Shotokan is arguably the most popular karate style, and it’s practiced worldwide. The main reason is that it’s a very balanced approach, incorporating kicks and punches, offense and defense in equal measure.
Although it’s often practiced as a sports style, Shotokan was originally designed for self defense. So when the “old school” approach is taken, which includes hard sparring and many techniques that are forbidden in competitions such as joint locks and chokes, it is effective for self defense.
It’s also worth noting that Shotokan emphasizes keeping a safe distance and evading the opponents strikes as much as possible, and closing in on the opponent fast with a strike, then quickly retreating to evade a counter-strike.
How well this can work in a self defense situation depends on many factors such as the opponents fighting style and skill level, the amount of space you have (the more, the better), and your own skill level.
Shotokan Pros & Cons for Self Defense
Like any martial art style, Shotokan has its pros and cons when applied to self defense situations. These are the main ones:
1. Effective at keeping distance and evading strikes
Shotokan has many unique strikes that can be employed from long range. This makes it an effective art if you have enough space to move around. You are taught how to close in on the opponent, land a strike and move out of their striking range quickly.
It’s especially useful for evading the opponent’s close-range strikes, instead of going all in and testing out who has the stronger chin.
It’s arguably the most effective karate style for dealing with multiple opponents at the same time for this very reason. You learn how to bridge the gap between you and the opponent safely and smoothly evade incoming strikes.
2. Many great techniques become second nature
Shotokan is often criticized because much of the training is spent on repeating forms and single action sparring over and over again, instead of full-contact sparring. However, this is the traditional approach for beginners and if you plan to dedicate yourself to training karate for a couple of years, it’s definitely worth it.
A karateka is considered ready to fight only after techniques become reflex actions in the right moment. This makes the fighter faster in attack and more likely to block or dodge the opponent’s strikes using proper form.
3. Great body conditioning
Shotokan training, and any other karate style will inevitably involve a lot of movement that acts as a whole body workout. Not only will it tone and strengthen your muscles, it will also improve your flexibility, stamina, coordination, balance and reflexes.
Some practitioners also perform calisthenics (pull ups, push ups, lunges, squats…) and weightlifting to make their bodies stronger and to increase their striking power.
4. You will become smarter and mentally stronger
Okay, how can karate make you smarter? Well, the popular saying goes that the smarter you are, the more you become aware of how little you actually know. People who don’t know how to fight think that they know, so they get into trouble more often than skilled fighters.
If you train Shotokan, or any other complex martial art, you will come to understand your limitations pretty quickly. You will also be able to recognize if the other person knows how to fight or they’re just putting on a tough guy act with no training to back it up.
This is a huge mental advantage that provides you with an opportunity to examine a dangerous situation from a higher, more knowledgeable standpoint and devise a winning strategy.
This is especially true because Shotokan teaches you how to use upper and lower body strikes equally well. It teaches you how to fight from a closer and longer distance, and evade strikes effectively. So with a few years of training, you could have a lot of options at your disposal.
1. Steep learning curve
While shotokan techniques are very powerful, it requires a lot of practice and sparring to become effective at using them. For example, shotokan contains sweeps, joint locks and throwing techniques.
Throwing techniques can be especially useful for self-defense, but they are often studied only by advanced black belts. So you’ll have to train for at least 3-5 years to be introduced to many useful techniques that the style offers.
A student who’s been training for 1 year will only have a rudimentary understanding and ability, which probably won’t be of much use in a street fight. Compare this to boxing, where you can get a pretty strong base in 6-12 months.
2. Leg kicks are (often) a waste of time
Shotokan training involves a lot of leg kicks. Low kicks, high kicks, side kicks, spinning kicks… they can all be very powerful KO blows in a ring. But they also require a fair amount of distance between opponents to execute properly. Self defense situations typically don’t allow for a lot of space or time to administer such strikes.
Strangely enough, people also rarely mention that wearing jeans or pants made of stiff material in general limits kicking ability substantially. So unless you’re walking around in your training apparel, chances are that those long kicks will be impossible to do, and you’ll have to resort to your hands, elbows and perhaps knees to do most of the work.
Furthermore, in most situations the assailant will get close enough to land punches or use a weapon before they start to get aggressive, which makes a lower body dominant approach useless.
So all of that time you spent on perfecting your high kicks would’ve been better spent increasing the power and precision of your punches or your elbow and knee striking techniques. Which is again, the reason why boxing is considered by many to be the most practical martial art for self defense.
3. Many useful techniques are forbidden
It’s important to note that there are three distinct versions of any karate style. First, there is the karate for children and teens that is more for entertainment than anything else.
Second is the sports style karate, that is geared towards competitions that forbid many useful self defense techniques such as low kicks, chokes, strangles, joint locks and most throws. Learning karate this way could even be detrimental to your self defense abilities because you don’t learn how to hit opponents properly, and you don’t get hit as you would in a real fight either.
The third is the “traditional karate” that uses all of the before-mentioned techniques and includes hard sparring that is really the prerequisite for dealing with real life opponents. So if you plan on learning Shotokan karate, it’s paramount that you find a school that teaches the old school version designed for self defense.
From these pros and cons we can gather that Shotokan is a solid self defense option, but not the best. By placing a lot of emphasis on repeating techniques over and over again it can take a long time to master.
Much of its power comes to light in large spaces where you can move around quickly and evade opponents attacks. This is not always an option when you’re attacked in a night club, bar, hallway, elevator etc.. all very common places where real life fights can occur.
Overall, if you train consistently with a good teacher and make sure to do full contact sparring, you can definitely benefit from Shotokan karate. But if you are in a bit of a hurry, do boxing or Muay Thai instead, or train them alongside Shotokan to acquire the unique benefits that each of these arts possesses.