The Introduction of Karate to Japan

Sensei Dan Young recently very kindly lent me the book Karate Jutsu: Kumite written by Motobi Choki (1870-1944).


The book only has 134 pages in it, with many are old grainy photographs, so is not the longest read and some of it may appear to some irrelevant, out of date. However there are some interesting passages in it. Reading it has prompted me to write this article.


Motobi Choki was introduced to Crown Prince Hirohito when he visited Okinawa in March 1921 at a karate demonstration by school students directed by Tonogashi Sensei. This was the first time he had seen karate and it impressed him greatly, for he could easily see the many benefits of its training and teachings. The Crown Prince’s brother, Lord Chichibu, witnessed another karate demonstration when making a visit to Okinawa whilst pausing on a voyage to England. Upon his return to Japan he furthered the interest of Karate on mainland Japan after discussions with his brother the emperor.


Motobi Choki writes that the essence of karate is born out of Okinawan Kenpo (Okinawa Te) also referred to later as 'Chinese Hand' which Funakoshi aptly renamed 'Empty Hand'. Even from these early days of karate, as we know it, the aims were to “forge the practitioner's body and mind in to something much stronger” whilst at the same time learning an exceptional way of learning self- defence and becoming healthier and fitter. He comments that there were many types of karate which come and go with trends, fashions, time and place as well as any particular instructor’s personal preferences. Some he mentions are Sanchin, Goju Shi Ho, Naihanchi, Chinte, Kushanku and Ro Hai. To the experienced karate-ka it is easy to see the links between these names of styles and the names of kata still practiced today although some have been renamed. The key essence of karate lives on, even though some may flourish longer than others, the basic principles of karate live on.


To be effective at karate we must have a mixture of softness and hardness the book tells us. This hasn’t changed; how many times have you, the student of karate, been asked to relax or to kimae correctly? This is epitomised by two different schools of art introduced to Okinawa from China, one being Shorin and the other Shorei. Shorin was developed for quick nimble movements (such as demonstrated in the kata Enpi) whereas Shorei was developed for strength, kimae and power (as demonstrated by Hangetsu Kata). Choki also tells us that one must bear in mind whilst training that mental spirit and practical training are like two wheels on a cart, both must be of equal strength.


The book then refers to Itosu Anko (1831-1915) and his ten articles and thoughts of Karate. He was one of Funakoshi’s instructors and later requested Funakoshi Gichin to go to mainland Japan to demonstrate and teach karate. To pave the way Itosu wrote to the Emperor and government explaining a little more of karate calling his letter 'The Ten Articles of Karate'.


In his introduction he states that Karate did not develop from Buddhism or Confucianism but refers to Shorin and Shorei stipulating that its teaching are also about moral values.


Article One:

Karate is not merely practiced for the benefit of health but also self-defence yet the practitioner must take a vow never to use it to harm another person.


Article Two:

The primary goal is to toughen the muscles and bones of a Karate-ka. This is best done if a student begins at a young age.


Article Three:

It is difficult to become adept quickly. It is like a slow moving bull taking a long journey.


Article Four:

Daily practice with a Makiwara is essential in toughening your hands, arms, legs and feet whilst improving the effectiveness of your technique. To use your hara correctly and to breathe correctly is essential.


Article Five:

It is important to have a correct stance with shoulders down standing firmly whilst training.


Article Six:

It is good to practice Kata, or sets of moves many times. However training in an unfocussed manor will not produce results.


Article Seven:

You should train with the objective of either training the body or the application of the technique, later they will be delivered in harmony.


Article Eight:

When training envisage going in to battle. The eyes should have intensity, the body relaxed ready to tense whilst springing in to action with full commitment.


Article Nine:

When training do not over exert yourself, nor apply incorrect breathing or power. This will only cause damage.


Article Ten:

Experienced Karate-ka are long lived as it develops muscles and bones and strengthens the digestive system and improves circulation. All this improves a practitioner’s life span.


Itosu Anko ends his proposal with his hopes that Karate should in the first instance be taught in high schools, bearing in mind his ten articles. Once sufficient students have graduated, after about ten years, they can then spread the teachings across all prefectures of Japan throughout elementary schools as well as high schools thus delivering a widespread growth across the whole country. He humbly concludes his letter with, “I hope you look favourably upon my proposal”.


We know from other studies that, following up on Itosu’s favourably-received letter, Funakoshi was requested to visit Japan in 1922 to give a public demonstration of karate and later that year founded the karate study group at which the first formal karate class was taught.