Karate History

Gichin Funakoshi The Founder Of Shotokan Karate

Funakoshi was born in 1868 in Shuri, then the capital city of the island of Okinawa. He started practicing Karate while in primary school but didn’t begin his mission of spreading it to the outside world until he was 53.
Funakoshi was born into a well-to-do family of scholars in Shuri, Okinawa, in 1868. His grandfather had been a tutor for the daughters of the village governor, and had been given a small estate and “privileged family” status in return. Gichin’s father, however, was a heavy drinker, and squandered most of the family’s wealth, so young Funakoshi grew up in a home that could provide very few luxuries.

As a teenager, Funakoshi was sickly and weak. Fortunately, when he finally started primary school, he happened to be in the same class as the son of Yasutsune Azato, a renowned Karate master who had served as a military chief for the king of the Ryukyu Islands. Azato took Funakoshi on as his only student, teaching him late at night because of laws which forbid the teaching or practicing of Karate.
It was from Azato and Azato’s close friend Yasutsune Itosu that Funakoshi learned most of his martial arts. From childhood until he left for Tokyo in 1921, Funakoshi studied diligently from these two masters, learning not only shuri-te Karate, but Chinese classical literature and poetry. He also spent a short time studying under Itosu’s master, shuri-te founder Sokon Matsumura.

Funakoshi took a job as an assistant school teacher in 1888 at the age of 21, and also took a wife about the same time. He supported his wife, his parents and his grandparents on a salary of about three dollars a month. His wife, also Karate adept, encouraged Funakoshi to continue practicing. In addition, she took a job working in the fields during the day and then wove fabrics at night to help make ends meet.
In 1901, Karate practice was legalized in Okinawa, and its study became mandatory in middle schools. Securing permission from Azato and Itosu, Funakoshi announced that he would begin formally teaching Karate. He was 33 years old.

There are many stories about Funakoshi’s exploits as a youth. One thing is certain: he found more honour in avoiding a fight than in starting one, and he believed there was more courage in fleeing a confrontation than in defeating an enemy. He claimed to have only used his Karate against another person one time, during World War II. A thief tried to attack him, but Funakoshi stepped out of the way and grabbed the man’s testicles. He held the man in that position until a constable passed by. Although Funakoshi had not started the altercation, he later revealed that he always felt shame about that day because he had not avoided the confrontation.

It was that “true spirit of Karate” that Funakoshi spent his entire life trying to achieve. Mas Oyama, who later created kyoku shinkai Karate, once trained under Funakoshi, but quit because Funakoshi’s Karate was “too slow” and seemed more like a lesson in etiquette and discipline. But this was how Funakoshi wanted it. He taught that Karate should not be used for self defense-even as a last resort-because once Karate was used, the conflict became a matter of life or death, and somebody was going to get injured. Funakoshi always remembered the proverb Soken Matsumura taught him: “When two tigers fight, one is bound to be hurt. The other will be dead.”

Funakoshi became so skillful at Karate that he was chosen to teach it to the reigning King of Okinawa. Before Funakoshi left the island, he had already risen to the position of chairman of Shobukai, the martial arts association of Okinawa.
In May 1922, the Japan Education Ministry organized the first All Japan Athletic Exhibition of Ochanomizu in Tokyo. Wanting the event to be as comprehensive as possible, the ministry decided to include Karate. As the province’s leading practitioner, Funakoshi was the obvious choice. The Japanese budomen, tremendously impressed by Karate, immediately set out to persuade Funakoshi to stay and teach the dynamic martial art to Japanese youth. He accepted the project with vigor, because he harbored a secret desire to see Karate proliferate as kendo and judo had.

At age 89, Funakoshi died in his sleep, leaving behind a legacy so huge that its shadow stretched from the shores of tiny Okinawa across the Pacific Ocean to the United States. Funakoshi took little credit for Karate’s immense popularity, but few denied that he had almost single-handedly brought the art to Japan and subsequently sent it overseas.
Funakoshi concentrated almost entirely on teaching kata. He brought 15 kata compiled from various styles, and developed some himself. Although he taught a little kumite, his approach to Karate was based on the following precept: “Once you have completely mastered kata, then you can adapt it to kumite.”

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