Senshin: The Enlightened Mind

Martial Arts Blog

normrobitza On March - 27 - 2013

Master Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of modern karate-do.funakoshiportrait

Born in 1868 in Shuri, then the capital city of Okinawa, Gichin Funakoshi would become the man who popularized karate in Japan and eventually around the World. He started training when he was in primary school but his mission to spread karate outside of Okinawa did not begin until he was 53 years old.

Funakoshi was born into a family of scholars. His grandfather was the tutor for the daughters of the village governor. He was given a small estate and a “privileged family” status in return. It was all be squandered away by Funakoshi’s father who was a heavy drinker. When Funakoshi was growing up there was little luxury left.

Funakoshi was a sickly and weak boy. When he started primary school, he was in the same class as the son of Yasutsune Azato, a renowned karate master. Azato has served as a military chief for the king of the Ryukyu Islands. Funakoshi began training with Azato late at night because of teaching and practicing karate was forbidden.

Azato and his friend Yasutsune Itosu, who also served the Ryukyu Island king, taught shuri-te, Chinese classical literature and poetry to Funakoshi. He would study under these two men from this point until he left for Tokyo in 1921. He would also spent some time studying with Itosu’s master, the founder of shuri-te, the legendary “Bushi” Sokon Matsumura.

In 1888, at the age of 21, Funakoshi took a job as an assistant school teacher. He also got married around this same time. On a salary that would have amounted to roughly three dollars a month, he was supporting his wife, his parents and his grandparents. Funakoshi and his wife both shared a love of karate and she encouraged Funakoshi to continue practicing. During the day, his wife worked in the fields and wove fabrics at night to help with the family’s financial situation.

In 1901, practicing karate was legalized in Okinawa. Soon it would become mandatory in middle school to take karate classes. Funakoshi at the age of 33, began formally teaching karate at this time with the permission of Azato and Itosu.

Funakoshi hated fighting and felt is was more honorable to avoid a fight than to start one. This is something that he passed on to his students. Many other martial arts masters were going around starting fights to prove their strength. Funakoshi claimed that he only had to use karate once in his life during the World War II. A thief tried to attack him, Funakoshi side-stepped and grabbed the man in a precarious spot and held him there until a police constable came. Funakoshi felt much shame over not avoiding this confrontation.

Many future karate masters trained under Funakoshi. Mas Oyama, who created kyokushin karate, quit is training because he felt Funakoshi’s karate was “too slow”. He said it seemed more like a lesson in etiquette. Funakoshi wanted his karate to be more about discipline because he believed once it was used, even as a last resort, the situation would escalated to someone being seriously injured. This is based off of a teaching by Soken Matsumura, “When two tigers, one is bound to be hurt. The other will be dead.”

Funakoshi skills became so renowned in Okinawa that he was chosen to teach the reigning King of Okinawa. Funakoshi was the chairman of the Okinawa Martial Arts Association known as the Shobukai.

In May 1922, the Japan Education Ministry organized the 1st All Japan Athletic Exhibition of Ochanomizu in Tokyo. The ministry decided to include karate in the demonstrations . As the leading practitioner, Funakoshi was asked to lead the demonstration. He made the trip to Tokyo and thought he would only be there for a few days. The Japanese budomen were so impressed that they persuaded him to remain at teach karate.

Little did people know, this 51 year old, mild-mannered high school teacher from Okinawa would become the Modern Father of Karate. His teaching would eventually spread across the globe and he would influence generations of karate students.

Funakoshi would remain in Japan for the rest of his days. His wife stayed behind in Okinawa to care for the family. She understood his mission and supported his decision to further the growth of karate.

Funakoshi was not a flashy man. He never sought out legendary status. He was a poet and a school teacher who never left the Japanese islands. Though be never fought a bull or battled many men in combat he is one of the most honored men in martial arts history. His innovations have made their mark on the martial arts. He influenced the development not only of Shotokan karate but dozens of other styles as well.

In 1957 at the age of 88, Gichin Funakoshi passed away. He left a legacy that we still honor to this day.

For more information on Gichin Funakoshi, I recommend, Karate Do: My Way of Life. This book is a wonderful look at Funakoshi’s life. It helps you to understand the man that has become so important to the Martial Arts World.


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