Hironori Ōtsuka named his style of karate as Wadō-Ryū — the way of peace. With this he wanted to bring out his idea of the inner meaning of practicing karate, where the purpose is to achieve a state where no violence is needed. This way of thinking can also be seen from some of the style characteristics of Wadō-Ryū. Ōtsuka developed, for example, taisabaki techniques with the principle of moving off the attack line while blocking, so it requires using less force.

Hironori Ōtsuka (b. June 1st 1892) was one of Gichin Funakoshi’s closest and promising students during his early years in Tokyo. Ōtsuka separated with Funakoshi and created his own style, Wadō-Ryū, at the turn of 1930’s. A specific date for founding Wadō-Ryū is difficult to determine, since different sources tell inconsistent information. However, by 1929 Ōtsuka had defined most of the techniques of his karate and registered as a member of the Nippon Kobudō Shinkō Kai (Society for the Promotion of Japanese Classical Martial Arts). In May 1934 Ōtsuka’s karate was registered as an independent style with the name Dai Nippon Karate Dō Shinkō Club. Ōtsuka closed down his clinic and fulfilled his dream since 1919 of becoming a full time karate teacher.

In 1938 Dai Nippon Butoku Kai awarded Ōtsuka with the title “Renshi-go”. In the same year his style was registered with the name Shin Shū Wadō-Ryū. In March 1939 Dai Nippon Butoku Kai required that every style needed to officially register their names. Ōtsuka registered his style with the name Wadō-Ryū. Other styles registered at the same time were Shōtōkan-Ryū, Gōjū-Ryū and Shito-Ryū among others.

In 1942 Ōtsuka sensei was awarded with the title “Kyōshi-go” by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai and in 1944 he was chosen as the head instructor of karate in Japan. In 1945, after the end of WWII, the training of martial arts was forbidden by the Americans. After the peace treaty was signed between Japan and USA in 1951, the training of martial arts was again allowed. This was followed by the first martial arts demonstration after the prohibition. The very first All-Japan Wadō-Ryū Championships were held in 1955.

The way to Europe and Finland

Wadō-Ryū was introduced in Europe in 1964 by three teachers from the university of Japan; Tatsuo Suzuki, Tōru Arakawa and Hajime Takashima came to Europe to present Wadō-Ryū karate. Already in the following year in 1965, Tatsuo Suzuki returned to teach Wadō-Ryū in Europe and other teachers like Teruo Kono, Yutaka Toyama, Atsuo Yamashita and Masafumi Shiomitsu followed soon after him. Suzuki also introduced Wadō-Ryū in Finland and the style is still one of the largest in Finland. Currently, approximately over twenty clubs under the Finnish Karate Federation practices Wadō-Ryū karate. Additionally, there are some clubs outside the FKF that practice Wadō-Ryū — mainly under Masafumi Shiomitsu.

The Finnish Wadō-Ryū karate has later been influenced also by other teachers. At the end of 1980’s and in the beginning of 90’s, Rob Zwartjes, 7th dan, visited Finland several times having a strong influence. Also during the 90’s, Finland started the cooperation with Shingo Ōgami, 7th dan, based in Sweden and separating from the influence of Tatsuo Suzuki continued. Since the death of Hironori Ōtsuka in 1982, Wadō-Ryū has splitted into several groups around the world. Currently, the Wadōkai organisation represented by Shingo Ōgami, covers about 90% of the people practicing Wadō-Ryū around the world. Wadōkai organisation is also recognised by the Japan Karatedō Federation and the World Karate Federation. There are also other smaller groups such as Tatsuo Suzuki’s group and the son of Hironori Ōtsuka, Jiro Ōtsuka’s group. The latter in Finland is represented by the Finnish Wado-Ryu Karate Federation, which has often invited Masafumi Shiomitsu to teach in Finland.

Being natural is important

Wadō-Ryū as a style is very natural. Being relaxed is important and the stances are slightly higher compared to the other styles. Using lower stances requires certain kind of way of using power which might cause unnecessary tension.

The kime phase, or focus, in techniques is short. A punch starts relaxed with just barely enough tension to control the direction and movement. The sharp and short moment of tension comes only at the very end and is immediately returned to relaxed state.

Wadō-Ryū emphasises avoiding unnecessary movements. All techniques should be performed as simply as possible from the starting position to the finish. Therefore the techniques will become straightforward and plain, and compared to the wider movements of Shōtōkan, Wadō-Ryū might seem very lacklustre.

During his childhood, Hironori Ōtsuka studied Shindō Yōshin Ryū jūjutsu. When creating Wadō-Ryu karate, his jūjutsu skills left their impression in the style, mostly in some holds. Avoiding hard contact, for example in blocks, in addition to taisabaki is a characteristic of Wadō-Ryū. The direction of an attacking movement is many times taken advantage by blocking e.g. the punching hand parallel to the direction of movement while moving off the center line (nagashiuke). Usually the evasion is done forward sideways which makes simultaneous counter attacking possible. This has been developed to the maximum in Wadō-Ryū’s fundamental pair techniques, Kihon Kumite, which probably contain the clearest examples of the style’s characteristics.

The natural movements of the style are also conserving for the practitioner. When executed properly, the techniques won’t cause too much strain to the joints and they avoid hard contact. This ensures that unnecessary injuries are avoided and one can study the art for a long time. A great example is the founder of Wadō-Ryū, Hironori Ōtsuka, who died at the age of 89 on January 29th 1982. He never stopped practicing budō. He practiced martial arts for 84 years.

The katas have original names

When separating with Funakoshi, Ōtsuka kept the original Okinawan names of the katas. Ōtsuka also studied karate in Tokyo with Chōki Motobu, who emphasised the original way of performing katas, and with Kenwa Mabuni, who taught his own style, Shito-Ryū, in Osaka.

The Wadō-Ryū katas, like the style, are plain and therefore fail to be visually impressive. This leads to the fact that Wadō-Ryū usually is not well represented in international all-style kata competitions. The katas are almost the same as in Shōtōkan, though less in numbers in Wadō-Ryū. The Wadō-Ryū katas mainly differ from Shōtōkan katas in the height where the blocking techniques are executed. Many of the middle level blocks are changed to upper level blocks in Wadō-Ryū. Hironori Ōtsuka’s favorite kata was Naihanchi, which he once had the honor of performing it for the emperor of Japan.

That which Wadō-Ryū loses in kata competition, it takes back in kumite or free fighting. The simple and straightforward movements, the skilful use of taisabaki and the timing peculiar to the style are a perfect fit for the modern competition situations.

Translated from the original text by Yrsa Lindqvist