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Gichin Funakoshi (1868–1957):  The Gentle Teacher of Shuri Te

by Michael Clarke, December 1, 2014

Perhaps it was always Funakoshi's destiny to shed light on a part of Okinawan culture that had for centuries remained hidden from the gaze of the general population. He shone like a bright star in a dark sky and pointed the way forward for the many millions around the world who would take up the challenge of learning.

Okinawa's 'Way of the Empty Hand'.

Whether this is true or not there can be no denying the impact this gentle man has made on the world of karate and why these days the name Gichin Funakoshi is known wherever the art is practiced. He was not born into a family that practiced karate, although his father, Gisu, was known to have possessed some skill in bojutsu (techniques using a six-foot staff) and was a minor official from the privileged shizoku class. But Gisu was also, according to Gichin himself, responsible for the decline in the family's financial status due to his fondness for alcohol.

Born in Yamakawa-cho in the Ryukyu capital of Shuri in 1868, Gichin Funakoshi's childhood was often difficult. Being born prematurely and into a family that had fallen on hard times meant he spent much of his childhood with his maternal grandparents. Having survived the first few years of life, he began his formal education and made friends at school with the eldest son of the famed karate master, Yasutsune Azato, and through this friendship was introduced to karate, the art that would alter the course of his life forever. Funakoshi was only eleven or twelve years old at the time and by all accounts found karate training very difficult at first, but he managed to continue throughout his teenage years and eventually made the practice of karate his life-long challenge.

Karate in Okinawa at that time was practiced secretly, and even though the masters were well known to the general public, the people who trained under them were not. Even among those who practiced karate, the identity of their fellow students was a closely guarded secret, so well kept in fact that often close neighbors who were training with the same master knew nothing of the other. Indeed, for many years Funakoshi believed he was the only student of his teacher. Much of his training was conducted either late at night or in the early hours of the morning, and in his autobiography, Karate-do: My Way of Life, he relates some of the problems resulting from his training schedule, many of which called into question his reputation as a citizen of good standing:

I made my stealthy way in the dead of night, carrying a dim lantern when there was no moon, to the house of Master Azato. When, night after night, I would steal home just before daybreak, the neighbors took to conjecturing among themselves as to where I went and what I was doing. Some decided that the only possible answer to this curious enigma was a brothel. (page 5)

Of course, the truth of Funakoshi's night-time ventures could not have been further from the imaginings of his neighbors, for even as they slept peacefully in their beds, he was undergoing the most rigorous training imaginable under the watchful eye of his teacher. He continues in his memoirs:

Night after night, often in the backyard of the Azato house as the master looked on, I would practice a kata (formal exercise) time and time again week after week, sometimes month after month, until I had mastered it to my teacher's satisfaction. (page 6)

Not all his early training was conducted in secret however. A visitor to Okinawa, the Japanese writer, Yukio Togawa, made the following observation during one of the many storms that hit the island each year:

The sky above was black, and out of it came a howling wind that laid waste to whatever stood in its path. Huge branches were torn like twigs from great trees, and dust and pebbles flew through the air, stinging a man's face. Okinawa is known as the island of typhoons and the ferocity of its tropical storms defies description. To withstand the onslaught of the winds that devastate the island regularly every year during the storm season, the houses stand low and are built as sturdy as possible; they are surrounded by high stone walls, and the slate tiles on the roofs are secured by mortar. But the winds are so tremendous (sometimes attaining a velocity of one hundred miles per hour) that despite all precautions the houses shiver and tremble. During one particular typhoon that I remember, all the people of Shuri huddled together within their homes, praying for the typhoon to pass without wreaking any great damage. No, I was wrong when I said that all the people of Shuri huddled at home: there was one young man, up on the roof of his home in Yamakawa-cho, who was determinedly battling the typhoon.

Mr. Togawa goes on:

Anyone observing this solitary figure would surely have concluded that he had lost his wits. Wearing only a loincloth, he stood on the slippery tiles of the roof and held in both hands, as though to protect him from the howling wind, a tatami mat. He must have fallen off the roof to the ground time and again, for his nearly naked body was smeared all over with mud. The young man seemed to be about twenty years old, or perhaps even younger. He was of small stature, hardly more than five feet tall, but his shoulders were huge and his biceps bulged. His hair was dressed like that of a sumo wrestler, with a topknot and a small silver pin, indicating that he belonged to the shizoku. But all this was of little importance. What matters is the expression on his face: wide eyes glittering with a strange light, a wide brow, copper red skin. Clenching his teeth as the wind tore into him, he gave off an aura of tremendous power. One might have said he was one of the guardian Deva kings.

Now the young man on the roof assumed a low posture, holding the straw mat aloft against the raging wind. The stance he took was most impressive, for he stood as if astride a horse. Indeed, anyone who knew karate could have seen that the youth was taking the horse-riding stance, the most stable of all karate stances, and that he was making use of the howling wind to refine his technique and to further strengthen his body and mind. The wind struck the mat and the youth with full force, but he stood his ground and did not flinch. (pages 45, 46)

Stories like this one about Funakoshi and similar stories relating to other bushi abound in the annals of Okinawa's long karate history. In a time before sports science and modern gym workouts, karate practitioners used the things they found around them and the forces of nature to improve their abilities. Opportunities for Gichin Funakoshi to stand on roofs were however coming to an end, and so too was the topknot he wore as a mark of his family's status.

In the year 1888, at the age of just twenty-one, and having gained a position as an assistant teacher at a primary school, the question of his topknot became an issue that threatened to alter the course of his entire life. For if he insisted on keeping it, his career as a schoolteacher would have ended before it had even begun. Keen to move toward a more modern world the young educator was ready to do away with the symbol of his social standing, but his family had other ideas. On the day he visited his parents to inform them of his new position, dressed in the official teacher's uniform, his parents took an altogether different view of the matter. His father could hardly believe what his son had done and, clearly upset, cried angrily, "What have you done to yourself? You … the son of a samurai!" His mother was even more upset and refused point blank to talk to him. Even before he had had a chance to explain himself to her she left the house by the back door and fled to her parent's house. Like it or not, Funakoshi had turned a corner and there was no going back.

Shotokan Misconception

There is a common misconception that the karate of Gichin Funakoshi was, and is today, called Shotokan. Unfortunately, this misunderstanding was established many decades ago and has now become a fact in the minds of many. Nevertheless, it is a simple misunderstanding, and one that can easily be put right. The name, Shotokan, was given to the dojo built in the Toshima ward of Zoshigaya in Tokyo, and opened in the spring of 1936. A year earlier a committee had been formed to coordinate the collection of funds to build the mainland's first dojo dedicated solely to karate. Karate had been taught in mainland Japan for over a decade before this time, but always in borrowed or rented premises.

Never before had a dojo been built specifically for the study of karate; upon completion the committee also chose a name for the dojo, calling it the Shotokan. To Funakoshi's surprise the committee had chosen the pen name he had used when signing the Chinese poems he wrote as a young man.

Regardless of which way karate is pursued it remains a force for good in the world, and for that reason alone we should all embrace it. Gichin Funakoshi was a pioneer and a great example to us all of how a humble manner and strong spirit can overcome all obstacles in life. He passed away on the Japanese mainland on the twenty-sixth day of April 1957 at the age of 88, leaving behind a legacy of thought and practice that continues to this day.

(The above excerpt is from Shin Gi Tai—Karate Training for Body, Mind, and Spirit by Michael Clarke.)

Michael Clarke, Kyoshi 8th dan, Okinawan Goju-ryu has trained in karate since 1974. He has written over two hundred articles for international martial arts magazines, and authored three books. Starting as a young ‘street-fighter’ in England, to a disciplined student of budo in Okinawa, Clarke enthusiastically teaches traditional Goju-ryu Karate in his dojo near Launceston Tasmania, Australia.


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