The History of Shotokan Karate
Almost every book written about karate contains
a short history, which tells the reader the same thing:
there is very, very little information on the early development
of the martial arts. Most accounts cite China as having
a significant influence on its initial rise, however, it
is clearly Okinawa that spawned what we know today as karate.
Okinawa is one of the 60 small islands south of mainland
Japan and owing to its strategic location, it was often
visited by the Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, and other foreigners.
Likewise, many of its natives visited, worked and studied
in these countries. This facilitated the exchange of goods
and services and of course, knowledge. It is unclear whether
this exchange of knowledge had a truly significant influence
on the development of the indigenous fighting system, Okinawa-te.
However, there is little doubt that necessity had the strongest
role in Okinawa-te's maturation into what is known today
Okinawa had always experienced problems between rival kingdoms,
but in 1429, the kingdoms were united and in order to maintain
this unity, a decree was issued which banned possession
of all weapons. This seemed to work fairly well for almost
200 years, however, in 1609, Okinawa was, without much resistance,
conquered by the rulers of the Satsuma Domain of Kyushu.
Of course, there was no incentive for the new rulers to
permit the Okinawans to own weapons and they went even further
by forcing them to check out their farming implements (which
could double as weapons) each morning and return them each
Without weapons to defend themselves and their families,
the Okinawans began to develop the art of empty-handed combat
in earnest. It was taught and trained in secret through
the beginning of the eighteenth century. Much of the training
was done at night while the oppressors of the Okinawan people
slept and therefore, the practioners trained in the sleeping
garments (the predecessor to the modern karate "gi").
Over the years the prohibition against karate training began
to diminish and legends began to develop. Although there
are too many to describe in this brief history, the most
notable would definitely include Sokon Matsumura (aka Bushi
Matsumura) who taught many great instructors including Azato
and Itosu. These two gentlemen became the instructors of
Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan.
Gichin Funakoshi was born premature and frail and was given
to his maternal grandparents to raise. While attending primary
school, he became friends with the son of Yasutsune Azato
and shortly thereafter, began receiving karate instruction
from the greater master. According to Funakoshi, after he
had trained a couple of years, he realized that his health
had improved tremendously and that he was no longer frail.
It was at this time, he began to contemplate making Karate-do
"a way of life".
Gichin Funakoshi became a school teacher, but continued
to train at the house of Master Azato and also under a number
of other great instructors. At the time, there were not
many formal "schools" of karate and many karateka
sought and received instruction from a number of great masters.
These masters also shared information amongst themselves,
often not seeing themselves in competition with each other,
but as kindred spirits with the same love of martial arts.
It is also during the early years of Gichin Funakoshi that
great changes swept through Okinawa and mainland Japan.
The government actively sought to develop a stronger sense
of nationalism and militarism and martial arts was definitely
a major player in nationalist mores. In 1902, Funakoshi
performed the first formal recorded demonstration of karate.
As a result of this and other demonstrations throughout
mainland Japan, karate not only earned the approval of the
Ministry of Education and introduced into public school
curriculums, but it also became an institution in Japanese
youth organizations, the military, colleges, commercial
businesses, and with the general public. Funakoshi was extensively
sought after as an instructor and found himself permanently
relocating to mainland Japan to pursue instruction of karate
to the Japanese people. His students initiated the building
of the first public karate dojo (training hall) which opened
in 1939 and which was called the "Shoto-kan" (using
the pen name of Funakoshi - "Shoto" and "kan"
Although the road was never an easy one for Funakoshi, karate
flourished on mainland Japan and as a result, in 1948, the
Japan Karate Association (JKA) was established. The establishment
of the JKA lead the way to the spread of karate throughout
the world. Masatoshi Nakayama, one of Funakoshi's greatest
students, succeeded him as the head of the JKA. To say that
Nakayama played a pivotal role in the expansion of karate
throughout the world would definitely be an understatement.