Gichin Funakoshi – The “Father of Modern Karate”
There is much to be said about a man who managed to bring karate mainstream, especially in a time where the world was in turmoil. Gichin Funakoshi, was born shortly after the samurais no longer ruled Japan, but the spirit was still strong, and ever-present. He is seen by many as the “father of modern karate” due to the fact that his Shotokan Karate was one of the first styles to be popularized in Japan, and then, the whole world.
Gichin Funakoshi was born in 1868, the year where the Meji Restoration begun. In Japanese history, the Meji Restoration was a time of change, where the samurais were stripped of their power and Emperor Meji proceeded to modernize Japan and bring it in the 20th century. How did this shape the life of the young Gichin Funakoshi?
He was born in a low-rank samurai family, which meant that he was taught the samurai way of life. However, his family was discredited due to the fact that it didn’t agree with the changes that the Emperor Meji wanted to adopt. This, combined with the fact that his family was a samurai family, made the young Funokoshi ineligible to attend medical school, as he would have wanted.
However, as all samurai children, he was well schooled, being trained in Japanese philosophies and teachings, and classical Chinese, so, he became an assistant teacher in Okinawa, his home town. Nevertheless, from this to being the father of Shoto-kan, there’s quite a distance. So, how did these events led to the development of Shoto-Kan Karate?
The humble beginnings of Shotokan Karate
As already stated, Gichin Funakoshi was, after all, born in a samurai family, and historically, samurais were well educated, aristocrat warriors. Besides being well schooled, at a young age he started training in Shorei-ryu and Shori-ryu, two popular martial art styles at that time.
While being an assistant teacher in Okinawa, he developed a close relationship with the Azato family, and received karate lessons from Yasutsune Azato. Due to the fact that at that time, militarism was on the rise in Japan and martial arts were introduced in schools, Gichin Funakoshi started teaching his own style to children in elementary schools.
Gichin Funakoshi gave his first demonstration in 1906, and in 1912, he was elected president of the Okinawa Association for the Spirit of Martial Arts. This led to him being chosen to demonstrate Karate-jutsu to the Japanese navy, and then in 1917, he visited Japan to give a demonstration at the Butokuden. Shortly after, he returned in Okinawa and gave up his teaching job to start promoting karate-jutsu full time.
Due to the fact that his students were unable to pass on his teachings, Gichin Funakoshi moved to Japan. In 1922 we find Gichin Funakoshi living in Tokyo, in a small room besides the entrance of the student’s dormitory in Suidobata. During the day, he would earn his living cleaning the dormitory and working as a gardener and errand boy, and at night, he would teach the students karate.
His efforts to make karate popular finally paid off in 1930, when he established “Dai-nihon Karate-Do Kenkyuakai” association which promoted the exchange of information and communication between the karate-do practitioners. The association was renamed “Dai-nippon Karete-do Shoto-kai” in 1936 (this association exists even today under the name Shotokai.)
1939 was the year when the first official Shoto-Kan Dojo was built in Zoshigaya, and that’s when Shoto-Kan Karate started to gain popularity in Japan. And from that moment on, the popularity of Shoto-Kan Karate only grew, until it eventually became what it is today. And all of this thanks to the continuous efforts of Master Gichin Funakoshi.
Gichin Funakoshi’s heritage
Throughout his life, Gichin Funakoshi displayed a genuine desire to popularize karate, without any other material or spiritual expectations. His system, his teachings, had no name. He only referred to them as “karate”.
The name “Shoto-Kan” was developed by Gichin Funakoshi student’s who posted the sign “Shoto-Kan” at the entrance of the hall where he was teaching techniques. “Kan” means house or training hall while “Shoto” means “waving pines” and it was the name of Funakoshi’s pen (who was an avid poet and philosopher).
Throughout his life, Gichin Funakoshi was a very humble man. In his writings he preaches essential humility, which he also practiced. He preached humility not as a virtue, but as a basic humility of a man “who is rooted in the true perspective of things, full of life and awareness” (Richard Kim – http://www.shotokai.com/ingles/bios/funakos2.html).
He said that “the ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.”
His legacy is summed in the document that contains his philosophies on karate training known as “niju kun” or the “twenty principles”:
1 Never forget that karate begins and ends with respect.
2 There is no first attack in karate.
3 Karate fosters righteousness.
4 First know yourself and then know others.
5 Rather than physical technique, mental technique.
6 Let your mind roam freely.
7 Inattention and neglect causes misfortune.
8 Never think that karate is practiced only in the dojo.
9 Karate is a life-long pursuit.
10 Everything you encounter is an aspect of karate: find the marvelous truth there.
11 Karate is like boiling water: if you do not keep the flame high, it turns tepid.
12 Do not think about winning; think about not losing.
13 Respond in accordance to your opponent.
14 Wage the battle with natural strategy.
15 Regard your hands and feet as sharp swords.
16 Step out the door and you face 10,000 foes.
17 Learn various stances as a beginner but then rely on a natural posture.
18 The kata must always be practiced correctly: real combat is another matter.
19 Never forget your own strengths and weakness, the limitations of your body, and the
— relative quality of your techniques.
20 Continuously polish your mind.
Even if today the full curriculum of Shotokan Karate written by Shigeru Egami “Karate-Do For the Specialist” includes 40 katas, throughout his life, Gichin Funakoshi only taught 16 katas as he believed that it takes a lifetime to master a handful of katas, and 16 was more than enough and the 16 original katas were chosen specifically for physical stress and self defense.
As you’ve seen in this article, Master Gichin Funakoshi proved to be a truly humble man and a man whose only goal was the popularization of karate. He devoted his entire being and life to the achievement of his goal.
When he died, in 1957 at 89, he was already seen as one of the largest contributors to the development of Karate-Do. To this day, he is a figure who inspires respect, and who should be seen and taken as an example by all martial art practitioners, no matter what style they study.