The Four Main Styles of Karate


There are many different Martial Arts found throughout the world. Within those Martial Arts there can be further variations and, Karate is one of them. Karate is one of the most popular Martial Arts to train worldwide and there are four main styles within this art. Here, we take a quick look at them, and what makes them unique!

A Brief Introduction to Karate

Karate is a Japanese Martial Art that originated from the island of Okinawa during the 17thcentury and, later spreading to mainland Japan and worldwide. Like many other forms of Martial Arts, Karate focuses on a belt ranking system, mental strength, coordination and respect. Karate translates to ’empty hand’ – ‘Kara’ meaning ’empty’ and ‘te’ meaning ‘hand’. Together, the term ‘Karate’ refers to the art of fighting hand to hand without weapons. It is now predominantly a striking art using punching, kicking, knee strikes, elbow strikes and open-hand techniques such as knife-hands, spear-hands and palm-heel strikes. 

Karate is seen as more than just a Martial Art. It is a way of life; with teachings that lean heavily towards moral and mental aspects to allow people to become the best versions of themselves. At the same time, students are taught how to deliver powerful blows and block attacks in self-defence, rather than violence.

Karate Styles

The four main Karate styles are Goju-ryu, Shotokan-ryu, Wado-ryu and Shito-ryu. Each form is derived from Karate established by Gichin Funakoshi, who is credited as being the father of modern Karate. Each style has its own techniques that rely heavily on the core values of Karate in general; however, they offer ways for each style to distinguish itself as a main style of Karate while displaying the differences.  


Goju-ryu is a style of Karate that was established in 1930 by Chojun Miyagi who, was a student of Kanryo Higaonna. This form is comprised of formidable counter-strike movements in the offensive positions – ‘Go’. And soft, circular blocks in the defensive positions that resemble Jujitsu – ‘Ju’. It also uses breathing power, and a variety of stances, that offer soft and hard techniques capable of showing the differences between Karate styles. Goju-ryu practices methods that include body strengthening and conditioning, its basic approach to fighting (distance and power generation), and partner drills.


Shotokan-ryu is a style created by Gichin Funakoshi himself and his son Gigo (Yoshitaka) Funakoshi . After studying in Okinawa, he moved to Tokyo on mainland Japan and established this style in 1938. Utilizing wide stances and linear methods, this form enables students to deliver impressive strikes in a quick and efficient manner by using the hands, elbows, knees and feet.

Shotokan training is divided into three parts: kihon (basics), kata (forms or patterns of moves), and kumite (sparring). Techniques in kihon and kata are characterised by deep, long stances. These stances provide stability, enable powerful movements, and strengthen the legs. Shotokan is regarded as a dynamic Martial art by developing anaerobic, powerful techniques as well as speed. By far the most popular style, Shotokan is widely known throughout the world and, is considered a traditional and influential form of Karate Do.


This style of Karate is an offshoot of Shotokan-ryu. It is all about the harmony of movements, being rather similar to the Martial Art of Jujitsu. Hienori Otsuka created this spiritual form of Karate in 1939. Rather than focusing on contact sparring, Wado-ryo teaches students how to move the body to avoid attacks. As a way of distinguishing itself from other styles, this fluid form of Karate uses shorter stances, placing emphasis on not only striking, but tai sabaki, joint locks and throws. The Japanese term ‘tai sabaki’ can be translated as ‘body management’. This refers to moving the defender, as well as the attacker, out of harm’s way. The way to achieve this is to ‘move along’, rather than to ‘move against’ – or harmony rather than physical strength. 


This fourth style, created in 1928 by Kenwa Mabuni, is called Shito-ryu. The aim of Shito-ryu is to land powerfully accurate strikes. As emphasised by the fifty katas students learn, a high emphasis is placed on technique; which are predetermined moves for attacks and defence that, must be perfected. This particular style requires physical strength and strong stances to perform the moves. It also focuses on fluidity and speed during katas and sparring.

Other Karate Styles

Other than these four main styles of Karate, there are also others that should be included. Shorinji-ryu, Kyokushin-ryu, Shorin-ryu, Uechi-ryu and Isshin-ryu are among the other forms, although there are also many others. While these are not as well known, they are no less important or respected as part of Karate history.

Is Karate For You?

There are many Karate styles you can choose to focus on, including Goju-ryu, Shotokan-ryu, Wado-Ryu and Shito-ryu. The core values of Karate can be taught in lessons for each style and, passed down from Karate’s place of recognition in Okinawa, Japan. While there are differences between Karate styles, each one relies on mental and moral fortitude. If you’d like to learn Karate, and haven’t already, choose a style you think suits you the best and, find a dojo that can train you on the techniques associated with the one you prefer.

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