A History of Karate Part 2

Updated: Dec 21, 2021

A History of Karate (part two) is the continuing article from Sensei Dan Young and gives some good background information on the history of our martial art form. Part 1 is available here.


Part Two: Sensei Funakoshi, his teachers and the Meiji Period

As seen in part one in this series of articles regarding the history of karate, our Art goes back many, many years. At the end of the previous article it ended with a paragraph which said, that in 1868 Sensei Gichin Funakoshi was born as was the Meiji Period. In this article I will be looking at not only Sensei Funakoshi but, also his teachers - Azato and Itosu Sensei’s and another period in Japanese history, the Meiji Period.


Sensei Azato Anko (1827-1906): Sensei Azato was trained by the great Sokon Matsumura Sensei as was Sensei Itosu, they were Bushi (warrior) brothers and respected as such. During his youth Azato was referred to as a “child prodigy” because he excelled in the fighting traditions as well as literary studies. Okinawan karate was described a pursuit of the peasants but, Azato was one of the Shizoku, one of the upper classes in Okinawa. The lower classes were called Daimyo. To be more precise Azato was one of the Tonichi, who were the hereditary chiefs of towns and villages, ranking below the Udon. He lived in the Azato village which was between Naha and Shuri, he studied Shuri-te.

As mentioned Azato was trained by Matsumura, who was a very strict instructor. During these times Azato was studying Chinese classics, this was considered to be essential for those of the Shizoku, and he particularly enjoyed Sun Tsu’s ‘Art of War.’ Azato did not only practice karate, he also studied Bajutsu (horse riding) which he studied under Sensei Megata, Tuitejutsu and Tegumi (wrestling), Jigenryu (sword fighting/kendo) under the instruction of Ishuin Yashichiro and like his teacher, Matsumura, he studied archery, his teacher was Sekiguchi. Despite all these martial arts, it was the art of Jigenryu that Azato favoured.

Azato was a very successful politician; he held the position of Minister of State in Okinawa as well as being an advisor to the king of Okinawa especially on military matters.


Sensei Funakoshi met Azato through his son, who he was friends with at school. Funakoshi trained at Azato’s house at night and in secret as the ban on martial arts was still in place. Despite Funakoshi being a sickly child his health improved in his first two years of training. The training at the time consisted mainly of kata, which Sensei Funakoshi was drilled in unmercifully. He would practice one kata for months before moving on to another, during his training Azato would watch and after the class theorize on the essence of karate. Azato maintained a dojo at his house which was made up of hanging and standing makiwara, a wooden Chinese dummy and many other things. His close friend Sensei Itosu would also watch Funakoshi’s lessons.


Azato and Itosu developed the kata that were taught to them by Matsumura among these kata were Bassai, Kushanku, Jion, Hangetsu, Wankan and Chinte. It is said that they devised the final two Tekki kata, Bassai Dai and Sho, Kanku Dai and Sho, Jion and Jitte. Itosu is credited with devising the five Heian kata from Kanku Dai, Meikyo and the Gojushiho kata.


Sensei Azato had very few students, Sensei Gichin Funakoshi, Masayoshi Hisataka and Chogo Ogusuku. He even gave his son to Itosu to be trained in karate and is often referred to as the “master in the shadow.” He also collected information about other schools of Okinawan karate and had records on the strengths and weaknesses of them.


Sensei Itosu Anko (1830-1916): Like his good friend he was born to a prominent family in Shuri, Okinawa and studied Shuri-te under Matsumura as well as training under Gusukuma Sensei of Tomari. Prior to this however he trained under Chikudon Peichin. He became a clerk for the Ryukyu government and it was through Azato he would rise to a position of prominence in the Ryukyu governmental administration. Like Azato he was well educated in the Chinese and Japanese classics as well as calligraphy.


Itosu was known throughout Okinawa for wrestling a charging bull to the ground. He trained his body to take repeated blows and it is told that he got his students to strike him whilst he sipped drinks showing no signs of pain.


In early 1900 he was one of the first karate masters to do a demonstration in Okinawa.


Sensei Itosu was instrumental in getting karate introduced into the Okinawan schools. It was because of this he devised the Heian kata as the Kanku kata was too advanced for the beginners. The karate taught in schools was watered down with the intention of them moving on to learn the true art of karate later in life. In 1901 he introduced To-De into Okinawa Dai Ichi Junior High School and Okinawa Teachers Junior College. This was a major step in the expansion of martial arts as before this To-De was still considered a secret and paved the way for the availability of all martial arts to the general public. After the abolition of the Okinawan monarchy Itosu himself became a school teacher.


In 1908 Itosu sent a letter to the Prefectural Educational Department which led to karate being introduced into all Okinawan schools. This letter also went to the Ministry of War. In this letter was the Tode Jukun (The Ten Precepts of Karate) it was also during this year that he realised it was time for karate to expand beyond the shores of Okinawa, to Japan.

The Tode Jukun (http://www.physicalarts.com/knowledge/general-interest/281-the-10-precepts-of-anko-itosu)

1. Karate is not merely practiced for your own benefit; it can be used to protect one's family or master. It is not intended to be used against a single assailant but instead as a way of avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one by any chance be confronted by a villain or ruffian.

2. The purpose of karate is to make the muscles and bones hard as rock and to use the hands and legs as spears. If children were to begin training naturally in military prowess while in elementary school, then they would be well suited for military service. Remember the words attributed to the Duke of Wellington after he defeated Napoleon, “Today's battle was won on the playing fields of our schools”.

3. Karate cannot be quickly learned. Like a slow moving bull, it eventually travels a thousand leagues. If one trains diligently for one or two hours every day, then in three or four year’s one will see a change in physique. Those who train in this fashion will discover the deeper principles of karate.

4. In karate, training of the hands and feet are important, so you should train thoroughly with a sheaf of straw (#). In order to do this, drop your shoulders, open your lungs, muster your strength, grip the floor with your feet, and concentrate your energy into your lower abdomen. Practice using each arm one to two hundred times each day.

5. When you practice the stances of karate, be sure to keep your back straight, lower your shoulders, put strength in your legs, stand firmly, and drop your energy into your lower abdomen.

6. Practice each of the techniques of karate repeatedly. Learn the explanations of every technique well, and decide when and in what manner to apply them when needed. Enter, counter, withdraw is the rule for torite.

7. You must decide if karate is for your health or to aid your duty.

8. When you train, do so as if on the battlefield. Your eyes should glare, shoulders drop, and body harden. You should always train with intensity and spirit as if actually facing the enemy, and in this way you will naturally be ready.

9. If you use up your strength to excess in karate training, this will cause you to lose the energy in your lower abdomen and will be harmful to your body. Your face and eyes will turn red. Be careful to control your training.

10. In the past, many masters of karate have enjoyed long lives. Karate aids in developing the bones and muscles. It helps the digestion as well as the circulation. If karate should be introduced, beginning in the elementary schools, then we will produce many men each capable of defeating ten assailants

After this, many demonstrations to the Japanese navy took place, with the most important happening in 1912 when Admiral Dewa visited. Karate must have appeared attractive for the development of young Japanese men in an imperialistic government.

In 1915 Sensei Itosu died but, his vision of karate reaching Japan was carried out by his student Sensei Gichin Funakoshi. Other notable students include Kenwa Mabuni Sensei, Chomo Hanashiro Sensei and Toyam Kanken Sensei. One of Sensei Itosu’s major contributions to the art of Karate was the belief that a person’s character was developed through concentrating on kata and the practice of bunkai.


The Meiji Period Like in the previous article it focused on the Heian Period to show where the term Heian comes from. The Heian Period occurred twice in Japanese history and was a time when Japan was a relatively peaceful place due to not being at war. In this article I will focus on the Meiji Period. As mentioned in my previous article the Meiji Period began in 1868 and it means “Enlightened Rule,” and was the transfer of power back to the emperor from the shoguns. It was during this period of time Japan went from being a medieval society to a leading economic and military power.


The Meiji Period signalled the end of the Tokugawa era, the emperor, Meiji moved from Kyoto to the new capital Tokyo. It was here that his power was restored. Political power was transferred from the Tokugawa Bakufu to a small group of nobles and former samurai. Meiji Japan aimed to bridge the gap with the western powers.


Tokugawa Japan had many boundaries between the social classes which were broken down over time. Throughout this period the samurai lost most of their privileges and human rights were established for example religious freedom in 1873. The feudal lords of Japan (the daimyo) had to give their land back to the emperor; this was achieved during the first two years of the Meiji Period.


The westernisation of Japan can be seen in the education system which was based on the French and later the Germans; it was during this time compulsory education was introduced. After between ten and twenty years there was a revival of nationalism with the principles of Shinto and Confucianism as well as the worship of the emperor becoming more emphasised and taught more often at schools etc. With the west being far more advanced than Japan in military terms, the Japanese sought to catch up. Conscription was introduced and an army likened to that of Prussia and a navy similar to the British was established.


Meiji Japan’s style of politics was based on that of Western Europe with there being a government, the emperor stood at the top of the army, navy, executive and legislative power. The political parties in Japan at the time did not have much due to the lack of unity among their membership.


Towards the end of the 1800s and early 1900s Japan was engaged in two wars; the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). Japan won both of these wars with the latter gaining Japan international respect as well as territory. The Russo-Japanese War was a result of a conflict of interests in Korea and Manchuria (North east China); as a result of this war Japan increased its influence in Korea before a complete annexation in 1910. The first war saw Japan receive Taiwan but, Russia along with other western countries forced Japan to return other territories. This caused Japan to intensify their rearmament.


These victories increased the sense of nationalism not just in Japan but, throughout Asia.


In 1912 the Meiji Period came to an end with the death of emperor Meiji and the ruling clique of elder statesmen was about to be concluded.






Sensei Gichin Funakoshi 1868-1957 The Father of Modern Karate Do

As mentioned previously Sensei Gichin Funakoshi was born in 1868 in Shuri, Okinawa. It was during his childhood Sensei Funakoshi began training, in a bid to improve his health, his main instructors as seen above were Sensei Itosu and Azato. He trained in Shorei through Azato and Shorin through Itosu, as well as training with many prominent karate-ka in Okinawa. It was because of this that Funakoshi became proficient in many styles of karate.


In Okinawa at the end of the 19th Century it was considered inappropriate for a father to teach his child (ren) karate because, it was feared that he would get emotionally involved and lack objectivity and detachment. It is known that Sensei Funakoshi’s sons Yoshihide, Geian and Yoshitaka-they were taught by Azato and Itosu (in the case of Yoshitaka it was Itosu), it is not known if Sensei Funakoshi’s daughter was trained in karate as women were not taught the fighting arts.


The commissioner of education, Shintaro Ogawa recommended to the Japanese Ministry for Education that karate should be introduced into the physical education programs at normal schools and the First Public High School of Okinawa Prefecture. In 1902 this recommendation was accepted, this led to a long relationship with the education ministry. Funakoshi recalled this as the first time karate was shown to the public.


A few years later Captain Yashiro visited Okinawa and watched a demonstration by Funakoshi to primary school children, he was so impressed that he ordered his crew to watch and learn karate. In 1912 the Imperial Navy’s First Fleet under the command of Admiral Dewa, visited Okinawa, about a dozen crew members stayed for a week to study karate. Dewa and Yashiro were responsible for the first military exposure to karate and took the word of this new Martial Art to Japan.


During 1914 and 1915 a group of people that included Funakoshi did many demonstrations throughout Okinawa, this would have been unheard of during the time when the martial arts ban was in place but, it was because of the efforts of this group, through talks and demonstrations that karate became known to the Okinawan public.


In 1916 Sensei Funakoshi went to the Japanese mainland and demonstrated karate to the Butokuden in Kyoto which at the time was the official centre for martial arts. On the 6th March 1921 the Crown-Prince who was later to become Emperor, went to Okinawa and asked Funakoshi to perform karate for him however, some say that it was Captain Kanna- an Okinawan by birth who recommended that prince observe a karate demonstration. It was at this time that Funakoshi resigned from his teaching post despite his resignation, Funakoshi maintained good relations with the education system.


Later in the spring of 1922 Funakoshi travelled to Tokyo, Japan to present his Art at the First National Athletic Exhibition in Japan organised by the Ministry for Education. It was after this that Funakoshi decided to remain in Japan to spread the word of karate which later became a part of the school curriculum. This event stimulated interest that he was asked to do further demonstrations and lectures on karate thus spreading the word of karate. Soon Funakoshi had soon established karate in universities, military academies and even business organisations.


When asked to do this demonstration Funakoshi was prompted to write a book by Hoan Kosugi, who was an artist. This book was forwarded by many important citizens such as Admiral Yashiro. Funakoshi wrote to his two instructors Azato and Itosu as well as many other friends and colleagues in Okinawa for information on karate do. The book was entitled Ryūkyū Kempo: Karate and had 5 chapters, “What is Karate,” “The Value of Karate,” “Karate Training and Teaching,” “The Organisation of Karate,” and “Fundamentals and Kata.”


Master Jigaro Kano, the father of modern judo, was instrumental in acknowledging karate as a valued Japanese martial art and in encouraging Funakoshi to stay in Japan. Even several sumo wrestlers became students of karate-do during this early period.


In 1957 Sensei Funakoshi died, after his death a rift grew between Sensei Funakoshi’s family and certain karate authorities. The Association of Shoto- Shotokai was formed by a group of individuals (universities) to satisfy Funakoshi’s funeral arrangements. At this point there was no difference in the ways that people trained in the Way of Shoto. In 1957 Shotokai was formed and after the funeral, it was decided to keep the Association although certain universities left. The 2 most influential people in Shotokai were Shigeru Egami (chief instructor) and Motonobu Hironishi; both were masters and former students of Waseda University. In the 1960s Shotokai developed in a different way to Shotokan- movements were more relaxed and free flowing.

To conclude this part of my series of articles, Sensei Funakoshi was instrumental in popularising and spreading the word of karate. He was a pioneer of karate who not just introduced the organisation of karate with; kihon, kumite and kata but, also emphasising the philosophical side of karate, karate dō. This can be seen from this quote, “Karate is not only the acquisition of certain defensive skills, but also the mastering of the art of being a good and honest member of society.” This means that contribution to society and self-improvement was of paramount importance. The qualities of karate were now a part of the equation! This is summarised perfectly in one of Sensei Funakoshi’s precepts: “Karate dō begins and ends with courtesy.”

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