Masters we are indebted to.

Legends one and all.

The change from Chinese Hand into the empty-handed way involved the contributions of a great many past Masters. Including those of both Chinese, and Okinawan lineage. Some of these Masters are known to us today through their deeds, or the through the deeds of their students. Other Masters however, are lost to us forever. Since they either practiced in solitude, and were unknown to the world at large, or they produced no students who went on to greater things.

While always acknowledging in our hearts the contributions made by those unknown Masters, here are a few of the well-known ones whose contributions have stood the test of time.

Takahara Peichin

Born in Shuri, Okinawa, the actual dates of Takahara's birth and death vary depending on the source. The most commonly held dates covering the span of his life are 1683 - 1760. As a member of the upper class of Okinawan society Takahara was both well traveled, and well educated during his lifetime. He was reputed to be a student of Chatan Yara (1668 - 1756) who was himself a Master of Okinawan weapons, and whose legacy lives on in katas such as "Chatan Yara no Kon Sho", "Chatan Yara no Sai Sho", and "Chatan Yara no Sai Dai". Takahara's most famous student was "Tode" Sakugawa.


A Chinese envoy to the island kingdom of Okinawa, Kūshankū had a substantial influence on the life of one of the greatest masters of all time, Tode Sakugawa. It has been said that they first met around 1756 when as a young man Sakugawa attempted to push Kushanku off a bridge. Only to find himself bested and on the receiving end of a lecture on the proper behaviour of young men towards their elders. The meeting was to be a fortuitous one for Sakugawa as it was to change his life forever, since soon after the episode on the bridge, he became a student of Kūshankū. Shortly after Kūshankū's death Sakugawa developed a new kata and he named it, Kushanku, in honour of his former teacher. Today it is one of the longest kata in the Shotokan syllabus and is known as Kanku Dai (Looking to the Sky). There are many versions of this kata in circulation today and it is one of the oldest known kata. 

Kanga "Tode" Sakugawa

Born in Shuri, Okinawa, the actual dates of Sakugawa's birth and death vary depending on the source. The most commonly held dates covering the span of his life are 1782 to sometime around 1862. Tode Sakugawa was a pupil of a Buddhist monk, Takahara Peichin, and for a brief period of time studied under the Chinese master Kushanku. During his brief time with Kushanku he travelled with him to study in China, when he returned to Okinawa, he introduced his fighting style to the local community. In time he would become known as the, Father of Okinawan Karate and amongst his legacy is the concept of the dojo kun. His proficiency with the bo is also with us today in the form of the kata “Sakugawa no Kon Sho". One of Sakugawa's principal students was Sokon Matsumura, the son of a prominent family Matsumura was himself to go on to became one of Okinawa’s greatest karate teachers, and the founder of the Shuri-te style. This later evolved into a style we know today as Shorin-Ryu. 

Soken "Bushi" Matsumura

Born on Okinawa, the actual dates of Matsumura's birth and death vary depending on the source. The most commonly held dates covering the span of his life are 1809 to sometime after 1896, the year in which he celebrated his 88th birthday. Matsumura was born into the upper class of Okinawan society and first started studying under the great master "Tode" Sakugawa. During Matsumura's lifetime he, like may of the other great masters, traveled to China where it is said he studied for a time under Iwah. He was later in life to encounter a man named Chinto, after whom he was later to name a kata of his own design. Amongst his many students was Yasutsune Itosu, later to be known as one of the early teachers of Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of the Shotokan who would one day be recognized as the "Father of Modern Karate". Matsumura is said to have had a hand in formulating the katas Chinto, Wanshu, Passai, and Seisan. It was Matsumura who took Shuri-te that extra step and created the style we know today as Shorin-Ryu.  

Yasutsune Azato

Born in the town of Azato, the actual dates of Master Azato's birth and death vary depending on the source. The most commonly held dates covering the span of his life are 1828 - 1906. Having been born into the upper class and having family members who were of very high rank within Okinawan society, made it much easier for Azato to enter into the world martial arts. An expert in many forms of Budo, Master Azato despite his own skill, was to gain fame in a more indirect way. As one of the two primary teachers to the future "Father of Modern Karate", Sensei Gichin Funakoshi.

Yasutsune Itosu

Born in Shuri, Okinawa in the town of Shuri the actual dates of Itosu's birth and death vary depending on the source. The most commonly held dates covering the span of his life are 1831 - 1915. Itosu at an early age was taken to study under "Bushi" Matsumura. It is from Itosu's and also Yasutsune Azato's style of Shuri-te that Gichin Funakoshi later developed the style we know today as Shotokan. While another of Itosu’s students Kenwa Mabuni would later go on to create the style that we know today as Shito-Ryu. Itosu was said to have given the first public demonstration of karate in Okinawa in 1903 and he was a major factor in karate being introduced into the Okinawan public school system. Various sources credited Itosu with using the kata, "Kushanku" to create the Pinan katas, or Heian as they are known in Shotokan karate. Today however, there is a widely growing belief that the truest source used by Itosu for the creation of the Pinan katas were much earlier katas commonly referred to a "root katas". In addition to his skill, Itosu was said to be noted through out Okinawa for his legendary strength.  

Gichin Funakoshi

Sensei Gichin Funakoshi, known world wide as the Founder of Shotokan Karate-Do, was born in Shuri, Okinawa in Yamakawa-cho district on November 10, 1868 and he passed on April 26, 1957. The official district records in Okinawa, however, show that his birth took place in 1870. This is because he falsified his date of birth on his application to take the Tokyo medical school entrance exam. This was due to the fact that only applicants born before 1870 were ineligible. In spite of passing the exam Sensei Funakoshi never did become a member of the medical profession.

Born a frail child many members of his family felt he was destined for a short and uneventful life. Little did his family know just how long, and how important his life would-be. It was during his early primary school years that he was to be introduced to Master Yasutsune Azato, as it was thought that the art of karate might strengthen him and improve the quality of his life. A good student Funakoshi flourished under the tutelage of Master Azato to whose home he travelled each evening to practice karate. Later Master Azato would introduce him to another important teacher under whom he would also study, Master Yasutsune Itosu. It was these two men who would have the greatest impact on his life. It was while studying karate that Gichin Funakoshi decided to become a school teacher, and so after passing the qualifying examination he took charge of his first primary school class in 1888. It was a profession that he was to follow for more than thirty years.

A high point in Gichin Funakoshi's karate took place on March 6, 1921 when he had the honour of demonstrating the art of Okinawan-te to then Crown Prince Hirohito during a visit he made to Okinawa. Then in the Spring of 1922, Gichin Funakoshi traveled to Tokyo where he had been invited to present his art of Tode at the First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo, which had been organized by the Ministry of Education. After the demonstration he was strongly urged by several groups and eminent individuals to remain in Japan, and indeed he never did return to live in Okinawa. As it had in Okinawa, the educational system of Japan was to become a major factor in the spread of karate. By 1924 Gichin Funakoshi had started to introduce karate to several of the Japanese universities, first at Keio, followed by Chuo, Tokyo, and Waseda to name a few. It was through these universities that he was able to reach a much larger audience and this contributed greatly to the growing popularity of karate. 

Master Funakoshi was to finally establish the Shotokan dojo in Tokyo in 1936, a great landmark in the history of karate. Sensei Funakoshi was not only a genius in martial arts, but he was also known for his poetry, signing all of his works "Shoto" which was his pen name. Hence, the dojo where he taught came to be known as Shoto's kan, or Shoto's hall, which ultimately was adopted as the official name for his style of karate. Sensei Funakoshi combined the techniques and katas of the two major Okinawan styles to form his own style of karate. As a result, modern-day Shotokan includes the powerful techniques of the Shorei style of karate, as well as the lighter more flexible movements of the Shorin style of karate.  

The original Shotokan dojo was destroyed on March 10,1945 in a bombing raid on Tokyo In the beginning Sensei Funakoshi taught only sixteen katas, they were: Kankudai, Kankusho, five Heian katas (known in Okinawa as Pinan katas), three Tekki katas (known on Okinawa as Naihfanchi katas), Wanshu, (later to be known as Empi), Chinto, (later to be known as Gankaku), Patsai, (later to be known as Bassai), Jitte, Jion, and Seisan (later to be known as Hangetsu). This was because he felt that sixteen katas were more than enough for one lifetime. After the end of the Second World War there was a gradual revival of karate and a major step forward for Shotokan took place when the Japan Karate Association (JKA) was established in 1949. Sensei Funakoshi was appointed by the organization as it's first Chief Instructor due to his advanced skills and leadership capabilities.

Although Sensei Funakoshi was famous as a great karate master, he was also a very humble man. During his lifetime he emphasized three major aspects of karate-do above all else and these were: basic technique, kata, and the development of spiritual values leading to the perfection of the character of karate's participants.  

Memorial to Master Gichin Funakoshi

After training and teaching the art of karate for more than seventy-five years, Master Gichin Funakoshi passed away in Tokyo, Japan on April 26, 1957 at the age of 88. Above is a photograph of the memorial to Gichin Funakoshi Sensei that is located on the grounds of Engakuji Temple, in Kamakura, Japan. This photo was very kindly provided to me by Sensei Thomas Casale, at the time 5th Dan, Chief Instructor, JSKA-USA, to whom I am very grateful.

Remember: "What we know today, we owe to those who came before us."