Updated: Dec 21, 2021
The great karate master Gichin Funakoshi was the key pioneer in the development of modern karate. He introduced it to Japan . He himself was caught in the great wave of social change sweeping through Japan and its prefectures. His contributions include authoring several of the first publications describing the previously secret art of karate, strengthening the connection between character development and karate training, and the development of modern teaching methods. Master Funakoshi supported the realisation that karate would evolve from a provincial fighting system to a prominent member of the modern Japanese martial arts.
Funakoshi was born at the beginning of the Meiji Period (1868), a period of considerable change throughout Japan. Meiji means "Enlightened Rule" and with the reigns of power transferring from the Shogun back to the Emperor, modernisation and social change became the order of the day. Funakoshi reached adulthood during this volatile period, he had great opportunity to witness and consider the nature of change within society. By his actions, Master Azato, one of Funakoshi's primary teachers, demonstrated his insight regarding change during this period. Azato demonstrated his support for change by cutting his topknot off when they were first declared illegal.
The clandestine practice of karate persisted through the early years of Meiji. Karate was about to come out of the dark and into the light of day. It did not take long before many prominent and influential members of society took notice of karate though. Given the open minds of his two instructors, Azato and Itosu, Funakoshi was in an ideal position to appreciate the strong points of various styles and begin integrating them together. He had been exposed to the different styles of the two masters, Shorei through Azato and Shorin through Itosu.
In 1902 The commissioner of public schools strongly recommended in a report to the Japanese Ministry of Education that the physical education programs of the normal schools and the First Public High School of Okinawa Prefecture include karate as part of their training. To what extent did Funakoshi, due to his background and personal familiarity as a teacher within the Okinawa educational system, play a part in this development? It seems evident that due to his knowledge of karate and being qualified as a teacher, a great deal.
Some years later, Captain Yashiro visited Okinawa and saw a karate demonstration by Funakoshi's primary school pupils. He was so impressed that he issued orders for his crew to witness and learn karate. Then, in 1912, the Imperial Navy's First Fleet visited Okinawa . About a dozen members of the crew stayed for a week to study karate. During the years 1914 and 1915, a group of karateka gave many demonstrations throughout Okinawa. In 1921, the crown prince Hirohito visited Okinawa and observed a karate demonstration. This was a great honour for Funakoshi, who was in charge of the demonstration, and further established him as a prominent champion of Okinawan karate.
In late 1922 Funakoshi was invited to Japan to participate in a demonstration of ancient Japanese martial arts. In order to make the greatest impression, something more than a demonstration was called for. With significant assistance from Hoan Kosugi, the famous Japanese painter, Funakoshi published the first book pertaining to karate, Ryukyu Kempo: Karate.
Funakoshi's background as a teacher and phillosopher was helpful for presenting ideas in concise and systematic fashion. Funakoshi pioneered the organization of karate instruction into three fundamental categories of practice: kihon, kata, and kumite. In fact, practice of kumite was rather new and aroused great enthusiasm among the young university students. Competition between university karate clubs helped fuel the interest in kumite and the popularity of karate.
Master Jigoro 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. H. Nakayama, a great kendo instructor, offered Funakoshi the use of his dojo when not in use.
Later, the time came to construct Funakoshi's own dojo. About 1935, supporters and students had sufficient funds to construct the first karate dojo in Japan and in 1936 it was dedicated as the Shoto-kan. Taking its name from Funakoshi's home in Okinawa, the house of the waving Palm trees. In 1955 he set up the first ever karate Association which became known as The Japanese Karate association (JKA).
Funakoshi represented a unique blend of well-rounded physical expertise, intelligence, foresight, and conviction. He was articulate, sensitive to tradition and propriety, appropriately humble, and conveyed a sense of balance. Funakoshi felt the pull of Japan and found a nation fertile with eagerness for a martial art with the depth of challenge that karate-do represented. This is surely part of the reason Funakoshi had difficulty ever leaving Japan to return to his family in Okinawa. His wife was fully supportive of his role in the development of karate but never left her native Okinawa. Funakoshi the first modern karateka, grandfather to all karateka, died in 1957.
Memorial to Gichin Funakoshi O'Sensei