What Are the 4 Main Styles of Karate?
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Karate is a martial art that has gained popularity worldwide for its focus on self-defense, physical fitness, and discipline. However, despite its widespread acceptance, there is still a debate about which styles should be considered the “main” styles of Karate. We’re going to take a closer look at the four styles of Karate that are often referred to as the main styles and explore the reasons why they hold this designation. (For the record, I personally do not agree with this label).
The four main styles of Karate are Shotokan, Shito Ryu, Goju Ryu, and Wado Ryu. However, it’s important to note that this is a contentious topic, and the designation of these four styles as the main styles of Karate is not universally accepted. Some people believe that other styles should be included, such as Kyokushin, Isshin Ryu, Shorin Ryu, Shorei Ryu, Chito Ryu, Shudokan, Shidokan, Uechi Ryu, and many others.
To understand why these four styles are often considered the main styles of Karate, we need to look at the history of the art. Karate developed in Okinawa during the RyuKyu Kingdom, and many local villages developed fighting styles with a mix of Chinese influences. The three main forms of Okinawan Karate, called Te, at the time were Naha Te, Shuri Te, and Tomari Te, named after their respective villages. Later, Gichin Funakoshi, having studied Okinawan Karate, namely Shorin Ryu and Shorei Ryu, brought the arts over to mainland Japan for demonstration where it found mass appeal and grew in popularity. He developed the system of Shotokan and is often referred to as the “Father of Modern Karate.”
From this point on, further styles of Karate developed as systems merged and had offshoots,
leading to the variety of styles we see today. However, when it comes to the four main styles, one explanation is that they are the styles of Karate that were inspired by Shotokan. While Shotokan is perhaps the most common and popular style of Karate, this explanation doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. Shito Ryu and Goju Ryu were established first as Okinawan arts, and are directly based off Shuri Te and Naha Te, respectively. Shotokan came later, formed from Shorin Ryu and Shorei Ryu, so why are Shito Ryu and Goju Ryu not included? Wado Ryu was derived from Shotokan and other arts, but then again, so was Tang Soo Do. And Kyokushin was heavily derived from Shotokan and Goju Ryu. This explanation is like a broken Makiwara…it doesn’t stand up under pressure.
Another explanation is that the main four styles are the styles of Karate that are derived from the original Okinawan Te styles. Goju Ryu and Shito Ryu fit that description, but Shotokan is at least one step away from Okinawan Te, and Wado Ryu is yet another step away from that.
So if it’s based on being derived directly from Okinawan Te, why exclude arts such as Uechi Ryu, Chito Ryu, and others? While most Karate styles can be traced back to Okinawan roots, they aren't all directly related.
A third explanation is that these are the four main styles of Karate because they are the ones recognized by the World Karate Federation (WKF). While this holds a little more water, as those are the four arts recognized by the WKF, and consequently only Kata from these four styles can be used in WKF-sanctioned competitions. However, this explanation is problematic because not all styles of Karate seek recognition from the WKF, and many practitioners do not compete in WKF-sanctioned events.
Perhaps a more plausible explanation could be their widespread popularity and influence. Shotokan, for example, is one of the most widely practiced martial arts in the world and has influenced many other styles of karate and other martial arts. Shito Ryu, while not as well known, is also a popular style that has had a significant impact on the development of karate.
Similarly, Goju Ryu and Wado Ryu have also been influential in the world of karate. Goju Ryu, with its emphasis on breathing and circular movement, has been especially influential in the development of Okinawan karate. Wado Ryu, which emphasizes body movement and control, has also had a significant impact on the world of karate.
So while the designation of these four styles as the "main" styles of karate may not be completely accurate, there are certainly valid reasons for why they are often considered as such. It's worth noting, however, that there are many other styles of karate out there that are just as valuable and worthy of study. (I feel this designation of “main” styles is flawed, and I prefer to look at generational developments, but that’s a topic for a different post).
At the end of the day what matters most is that you're learning from knowledgeable and experienced instructors and putting in the time and effort to develop your skills, regardless of the art chosen.