Philosophy & Martial Arts – Report # 1

Written by Sue. Posted in Black Belt Research Project 2013

Combat Karate, Karate in BasingstokePhilosophy & Martial Arts

Susan Pogmore

FIRST REPORT – March 2013

In the Beginning: A brief history of karate and an introduction to Funakoshi

Where to start?! At the beginning seems the most logical place. The beginning of karate; or at least, what is known of its beginnings….

The history of karate is long and uncertain, and undocumented for long periods. Although the island of Okinawa, situated between Japan and Taiwan, is regarded as the birthplace of karate, its origins can be traced back further to China.

Around 6th Century, the legendary Indian monk, Bodhidharma, is said to have travelled to China to spread the doctrine of Zen Buddhism. He settled in the Shaolin monastery where his teachings began. Many of the monks were very weak and found such physical exercise too exhausting. Bodhidharma devised a training method that would assist the monks both physically and mentally so that they could continue their Zen practice.

Zen approximately translated as “absorption” or “meditative state”.

Zen emphasizes the attainment of “enlightenment” and the personal expression of direct insight on the Buddhist teachings.

It is suggested that he invented a method of self defence using his hands, (his religion prohibited him using or carrying weapons) which he employed to defend himself against wild life and hostile natives on his journey to China through the Himalayas.

Eventually and there may have been influence from political and military leaders who frequented the monastery, the exercises developed into a fighting system known as kung fu.

Okinawa is a stepping stone between China and Japan and holds a position of historical importance where a blending of cultural, political and military exchanges took place. As a result of this position a number of successive weapons bans were imposed by domestic and invading rulers between 15th and 17th centuries.  It is believed that the unarmed fighting art, kung fu was adapted and further developed by the Okinawans and came to be known as te (meaning “hand”) or to-de (written to mean “Chinese hand” and pronounced kara-te in Japanese).
Over time different styles of te developed to suit practitioners with physical attributes. The Naha-te style focused on strong, heavy techniques, while the Shuri-te style specialised in light, fast techniques. Naha and Shuri are two towns in Okinawa where the different styles were popular. Two experts of note were Ankoh Azato (1827-1906) and Ankoh Itosu (1832-1915) who practiced Naha-te and Shuri-te respectively. These two experts had a student in common named Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) who would become known as the ‘father of modern karate’. He combined the principles from both styles in an attempt to create a well balanced style that could be easily learned by all.


Gichin Funakoshi was born 1868, in Shuri, Okinawa, to a low-rank Okinawan samurai. He was a sickly baby and a frail child and was encouraged to learn karate at any early age to overcome these handicaps. “Soon I found it had cast a spell over me.” Later he passed the entrance examination for medical school but was unable to pursue this goal because his family were stiffly opposed to the abolition of the Japanese topknot. Being trained in both classical Chinese and Japanese philosophies and teachings, he became an assistant teacher in Okinawa; losing his topknot in the process, much to the disgust of his father.

During this time he began nightly travels to the home of Anko Azato. Here he trained in Naha-te and Shuri-te under the tutelage of Azato’s good friend, Ankoh Itosu. Their styles were different as were some of their philosophies. Azato believed in thinking of his arms and legs as swords, Isotu trained his body to withstand any impact.

It was around 1901 and as a result of a visit from Ogawa, the commissioner of schools for Kagoshima Prefecture that karate had won the approval of the Ministry of Education. Once the decision had been made to include karate in school curriculums, it began to exert its inevitable appeal on all sorts of people, and after securing permission from Azato and Itosu, Funakoshi began teaching karate on a formal basis.

Funakoshi was, in addition to karate, deeply involved in calligraphy and the writing of poetry. He would sign his work using his pen name, Shoto. It is from that pen name that the creation of the word ‘Shotokan’ arose. Shoto, meaning waving pines (his verse was often inspired by the gently waving pines on the hills near his home) and the word ‘kan’ meaning house or school. His first school of karate, based at his home, therefore became known as Shoto’s kan, which was eventually shortened to Shotokan.

By the late 1910s, Funakoshi had many students, of which a few were deemed capable of passing on their master’s teachings. Funakoshi ventured to mainland Japan in 1922 in an effort to spread the interest of Okinawan karate. In 1939 he built the first Shotokan dojo in Tokyo. It was around this time and for political reasons, that the meaning of karate was changed from “Chinese hand” to “Empty hand”.  In 1949 Funakoshi’s students created the Japan Karate Association (JKA), with Funakoshi as the honorary head of the organisation.
Funakoshi published several books on karate including his autobiography, Karate-do: My Way of Life. His legacy, however, rests in a document containing his philosophies of karate training now referred to as the niju kun, or “twenty principles.” These rules/precepts are the premise of training for all Shotokan practitioners and are published in a work titled The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate. Within this book, Funakoshi lays out 20 rules by which students of karate are urged to abide in an effort to “become better human beings”.

Funakoshi died of colorectal cancer in 1957 at the age of 90. A memorial was erected by the Shotokai at Engaku-ji, a temple in Kamakura. Designed by Kenji Ogata the monument features calligraphy by Funakoshi which reads Karate ni sente nashi (There is no first attack in karate), the second of Funakoshi’s Twenty Precepts, and one of his poems.


So, a history filled with monks, teachers, poets and artists, ordinary family men, fathers and farmers, wishing no more than to improve their health and be able to defend themselves, their families and their masters.

Anko Itosu wrote a letter is 1908, “Ten Precepts of Karate,” to draw the attention of the Ministry of Education and Ministry of War in Japan. The first precept:

“Karate is not merely practiced for your own benefits; it can be used to protect one’s family or master. It is not intended to be used against a single assailant, but instead as a way of avoiding a fight should one be confronted by a villain or ruffian.”


Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Karate

In Funakoshi’s autobiography there are many tales illustrating the peaceful nature of karate. In one episode Funakoshi, his master and half a dozen other karateka were returning home late at night along a dark road, from a moon-viewing, when they were addressed by a party of ‘ruffians’ whose intent was to flex some muscle. Funakoshi, quite young at the time, was pleased with an opportunity to test his skills, however, Master Itosu instructed him to talk with them, do not fight.  The men taunted Funakoshi, but then another group of drunken men arrived at that place in the road and they recognised Master Itosu and turned to the first gang of men saying that they were crazy if they intended to fight with Master Itosu and his karateka. There was no apology but the band of men slunk off into the night and Itosu shepherded his own group home by another, longer road. Later Funakoshi learned that the members of the gang had indeed come rather shamefacedly to Itosu’s house to apologise.

Another episode Funakoshi, married with children at this time, found himself confronted by two men on a dark road. Their intent evident by the fact they had covered their faces with towels. They taunted Funakoshi and the angrier they got the calmer he felt. Funakoshi quietly addressed them “Haven’t you mistaken me for someone else? Surely there has been some misunderstanding. I think if we talk it over…” The two men moved in closer, one raising a club. Funakoshi did not feel intimidated in the least “It seems I am going to have to fight you after all, but frankly my advice to you is not to insist. I don’t think it’s going to do you very much good because if I wasn’t sure of winning, I wouldn’t fight. I know I’m bound to lose. So why fight? Doesn’t that make sense?”

The two men seemed to calm down a bit “Well” said one of them, “you certainly don’t put up much of a fight. Let us have your money then.” Funakoshi parted with the only thing he had, manju, cakes he was taking to offer at the altar in the house of his wife’s father.

A few days later in retelling the events to Azato and Itosu they both praised him. Itosu said that Funakoshi had behaved with the utmost propriety and that he now considered the hours he had spent teaching Funakoshi karate had been well-spent.


It is undisputed that an adept karateka has the ability to do another person serious injury, but in the study of karate we learn control and understanding and discipline, respect, honour, courtesy, justice, spirit, diligence, observance, imagination. I refer you to Funakoshi’s 20 Precepts, which I will concentrate on in my next report.

                                                                                                                                                          27th March 2013


The Twenty Precepts of

 Gichin Funakoshi

  1. Karate begins with courtesy and ends with courtesy.
  2. There is no first attack in Karate.
  3. Karate is an aid to justice.
  4. First control yourself before attempting to control others.
  5. Spirit first, technique second.
  6. Always be ready to release your mind.
  7. Accidents arise from negligence.
  8. Do not think the Karate training is only in the dojo.
  9. It will take your entire life to learn Karate; there is no limit.
  10. Put your everyday living into Karate and you will find Myo.
  11. Karate is like boiling water; if you do not heat it constantly, it will cool down.
  12. Do not think that you have to win; think rather that you do not have to lose.
  13. Victory depends on your ability to distinguish vulnerable points from invulnerable ones.
  14. The battle is according to how you move: guarded or unguarded.
  15. Think of your hands and feet as swords.
  16. When you leave home, think that you have numerous opponents waiting for you.
  17. Beginners must master low stance and posture; natural body positions are for the advanced.
  18. Practicing kata is one thing; engaging in a real fight is another.
  19. Do not forget correctly to apply: strength and weakness of power, stretching and contraction of the body, and slowness and speed of techniques.
  20. Always think and devise ways to live the precepts every day.



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