Walk down any American street after school or on the weekends, and you’re bound to see children and adults alike wearing karategis, the traditional karate uniforms worn by students of this ancient practice.

Karate is a type of martial art which can be used for self-defense. It’s also become popular for its emphasis on physical and mental discipline.

While some forms of karate utilize weaponry, it’s best known as a weaponless way to defend oneself in battle.

Karate schools, or ryus, are often highly influenced by one master or inventor who has put his or her stamp on the art.

All types of karate include katas, which are groups of choreographed movements that often include kicks and punches. Katas are memorized and practiced solo or in groups prior to sparring with opponents.

Types of karate include:

Shotokan karate is one of the most well-known types. It was founded in Tokyo by Gichin Funakoshi in 1938.

Defining features

  • Shotokan karate utilizes both the upper and the lower body to produce punches and kicks which are linear and forceful.
  • Practitioners employ powerfully delivered, straight line strikes designed to quickly stop an attacker or opponent.
  • Many parts of the body are utilized as potential weapons with striking force, including:
    • fingers
    • hands
    • elbows
    • arms
    • legs
    • knees
    • feet
  • Shotokan doesn’t rely solely upon circular movements.
  • Practitioners of Shotokan karate are taught to focus on:
    • speed
    • form
    • balance
    • breathing

Goju-ryu karate is based on the complimentary principles of hard and soft. Disciples learn techniques that include hard, closed fist punches and soft, open hand strikes.

If you’re a fan of the Karate Kid movies, immortalized by the iconic Crane Kick move, you’ve already seen Goju-ryu karate in action.

Defining features

  • Movements are flowing, circular, and precise.
  • Practitioners deflect their opponent’s strikes with angular movements, followed by sharp and hard punches and kicks.
  • There is also a strong focus on breathing techniques, designed to produce harmony between the body and brain.

Uechi-ryu karate was founded by Kanbun Uechi in Okinawa during the early 1900s. His style of karate was highly influenced by ancient Chinese fighting systems.

Defining features

  • upright stances
  • circular blocking techniques
  • open-handed strikes
  • low kicks

Wado translates into “way of harmony” or “harmonious path” in Japanese. Founded by Hironori Otsuka in 1939, this form of Japanese karate includes some elements of jiujitsu.

Defining features

  • Wado-ryu focuses on evading strikes.
  • It teaches students to avoid hard contact during sparring by shifting the body and reducing the full force of an opponent’s blows.
  • Punches and kicks are employed during counterattacks.
  • Wado-ryu emphasizes peacefulness of mind and spiritual discipline.
  • Its ultimate goal is to sharpen the mind of the practitioner, so they can better intuit their opponent’s moves.

The Shorin-ryu method has a strong emphasis on maintaining physical and mental balance.

Defining features

  • Katas are performed with a strong, upright posture, sharp kicks, and closed-handed punches.
  • Practitioners learn to avoid strikes through body movements, and spar with counterattacks that strive to reduce their opponent’s ability to remain upright.

Kyokushin translates into “ultimate truth” in Japanese. This is an aggressive, fighting style of karate.

Defining features

  • It includes elements of full-body contact sparring, aggressive punching, and high kicks.
  • Opponents are allowed to kick each other’s heads as well as other areas of the body and legs.
  • Knee strikes, which involves using the knees to hammer into the opponent’s body, are also permitted.

Shito-ryu karate was founded by Kenwa Mabuni during the 1920s. It’s still one of the most popular forms practiced in Japan.

Defining features

  • Shito-ryu focuses on fluidity and speed during katas and sparring.
  • It’s known for its vast multitude of katas, many of which use short, low-to-the-ground stances, similar to Sumo wrestling.
  • It employs closed-handed punches, kicks, and elbow strikes.
  • Shito-ryu’s current soke (headmaster or leader) is Kenwa Mabuni’s granddaughter, Tsukasa Mabuni, who is continuing to pass on her grandfather’s teachings.

Ashihara is a full-combat form of karate.

Defining features

  • Opponents move their bodies around each other in circular patterns.
  • In this way, each opponent becomes harder to attack and strikes may be more easily deflected.
  • Ashihara also allows for long-reaching punches, high kicks, and full-body contact.

Chito-ryu karate was founded in the early 1900s by an Eastern Chinese man named Chinen Gua, who was later known as O-Sensei Chitose. His desire was to create a school of karate which focused on the development of character and health.

Defining features

  • Chito-ryu karate stresses that there’s never a need for a first punch, as karate should be used for self-defense only.
  • Students of this school practice katas using punches, high kicks, full-body balancing, and circular movements.
  • Sparring techniques are designed to disable opponents by offsetting their balance.

In Japanese, “en” means open or unfinished, and “shin” means heart or inner. “Enshin” translates into open heart. It also represents the strong bonds between students, which complete the unfinished circle.

Defining features

  • Circular movements make up the vast majority of katas in Enshin karate.
  • Students are taught various moves around the face of the circle, which they can employ during katas and sparring.
  • This form of karate is designed to instill confidence, humility, and resilience in its practitioners.
  • Sparring utilizes open hand movements, closed-fist punches, and kicks to disable opponents.

Kishimoto-di is a less common form of karate.

Defining features

  • It’s a soft form of the art, which utilizes twisting and sinking bodily movements done through the waist.
  • Practitioners are taught to avoid blows by moving as little as an inch.
  • Many practitioners of this form of karate have experience in other types.
  • Practitioners use their own core strength and body weight, as well as their opponent’s momentum to power their moves.

Even though karate isn’t an aerobic exercise, it’s vigorous enough to support weight loss.

Kishimoto-di’s emphasis on core engagement makes it an excellent choice for weight loss, since it builds muscle as well as burning fat during vigorously performed katas.

All types of karate are vehicles of self-defense. Kyokushin and Ashihara may be your best choices for learning effective, hand-to-hand combat moves, should the need ever arise for you to use them.

No matter which type of karate you’re interested in learning, you may be able to find a dojo, or school, nearby.

Keep in mind that many people study various forms, so don’t become discouraged if you have to start with one type before moving on to your preferred type. Every form of karate can have value for the practitioner.

You can also view YouTube videos and review kata instructions in books and on dojo websites.

Karate has become very popular in the United States over the last several decades, but its roots extend back to Asia, possibly as early as the 13th century.

Karate took hold as a practice in Okinawa, during a period of time when weapons were banned there.

The word karate, which means “empty hands” in Japanese, indicates that a practitioner of the art doesn’t hold a weapon.

Its practice is thought to have become influenced by Chinese settlers in Okinawa, who brought techniques with them that blended Chinese and Indian self-defense styles.

The practice of modifying and changing karate has continued over the centuries, generating a variety of styles. For this reason, there are many types of karate currently practiced.

Karate continues to evolve and change as new karate masters open schools and generate followings. There are currently more types of karate than you can reasonably count.

Karate is an ancient martial art form, which had its formal start in Okinawa.

There are currently a large number of karate types. Some of these are designed for aggressive combat and others emphasize value building by focusing on character development.

All forms of karate can be utilized for self-defense. If you’re not sure which type is best for your needs, research the dojos in your area and talk to the sensei, or teacher, to learn about each school’s ideology and practice types.