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The 4 Main Karate Styles (Similarities, Differences, and More)

If you have an interest in martial arts, you will already know that there are literally dozens of martial arts formats across the globe. Karate is one main type of martial arts that is widely practiced worldwide. It is a Japanese art that became systematized in the 17th century. The founding father of modern Karate is Gichin Funakoshi. Karate, like other martial arts, comes in various formats. Since the first half of the 1900s, there have been 4 main Karate styles

The 4 main styles of Karate are: 

  1. Gōjū-ryū Karate – founded in c.1930 by Grandmaster Chojun Miyagi.
  2. Shōtōkan Karate – founded in 1938 by Gichin Funakoshi and his son Gigo Funakoshi.
  3. Shitō-ryū Karate – founded in 1934 by Kenwa Mabuni.
  4. Wadō-ryū Karate – founded in 1939 by Hironori Otsuka.

Each of these styles of Karate has both differences and similarities. You might want to learn a bit more about them before deciding which one is best for you. Most dojos nowadays stick to the most popular form of Karate, which is typically Shito-Ryu or Shotokan, but that doesn’t mean that you won’t find a dojo in your area also teaching Goju-Ryu and Wado-Ryu. To learn more about each style of Karate as well as the differences and similarities of each, read on.

What is Karate?

Before we take a look at the similarities and differences of the 4 main types of Karate in terms of description, history, rules and regulations, and fighting styles and techniques – let’s determine what Karate is. 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines Karate as follows: 

“An Asian system of unarmed combat using the hands and feet to deliver and block blows, widely practiced as a sport. It was formalized in Okinawa in the 17th century and popularized via Japan after about 1920 …”

Lexico – Powered by Oxford

The word “Karate” is a fusion of two kanji characters that are broken up as follows:

Kara”, which means “empty”, and “te,” meaning “hand.” 

The word Karate, therefore, means “empty hand”. While Karate is a series of self-defense practices and applications, it is more than that for dedicated practitioners. It is a way of life. 

Description and Purpose

The main similarity between the purposes of all 4 styles of Karate is that they are designed for self-defense, and practitioners, unless necessary, are required to avoid using the skills learned for aggressive or confrontational situations.

“Hard-Soft Style” – one of the main Okinawan Karate styles that involves a combo of both hard and soft fighting techniques. The purpose of Goju-ryu is to develop mental clarity and to learn effective self-defense mechanisms.Shotokan (which stands for “Shoto’s House/Building) is named after its creator’s pen name, Shoto. It’s a style of Karate involving long, deep stances and powerful long-range techniques. Its purpose is also mental clarity and to learn effective self-defense.Wado-ryu is the most recent style of Karate. The name Wado-ryu means “Style of the way to Harmony (and Peace)”.
The art is described as a unique style of Karate as it emphasizes striking as well as tai sabaki, throws, and joint locks. Much the same as Goju and Shotokan, Wado-ryu is great for learning self-defense.
Shito-ryu is the most popular form of Karate in West Japan. Practitioners must study more than 20 katas to perfect this style of Karate. The style itself includes short, low stances that are similar to the stance acquired by sumo wrestlers. The idea of the art is to string the katas together for self-defense. Several weapons are allowed at different levels in the art.

History and Background

All 4 main styles of Karate were designed by different Karate masters. All of the styles are based on mental and physical characteristics. The history of each type of Karate is fairly similar, although different masters were involved in the development and tweaking of each style.

Goju-ryu is one of the most respected forms of traditional Karate. Its history dates back to the 1500s and speaks to the political and social ties between China and Okinawa at the time. The founder of this style is Grandmaster Chojun Miyagi. Most people aim to learn Goju-ryu Karate, if they can find a dojo in their area that actually teaches this specific style.Shotokan-ryu is a style of Karate that was created by Gichin Funakoshi in 1936. Funakoshi taught this style of Karate along with his son in Gigo Funakoshi. After Funakoshi’s death in 1957, many of his students continued teaching his art in clubs, universities, and outside dojos. Shotokan is a popular form of modern Karate to this day.Wado-ryu is a type of Karate that was founded by Hironori Otsuka Sensei in 1934. The concept of “harmony” that comes through in the teachings is not to be confused with weakness and pacifism. It was Otsuka’s mission to teach students that acknowledging and yielding is sometimes more effective in a confrontation that merely using brute force.Shito-ryu was founded by Kenwa Mabuni, who studied under Yasutsune Itosu and later Kanryo Higashionna. Kenwa introduced his style of Karate in Osaka around the 1930s, and first presented it to universities in West Japan. Master Ryusho Sakagami, who was the head of the Itosukai branch of Shito-ryu, was also a role player in the spread of this type of Karate in Japan.

Rules and Regulations

When it comes to rules and regulations, each type of Karate has them. Besides fighting techniques, the rules are what make the type of Karate take on its individual form/style. Rules and regulations are what set the various styles of Karate apart from each other. Some of the styles allow for the use of weapons, while others do not. The rules must be strictly followed by practitioners. 

Practitioners are required to utilize the correct techniques and angles when sparring and fighting. Practitioners use angles to deflect strikers instead of meeting hard strikes with hard strikes. Practitioners must emphasize meeting opponents with the opposite move to what they are presenting. Weapons and takedowns are often incorporated.There are 5 published rules for training in Shotokan, which are: 1. Seek perfection of character. 2. Be faithful. 3. Endeavor to excel. 4. Respect others. 5. Refrain from violent behavior.
Shotokan allows for kicks, sweeps, strikes, punches, and blocks. The only weapons allowed in Shotokan are the body and mind.
Practitioners of Wado-ryu are required to observe and learn the 10 kata associated with the art. The kata are: Pinan Nidan, Pinan Shodan, Pinan Sandan, Pinan Yodan, Pinan Godan, Kushanku, Naihanchi, Seishan, and Chinto. Practitioners are required to use the techniques for self-defense as a last resort.Shito-ryu practitioners learn a very fast and creative form of Karate. They are to learn and perfect the 5 rules of defense, which are: blocking, flowing (soft blocking), bouncing back (counterattack), evading the line of attack, and deflecting the attack. There are many katas to learn, and so students are required to spend a great deal of time perfecting a variety of the 40 to 60 forms of the art.

Fighting Styles & Techniques

The reason why Karate has split into 4 main styles is that different masters saw the need to emphasize different techniques. While the fighting styles and techniques are different, each of these Karate styles is highly effective on its own set of merits.

Closed hand techniques and straight linear attacks are used. This means open hand techniques and circular movements are often seen. Hard strikes are combined with kicks, close hand punches as well as soft open hand circular techniques for attacking, controlling, and blocking the opponent. Techniques include joint locks, throws, takedowns, and grappling. A great deal of emphasis is placed on breathing.Pre-arranged fighting moves and techniques are practiced against hypothetical opponents. Techniques include punches, kicks, sweeps, strikes, and blocks. Movements include stepping, turning, twisting, jumping, and dropping to the ground. Students learn that the techniques are a performance, each of which could end in a killing blow. Fitness is greatly emphasized during practice.Wado-ryu is considered a unique form of Karate that emphasizes joint locks, throws, strikes, and sabaki too. The key fighting style of Wado is tai sabaki, which is ‘evasion’. It is the art of body management and manipulation, so as to move the defender and the attacker out of danger’s way. This involves moving along and with the opponent instead of against. The emphasis is on harmony rather than physical strength and brute force.There is a great deal of emphasis on sparring, speed, and movement in Shito-ryu. This form of Karate features a fighting style that is upright. It is a combination style of Karate that features physical strength, long powerful stances, circular and 8-directional movements, hard and soft techniques, and focused breathing power. The use of weapons is often taught, including: nunchuku, bo, eku, kama, sai, tonfa, and Batto-do.

Last Word

After this simple comparison of the basics of each of the 4 main styles of Karate, you might have a better understanding of what makes each style unique. You can use this information to determine which style of Karate best suits your personal preferences, lifestyle, and physical strengths.

If you’re more of a visual learner, I’ll suggest you take a look at the following video from the YouTube channel “Art Of One Dojo”. Mr. Dan does a great job of discussing the 4 “main” styles of Karate.

Video Source: YouTube / Art Of One Dojo