Gichin Funakoshi, More than a Great Master
A Modern Pioneer in the Martial Arts
By Bruce D. Green,
Japan Karate Association of Boulder
Modern Pioneer in the Martial Arts . Stirrings
Period of Transition . Important
Summary . Bibliography
Modern Pioneer in the Martial Arts
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.
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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.
The clandestine 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.
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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 development.
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
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 public.
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 school system.
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 Japan!
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.
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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
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 qualities.
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.
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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.
Master Funakoshi 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.
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1. Funakoshi, G., Karate-Do Kyohan:
The Master Text
2. Funakoshi, G., Karate-Do: My Way
3. Haines, B., Karate: History and
4. Mattson, G., The Way of Karate
5. Musashi, M., A Book of Five Rings
6. Nakayama, M., Dynamic Karate
7. Nishiyama, H., Karate: The Art
of Empty Hand Fighting
8. Okazaki, T., Textbook of Modern
9. Random, M., The Martial Arts
10. Rielly, R., The History of American
11. Turnbull, S., The Book of the
© 1992, Bruce D. Green, Japan Karate
Association of Boulder,
4373 Apple Ct., Boulder, CO 80301 tel: 303/442-3289