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Gavin Mulholland
Gavin Mulholland's picture
Perceptions and miconceptions

A recent thread forced me to review my view of Shotokan as a style of karate and while I was not ultimately moved from my view as the stye as one more concerned with the development of the self, than building fighters per se (sorry Jon), I was forced to  look at why I hold certain beliefs and question certain aspects of those views (thanks Jon).

As such I am interested in how people view the various karate styles. I'm not talking about informed opinion, oe worse still, googled repitition, I'm talking about a broad brushstroke 'feeling' about what characterises various styles.

I'll kick off:

Goju Ryu - Close quarter system including, grappling and groundwork.

Wado Ryu - Primarilly stand up fast evasive style with lots of locks and holds. Heavy emphasis on getting out of the way

Shotokan - Very militaristic, powerful style. Big classes, low stances, moving basics, primarily concerned with the development of spirit

Kykoshinkai - Stand up, powerful full contact system. Wholly standup paying scant attention to kata and bunkai. Less emphasis on evasion, more on direct power

Shorin Ryu - Okinawan style so probably featuring more grappling than the Japanese styles

Shoto Ryu - Not realy sure so basically as above for Shorin

None of this is supposed to insult anyone, I'm just interested in peoples basic one-line perceptions of the styles.

 O would some power the giftie gie us to see ourselves as others see us. Robert Burns;

What do you think?

Jon Sloan
Jon Sloan's picture

Damn, even after my long essay :)

Well, it sparked this discussion at least.

I think anyone posting in this topic is going to have to pick their words carefully. ;)

Gavin Mulholland
Gavin Mulholland's picture

Seriously, I learned a lot from that Jon. In fact, that's what got me wondering how people see the various styles.

By way of clarification, this is meant to be light-hearted and as I say is meant to be how you see the styles at the most basic level.

Jon Sloan
Jon Sloan's picture

Funnily enough, I didn't clarify my own opinions on mainstream shotokan, which are probably close to yours Gavin. I just think they've veered away from the initial intent and it doesn't have to be like that. So, shotokan, as it is taught now in the majority of schools/associations around the world closely matches your description. Though I do think that many of the practitioners would also add that they work on self protection. On that I'd strongly disagree with them.

Dave Moore
Dave Moore's picture

I'm sitting on the fence because I said why should I feel the need to belong to any of them.smiley

Gavin Mulholland
Gavin Mulholland's picture

But there isn't a fence to sit on Dave.

I was just curious about how people see the styles and not belonging doesn't mean you don't have an opinion.

My descriptions of the styles are probably incorrect, and definitely simplistic, but that was what I was looking for! Hopefully, none of the descriptions as I have put them, implies that any is better than any other and is it not just a case of horses for courses anyway?

Why so timid?

I'm starting to feel like I've asked an awkward question and it really wasn't my intention so let me revise it slightly...

As a Goju practitioner, I obviously have an understanding of the system and its practices. What I do not have (hence the Robbie Burns quote) is any idea how Goju is percieved within the wider scheme of things.

So, if you are uncomfortable putting up your topline feel of all of the styles, tell me how you see Goju?

No political agenda here, just curious...

p.s. Jon, I did pick up on your opinion on mainstream and I'm very sure that our views on how things should be done is very closely aligned.

Gavin J Poffley
Gavin J Poffley's picture

I think Gavin M has gathered together here many of the common perceptions regarding the more commonly practiced karate styles. Clearly these are not being  presented as facts and I find it hard to deny that these are commonly held views (whether the holder is willing to change or adapt them when they encounter the real thing is of course another matter.)

I agree that Shotokan is often seen as overly formalised with excessively wide stances, emphasis on power and militaristic overtones in the training.

Wado ryu probably gets its lighter and more nimble characterisation from a direct comparison to Shotokan. As the most common style it often gets used as a benchmark to judge the peculiarities of others. I have noticed however that the preconceptions of Japanese karateka are different to British ones here. Most of the Japanese folks I have talked to seem to see wado as slightly archaic and having overtones of classical Japanese arts due to the presence of idori/ tachi dori and other such in its syllabus. 

Goju ryu cant seem to avoid its reputation for being a close in oriented style (which from my own experience is not undeserved at all although a bit of a narrow characterisation) but the other major peculiarity is the emphasis on breathing techniques.

Uechi ryu seems to be well known for its use of the fingers and toes as striking surfaces (one Japanese karateka I know from a different style who had a lot of uechi ryu experience said of it  "People with jobs to go to can't do that! we need our hands to do stuff!"). The other thing that is often pointed to is its greater resemblance to Chinese styles.

It seems to me that there are no really widespread opinions  on shorin ryu or shito ryu (although I have heard comment on the number of kata used in shito ryu from other stylists). There is one slight misconception though in that shorin ryu is often labelled as the older style that shotokan and thus wado ryu came from. This is not strictly the case as shorin ryu is a name used by many modern Okinawan styles that developed from the shuri te and/ or tomari te lineage. As far as I can tell it was never used before the 20th century.

Kyokushin has a reputation for hard, full contact training and physical conditioning combined with a militaristic and macho attitude. The publicity materials used by the original kokushinkai really do play on this. In the words of another karateka friend of mine from Tokyo "They are a bunch of masochistic nutters!!".

JWT's picture

I'll bite.  I stress these are tongue in cheek brief impressions.smiley

Goju Ryu - They like hitting things and lifting weights, and breathing like constipated men,  I think they may also pair up.

Wado Ryu - Actually Ju Jitsu with a few Karate kata performed for fun - called Karate by founder for marketing.

Shotokan - Close range effective style now predominantly taught as a long range athletic display.

Kykoshinkai - Tough guys who like hitting each other.

Enshin - Weird guys who don't do head strikes despite their making up the majority of all real attacks,   they like hitting each others legs.

Shorin Ryu - Light and whippy short range Karate.

GKR - Sign here please for your creche Karate.

I could write lots more, but as quick snapshots of impressions - that's what I get. devil

Dave Moore
Dave Moore's picture

Okay here goes

Goju that I have tried and seen in  a few sessions with Jon Law I liked a lot. It seems to have the grappling side to it  that  I like and need,   but it was really only a sampling as he is just too far away to train on a regular basis.  I can't find any Goju clubs up here. It seemed more like it was being tailoured to me( rather than in the line type training) when we did the Sanchin classes and ground fighting and I came away thinking thats for me as like up close and personal due to my job. 

 I do however  like the directness of Shotokan and  to me it seems a lot   harder and more miltaristic  in its approach to  training (  longer and deeper stances than the Goju stuff with Jon, held for long periods that made my legs burn like hell)  but no groundwork at all but I enjoyed it and everyone was brilliant to train with and came away with a real buzz at the end of a class.

Can't comment on other styles as I know nothing about them.

Time to go training.smiley

Jon Sloan
Jon Sloan's picture

Hey Dom

Check out this comment I made in reference to to the naha/shuri and tomari distinctions.

e wrote:
Incidentally the root of shotokan is shorin-ryu and, according to the Cook book, shuri-te, tomari-te and naha-te were terms introduced in 1926 to classify the various methods by region in an effort to conceal their chinese roots as karate was spreading in an increasingly nationalistic Japan.

Taken from here: http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/content/block-%E2%80%93-kick-%E2%80%93-pu...

They are all 20th century distinctions invented to de-Chinese the origins of tode/karate to make it more palatable for a, at that time, nationalistic Japanese public.

AndyC's picture


This is my first post on this board (though, have been reading it with great eagerness for some time!!).

Firstly, awesome question and I've been following your work Sensei Mullholland (and Iain's) for the past few years, in fact, it's because of yours and Iain's work that I 'came back' to Karate - so a HUGE thank you to both of you.

So...my take on it is pretty much as described...Shotokan - very big on style, spirit development, and...looking good (i.e. technique execution) - very little emphasis on practical application. I can say this as this is the school that I practice/study currently (I'm only a low, grade 3rd Kyu) and, yes, it does frustrate the hell out of me at times. That said, I have absorbed as much as I can from the likes of "Four Shades of Black" (absolutely marvellous)  and Iain's work and developed my own "out of class" training routine directly from this.

What did I do before? JuJitsu (both stand-up and Groundwork/sports oriented), Krav Maga (sorry!), Judo (in the Army), Aikido (in the Army..yawn) and prior to that, Wado Ryu (very sports oriented 25 years ago) and Wing Chun.

I think that if we all looked at the principles behind the styles/kata etc, then we could make each school/style a little more effective.

Just my thoughts (and sorry for the longer post than I'd hoped!)

Thanks, Andy

Neil Cook
Neil Cook's picture

Hi All,

I can only comment on what i have come into contact with.

Shotokan . Strict military style training, high enphasis on etiquette, mostly useless outside of dojo.

Goju . traditional hard style maintaining a lot of it's chinese influence.

Kyokushin . Full contact style mostly used in competition, strange breathing noise.

Intersting thread, i am a 'shotokan' man myself yet this is my honest opinion of most dojos. Of course i know that this is not the same for all dojos (hence this forum) but if this is how i feel after 10 years of karate, what does a bigginer think?


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All,

While I normally neaten up and posts that have been entered in a “wild format” (it would help if people would edit their own posts if they have left huge spaces etc), I am a bit pressed for time today and in my rush I clicked the wrong thing! What this meant was that a post with unusual formatting was deleted as so were all the replies to it. Whoops! Sorry about that.

All the best,


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All,

One of the issues here is that there is an assumption that the styles are “unified wholes”. In my experience there are many Shotokans, Wados, Gojus, etc. This often results in people claiming their take on things is the “true way” and all else is “wrong”, but if we get beyond that we see a lot less commonality than may be assumed.

From what I know of people like Gavin Mulholland, Kris Wilder, Chris Rowen, etc I would say that Goju is a very pragmatic style with a holistic approach (although all have their own take on Goju and all train it a little differently). However, I could also take you to “Goju” dojos that don’t do any sparring, have poor standards and who give out black belts in under 6 months. My view of Goju could therefore be coloured by which example of it I choose to go with.

Obviously you’d think it would be fairest to go with the best examples, but what we find there is commonality across styles. The most pragmatic Goju people train in a very similar way to the most pragmatic Shotokan practitioners I know, or the most pragmatic Shito-Ryu, Wado-Ryu, and so on. Sure there are differences in training methods and kata utilised along the way, but the end result is very similar (as you would expect when people have the same goals and use goal focused training methods).

Shotokan does sometimes have the stereotype of being low and static, but the good Shotokan people I know move very well and always appropriately. I did a session with Shotokan’s Dave Hazard at one of the BCA residentials and the breakdown of efficient movement and the pragmatic application was awesome! So do I go with the “Shotokan” Dave Hazard does or something that’s of lower quality and less well understood?

Although it may seem I’m being “diplomatic” here, I genuinely find it hard to draw overarching conclusions on styles because of the “styles within styles” and the commonality between the better practitioners across style. The only way I could do that would be to buy into what I know to be inaccurate and inconsistent “stereotypes”. And like most stereotypes, they don’t really hold up to scrutiny. I feel we are better judging the individual and the group as opposed to by the label they operate under. I honestly believe those labels don’t tell us much.

All the best,


Jon Sloan
Jon Sloan's picture

Great post Iain. Full support to those thoughts!

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

As a quick aside, I made a mistake of assuming uniformity while singing the praises of the clarity of purpose and training efficiently of Judo at the weekend. Mike Liptort (leading UK Judo coach) quickly corrected me that “that’s not all Judo”. Having been a little spoilt at where I’ve trained I don’t have a wider view of Judo and hence occasional speak from a position of assuming it is all the same i.e. judging by style and not group or individual.

All the best,


PS I have some great and frequently used one-liners about the various styles, but I reserve them for the seminars where I can actually hear people laugh (and so I know it’s been taken in the right way ;-)

diadicic's picture

I think it was my post that was deleted.  I hope I didn't say anything wrong.  :(


Gavin Mulholland
Gavin Mulholland's picture

Of course what Iain says is true, but that is exactly the measured rational approach that I was hoping to avoid.cool

Stereotypes and characatures are by definition flawed and pick out any group's characteristics and you can present many examples of individuals that show different traits. However, the thing with stereotypes and characatures is that they often hold a grain of truth. This initial impression is often used by psychologists to get under the skin of what people really believe before they give their measured response.

Given Iain's extensive work with a great many schools I can believe that what he says truly represents his feelings but most of us form opinions of things - all sorts of things from people to politics to religion to race - based on little or no evidence. The rub is the extent to which you are prepared to change those initil impressions in the light of the evidence you encounter along the way.

Thanks for the responses and the constipated breathing/like hitting things/may even pair up comments made me laugh - mostly because I recognise all of them.

Dom, I'm sorry I missed your reply to my dig but I'm sure it would have put me in my place!blush

shoshinkanuk's picture

ok, general view based on my experiences -

Goju Ryu - slow mobility, strong, close range focus

Wado Ryu - linear, fast, evasive system, mid range focus

Shotokan - fast, strong, big everything, long range focus

Kykoshinkai - very strong, slow mobility, mid range focus

Shorin Ryu - fast, evasive system, mid range focus

I see/have seen little/no ground work in any of the karate systems.

Gary Chamberlain
Gary Chamberlain's picture

JWT wrote:

I'll bite.  I stress these are tongue in cheek brief impressions.smiley

Kyokushinkai - Tough guys who like hitting each other.

Enshin - Weird guys who don't do head strikes despite their making up the majority of all real attacks,  they like hitting each others legs.


Being 4th Dan in both I suppose that'd make me a weird tough guy.  I'll live with that - although I don't see myself as either.  It keeps me off the streets though and out of prison so I have a lot to be grateful for wink


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Gavin Mulholland wrote:
Of course what Iain says is true, but that is exactly the measured rational approach that I was hoping to avoid.

I apologise smiley

Gavin Mulholland wrote:
Stereotypes and caricatures are by definition flawed and pick out any group's characteristics and you can present many examples of individuals that show different traits. However, the thing with stereotypes and caricatures is that they often hold a grain of truth.

Definitely. I also think it would be fair to say that in karate some people support the stereotypes and may even have vested interests in them i.e. that is what they want to believe or how they have been conditioned to view their style.

Styles give a sense of belonging and confirmation i.e. “our style does not suffer from the flaws that other styles do”. To say that there are “styles within styles” and that good karate is good karate, bad karate is bad karate, and styles are not trusted definitions of either good or bad, undermines that.

If you have a Shotokan guy, for example, who has bought into the idea that his style is all about long deep stances, and that such stances are always needed to generate power (none of which is true) they could view fluid motion relative to the circumstance as being “not Shotokan”; and hence in their desire to “be Shotokan” they will uphold, support and further the Shotokan stereotype.

However, you’ll also have guys who perhaps better understand stance and the initial Shotokan training methodology who will hold the other view and state that “always low and always static” is not Shotokan. We then get into the age old argument of what the “true Shotokan is”. The bottom line though is that “Shotokan” is both those things and both not those things; depending on who you ask. And let’s not forget that the Funakoshi himself did not want to be called “Shotokan” and strongly objected to “this attempt at classification” (Karate-Do: My Way of Life).

It all gets very confusing and the style terminology becomes, from my perspective, less and less meaningful the more closely it is examined.

Styles are still good for a few gags and wind-ups and the seminars though :-) For example, “OK, so let’s all try the Shotokan variation … I know it will make you feel unclean but you can always shower afterward”. Or, “So if we compare the techniques we can see how Bill did it the Shito-Ryu way. Bob did it the Goju-Ryu Way. And I did it right”. And so on. The point I always earnestly make though is that good karate is good karate and no one style has a monopoly on that.

All the best,


Gavin Mulholland
Gavin Mulholland's picture

All true.

diadicic's picture

Gavin Mulholland wrote:

Dom, I'm sorry I missed your reply to my dig but I'm sure it would have put me in my place!blush

It was never my intention to put anyone in there place.  All I wanted to do is share my thoughts on the subject and see where I fit in the discusstion. 


akaobikenobi's picture

Maybe it's not the style that is the shortcoming, although I would suggest it is. Maybe it is an understanding of technique within the style of the man? 

VIC's picture

Can any definition fit any style anymore?There are a recorded 75 styles claiming to be shotokan all headed by either original students of FUNAKOSHI or those who came shortly after.You study shotokan whose shotokan?It is likely the same could be said of all the founding ryu.


rbartley's picture

I recently moved to Belgium from Barcelona and train in Wado and Shito Ryu.  From having trained with two different Shito Ryu associations, I would agree that one style cannot be absolutely characterised.  The association that I trained with in Barcelona practices kihon and kata emphasizing relaxation, whereas the club in Brussels has much more tension in the movements.  Even the opening salutations to the katas are different and there are differences between the bunkai practiced for the very same kata.  Of course, this could be more as a result of the instructors' indivual interpretations of the style than due to its principles and characteristics. 

lcpljones_dontpanic's picture

Hi all

I recently attended a course at work where we had to give a presentation on a subject of our choice so i did karate. In my presentation I covered the difference in styles breifly, the audience had no prior knowledge or experience of any martial arts and time was limited so my selection of styles was not extensive but here is what i presented.

Shotokan: concentrates mainly on semi-contact sport and perfection of form & character.

Wado Ryu: a combination of Shotokan & Jiu Jitsu

Goju Ryu: characterised by close in fighting and circular technique.

Kyokushinkai: is a full contact form of karate noted for its toughness.

These are the only styles of karate that I have had any sort of experience with to date. I am currently training at a JKA Shotokan club and the JKA is definately similar to the general perception of Shotokan that most have alluded to so far.

I did Wado Ryu for six months or so with the UKA under Sensei Ian Cuthbert back in the early 90's prior to joining the army. My recollections are of it being a very quick and evasive sport kumite sparring focused style which I enjoyed at the time.

The limited experience I have had of Goju Ryu is having visited Gavin's club on one occassion and I've got to say I came away very impressed. However Gavin's style of training and a lot of what was covered in that one session reminded me a lot of how we train in my Ju jitsu class.

Kyokushinkai, last year I trained with a local class and really enjoyed the full contact sparring and also the different versions of the pinnan kata's. This club also practiced the seated defences as shown in Funakoshi's Kararte Do Kyohan which was also very interesting to practice.