Gichin Funakoshi

Gichin Funakoshi – The Father of Modern Karate-do

Gichin Funakoshi was born in 1868 on the island of Okinawa in the capital city, Shuri. His family belonged to the shizoku (privileged) class and was attached to the house of a minor official. His social status, however, did not grant him an easy life. His father, an accomplished singer, dancer, and expert with the bo, was also a heavy drinker and spent the family money on wine and spirits, eventually selling even their house to buy liquor. Consequently, as Funakoshi was growing up his family always lived in a rented house.

Funakoshi was born prematurely and was not expected to live long since he was a sickly and frail child. Because of this, his family lavished much affection on him, especially his grandparents At an early age, he went to live with his mother’s parents, who instructed him in Wu Ching, the Five Chinese Classics of the Confusion tradition, as befitting the son of a samurai. Funakoshi’s family had great expectations of him and had his life gone as planned, he may never have become the great influence on Karate that he was.

When he was 19, he took the entrance exam for entry into a Tokyo medical school. So determined was he in his pursuit that he even falsified his birth certificate to show his year of birth as 1870, as the school would not accept students born before then. Funakoshi passed the exam but did not enter medical school; his plans were upset over the question of a haircut.

A barber prepares a topknot

Japan at the end of the 19th century was in social turmoil. The Japanese way of life had undergone little change since the 17th century when the shogun had expelled all foreigners from Japan. Japanese leaders wished to modernize the country and bring it into the 20th century with a more western influence. In their efforts to do so, they passed a number of edicts requiring the abolishment of some old customs. One of these edicts banned the practice of men wearing their hair in a topknot.

The topknot hairstyle for centuries had been worn by men of the privileged class as a sign of rank. To have one’s topknot cut off was a mark of dishonor, a punishment for those stripped of their rank and privilege. The government’s edicts abolishing the old customs immediately divided the country into two camps: those in favor of progress and those who wished to retain the old traditions. Those of the privileged classes largely belonged to the latter group.

As shizuko, Funakoshi’s family was in favor of retaining the old traditions, including the wearing of the topknot. It was that topknot that kept him from attending medical school. All schools were government-run, and anyone associated with the school had to conform to government regulations. To enter the medical school, Funakoshi would have had to cut off his topknot and that was something his family would not allow. So the issue of a few inches of hair changed his life’s direction and his dreams of a medical career were cut short (but not his hair).

Even though he did not enter medical school, his scores on the entrance exam had been good enough for him to have done so had his family allowed. This was not unexpected since he had been so rigorously schooled at his grandparents’ home. He also attended the primary school near his grandparents’ home and there became good friends with the son of Yasutsune Azato, one of Okinawa’s great karate masters and Funakoshi’s first karate teacher.

Constantly in poor health as a child, it was suggested that Funakoshi might strengthen his body through the practice of karate. Initially, karate did not interest him much, but as the years passed and his health improved, he became a strong devotee of the art. Practicing karate at the time required dedication, as its practice was still banned and instruction could only be done in secret. Master Azato lived some distance from Funakoshi’s grandparents, but nightly, the young Funakoshi made the trek to practice in the master’s backyard.

In addition to his skills at karate, Master Azato was also an accomplished scholar. The many scholarly influences in Funakoshi’s life eventually led him to decide on what was to be a 30-year career. At the age of 21, Funakoshi entered the ranks of professional teachers and took a position as a primary school teacher. This was a career choice that did not sit well with his parents, as the position required that Funakoshi cut off his traditional samurai topknot. Despite their anger, Funakoshi stuck with it and some 15 years later was rewarded with a promotion and transferred from his village to Naha.

He also stuck with his karate training, making the nightly trek across town to study with his mentor Master Yasutsune Azato, and sometimes also with Azato’s friend, Master Yasutsune Itosu. His training sessions would last late in the night, and in his memoirs, Funakoshi writes that his neighbors surely thought he was sneaking off to a brothel or some other den of iniquity each night.

Funakoshi, far left, with Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-ryu), seated, and Koyu Konishi, second from right.

After his transfer to Naha, he found even more time to train, studying under many great masters, including Master Kiyana, Master Toonno, Master Niigaki, and the renowned Master Matsumura. In addition to karate, Funakoshi also found these great men to be excellent teachers of strategy, philosophy, politics, and world affairs.

In 1921, a turning point in Funakoshi’s life occurred. A demonstration of ancient Japanese martial arts was to be held at the Woman’s Higher Normal School near Tokyo. He was asked by the Okinawan school authorities to represent the island and present the Okinawan art of karate. Funakoshi caught the interest of many of Japan’s great martial artists and was asked to stay put on demonstrations and classes. It would be many years before he set foot on Okinawa again.

When he first came to Japan from Okinawa in 1922, he stayed among his own people at the prefecture student’s dormitory at Suidobata, Tokyo. He lived in a small room alongside the entrance and would clean the dormitory during the day when the students were in their classes. At night, he would teach them karate.

Funakoshi, far left, with Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-ryu), seated, and Koyu Konishi, second from right.

After a short time, he had earned sufficient means to open his first school in Meishojuku. Following this, his Shotokan Dojo in Mejiro was opened and he finally had a place from which he sent forth a variety of outstanding students, such as Takagi and Nakayama of Nippon Karate Kyokai, Yoshida of Takudai, Obata of Keio, Noguchi of Waseda, and Otsuka, the founder of Wado-Ryu karate. It is said that in his travels in and around Japan, while giving demonstrations and lectures, Funakoshi always had Otsuka accompany him.

Master Funakoshi (right) blocks a stick attack with a sai. Tokyo University Karate Club, ca. 1930

Many karate clubs flourished on mainland Japan. In 1926, karate was introduced in Tokyo University. Three years later, karate was formally organized on a club level by three students: Matsuda Katsuichi, Himotsu Kazumi, and Nakachi K. Funakoshi was their teacher. He also organized karate clubs in Keio University and in the Shichi-Tokudo, a barracks situated in a corner of the palace grounds.

Funakoshi visited the Shichi-Tokudo every other day to teach and was always accompanied by Otsuka, reputed to be one of the most brilliant of his students in Japan proper.

Otsuka’s favorite kata was the Naihanchi, which he performed before the royalty of Japan with another outstanding student named Oshima, who performed the Pinan kata (Heian).

One day, when Otsuka 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 Otsuka. 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.

Otsuka calmly watched Kogura and the moment he made a move with his sword, Otsuka swept him off his feet. As this was unrehearsed, it attested to the skill of Otsuka. It also bore out Funakoshi’s philosophy that kata practice was more than sufficient in times of need.

In 1927, three men, Miki, Bo and Hirayama decided that kata practice was not enough and tried to introduce jiyukumite (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 at what he considered belittling to the art of karate, he stopped coming to the Shichi-Tokudo. Both Funakoshi and his top student, Otsuka, never showed their faces there again.

Master Funakoshi leads his students through Heian Nidan. Tokyo University Karate Club, ca. 1930

When Funakoshi came to mainland Japan, he brought 16 kata with him: 5 pinan (heian), 3 naihanchi (tekki), kushanku dai (kanku dai), kushanku sho (kanku sho), seisan (hangetsu), patsai (bassai), wanshu (empi), chinto (gankaku), jitte and jion. He kept his students on the basic katas before they progressed to the more advanced forms. The repetitious training that he instituted paid dividends; 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. Gim, who had studied under Yabu Kentsu as a youth in Okinawa, performed the naihanshi shodan, and Funakoshi performed the koshokun (kushanku dai).

Kanso 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 believed in and practiced an essential humility. He went through life rooted in the true perspective of things, full of life and awareness. He lived at peace with himself and with his fellow men.

Master Funakoshi

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 made 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 with horns blowing, 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 to 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 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 owed to another. He was the master of masters.

Sources: Karate-Do, My Way of Life, by Gichin Funakoshi, and “The Weaponless Warriors” by R. Kim.