Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.

The following article (the first of three parts) originally appeared in Dragon Times, Issue No. 3 (pages 6 - 7, 38) and is reprinted here with the permission of the author, Graham Noble. Photographs have been omitted. Copyright Graham Noble. All rights reserved.

See parts II and III of the article.

Master Funakoshi's Karate
The History and Development of the Empty Hand Art
Part I

by Graham Noble


GICHIN FUNAKOSHI's story has been told in earlier issues ('Fighting Arts' Nos. 33 and 34) but a second series of articles is now timely for a couple of reasons. First, because the broad sweep of the previous articles did not allow us to go into detail on certain points, such as the development of Funakoshi's karate, his views on kumite (sparring), etc., and second, because much new information has become available. There are several minor controversies about the history of Japanese Karate and I've tried to set these out as clearly as possible.

In any case, for the student of karate history, anything on Funakoshi is of interest. It has been a long journey from the old days of Okinawa-te to modern karate, yet Funakoshi bridged that gap in a way: he began learning karate when it was still an obscure, secret art, and died in the year of the first All Japan Championships, just as the art was about to enter into its worldwide expansion.

This series of articles is actually in two parts: in the first I go over various aspects of Gichin Funakoshi's karate, and in the second Harry Cook will give his detailed interpretation of 'Funakoshi's Twenty Precepts.' Karate history does not lend itself to systematic study, and for my half of this series I've relied heavily on contributions from fellow enthusiasts, so thanks to the following: lan McLaren, Prof. N. Karasawa, and Prof. Y. Shimizu for wading through pages of translation from the Japanese; Harry Cook, who supplied a lot of the original Japanese material; Sensei Mitsusuke Harada, who not onlygave me a copy of the 1935 "Karate-do Kyohan", but also has been of immense help with his personal recollections and clarification of many points; Henri Plee, Shingo Ohgami and Pat McCarthy for material from their collections; and the National Diet Library, Japan.

-- Graham Noble.

Master Funakoshi Comes to Japan

Until his early fifties Gichin Funakoshi laboured in obscurity as a schoolteacher in the provincial backwater of Okinawa. Then in 1922 he travelled to the Japanese mainland to give a demonstration of the little known art of karate, and thus perhaps only half consciously, set in motion the development of the art as a major Japanese and world wide Budo. That demonstration, The All Japan Athletic Exhibition held at Ochanomizu in Tokyo, was only scheduled for a week or so but after it ended Funakoshi stayed on, and as far as I'm aware, he never did return to Okinawa. The reason he gave was that numerous people had asked him to remain in Japan, but this contrasts with other accounts that we have, which indicate that the initial response to his karate instruction was only small. At any rate, for some time Funakoshi lived in a small room in the Meisojuku, a boarding home for Okinawan students, and to make ends meet he had to take odd jobs around the hostel, gardening, sweeping up, and helping in the kitchen. We can't be sure what decided Funakoshi to remain in Japan but evidently he had no wish to return home. It seems a little strange, but his wife never followed him to Tokyo, and he didn't see her again till 25 years later when she was evacuated to Japan during the battle of Okinawa. So all may not have been well there. Hironori Ohtsuka (a student of Master Funakoshi who was to found his own style of karate -- the Wado-ryu. Editor) heard a rumour that Funakoshi had money problems back in Okinawa, and that was why he never returned -- but that amounts to little more than gossip; from what we know of Funakoshi in Japan his conduct was always exemplary. Whatever lay behind it all I think that at 53 years of age Funakoshi may have seen a last chance to make a break with his old, flat Okinawan life and start afresh in Japan. And perhaps above all he had genuine desire to introduce "the noble art of karate" to Japan and see it developed as a major budo. Funakoshi sensei had actually made an earlier visit to Japan, giving a demonstration of the art in Kyoto in 1917. The circumstances surrounding this are obscure and I have never been able to pin down an accurate account. At any rate Funakoshi returned to Okinawa after a short visit, but from this time he probably had in the back of his mind the possibility of teaching karate in Japan. When Crown Prince Hirohito visited Okinawa in 1921, and a karate demonstration was given in his presence, Norikazu Kanna (the captain of the Prince's ship and an Okinawan himself) (known as Kenwa Kanna, Seinenkai Editor) suggested to Funakoshi that such a fine art should be introduced to the Japanese mainland. Funakoshi wrote to an acquaintance, Saburo Kinjo, and it may have been through Kinjo's help that he was invited to take part in the Ochanomizu Exhibition. Shortly after the Sports Festival, Funakoshi was asked to give a demonstration at the Kodokan Judo hall, before Jigoro Kano himself and his senior instructors. To assist him, he took along Shinken Gima, a twenty-five year old Okinawan living in Tokyo, who had studied karate under the famous Kentsu Yabu. The two karateka were expecting to demonstrate before a few judo instructors and were a little shocked to find an audience of two hundred and fifty awaiting their appearance. Funakoshi demonstrated his favourite 'Kushanku,' Gima performed 'Naihanchi,' and together they showed applications of karate technique. Gima recalled:

"When I arrived at the Kodokan with Funakoshi sensei not only were the seniors there to greet us but the Director, Jigoro Kano himself. More than 80 members of the Tomishinsoku Kodokan branch were there too, so there were over 200 people assembled for the demonstration. We were both overawed. It was natural we should feel nervous because the Kodokan was considered to be the mecca of Japanese budo."

"Kano sensei was eager to learn about karate and he asked such detailed questions that Funakoshi sensei sometimes had difficulty in answering them. I believe that because we demonstrated at the Kodokan, karate was more easily introduced into mainland Japan. In other words, the fact that Kano sensei recognized karate meant that in turn karate was recognized by the Japanese budo world."

" ... After that Funakoshi sensei and I displayed karate in public at the Hekkistukan Dojo of Yagyu-ryu and at Neihaido Taisojuku, and also at the home of the old Okinawan king in Tokyo. I remember that we also visited the house of Professor Shinjo Tomari of Keio University, who was also eager to learn about karate. Among those who supported us were Kano Sensei, Hiromachi Nakayama, the kendo master, Vice Admiral Yakuro Yashiro, and Baron Shimpei. This all happened in the Tokyo area."

When Hironori Ohtsuka, then an instructor of Shinto-Yoshin-ryu jujutsu visited the Meisojuku to learn about karate, he found Gichin Funakoshi living in a small, dark room near the entrance of the building. This was just after Funakoshi had settled in Japan and as yet he had no students. He paid a rent of 10 yen but found this a little difficult to manage. To help with the rent he carried out odd jobs around the building, distributing newspapers to the rooms, sorting the mail, and sometimes helping in the kitchen and garden. Shortly after this, around July 1922, Funakoshi began teaching his karate to a small group of students who had heard about him by word of mouth. For a dojo he was allowed to use the lecture hall of 20 tatami (mats) in the Meisojuku. His rent was put up to 15 yen because of this, so for a time at least he had to carry out his miscellaneous duties round the building. Shinken Gima was one of those early Meisojuku karateka and he remembered how makeshift things were at first. There were no karate uniforms, for example, and the trainees would simply take off their coats and jackets to begin practice.

Yasuhiro Konishi, who began karate training at the Meisojuku in 1923, wrote that Funakoshi taught daily for two hours, from 3 pm to 5 pm. The classes were small, from three to eight pupils at a time. "The training consisted only of the simple repetition of kata," Konishi recalled, "and viewed from today's perspective the method was really quite rudimentary."

Within a couple of years Funakoshi began teaching at other institutions and karate clubs were opened at several universities. This was an important step because the university clubs were a vital factor in the development of Japanese karate. The young student spirit gave an injection of fresh blood into the art and many of the top Japanese karateka came out of these clubs. Okinawan karate was introduced to a Japan which had a martial arts tradition of its own, a tradition moreover which was far more deep and extensive than Okinawa's. Karate soon came under the influence of Japanese ideas of budo and the range of the art began to expand. These modifications brought about a subtle change in the nature of the art and by the mid-1930s some of the senior masters back on Okinawa were saying that true karate no longer existed in Japan. Nevertheless, changes had to be made if karate was to become a major Japanese budo. Gichin Funakoshi was more forward-looking than most of his fellow Okinawans, and he was involved in many of the new developments, but I can't help feeling that sometimes things went a little too fast for him. When, near the end of his life, he wrote the preface to the second edition of 'Karate-do Kyohan,' his tone was of disappointment at the way post-war karate had turned out. Funakoshi sensei continued to teach into the 1930s, although by then he had trained several assistant instructors who ran the university and other clubs. The 1930s generation in fact, was the last to have direct experience of his teaching; his instruction after the war was only nominal. Toshio Kamata (Watanabe) who began studying karate in the 30s, recalled:

"When I began receiving instruction from Funakoshi sensei he had already turned 70 and his body was aged. Hence, without making rapid movements, he would execute a technique, giving pointers to his pupils. His movements were not particularly clean, or quick, but he was able to express precisely what was required. That is why we could sense clearly what the master was looking for."

By the mid 1930s Funakoshi had more or less retired from major teaching duties, which were passed on to his assistant instructors and, at the main Shotokan dojo to his son Yoshitaka. He would occasionally look over classes, but by this time he was around 70 years old and may have recognized that the development of Japanese karate which by this time was rather different from the form he had learned many years before in Okinawa -- should be left in younger hands. Throughout the war years karate teaching was disrupted by the constant turnover of students as they were called up for military service. Many fine karateka were lost in the conflict and then shortly after the Japanese surrender, Funakoshi's son Yoshitaka died too. It was a couple of years later before karate practice began again. Gichin Funakoshi was 80 years old by this time, and of course he could take little active role in the revival. Nevertheless, he was a potent symbol to his many students who rallied round him as a figurehead in the revival of the art . . . and he did do a little teaching. For example, he taught a class every Saturday at Waseda University. In the post-war period the various Shotokan groups tried to come together but that didn't work out and splits occurred within a couple of years. Each group went their separate way, but all looked back to Gichin Funakosh as their founding father. In his book on Budo, Master Nango wrote:

"Master Funakoshi left the Shotokan style of karate, but the curious thing is that no-one in this style has taken correctly the transmission of this technique, truly no one . . . By the end of Master Funakoshi's life, his students had already changed his techniques. His karate has therefore seen changed as if his own imprint had disappeared. All that remain are the name Shotokan, and the names which he gave to the old kata . . . "

"I can imagine the sadness he must have felt at the end of his life, in realising that almost all the techniques which he had tried to transmit for so long had been lost."

I give that quote for what it is worth. I am not quite sure myself what Nango is getting at and I think part of his argument rests on rather fine points of what constituted Funakoshi's view of karate. It would be true to say that today's Shotokan is rather different from the style shown in the first edition of Funakoshi's 'Karate-do Kyohan' (1935), but that is only to be expected; the world of artial arts has moved on since then. But, using the evidence of old books and photographs it is instructive to see just how things have developed.

2. The Origins of Funakoshi's Karate

It is well known that Gichin Funakosh learned "te" from Ankoh Azato and Ankoh Itosu. He wrote something about these masters in 'Karate-do lchiro' ('Karate-do, My Way of Life'), but he was not specific regarding dates, or what he learned from each master, and there is a minor historical puzzle here. In 'Karatedo Nyumon,' Funakoshi wrote that "without a doubt the greatest part of my knowledge of karate is based on the instruction that I received from Azato," yet it is difficult to identify Azato's influence anywhere in Funakoshi's kata. 'Naihanchi' and 'Pinan' were of course the basic teaching kata of Itosu's style, but most of Funakoshi's other kata such as 'Kushanku,' 'Passai,' 'Chinto,' 'Jion' and 'Jitte' -- follow the Itosu versions too. Azato's influence may come through occasionally in specific techniques or possibly in the general appearance of Funakoshi's style.

Funakoshi began learning karate when it was still taught secretly, perhaps around 1880. A few years later the art began to emerge from this secrecy but it still remained fairly difficult to obtain instruction in the kata. Generally speaking, karate experts knew only a few kata; according to Funakoshi himself, a great expert might know only four or five. As he wrote in 'Ryukyu Kempo Karate' (1922): "The old masters used to keep a narrow field but plough a deep furrow. Present day students have a broad field but only plough a shallow furrow." Genshin Hironishi says -- with what authority I don't know -- that Funakoshi's' karate practice involved the study of 100 kata, but that seems unlikely. When he settled in Japan he taught 15 kata, and by the standards of the day that was a fairly large number. There is a theory, however, that he picked up many of these kata only shortly before he moved to Japan, and consequently may have learned some only imperfectly. I first read this theory a few years ago in articles by Kenji Tokitsu, an excellent historian. Tokitsu 's researches suggested to him that Funakoshi had fully mastered only the three 'Naihanchi' kata and 'Kushanku' and had learned the others in a more superficial way to provide him with a larger teaching content when he went to Japan. He pointed out that Funakoshi did not come up through the Shihan Gakko at the time the 'Pinan' kata were introduced there, and retold an anecdote in which Kenwa Mabuni corrected Hironori Ohtsuka's 'Pinan' kata that Ohtsuka had learned from Funakoshi. Mitsusuke Harada told me that when he was living in Brazil in the 1950s he made the acquaintance of some expatriate Okinawans who practiced karate (a Shorin-ryu form). In their talks on karate he was a little surprised to hear them refer to Gichin Funakoshi as "Funakoshi-san" rather than "Funakoshi sensei." Harada demonstrated 'Empi' kata before the Okinawans but there was something about their reaction which he didn't understand; they didn't seem too sure about the Shotokan version of the kata. (This was Harada sensei's favourite kata and the one he had performed for his shodan grading). Later, one of the older Okinawans, about 70 years old, told Harada that there were several "errors" in the kata; it was not a true transmission of Itosu sensei's form. I am not sure what to make of all this. If Funakoshi's 'Empi' was different then yes, he may have learned the Itosu version imperfectly. On the other hand he may have made his own changes in the kata, or learned another version elsewhere.

In studying karate history you often come across conflicting information and there seems little way of resolving such problems. For instance, Gichin Funakosh wrote that he spent 10 years studying the three 'Naihanchi' and that was why he asked Gima to perform the kata at their Kodokan demonstration. In fact viewed in a historical context it may not mean a great deal. I think Funakoshi would have been fully familiar with the three 'Naihanchi' (at one time the basic kata of Itosu's system), 'Kushanku' (his favourite kata) and probably 'Passai,' which was one of the most widely practiced kata of Okinawan karate. I cannot judge his depth of knowledge in other kata but, for example, he would have been able to incorporate the 'Pinan' into his teaching fairly easily. In any case, if for his own practice he concentrated on only five or six kata, that would not have been unusual for an Okinawan karate expert. If he endeavoured to learn other kata to expand his teaching then that is to his credit. And if some of these were learned (slightly) imperfectly that only confirms the difficulty of learning kata in those days.

One other point to bear in mind is that in those early days kata were not standardised as they are now. Each expert was free to make his own modifications and in fact that is why the numerous variations of kata now exist. In few, if any, cases can we determine what was the original form of a kata. Mostly, Funakoshi's kata followed the orthodox forms but he did make some minor changes, often in an attempt to standardise his teaching. For example in 'Pinan Nidan' ('Heian Shodan') the final four knife hand blocks were originally performed at a lower level. Funakoshi changed these to middle level blocks, and he made a similar change to the three consecutive shuto-ukes in 'Passai.'

Judging from old photographs, Gichin Funakoshi's technique was in no way inferior to his contemporaries -- we shouldn't forget that he was one of the leading karate exponents in Okinawa. And in the final analysis his kata have not proved any less worthy than those of other styles; in fact the modern versions of his forms have become something of a standard in the karate world. Several people have pointed out that Funakoshi sensei only ever performed "Kushanku" at demonstrations. If so, this goes to show, not any lack of knowledge of other kata, but his genuine modesty: this was the only kata he felt he could perform to a high enough standard. Funakoshi once told Yasukiyo Takeda that he was concerned at how some of his students were rushing their practice and taking gradings too quickly. Rather than doing this, he said, he would like them to spend their time learning 'Heian Shodan' thoroughly.

3. Funakoshi's Books

Gichin Funakoshi wrote four books on karate technique: 'Ryukyu Kempo Karate,' 'Rentan Goshin Karate-jutsu' and the two editions of 'Karate-do Kyohan.' All are now collector's items. 'Ryukyu Kempo Karate' came out in 1922. That wasn't very long after Funakoshi settled in Tokyo so I imagine he must have been burning the midnight oil at the Meisojuku to get it ready for publication. It is a small book, just over 300 pages in all, and contains numerous forewords by important acquaintances of Funakoshi. It is primarily taken up by a description of his 15 kata, but although it is of great historical value -- as far as I know it is the first book published on the subject of karate -- its instructional value is limited by the use of rather crude drawings rather than photographs. That shortcoming was rectified in a revised version of the book published three years later (1925) entitled 'Rentan Goshin Karate-jutsu.' This is my own favourite of Funakoshi's books. Although not as complete as a work as the first edition of 'Karate Do Kyohan,' in my opinion Funakoshi' s kata are shown here in their best light. I think he looks more comfortable with his technique than he does in the 'Kyohan' of ten years later. This is probably not an opinion many people would take since his karate -- the karate as he first taught it in Japan -- is rather different in appearance from the modern Shotokan style. The Shotokan kata can been seen here in embryo, but the large emphatic technique of modern Shotokan is absent from Funakoshi's forms: his stances are higher, his techniques shorter, and the hip and leg movement not so pronounced as we see today. Nevertheless, as Henri Plee pointed out to me, there is a certain "quality" (qualite) in Funakoshi's kata, and his style as shown in this book has a naturalness and apparent ease of movement that I find pleasing. There is also a kind of modesty in is technique; that is, a lack of any desire (which we often see today) to impress onlookers. If anything, Funakoshi's 1925 style could be considered a form of Shorinryu. As I said his kata are early versions of the modern Shotokan forms, the main difference lying in the way the kata are performed. The modern kata are done in a more dynamic way, in deeper stances, with pronounced focus, and in a different tempo. The basic sequences of the kata have been changed little although there have been certain technical changes. For example side snap kicks have replaced the traditional front kicks to the side in 'Pinan 2' and '4' and 'Kushanku'; the elbow strike in 'Chinto' is now performed at upper rather than middle level, and so on. In 'Seisan' ('Hangetsu'), Funakoshi used a characteristic open hand formation -- index finger extended with the other fingers curled up -- that I have not seen duplicated elsewhere. His style was also somewhat looser than we see today. For instance, in 'Naihanchi' ('Tekki') stance Funakoshi's toes often stray slightly outwards, and in 'Seisan' his stance is much less formal than the modern Hangetsu dachi. The rigorous technical emphasis which marks the modern Shotokan was much less evident in this early period. As Yasuhiro Konishi said, from today's perspective the karate training of the 1920s was rather rudimentary. Apart from the brief explanation of a few throws, both Funakoshi's 1922 and 1925 books concentrated solely on kata. His next book, 'Karate-do Kyohan' was published in 1935 and it showed something of the development that had taken place in the previous ten years or so. The fifteen kata were again demonstrated but in addition the book included techniques of pre-arranged kumite and gave examples of self defence from a sitting position, against knife, sword, and staff, and for women. 'Karate-do Kyohan' is usually regarded as Gichin Funakoshi's masterwork. Funakoshi sensei himself poses for most of the photographs and consequently we can discern a subtle change in his kata since 'Rentan Goshin Karate-jutsu'. Although the techniques themselves remain unchanged, his stances are somewhat longer and his movements a little larger. He is beginning, in fact, to look a little like the recognisible Shotokan style. His kumite techniques are fairly basic but he includes some sequences which contain exchanges of blocks and attacks between the two partners. One noticeable thing about Funakoshi' s kumite techniques is that he usually grabs and twists the attacker's hand while delivering his counterattack. Mitsusuke Harada told me how surprisingly strong Funakoshi's grip remained even in his eighties, so apparently this was a basic feature of his kumite.

It was another 23 years before the second edition of 'Kyohan' was published. That was in 1958, the year after Funakoshi's death. Nonetheless, I imagine he did most of the work involved in the revision of the book. Because of Funakoshi's advanced age, the techniques in this edition were demonstrated by younger experts, primarily Shigeru Egami. By that time they were doing more or less the Shotokan style that we know today. The change from Gichin Funakoshi's original 1922 karate to modern Shotokan was a gradual process, but in many respects the style was there by the mid-1930s among some of the younger trainees. The change arose from several sources: Funakoshi himself, his son Yoshitaka and his associates, from a general infusion of new blood into the art and over the last three decades the contribution of the Japan Karate Association and its instructors. But if we go back a little to the 1935 edition of, "Karate-do Kyohan" it seems to me that Funakoshi sensei's personal karate did not go much beyond there, that is a karate based primarily on the practice of kata, augmented by yaku soku (prearranged) kumite and makiwara (striking board) practice. Funakoshi did not care for jiyu-kumite (free sparring) and even in that era he drew some criticism from other (Japanese) teachers for what they saw as his overemphasis on kata. Such teachers were familiar with the free-play of judo and kendo and felt that something of that sort should be introduced to karate. That was a new idea to Funakoshi and, because of long established habits of mind, something that he had difficulty coming to terms with.

Copyright Graham Noble. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.