Gichin Funakoshi was not the greatest karateka of all time.

This might come as a surprise to many who train in Japanese karate, who have come to regard Funakoshi (1868-1957) as the most towering figure in the art, the man who brought it from the countryside of Okinawa to Japan and the man who oversaw its introduction to the rest of the world. But it's true.While Funakoshi was a central figure in those accomplishments, we know that there were others — some with more experience in karate than he had — who also contributed. We also know that a primary reason Funakoshi was promoted to bring karate to mainland Japan was the fact that he was well-educated and able to communicate with the Japanese at a level that wouldn't lead to his dismissal as an uncouth hillbilly — which is how many Japanese regarded Okinawans back then.So it's reasonable to remove Funakoshi, gently, from his pedestal and view him in a more realistic light. However, in doing so, we should avoid going too far in reducing his stature. He wasn't a saint. He was, though, a remarkable figure.


Funakoshi left 20 precepts, a distillate of his karate philosophy. They are engraved on a plaque at his grave at Engakuji, the Kamakura temple where he's buried. His sixth precept is a window into the character of the man.Kokoro wa hanatan koto o yosu. "Be able to release your mind." That's a poor translation, but it's challenging to come up with a more accurate one. The idea is that you should not be so rigid that you can't adapt to changes in circumstances that are part of life.More than two centuries before Funakoshi's era, the concept of marobashi was described by Yagyu Sekishusai, founder of the Yagyu Shinkage Ryu, as a core element of his school of strategy. In part, marobashi describes a "rolling log," and it refers to the ability to cope and adjust and exploit circumstances in life that change as quickly as a log rolling down a slope.

But Funakoshi was quoting a Chinese philosopher from centuries before that. Shao Yong (1011-1077) was a Confucian thinker who lived during the Northern Song dynasty. As a classically trained scholar, Funakoshi was familiar with Shao Yong's writings; he incorporated a line from the philosopher's poetry in his precepts. To be able to release one's mind from an inflexible frame would have been important to a man in Funakoshi's circumstances.Think about it: Funakoshi went from tiny, quiet Okinawa to bustling Japan, a land that was only a couple of decades past a violent uprising, the Satsuma Rebellion, during which dissatisfied samurai sought to overturn the new imperial government and along the way threw the whole country into turmoil. The Japan of the early 20th century was the scene of fierce politics, with communists and labor-union workers frequently brawling in public.There was tremendous energy in the debate over Japan's future, with the military insisting on an expansionist course (that would soon translate into Japan's invasion and occupation of Korea) and industrialists and others seeking a more isolationist approach. Demonstrations often spiraled into riots; political opponents were frequently beaten and assassinated. It must have seemed like an apocalypse to Funakoshi.

Funakoshi was also alone. He'd left behind his wife and two of his three boys. The food, the language, the customs — all of it would have been at least slightly unfamiliar to him. Additionally, he was trying to introduce his foreign (to the Japanese) art. Most karateka know this, but they may not understand just how difficult that task was.Okinawans who lived in Japan were not even considered full citizens. Further, karate was seen as a crude system when compared with the elite warrior traditions of Japanese budo. Imagine going to Burgundy, France, home of some of the world's great vintages, and trying to market some homemade dandelion wine you've cooked up in your basement. That would have been what it was like for Funakoshi to introduce karate in Japan.Funakoshi owed a huge debt to judo founder Jigoro Kano, who took an interest in karate and provided introductions and facilities that allowed Funakoshi to bring his art into the mainstream of Japanese budo. Even so, it was an uphill climb. Karate, for many years in Japan, had to fight against the image it had, one of being something that was used by thugs and lowlifes.Funakoshi also had to deal with critics back in Okinawa. His "Japanizing" of karate was met with animated disapproval. Funakoshi adopted Japanese names for kata. He brought teaching and training in line with Japanese customs. Traditional Okinawan karate was taught informally, but Funakoshi, once in Japan, introduced the notion of group practice, with rows of exponents moving in unison, which was similar to what was seen in kendo schools. (Nearly all the Osu! and Hai, sensei! utterances have their roots in this period, when the influence of the Japanese military came to dominate the world of budo.)

Every Japanese and Okinawan of Funakoshi's generation lived through amazing changes, including the devastation of the Second World War. Through it all, Funakoshi managed to persevere, to achieve his goals. He was not, technically speaking, the greatest karateka of that period. He was, however, a giant in his accomplishments.Many of those accomplishments were achieved through his ability to be flexible, to be ready to adapt. He was prepared, at all times, to release his mind.

Dave Lowry has written Karate Way since 1986. For more information about his articles and books, visit blackbeltmag.com and type his name into the search box.

SUBSCRIBE TO BLACKBELT MAGAZINE TODAY!
Don't miss a single issue of the world largest magazine of martial arts.

Do you want to maximize your self defense skills? Learn the game of combat chess and most importantly the queen of all moves.

Allow me to intercept those who would object to the title of this article. I'm not claiming that there's a secret move, shortcut or hack that will give you the edge in any fight. Even if there was an ultimate weapon or strategy, you likely would avoid it because you
Keep Reading Show less

Whether your martial art has you rolling on the ground and grappling, striking and sparring, or working with weapons (hopefully the unsharpened variety!), there are five common types of injuries martial artists tend to see. It is nearly impossible to avoid all injuries, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of injury that everyone who practices any martial art should be aware of.

Stress Fractures

One of the most common martial arts injuries, stress fractures occur when bones are struck with repetitive force -- think checking kicks in muay thai, or repeatedly hitting a heavy bag with inadequate wrist support. Stress fractures are also very common in runners' feet and legs, so if you've recently upped your cardio to get in better shape for your art, be on the lookout!

Keep Reading Show less

A good pair of gloves is like a dollop of whipped cream on a cake slice—it just makes everything better! Whereas a bad pair of gloves can make your training session feel uncomfortable and awkward, a great pair can make you feel like you could beat Mike Tyson (or at least stay alive in a fight with him for a few seconds). One training session with gloves on either end of the spectrum will quickly make you appreciate the importance of quality equipment.

What to Expect from Creed

In this case, you can definitely expect good quality whipped crea—er, gloves. Made of genuine leather, Creed Heavy Bag Gloves are built to last. After wearing them for many weeks filled with numerous rounds of heavy bag training, the gloves still feel great!

The Creed Heavy Bag Gloves provide a comfortable and protective balance of padding in the appropriate areas. This ensures that they keep their shape well, cover your fist well in the areas that hit the target and ensure the satisfying smack of solid impact rather than the crack of a rolled wrist.

Keep Reading Show less

UFC 250 Poster Featuring Main Card with Amanda Nunes and Felicia Spencer

The UFC 250 main card set for Saturday night will feature five fights in lighter weight divisions that won't disappoint fight fans. The match ups are guaranteed to be fast paced and heavy hitting with three bantamweight matches and the highly anticipated women's featherweight title fight between Amanda Nunes and Felicia Spencer.

Reigning champ Amanda Nunes will be center stage at the UFC Apex arena once again Saturday night to defend her women's featherweight title against her challenger Felicia Spencer.

Keep Reading Show less
Don’t miss a thing Subscribe to Our Newsletter