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History of Shotokan Karate in America

by on February 22, 2009

There are a lot of sites and facts out there about how the history of Shotokan karate began in America (and to a lesser, slightly delayed extent, Canada).

Upon hearing the news of Master Nishiyama’s passing, I began coming upon a bit of interesting information surrounding the pioneering of Shotokan karate in North America. This is a history article, so technical folks: you’ve been warned.

It was around the 1950’s when the JKA began a movement, spear-headed by Master Nakayama, to spread Shotokan to the America’s. Over the next 25 years some of the leading officiates of Shotokan karate would begin migrating to North America to continue their work. I’ve come across several sources of information about these pioneers and each of them suggest that the person in question was the first man (as it was all men at the time) to bring Shotokan to America. I have not, however, found an aggregated account of these events. Here’s what I’ve found.

1952: Hidetaka Nishiyama begins training American miltary from the SAC

1956: Tsutomu Ohshima holds first class in California

1961: Nishiyama moves to America and begins the AAKF

1961: Okazaki moves to America to demonstrate and teach at disparite schools

1962: Yutaka Yaguchi moves to LA with Nishiyama

1969: Ohshima founds SKA

1977: Okazaki founds the ISKF

1977: Hirokazu Kanazawa founds SKIF-US

These are summarized in the following timeline.


Nishiyama first penatrated the US in 1952 with Shotokan teaching, training the US military’s Strategic Air Command at the request of the US Air Force’s General. This was the first recorded time that I’ve found of any JKA instructor stepping foot on American soil. It would be JKA at the time as Funakoshi and Nakayama had founded it only a few years before. In an interview with Master Okazaki, it is said that very shortly after the JKA established the instructor trainee program, Nakayama began an effort to expand, sending Nishiyama, Kanazawa (to the UK), and Okazaki abroad, in that order. So it stands to reason that there could not have been a shotokan presence in NA before Nishiyama’s visit. Nishiyama’s visit piloted the practice of Shotokan karate in America.

While Nishiyama, Okazaki, and Nakayama coordinated efforts for expansion to NA, Tsutomu Ohshima had moved to California to attend UCLA and had held shotokan classes at an established dojo in ’56. A student of Funakoshi, Ohshima founded the SCKA which was later renamed in ’69 to the SKA. While not an official delegate of the JKA, Ohshima was a shotokan practitioner and a direct student-decendent of Funakoshi. He was the first to open his doors to the American public to practice Shotokan karate.

But Teruyuki Okazaki was the first to teach a JKA-sanctioned class in 1961. This last statement is probably the hardest to explain. While there was no fall-out (that I’ve found) between the JKA and Ohshima, he chiefly came to America to attend UCLA and started a club there as a side-effect. This club was not associated with the JKA and so was not a JKA-sanctioned club. This was meaningful at the time since the JKA was the only Shotokan karate organization in the world.  Many people at the time felt that anything outside of the JKA was not meaningful. It would be less meaningful today as there are a plethora of karate organizations in North America and the world with 100’s of thousands (or millions) of members.

And so began the early days of Shotokan in America. When refering to this continent’s Shotokan roots, Nishiyama, Ohshima and Okazaki were its progenators.

Teruyuki OkazakiHidetaka Nishiyamaohshima_tsutomu


As mentioned, some years after Nishiyama’s “pilot program”, master Teruyuki Okazaki was sent by master Nakayama in 1961 with the explicit goal of spreading Shotokan karate on behalf of the JKA. The following year, Yutaka Yaguchi moved to America under the tutelage of sensei Nishiyama.  Assisted by Yaguchi, Nishiyama organized the first United States vs Japan Goodwill Karate Tournament in ’65 and again pioneered an international competition in ’68 with the inaugural World Invitational Tournament in Los Angeles.

In 1977, a rift occurred between the instructors of the AAKF (the JKA-sanction American counterpart) leading to the formation of the ISKF, chaired by Teruyuki Okazaki. Yaguchi would follow Okazaki while Nishiyama retained the chief position of the AAKF. The AAKF and ISKF would maintain an affiliation to the JKA for many years before disassociating completely.

Also in ’77, Hirokazu Kanazawa founded the SKIF, chiefly in the EU but with some presence numerous dojos around North America. Formerly JKA, AAKF or SKA dojos began associating with the SKIF. It was not until 1998  that the SKIF formed an official body within the USA.

Since the formative years of the 50’s to 70’s, shotokan history in America has been less turbulant (but not completely uneventful). Partnerships have been formed and maintained between the few major shotokan leagues in the US as witnessed by the presence of guest instructors at the ISKF’s Master Camp over the years. Today, these organizations continue to grow with some of these having more than 1/2 million members.


From → history, research

  1. hi dears … well done its nice and good article … it surprise me… but can you send me some thaing about karate-shotokan…

    i am in kurdistan of iraq…thanks again

    • B.Smith permalink

      Dear Mr. Fatih, I noticed your location of Kurdistan. I’m interested to know if there are any Shotokan Karate Dojos in Sulaimani. Can you be of assistance. Sincerely, Bryan

  2. Jeffy14 permalink

    Nice explanation but you forgot to mention the big difference between JKA and Oshima (ska karate). Jka transformed karate while Oshima kept it as he learnt it from Funakoshi.

  3. Every organization claims that they practice a pure, unchanged version of Funakoshi’s creation. Its an old debate and not a terribly useful one. Ohshima made changes just as the Nakayama did, just as Kanazawa did, just as Okazaki did, just as Nishiyama did, just as … you see where I’m going with this?

    None of the descendants are completely unchanged. A lot of new knowledge has emerged in the last 60 years in the sport sciences and other studies of martial arts. Its the natural progression of sports and every version of Shotokan karate we see today has some modifications from Funakoshi’s version.


  4. The problem as I see it is that no two people are exactly alike and we inherently make our own interpretations and inferences from what someone else teaches us. Even if we do a word-for-word regurgitation I think that on some level we still adapt what we are learning in some small way to suit our own understanding / needs

  5. FBR permalink

    Please correct your article. You did not mention that Oshima was a senior in Shotokan Karate to Nakayama, and Nakayama trained under him, in his dojo for a while before being expelled by Oshima (5th dan at the time) the highest dan given by Master Funakoshi.

  6. FBR, that isn’t as much a correct as it is an addition. These details, while valuable and important, are not the focus of this article.


  7. Mark W. permalink

    Why no mention of Sensei Mikami, who came to the US in 1963?

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