Also did this in February 2011 on tumblr. The Shotokan timeline part one

The Shotokan Timeline

by Sean Taylor

. An unofficial documentary of Shotokan Karate


Karate by far is the most popular known martial art in the world today. Many people attribute this popularity to the Hollywood industry and the martial arts film boom of the 1970s. Often, the late actor Bruce Lee has been credited with introducing Karate to western civilisation. While it is true that his movies have inspired several thousands of people at the time to start some form of self defence, he did not introduce “Karate” to the western world. Nevertheless, the term Karate has become so common that almost all martial arts are generically referred to as a form of Karate, which is unfortunate.

The purpose of this article is to unofficially document the brief but eventful history of Shotokan Karate. I stress that this document is not official and some of the events described may be erroneous. However in any case, most Shotokan historical references differ from each other due to political motivations amongst several other factors. I assure readers that this rendition is in no way motivated by anything else than to inform active practitioners as well as anyone else that reads this.

Lastly I must indicate that the names of instructors from the orient were displayed in the traditional fashion of the surname being written first. Thus, Gichin Funakoshi becomes Funakoshi Gichin and Masatoshi Nakayama becomes Nakayama Masatoshi and so on.

I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it…OSU!!

Sean Taylor 2011-02-20

What is Karate?

Without going into too many technicalities, Karate is Japanese martial art, with implicated origins from Okinawa as well as China. It utilises the body as a weapon by implementing percussive and concussive blows to the vulnerable areas of the human body. Thus, an opponent can be efficiently incapacitated and neutralised.


Due to different interpretations by different masters, towns, and cultures there are several Karate styles. However the one documented here is the one that I practise: Shotokan. It is a style that is very unique and iconic amongst Karate styles because of its sole use of low strong stances, and dynamic kata. These are not the only factors that make it a unique style but, as I go on you will discover this.

Shotokan is a modern martial art with its roots embedded in the past. Centuries ago, martial arts were widely believed to have been created by an Indian monk called Bodhidharma. He was known as the founder of Zen Buddhism and eventually took his teachings to China.  He travelled to the Shaolin Temple where he began teaching the monks that resided there. At first they were physically unable to keep up with his teachings, and so Bodhidharma devised a training system to supplement their spiritual discipline. The Shaolin Monks became known as the best fighters in China and the system by which they were taught became known as Shaolin Boxing (Kung-Fu). The Shaolin Monks travelled from China to spread the word of Bodhidharma and his fighting system. Zen was readily accepted in Japan.

One of the most devout followers of the Buddhist religion was Sho Shin. His father was King Sho En, ruler of Ryukyu Kingdom (Okinawa), and Sho Shin became King at the age of just 13 in 1477. Due to his devout religious beliefs, one of the first things he did during his reign was to ban all weapons. This ban was continued by the Satsuma clan. Those who studied martial arts now had to do so without any form of weaponry.

In 1609 Japan invaded Okinawa, and further to the ban on weaponry, placed a ban upon anyone doing martial arts, and so martial arts training became shrouded in secrecy. Okinawans, who were mainly peasants and farmers, were constantly in mortal danger as they had several confrontations with the heavily armed and trained Samurai. The Samurai were a clan as well as a sort of “feudal police” for the Japanese government at the time. They trained in Ju-Jitsu, several types of weaponry which included swordsmanship and had a moral code of ethics which made them formidable soldiers.

Okinawans in prospect of the inevitable conflict developed their own martial art. Over the next 300 years in Okinawa – during the long reigning ban on martial arts – three main branches of self defence became evident. These were Shuri-Te, Naha-Te and Tomari-Te named after the Okinawan towns within which they developed. They were known collectively as Okinawa-Te or Tode.

Eventually these developed into two mains styles, Shorin-Ryu which developed from Shuri and Tomari and Shorei-ryu which came from Naha. It is believed that Shorin-ryu was best for smaller men, with a light and fast style. Shorei-ryu was suited to the bigger, more powerful man. Apart from this unarmed combat Okinawans were still severely handicapped because the Samurai not only donned their razor sharp swords but also wore protective armour as well. Therefore Okinawans created new weapons from everyday farming tools because the conventional weapons were previously banned.

Now at this time of constant war and conflict, the Ryukyu Kingdom being a chain of hundreds of islands, was a well known port of trade and commerce between Okinawa and China. It is widely believed that one of the Chinese merchants; a master in Shaolin Boxing showed locals some techniques during one of the many “cultural exchanges” that took place on the ports. This was a significant integration as it supplemented and modified the resident arts on Okinawa added supposedly more fluid movements among other innovations.

Funakoshi Gichin was born in 1868 and began studying martial arts at a very young age, under Itosu Anko and Azato Yasutsune. The ban on martial arts still stood, and so Funakoshi would often have lessons with his instructors at night time, so not to be discovered. As the years elapsed, Funakoshi became more and more proficient, and he ultimately combined Shorin-Ryu and Shorei-Ryu which were the arts he studied. Also the arts which were known as Karate which Kanji characters were 中国 手, were interpreted as “China Hand.” Funakoshi changed the meaning of “Kara” which also meant empty, so that China Hand became “Empty Hand” 空 手.

The ban on martial arts was finally lifted in 1902 when Ogawa Shintaro, the Commissioner of Education recommended that martial arts should be included in physical education in the first middle school of Okinawa. This meant that Funakoshi could continue his training in without fear of discovery, and he could now spread the word of his karate. Funakoshi was invited to Japan in 1922 to give a demonstration of Karate at the First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo, which was organised by the Ministry of Education. After this demonstration he decided to remain in Japan to spread the word. It is thanks to his efforts that Karate became part of the school curriculum in Japan.

Funakoshi is widely known as the first Okinawan to introduce Karate to the Japanese public. Although some sources claim that Mabuni Kenwa (Shito-Ryu) and Choku Motobu (Goju-Ryu) were in Japan prior. Contrary to today, and unknown to most people, at that time Judo was the most popular martial art in Japan and little or nothing was known of Karate, which was seen as foreign and Okinawan. Funakoshi sensei who was a school teacher did not have much financial backing and initially struggled until he demonstrated for the Emperor. Kano Jigoro, the founder of Judo in 1882, befriended Funakoshi and invited him to teach classes at the Kodokan which was the headquarters for Judo.

Funakoshi sensei innovated his art even further and borrowed the keiko-gi or white pyjama like uniform from Judo as well as their kyu-dan ranking system. It has also been reported that he taught atemi-waza (striking techniques) to Kano’s students. After his stint at the Kodokan, he and Kano remained friends till Kano’s death in 1938. Funakoshi began going from University to University teaching his art which he simply referred to as “Karate-do.” He added the “do” suffix when he arrived at Japan to differentiate it from “Karate-jutsu.” Thus
changing the style from a killing art to a way of life. In a corollary to this change, he created the Dojo Kun and Niju Kun, as guideline principles for general etiquette.

Funakoshi Gichin performing Hangetsu circa 1920

Funakoshi travelled throughout Japan, taught at many well known universities such as; Keio, Waseda, Hitostsubashi, Gakushuin, Hosei and most famously Takushoku. It is alleged that he have the first shodan grade to seven students on April 10th 1924. These students were Tokuda, Otsuka Hironori (founder of Wado-Ryu), Akiba, Shimizu, Hirose, Gima and Kasuya Shinyō. Otsuka was possibly his greatest exponent and became his disciple in the following years. Otsuka began training under Funakoshi Sensei at age 30 and was already a master in Ju-Jitsu, however they parted ways as Otsuka founded his own Karate style which became known as Wado-Ryu and was an eclectic blend of Shotokan and Ju-Jitsu.

Funakoshi changed the Karate-do terminology to more Japanese terms as he sought to easier integrate his style to suit the palate of the nationalistic Japanese. Therefore kata names changed for example; Pinan became Heian and Passai became Bassai, Kushanku to Kanku, Wanshu to Enpi/Empi, Rohai to Meikyo, Chinto to Gankaku, Naihanchi to Tekki and so on. As mentioned prior Takushoku University became the main hub for Karate-do. Students that studied there actively were involved in Karate-do. At this time Funakoshi’s son, Funakoshi Yoshitaka also known by his nickname “Gigo” along with prominent Takushoku club members began revolutionising further, the already successful art.

Gigo Sensei alone introduced the low stances for the first time, which became characteristic of the art. He also added the mawashi geri (roundhouse kick) and ushiro-geri (back kick) to the curriculum. Also it is written, that in a friendly challenge to his father, he rebranded the style Shoto-Kan as opposed to Karate-do. This became the name of the first dojo as Shoto was Funakoshi Gichin’s pen name (he wrote literature, and did Kanji Calligraphy) and Kan being hall. This first official dojo was built in 1936 (1939 in other sources). It was bombed during World War II. It was around this time that Gigo sensei sadly passed away after being ill for a long time thus, Shotokan again lost another great exponent.

From left to right: Nakayama Masatoshi, Funakoshi Gichin and Okazaki Teruyuki.

However Takushoku University became a literal breeding ground for excellent Karateka, and chief among these at that time was Nakayama Masatoshi, Nishiyama Hidetaka and Okazaki Teruyuki who all trained under Funakoshi. In 1949 the Japan Karate Association was founded by Funakoshi, Nakayama Sensei as well Nishiyama Sensei. Their first honbu dojo was built in 1955. Nakayama sensei was a pioneer in the art, and had the most extensive contribution with help from his juniors Nishiyama and Okazaki. Together they sought to spread the art to all of Japan and ultimately to the entire world.

Now it is my opinion that this zeal to spread the art was a culmination of US G.I.s being stationed in Okinawa and Japan during and after the war and discovering the art.

Nakayama Masatoshi sensei teaching foreign students. His scientific approach to the art was unprecedented, and crucial to the spread of Karate to westerners.

Regardless of the true objective, it was clear that the shores of Japan would no longer be able to hold the secret and Nakayama desired to elevate the level of Shotokan. He was the first instructor to scientifically research Karate and how its techniques were effective in tandem with the body. Therefore this scientific approach gave training methods more clarity and increased the technical ability of students exponentially.

Funakoshi Sensei’s principles for Shotokan were very strict as observed in his motto: “Karate ni sente nashi.” Which means there is no first attack in Karate. Practice was mainly basics and kata and kumite was strictly pre-arranged because of the concepts of ikken hisatsu. Therefore Funakoshi thought it too dangerous for jiyu kumite (free sparring). However, the students loved it, and also Okazaki Sensei among other seniors wanted to create tournament Karate. However, they were aware of Funakoshi’s feelings towards this but were able to convince him when they pointed out that it would have been an excellent way to advertise and spread the art.

Therefore Okazaki, Nakayama and others spent years trying to develop sporting rules that enabled the competitors to maintain their safety without compromising the core philosophy of Shotokan. In an interview Okazaki stated that at first they used a sumo style ring, which was essentially a circle. They soon realised that it wasn’t practical and didn’t meet the needs of Karate. Eventually they agreed on a boxing style square ring and also developed the shobu-ippon point system. When they were finished, Funakoshi Sensei was pleased with what he saw and gave the go ahead for the first All Japan Karate Championships. It is also noted that Okazaki with the help of Nakayama with propagation of Karate in mind, developed the JKA instructors programme; the first of its kind in any martial art.

Egami Shigeru (Right) and Funakoshi Yoshitaka (Left) performing the bunkai (application) of Heian Sandan. Egami was never fond of the new “JKA” brand of Karate being a devout follower of Funakoshi’s philosophy and teaching method. Thus began the split within the Shotokan.

Funakoshi was unable however to witness the first All Japan Championships as he passed away in 1957 just before it was held. Funakoshi’s funeral culminated in the first sign of in-fighting within the Shotokan fraternity. Now many historical references praise the JKA and its contributions to globalising karate. However, there was a faction that although closely affiliated with Funakoshi, had no connection to the JKA. This faction was led by Egami Shigeru who also trained under Funakoshi and surmised that his Karate in its original format should be preserved.

Harada sensei was also not keen on the decision to “sportify” Karate-do. He was also one of Egami’s disciples and one of only four of Funakoshi’s students still alive today.

This group came to call themselves the “Shotokai” and isn’t as widely known today as Shotokan is. One of Egami’s exponents Harada Mitsusuke, made statements in an interview, that gave the impression that he did not share the reverence that the rest of the world had for the JKA. He said: “There was a time it is true, when I was close to him. It was the time when we taught the American Air force groups after the war. My impression then was that he was not particularly special, just a karateka with some experience. So I do not really understand why the JKA later chose to turn him into some kind of demi-god.” That was a statement of course he made about Nakayama sensei. The animosity came to its peak seemingly when there was a dispute over Funakoshi’s funeral arrangements.

End of Part One.

Hirano 平野


3 thoughts on “Also did this in February 2011 on tumblr. The Shotokan timeline part one

  1. myshotokan December 31, 2012 / 8:14 pm

    Wow this took a lot of time and research and PASSION to put this two-part post together. Great job! Definitely will point people your way from my blog.

    Osu from Winnipeg Canada!

    Jill Lampi, Nidan

  2. hiranom20 January 1, 2013 / 7:44 am

    Thanks much! It was actually one marathon article done in about three hours. The research was cumulative over years perhaps; bits and pieces from all over. Apart from an active practitioner, I consider myself an unofficial Shotokan historian lol! Osu!

    PS: By the way, me and some colleagues from my club want to start a blog highlighting karate in Trinidad & Tobago (where I live). Will keep you posted in 2013. Look forward to your blog posts as well!

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