Itosu Anko Sensei is Praised as the Father of Modern Karate-Do

It is undisputed that the change of combat Karate-Jutsu [also called Te, Ti, Tode, or Toudi] into recreational Karate-Do was trail blazed by Itosu Anko Sensei's changes to the art in the early 1900s, i.e., shortly before its all-encompassing Japanization. Because of his success in implementing a disarmed version of an Okinawan martial art heritage into the physical education program of public elementary schools, and because of the following, first nationwide then worldwide, spread of this new Karate-Do version, Itosu Anko Sensei is named as "the father of modern Karate," even as "the savior of a cultural heritage".

Painting and photo courtesy of Lara Chamberlain.

Such a laureateship, however, contains some speculation, as Itosu Sensei's endeavors were not in line with the intentions of other Okinawan Karate-Jutsu masters who wanted to keep the art as is, as a secretly practiced craft of lethal fighting, and we actually do not know what would have happened if Karate-Jutsu would have been kept a secret and taught privately as it was done for centuries before. During all these centuries before the 1900s the art did not just survive on Okinawa, but it flourished; it did not vanish at all though being practiced secretly.

Times changed, however, the need for hand-to-hand combat and the need for guardianship of noblemen, warehouses, trade vessels and caravans decreased considerably; so it may as well be that in modern times the demand for genuine Karate-Jutsu has vanished too. It has at least decreased substantially in its role as a professional skill-set, though it is still preserved by a dedicated group of curators maintaining the genuine Karate-Jutsu systems. The worldwide Japanized Karate-Do inflation, on the other hand, was initiated and rendered possible by Itosu Sensei's alterations to the art.

Militarism, the Surface (Political) Justification for Teaching Karate-Do to Kids

Itosu Sensei justifies the introduction of Karate-Do into the physical education program at elementary schools by the importance of the art for preparing youths to serve in the nation's military forces. In his famous letter to the prefectural education board, he suggests that students at the prefectural teacher's college should practice Karate, in that "they could, after graduation, introduce Karate at the local levels, namely elementary schools. This way Karate could be disseminated throughout the entire nation and not only benefit people in general but also serve as an enormous asset to our military forces" (Itosu 1908 in McCarthy 2018, p. 26). This letter was written 1908, at the time of imperial Japan's preparations for its second war with China and for invading all of Southeast Asia, i.e., at a time when the military believed that the civil population existed only to feed and to service the nation's war machine.

However, it seems unlikely that this militaristic perspective represented the gist of Itosu Sensei's character. Though in his younger years Itosu Sensei definitely knew how to have a good time, though he used Karate-Jutsu to defend himself from serious attacks, and though he did not shy away from brawls, there is no indication that he in his later years would propagate militarism. Quite to the contrary, he stressed the benefits of Karate as a successful means to avoid a fight. Hence, it rather seems plausible, that stressing Karate's possible use for supporting Japan's armed forces was his pragmatic strategy to secure sufficient funds for his educational campaign by tapping into Japan's funds for its militarization―whereas the final and underlying goal of this educational campaign was not to create the raw material for the nation's military forces, but something different, something nobler.

The Underlying (Psychological) Explanation for Teaching Karate-Do to Kids

Be it as it may, to the author's knowledge nobody ever really tried to explain the WHY of Itosu Sensei's personal motivation to go public with his beloved art, especially the WHY for sharing it with young kids. This personal WHY seems to imply an individual psychological explanation as well and should not only be seen as the application of a political strategy. The political viewpoint, as plausible as it may be, does not unveil the nature of a possible other underlying end to his efforts beyond militaristic benefits for the nation.

Although there are quite a few psychological considerations explaining the actions of famous public persons, there is not a single one out there shedding light on the very topic of Itosu Sensei's personal motivation, on a subject of utmost importance for the entire Karate-world. Such a psychological explanation is not too hard to sketch, as it can be sufficiently based on the available sources about his childhood, his social background and his upbringing. These underlying social-cultural conditions are in the meantime satisfactorily researched and document how one of the strongest human motivations came into play, the motivation of trying to support others by sharing and spreading one's own positive experience.

Itosu Sensei's path of practicing Karate-Jutsu shows signs of a deeply liberating, self-esteem-improving, and life-changing experience. Referring to the psychological theory of motivation, such a phenomenon is usually based on the combination of a person's compensation (which is the effort to overcome feelings of inadequacy) with self-actualization (which is the internal drive of a person to fully realize one's creative, intellectual, and social potential), and with his/her motivation of social interest (which is the wish and the felt responsibility to support others). The combination of these three psychological purposes constitutes a most powerful motivational driving force, a core motivation of human behavior.

By means of re-evaluating available Okinawan sources, a recent historic study convincingly documents that Itosu Sensei at a young age used to be a child of poor health, who "suffered from stomach digestion problems . . . and was often teased by his friends . . . [as] a weakling. Thus, he is described as introverted and comparatively small for his age" (Feldmann 2021, p. 61), as well as being extremely shy, "without passion and unwilling to refine himself" (ibid., p. 64). These are strong indicators for the boy's inherent feeling of inadequacy and challenged self-esteem, which is the baseline for compensation, and it can be stated without a doubt that "it certainly was not an easy time for the young Anko growing up" (ibid.).

The boy's weak and valetudinarian constitution obviously changed entirely; the weak, feeble and fragile child transformed completely through the training of Karate-Jutsu. At the age of 14 or 15 young Itosu Sensei asked the legendary and cherished Matsumura Sokon Sensei for training, was accepted, commuted regularly to Matsumura Sensei's residence to train, and "within his first year of training he was transformed beyond all recognition" (Itosu Buyuden 1915 in McCarthy, 2018, p. 43)

The lasting impact such a transformation from weak and sick to healthy and strong has on a young person's self-esteem, self-definition and general attitude towards life cannot be overestimated. It is the enormous result of the psychological drive of compensation.

One can easily relate how Itosu Sensei's transformation from a weak and shy boy into a strong, masculine, and cherished leader with broad public admiration, which is the outcome of psychological self-actualization, not only led to Itosu Sensei's new positive self-definition at a young age, but also forcefully stimulated his calling in his later years. His calling was to support everyone, but especially young children, who were challenged with a comparable inferior (psychologically speaking, not social) starting position in life like the one he faced, to surmount their deficit and to gain that kind of health and self-confidence that he had achieved for himself. Such a calling most certainly represents the consequence of the psychological drive of social interest as explained earlier; a specific motivation which very often grows stronger in a person's 'golden years.'

Teaching Karate-Do to Kids Is a Contribution to Social Welfare beyond Militarism

Felt social responsibility to make own positive, life changing compensation experience accessible to others and thereby allowing them for experiencing the same positive self-actualization, is the above suggested 'means to another underlying end beyond militarism' of Itosu Sensei's intentions. Social responsibility very often becomes a priority for successful people towards the end of their careers, in their latter part of life, expressing itself as volunteering, as taking active social roles in organizations and associations, as promoting charities, and as giving back by contributing all kinds of assistances to common welfare.

Social responsibility, based on its psychological drive of social interest, explains Itosu Sensei's endeavors to introduce Karate-Do to kids in elementary school and it identifies his efforts as a true contribution to social welfare. The involved compensatory, self-actualizing and social interest forces are the strongest psychological motivations known to man and psychologically explain Itosu Sensei's magnificent gift to the public.


Feldmann, Thomas (2021). Anko Itosu. The Man. The Master. The Myth. Biography of a Legend. Self-published with Lulu Press. © Thomas Feldmann.

Itosu Buyuden (1915) Newspaper Article Series of 8 Parts.

In: McCarthy, Patrick (2018) Legend of the Fist Vol #1―A Compilation of Japanese-to-English translations by Patrick & Yuriko McCarthy. © 2018 Patrick McCarthy. Middletown, DE, pp. 43-62.

The above is an original article by Hermann Bayer, Ph.D.