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Master Gichin Funakoshi

9 février 2008

Master Gichin Funakoshi is often referred to as the father of modern karate-do. His photograph adorns more dojo walls than any other master and he is the karate master on which the most is written and discussed. He is a man who millions claim as their instructor and exemplar, but whose true teachings have not survived his relatively recent death. He is the man to whom I say ?thank you? today because I believe that without him, I would not practice karate. Having said that, what more can I write on the subject? This is simply my humble presentation for the small giant of the art of karate.

Born on the island of Okinawa in 1868, Gichin Funakoshi initially wanted to study medicine. Unfortunately, this was a time of great change in Japan, and students were expected to cut their ?bun? (hair). As this bun was considered a sign of family status and respect for ancestors, to cut it was an offense that a young Funakoshi could not accept. At the age of 21, he instead became a teacher, a profession he would practice for more than 30 years on his native island.

Master Gichin Funakoshi

At the age of 12, he began to practice karate under the tutelage of Master Ankho Azato (1828-1906), and would become his only pupil with mass recognition. At that time, the climate was not friendly to practitioners of martial arts so he had to practice outdoors, far from view. Next, he would study under Master Ankho Itosu (1830-1915), a friend of mae Azato. It was really with Master Itosu that he began to sense the modernisation of karate. In effect, it was in 1902 that he adopted karate as a physical educational discipline at the primary school in the village of Shuri. This was also a period of great changes for the Japonese society, in which the youth would be mobilized to create a powerful military. The young practitioners of karate were particularly noticed because of their remarkably well developed physiques, a trait that is not uncommon in a discipline such as physical education. It is thus not surprising that the pedagogy developed by Master Itosu was largely inspired by the training methods of the Japanese army and were centered on training of masses in a group. This was a revolution in the teaching of karate in Okinawa. It was also at this time that Master Itosu created the “small” kata, pin-an (heian) and naihanchin (tekki). The influence of these changes profoundly influenced Master Funakoshi, who continued his apprenticehip under the two masters even after he began his teaching career. He would then continue his practice of karate for the remainder of his life.

Master Gichi Funakoshi executing the kata tekki

In 1921, the Imperial Prince stopped in Okinawa where he attended a demonstration of karate in which Gichin Funakoshi and his primary school students participated. In 1922, he was sent to Kyoto to present karate at a national physical education exposition. Shortly after this, Master Jigoro Kano (the founder of judo who performed many important functions for the Ministry of Education, requested that Master Funakoshi remain in Japan to teach karate at his dojo Kodokan. Funakoshi accepted this offern and at 53 , he left his wife, children and work in Okinawa to spread his passion for karate first throughout Japan, then, as a result throughout the world. This famous demonstration at Kodokan took place in May 1922, where a young student named Shinkin Gimma, also originally from Okinawa and adept at karate, assisted him. Master Gimma received the first shodan diploma (1st dan black belt) given by Funakoshi. Master Gimma remained as sort of karate legend until his death at the age of 92.

The first years of his instructions in Japan were particularly arduous and the master lived in great poverty. Karate was completely unknown in Japan and was of little personal interest to the Japonese population. At the end of the 2nd or 3rd year the number of students began to grow and clubs were formed within different universities. Master Funakoshi went on to write severl books on karate, the most important being Karate-do Kyohan (a text on teaching karato written in 1935). Thanks to the contributions of a number of students, the first karate dojo was created in 1938. It was called the Shotokan (the house of Shoto), named in honor of the master whose penname was “Shoto” the rustle of the pine forrest). This was, without a doubt, the happiest period of Master Funakoshi’s life. This was also the time in which the meaning of the word karate changed from “Chinese hand (techniques)” to “empty hand”. In 1945, during a bombing, the Sh?an was completely destroyed.

Here begins a very dark period for Master Funakoshi because, a shortly after the destruction of his d?lt;/em>, his wife died and his son (and hopeful successor), called Yoshitaka Funakoshi, fell ill with tuberculosis and died. Fortunately, his students who survived the war returned and were able to reform the Shotokan school. He was then 80 years old. The following year, the famous Japan Karate Association (J.K.A.) was formed with Funakoshi as its head. But, important conflicts and issues of separate visions emerged amongst his group, even though the number of his students continued to increase. In 1957, Gichin Funakoshi, then 89 years old, passed away and the contradictions within the Sh?an group finally resulted in the creation of different groups.

The importance of the life and work of Master Gichin Funakoshi far exceeds the framework of this article. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend the book “Histoire du karate by Master Tokitsu, which was the main inspiration for this article.


Tokitsu, Kenji, Histoire du karate, Editions SEM, France, 1993

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