Gichen Funakoshi And The Beginning Of Modern Karate-do
By Tom Ross
Few martial arts enthusiasts could argue that if
there was one Karate-ka (karate practitioner) known
world wide that man would be Gichen Funakoshi. When
he was born on November 10, 1868 (1) it was probably
beyond his parents' greatest hopes and dreams to imagine
that the small sickly child whom they feared for so
greatly in infancy would become the number one son
of Karate-do, known to millions world wide.
Believed to be in need of constant attention due
to his health, young Gichen was given to his maternal
grandparents in whose care he soon flourished. This
action set about a chain of events which forever altered
his life and literally thousands whom he in turn affected
both directly and indirectly. While living with his
grandparents, Gichen began attending primary school
and in doing so befriended the son of the legendary
Anko Azato. Azato was a very selective Karate teacher,
and Funakoshi recalls in his autobiographical work
"Karatedo My Way Of Life," that at first
he was Azato's only student.
It is probably due to the close friendship between
Azato and Anko Shishu (read in Japanese as Yasutsune
Itosu, but commonly called Anko Itosu) that Funakoshi
met and was accepted as a student by Itosu. Itosu
was a legend in his own right, and is considered by
many to be the "Father of Modern Karate-do,"
for it was he who first systematized and organized
Karate with the purpose and intent of mass instruction.
Making a Choice
By 1888 Funakoshi had already decided to make the
study of Karate his way of life, and it was in this
year that he embarked on a respectable career in teaching.
(2) This profession allowed him to remain close to
his two teachers while providing at least some source
of income to his family.
Funakoshi become exceedingly close to his teachers
(3), yet despite this closeness, he also went on to
receive instruction from other well known teachers,
including Higaonna of Naha, Master Niigaki, Kiyuna
Peichin (a top student of Sokon Matsumura) and occasionally
Matsumura himself (4), who was Itosu's teacher.
the turn of the century Itosu organized a demonstration
for the benefit of Shintaro Ogawa, as this commissioner
of schools had jurisdiction over Okinawa. Ogawa, suitably
impressed, wrote favorably to the ministry of education
and permission was granted for the regular instruction
of students in public schools.
In August of 1905 Chomo Hanashiro (also a disciple
of Itosu and who had assisted Itosu in teaching in
the school system) published his book "Karate
Shoshu Hen," which was the first recorded use
of the alternate rendering of the characters for karate
which read "EMPTY HAND." Up to this time
characters for karate had been read as "Chinese
Hand" (the "Kara," in karate, also
being the pronunciation for a different character
meaning "Chinese," and "te" meaning
hand). Thus the wheels of change were in motion. In
October of 1908 Itosu wrote his "Tode Jukun,"
or Ten Precepts of Tode (the "To" in Tode
being another pronunciation of the same character
meaning "Chinese" and "de" meaning
another pronunciation for "te," or "hand"),
thus drawing further attention from the ministry of
education and the ministry of war.
It was perhaps in response to these events that in
1912 the first imperial fleet under the command of
Admiral Dewa set anchor in Nakugushiku Bay. Impressed
by the demonstration they witnessed, a detachment
of officers remained for a week to receive instruction
in the unique martial art at the Dai Ichi middle school.
One cannot help but feel Funakoshi's intense pride
as he watched his primary school students perform
for the visiting sailors.
It is further interesting to note that in his book
"Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters," Shoshin
Nagamine recounts that when he was a student in the
third grade (1916) Funakoshi Sensei was the teacher
responsible for teaching the Naihanchi Kata and Pinan
series other third grade students (5). This account
would seem to put to rest the speculation by some
karate historians that Funakoshi learned the Pinan
Kata from Kenwa Mabuni (the founder of Shito Ryu Karate
who had studied with Itosu) in 1919 or 1920.
Picking Up The Torch
Itosu had lit the torch of modern Karate-do lighting
the path for others, but he was growing old and the
wheels of bureaucracy turned ever so slowly. Anko
Itosu died on January 26, 1915.
Funakoshi no doubt saw an opportunity to pick up
the torch and carry it to the mainland (Japan proper)
himself when in 1917 he was invited to Kyoto by the
Dai Nippon Butokukai (The Great Martial Virtues Association
of Japan) to participate in a martial arts festival.
This was a significant invitation since the invitation
was from the premier martial arts organization in
Japan. It had been founded in 1895 to oversee and
promote both classical and modern martial arts.
took a small group of students and Shinko Matayoshi,
who would demonstrate Okinawan Kobudo (Okinawan weapons).
Upon returning home the group toured Okinawa and gave
further demonstrations. On March 6, 1921 (6) Crown
Prince Hirohito, en route to Europe, stopped at Nakagushiku
Bay and viewed karate demonstrations at the great
hall of Shuri Castle. The demonstrators wore white
headbands, white tee shirts and traditional pleated
pants while Funakoshi wore a white jacket styled after
the standard judo uniform top.
demonstration, organized by Gichen Funakoshi, included
such famous martial artists as Chojun Miyagi (founder
of Goju karate) and Shinko Matayoshi (the Okinawan
weapons expert who had earlier demonstrated his art
with Funakoshi in Kyoto). After they impressed the
prince, the wheels of government turned much more
rapidly and by the spring of 1922 Funakoshi (53 years
old) found himself giving a lecture at the Women's
Higher Normal School at the behest of the Monbasho
(the Ministry Of Education). His years of school teaching
served him well. He was highly prepared and organized
and wrote numerous scrolls detailing kata and application.
His presentation, which demonstrated this brutal Okinawan
martial skill in a refined manner befitting Japanese
Budo and capable of being utilized for mass instruction,
caught the eye of Jigoro Kano, the influential founder
of judo. Immediately following the presentation Funakoshi
was approached and asked to demonstrate at Kano's
years later Kano also visited Chokki Motobu (another
early pioneer of karate) in Okinawa during his visit
to the island in 1927 (7). Judging from Motobu's account,
one gets the impression that Kano considered Motobu's
Karate-jutsu perhaps a bit too brutal for his purposes.
Kano, we must remember, had been well versed in the
brutal techniques of several classical Jujutsu systems
and saw the decline of these systems as a result.
It was, after all, his synthesis and modification
of the techniques found in several of these systems
that he used to create his new form "Judo,"
which he regarded as a more humane, yet effective,
martial way that could be beneficial to all.
Before one hundred spectators at the Kodokan, Gichen
Funakoshi performed his favorite Kata Kusanku Dai
(later renamed Kanku in Japan) while his assistant
Makoto "Shinken" Gima performed Naihanchi
(8). Gima had trained in Okinawa with Kentsu Yabu
(a student of Itosu and teacher of the famous karate
expert Shigeru Nakamura who later founded Okinawan
Kempo) prior to coming to Tokyo and served as a perfect
soon asked Funakoshi to set up a karate branch of
the Kodokan, but to his credit Funakoshi politely
declined the offer, perhaps fearing a loss of creative
control over the future development of the art. (It
is interesting to note that Karate was first recognized
by the Butokukai as being a branch of the Judo Division).
Funakoshi remained in Japan, determined to succeed
in the popularization of Karate-do on mainland Japan,
a dream his dear teacher Itosu had never lived to
see. Securing lodging in a dormitory for Okinawan
students (the Mesei Juku), he earned his lodging by
gardening and performing odd jobs and handy work.
Slowly but surely word spread and Funakoshi began
to find students. Realizing that changes were needed
if Karate was to be accepted in this very nationalistic
period in Japan's history he began promoting on the
mainland (Japan proper) the characters for Empty Hand
(meaning Karate) which had been previously referred
to by Chomo Hanashiro in order to distance the art
from its Chinese influences. He then set about to
change the names of the Kata to names which he felt
would be more pleasing to the Japanese (9). Times
change, he reasoned, and the Karate now taught was
vastly different than that which he learned as a child
(10). Funakoshi also sought to refine the art even
further for the benefit of "young and old, boys
and girls, men and woman" (11).
These changes soon paid off, and his classes steadily
grew. Calling upon such talented Okinawan Karate-ka
as Tsuyoshi Chitose (who had been studying at medical
school in Tokyo), Funakoshi had someone to teach for
him when he was otherwise unavailable. He soon developed
a base of talented Japanese Karate-ka, and on April
12, 1924, Gichen Funakoshi awarded the first Dan rank
in the martial art of Karate-do to his assistant Gima.
This move is important and can be seen as acquiescence
to Dai Nippon Butokukai standards which promoted the
adoption of common ranks, belts and uniforms for martial
arts in Japan, elements lacking in karate as previously
practiced in Okinawa.
Gima's cousin Tokuda Anbun, already a highly talented
Karate-ka in Okinawa, was awarded Nidan with five
other first Dan diploma's being awarded to Otsuka,
Kasuya, Akiba, Shimizu and Hirose. These fine instructors
proved to be instrumental in spreading Funakoshi's
by 1934 the highly talented Otsuka went his own way
(forming the Wado ryu style which was officially recognized
in 1939), his void was temporarily filled by Takeshi
Shimoda. Shimoda was Funakoshi's most talented student
(12) (a fact referred to by Shigeru Egami, a senior
student of Funakoshi), but during the course of traveling
and demonstrating, he became ill and died rather abruptly
ending what would have been a most promising future.
Enter Waka Sensei
The master's third son, Gigo, had been working as
an x-ray technician at Tokyo Imperial University and
the Ministry of Education, and he himself had been
training in Karate since childhood. (13) Affectionately
called Waka Sensei (young teacher) he was the perfect
replacement for Shimoda. A powerful Karate-ka and
a talented technician, he was an innovator in his
own right. Combining his youthful vigor with a love
of sparring, he became the role model of many young
students of the Shoto Kan (House of Shoto, as it was
then called), and this undoubtedly played a significant
part in the changes that came about in technique as
many sought to emulate him.
According to Egami (14), of the original 19 kata
of the Shotokan designated for study, the three Taikyoku
Kata as well as the Ten no Kata (Omote and Ura) were
all created by Gigo. Tragically Gigo's role was cut
short when in November of 1945 he succumbed to tuberculosis.
This was truly a heartbreaking blow to Funakoshi,
who in March of that very year had seen the Dojo of
his dreams utterly destroyed by allied bombing.
The War Ends
Upon the conclusion of the war, devastation prevailed,
and Funakoshi's Okinawan home land paid a heavy price
in the fighting. The practice of the martial arts
was banned by the army of occupation (though some
groups practiced in private). Funakoshi, who had not
seen his wife in twenty three years, went to be with
her in southern Japan (Kyushu) where she had fled
during the fighting in Okinawa. She passed away in
The year 1948 saw the lifting of the ban on practicing
the martial ways, and two former students of Funakoshi,
Masatoshi Nakayama and Isao Obata, formed a new organization
calling it the Japan Karate Association. Karate again
was promoted and popularized and soon instruction
was sought out by members of the very army of occupation
who had previously banned its practice. To the master's
joy, Karate was now an international art as service
members began to open schools and request instructors
upon returning home. Even this was not without its
disappointment, however, for in the growth of Karate,
Funakoshi also saw his students at odds with one another
as rival factions formed. It is perhaps the tone of
this change that we pick up in the Preface To The
Second Edition (dated October 13, 1956) in the1973
reprint of Funakoshi's book, "Karate do Kyohan,"
in which he said:
"As a result of the social disorder that
followed the end of World War II, the karate world
was dispersed, as were many other things. Quite apart
from a decline in the level of technique during these
times, I cannot deny that there were moments at which
I came to be painfully aware of the almost unrecognizable
spiritual state to which the karate world had come
from that had prevailed at the time I had first introduced
and begun teaching of karate. Although one might claim
that such changes are only the natural result of expansion
of Karate-do, it is not evident that one should view
such a result with rejoicing rather than with some
Gichen Funakoshi passed away on April, 1957 always
clutching the torch.
(1) As noted on page one of "Karatedo My Way
Of Life," Funakoshi notes that he falsified the
official record date of 1870 and that his actual birth
date was two years earlier. The reason he did this
was to meet the age requirements to sit for the entrance
exams to medical school.
(2) A choice also made by such Notables as Gusakuma
Shinpan and Kyoda Juhatsu.
3) As recounted by Funakoshi on pages 19 and 20 of
"Karatedo My Way Of Life": "I frequently
took my children to their homes where on these occasions
they would demonstrate certain kata for the children,
then bid the children to do the same."
(4) Page 21 of "Karatedo My Way Of Life,"
by Gichin Funakoshi.
(5) Nagamine recounts on page 71 of his book, "Tales
Of Okinawa's Great Masters," translated by Patrick
(6) On page 65 of "Unante - The Secrets Of Karate,"
John Sells (the author) notes the exact date of the
visit as March 6, 1921.
(7) Choki Motobu is quoted as recounting his meeting
with Kano (which was witnessed by Marukawa Kenji,
a direct student of Motobu), in the essay "Motobu
Choki Sensei: Goroku," by Nakata Hashihiko which
was published 1978, here translated by Joe Swift:
"When I was still in Okinawa, Jigoro Kano of
the Kodokan came to visit and asked to talk to me.
Through a friend we went to a certain restaurant.
Mr. Kano talked about a lot of things, but about karate,
he asked me what would I do if my punch missed. I
answered I would immediately follow up with an elbow
from that motion. After that he became quiet and asked
nothing about karate."
(8) As stated by John Sells on page 67 of "Unante
- The Secrets Of Karate."
(9) As found on page 36 of "Karatedo My Way
Of Life" by Funakoshi.
(10) As found on page 36 of "Karatedo My Way
Of Life" by Funakoshi.
(11) As found on page 36 of "Karatedo My Way
Of Life" by Funakoshi.
(12) As found on Page 11 of "The Heart Of Karatedo"
by Shigeru Egami. Although Egami developed his own
following he remained close to Funakoshi and was devoted
to preserving his original teachings.
13) On page 20 of "Karatedo My Way Of Life,"
Funakoshi recounts how his children came to love Karate
and began to visit the two masters by themselves just
as he had done.
(14) According to Egami on Page 103 of "The
Heart of Karatedo"
"Karatedo My Way Of Life" by Gichin Funakoshi,
"The Heart of Karatedo" by Shigeru Egami
Revised edition, Kodansha 2000.
"Karatedo Nyumon" by Gichin Funakoshi,
"Karatedo Kyohan" by Gichin Funakoshi,
"Tales Of The Great Okinawan Masters" by
Shoshin Nagamine, translated by Patrick McCarthy,
"Unante - The Secrets Of Karate" by John
Sells, Hawley 1996.
Funakoshi photos were reproduced from his 1935 book,
Karatedo Kyohan. The group portrait of Funakoshi dan
ranking students was provided courtesy of Masters
The Itosu drawing was contributed by Kyoshi Frank
Hargrove from his book, The 100 Year History of Shorin-Ryu
Karate. Since there are no known photos of Itosu,
the drawing was a composite done in Okinawa based
on available descriptions.
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