through the nose, letting the inhaled air settle in the tanden (dantian) area near the navel, and exhale in small, slow breaths through the mouth. It has the effect of concentrating the mind, and is also an act of contemplating life by getting in touch with one’s inner self and the deceased.

At the Tokyo Olympics, Ryo Kituna’s silent meditation in the middle of the court after his gold medal match was truly solemn and drew praise from around the world who saw the beauty of the martial arts.


A brief explanation of karate schools and their history.
The long history of karate, with its ancient roots, will continue to be passed down through the world in changing forms. The Japanese culture will have more opportunities to be known more deeply by people around the world, and the population of the world will increase even more.

This article discusses the topic of team building and karate. Please refer to it if you are considering a karate experience for your group.

Motenas Japan offers a variety of traditional cultural experiences and event planning. Please feel free to contact us just to discuss your needs.