Article by Emanuel Giordano

One of the questions I am often asked is the following: what changes between one style of Karate and another? Sometimes someone goes further and asks how the use of the body changes in the various styles of Karate. Well, first of all we need to make a premise, and that is that the distinction in the use of the body does not exist in sporting Karate, where other more efficient methods have been created to achieve the goal, that is to win the competition. If the rules don't allow certain things, they don't train them; if it is enough to touch to point, they do not train the ability to penetrate the blows; if you cannot hit the opponent in the groin, they stop protecting it with more "closed" steps; etc. etc. Therefore, in sports Karate, styles no longer exist, if not on paper, since they all move in the same way. Perhaps the only differences left are based on the chosen specialty: kata, kumite point and contact kumite.
The story is quite different for traditional Karate styles, where the main purpose is personal and other people's defense, where the fight is without rules and total, and where the opponent (or opponents) could also be armed. Before going into details, however, it is necessary to make a basic distinction. The distinction narrated by various masters of the past, among which Itosu sensei, Yabu sensei and Funakoshi sensei stand out for notoriety. To describe the two methods, I will use the words of Yabu sensei:
"Tode is made up of two great currents, namely Shorei and Shorin. […] The first is intended for robust and not very agile men, while those who want to dodge blows and quickly pursue the opponent will choose the second. Either way, both styles have their strengths and weaknesses, and there's no telling which one is best. Those who feel comfortable with the Shorei should practice it, just as those who find Shorin suitable for their practice should practice the latter. "
(Itosu no buyuden, 15/03/1915)
"In Kenpo there are the terms tai (体) and yo (用). Tai [body] is mainly used to indicate strengthening the body and how to train it in such a way that it is not harmed even by a powerful opponent. The venerable Itosu had also acquired this principle. […] Those who hold the opposite principle are the advocates of yo [use], which the venerable Asato and others mainly support. According to the venerable Asato, the enemy's fist is equal to the blade of a sword, so it shouldn't even touch us. Always dodge the enemy's punch and pursue him quickly to make him lose his offensive ability. This is the principle on which the Shorin is based. The Shorin has its own nature, and that is why if we try to apply its principles on a physique destined for the Shorei, therefore robust, the typical use of the body cannot be performed correctly. However, these two characteristics are part of both styles, and one should never be neglected in favor of the other." (Itosu no buyuden, 17/03/1915)
However, going into more detail, let's try to roughly distinguish the different methods of using the body in the three traditional Okinawan styles. I state that a detailed distinction is impossible, as the various styles are divided into various schools, which often move differently due to the influences of other styles, or personal research conducted by the various masters, so the following distinctions only serve to give a general idea. This is also the motivation that keeps me from going into more detail.
The Shorin-ryu is characterized by a more mobile use of the body than the other two styles. Bringing back the thought of the masters Maeshiro Morinobu and Hokama Tetsuhiro, the Shorin-ryu uses an explosive force coming mostly from the movement of the joints, while the Goju-ryu uses a more "muscular" force. In fact, in general, in Shorin-ryu the movement of the joints of the lower limbs is fundamental in generating power, so the positions are higher and less static, and the movement of the hips is very small (with the exception of some schools). Even the retroversion of the pelvis, in conjunction with the execution of the technique and the "contraction" of the hara tanden, is less pronounced than in the other styles. Abdominal breathing is natural, and both inspiration and exhalation are short and silent. Muscle tension is of very short duration, and is expressed only in the few moments of the impact of the techniques. Uke-waza utilize explosive power, have direct or semicircular trajectories, and are performed as thrusts or hooking / damping techniques, and not as thrusts towards the limbs of the opponent. In conclusion, it can be defined as a fast and dynamic style where, as Motobu Choki sensei also claimed, it is not advisable to use more than 80% of one's power during attack techniques (Ryukyu Shimpo, 09/11/1936).
More "static" than Shorin-ryu, Goju-ryu is characterized by a great use of muscle strength, with firm and lower positions. The movement of the hips is fundamental, and is wider than that of the Shorin-ryu, just like the retroversion of the pelvis during exhalation. Abdominal breathing is deeper and more accentuated, and requires more study. The uke-waza, thanks to the particular use of the body, can also be used as "pushes" against the opponent's attacks, counteracting their strength. Moreover, they mostly have a circular trajectory, which well represents the "soft part" (Ju) of the style. Furthermore, it is a style where great use is made of muscle strength, where explosive strength and “isometric” tension are widely used, also thanks to the positions well fixed to the ground.
Sometimes considered similar to Goju-ryu, Uechi-ryu instead has some peculiarities that distinguish it from the latter. First of all, it should be noted the absence of hip rotation, which means that most of the muscle strength is generated by the torsion and tension of the torso muscles. The positions, just like in Goju-ryu, are firm and do not move like in Shorin-ryu. Breathing is always abdominal, but different from that of the two styles already described. Also in this case the uke-waza mostly use circular movements, and can push against the opponent's limbs, thanks to the use of muscle tension. Also in this style there is a soft part, which compensates for the muscle strength / tension present in many techniques. An example of the alternation of strength and softness is well represented by the Sanchin kata of this style.
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata 2" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: The legacy of the bodyguards of the king of Okinawa" (here)
  • "The legend of the masters of Okinawan Karate: Biographies, curiosities and mysteries"  (here)