A Historical Perspective of Gichin Funakoshi   (1868-1957)





To search for the old is to understand the new.


The old, the new

This is a matter of time.


In all things man must have a clear mind.


The Way:

Who will pass it on straight and well?


Poem by Master Funakoshi.



  Gichin Funakoshi was an Okinawan (Shuri-te) Karate master and innovator.  He was born to an upper class (Shizoku) in Shuri, Okinawa in 1869.  He began his training, at the age of 11 (or 13, dependent upon what history you happen to read), while attending primary school with Yasutsune Azato, a great scholar and Karate master.  Under Azato's instruction, Gichin Funakoshi studied not only Karate but Chinese classics and Confucian dialectics.  Because of his association with Azato, he was able to meet and train under many of the best Okinawan Karate masters, among them Master Yasutsune Itosu, Kiyuna, Niigaki and Toonno.  Supposedly he trained under Itosu when he was 13 and later studied under Matsumura.  It is believed that he studied most of the main styles:  Nahate, Goju Ryu, Uechi Ryu and Shito Ryu.

In 1902 Funakoshi held the first recorded Karate demonstration on Okinawa, for Shintaro Ozawa, commissioner of schools for Kagoshima Prefecture.  So successful was the demonstration that by 1903 Karate became part of the physical education program at the Men's Normal School in Shuri and at the prefectural Daiichi Middle School.  Because of his philosophical approach to Karate, the art quickly attracted the interest of intellectuals and educators.

In 1906 he conducted the first public exhibition of Karate and by 1913 the interest in Karate had grown to such proportions that Funakoshi organized a demonstration team comprised of the most active Karate masters of the day.  These included:  Gusuku, Mabuni, Motobu, Kyan, Ogusuku, Ishikawa, Tokumura and Yahiku.  They performed these demonstrations between 1914 and 1915.

In 1917, at the request of the ministry of education, he traveled to Kyoto, Japan, where he performed at the Butokuden (Martial Virtues Hall, established in 1899 and located next to the Heian Shrine in Kyoto).  While the demonstration was a success, there was no immediate rush to bring the Okinawan art to Japan on a formal basis.

In 1921, after an exhibition before the visiting Crown Prince of Japan at Shuri Castle, Funakoshi was invited to appear at the First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo in 1922.  He was asked to stay on in Japan by several prominent people, among them Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, who asked Funakoshi to demonstrate karate at the Kodokan.  Kano later incorporated some karate movements into an advanced judo kata.

Deciding to remain in Japan, he taught, at first for an artist's guild, and established the first Japanese Karate club at the Meisei Juku, a dormitory and school for newly arrived Okinawan students in the Suidobata (Suidobashi) section of Tokyo.  In 1922 he wrote his Ryukyu Kempo: Karate, later re-issued as Rentan Goshin Karate-jitsu ("Strengthening of Willpower and Self-defense through Techniques of Karate").

In 1924, Funakoshi established the first collegiate Karate club, at Keio University. and soon was teaching at a number of schools and commercial dojos.  In 1936, Funakoshi's students solicited funds and constructed for him the world's first free-standing karate dojo.  The dojo was named "Shotokan" (the hall of Shoto).  Shoto was the pen name used by Funakoshi when signing his poetry.  As a note of interest, Shotokan (similar to the Shuri-Te he learned) was not recognized as such until after Gichin Funakoshi's death.

Funakoshi's second book, Karate-Do-Kyohan, in which he changed the ideographs for kara from "Chinese" to "empty," appeared in 1936.  This is also the same year that the first Karate dojo was opened (Hall of Shoto).  Although controversial among Okinawan karate masters, from that time forward karate became "empty hand" instead of the previous "China hand."  There is more about this later in this printing

After the war Funakoshi rebuilt Karate in Japan.  In 1953, asked to the U.S., he instead sent a number of his top students including Isao Obata, Masatoshi Nakayama, Kamata, and Hidetaka Nishiyama.  In 1955, two years before his death, Funakoshi presided over the opening of the first dojo of the Japan Karate AssociationOn April 26, 1957, Funakoshi died in Tokyo at the age of eighty-eight (or 86 dependent upon what history you read). 

Gichin Funakoshi is considered the "Father of Modern Day Karate".  In some writings he is referred rather as the "Father of Japanese Karate-Do".  Whatever definition is used, he converted Okinawan Karate more towards the Japanese flavor.  He consistently stressed the philosophical side of his art and this contributed very much to the difficulty which he encountered in building up his schools in Japan.  (See Note 1)

The concept of "Kara" was changed from the original ideogram meaning "T'ang" or China, in the 1880s (circa 1887-1889).  This is the time that the word "Karate" replaced the word "Te".  Chomo Hanashiro broke with tradition in 1905 and wrote a book utilizing the new ideogram (Empty Hands).  This angered some of the purists, who felt they should acknowledge their debt to the Chinese who had taught them.  Some historians state that the ideogram was changed in 1933 by Funakoshi.  Either way the  ideogram was changed to the meaning  of "Empty", giving the term Karate to mean "Empty hand art".  In 1935 he changed his original system title from Karate-Jutsu to Karate-Do.  The followers of Karate-Do refer to it as Shotokan.  Shotokan means "Hall of Shoto", Shoto being the pen name Funakoshi used in his calligraphic works.  This new art he formed was developed from the workings of two systems of open-hand fighting that flourished in his native Okinawa.  Funakoshi had specific reasons for changing the name.  Pure Japanese Karate-Do does not utilize external weapons.  Okinawan Karate always had included external weapons in their systems.  These and other changes he made, upset the traditionalist in Okinawan circles and they considered them as a direct insult.  But, after explaining the reasons for his change, he was more forwardly accepted.  His explanation revolved around the use of "Kara" as meaning hollowness or unselfishness.  Therefore the "emptiness" suggested by the new ideogram refers to rendering oneself empty or egoless, to further development of spiritual insight.  By this though, he never meant that there should be theosophical abstractions be made of the kara concept.  He stated that the actual meaning of his writings are as follows:  "As a mirror's polished surface reflects whatever stands before it and a quiet valley carries even small sounds, so must the student of Karate-Do render of their mind empty of selfishness and wickedness in an effort to react appropriately toward anything they might encounter.  This is the meaning of kara or "empty" of Karate-Do."  He later tried to clarify this slightly confusing statement by stating this:  "True Karate-Do is this:  That is daily life, one's mind and body be trained and developed in a spirit of humility; and that in critical times, one be devoted utterly to the cause of justice."

Gichin Funakoshi laid out six principles that had to be followed to achieve the full understanding of Karate-Do.  The first is:  Be deadly serious in your training.  Your opponent must always be present in your mind, whether you sit or stand or walk or raise your arms.  Should you in combat strike a karate blow, you must have no doubt whatsoever that the one blow decides everything.  If you have made an error, you will be the one who falls.  You must always be prepared for such an eventuality.  The second principle is this:  Train with heart and soul without worrying about theory.  Very often the individual who lacks that essential quality of deadly seriousness will take refuge in theory.  The Kibadachi (Horse Stance), for instance, looks extremely easy but the fact is that no one could possibly master it even if he practiced every day for an entire year.  What nonsense, then, for an individual to complain after a couple of months practice that he is incapable of mastering a kata.  Karate-do consists of a great number of kata and basic skills and techniques that no human being is capable of assimilating in a short space of time.  Further, unless you understand the meaning of each technique and kata, you will never be able to remember, no matter how much you practice, all the various skills and techniques.  All are interrelated and if you fail to understand each completely, you will fail in the long run.  But once you have completely mastered one technique, you will realize its close relation to other techniques.  You will, in other words, come to understand that all of the more than 20 kata (in Shotokan) may be distilled into only a few basic ones.  If therefore you become a master of one kata, you will soon gain an understanding of all the others merely by watching them being performed or by being taught them in an instruction period.  The record of the third principle can not be found and therefore we will move on to the fourth, which is:  Avoid self-conceit and dogmatism.  A man who brags in booming tones or swaggers down the street as though he owned it will never earn true respect even though he may actually be very capable in karate or some other martial art.  It is even more absurd to hear the self-aggrandizing of one who is without capability.  In karate it is usually the beginner who cannot resist the temptation to brag or show off; by doing so, he dishonors not only himself, but also his chosen art.  The fifth principle is:  Try to see yourself as you truly are and try to adopt what is meritorious in the work of others.  As a Karateka, you will of course often watch others practice.  When you do and you see strong points in the performance of others, try to incorporate them into your own technique.  At the same time, if the trainee you are watching seems to be doing less than his best, ask yourself whether you too may not be failing to practice with diligence.  Each of us have good qualities and bad; the wise man seeks to emulate the good he perceives in others and avoid the bad.  The sixth and last principle is as follows:  Abide by the rules of ethics in your daily life, whether in public or private.  This is a principle that demands the strictest observance.  With the Martial Arts, most particularly with Karate-Do, many neophytes will exhibit great progress, and in the end some may turn out to be better Karateka than their instructors.  All too frequently one hears teachers speak of trainees as oshiego (pupil), or montei (follower), or deshi (disciple), or kohai (junior).  Such terms should be avoided, for the time may well come when the trainee will surpass his instructor.  The instructor, meanwhile, in using such expressions runs the risk of complacency, the danger of forgetting that some day the young man he has spoken of rather slightingly will not only catch up with him, but go beyond him in the art of karate or in other fields of human endeavor.  No one can attain perfection in karate-do until he finally comes to realize that it is, above all else, a faith, a way of life.

When a man enters upon an undertaking, he prays fervently that he will achieve success in it.  Further, he knows that he requires the help of others and, by accepting it from them, acquires the ability to elevate the art into a faith wherein he perfects both body and soul and so comes finally to recognize the true meaning of karate-do.  Inasmuch as Karate-Do aims at perfection of mind as well as body, expressions that extol only physical prowess should never be used in connection with it.  As one Buddhist saint, Nichiren, has so aptly said, everyone who studies the Sutras should read them not only with the eyes that are in his head, but also with those of his soul.  This is the perfect admonition for a trainee of karate-do to always keep in mind.

To attain true proficiency in the art of Karate-do, the Karateka must control his mind and conquer himself.  The Zen doctrine is central to Okinawan goju-ryu karate-do.  Intuitive understanding cannot be taught, but is awakened in the karate student's mind after many years of dedicated training, discipline, and meditation.  Traditionally, on Okinawa, goiu-ryu karate is taught as karate-do, a "way of life."  Do is the Japanese pronunciation of the Chinese ideograph Tao (pronounced dow).  Tao, or the "way" is the dominant idea in all Chinese philosophy, the foundation of the ancient Chinese world concept.  All things are indissolubly interrelated and mutually influence each other.  In karate-do, the training will become, in some measure, the practitioner, and the practitioner will become the training.  The main part of Funakoshi's teachings was Kata combined with exercises and etiquette.  Free fighting seemed to form little part of his teachings.  This caused many of his students to leave his system.  Two of his best students left partly because of this to form two other styles, being of course, direct off shoots of Shotokan.  Kyokushinkai was formed by Mas Oyama and Wado Ryu was formed by Otsuka.

Gichin Funakoshi continually edited, revised and updated the various kicks, punches, strikes, blocks and body dynamics until the day he died in 1957. 


Note 1: Gichin Funakoshi repeatedly pointed out that the first purpose in pursuing this art is the nurturing of a sublime spirit, a spirit of humility.  Even the older practitioners placed stronger emphasis on the spiritual side of the art than on the techniques.  It is said that in the training of body and spirit, and above all else, one should treat his opponent courteously and with the proper etiquette.  It is not enough to fight with all one's power; the real objective in Karate-Do is to do so for the sake of justice.  The quality necessary to accomplish this is self-control.  Funakoshi stated that:  "To become a victor, one must first overcome his own self".


A list of 20 precepts of Gichin Funakoshi


#1  Never forget that karate begins and ends with respect.

#2  There is no first attack in karate.

#3  Karate fosters righteousness.

#4  First know yourself and then know others.

#5  Rather than physical technique, mental technique.

#6  Let your mind roam freely.

#7  Inattention and neglect causes misfortune.

#8  Never think that karate is practiced only in the dojo.

#9  Karate is a life long pursuit.

#10  Everything you encounter is an aspect of karate: find the marvelous truth there.

#11  Karate is like boiling water: if you do not keep the flame high, it turns tepid.

#12  Do not think about winning; think about not losing.

#13  Respond in accordance to your opponent.

#14  Wage the battle with natural strategy.

#15  Regard your hands and feet as sharp swords.

#16  Step out the door and you face 10,000 foes.

#17  Learn various stances as a beginner but then rely on a natural posture.

#18  The kata must always be practiced correctly: real combat is another matter.

#19  Never forget your own strengths and weakness, the limitations of your body, and  the relative quality of your techniques.

#20  Continuously polish your mind.


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