Funakoshi’s 20 Precepts: Essential Guidance for all Karateka

By Joel Williams | Shotokan Karate

Jul 31
Calligraphy of the Shotokan niju kun - first published in 1938

Gichin Funakoshi (1868–1957), the founder of Shotokan Karate-Do, is often credited as being the “father” of modern karate. Funakoshi had trained in both of the popular styles of Okinawan karate of the time: Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū – see Karate-Do My Way of Life and refer to the table below.

In addition to being a karate master, Funakoshi was an avid poet and philosopher who would reportedly go for long walks in the forest where he would meditate and write his poetry. Following the teachings of Anko Itosu and Anko Asato, he was one of the Okinawan karate masters who introduced karate to the Japanese mainland in 1922. In 1930, Funakoshi established an association named Dai-Nihon Karate-do Kenkyukai. The association is known today as the Shotokai. He taught karate at various Japanese universities and became honorary head of the Japan Karate Association when it was established in 1949. Let’s take a closer look at his legacy and the insights he left behind for those who train in karate and wish to use it as a mechanism for growing and developing physically, mentally and spiritually.

The Okinawan Origins of Karate-Do

A List of Karate Styles By Region of Development and Philosophy of Application

Before his death on April 26, 1957, Master Funakoshi wrote nine books about karate. Funakoshi said “The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants.” – see Karate-Do Kyohan: The Master Text.

Dojo Philosophy

To support this truth and offer direction to karate practitioners, he left us with twenty principles (or precepts) – see The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate: The Spiritual Legacy of the Master. The precepts stress spiritual considerations and mental agility over brute strength and technique. Karate-ka should not rely solely on technique (striking, kicking, blocking) – they should also cultivate the nonphysical aspects of their art as well. Funakoshi’s principles are open to various interpretations. Think of these as guidelines – just like karate, you have to make them yours and express them uniquely.

Calligraphy of the Shotokan niju kun “twenty instructions” first published in 1938

The 20 Precepts …

  1. Do not forget that karate-do begins and ends with rei.
    Rei is Japanese for “to bow”. Bowing is a sign of respect. The samurai bushido code of honor that embraces virtues such as respect, obedience, honor, and loyalty (among others) is the underlying application for this precept. In today’s day and time, we seem to have forgotten about respect and honor toward others as is sometimes seen in the popular sport of mixed martial arts where “trash talking” and throwing dollies at buses lead to better pay-per-view numbers.
  2. There is no first strike in karate.
    Some will argue that this precept suggests that karate should only be used for defense (responding to someone striking you) and never in a “first move” manner. However, if you read the writing of Funakoshi, and other karate masters, you will find the idea of preemptive striking as a fundamental concept in self-protection. Having said that, the karate-ka should wisely use his/her knowledge and ability. It should not be misused for to purposely injure others (unless they threaten your safety, of course). One samurai saying goes like this: “A sword must never be recklessly drawn”.
  3. Karate stands on the side of justice.
    Karate is not only about self-development and self-protection. It is also about protecting others: our friends, family, and even strangers. Those to wield the ability to ward off an attack (against them or someone else) has a duty to do so. This does not mean that you should go out looking for skirmishes to inject yourself into – it means that you should be ready and willing to defend yourself and others when and if necessitated. Simon Wiesenthal, a holocaust survivor who later became a Nazi hunter, said this: “For evil to flourish, it only requires good men to do nothing.”
  4. First know yourself, then others.
    Using Karate-Do as a way to better oneself requires the individual to critically examine every aspect of their training (and their life). You should know your own personal strengths and weaknesses before you evaluate those in others. You should know your own triggers, temptations, etc. (and control those) – and in doing so you can recognize when others are becoming angry, etc. and armed with that knowledge you can potentially prevent violence before it happens.
  5. Mentality over technique.
    Develop a strong mind (not just a strong body). A strong mind will enable you to thoughtfully plan your training and develop a positive attitude toward your art. In addition, not all confrontations should end in physical altercations – many times they can be prevented (or ended) simply through words.
  6. The mind must be set free.
    This one is about knowing you limits (and your potential). It also speaks to using your creativity and not being bound by your training. There are many applications for any single movement in kata, for example. In addition, some have interpreted this precept as being “in the moment” (mushin) allowing you to do your best in any given situation.
  7. Calamity springs from carelessness.
    Master Funakoshi opens his essay on this principle with commentary from a traditional Japanese proverb: Carelessness – a great enemy; the flames leap higher and higher. In the essay, he goes on to say: “Careless preparation, or outright negligence, is a clear formula for disaster”. This precept urges us to eliminate carelessness from our lives – in training, at work, when interacting with others, in any area of life.
  8. Karate goes beyond the dojo.
    You should not just practice the physical aspects of karate in the dojo – you should do so diligently at home as well. Likewise, when interacting with others, allow your karate training and discipline to govern your emotions and social interactions with others.
  9. Karate is a lifelong pursuit.
    This one is straightforward / self-explanatory. Early on, don’t be concerned about how soon you will obtain your next belt. Once you reach black belt that is also not the end. In his book Karate-do: My way of life, Funakoshi tells us that he began karate training at age 11 under Master Azato. He was required to learn and practice the first tekki (naihanchi) kata for three years. Funakoshi found that tiresome, exasperating, even humiliating sometimes. “Hito kata san nen” (one kata in three years) was a common saying among karate masters at the time. This does not mean that you need three years to learn a kata – rather it is the minimum time required for your body to assimilate the movements. I have heard other advanced black belts and masters say that they have gained new insights from kata even decades after learning the sequence.
  10. Apply the way of karate to all things. Therein lies its beauty.
    Do you notice considerable overlap in some precepts? We should remember that a good teacher uses repetition to entrench knowledge into students! This precept echoes several other precepts. It teaches us to use what we learn during training and apply that life in general.
  11. Karate is like boiling water: without heat, it returns to its tepid state.
    In this precept Funkaoshi is telling us that if we do not continually practice, we will lose improvements obtained through training. In other words, consistency is key.
  12. Do not think of winning. Think rather of not losing.
    Don’t focus on winning tournaments. If you train hard and compete at your best that alone is a “win”. Likewise, there may be times when you struggle with specific techniques, a new kata or in kumite. But if you train hard and diligently you will always get better. Others may quickly do well at things you don’t but that should be of no concern to you (other than to congratulate and encourage them). My wife and I have two children who run track and cross country. We encourage them to improve their time in any event – that is the benchmark, not the times of teammates.
  13. Make adjustments according to your opponent.
    Here, Funakoshi is teaching us that we need to be flexible in how we face opponents or situations. Have an open mind and make adjustments as needed. No two opponents are ever the same; no two life situations are the same.
  14. The outcome of a battle depends on how one handles emptiness and fullness (weakness and strength).
    This precept brings to mind battlefield tactics and likely is influenced by the writings of Sun Tzu. It also conjures up the ideas of yin/yang: knowing when to retreat (yield/soft) and when to advance (resist/hard).
  15. Think of the opponent’s hands and feet as swords.
    Do not take your opponent for granted. Just as a samurai would draw his sword and kill his opponent before the opponent unsheathed his sword (one shot, one kill) the hands and feet are weapons that must be respected. One may also reasonably consider the concept of preemptive striking within this precept.
  16. When you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies.
    If you seriously apply your karate to all aspects of life you will not think of your “opponent” as someone standing in front of you. Rather, the opponent may be yourself (i.e., your bad attitude) or the many opportunities throughout the day you have to interact with one or multiple people. Each decision, each circumstance, then, becomes your “opponent”.
  17. Kamae (ready stance) is for beginners; later one stands in shizentai (natural stance).
    It is important for the student of Karate to learn all the kamae. In the beginning phase of training, one should exert him/herself to master the different forms of kamae. These are an important part of the foundation or basics of Karate training. Once the mind and body have learned the basics, it is now best to focus on the effective application of those basics. Master Funakoshi explains, “As your training progresses it is crucial to avoid becoming attached to the concept of kamae. You must be able to move and change your position freely.  Consider this point along with the sixth principle, ‘The mind must be set free’.”
  18. Perform kata exactly; actual combat is another matter.
    Kata were designed to build strength, flexibility and speed. They were also designed for you to learn balance, retreating, advancing and how to employ power into techniques. Once you engage in a real confrontation the movements should flow naturally and should be done with adaptation – as the situation dictates – and with “no mind” (mushin).
  19. Do not forget the employment or withdrawal of power, the extension or contraction of the body, the swift or leisurely application of technique.
    This precept teaches about the key elements required in our basic training (kihon) and also in our sparring (kumite). Development of these are key for improving your karate. In thinking about this precept, consider, for instance: when to use the right amount of power for a technique, the degree of expansion or contraction of your body required to perform a technique, the appropriate speed needed for a technique, and how you breathe during techniques.
  20. Be constantly mindful, diligent, and resourceful in your pursuit of the Way.
    Think of this as the overarching precept – a common thread spun through the other nineteen precepts. Perhaps Funakoshi is telling us that in Karate-Do, as with every aspect of our daily life, we most constantly strive to be the best version of ourselves.
Master Gichin Funakoshi

A Few Last Words

All of Funakoshi’s writings should be required reading for any serious Shotokan practitioner. The 20 precepts are universal in nature, and the beauty of their use lies in one’s personal interpretation and application. Just as kata have multiple bunkai, it would be worth our while to share our personal thoughts on the precepts with one another in order to consider and learn multiple insights. Perhaps the central importance of the precepts is in getting us to think deeply about our training and how we can improve ourselves – both on and off the mats. I believe the idea of seeking perfection of character represents what Karate-Do is really about: to examine oneself and one’s character throughout life – using martial arts as the vehicle for self-improvement. Lastly, the 20 precepts are full of wisdom and are applicable to every martial artist (in my opinion) regardless of the style or system they practice.

About the Author

Husband. Father. University Professor. GMAU Certified Krav Maga Instructor.

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(4) comments

Paul Hornbogen August 3, 2019

Gentleman Great article. I see many history lessons. Discipline common sense lose the ego learn every day have fun push yourself beyond limits know the fundamentals take feedback to practice.

Author and Sensei Hodges Hope your doing well. Personally I want to see how karate,can take me in the field of aging of aging. Goal is look like David H running on the beach.

    Joel Williams September 11, 2019

    Paul – Thanks for the kind words and keep training hard!

Sarah Letterman May 11, 2020

Wonderful article! Thank you for sharing your insights on Funakoshi’s twenty precepts. It was a very pleasant read and gave me quite a lot to ponder.

    Michael Hodge May 11, 2020

    Thanks for reading! Funakoshi was a very wise man.

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