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Martial Arts: Karate

Funakoshi vs. Motobu:

How Two Fierce Rivals Shared Students Part 2

By Matthew Apsokardu

Editor's Note: This is a second of a two part article on the early history of Japanese karate and the relations between two of the principal founders, Gichin Funakoshi, who many consider the founder of Japanese karate and Choki Motobu. Part 1 discussed the two men's divergent backgrounds, education, character, personalities and karate training.  Part 2 highlights the two men's divergent viewpoints, approaches and circumstances that led them to conflict.

Two Men of Divergent Viewpoints

The differences between Funakoshi and Motobu weren't just theoretical; they encountered and disliked one another. Motobu considered Funakoshi to be rather soft and superficial in his understanding of karate. He observed the changes Funakoshi was making (considered school karate) and decried them as moving away from the true core of Okinawan karate that he had seen and experienced.

Funakoshi on the other hand, looked upon Motobu with disdain due to his constant rough behavior and his apparent lack of social grace.  Funakoshi did not believe Motobu was a proper representative of karate. Perhaps this was only natural. Funakoshi was a natural politician. He was also organized and philosophical. He had been an Okinawan educator, taught Okinawan school karate, was fluent in Japanese and its social customs, and was comfortable as a karate educator in Japanese society. Motobu in contrast had avoided formal schooling on Okinawa, thus never became fluent in the Japanese language or its culture. Motobu's karate was also somewhat self developed, partly from experience in small personal classes by his karate instructors, partly self taught in challenge matches the back streets of  the seaport of Naha (Okinawa). In personality Motobu was also much more direct, outspoken and opinionated. He was also not a natural organizer, something that spilled into his personal finances. He  often depended on others for assistance, even support.  

There were a few alleged meetings between Motobu and Funakoshi, one in which Motobu dared Funakoshi to attempt techniques on him (a somewhat controversial story). At every turn Motobu would simply throw Funakoshi down and foil his efforts. This of course could be folklore.

One thing that certainly did happen revolved around a boxing match. Boxing exhibitions in Japan had become very popular with this new Western art on display. Many, as this one, were billed as a challenge match between this boxer and any Japanese martial artist who dared compete. After Motobu witnessed the Japanese being soundly defeated he responded to a challenge to the audience for anyone else who would dare stand up to the challenge. Motobu despite his age knocked the big, bruising boxer unconscious. When the event was reported in a 1925 issue of Kingu (a popular national magazine), however, it was Funakoshi's image, not Motobu's that appeared, although Motobu's name was correctly reported. Some have suggested the reason for this error was purposeful, the articles having been authored  or information augmented by Funakoshi's students. Another explanation is that image of Motobu just was not available and the magazine just substituted an image.

You might imagine how this error went over with Motobu? But the event was important. It gave both Motobu and karate a boost. Motobu (based in Osaka) gained instant notoriety and a host of needed students. Karate in turn got national attention. Despite being a new art imported from the outer reaches of Okinawa (now absorbed into Japan), karate was shown to be superior (at least in this instance) over the Western art of boxing. Unfortunately or fortunately it also gained the eye of some of Funakoshi's students.

All of these factors and many more contributed to the ongoing feud between two of the top karateka of their time.

In and of itself, this is a very interesting study. But there is another layer. Two men of high importance to the development of Japanese karate not only knew about this feud, but studied under both men anyway.

The Brave Konishi Yasuhiro and Bold Ohtsuka Hironori

In Japanese karate circles, these names are well known.  Konishi Yasuhiro would go on to develop Shindo Jinen Ryu and become a prime mover toward the acceptance of karate by traditional Japanese martial arts, and Ohtsuka would found and head the style of Wado Ryu karate.

Both of these men spent significant time studying under Funakoshi and helped the spread of karate in Japan.

Ohtsuka (also an expert in Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujitsu) was one of the first Japanese students of Funakoshi. In 1924 he accompanied his master to Konishi's kendo training hall at Keio University (Konishi also an expert in jujitsu and a teacher of boxing) and with a letter of introduction asking to be allowed to begin teaching his art at Konishi's dojo. Konishi understood the value of the new art and wanting to study it, consented, thus helping Funakoshi get established in Japan. Konishi also helped Funakoshi establish a To-te practice club at Keio University (the first university karate club in Japan) and along with Ohtsuka served as instructors under Funakoshi.

Konishi equally helped Motobu. He also studied with him and assisted Motobu monetarily by setting up seminars, training sessions and organizing the Choki Motobu Support Society from which Motobu could collect fees. Konishi also  acted as Motobu's translator (Motobu not speaking Japanese well). 

By most accounts, it is stated that Konishi and Ohtsuka wished to take their basics, forms, and physical fitness as developed by Funakoshi and augment them with their own jujitsu backgrounds as well as with the feared fighting prowess of Motobu. Motobu had also become one of the most famous practitioners of Naihanchi kata (long considered a cornerstone of Okinawa Shuri-te karate) and was a highly sought after resource for understanding the deeper aspects and functional, combative aspects of that karate tradition.

We needn't stretch our imaginations to realize what Funakoshi and Motobu must have thought about the others' influence on these two young men. Yet, the culture of martial sharing on Okinawa was strong. The act of Konishi and Ohtsuka seeking out instructors highly skilled in particular areas was not unusual. In fact, you might say it stuck to the Okinawan tradition.

Of course, when put through a Japanese lens these actions were almost unthinkable. The Ryu/ha of Japanese Koryu arts (old Japanese Samurai arts) were highly secretive and exclusive, a habit born from centuries of in-fighting and rigid class identification. The idea of going to another instructor was not smiled upon, especially if one of the headmasters happened to hate the other.

Nevertheless, this is what happened with Konishi and Ohtsuka and they both became highly skilled and refined practitioners.

A Hint of Things to Come - A Conflict Of Cultures

As we have seen Funakoshi and Motobu were not members of each other's fan club. Yet we see instances of old Okinawan culture poking through - that of sharing and cross training despite frictional differences. At the same time we see the beginnings of Japanese influence as each branch of karate became named, labeled, and sectionalized. Konishi and Ohtsuka lived at an interesting time where their desire to improve their learning began to rub against the trend of modern karate.

This conflict of interest exists today as we see the very same kind of feuds develop and the same impulse to label and confine each style. Perhaps we can use the experiences of these karate greats to better inform our overall perspective on the martial arts.

Acknowledgement: I want to thank the Editor of FightingArts.com, Christopher Caile for many historical additions and clarifications he contributed to this article.


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About The Author:

Matthew Apsokardu is a student and instructor of Okinawa Kenpo Karate and Kobudo. He is the founder of www.ikigaiway.com and his martial arts blog can be found on this site. Apsokardu has created multiple ebooks, including "Shigeru Nakamura: Okinawa Kenpo's  Founder". Matthew is also the martial arts consultant.


To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Pioneers of Japanese karate, Japanese karate, history of karate, history of Japanese Karate, Gichin Funakoshi, Choki Motobu, Konishi Yasuhiro, Ohtsuka Hironori


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