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HISTORY OF SHOTOKAN
The great karate
master Gichin Funakoshi was a key pioneer in the development of modern
karate. In fact, he was the "prime mover" in bringing traditional
Okinawan karate to Japan. He himself was caught in the great wave of
social change sweeping through Japan and its prefectures. His
contributions include authoring several of the first publications
describing the previously secret art of karate, strengthening the
connection between character development and karate training, and the
development of modern teaching methods. Master Funakoshi supported the
realization that karate would evolve from a provincial fighting system
to a prominent member of the modern Japanese martial arts.
Stirrings of Change
Funakoshi was born
at the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868), a period of considerable
change throughout Japan. Meiji means "Enlightened Rule" and with the
reigns of power transferring from the Shogun back to the Emperor,
modernization and social change became the order of the day. This was a
time of considerable social change and exposure to new ideas. This
period led to a new view of Japan in the modern world.
reached adulthood during this volatile period, he had great opportunity
to witness and consider the nature of change within society. By his
actions, Master Azato, one of Funakoshi's primary teachers, demonstrated
his insight regarding change during this period. Azato demonstrated his
support for change by cutting his topknot off when they were first
declared illegal. This enlightened view toward the reforms of the Meiji
Period probably influenced Funakoshi.
practice of karate persisted through the early years of Meiji. This
would change also. Karate was about to come out of the dark and into the
light of day. It didn't take long before many prominent and influential
members of society took notice of karate and its virtues. This departure
from secrecy to open contribution to society should be viewed in the
context of social changes brought on by the Meiji Period. Karate was
being changed from merely a fighting art to an art which improves human
beings through rigorous and challenging endeavor.
The value of karate
as a means of self-improvement was a key point which Funakoshi became
expert at describing when lecturing about karate. He widened the scope
in regards to who should practice karate. He stated that karate "should
be simple enough to be practiced without undue difficulty by everybody,
young and old, boys and girls, men and women." His opinion that karate
training can contribute to both mental and physical health must have
some genesis in his recovery from poor health during early youth. He
further described benefits of practice in the following way. "Karate-do
is not merely a sport that teaches how to strike and kick; it is also a
defense against illness and disease." Because of this way of viewing the
value of karate, it began to make the all-important transition from
jutsu (technique) to do (way).
One of the areas
were Funakoshi exhibited a pioneering outlook was in his appreciation of
different styles of martial art. Azato demonstrated an open mind toward
the other martial arts by encouraging Funakoshi to study them also.
There was considerable rivalry between some of the schools of karate,
with some claiming superiority due to their Chinese influence (ch'uan
fa) and others claiming superiority because of their Okinawan heritage
(tode). One of the chief areas of contribution by Funakoshi was to look
beyond this situation of inter-style competitiveness and seek a
synthesis of the best aspects from the different styles.
Given the open minds
of his two primary instructors, Azato and Itosu, Funakoshi was in an
ideal position to appreciate the strong points of the various styles of
karate and begin integrating them together. He had been exposed to the
different styles of the two masters, Shorei through Azato and Shorin
through Itosu, and had trained with many of the other prominent Okinawan
karate masters of the day. Funakoshi had become the most eclectic
karateka of his day.
Period of Transition
Karate was to
undergo an important transition during the Meiji Period. It was time to
evolve away from its secretive and lethal past and move into a new phase
of public interest and contribution to society. It was perceived that
karate had much to offer to a rapidly changing society during the
upheaval created by Meiji Period reforms. In fact, the public's interest
in karate was aroused by several key events during this new phase of
The commissioner of
public schools, Shintaro Ogawa, strongly recommended in a report to the
Japanese Ministry of Education that the physical education programs of
the normal schools and the First Public High School of Okinawa
Prefecture include karate as part of their training. This recommendation
was accepted and initiated by these schools in 1902. So began a long,
fruitful, and continuing relationship with the educational system.
Funakoshi recalls that this was the first time that karate was
introduced to the general public. Thereafter, karate was successfully
incorporated into the Okinawan school system.
To what extent did
Funakoshi, due to his background and personal familiarity as a teacher
within the Okinawa educational system, play a part in this development?
It seems evident that this new policy demanded an even-handed, unbiased
approach to representing and teaching karate so nobody was offended by
omission. Funakoshi performed the task of primary spokesman for Okinawan
karate with the capability of a seasoned diplomat.
Some years later,
Captain Yashiro visited Okinawa and saw a karate demonstration by
Funakoshi's primary school pupils. He was so impressed that he issued
orders for his crew to witness and learn karate. Then, in 1912, the
Imperial Navy's First Fleet, under the command of Admiral Dewa, visited
Okinawa. About a dozen members of the crew stayed for a week to study
karate. Yashiro and Dewa were thus responsible for the first military
exposure to karate and brought favorable word of this new martial art
back to Japan.
During the years
1914 and 1915, a group that included Mabuni, Motobu, Kyan, Gusukuma,
Ogusuku, Tokumura, Ishikawa, Yahiku, and Funakoshi gave many
demonstrations throughout Okinawa. This practice would have been quite
unheard of during the earlier period of secrecy. It was due to the
tireless efforts of this group in popularizing karate through lectures
and demonstration tours that karate became well known to the Okinawan
In 1921, the crown
prince Hirohito visited Okinawa. Captain Kanna, an Okinawan by birth and
commander of the destroyer on which the crown prince was traveling,
suggested that the prince observe a karate demonstration. Funakoshi was
in charge of the demonstration. This was a great honor for Funakoshi and
further established him as a prominent champion of Okinawan karate. It
was shortly before the crown prince's visit that Funakoshi resigned his
teaching position, but maintained excellent relations with the Okinawan
It was the Japan
Department of Education which, in late 1921, invited Funakoshi to
participate in a demonstration of ancient Japanese martial arts. In
order to make the greatest impression, something more than a
demonstration was called for. With significant assistance from Hoan
Kosugi, the famous Japanese painter, Funakoshi published the first book
pertaining to karate, Ryukyu Kempo: Karate. This book was forwarded by
such prominent citizens as the Marquis Hisamasa, the former governor of
Okinawa, Admiral R. Yashiro, Vice Admiral C. Ogasawara, Count Shimpei
Goto, Lieutenant General C. Oka, Rear Admiral N. Kanna, Professor N.
Tononno, and B. Sueyoshi of the Okinawa Times.
Soon, Funakoshi was
balancing his time between early university clubs (such as Keio and
Takushoku), a main dojo, and speaking and demonstration requests. His
age ranged from 50 to 60 over this period -- he was supposed to be
approaching the autumn of his life and was instead introducing karate to
background as an educator was helpful for presenting ideas in concise
and systematic fashion. Funakoshi pioneered the organization of karate
instruction into three fundamental categories of practice: kihon, kata
and kumite. In fact, practice of kumite was rather new and aroused great
enthusiasm among the young university students. Competition between
university karate clubs helped fuel the interest in kumite and the
popularity of karate.
Once in Japan, the
universities became fertile ground for karate study. Was this also a
result of Funakoshi's educational and intellectual background? Was it
because karate represented a wonderful blend of physical and mental
challenge, combined with a sense of tradition and history? The
popularity among the intellectually inclined was very fortunate for
karate. The university groups helped transform karate from a mysterious,
arcane art to a scientific martial art and modern sport.
Master Jigoro Kano,
the father of modern judo, was instrumental in acknowledging karate as a
valued Japanese martial art and in encouraging Funakoshi to stay in
Japan. Even several sumo wrestlers became students of karate-do during
this early period. They clearly recognized a noteworthy and potent
martial art. During a period where Funakoshi wasn't able to use floor
space at the Meisei Juku, H. Nakayama, a great kendo instructor, offered
Funakoshi the use of his dojo when not in use.
Later, the time came
when constructing Funakoshi's own dojo was ripe. About 1935, supporters
gathered sufficient funds to construct the first karate dojo in Japan
and in 1936 it was dedicated as the Shoto-kan. By now, many initial
students who trained with Funakoshi earlier and had moved to other
cities due to work, had also created a demand for instruction throughout
the country. With the acceptance of karate by other established martial
arts and with a growing number of dedicated students, the introduction
and popularization of karate in Japan was now well underway.
Funakoshi was an
advocate of karate's health benefits. His strong conviction that karate
training can enhance physical health must have been influenced by his
dramatic recovery from poor health during early youth. Funakoshi may
have subconsciously realized that karate-do, when seen as a well-rounded
and highly challenging form of exercise and health maintenance would
greatly expand its public appeal and value.
Other qualities had
to be learned before Funakoshi could become a successful pioneer. He
gained a great sense of humility and modesty from Azato and Itosu. "If
they taught me nothing else, I would have profited by the example they
set of humility and modesty in all dealings with their fellow human
beings." These qualities were clearly evident when, struggling to make a
living upon arrival in Japan, Funakoshi swept the floors and grounds of
the Meisei Juku.
The quality of
humility was fostered by his two primary instructors. As Funakoshi
stated, "Both Azato and his good friend Itosu shared at least one
quality of greatness: they suffered from no petty jealousy of other
masters. They would present me to the teachers of their acquaintance,
urging me to learn from each the technique at which he excelled." All
indications are that this demonstration of humility and respect made a
life-long impression on young Funakoshi.
He learned valuable
diplomacy skills as a young school teacher. As an example, he was asked
to mediate a dispute involving two different factions by the village of
Shaka. The issue was political and stemmed from Meiji reforms. Tact and
intelligent arbitration was required to resolve a vexing situation.
Also, his wife became known throughout their Okinawan neighborhood as a
skillful mediator. When the neighbors grew quarrelsome, it was often
Funakoshi's wife who interceded on behalf of reason and peace. He had
great respect for his wife and probably learned from her diplomatic
Because of his study
with the other prominent karate masters of the day, his integrity and
fairness, and his respected position as an educator, Funakoshi evolved
into the primary Okinawan karate "public relations" spokesman. He
represented a unique blend of well-rounded physical expertise,
intelligence, foresight, and conviction. He was articulate, sensitive to
tradition and propriety, appropriately humble, and conveyed a sense of
balance. Funakoshi felt the pull of Japan and found a nation fertile
with eagerness for a martial art with the depth of challenge that
karate-do represented. This is surely part of the reason Funakoshi had
difficulty ever leaving Japan to return to his family in Okinawa.
The Meiji Period
represented a time of great social change in Japan and consequently
Okinawa. With the covert aspect of karate practice no longer necessary,
it was soon perceived that karate had much to offer to a rapidly
changing society. Karate underwent a profound change -- it evolved from
merely a fighting art to an art which improves the character of its
practitioners. This adaptation from a purely self-defense art to a
method of self-improvement was probably a response to the social changes
initiated by Meiji reforms.
described the new notion of karate in the following manner. "Karate is
not only the acquisition of certain defensive skills, but also the
mastering of the art of being a good and honest member of society." This
statement indicates the importance of self-improvement and contribution
to a better society. No longer could "good" karate be defined simply as
a fast punch or powerful kick. Qualities of character were also now a
part of the equation. This concept is captured concisely by Funakoshi's
statement that "Karate begins and ends with courtesy."
the task of primary spokesman for Okinawan karate with the capability of
a seasoned diplomat. He expertly guided karate through a transition from
a clandestine, provincial, feudal period, fighting system to a modern,
widely-practiced member of the Japanese martial arts. His efforts and
foresight provided the foundation for the wide appeal and eventual
internationalization of modern karate.
The importance of
Master Funakoshi's accomplishments and contributions cannot be
understated. Rather, events such as described below seem to poignantly
capture Funakoshi's sense of achievement.
"I still vividly
recall every single moment of that day when I, with half a dozen of my
students, performed karate kata in the imperial presence. The
impoverished Okinawan youth who used to walk miles every night to his
teacher's house could hardly have foreseen, even in his dreams, such a
high point in his karate career."
At the end of his
life, Funakoshi remembered this event as significant. Events such as
this came to signify the emergence of karate as a traditional Japanese
martial art. Events such as this also signify the pioneering role that
Master Funakoshi so expertly performed.