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.
Funskoshi 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 in to 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
it's 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
sometime 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 renown Master Matsumura. In
addition to karate, Funakoshi also found these great men to be
excellent teachers of strategy, philosophy, politics, and world
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 putting 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.
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
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
Master Funakoshi (right) blocks a stick attack with a
sai. Tokyo University Karate Club, ca. 1930
Funkoshi 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
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.
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.
Master Funakoshi leads his students through Heian
Nidan. Tokyo University Karate Club, ca. 1930
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 Fuankoshi 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. His 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.
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 believe 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.