Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Karate do Kyohan – Funakoshi reflection of Itosu

Karate do Kyohan – Funakoshi reflection of Itosu

A brief personal history

It was Christmas Eve 1976 and my wife and I were house sitting for a friend in the countryside north of Scranton. The evening was crisp, cloudy and cold. As we were making ready to go to bed snow began to fall. Christmas morning was a purely magical white Christmas.

The gift I received from my wife was a copy of the 1973 English publication of Funakoshi Ginchin’s “Karate-Do Kyohan – the Master Text”. This was one of the first karate texts I owned and has remained in my martial arts book collection ever since.

While I was an Isshinryu stylist my college roommate had studied Shotokan at Temple with Okazaki Sensei and about 5 years later I was to have a chance to study Shotokan with Sutrisno Tristan, whose father had studied with Funakoshi Sensei in Japan in the 1930’s. The text proved to be a help to understand the system to a point.

Decades passed and a few years ago I came to understand this was not the original text, but the latest revision of many that had been made by Funakoshi Sensei and his organization over the years.

When I received a copy of “Tanpanshu” the works of Funakoshi Ginchin, compiled and translated by Patrick & Yuiko McCarthy I was pleased to see a large selection of photographs showing Funakoshi Sensei demonstrating how karate techniques could be used against various attacks. It was mentioned they came from the original 1935 “Karate-Do Kyohan”. When I compared them to my own 1973 copy I found the section had been replaced with sparring techniques (a very different order of technique usage).

Then a few years ago the University of Hawaii shared the original “Karate-Do Kyohan” online in free .pdf format for research purposes. You can download your own copy at

The self defense techniques are found beginning at page 109.

Of course the original is in Japanese which I do not read by I can interpret the photographs fairly well as far as that goes, but it will never replace competent translation. At this time trying to obtain a translation is beyond me means.

Funakoshi Sensei’s Self Defense Techniques

One of the Funakoshi Self Defense techniques from the Karate-Do Kyohan

When I first saw the self defense techniques of Funakoshi Sensei I was surprised at what I saw. Many of them incorporated a grappling/grabbing element that the decades of magazine articles and books about his Shotokan didn’t share.

I’m not going to place them in this article because all of you can view the original for yourself, but there is no question that there is depth in the applications Funakoshi shared. They include defensive uses, countering defenses to your own attacks, the use of kicking and a bit more. Not as much as Mutsu Mizuo shared in his “Karate Kempo” or even Shiroma Shimpan use of kata technique in Nakasone’s “Karate-Do Taikan”. Mutsu of course does include this 17 techniques and variations on many of them in this category of karate usage.

What my studies are revealing is that the techniques Funakoshi Sensei selected to follow what Itosu described in his ‘Ten Lessons of Toudi’ in 1908. Itosu first defines the techniques of Toudi as “entering, deflecting, releasing and seizing”. What Funakoshi is showing certainly uses entering, deflecting and seizing. It is then very possible that these demonstrations are the older use of Karate he had previously studied.

You can read my comments on Itosu’s 1908 letter he wrote at

I am sure the use of the seizing hand incorporates Hikite too. Charles Goodin has has a good article on this at

What first strikes me as interesting is these examples so strongly demonstrate a principle I worked out in the early 80’s that a karate technique could consist of a block or parry followed by a grab and strike followed by a lock, takedown or throw. This was my start in understanding how to apply karate technique and it appears my logic was not faulty. Of course the proof of an application is the attacker goes down.

Furthermore, it appears these applications require extended understanding of how to use technique, similar to the extra movements added by Shimpan in his description.

If anything this confirms my earlier suspicion that all of the works created by Itosu’s students in the 1920’s taken together offer us a great insight into earlier Okinawan Karate. I only wish I had access to the English translation of these techniques (and that more of these works were available for us to read) to understand what the photographs aren’t sharing. I can make these techniques work for myself but that does not mean I fully understand what Funakoshi Sensei meant. I only hope my research points the way for others to go further.

So where did the Shotokan applications go?

This is the big question isn’t it? After training with Sutrisno Tristan for a decade and experiencing his unique family bunkai of Shotokan, what I read in the magazines and Shotokan books (and Shotokan is one of the most thoroughly documented karate systems to a point) didn’t match the instruction I received. Then with the advent of the internet, being able to see what bunkai was being done I found how different what I had studied was from what everyone else in Shotokan seemed to be doing. In fact there is a lot of opinion that Shotokan is Okinawan karate dumbed down and that for whatever reason Funakoshi did so, it was done intentionally.

Personally I think such opinions are wrong and very misleading based on a real lack of understanding of Itosu’s plan for karate and what Funakoshi Sensei was actually doing. In my opinion the JKA Shotokan (and all of the other Shotokan/Shotokai variations) are perfectly fine, just following different templates from each other and from Okinawan karate. Different means just that, not better or worse which is only a judgment based on personal principles.

So how do a minor Isshinryu karate-ka living in New Hampshire arrive at such a conclusion?

Let’s begin with what Funakoshi Sensei did.

In 1922 he traveled to Japan and presented his karate and then remained and worked his way to becoming an instructor. In Tanpanshu there is reference to Funakoshi (a former school teacher) having programs in multiple schools at the same time and we know as time passed he established his program in multiple universities. This is a far different sort of instruction than just running a dojo. He had to develop instructors for those programs in the short term and in turn their responsibility with running each program would make it more difficult for them to receive advanced instruction and likely they were continually drilled in the basics to help develop their students.

Funakoshi Sensei moving from intimate personal instruction to large group instruction moved training to more concentration on basics and drills, likely building on the Itosu school instruction efforts. Then add the factor the likely training time for most students was 4 years before they moved on with life developing what was possible to meet Itosu’s goals of using Karate for physical and personal development moved the art away from the –Jutsu beginnings of Funakoshi into the –Do development.

By 1935 Funakoshi had been in Japan a dozen years and in his mid 60’s. I see the development of the “Karate-Do Kyohan” as a statement of what his art could become. Not a complete template, far too difficult for a book, but a more complete outline of the arts goals. So he did include a section on the use of Karate technique as I have been referring to previously.

He also shared information from his instructor’s Bubishi, as McCarthy Sensei explained in “Tanpanshu” they were “The Eight Principles of Quanfa”, “Maxims of Sun Zi”, “Principles of Ancient Law”, “Quanfa Strategies” and “Grappling and Escapes”. (In both “Tanpanshu” and the “Bubushi” by McCarthy Sensei you can find translations of these sections.) The inclusion of this material is most pointedly referring to the use of karate for further development of Karate.

What is interesting is that this was not to remain constant.

As time passed the “Karate-Do Kyohan” was republished with revisions and by the 1957 edition the self defense techniques had been replaced with a section on sparring techniques, an indication of how the JKA had moved Karate training.

As I try to piece together the histories I have read a lot of this occurred because of the changing times. As the 1930’s progressed students had shorter time to train facing draft into the Japanese military. The advent of the Pacific War years did not leave time for individual karate study on the whole. Funakoshi would have been in his 70’s by those times and I believe much of his efforts were focused on the development of his son Yoshitake’s karate as his obvious successor. But Funakohsi Senseis son died in 1945.

The Pacific War over and the surviving Shotokan students and instructors began to rebuild their Karate traditions. The years of the war meant lost knowledge and various instructors memories gave rise to variations. Funakoshi Sensei was in his 80’s and took the role of figurehead in the developing JKA, but except for classes in kata seems to not be the driving force in the shape of JKA development. One of the articles in “Tanpanshu” described in the 50’s the student’s were focused on competition and I contend that the students wants, the instructors who remained in the JKA combined together to shape their Shotokan towards today’s art.

In every sense Shotokan represents the Do Funakoshi Sensei described. This does not mean it’s less effective than the older arts, just its movement into a new time and need took place.

We need to understand there is no perfect art that fits all needs. One works with one’s art to make it perfect for one’s self. Does Shotokan need deeper application study? That’s not for me to say and in the end a correctly executed technique, any correctly executed technique should be able to destroy an attack providing the training and experience leads to that goal.

Funakoshi Sensei did far more than develop Shotokan, he also documented one vision of his earlier training and left it so we could participate in those days a bit, and I continue to maintain all of the works of the 20’s and 30’s combined share a wider picture of the Okinawan origins of Karate.

Well this is what I see at this time. I only hope my study leads to more individuals looking at the past more clearly and together we can develop and share a greater vision of what Karate was.


Brendan Murray said...

I cannot recall exactly but about a year ago I saw that a new comPlete translation of the original into English was tobe available. Limited edition and too expensive but the extracts online seemed pretty good. Maybe classical Fighting Arts ?

theFluffyBunny said...


I am pleasantly stunned by your writing. This article is beyond thought provoking. Very well done, and it dovetails nicely in some of my own current theories, by that I mena it supports them rather than duplicates them.

Jet Taylor said...

I love the translation by Harumi Suzuki-Johnson and cherish it. It contains much more including self defense, weapons an a translation of the part excluded from the version you referenced. Shotokan: A Precise History is also a good work despite the author's legal issues which I believe are well documented.

Victor Smith said...

At the time this was written, this was what was available as for resources. I have not researched this or rewritten is since that time. Thank you for your references, I may do so again, While this is primarily for my students, I have posted a bit of material for them. This makes a point that Some of the material may need updating from time to time to consider more material becoming available.