Gichin Funakoshi was born in 1868 in Shuri, the old capital of Okinawa. As a child he was weak and sickly, but after beginning karate training he gradually grew stronger and for the rest of his life, his health was so good that he never had to take medicine or even see a doctor.
Funakosi was a small man - standing about five feet tall and probably weighing only 120 lbs. He came into the martial arts because one of his friends at school was the son of Yasutsune Azato (1827-1906), the noted karate master.
It was with Azato that Funakoshi began his training in karate, which in those days was still regarded as a mysterious martial art. Later he also studied with the famous Yasutsune Itosu (1830-1915) one the most important figures in karate history. Both of these experts - who Funakoshi revered to his dying day - had been students of Sokon Matsumura. Azato and Itosu were friends, although rather different in physique and temperament. Itosu was rather short and sturdy with great natural strength. He was widely regarded as the leading expert in Shuri-te and is responsible for many of the modern day versions of Kata, such as the ‘Pinan’ (Heian), the ‘Passai-dai’ and ‘sho’ (Bassai), and so on.
Karate at this time, circa 1880, was still practiced in secret and pupils were forbidden to demonstrate the art or even to talk about it with others - a habit of secrecy which lingered on from the Satsuma Rule. Of course, this limited the spread of the art and there were few karate students. Young Gichin Funakoshi would make the long walk to Master Azato’s house where he would practice Kata by the light of a dim lamp. Progress in the art was slow and only when he was able to perform the complete Kata to his master’s satisfaction could he move onto the next one.
Funakoshi studied with Azato and Itosu for many years. It was only when he was in his thirties that he began to teach karate himself, and it was not until he had turned fifty that he turned to karate as a means of making a living. But throughout his life, karate remained his main interest.
In the spring of 1922, the first All Japan Athletic Exhibition was held in Tokyo. The organizers decided to include Okinawan Karate in the program and the man chosen to represent the art was Gichin Funakoshi. He was an ideal choice; besides being one of the leading figures of Okinawan Karate, he was well versed in Japanese culture and manners and was a fine calligrapher and scholar. At the exhibition Funakoshi performed Kata - and according to Professor Yasuki Ito of Hirosaki University, “His face was red with blood, his spirit was full, and his performance was thrilling.”
Master Funakosi was due to return to Okinawa when he was asked by Jigoro Kano, the founder of Judo, to give a demonstration a the Kodokan. He took Shinkin Gima, who had also studied karate in Okinawa, along with him. Before a Judo audience of about eighty, Funakoshi performed his favorite Kata, ‘Kushanku’ (Kanku-dai), and Gimi did ‘Naihanchin’ (Tekki). His demonstration aroused such interest that several people and organisations asked him to stay and teach the art, and he never returned to Okinawa. Gichin Funakoshi was 53-years-old when he decided to settle in Japan and embark on a new career as a karate teacher.
It is clear that 1925 Karate was not the Shotokan-style that we have today. ‘Shotokan’ Karate was developed later over a period of approximately ten to twenty years, but the karate that Funakoshi originally brought to Japan was what he had learned from Azato and Itosu. It was a karate which was based primarily on the practice of Kata, with little development of Kumite. The stances were much higher than in modern Shotokan, the movements shorter, and the kicking was primarily limited to the basic front kick. The main training tool was the Makiwara (striking post). So when he began teaching in Japan, Funakoshi concentrated almost solely on Kata. Pupils were first taught how to make a fist, how to thrust, and then they moved straight into Kata. They learned the five ‘Pinan’ (Heian), then the ‘Naihanchin’ (Tekki), and so on. According to Masatomo Takagi, the training at this time was not very severe, but because of the traditional attitude to learning, it could take some time to proceed from one Kata to the next. [The Kata taught by Funakoshi were: ‘Pinan’ (5 Kata), ‘Naihanchin’ (3 Kata), ‘Passai’, ‘Kushanku’, ‘Seisan’ (Hangatsu), ‘Wanshu’ (Empi), ‘Chinto’ (Gankaku), ‘Jion’, and ‘Jitte’.
Around 1925 they began to experiment in Kumite, basic practice of sparring where one trainee would attack, usually with Oi-zuki (lunge punch) and the other defend-and-counter with techniques from the Kata. And at some time the practice of Kihon was instituted where certain basic techniques were picked out for repeated practice. Although these developments were quite basic, they were important first steps in introducing some kind of training structure into what had largely been an unsystematized art.
The initial growth of karate in Japan was not very rapid. In the beginning, Master Funakoshi taught at the Meisojuko, it contained a room of about 20 tatami (Japanese straw mats), which he used as his dojo. Later he shared the dojo of Kendo Master, Hakudo Nakayama, and Karate Clubs were formed at several universities; Keio being the first in 1924, followed by Tatushoku (Takudai), Waseda, and Hosei among others. It was not until 1935 that Funakosi had a permanent dojo of his own. Funds were given by his followers and the new dojo was built in the Meijiro section of Tokyo. It was named the ‘Shotokan’ after Funakosi’s pen-name of ‘Shoto’ and ‘kan,’ meaning hall. By this time however, Master Funakoshi was nearing 70 years of age. He had just completed his important book, Karate do Kyohan, detailing the major Kata, and he planned to cut back on his teaching. Around this time he assigned the responsibility for leadership of the Shotokan School to his third son, Yoshitaka.
In the few years since karate had arrived in Japan, changes had already begun to appear in the art, such as the introduction of a belt-system and the clarification of grading requirements, the development of a training structure and new training methods such as Kihon and Kumite. Master Funakoshi was a traditionalist and it is probably true to say that he made some of these changes under pressure from his young students - such as the development of Kumite, for example, which he was never really enthusiastic about. But at seventy he was too old and set in his ways to take the development of karate much further. This is why Yoshitaka Funakoshi was such a good choice to succeed him. Yoshitaka was young, strong, and creative, and in fact it was mainly he who developed the Shotokan-style. Although his father is rightly famous, Yoshitaka Funakosi remains a shadowy figure in karate history, a kind of ‘forgotten genius’ of modern karate.