Shotokan Karate is the best-known style of karate worldwide. It’s a uniquely Japanese art that has a very interesting story regarding its origins and what we know as the art today. Shotokan karate has become one of the most practiced styles of karate, with millions of practitioners around the world. Read on to learn more about the history of this outstanding style…
Gishin Funakoshi (1868-1957), the founder of Shotokan Karate, is often referred to as the “father of modern karate”. He was born in Okinawa, Japan, and began studying traditional Okinawan martial arts at a young age. Whe Funakoshi was a boy he was not healthy, and so his family enabled him to study martial arts to overcome this problem. His teachers were Anko Asato and Anko Itosu, who taught him martial arts, classical Chinese literature, and poetry.
Later, for a short period, Funakoshi also learned from Sokon Matsumura (teacher of Asato and Itosu). All three of these men are prominent historical figures in Okinawan karate. There were no style names at that time, and what these men taught was simply referred to as te “hand” (or tii in Okinawan). This martial arts teaching was done at night, in secret, due to the Japanese ban on the practice of fighting and weapons in the Okinawan Islands.
Funakoshi’s poetry pen-name was “Shoto”, which translates as “pine” (sho) “wave” (to) – often translated as “waving pine.” His style of karate was initially known as “Shoto-ryu,” or “Shoto’s style”, based on his pen name “Shoto.” The term “Shotokan” is translated as “house of Shoto”, and that is the name of the honbu dojo (main practice hall / headquarters). Technically, the name of the style is Shotokan-ryu, and today we generally refer to it as “Shotokan Karate”, “Shotokan Karate-do”, or simply “Shotokan”.
Funakoshi was invited to demonstrate his art in Tokyo in 1922, which helped popularize karate in Japan. He became good friends with the founder of Judo, Jigoro Kano, and like many other martial arts, adopted Judo’s (“mudansha”/colored belt/kyurank and “yudansha”/black belt/dan rank) hierarchical ranking system. (NOTE: Okinawan martial arts did not traditionally use a belt ranking system.)
Funakoshi’s martial art was well-received in Japan and quickly became popular. In 1936, he established an association known in Japan as Dai Nihon Karate-do Shotokai. This was the original umbrella association for Shotokan Karate. Since then, many Shotokan governing bodies have been established: Japan Karate Association (JKA), Shotokan Karate International Federation (SKIF), International Shotokan Karate Federation (ISKF), International Traditional Karate Federation (ITKF), and the Shotokan Karate-Do International Association (SKDIA).
“Older” martial arts emphasized the combative nature of fighting and war. “Modern” martial arts, however, focuses more on the development of the individual and sport competition. When examining the history (and evolution) of Shotokan Karate, this distinction must be made. The karate-jutsu (空手術) Funakoshi brought from Okinawa was very different than the karate-do (空手道) we know today. Simply stated, Funakoshi’s original martial art was “adapted” to better align with the culture of mainland Japan.
First, Funakoshi emphasized not only the physical aspects of karate but also its philosophical and mental components. He introduced the “Niju Kun” or “Twenty Precepts of Karate,” which encapsulated his teachings on character development and martial ethics.
Funakoshi’s third son, Yoshitaka “Gigo” Funakoshi (船越義豪), 1906-1945, left his mark on what we know today as Shotokan Karate.
Whereas Funakoshi’s Okinawan martial art emphasized tall stances, close-contact fighting, upper body training, hand techniques, grappling, pressure point striking and predominantly the front kick (to low targets), Gigo emphasized long, deep stances, longer-range fighting (which he learned through sword training in Japan) and foot sweeps (learned from Kendo and Judo), a wider variety of kicks (adding the round kick, side thrusting and snap kicks, back kicks), with an emphasis on higher kicks than his father.
Gigo’s sparring style was hard, fast, and emphasized attacking from long range and maintaining distance from the opponent. In short, Funakoshi’s karate was originally more “self-defense” oriented, whereas Gigo’s karate was more “sport” oriented.
After World War II, Shotokan karate experienced significant growth in Japan and beyond. Many of Funakoshi’s students spread the art internationally, contributing to its global popularity. Shotokan karate has become one of the most practiced styles of karate, with millions of practitioners around the world.
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