Gichin Funakoshi, Founder of Shotokan Karate
November 10, 1868 – April 26, 1957
Gichin Funakoshi, born November 10, 1868 is the founder of Shotokan karate and the father of modern karate. Born in Shuri, Okinawa, Funakoshi was a sickly child during hard times in the country of Japan. In poor health and unable to go to medical school for a higher education due to certain Japanese restrictions, Funakoshi was not expected to live a long, productive life. However, in his younger years, Funakoshi made a childhood friend who’s father was a martial artist known now as the legendary Ankō Azato. Azato was an Okinawan master of karate. Under Azato, as well as a second teacher named Ankō Itosu, Funakoshi learned karate for many years and fell in love with it.
Gichin Funakoshi trained for many years in Okinawa learning Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū style karate, as well as supposedly some Kendo training and other Chinese forms of karate. Throughout all the training he received, this is how Funakoshi would craft what Shotokan karate is today. At the age of 22, Funakoshi left Okinawa to head to mainland Japan.
During the late 1800’s, karate was banned from the public. People were not allowed to train or teach karate anywhere, as it was a government offense sometimes punishable by death. Funakoshi, at one point early in his life (while still living in Okinawa), had the great privilege of performing karate in front of the crown prince (who later became emperor of Japan) was visiting Okinawa. This event, along with Funakoshi performing karate in front of the First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo, led to the mainstream development and practice of Karate in mainland Japan.
In 1939, Funakoshi established the first ever karate school known as a dojo (translated to “way place”) in Tokyo, Japan, which infamously was given the name Shotokan, or the house of Shoto, by Gichin Funakoshi’s students. During his time off when not doing karate, Funakoshi was a poet. He would go out to the mountains of Japan and write poems. This nickname gave him the pen name “Shoto”, which translates to “whispering pines” (and stands for the howl of the wind through the trees at the mountains where Funakoshi would write his poems). His dojo was named House of Shoto which we now know as Shotokan for the name of the style.
Funakoshi did not approve of this, however. He simply called it “karate”. The meaning of karate originally stood for “Chinese Hand”, because of karate’s roots in China. However, Funakoshi gave it a more general name, known now as “Empty Hand”, as it taught the practitioner how to fight with their hands and own physical strengths. Because of this as well as the first establishment of a karate school in mainland Japan, Funakoshi is often called the “father of modern karate”. Ironically, Funakoshi’s changing of the word “kara” from “chinese” to “empty” for the meaning of karate grew him his hatred in Okinawa, and he never returned to there due to this having remained in Tokyo till his death.
Funakoshi’s original karate school was tragically burned down in a fire one day. In his later life, Funakoshi trained some of the biggest names in karate today including Kanazawa, Nakayama, and Okazaki Sensei’s. With the wide spread and popularity of Shotokan, the style began to see change. Changes including form, stances, and an added number of kata to the style. Also, the JKA (Japanese Karate Associate) was formed and Funakoshi was put in head position of it, although he disapproved of all the changes be brought to his style of karate.
Gichin Funakoshi died of old age at the age of 88 years old in April of 1957 and said to have continued training and teaching Shotokan karate until his death. Due to the bombings and World War II, many original karate schools from Funakoshi’s era including historical documents, people, and things of the time no longer exist. In the 1960’s, a memorial was created to honor the great master of Shotokan karate.
Today Shotokan remains one of the popular forms of karate from around the world. Funakoshi’s legacy still stands strong in almost all Shotokan karate schools. Some students of Funakoshi are still alive today, including masters Kanazawa and Okazaki who are still spreading Funakoshi’s gift of karate. No matter the age of the rank, the students of Shotokan are tomorrows masters. It is up to them to continue passing on the legacy of Shotokan to the next generation of students. But no matter the generation, it is only but a wonder what it was like to have trained in one of Funakoshi’s classes.