The art of Karate would not have become what it is today without the work of Gichin Funakoshi. His work in bringing karate to the masses has helped it become one of the most practiced martial arts in the world.
This is the story of the creator of Karate, Grand Master Gichin Funakoshi. How he started practicing martial arts and how he developed Shotokan karate.
The beginnings of Gichin Funakoshi
Before becoming the father of modern karate, Funakoshi grew up on the island of Okinawa. His family descended from a line of samurai who were vassals of the nobles of the Ryukyu dynasty.
Because of this, Funakoshi’s family had instilled the importance of honoring one’s family, respecting them, and raising them. Qualities that will help him develop his own style of martial arts later.
Gichin Funakoshi’s first martial arts training
From an early age, Funakoshi began to learn various Japanese martial arts. In elementary school, he befriended the son of a Ryukyuan and Jigen-ryu karate master named Anko Asato.
Master Anko would become Funakoshi’s very first martial arts teacher at the age of eleven. He proved to be an exceptional student and quickly developed skills that would rival his master’s skills.
While learning under Asato, Gichin would also learn karate-jutsu under Itosu Anko. Funakoshi would also be an outstanding student under Itosu Anko.
The education of Gichin Funakoshi
While Funakoshi was striving as a young martial artist, he was also one of the top students in his class. Earn high marks in each class and later pass a medical school entrance exam.
Unfortunately, Funakoshi would not be allowed to attend due to the Meiji government’s ban on topknot hairstyles. A hairstyle that Funakoshi wore to honor his family and their samurai heritage.
Prejudice toward Okinawans by mainland Japanese also did not help Funakoshi’s case to enter medical school. He would decide to continue learning Japanese and Chinese philosophy instead of going to medical school.
The development of Shotokan Karate
Funakoshi would go on to develop his own form of karate which he would call “Shotokan Karate”. He was named after his pen name Shoto which means “waving pine” and Kan which means “training room/house”.
This is how he came up with the name Shotokan, which translates into English as “Shoto’s house”.
Characteristics of Shotokan Karate
The characteristics of Shotokan karate created by Funakoshi are divided into three parts. These are: kihon (basics), kata (pattern forms/movements) and kumite (combat).
In Shotokan karate, you hold a deep, long stance that allows you to have stability and balance. Having a stable base allows you to perform powerful moves that include various punches and strikes.
Like Muay Thai or Taekwondo, Shotokan Karate is a dynamic martial art. During training, you learn to throw fast and powerful techniques designed to neutralize your opponent.
While being able to move fluidly to make the techniques as natural as possible.
Gichin Funakoshi’s time as a teacher
Funakoshi was able to spread his martial art through his time as a teacher at the Okinawa Teachers’ School. He was also the chief president of the Okinawa Martial Arts Society.
Having these positions allowed Funakoshi to have influence within the schools of the island. Avidly pushing for his school to include a karate club.
His wish was granted and Gichin began to form a large group of students who learned with him. The success of this karate club would lead other schools in Okinawa to include their own clubs.
Gichin’s influence led to karate becoming quite popular in Okinawa. He then set his sights on his biggest challenge to get mainland Japan to accept karate.
The development of the Karate Gi
Gichin had developed a large following of students, but there was still work to be done. Getting mainlanders to accept karate would be difficult due to their prejudice against Okinawans.
One thing Funakoshi realized karate needed was its own official training uniform. His students trained in their regular classroom, which gave karate a disorganized and informal air.
This would lead Gichin to first adopt a Judo Gi in Karate Gi. A strong dress that can be used over and over without the clothes tearing or wearing out.
Judo Gis would be used for a short time until Funakoshi helped develop Karate Gis. A lighter cotton Gi that has been better designed for Karate moves.
The first public demonstration of karate in mainland Japan
In 1922, Funakoshi would have his first chance to show off his martial art in mainland Japan. The Ministry of Education sponsored the first-ever physical education exhibit.
Gichin would be asked to show what he then called Karate-jutsu at the Ministry for the first time. The demonstration went perfectly and helped Funakoshi become a well-known martial artist throughout Japan.
Gichin Funakoshi’s Karate Demonstration at the Kodokan
After the success of the first karate demonstration in mainland Japan, news of Funakoshi spread. One person intrigued by this martial art was the founder of judo, Jigoro Kano.
Master Kano would invite Funakoshi along with his student Gima Shinkin to the Shodokan. The main judo training headquarters, located in the heart of Tokyo, Japan.
It was the biggest opportunity of Funakoshi’s life and his big chance for Japan to accept karate. Funakoshi would even wear a Judo Gi during his demonstration
The Kotokan was packed to see the exhibit and it was a resounding success.
Master Kano approved the demonstration, as well as the Japanese media. This would lead to Funakoshi being pressured to stay in Tokyo and teach karate to mainlanders.
Gichin Funakoshi writes “Ryukyu Kempo Karate”
After being pressured to stay in Japan, Funakoshi took a teaching job in the city. He taught karate at the Meiseijuku, which was a dormitory for Okinawan college students.
While teaching, Funakoshi started writing his book “Ryukyu Kempo Karate”. A guideline on the teachings and philosophies of karate which was published in 1922.
It was so eloquently written by Gichin that it created the first karate boom across Japan. Everyone wanted to learn this new effective martial art.
Gichin Funakoshi created a Dan certification
To make karate more legitimate to the masses, Gichin would create a Dan certification system. In being the black belt levels of Karate. It would explain how to earn these ranks as well as the time it takes to achieve them.
Gichin Funakoshi changes the name of Karate
Originally, karate was called “Karate-jutsu” and the characters meant the Chinese words and assembled by hand. To be able to sell the martial art to the rest of Japan, Gichin would need to change the terms in it.
The term Kara+te would be changed to mean “empty hand” and Karate-jutsu changed to Karate-do. Changing the original meaning of “Chinese Hand Martial Art” to “The Way of Karate” or “The Way of the Empty Hand”.
He will also change the names of all the katas to Japanese terms and write “The Twenty Precepts of Karate”.
The creation of the Shotokan Dojo
By 1939, Funakoshi had traveled all over Japan teaching his martial art. He now had a growing number of students, but had no place to teach them.
This will lead him to build the first Shotokan Dojo in Tokyo. Funakoshi used his own funds to build this gigantic training center where he can teach.
For anyone in Japan who wanted to learn from Master Funakoshi, they could go to the Shotokan Dojo.
The Legacy of Gichin Funakoshi
Thanks to Gichin Funakoshi, the art of karate is now part of all schools and universities in Japan. Karate had become synonymous with the country of Japan, which people embraced.
Before his death, Funakoshi would not only fulfill his dream of spreading karate across Japan, but around the world. There are approximately 100 million karate practitioners in the world, this martial art being practiced on all continents.