Karate Symbology

I’m going to moonlight as the esteemed Dr. Robert Langdon (for those who don’t know who he is and have lived in a cave for the past couple of years.. God have mercy on your soul!!!) tonight and open a discussion on the influence of symbology in karate. Now, I will be the first to admit, I am not an expert on this subject, and only offering my two cents on the matter.

There are certain symbols, designs if you please, that has become identified with certain organisations.  Karate symbology is heavily influenced by Japanese symbology, especially the way they create their mon. So most karate symbols tend to be minimalistic. One of the most famous symbol in in karate has to be the Tora-no-maki (a.k.a. the Shotokan Tiger) a symbol created to adorn the world famous book of Funakishin Gichin O’sensei; Karate-do Kyohan.

The first thing that crosses any karate-ka’s when coming across is ‘SHOTOKAN’, Funakoshi style karate. For any clubs having this symbol or variation(s) of it are immediately recognised as advertising it’s Shotokan roots (note that I say ‘recognise as advertising’, not recognised as.) Famous Shotokan organisations carrying this symbol are Shotokan Karate-do International Federation (SKIF), International Shotokan Karate-do Federation (ISKF) and World Shotokan Karate-do Federation (WSKF). Oddly enough, the two most eldest shotokan organisations, Japan Karate Association (JKA) and the Shotokai does not carry this symbol in their logo. Which brings me to another example, the famous JKA logo.

The rising sun symbol is another famous karate symbol, representing the JKA branch of Shotokan. It is similar to the symbol of the Prefecture of Okinawa (below). Most offshoots of the JKA (especially after the 1999 break-up) carries a variation of this design. Okazaki sensei’s ISKF carries the modified JKA logo with the shotokan tiger in the middle (from it’s legacy as the American branch of the JKA). The JKS, WTKO, KUGB, FSKA, AJKA-I and WJKA, to name a few, are others who sport variations of the logo. Anywhere in the karate community, if someone displays either the tiger or the rising sun, they will be associated with Shotokan, and if the second, specifically the JKA.

 Other prominent karate ryu (school) symbols are :

*Shito-ryu (WSKF) / Okinawan Goju-ryu (IOGKF) / Goju-kai (JKF Goju-kai)

These symbols identify the school and sometimes the sub-branch of the school. Use of the symbol or variations of any symbol automatically associates the said group with the originator of the symbol, no matter how far removed from the original family the group is.

Variants of Shotokan Organisational Logos/Symbols:


Variants of sub-branches of Shito-ryu using the fist symbol :

*Shito-ryu Hayashi-ha / Shito-ryu Kusano-ha / Shito-ryu Shukokai

OK… what does it all mean? And does it really matter? In the grand scheme of thing, IMHO, not really. But some symbols, like the IKGA & JKA symbols are protected by international copyright. And the main point of having a symbol is identification. By displaying the upturned fist logo, members of the karate fraternity will identify you as a student of Goju-ryuha. So if you use that symbol and then say that you are a Shotokan student.. people will be confused… to say the least. So, when designing a club logo, t-shirt or poster, be aware of the historical and symbolic reference of your graphical elements. It will not only make your presentation stronger, but make your dojo branding strong and to the point.




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