Master Funakoshi's KARATE
The most respected source of accurate Shotokan historical information, Shotokan Karate A Precise History suggests strongly that it was Yoshitaka (Giko) Funakoshi who moulded his father’s style of Okinawan karate into what we today call Shotokan.
There is a certain romance about Master Funakoshi’s third son, Yoshitaka (or Giko). The stories of his training, his early death, and the excellence of his technique evident from old photographs continue to exert their fascination. He is a favorite subject of mine, but trying to dig up details of his life is frustrating; for a variety of historical reasons he remains a neglected figure. The stories are that he began karate training as a child. Obviously, he must have learned the art from his father, yet he somehow developed his own intuitive way of performing techniques; “dynamic” is the word that springs to mind. Photographs of past karate experts usually appear old fashioned, yet Yoshitaka’s techniques look surprisingly modern. The development of his karate must have been given added impetus when his father passed on the major part of his teaching responsibilities in the 1930s.
I have previously written that it was Yoshitaka Funakoshi who developed modern Shotokan, but now I don’t think that is strictly correct. It is true, for example, that his stances were much deeper than his father’s, but to judge from early photographs there was a movement towards deeper stances a little before Yoshitaka. And the theory of Yoshitaka as the true originator of modern Shotokan does not explain the postwar development of the style by people such as Masatoshi Nakayama, Isao Obata, and Hidetaka Nishiyama who had never studied with him. Nevertheless, he was the most important figure in the style’s development in the prewar years. Gichin Funakoshi’s karate was the starting point but its “Shotokan-ness” needed to be brought out and strengthened. If we compare Yoshitaka’s technique with Gichin’s, specific differences are immediately apparent—Yoshitaka’s stances were much deeper and more rooted, and his whole body applied more in defence than attack. He used kicks in a much more vigorous way, and the delivery of attacks looks stronger.
All these elements are part of modern day Shotokan, but other parts of Yoshitaka’s karate are no longer practised. For example, his favorite stance of fudodachi (unmoveable stance) and his ‘Tenno-kata’ are rarely seen nowadays. Tenno-kata, Ji-no-kata, and Jin-no-kata, representing Heaven (Ten), Earth (Ji) and Man (Jin). I have never seen Ji-no-kata or Jin-no-kata and am not sure whether the series was ever completed. Shigeru Egami told Mitsusuke Harada that Yoshitaka had also created a “Shoto” kata. Unfortunately, Egami did not learn this kata thoroughly, and it may now be lost.
Harada sensei related a story he had been told by his seniors. Yoshitaka was sucked into an argument with some judoka who were the worse for drink. They set on him, but their mode of attack, reaching for a collar hold to apply their throwing technique, made them open targets for Yoshitaka’s powerful kicks and punches. Within a short time, he had knocked the judoka down. This event gave him great confidence in his technique. Yoshitaka taught at the Shotokan dojo till 1944 or ’45. By 1945 he was seriously ill and much of the teaching at that time was carried out by Genshin Hironishi. Occasionally, in the last couple of years or so, Yoshitaka would recover and take a class. During a class, Yoshitaka would instruct and supervise, not joining the training very much. Sometimes, at the end of the session, he would get a sempai (senior) up to spar. The sempai would attack, with Yoshitaka defending and using his open hands to cuff or push the opponent back. I get the impression that he would “play” with the attacker. Even so, some of these open handcuffs hurt and Shigeru Egami recalled his soreness after these sessions. A few modern experts such as Mitsuke Harada and Taiji Kase look back to Yoshitaka as a great karate expert. However, although his methods worked their way through Shotokan, he seems to have had few real students. I asked Harada sensei, who could be considered students of Yoshitaka. He thought there was Egami, Okuyuma, maybe Hironishi in the war period and then he began to run out of names. This is one reason why Yoshitaka has been neglected in the study of karate history. How good was he? This is something that cannot be answered, not only for Yoshitaka but for all the old karate masters.
Karate is not a competitive sport like boxing, where we have fighters’ full records, and, more often than not, films of their best-known bouts. There are no films of the old-time karate experts, often no photographs and written material is usually scanty or biased. For Yoshitaka we have the testimony of a few of his followers (often at second hand), and it is interesting, for example, to hear from Mitsusuke Harada that in kumite, “No one could block Yoshitaka’s punch.” As for the photographs, they are always excellent: his form looks attractive and strong and his stances as solid as a rock. There is just one fly in the ointment, dating back to a 1970s article by American writer Andy Adams on Gichin Funakoshi. Adams spoke to several contemporaries and students of Funakoshi, including Mas Oyama (the world leader and founder of Kyokushin-kai Karate) who trained at the Shotokan in the late 1930s. During a general criticism of Funakoshi’s karate, Oyama said: “Yoshitaka took 10 of his best kumite men to Osaka and fought with Goju men there. All lost. Even Funakoshi’s son was beaten in his match with Chil Soo. Everybody saw all the great Funakoshi men lose. . . After that Funakoshi’s son became a real karate fighter. Very strong. I like.” Several writers have latched on to these few sentences, speculating that it was this event--supposing it did happen the way Oyama described it--which precipitated the development of Yoshitaka’s “new” form of karate. I am not sure about that at all, and there may be a problem with dates. By his own account, Oyama began training at the Shotokan around 1938. Yet photographs dated 1936 and 1937 showed that Yoshitaka’s technique was fully formed by that time. The story also suggests that Goju karateka were more advanced in jiyu-kumite, which contrasts with something Mitsusuke Harada told me.
In his recollections of the kokan-geiko of the early post-war years, Harada sensei said that initially, Goju-ryu students had difficulty with the Shotokan karateka’s longer attacks and greater familiarity with jiyu-kumite. Of course, the story fascinated me too, and over the years, I asked many karateka if they knew of it. Some of these karateka were fairly senior Shotokan people, but (with one exception) no one could supply any information at all, and I began to doubt whether the contest ever happened. I suppose the Shotokan group might have tried to sweep it under the carpet, but I never got the impression that anyone was holding anything back.
The exception was Richard Kim, who replied to my inquiry with the version of the story he had heard: “Regarding your inquiry on Oyama’s account of a match between Funakoshi’s son and the Goju people. The story involves Nei-chu So, the highest-ranking Goju-kai sensei under Yamaguchi. There is no verification of the story, it depends on whose version you trust. “Nei-chu So in his match with Giko Funakoshi grabbed Giko and threw him hard against the wall. So, at that time, was one of the most powerful men in Japan and used his physical strength to win his matches. The Funakoshi people claim it was against the rules and walked out.” I don’t know if Oyama witnessed the contest, but his teacher in Goju-ryu was this very Nei-chu So. There is a photo of So in the early editions of Oyama’s “What is Karate”, and he does look a muscular, powerful man, so the story is plausible. The tale must have been circulating in the Goju world, where Oyama and Richard Kim heard it. I give it here for what it’s worth. No doubt there was a Shotokan version of events; if anyone has heard it please write to me at this magazine.
The War Years and Special Training
Throughout the 1930s, Japan was geared up as a wartime economy. Manchuria was annexed in 1932, the war with China began in 1936, and then in 1941 came Pearl Harbor and the entry into “The Great Pacific War”. Many karateka were posted overseas, and the turnover of young students was heavy. Funakoshi recalled: “I would often hear a young man say, as he knelt before me: “Sensei, I have been drafted and I’m off to serve my country and my Emperor.” Every day I would hear my students report to me in this fashion. They had been strenuously practicing karate day after day in preparation for hand-to-hand encounters with an unmet enemy, and they believed they were ready. . . Of course, many students died in battle, so many, alas, that I lost count of them. I felt my heart would break as I received report after report telling me of the deaths of so many promising young men. Then I would stand alone in the silent dojo and offer a prayer to the soul of the deceased, recalling the days when he had practiced his karate so diligently. I once asked Mitsusuke Harada who had been the karate instructors at certain university clubs during the war. He replied that because of the constant coming and going to the front, it was impossible to say. How did karate change during the war? Well, the art has little relevance to modern warfare, but it seems that the whole atmosphere of the times led to greater seriousness in training.
Taiji Kase, who trained at the Shotokan in the last year or so of the war, remembered that emphasis was placed on strong basics and intense practice of kumite (especially jiyu-ippon) with much physical contact. Kase, a person not given to exaggeration, described it as “very hard”. Tatsuo Suzuki told me that the well rounded prewar training gave way to practice on “fighting”, and he stressed “fighting” rather than sparring (jiyu-kumlte). I had heard stories (without details) of Yoshitaka Funakoshi and Shigeru Egami teaching special troops during the war. I asked Harada sensei about this and he told me what he had heard.
The institution concerned was the Nakano School, a training school for military espionage analogous to our MI5. Trainees were on a one year course covering undercover work, guerrilla warfare and so on. Unarmed combat was also included, and the original teacher for this was Morihei Uyeshiba (of Aikido). Uyeshiba himself was good but when the students tried to apply the techniques they couldn’t make them work under real conditions. In a way, Aikido had too much “technique” for the limited one year of training. The military leaders decided to look at karate as an alternative, and they observed the different styles, such as Goju, Wado, and Shotokan.
Goju-ryu, with its heavy stress on sanchin training, did not seem to have the practical application necessary, at least in its initial stages, and Wado-ryu technique seemed too “light”. However, the Shotokan style as demonstrated by Yoshitaka looked impressive, and he was asked to teach at the Nakano School. Unfortunately, he was too ill and it was Shigeru Egami who did the actual teaching. Egami concentrated on two techniques: choku-zuki (straight punch) and mae-geri (front kick), and when he began teaching a class, he would pick out participants and tell them to attack him as hard as they could. In this way, he was able to prove the validity of his technique. Injuries were frequent. Kicks were often delivered to the shins - and this was while wearing boots.
After the war, Harada sensei met someone who had trained in these classes under Egami. He recalled one time when he had hardly been able to walk for a week because of such shin kicks. But injuries were no excuse for missing training. If someone was wearing bandages, they had to be removed. If a bad injury occurred, then no doctors could be called for during training. A hard rule, but no doctors would be present on the battlefront. All in all, however, this “Nakano-ryu” was successful in achieving its objectives. The military was pleased with the results, and Yoshitaka and Egami gained prestige from it. Wado-ryu karateka Takatoshi Nishizono recounted something similar in a chapter he contributed to the 1977 book “Karate-do”. (Sozo Co. Translation courtesy Ian McLaren and N. Karasawa). Nishizono began karate training when he entered Tokyo University in 1941. He became so wrapped up in karate that he neglected his studies, and his academic performance was poor. But after graduation he managed to get a job with the North China Transportation Company in Peking; a boring, routine job as he recalled.
In early 1945 however, he was summoned by head office and asked to take on a role as karate instructor to a Special Army Squadron in Taigen. Nishizono felt he was not really up to this, but after he was told it was his duty, he agreed:
“When I arrived at the special squadron I was introduced to the young Commanding Officer and the other officers. I was made aware of the aim and organization of the squadron but was ordered to keep it secret for security reasons.
“Taigen was the HQ of the 1st Army Group, North China, but our squadron consisted of only 250 volunteers, all of whom had distinguished themselves in battle. We usually wore normal military uniform with the Cherry Blossom badge, but when we began operations we changed into normal Chinese wear and we acted like ninja, carrying no weapons. We were an intelligence and guerrilla unit named “Sakura Squadron.” We trained in horse riding, martial arts disguise technique and physical exercise. We never trained with swords or guns; it was required that the Sakura Squadron be able to defeat the opponent with bare hands, and this was why karate was selected.
“I began instruction immediately on the first day. I was led to a building to be used as the dojo and found the whole squadron lined up, all stripped to the waist. They had superb physiques and sharp eyes. The commanding officer gave a briefing which included the words: “Our training must be real, just like a battle! So it may be that some of you will be killed!”
“That briefing was very useful in impressing the soldiers. Even though they were brave men, some said afterwards that it had made them feel uneasy.
“You cannot teach 200 men sufficient karate to defeat an enemy in one month if you rely on the standard methods of training. I made an instant decision and, selecting two soldiers who looked strong, ordered them to attack me using any technique they wished. They had no experience of karate so I was able to beat them easily; my kicking technique was enough. But they were courageous and continued to attack. But despite the briefing by the commanding officer, I did not have the heart to attack the kintekki (testicles). I refrained from using that technique and using only sokuto I knocked them to the floor. After this, the soldiers respected my ability and it was much easier for me to teach them.
“My method of training was a simple one. For punching (tsuki) I demanded that they strike to the enemy’s face, and for kicking, that they attack the kintekki. For defense we used jodan-uke and gedan-barai. I trained them every day repeating these basic techniques many times. As training progressed the soldiers’ stances became stronger. Then we moved on to hon-kumite--serious kumite.
“There was no stopping in our kumite and naturally some arguments arose during this practice. Also, as I could not easily oversee over 200 men, I learned that when I was near, they would go full force, but when my back was turned they took it easy. I knew that they were tired after their battlefield experiences and at first, I pretended not to notice. However, my task was to train them to combat readiness in a month, so eventually, I had to be hard with them. If I found anyone being idle, I pulled them out and fought them till they could no longer stand.
“They had all practised judo, kendo and tsuken-jutsu (bayonet fighting) and were able to pick up karate technique quickly. After training, we would take a bath. Some of the soldiers had powerful physiques and I was somewhat ashamed of my own small body.
“That month passed so quickly. All the soldiers trained hard and performed well. On the final day, we said our farewells, the officers expressed their gratitude to me, and we had a party. Then I left Taigen and returned to Peking where life continued in the same way as before.
“I never found out what happened to the Sakura Squadron. I heard stories that they had been sent south on a mission and that all had been killed. The men who wore that Cherry Blossom badge were all from Northern Japan; they were so naive and kind. Now it all seems like a dream.”
The Post-War Years
The Shotokan dojo was destroyed in a bombing raid in the spring of 1945. When Japan surrendered in August of that year, Funakoshi left for Oite in Kyushu where his wife was living. (She had been evacuated there during the battle of Okinawa.) Life was hard during those early post-war years, and Funakoshi sensei’s involvement with karate ceased for the time being. However, in 1947 his wife died, and he moved back to Tokyo. As his train stopped at each station on the way, there were former students waiting to meet him and offer their condolences. He was moved to tears. Many fine karate students had been lost in the war, and such was the chaos afterwards that for a couple of years Masatomo Takagi (Secretary of the JKA) was not even aware of what had become of Master Funakoshi. Eventually, Takagi discovered that he was still alive and recovering from illness. It had been almost 19 years since he had seen Funakoshi, and when he introduced himself, the old master failed to recognize him.
“I once knew someone called Takagi, a long time ago” he said. When Takagi exclaimed, “It’s me, sensei!” Funakoshi took his hand in surprise. It took a few years for the karate world to pick itself up and by then its development was in the hands of a younger generation. Gichin Funakoshi was the rallying point for Shotokan karateka, but by this time he was over 80 years old and did not take an active role. But he still retained his love of the art and taught when he could. He taught on a limited basis at Waseda, Keio, and maybe at times at other universities. His class at Waseda was held on a Saturday, but attendance was poor. Things had moved on and few of the young trainees wanted to learn from an eighty-year-old teacher who was interested only in kata--especially when they wanted to practice kumite. At one point Tsutomu Ohshima, the club captain, had to tell trainees that, unless they attended Funakoshi sensei’s classes they would not be allowed to take their gradings. So they turned up, albeit grudgingly. All credit to Ohshima for taking this action because those classes were the bright spot in Master Funakoshi’s week.
After the war many budoka saw their arts as fulfilling a need in installing values in the Japanese people. In 1954 a major demonstration of Budo took place in Tokyo. It featured demonstrations by greats such as Mifune (Judo), Nakayama (Kendo), and Gichin Funakoshi, who was then 86 years old. His demonstration was loudly applauded and when he was invited onto the dais he received a standing ovation.
By the time Funakoshi died in 1957, things were moving in the Japanese karate world. Immediately after the war the Shotokan group was dispersed and it was not till the late 1940s that the seniors began to organize. Even then it was a faltering start. In his interesting interview in this magazine (FAI No. 51) Hidetaka Nishiyama recalled that many of the seniors had forgotten their kata and often had to get together to pool their knowledge. But, through the efforts of people such as Genshin Hironishi the various Shotokan groups were brought together and in 1949 or ’50 the Japan Karate Association was founded.
As an aside, I don’t know whether Hironishi was actually involved with the JKA, but he did form the Shotokai together with Shigeru Egami. (Hironishi became President, with Egami taking sole responsibility for the technical develop-ment.) Hironishi was one of Funakoshi’s favorite students, and he had taught at the old Shotokan dojo in the later war years. In the Sino-Japanese war which began in 1937 he saw action on the Chinese front. He was officer material but because of his socialist views had to serve in the ranks. Nevertheless, through strength of character he became a sergeant in the Army. When he returned to Japan in 1943 he was asked to teach at the Shotokan.
Anyway, in 1949 the JKA was formed. In this original JKA Isao Obata was Chairman, Kichinosuke Saigo President, Masatomo Takagi administrator, and Masatoshi Nakayama chief instructor. Master Funakoshi had the figurehead role of Honorary Chief Instructor. With so many different groups involved friction was probably inevitable. Each university group had its own slightly different form of “Shotokan” and problems could arise, for example, at gradings if seniors from another university were on the panel. There was an interesting article in the American magazine “Black Belt” a few years ago (“A New Day in Karate”, Oct. 1965 issue) which shed some light on the problems of the early JKA. The article concentrated on the rivalry between the various University Old Boy clubs and their different approaches to karate. Many of the top positions in the JKA were held by Takushoku university men such as Nakayama, Takagi and Nishiyama. Unlike, for example, Obata and Saigo, who were well off and believed karate teaching should be on an amateur (unpaid) basis, the Takushoku karateka were paid a salary and had a more commercial approach.
Anyway, whatever the exact reasons, the Hosei and Waseda groups left in the early 1950s, and in 1953 or ’54 Obata and the Keio group left too. What remained was still strong, however, and formed the basis for what we now know as the JKA. In having a more business-like approach the men involved in this group--Masatoshi Nakayama, Hidetaka Nishiyama, Teryuki Okazaki, Kimio Ito--were more forward looking than their contemporaries, and it is their system which is now the dominant form of Shotokan. They set up a training course for instructors in 1956, the first three trainees being Kanazawa, Mikami and Takura. Takura I know nothing about, but Hirokazu Kanazawa and Takayuki Mikami were regarded as outstanding young karateka.
Between them, they shared the first three of the JKA’s All Japan Championships. That first Championship, won by Kanazawa, was held in 1957 and was, in its way, epoch-making. I’m not exactly sure if this was the first karate tournament, but it is usually held to mark the beginning of modern sport karate. In many cases, this has become an end in itself, but the JKA has always been able to keep it in balance with the other elements of kihon and kata to preserve a well-rounded karate.
The JKA is one of several Shotokan bodies, and we could say that none of them practices karate in precisely the way Funakoshi did, that is the way he demonstrated in “Karate-do Kyohan’s” first edition. That is to be expected, of course; times have changed, and the art has moved on. But, for example, Masatoshi Nakayama, the late JKA chief instructor, was a student of Funakoshi sensei from 1932 to 1937, so his karate was obviously based on Funakoshi’s teaching. The changes we can see in the modern JKA are natural developments which occurred with time and the influx of a younger generation of instructors. Even so, today’s kata are more or less the same as those shown in the second (1958) edition of “Kyohan”. By that time the Shotokan form was well established, and all who practice that form today look back to Gichin Funakoshi as their founding father.
Master Funakoshi’s Precepts
Gichin Funakoshi left us twenty precepts. In doing this, he was probably more aware of the precedent of Ankoh Itosu (who in a note set down his “10 teachings”) and of various kenjutsu masters who put down the principles of their teaching in this fashion. Funakoshi’s maxims are very similar in tone to some of these kenjutsu writings (Donn Draeger gives examples in his “Modern BuJutsu and Budo”, pages 103/4 and 109/10). Some writers have tried to point out the spiritual nature of Funakoshi’s precepts, but I don’t think they are profound in that sense. Funakoshi did believe in the “Do” of karate, but more in the sense described by the Zen priest Takuan (1573-1646): “The law of the Buddha well observed, is identical with the law of mundane existenceÉ The Way (Do) is practical only.” “Master Funakoshi wasn’t one to give metaphysical explanations for everything,” recalled Tsutomu Ohshima. “He was very practical and was influenced by the teachings of Confucius, who never talked about great mysteries or spiritual issues. Funakoshi, like Confucius, was more interested in the realistic world of people, ideas and events.” So the precepts cover not only Funakoshi’s more extensive view of karate, its underlying social and moral basis, but also advise on technical principles, on principles of self-defence, and on how to integrate karate into daily life. Thus, they are well rounded and complete, and they give us an insight into Funakoshi sensei’s philosophy of karate.