Skip to content

The House of Nakayama

by on November 21, 2009


“Shotokan” literally translated means “house of Shoto” (Shoto being the pen-name of Gichin Funakoshi). Karate practiced by followers of Gichin Funakoshi is very much the way of life Master Funakoshi was hoping for, with little emphasis placed on competition as he did not feel it was in the spirit of karate, but later allowed some minimal amount of competition to avoid inter-dojo fights and to open Shotokan karate to a larger audience. Instead, more time is spent on being good human beings who push their own personal limits. This is justification for why the passing criteria for a belt level is flexible to some degree, as individual growth is variable and so cannot be pigeon-holed into a rigid predefined box of grading criteria.

Karate as we (and I’m speaking to Shotokan practitioners here) know it wasn’t always called “Shotokan”. It was simply karate, and even farther back, te.

But isn’t there  now a huge component of Shotokan karate that deals with competing? While “Good Will” tournaments are held as special trainings, international competitions such as the Shoto Cup are strictly about competing. These competitions have the side effect of promoting the art Funakoshi established, bu in the end rules are defined and specific criteria are observed for awarding medals and placement. Competitors travel from around the world to demonstrate their ability and take home medals, not to take part in a special class. This is undeniably and inextricably a sport. That’s not to say that Shotokan karate is a sport and anyone practicing it is attempting to be a world class athlete, but where did this spirit of sport come from? The first major proponent of sport within Shotokan karate was Master Masatoshi Nakayama.


Invision a Shotokan variant whereby there is little or no kata practice. You go to class, spend 10 minutes warming up, 20 minutes running basics and sparring drills and the rest of the time sparring, practicing competition style kumite in a legal size ring, with actual judging and spectators watching between their own bouts. You learn to judge, to referee, to condition your body in a way that helps your sparring. Wrist rotation and hip vibration are taught practically by hitting stuff (not just fresh air). All techniques are evaluated and explained in somewhat scientific terms rather than explained away as “this is how the masters have always taught us to do it”.

This is how many clubs and classes are run. Students of these clubs do lots of basics and even more kumite. Competition-style kumite. They attend a tournament every couple months and have miniature tournaments in their own clubs. This is not a kata-oriented organization or based on perfection of character.

Funakoshi brought Shotokan to mainland Japan. Nakayama pushed for formalization of the art into sport events in an effort to rally interest in Shotokan karate. Less than a year after Master Funakoshi’s death, the JKA held its first All-Japan Tournament, spear-headed by Nakayama. Much of what is seen as sport karate by the global audience is the sport as defined by Nakayama. If karate is added to the Olympics and gains any viewership, it will be Nakayama-kan karate they will be viewing, won’t it?

If we changed our art’s name to reflect the dominant figure in its creation, as has often been done when groups splinter from a larger organization, would we call it Nakayamakan Karate? It would seem to me that anyone who joins Shotokan karate for the sole purpose of competition is following a set of rules, principles and teachings as added to 1950’s Shotokan karate by Masatoshi Nakayama. Some argue you can train kihon and kumite exclusively, and never be “bothered” to learn kata. If that is the case, Shotokan karateka would be more effective creating an organization which removes eliminates kata practice.

And why not? There are hundreds of karate organizations that take their name from their “founder” anyways. Most of these are out to make a buck, which Shotokan characteristically is not, but if its a style of karate founded on sparring and attending tournaments and competitions, there is no way this organization would not be bringing in large plumes of cash.

Is it Doable?

Your damn right it is. There are so many examples of martial arts that don’t aim for the art to be a life style choice and work solely for the purpose of engaging others in competition. These are sports. Have you spoken to many taekwondo students who describe what they do as a way of life? No. They go to class to learn how to kick. There’s nothing wrong with this and there’s nothing wrong with making it a way of life. My point is that it can be successfully separated into a Shotokan meant for competing and one meant for philosophical development, if these are the goals.

What we learn here in NS is, for the most part, Shotokan karate. There is some sparring, but nothing intense. That has partly to do with the members of the club. Only a small fraction of them want to compete. You can see this by looking at the competitor turn out at local/provincial tournaments. On the other hand, what they learn in Quebec and Alberta is about 80% kumite and 20% everything else, so they are learning Nakayama’s teachings! I’ve spoken to several students of JKA and ISKF clubs from these provinces and they all say the same thing, that almost every class is sparring.

So Shotokan karate or Nakayamakan karate? If you were to sign up all over again, which would you choose? Is this the same as the difference between ISKF and JKA?



From → history, research

  1. Kayla permalink

    I have to disagree with your post. If one were practicing Nakayamakan Karate they would in fact be doing 80% kata and 20 % basics. Nakayama believed that through practicing kata and basics ones kumite improved naturally. So while kumite was a part of tournaments (as was kata) Nakayama himself believed that through kata training one improved their kumite.

  2. Rob permalink

    Shotokan has seen a lot of splintering. I’ve practiced karate since the 1960s. Some people prefer traditional styles and others want to compete in tournaments. The teachers who earn a living teaching will try to suit their clientele to keep the school profitable. Ones not better than the other, just different. Shotokan was Funakoshi style and should be focused on kata as the primary training, it was his way.

    Being a traditionalist I think there should be a different name for schools that focus on sport competition. After all Karate came from Okinawa, Todi, and there was no sport involved. How about Sport Martial Arts?

  3. Kayla: I agree with you and that was not the intention of my post. However, reading it again, I haven’t ever said that Nakayama focused only on kumite, so taking that from my post is inference. Scary.

    I said only that he introduced large-scale tournaments to Shotokan. He began formalizing the rules around the tournaments. We attend Nationals and World Shoto Cups because he pushed for this.

    Now if someone were to start a Shotokan club that focused only on attending tournaments, is this Shotokan or is it Nakayamakan? Since Funakoshi was avidly against tournaments, it can’t be Shotokan, can it? The techniques come from Shotokan, but these are very similar to techniques of most other martial arts.

    Rob: Well said. Sport Martial Arts is exactly what the WKF is pushing for.

  4. I think where Kayla is referring to is:
    “Invision a Shotokan variant whereby there is little or no kata practice.”

  5. Fingers permalink

    I have seen many discussions on this point on different forums/blogs. “Is this Traditional or Sport Karate?”.

    In my mind it doesn’t really matter. It shouldn’t matter what it is called or does.

    What is important, is that you personally get out of it what you want. It is about improving your health/mind/confidence/chances in a fight etc, etc. so the politics of what everyone else thinks simply don’t come into it.

    Each club will be doing things slightly differently, even if they are all ‘traditional Shotokan’. The art has evolved, and we do things differently now to 10, 20, 30 years ago. Using your arguement each club should have a different label. It just gets silly.

    Think of it another way. There are many religions on this planet, all believing that theirs is the right way…. Can we not all just accept that people want different things, and get on with what matters – your own development, in whatever chosen club that is?

    • I don’t think that Phil’s argument necessarily applies to each club having a different label. To me it goes down to a question of how deeply the differences run, minor changes to me do not a unique art make. I don’t think they represent fundamental enough differences to really warrant being given their own name.

      Not that I necessarily think that “sport shotokan” vs “traditional shotokan” really warrants a unique moniker, but I think that I take a slightly different view than many.

      To my mind, sport vs traditional is more a difference in the training methods, and the goals of training. To be considered a new art I would personally consider the basic fundamental guiding precepts of the system, so I guess starting with the basic movements that the system employs that underlay the forms / kumite style. To me it would also extend to the strategies / ideas put forward by the “founder”.

      So to sum it up, to me I think that we talk a lot about differences that are really differences in opinion on how to train, when no real new fundamental ideas or techniques / phylosophies are being introduced. So, imho, it is the fundamentals that make a system. How we teach them or practice them is less important than the actual idea behind it all

  6. Kayla permalink

    I didn’t mean to scare you Phil.

  7. Kayla: What would give you that impression?

    When we look back on how martial arts organizations (or religions, or political parties, or companies, etc.) and the basis on which they are formed, its usually not on the acts of a individual or group, but on the result of those actions.

    Nakayama was a major supporter of kata and kihon as the basis of karate. That being said, he also brought tournaments/competitions into the mix and as a result of that action, you have many clubs that train for the sole purpose of competing.

    Why are we able to go to Canadian Nationals each year?

    For Shotokan karateka, its become yet another way to practice what we learn in class. But you have a whole group of people out there who don’t care for perfection of character or life discipline and only for the rules of sparring. They are interested in hanging all of their medals on their walls. Now, whether or not this is in the face of Shotokan spirit, THAT is a different matter entirely. My point here is that it happens, and if it happens, maybe it needs to be re-labeled.

  8. Nakayamakan is what I’ve chosen before, but currently I’m looking forward to more extreme sport that is called Mixed Martial Arts (MMA Pound for Pound).

    However, I’m still following the training like usual.

    Thanks for the input by the way.

    Happy new year and happy Holidays!

    MMA Pound for Pound fan!

  9. Bert Smith permalink

    Funakoshi’s non competition Karate was passed on to Egnami at the Shotokan and became Shotokai. Shotokan and JKA boycoted Funikoshi’s funeral a they where not allowed to organise it. So much for respect, obviously this is not mentioned in best Karate. So looks like Shotokan is a Gym sport. Up to you to make it work for you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: