If there is one man who could be credited with placing karate
in the position it enjoys on the Japanese mainland today, it
is Gichin Funakoshi. This Meijin (Master) was born in Shuri,
Okinawa, and didn't even begin his second life as harbinger
of official recognition for karate on mainland Japan until he
was fifty-three years old.
Funakoshi's story is very similar to that of many great in Karate.
He began as weak, sick, and in poor health, his parents brought
him to Yasutsune Itosu for his Karate training together with
Yasutsune Azato (Azato is considered by many the reason Funakoshi
developed such a disciplined mind and Karate Technique). Between
his doctor, Tokashiki, who prescribed herbal remedies that would
strengthen him, coupled with Azato's and Itosu's good instruction,
Funakoshi soon blossomed. He became a good student with Arakaki
Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura as his other teachers, he developed
expertise and a highly disciplined mind. Master Funakoshi recounts
this part in a different way, while living with his grandparents
he started attending primary school where he was classmate of
Azato's son and received his first Karate instruction from Yasutsune
When he finally came to Japan, from Okinawa, in 1922, he stayed
among his own people at the prefectural students' dormitory
at Suidobata, Tokyo. He lived in a small room beside the entrance
and would clean the dormitory during the day when the students
were in their classes and work errands as a gardener too. At
night, he would teach them karate.
After a short time, he had earned sufficient means to open his
first school in Meishojuku. Following this, his Shotokan in
Mejiro was opened and he finally had a place from which he sent
forth a variety of students, such as Takagi and Nakayama of
Nippon Karate Kyokai, Yoshida of Takudai, Obata of Keio, Shigeru
Egami from Waseda (his successor), Hironishi from Chuo, Noguchi
of Waseda, and Hironori Ohtsuka (Otsuka).
It is known that in his travels in and around Japan, while giving
demonstrations and lectures, Funakoshi always had Takeshi Shimoda,
Yoshitaka (his son), Egami and Ohtsuka accompanying him. His
main instructors in the thirties and forties were T. Shimoda
and Y. Funakoshi.
Shimoda was apparently an expert from the Nen-ryu Kendo School,
he also studied Ninjutsu, but he unluckily fell sick and died
very young in 1934, after one of the exhibition tours. He was
replaced by Gigo (Yoshitaka) Funakoshi, a man of excellent character,
highly qualified technically. Shigeru Egami's opinion is that
there was nobody better qualified for taking over the teaching.
Due to his youth and vigorous training methods (sometimes classified
as brutally-strong training) immediate hierarchical conflicts
arose with the older Ohtsuka Hironori. Some actually say he
was not able to take the hard training. What is clear is that
he left the school to establish his own style, Wado-ryu (the
Harmonious Way). It's quite obvious that the name alludes to
the conflict with Yoshitaka. Yoshitaka's influence was very
important for the future of Karate-do but once again death came
very soon for Yoshitaka, dying at age 39 of a lifelong affliction
(tuberculosis) in 1945.
The martial arts world in Japan, especially from the early Twenties
and up to the early Forties, was an ultra-nationalist moment
in history, and they looked down their noses at any art that
was not pure, calling it a pagan and savage art.
Funakoshi overcame this prejudice and finally gained formal
recognition of Karate as one of the Japanese martial arts by
Needless to say, many karate clubs flourished on mainland Japan.
In 1924, karate was introduced in Keio University as the first
Karate Club others include: Chuo, Waseda (1930), Hosei, Tokyo
University (1929) among others. Another club was established
in Shichi-Tokudo, a barracks situated in a corner of the palace
Funakoshi visited the Shichi-Tokudo every other day to teach.
One day, when Ohtsuka was teaching at the Shichi-Tokudo, a student,
Kogura, from Keio University who had a san-dan degree (3rd-degree
black belt) in kendo (Japanese fencing) and also a black belt
in karate, took a sword and faced Ohtsuka. All the other students
watched to see what would happen. They felt that no one could
face the shinken (open blade) held by a kendo expert. Ohtsuka
calmly watched Kogura and the moment he made a move with his
sword, Ohtsuka swept him off his feet. As this was unrehearsed,
it attested to his skill. It also bore out Funakoshi's philosophy
that kata practice was more than sufficient in times of need,
and just as importantly to Master Funakoshi's great ability
as a teacher and Karate technician.
In 1927, three men, Miki, Bo and Hirayama decided that kata
practice was not enough and tried to introduce Jiyu kumite (free-fighting).
They devised protective clothing and used kendo masks in their
matches in order to utilize full contact. Funakoshi heard about
these bouts and, when he could not discourage such attempts,
which he considered belittling to the art of karate, he stopped
visiting the Shichi-Tokudo. Neither Funakoshi nor Ohtsuka showed
up ever again. It was after this event that Gichin Funakoshi
prohibited sports sparring (the first competitions did not appear
until after his death in 1958).
When Funakoshi came to mainland Japan, he taught 16 kata: 5
pinan, 3 naihanchi, kushanku dai, kushanku sho, seisan, patsai,
wanshu, chinto, jutte and jion. He kept his students on the
basic ones before they progressed to the more advanced forms.
Actually at least 40 kata were included in the curriculum, these
were later included in the limited edition but monumental work
by Shigeru Egami "Karate-do for the Specialist". The repetitious
training that Master Funakoshi instituted paid back very well;
his students went on to produce the most precise, exact type
of karate taught anywhere.
Jigoro Kano, the founder of modern judo, once invited Funakoshi
and a friend, Makoto Gima, to perform at the Kodokan (then located
at Tomisaka). Approximately a hundred people watched the performance.
Gima, who had studied under Yabu Kentsu as a youth in Okinawa,
performed the Naihanchi shodan, and Funakoshi performed the
koshokun (kushanku dai).
Kano sensei watched the performance and asked Funakoshi about
the techniques involved. He was greatly impressed. He invited
Funakoshi and Gima to a tendon (fish and rice) dinner, during
which he sang and made jokes to put Funakoshi at ease.
Irrespective of his sincerity in teaching the art of true karate,
Funakoshi was not without his detractors. His critics scorned
his insistence on the kata and decried what they called "soft"
karate that wasted too much time. Funakoshi insisted on hito-kata
sanen (three years on one kata).
Funakoshi was a humble man. He preached and practiced an essential
humility. He did not preach the humility of virtue, but a basic
humility of a man who is rooted in the true perspective of things,
full of life and awareness. He lived at peace with himself and
with his fellow men.
Whenever the name of Gichin Funakoshi is mentioned, it brings
to mind the parable of "A Man of Tao (Do) and a Little Man".
As it is told, a student once asked, "What is the difference
between a man of Tao and a little man?" The sensei replies,
"It is simple. When the little man receives his first dan (degree
or rank), he can hardly wait to run home and shout at the top
of his voice to tell everyone that he has obtained his first
dan. Upon receiving his second dan, he will climb to the rooftops
and shout to the people. Upon receiving his third dan, he will
jump in his automobile and parade through town blowing the horn,
telling one and all about his third dan".
The sensei continues, "When the man of Tao receives his first
dan, he will bow his head in gratitude. Upon receiving his second
dan, he will bow his head and his shoulders. Upon receiving
his third dan, he will bow at the waist and quietly walk alongside
the wall so that people will not see him or notice him".
Funakoshi was a man of Tao. He placed no emphasis whatsoever
on competitions, record breaking or championships. He placed
emphasis on individual self-perfection. He believed in the common
decency and respect that one human being owes another. He was
the master of masters.
He died in 1957 at age 89, after humbly making the largest contribution
to the art of Karate-Do.
Funakoshi sincerely believed it would take a lifetime to master
a handful of kata and that sixteen would be enough. He chose
the kata which were best suited for physical stress and self-defense,
stubbornly clinging to his belief that karate was an art rather
than a sport. To him, kata was karate.