Origins of Shotokan

Karate is a martial art developed in Japan from a system used on an island called Okinawa. Okinawa is the Principle Island of the Ryukyu Archipelago laying three hundred miles to the south of Japan and three miles east of main land China. Although the roots of karate can be traced back thousands of years to India, the evolution of karate as we know it today began in the seventeenth century. Legend has it that the Indian Buddhist monk Bodhidarma the originator of Zen Buddhism brought Chuan-Fa to the Shaolin temple in China during the Sung Dynasty. Some historians claim this to be false, but yet it remains a popular view. Very little is known from that period until record of the practice of Chuan-Fa in Okinawa in 1372 when King Satto declared his allegiance to Chinas Ming Emperor. In the centuries to follow Chuan-Fa gained a strong foothold in Okinawa practiced alongside with an indigenous unarmed fighting system known as Tode.

In 1609 the Japanese Satsuma Clan marched on the Ryukyu Islands ending their independence and banning all weaponry. This brought a bond between the Chuan-Fa and Tode to develop a fighting method to strengthen the physical and spiritual body in a bid to survive. The union came to be known as Te (hand). Te was practiced in secret in three main centers around the towns of, Shuri, Naha, and Tomari. These local variations were later known as Shuri-Te, Naha-Te and Tomari-Te. Between 1784 and 1903 karate replaced the word Te to describe the fighting system. In 1875 the Satsuma occupation of the Ryuku Islands ended and they officially became part of the Japanese Empire. By 1903 karate was practiced openly in schools. Karate was by now a combination of hand and feet techniques influence by its origins. Karate was officially introduced to Japan in 1917 when Gichin Funakoshi demonstrated the art at the Butokuden in Kyoto. By 1921 popularity had grown and Prince Hirohito was so impressed by a demonstration it was included in his official report to the Japanese Ministry of Education recommending it to be taught in Universities.
Prominent karate masters Funakoshi, Mijagi and Mabuni were instrumental in developing the three main styles from which all other originate, Shotokan, Shito-ryu and Goju-ryu.

Yoshitaka Funakoshi son of Gichin brought later changes forming Shotokan Karate into what is recognized today. Gichin Funakoshi was also a poet and wrote under the pen name “Shoto”, meaning “whispering pines”, the Shotokan was the “place of Shoto” where Gichin Funakoshi set up a dojo (training hall). The development of modern day Shotokan can be, in a large part, accredited to Gichin Funakoshi’s third son, Yoshitaka. It is Yoshitaka that has resulted in the karate that Shotokan exponents today practice. Yoshitaka is known to have developed longer, deeper stances to create more strength, his kicks were more dynamic and the attacking techniques were developed even further all with the patronage of his father. Around 1930, Yoshitaka took over the running of his father’s main dojo in Japan and continued until 1944/45. Yoshitaka was instrumental in introducing many more katas to the Shotokan system which he had learned from Azato. He was also instrumental in developing katas such as Ten No Kata, Chi No Kata, Hito No Kata, the five Heian katas, the three Tekki katas, Kanku Dai, Kanku Sho, Empi, Gankaku, Jutte, Hangetsu, Jion, Meikyo. Yoshitaka was critically ill, however, and was told when he was a boy of around 13 that he would not live beyond his twenties due to tuberculosis. However, through hard training he lived to the age of forty seven. Yoshitaka taught at the Shotokan dojo until 1944/45 but by 1945 he was seriously ill and much of the teaching was carried out by Genshin HironishWithout a doubt from 1932/33 until 1945, Yoshitaka had a enormous influence on the way Shotokan karate developed. However when he died in 1947, Gichin Funakoshi had to come out of retirement” to take over from where his son had left off to oversee the training.


Gichin Funakoshi was born in Shuri, Okinawa in 1868. As a boy, he was trained by two famous masters of that time. Each trained him in a different Okinawan martial art. From Yasutsune Azato he learned Shuri-te. From Yasutsune Itosu, he learned Naha-te. It would be the melding of these two styles that would one day become Shotokan karate. Funakoshi-sensei is the man who introduced karate to Japan. In 1917 he was asked to perform his martial art at a physical education exhibition sponsored by the Ministry of Education. He was asked back again in 1922 for another exhibition. He was asked back a third time, but this was a special performance. He demonstrated his art for the emperor and the royal family! After this, Funakoshi-sensei decided to remain in Japan and teach and promote his art. Gichin Funakoshi passed away in 1957 at the age of 88. Aside from creating Shotokan karate and introducing it to Japan and the world, he also wrote the very book on the subject of karate, “Ryukyu Kempo: Karate-do”. He also wrote “Karate-Do Kyohan” – The Master Text, the “handbook” of Shotokan and he wrote his autobiography, “Karate-Do: My Way of Life“. These books and his art are a fitting legacy for this unassuming and gentle man.This is a photo of a memorial to Gichin Funakoshi. This memorial to Master Funakoshi was erected at Enkaku-ji Temple in Kamakura in 1968. The calligraphy at the right is by the master; that at the left is by Asahina Sogen, chief priest of the temple, and reads, “Karate in sente nashi”(There is no first attack in karate).

Twenty Precepts of Master Ginchin Funakoshi

  1. Karate-do wa rei ni hajimari, rei ni owaru koto wo wasuruna — In karate, start with a bow and finish with a bow.

  2. Karate ni sente nashi — No initiative attack in Karate.

  3. Karate wa gi no tasuke — Karate is a great assistance to justice.

  4. Maxu jiko wo shire, shikoshite tao wo shire — Know yourself at first and then others.

  5. Gijitsu yoi shinjutsu — Spirit first: techniques second.

  6. Kokoro wa hanatom kuto wo yosu — Be ready to release your mind.

  7. Wazawai wa getai ni shozu — Accidents come out of idleness.

  8. Dojo nomino karate to omou na — Do not think that you can learn karate only in the Dojo.

  9. Karate no shugyo wa issho de aru — It will take your entire life to learn karate.

  10. Arai-yuru mono wo karate-ka seyo, soko ni niyo-mi ari — Karate-ize everything.

  11. Karate wa yu no goto shi taezu netsudo wo ataezareba moto no mizu ni kaeru — Karate is just like hot water. If you do not give heat constantly, it will again become cold water.

  12. Katsu kangae wa notsu na makenu kangae wa hitsuyo — Do not think you have to win. Think, rather, that you do not have to lose.

  13. Tekki ni yotte tenka seyo — Victory depends on your ability to tell vulnerable points from invulnerable ones.

  14. Tattakai wa kyo-jitsu no siji ikan ni ari — Move according to your opponent.

  15. Hito no te ashi wo ken to omoe — Consider your opponent’s hands and legs as you would sharp swords.

  16. Danshi mon wo izureba hyakumon no tekki ari — As soon as you leave home for work, think that millions of opponents are waiting for you.

  17. Kamae wa shoshinsha ni ato wa shizentai — Low stance for beginners; natural stance for advanced students.

  18. Kata wa tadashiku jissen wa betsu mono — Practicing a KATA is one thing and engaging in a real fight is another.

  19. Chikara no kyojaku. karada no shinshuku. wazu no kankyo wo wasuruna — Do not forget (1) strength and weakness of power, (2) bending down and stretching up of body, (3) slowness and speed of techniques.

  20. Tsune ni shinen kufu seyo — Devise at all times.