Shotokan versus Shotokai (Part 1)


Shotokan versus Shotokai (Part 1)

Written by Antonio García Martinez

(Also published in Black Belt Magazine, Spanish Edition)

It is essential to distinguish three stages in the evolution of the Karate. The first stage when this martial art was limited to the island of Okinawa (Naha-Te, Shuri-Te and Tomari-Te) where Okinawa-Te was understood as a Budo, due to a confluence of socio-cultural values with battle methods that were developed on this island under mostly Chinese influence and Chinese fighting methods based on Kung-fu.
In Okinawa, Okinawa-Te did not have the massive character that later it would acquire, being centered exclusively in the school education. The idea at that moment in time was that training was to be based on Kata, as Shinken Gima recounts, when he entered the Normal School of Okinawa in 1912:

“My Karate teacher at the Normal School was Kentsu Yabu. He taught us Karate based on only one Kata, Naifanchi (Tekki). I practiced it for 5 years”.

Later Karate leaves Okinawa and enters the main island of Japan (Hondo), at this moment we must consider it a new period that includes up to the beginning of World War II. During that period the Karate is influenced by the militaristic spirit that expresses itself in the popularity this Martial Art would attain. This also marks a new method, approach, strategy and teaching style. Little by little training forms are diversified and not only based on Kata, new forms were influenced by other Martial Arts like the Kendo and Jujutsu, practicing the Yakusoku Kumite, Kihon Kumite, etc.

The warlike conflict cut the evolution Karate was experiencing, an evolution that had been possible by great teachers who at the end of conflict didn’t return, died or simply disappeared. Gradually the countryside was abandoned in favor of a reborn phenomenon, the institutionalized competition. After the Second World War a new phenomenon was noticeable, what Shoshin Nagamine called ‘Instantaneous Instructors’, these were represented by North American soldiers and officers that due to a series of circumstances derived from the conflict were interested in traditional sports combat methods of Japan, later returning to their countries with a shallow knowledge of the different arts.

We will now place ourselves in 1922 when Master Gichin Funakoshi starts living in Japan after a few very important exhibitions. The first one in 1916 at the Butoku-Den in Kyoto and later by invitation of Master Jigoro Kano in Ochanomizu (Tokyo) for the Physical Education Festival, May 17th, 1921 at the Kodokan. 1924 is the year the first University Karate club is formed at Keio University.

In 1936 the first dojo of Master Funakoshi is inaugurated [built in 1936 and inaugurated in 1938] in the Mijuroko neighborhood in Tokyo, it was named the Shotokan, word composed by “Shoto”, Master Funakoshi’s pseudonym with which he in his youth had signed the Chinese poems he wrote. The word in Japanese literally means “sound that the wind produces when it goes through the pine needles and “Kan”, that means house, meeting place, etc.

That same year, an assembly of the most important Masters in Naha (Okinawa) confirms the denomination of the Martial Art as Karate-do [name that Gichin Funakoshi had created and established officially in the first edition of Karate-do Kyohan, 1935].

Master Funakoshi had founded the Shotokai Association, formed by his pseudonym and “kai” that means group, meeting, etc. All the students that trained at the Shotokan were within this association. Before the II WW, these karateka were 90% of the total of active participants in Japan.

Master Funakoshi, due to his age – he was 69 year of age when the Shotokan dojo was inaugurated – and the growing number of students, was not able to attend his classes and all the courses that were programmed. This was the reason his students at the Shotokan were trained by his son Yoshitaka (Gigo) and other students such as Shigeru Egami, Genshin Hironishi, Y. Hayashi and Hironori Ohtsuka under Master Funakoshi’s supervision.

Ohtsuka influenced by his knowledge of Jujutsu and Japanese sword was tempted by the practice of combat and at Master Funakoshi’s dojo many Yakusoku Kumite and conventional combat training methods were used. Ohtsuka developed Karate training with space and exercises directed towards free sparring, he imported methods from either Kendo or boxing. He ended up separating from Master Funakoshi in 1940, he criticized him emphatically saying:

“He changed what is essential in Karate by including too many Jujutsu elements”

That was the date of birth for the Wado-ryu style (Way of Peace).

Today at the Shotokan [Nihon Shotokai Headquarters] a solid style is still practiced, without strong distinctions from what was trained with Gichin Funakoshi sensei, though still without kumite as the basis. The practice style is modeled around the Master’s style but with a more fluid, elastic and more sacrificed method, always searching for the movement’s limit, using low positions, long and interconnected attacks with a long influence radius. This evolution required that each attack or defense, each position should extend to its maximum, exaggerating them to the limit thus accumulating the maximum amount of energy but always without a competitive objective, this is the reason why Kumite is left aside beforehand.

Master Funakoshi approved without reserves his son’s initiatives, this is the reason why the style practiced within the Shotokan Dojo never produced any weakness within the teachers nor students there, he comments about this in his book Karate-do, My Way of Life”:

“Even though, as I have already said, I did not resent my age, it became clear that I would not be able to fulfill all the duties that were accumulating. Not only did I have to attend the dojo but also the Tokyo Universities that were forming new groups in their Physical Education departments and needed instructors. It was to much for just one man to supervise the dojo and then go from university to university so I assigned the older students so they would give classes at their own universities instead of me. At the same time I chose one of my sons as assistant, delegating to him the responsibility of the dojo while I supervised the classes at the universities”

In 1949, a student and friend of Master Funakoshi, Isao Obata, founded the Japanese Karate Association (Kyokai), naming Master Funakoshi as chief instructor. At that moment the Master was director of the Shotokan Dojo and the Shotokai group and furthermore the new designation as chief instructor of the Kyokai, a honorific post.

Unlike other Masters, problems within his groups already begin within his lifetime. Differences arise between the Japanese Karate Association (Kyokai) and the Shotokai group that are maintained under control due to respect towards the Master. These differences not only included technical aspects but also the way the martial art is focussed. In 1950 the Kyokai begins to develop the rules for competition and in 1951 begins to practice free Kumite. Master Funakoshi was opposed to this practice who was in favour of Kata practice, paired practice (Yakusoku Kumite, Kihon Kumite, …) but never free Kumite. These free Kumite practices by the Kyokai were developed with the sight set on establishing a competitive spirit within Karate, something that would occur a few months after Master Funakoshi’s death.

When the Kyokai is formed I personally believe that something Henry Pleé calls group syndrome occurred. It can be defined as: “the group, association, federation, etc… there are always a series of students that form a monopoly and constitute a hierarchy within” Henry Pleé conditions their appearance of these groups to the death of the master, but in this case it was produced while the master was alive and as I have mentioned before in a subtle way through differences in the practice method but due to respect towards the Master that was still in life they did not really see the light of day until the exact day the Master died.

The decisive proof is that to maintain the connection of respect towards their Master he is name in a symbolic way “Chief Instructor” even though technically the separation has already happened into clearly differentiated groups:

  • The group of karateka that trained at the Shotokan and that formed the Shotokai Association, founded by the Master and with a practice methodology as was previously described, approved and supervised by Master Funakoshi himself.
  • The group of students that were part of the Japanese Karate Association and that practiced the Kyokai system, where free sparring is given priority with the eyes set on sports competition.