Funakoshi-sensei is the man who introduced karate to Japan. In 1917 he was asked to perform his martial art at a physical education exhibition sponsored by the Ministry of Education. He was asked back again in 1922 for another exhibition. He was asked back a third time, but this was a special performance. He demonstrated his art for the emperor and the royal family! After this, Funakoshi-sensei decided to remain in Japan and teach and promote his art.
Funakoshi's story is very similar to that of many great in Karate. He began as weak, sick, and in poor health, his parents brought him to Yasutsune Itosu for his Karate training together with Yasutsune Azato. Between his doctor, Tokashiki, who prescribed herbal remedies that would strengthen him, coupled with Azato's and Itosu's good instruction, Funakoshi soon blossomed. He became a good student with Arakaki and Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura as his other teachers, he developed expertise and a highly disciplined mind. Master Funakoshi recounts this part in a different way, while living with his grandparents he started attending primary school where he was classmate of Azato's son and received his first Karate instruction from Yasutsune (Ankoh) Azato.
Gichin Funakosi was born in Shuri, Okinawa in 1868. As a boy, he was trained by two famous masters of that time. Each trained him in a different Okinawan martial art. From Yatasune Azato he learned Shuri-te. From Yatsune Itosu, he learned Naha-te. It would be the melding of these two styles that would one day become Shotokan karate.
When he finally came to Japan, from Okinawa, in 1922, he stayed among his own people at the prefectural students’ dormitory at Suidobata, Tokyo. He lived in a small room beside the entrance and would clean the dormitory during the day when the students were in their classes and work erands as a gardener too. 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 in Mejiro was opened and he finally had a place from which he sent forth a variety of students, such as Takagi and Nakayama of Nippon Karate Kyokai, Yoshida of Takudai, Obata of Keio, Shigeru Egami from Waseda (his successor), Hironishi from Chuo, Noguchi of Waseda, and Hironori Ohtsuka (Otsuka).
It is known that in his travels in and around Japan, while giving demonstrations and lectures, Funakoshi always had Takeshi Shimoda, Yoshitaka (his son), Egami and Ohtsuka accompanying him. His main instructors in the thirties and forties were T. Shimoda and Y. Funakoshi.
Shimoda was apparently an expert from the Nen-ryu Kendo School, he also studied Ninjutsu, but he unluckily fell sick and died very young in 1934, after one of the exhibition tours. He was replaced by Gigo (Yoshitaka) Funakoshi, a man of excellent character, highly qualified technically. Shigeru Egami’s opinion is that there was nobody better qualified for taking over the teaching. Due to his youth and vigorous training methods (sometimes classified as brutally-strong training) immediate heirarchical conflicts arose with the older Ohtsuka Hironori.
Some actually say he was not able to take the hard training. What is clear is that he left the school to establish his own style, Wado-ryu (the Harmonious Way). It’s quite obvious that the name alludes to the conflict with Yoshitaka. Yoshitaka’s influence was very important for the future of Karate-do but once again death came very soon for Yoshitaka, dying at age 39 of a lifelong affliction (tuberculosis) in 1945.
The martial arts world in Japan, especially from the early Twenties and up to the early Forties, was an ultra-nationalist moment in history, and they looked down their noses at any art that was not pure, calling it a pagan and savage art. Funakoshi overcame this prejudice and finally gained formal recognition of Karate as one of the Japanese martial arts by 1941.
Needless to say, many karate clubs flourished on mainland Japan. In 1924, karate was introduced in Keio University as the first Karate Club others include: Chuo, Waseda (1930), Hosei, Tokyo University (1929) among others. Another club was established in Shichi-Tokudo, a barracks situated in a corner of the palace grounds.
Funakoshi visited the Shichi-Tokudo every other day to teach. One day, when Ohtsuka 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 Ohtsuka. 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.
Ohtsuka calmly watched Kogura and the moment he made a move with his sword, Ohtsuka swept him off his feet. As this was unrehearsed, it attested to his skill. It also bore out Funakoshi’s philosophy that kata practice was more than sufficient in times of need, and just as importantly to Master Funakoshi’s great ability as a teacher and Karate technician.
In 1927, three men, Miki, Bo and Hirayama decided that kata practice was not enough and tried to introduce Jiyu kumite (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, which he considered belittling to the art of karate, he stopped visiting the Shichi-Tokudo. Neither Funakoshi nor Ohtsuka showed up ever again. It was after this event that Gichin Funakoshi prohibited sports sparring (the first competitions did not appear until after his death in 1958).
When Funakoshi came to mainland Japan, he taught 16 kata: 5 pinan, 3 naihanchi, kushanku dai, kushanku sho, seisan, patsai, wanshu, chinto, jutte and jion. He kept his students on the basic ones before they progressed to the more advanced forms. Actually at least 40 kata were included in the curriculum, these were later included in the limited edition but monumental work by Shigeru Egami “Karate-do for the Specialist”. The repetitious training that Master Funakoshi instituted paid back very well; his students went on to produce the most precise, exact type of karate taught anywhere.
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 preached and practiced an essential humility. He did not preach the humility of virtue, but a basic humility of a man who is rooted in the true perspective of things, full of life and awareness. He lived at peace with himself and with his fellow men.
He died in 1957 at age 89, after humbly making the largest contribution to the art of Karate-Do. Funakoshi sincerely believed it would take a lifetime to master a handful of kata and that sixteen would be enough. He chose the kata which were best suited for physical stress and self-defense, stubbornly clinging to his belief that karate was an art rather than a sport. To him, kata was karate.
Aside from creating Shotokan karate and introducing to Japan and the world, he also wrote the very book on the subject of karate, “Ryukyu Kempo: Karate-do”. He also wrote “Karate-Do Kyohan” - The Master Text, the “handbook” of Shotokan and he wrote his autobiography, “Karate-Do: My Way of Life”. These books and his art are a fitting legacy for this unassuming and gentle man.