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What is Karate?

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What is Shotokan Karate?

Shotokan Karate is a weaponless martial art developed in Okinawa and Japan that emphasizes power and efficiency in combat. Training is based on the Shotokan trinity: kihon (basics), kata (forms), and kumite (sparring). However, karate is much more than self-defense, it is a way of life. At the JKA, we train the body, mind, and spirit. Karate is not a game of points, weight classes, or showy demonstrations. Training focuses on cultivating the way of balance and self-discipline to perfect the character of the karateka. It trains a practitioner to be peaceful; but if conflict is unavoidable, true karate dictates taking down an opponent with a single blow. The result of true karate is natural, effortless action, and the confidence, humility, openness, and peace only possible through perfect unity of mind and body. 

Skilled karateka defeat their opponents with a minimal number of techniques and effort, which is particularly useful when facing multiple opponents. JKA Shotokan is distinguished from other martial arts by the linearity and strength of its punches, blocks, and kicks. Precise techniques, accompanied by mastery and focus of energy flows, and a deep knowledge of the body's vital points, make this karate style a comprehensive system for self-defense and combat.

Gichin Funakoshi 

The Father of Modern Karate

Shotokan karate is the most popular and most traditional form of karate. It was developed by Supreme Master Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957) in Okinawa and brought to Japan in 1922. Shotokan is named after Funakoshi's pen name, Shōtō, which means "the movement of pine needles when the wind blows through them," which he used in his poetic and philosophical writings and messages to his students. Kan means training hall or house, thus Shōtōkan (松濤館) referred to the "house of Shōtō". This name was coined by Funakoshi's students when they posted a sign above the entrance of the hall at which Funakoshi taught. In addition to being a karate master, Funakoshi was an avid poet and philosopher who went for long walks in the forest where he would meditate and write his poetry. In 1936, he changed the written characters of karate to mean "empty hand" (空手) instead of "China hand" (唐手, literally Tang Dynasty hand). So karate-do (空手道) means the "way of the empty hand." In November 1948, some of Funakoshi's senior students, including Isao Obata, Masatoshi Nakayama, and Hidetaka Nisheyama, formed the Japan Karate Association (JKA; 日本 空手 協会; Nihon Karate Kyokai). 

Japan Karate Association

The JKA aimed to establish a rigorous, high standard of quality for their teaching. In 1956, at the honbu dojo in Yotsuya, Tokyo, the newly-formed organization instituted a stringent and thorough instructor training program called kenshusei. Only the cream of karateka were admitted, and only after graduating honorably from college and attaining 2nd Dan. In an intensive year of study, candidates were instructed not only in karate but also in psychology, physics, anatomy, business management, history and philosophy of physical education and sports. Upon completing the training program (with 3rd Dan and a dissertation), they were assigned to a year's teaching internship. The results of this apprenticeship were about a dozen highly proficient karateka, ready to disseminate JKA Shotokan overseas.

First to arrive in the U.S. were Hidetaka Nishiyama (Los Angeles) and Teruyuki Okazaki (Philadelphia), both in 1961. Other famous instructors followed in rapid succession: Takayuki Mikami, Yutaka Yaguchi, and Hirokazu Kanazawa. Two years later, Masataka Mori arrived and ultimately went to New York. Following that, our head instructor, sensei Kenichi Haramoto, came to California and started the JKA of Northern California; at that time his hierarchical superior was Nishiyama sensei. Following a reorganization of the JKA, Haramoto sensei's organization started reporting to Mori sensei in New York.

Master Funakoshi's legacy lies in the Shotokan niju kun (松濤館二十訓) or Twenty Precepts of Karate. All students are encouraged to live, practice, and teach the principles to others. 


The emblem of the JKA is called Inyo. The white and red circles represent the Japanese Yin and Yan. The Kanji at the bottom means Koeki Shadan Hojin Nihon Karate Kyokai (public-interest incorporated association Japan Karate Association). On April 10, 1957, the JKA became a legal entity when Japan’s Ministry of Education (now Ministry of Education, Science, Sports, and Culture) officially recognized the JKA as an association of members for the promotion of karate and the spread and enrichment of actual karate practice. The Japan Karate Association is the only independent karate entity legally and officially recognized by the Japanese government as an association of members for the promotion of karate-Do. This recognition has been renewed over the decades and as recently as 2012.