GICHIN FUNAKOSHI, MORE THAN A GREAT MASTER
A Modern Pioneer in the Martial Arts
By Bruce D. Green,
Japan Karate Association of Boulder
Martial Arts Books By Gichin Funakoshi
Modern Pioneer in the Martial Arts . Stirrings
A 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.
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.
Because Funakoshi 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
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
A Period of
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 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
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!
Funakoshi's 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
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 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.
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
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."
Funakoshi performed 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
"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
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6. Nakayama, M., Dynamic Karate
7. Nishiyama, H., Karate: The Art of Empty Hand Fighting
8. Okazaki, T., Textbook of Modern Karate
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11. Turnbull, S., The Book of the Samurai
© 1992, Bruce D. Green, Japan Karate Association of Boulder,
4373 Apple Ct., Boulder, CO 80301 tel: 303/442-3289