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The Founder of Shotokan Karate-do

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, the 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). He chose only these katas 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. 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.

Memorial to Master Gichin Funakoshi

Below is a photograph of the Memorial to Gichin Funakoshi located on the grounds of Engakuji Temple, in Kamakura, Japan. This photo was very kindly provided to me by Sensei Thomas Casale, at that time 5th Dan, Chief Instructor, JSKA-USA.

Remember: "Without him the path that we follow today would not exist."