Shotokan Karate is a bit of a “marmite” style. As the marmite advert says, you either love it or you hate it.
Before going into any discussion on any style at all, it has to be acknowledged that as it spreads throughout the world, approaches will vary and be altered. Some teachers will add things, other teachers will take things out, some will teach it really well, others will teach it poorly. So we are not really able to say “this is how it is” as it can vary quite widely from association to association or even club to club. So as with any post of this type, we must acknowledge that there will be some broad generalisations and that there will be exceptions.
Also, the thrust of this post will be the strengths and weaknesses of Shotokan Karate as a form of self protection; not as a combat sport or form of self improvement so I won’t be talking about how well it does or doesn’t do in the cage!
Some Background About Martial Art Styles
Shotokan is my primary style. I say primary, as I consider myself a martial artist first and Karateka second; therefore I accept influences and ideas from other martial into how I train and teach my Karate.
If you ask Iain Abernethy or Jesse Enkamp (2 very influential Karate guys on-line) what style of Karate they practice, they will tell you that they don’t know. This is because they follow the old traditional Okinawan route of learning from any available source, not dismissing something as it’s “not how we do it in my style”. The irony is that this was the original traditional way of learning in Okinawa and China; the present approach of learning a particular style is more of a Japanese approach as lineage is very important to them.
Sticking to a style is actually, relatively speaking, a fairly modern approach to Karate. So what we see as “traditional styes” today, is not the traditional approach of Okinawan and Chinese martial artists of yesteryear! However, it is useful to have such categorisations so that should you decide to change club, or want to try something different, you’ve got an idea what you’re going to before you walk through the door. The modern concept of traditional styles has also been used a lot for masters/teachers to market themselves and their classes/associations.
I actually understand Shotokan a lot better today because I have dabbled in other styles which have filled gaps in my knowledge and taught me how to use some of the movements in my katas which I formally hadn’t really understood.
But in the modern context of what is considered traditional martial arts, Karate is a very widely practiced martial art all around the world, and Shotokan is the largest most widely practiced of all the styles of Karate. This is partly because Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan and Shotokai) was first Okinawan Karate teacher to move to Japan and start teaching them. So his teachings had a flying head-start over the others. Shotokan was probably the first to start sending Japanese teachers overseas and set up in other countries, before the other styles of Karate really got going.
Shotokan: Love It Or Hate It
Going back to the marmite joke at the beginning; with so many people around the world practicing Shotokan, it’s obviously loved by very many people. However, any style wanting to make a case that they are better than the rest (which is what marketing is all about), would tend to use Shotokan as the main example of doing it badly so that they can assert their supposed superiority. There’s no point in saying that you’re better than some obscure style that nobody has heard of, that won’t help you. Styles largely based on or derived from Shotokan (including Korean styles) would want to explain how they had improved on the Shotokan model (or there wouldn’t really be much point in creating the new style). And in fairness, many Shotokan people did the same towards other styles. This attitude was quite prevalent in the 70’s and 80’s, but not quite so much now as more and more different styles come together to train; especially when it comes to the bunkai (applications) and the applied or reality based side of martial arts.
However, this wide reach gives Shotokan it’s first benefit, that if you go anywhere in the world, there is a good chance that there will be a Shotokan club nearby that you can train with and understand what is going on.
Many of the early Japanese instructors to go abroad had spent several years in the brutal and infamous Instructors Class which was by invite only and full time. These were men who had been really toughened up and refined their Karate to a very high standard. They had credibility, seemingly super human power and were technically brilliant. Shotokan standards were (and in the main, still are) very high. Since those early days, many Westerners have broken away and formed their own associations for a number of reasons. Money probably being the main one!
However, no average Westerner was going to be taken seriously when compared to the Japanese, so in the main only really very technically good Westerners got to set up their own associations. In Shotokan, you can’t get away with being mediocre and setting up your own association, there is simply too much competition from other associations that do have very high standards.
I have seen martial arts clubs of other styles that are not very widely practiced open up and they are the only one of their style in that area/region. There is sometimes an arrogant attitude that accompanies this as they (like every other martial art) will argue that they are the best style, and being the only one in the area, this (theoretically) makes them the very best in their area/region. Shotokan people (and other widely practiced styles) always know that there are many people around who are higher up the ladder and better; and probably not too far away. It can help to keep egos in check!
Form Or Function?
One of the main weaknesses of Shotokan is that the Japanese tend to be sticklers for form, but not necessarily functionality. By this I mean, more emphasis on the performance of a given technique/kata rather than on how to actually use it in a real self-protection situation. So many applications that they teach would not work in the real life. I’d say that there are 2 main reasons for this. One reason being being the emphasis put on competition fighting. All movements were (generally speaking) interpreted through the lens of that way of fighting, where there was not any grabs, throws, locks or any kind of grappling. Furthermore, Shotokan competition is normally long range fighting, so everything was seen as being applied starting from a distance; when of course real life street defence is normally close quarters.
Also, when Gichin Funakoshi took Karate to Japan, there was quite a bit of prejudice against what was seen as backward and simple Okinawa. So when Funakoshi got the support of Jigoro Kano who was the founder of Judo and a high official in the Japanese ministry for sport, it was very important to him. Allegedly, Funakoshi stopped teaching throws, holds, locks and any grappling that might look like Judo out of respect for Kano. Hence Shotokan Karate became seen as almost exclusively a striking, kicking and blocking style with no grappling; when obviously it did originally contain those methods.
There are movements where many Shotokan Sensei’s to this day teach that you are blocking 2 people at the same time, one attacking from the front and one simultaneously from the rear. This only works when pre-arranged and the attackers attack at exactly the right time and in a prescribed manner. It would never work in real life. Even the basic “blocks” don’t really work as blocks the way that they were originally taught to us in the West. Don’t believe me? Try sparring for just few minutes where all you can use is formal “blocking” moves without using parries and evasions. They won’t work.
They do however work great as close quarters strikes (with or without a weapon in the hand) and some for restraints or escapes.
However, the physical prowess of these masters was such that for many many years nobody would question it. If you couldn’t make it work yourself, the answer was just “more training”.
So that is a definite weakness to how Shotokan was originally taught. Many top instructors, including the Westerners who learnt this way of training, still do teach these kind of application today and (not wishing to offend anybody, but) it simply won’t work under pressure. This is (as a broad generalisation) most common in the large single style Shotokan only organisations, where there is no other influences to challenge the status quo. Top instructors who make their living teaching don’t alway want to admit that they don’t know, because if they do then they fear their students may go train with somebody who does. So knowledge of application stagnates, but athletes with great physical prowess will still inspire the faithful followers to stay on this limited path.
Groundwork, Weapons & Reality
Another related weakness is that most Shotokan Karate clubs do little to no groundwork. Now for real self protection, you don’t want to be on the ground, you’re very vulnerable. Styles like Judo or Brazilian Ju Jutsu do very well on the ground especially in MMA/UFC competition fights. But it must be remembered that these are sports where it is strictly one on one. In the street, if you have a guy pinned down and are sitting on his chest punching away (known as ground & pound); what happens if his mate comes up behind you with a bottle to the back of your head.
Having made the point that you don’t want to fight on the ground if you can possibly avoid it, it is obviously good that Shotokan focuses on fighting on your feet. However, you do have to face the possibility that you might end up on the ground and want to get back up. If you have no experience at fighting on the ground, then you are at a disadvantage and this is a weakness in most Shotokan training.
The original Okinawan Karate also included weapons. This has a number of advantages, one of the main one being that if you understand how weapons work, you have a better chance of surviving an attack by somebody with a weapon. Although the original weapons used in Karate training (such as Bo, Tonfa, Sai) are not items that are readily available in todays world and we are not likely to be carrying them around in the street; they do still give an understanding of how weapons in general work. So with that understanding, you can apply it to makeshift weapons such as a torch, a pen, even a mobile phone or pool cue. Just try doing your basic blocks with such an item in your hand and see how readily and easily Shotokan’s basic movements can be used with these makeshift weapons.
Unfortunately most Shotokan Karateka if confronted, would probably pocket anything in their hands rather than consider them potential weapons, as they’ve only ever trained with empty hands! And for a smaller person or a lady, this is a bad strategy.
Many of the modern reality based martial arts (RBMA) teachers talk about hard skills and soft skills. The hard skills are the fighting methods – kicking, punching, striking etc. These are abundant in Shotokan Karate.
The soft skills are more to do with de-escalation and talking your way out of a confrontation. I personally have only really learnt these in any serious depth outside of the Shotokan Karate world, so this is another area where Shotokan is generally lacking.
Filling In The Gaps In How Shotokan Is Taught
Over the years however, many people have brought to bear knowledge from other styles such as Ju Jutsu, Aikido, Kung Fu, Tai Chi and RBMA. Many exponents have had experience doing door work, body guarding, even street fighting; and found out what does and doesn’t work in real life. These exponents have looked at many of the kata movements previously described as blocks or strikes and have recognised them as throws, locks, joint breaks and whole range of other fighting methods (which Funakoshi allegedly left out due to respect for Kano). There are many cross style seminars these days teaching effective kata bunkai (applications) that work close in, on the ground and cover a whole range of grappling methods.
RBMA teachers (again – cross style) fill the gaps in the soft skills and the reality of real world violence.
So there are now a growing number of Shotokan instructors who teach ALL these things, thereby teaching a much more complete self protection system. They take Shotokan back (in many respects) to the Karate that the likes of Funakoshi would have learnt on Okinawa. Most of these instructors will still have strong basics and good form as that is deeply ingrained in the Shotokan psyche, but they will focus more on realistic self defence rather than competition.
Another advantage of Shotokan is that although much of the original Okinawan fighting methods were lost, they passed on the blueprint in the form of the basics and katas. Yes, these have been altered too by people who did not really understand the meanings of the movements, but not by that much. With knowledge from other fighting systems and hard earned practical experience, we are able to look at that blueprint and work it out. With no disrespect intended, in Tae Kwon Do many of their patterns have been completely re-written to distance themselves from their Karate roots and give themselves a more Korean identity. If people who don’t understand the original applications (and most of the Koreans and the Japanese who taught them did not); then totally re-writing them takes them even further from the original combat functionality. Fortunately for Shotokan, there has always been a pride in performing it’s kata and maintaining uniformity across large associations. Admittedly there have been many changes just for aesthetic reasons, but the original form hasn’t changed dramatically.
Very broadly speaking, Shotokan instructors who practice/teach abroad range of realistic street defences (throws, locks, joint brakes, escapes, RBMA etc) are often found outside of the big single style Shotokan associations where there is more freedom to choose their own path and more openness to learn from others outside of the Shotokan world. They are often independent, in multi style associations or small Shotokan associations. Yet ironically there are those who regard themselves as traditionalist (in the modern sense) who despite the overwhelming common sense of this approach, will still condemn it and dismiss it as not being pure or proper Karate. I see some people in the large single style Shotokan associations who boast high standards, but will not train outside of their immediate association. And they are right in that they do have very high standards, but in a limited range of skills (basics, kata, free-fighting); but not for a full self protection system.
So to conclude, overall I think Shotokan is a very good solid style. The formality and rigidity in the approach of the early instructors is a double-edged sword, which on one hand lacked a comprehensive self-protection syllabus; yet maintained very high standards within a more limited range of skills. With a teacher who has incorporated grappling, realistic applied bunkai and reality based side of training, it is a very complete system embracing everything needed for highly effective self protection.
That said, even those that don’t necessarily practice in a streetwise manner will still be fast, powerful and accurate. Shotokan exponents adept in these limited training methods may not have the full self protection package, but they will still be formidable.