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Hikite: Karate´s most controversial Topic

The picture shows a Karate group that uses Hikite during their techniques.

Hikite has advanced to Karate’s most controversial topic in the last decade. In this article, we give an overview about the debate and suggest some aspects about the topic that must be illuminated to bring the discussion about the topics further.

By Dr. Christian Tribowski & T.D. McKinnon

What is Hikite?

Hikite (引手) is Japanese for ‘the pulling hand’. It is a foundational aspect for most Karate techniques.

Hikite is a technique utilized in most Japanese forms of martial arts, i.e. Karate, Judo and Jujitsu. The name refers to the hand, which is pulled back, for instance, to the hip during a strike, while the other front-hand strikes, blocks or throws. Both hands travel in opposite directions during the execution of a technique. Therefore, it is not a waza in itself. It is, however, a constitutive and signature basic element of the Shotokan Karate Do style that can be found throughout the whole spectrum of techniques.

Two Schools of Hikite

Two main schools of thought regarding the hikite exist. One stresses the role of the “puling hand” for destabilizing an opponent through grabbing and pulling him. Another school supposes a vital role of the back-hand in generating power.

Hikite for Destabilizing Opponents

The “destabilizing” school claims that hikite is meant for destabilizing opponents by pulling, for instance, limbs, clothing or hair, to assist in a capture, throw or take down. Proponents of this position usually offer two arguments to legitimize their conviction:

  1. Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan Karate Do, wrote in his book Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu: “The meaning of the hikite is to grab the enemy’s arm and twist and pull as much as possible in order to break the enemy’s posture”. Therefore, their argument focuses on the purpose Gichin Funakoshi assigned it to the motion in this specific publication.
  2. Hikite poses a disadvantage during a real fight, if it is not used for the destabilizing of the opponent. This argument is, therefore, a definition ex negativo. The prerequisite for the arguments lies in the refusal of the idea of “power generation” through pulling the hand. If power generation is not possible and thus cannot be the purpose of hikite (negative) then the destabilization of opponents is the only valid application. Because a passive pulled back hand could serve a better purpose as a cover for the face, for instance.

This position is especially prominent among practical oriented karateka. They refuse classical conceptions of the power generation approach and stress instead the direct functional relevance of the motion for self-defense. Thus, they also refuse the pulling of the hand with the argument that it creates “bad habit”. Karate students should learn straight from the beginning a defense-oriented way of punching. To teach them a disadvantageous before first and then to teach them how to behave in real fight situations deem some commentators as inefficient.

Opponents of this position argue that the once assigned purpose or function of a technique can evolve. Over time more aspects become visible. To rely only on Gichin Funakoshis intention for the pulling hand blocks out other possible functions and applications.

They also criticize the misinterpretation of power generation by this group. In their opinion the pulling of the hand does not serve to generate additional power beyond the actual capacity of the karateka. Its major function lies in its power saving and speed generating aspect (see below).

Hikite for Power Generation

Another school, however, focuses on the technical aspect of hikite related to power generation. It argues that the body works around an imagined central pivot. When arms and hands work in unison together the pulling hand serves as counterbalance. From here proponents of this position have developed two physical concepts to describe how the pulling of the hand generates power:

  1. Slingshot-effect“: This concepts assumes that the hikite-hand becomes loaded due to muscular and fascia tension when it is pulled back. Like a slingshot the hand can be released and the pre-loaded energy creates a forward momentum of the arm. This effects, therefore, focuses on the pretension of muscles through pulling the hand. The front hand, which pulls back, supports the forward motion of the pulling-hand by transmitting rotational energy over the center axes.
  2. “Whip-lash-effect”: In a slightly different direction argues the concept of the “whip-lash-effect”. Here hikite generates the effect of a stabilizing anchor for the forward moving hand. When both hands come to a hold the backhand serves to tension-up the upper body. So, the forward energy can be fully transmitted by the front fist. However, the punching arm stays relaxed and works like a “whip”, while the hikite hand works like the anchor of the whip. Similar concepts are known in other martial arts like Kung Fu and Wing Tsung.

This position has the highest prominence among orthodox “traditional” karateka. Proponents of this position often argue that utilizing one of the two above mentioned effects makes it possible to punch with less energy but creating the same power and even more speed. Because the pretension within the muscles can be set free fully relaxed. Thus, karateka can solely focus on quickness. The whip-lash-effect makes it possible to transmit power without spending much forward energy.

In the recent years, this concept has caused some critic. Practical karateka doubt that the pulling hand generates the supposed physical effects. Some see in a counter motion a hindering factor for the transmission of energy. A backwards motion blocks, in this understanding, the free flow of energy to the front. They also refer to examinations with other martial artist like boxers who do not apply hikite. Their punching power is allegedly equal or higher as the one of karateka. Thus, hikite can be spared and the backhand used for defense purposes.

Rick Hotton showing Hikite

Conclusion and Research Questions

Both concepts have proponents and opponents today. However, both position define the extreme polls of a spectrum. Especially when it come to kumite many karateka make flexible use of hikite. In kihon and kata most karateka deem the pulling of the hand as mandatory.

Further research should illuminate the physical effects of the pulling hand.

  • Does it generate or safe energy?
  • Is it an effective means for pre-loading of muscles?
  • Which effects does it have on speed?
  • Does it support kime?

Another research direction, which appears to be necessary to tackles, refers to the educational effects of kime. While some critics deem it as counterproductive to teach students hikite, others stress its relevance for the development of kime. Students only learn kime through the execution of “exaggerated” motions. Later, when they have a better control over their body and know to manage tension and relaxation the pulling of the hand becomes less important. This hypothesis has not been examined under scientific conditions but seems worth to study.

The conceptual expectation of the outcome of hikite has probably a effect on the actual execution of hikite itself. Thus, it might have several effects and purposes at the same time. The karakteka must decide how to perceive and deal with hikite.


Abernathy, Iain 2019: The TRUE role of Hiki-Te. In: Iain Abernathy. The Practical Application of Karate, Jan 3, 2019.

Enkamp, Jesse 2012: 3 Widespread Misconceptions of Modern Karate (That You Need to Know Today)! In:

Funakoshi, Gichin 1996 (1925): Rentan Goshin Karate Jutsu, Tokyo.

McKinnon, Thomas 2019: Hikite: More than just the pulling hand. In: The Shotokan Times, July 2, 2019.

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Karate-Do Kyohan Facsimile Reprint – Book Review

The picture shows the Karate-Do Kyohan Facsimile Reprint.

Karate-Do Kyohan is one of the foundational works about Shotokan Karate Do by Gichin Funakoshi. Last year, Laurent Poliquin published a new facsimile reprint. Gichin Funakoshi expert Henning Wittwer reviewed the book for us.

Karate-Do Kyohan Facsimile Reprint

Some time ago I was asked by The Dojo to review a “new” book by Gichin Funakoshi (1868–1957). I thought my task would be to check the Japanese to English translation and share my opinion on that matter, since I wrote earlier about some translation problems in Funakoshi’s biography. However, when I received the book, I was baffled. While the cover is in English, the content turned out to be Japanese. I found that strange. Would it not be more logical to publish a Japanese work with a Japanese title?

The cover proclaims that the book is a “facsimile reprint of the original 1935 edition” of Funakoshi’s 1935 Karate-dō Kyōhan. I made out an English “foreword” by Laurent Poliquin, who identifies as “senpai” and a member of a karate organisation, which turned out to be one of the many derivatives of JKA. The reason he wrote the forward is unclear to me. Is he the person responsible for the facsimile reprint copy? The copyright of the book refers not to him but a company in Canada.

Gichin Funakoshi

Objections to the Forward

In the “foreword” Poliquin tries to connect the facsimile reprint copy with the previously published English edition by Ōshima Tsutomu, and a translation done by Harumi Suzuki-Johnston in 2005. Poliquin is quick in pointing out that the two English versions did not have the benefit of a “revision by the author.” He wrongly claims that some of the content of Ōshima’s English edition has been altered. While this seems to be true when we compare it with the early editions of Funakoshi’s Kyōhan one has to understand that Ōshima translated a 1958 version of Funakoshi’s work that was finished during the lifetime of the author. Ōshima decided to include some parts of the 1935 edition to enhance the content.

Another uninformed claim by Poliquin is that the Suzuki-Johnston edition is a close reproduction of the 1935 version of Kyōhan. While this is what the advertisement states, in truth it is based on a Japanese reprint from 1985, not identical to the first edition as it claims.

The Page Order of Karate-Do Kyohan

First, the pages were “adapted” so that one can turn over the leaves in the “western” way, which means one reads the left page first and continues with its facing right page next. This works in theory only in this case, since the Japanese version is an old-style book intended to be read from the right to the left page. This reversed order of the original Japanese pages results in creating an awkward reading experience. To give an easy to understand example I simply refer to the photos for the kata Heian Shodan, which are presented side by side in the order of the kata. In the Japanese original the order of the photos is:

4 – 3 – 2 – 1 ←

This makes perfect sense if one reads it as intended from right to left, which everyone able to read Japanese would do. However, in the facsimile reprint copy the order of the photos from left to right is:

→ 2 – 1 – 4 – 3

So even if one is able to recognize the Japanese numbers for the sequence of the photos, one has to concentrate in order to understand the intended flow of the illustrations, which is mixed up now. In fact, already looking for the original page numbers turns out to be difficult since they are in the middle of the fold, just one example of how the printing quality of the facsimile reprint reminds me of cheap photocopies.

The Digital Version of the Karate-Do Kyohan

Since I was asked to review this book, I have to emphasize one important point. Years ago, a digital version of Funakoshi’s Kyōhan appeared online, which is what the publisher of this facsimile reprint copy appears to have copied, although the publisher does not mention this.

For example, Ogasawara Naganari (1867–1958) presented Funakoshi with a beautiful calligraphy. A photo of it appears in Funakoshi’s Kyōhan. In the digital version two little paper marks can be seen in the upper part of this picture. Naturally these paper marks are absent in other exemplars of the Kyōhan. Yet, one can see them in facsimile reprint.

Similarly, the photo illustrating the hand weapon “ipponnukite” in the digital version shows a scratch on the back of the hand as well as a white circle bottom corner. The same signs appear in the facsimile reprint.

Finally, notice to the seals at the imprint of the book. If one compares the position of the seals in the digital version with the facsimile reprint copy one notes that they are identical.

This means that the editor of facsimile reprint copy simply makes profit out of an initiative to advance academic research in karate. The result of such behaviour is that other researchers or institutions will be more hesitant to share the fruits of their labor in the future.

About the Author

Henning Wittwer took up his karate practice in 1992. From the beginning he followed the Shotokan current, initially in the more sport and tournament orientated organizations. Since 2005 he published his translations of old Japanese sources and his research regarding karate in German as well as in English journals and magazines. Wittwer is the author of many books. For his English books please see Amazon.

The picture shows Henning Wittwer´s book about Gichin and Yoshitaka Funakoshi. Henning is also our reviewer of the Karate-Do Kyohan.
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Karate Do: The Path to oneself?!

The picture shows a practitioner of Karate Do at the beach during sunset.

“Karate Do is a path to oneself” argues TD McKinnon in his latest column Shotokan Essence. However, most of the people who start this path do not seek to arrive at themselves. Other motives are more relevant for them. That is explains a high number of dropouts. The ones who stay on the path are the ones who are encouraged to follow the Dojo Kun. Thus, karateka should focus on developing and cultivating the Dojo Kun.

Karate Do is a way of training, thinking, conducting oneself; a way of believing in oneself, for life. In other words, Karate Do is a life-long journey of self. The motivating factors for beginning this journey can be many and varied: self-defence, fitness, confidence building, and sporting competition, to name but a few. However, goals change. Your martial path, should you chose to take it, will have many twists and turns along the way, some of them 180°.

One person in 10,000 

After a lifetime of teaching, I do know that if you were to ask every wide-eyed beginner on their first day of training, “Why are you beginning karate training?” their motivations would be many and varied.

However, of 10,000 beginner only 50 percent will still train after the first six months. After one year, only 1,000 will be left. Maybe 100 will reach the third year. Maybe less that than 0.1 percent will earn their shodan. But an even smaller amount will go on to receive their Nidan.

What are the Reasons for the high number of Dropouts?

From all those individuals who begin training, there are those who will find out quickly that it is not what they imagined, and not for them. Some won’t make it past the second week. 

Some will learn a few techniques, maybe even take a couple of gradings, and then life will get in the way. And they will drift away. They may even promise themselves that they will be back. Very few return. 

There will be the achievers: those who will persevere until they achieve that coveted black belt, before moving on to their next achievement. 

There will be the sports people, who excel in the sporting arena. They may even have a relatively long career in sport karate. After their own competition days have run the course they might continue as judges, referees and sporting competition coaches. They are the perpetual sports people. To them, the sport is Karate. 

Then there are the shining few, who may indeed pass through some or all of the aforementioned phases, but who will then don the mantle and tread the cloistered path of Karate Do

How Long does the Path of Karate Do take? 

  • If you are seeking only physical benefits the chances are that, after your physical body peaks, you will lose interest. 
  • If it is a status symbol, the time it takes to get to black belt will probably be your maximum. 
  • If it is about self-defence or confidence building and it doesn’t go beyond that, it may be a short term or a long term thing, depending on your situation and life style choices. But eventually it will wane. 
  • If it is mainly the sport aspect that attracts and holds you, then after peaking in the sport, it will fare much the same as any sport. The young will enjoy the competition, and as they mature they may continue in an official role: sporting coach/referee/judge et cetera. However, not unlike any sporting involvement, it diminishes and eventually disappears. 
  • If you find Karate Do to have an honorable code of ethics, worth aspiring to, and Karate Do weaves itself into your very fabric, you may find that Karate-Do is your path, for life. 

Karate Do Encourages an Ancient Instinct: Honour

Honour, as a noun, meaning respectability and virtue, or a code of conduct valuing those concepts, is an ancient human instinct. Karate Do seeks to encourage and develop that instinct. The Dojo Kun, a set of philosophical rules for the smooth running and necessary control of the dojo environment, is a guiding light to illuminate the way. 

Remember, whatever their underlying motives: this is a group of people who are there to learn how to inflict physical violence on an adversary. When you think about it, that environment could run quite quickly out of control: becoming unruly, aggressive, and possibly quite violent. In my time I have actually witnessed fight training centers, a karate dojo or two, even one Shotokan dojo, where, to one degree or another, this was in evidence. 

The Dojo Kun: Its Origins and Implications 

The Dojo Kun is set in place to modify behavior, both inside and outside of the Dojo. Most traditional Dojos recite a Dojo Kun, or a modified version of that Kun, at least once every training session. Stating the moral code of the Kun before beginning a class can be said to ready the mind and spirit for learning and practicing implied violence, non-violently. Whereas reciting the Kun on completion of one’s training is like the final, centering thought as you finish a meditation. Resetting the mind before re-joining ‘normal’ society. Some Dojos, emphasizing and promoting humility, recite the Kun at both the beginning and the end of a class. 

Funakoshi Gichin Sensei, 1868-1957, the founder of Shotokan, is generally credited with creating of the Dojo Kun. According to Funakoshi Sensei, The Dojo Kun contains the general, guiding principles of Karate. Funakoshi Sensei also set out the Niju Kun: twenty specific and subordinate principles of Karate, encompassing morality, technique, and proper mindset. 

Gichin Funakoshi was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do. He coined the Shotokan Karate Philosophy in a pacifistic way.
Gichin Funakoshi was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do. He coined the Shotokan Karate Philosophy in a pacifistic way.

Others credit Sakukawa Kanga Sensei, 1733-1815, with creating the Dojo Kun. I would venture that Sakukawa did instigate a Dojo Kun. That being said, however, I would also suggest that wherever the martial arts have been studied, seriously, a Kun (a set of philosophical guidelines) is likely to have been set in place. 

The Dojo Kun varies throughout the martial arts fraternities to suit cultural and philosophical differences. Even within Shotokan, now seeded throughout the world, the Dojo Kun has morphed. There remains however a similar, underlining message of humility and respect. 

Karate Do and the Meaning of the Dojo Kun

JKA Dojo Kun

The following is the JKA Shotokan Dojo Kun

  • 一、人格 完成に 努める こと hitotsu, jinkaku kansei ni tsutomeru koto
  • 一、誠の道を守ること hitotsu, makoto no michi wo mamoru koto
  • 一、努力の精神を養うこと hitotsu, doryoku no seishin wo yashinau koto
  • 一、礼儀を重んずること hitotsu, reigi wo omonzuru koto
  • 一、血気の勇を戒むること hitotsu, kekki no yū wo imashimuru koto 

In the West, particularly the UK, the following is a widely accepted translation of the essence of that Kun: 

  • Each person must strive for the completion and perfection of one’s character 
  • Each person must be faithful and protect the way of truth 
  • Each person must endeavor (fostering the spirit of effort) 
  • Each person must respect others and the rules of etiquette 
  • Each person must refrain from hot blooded behavior (guard against impetuous courage) 

Concise Dojo Kun

When I began my Shotokan journey in Scotland in the early 1970s, I recited a more simplified version: 

  • Seek Perfection of Character 
  • Be Sincere 
  • Put maximum effort into everything you do 
  • Respect Others 
  • Develop Self Control 

Since those early days I have heard several terser versions; the following is just one of them: 

  • Character 
  • Sincerity 
  • Effort 
  • Etiquette 
  • Self-Control 

Karate Do, Dojo Kun and the Path to one Self

The Dojo Kun appears in many styles and arts, varying according to the general precepts of the style. A book could be written on a veritable proliferation of Dojo Kun

Like the many paths ascending the mountain, striving to reach the summit; so too does any true study and practice of the martial disciplines strive to achieve enlightenment. Hence, practicing Karate Do and following the Dojo Kun means to be on a life long path to oneself.

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Rei to Love: Etiquette is Healthy and Good for Fighting

Shotokan Karate

Rei has a special ceremonial meaning in Shotokan karate. It makes the transition from a casual mind into the state of budo. Most karateka, however, do not know that it is also good for ones health and for fighting. By Florian Wiessmann

Karate Dō begins and ends with rei.
Gichin Funakoshi

Every Karateka is familiar with the first precept of Gichin Funakoshi – Karate Dō begins and ends with ‘rei’. Also probably nearly every Karateka agrees about the importance of this precept, putting rei at the very centre of their Karate practice. Yet many seem to forget, that rei is not only describing a mental attitude, but also a very concrete physical practice. Paradoxically, while rei as a mental attribute is emphasized, the physical manifestation of rei is often shunned upon by the very same Karate practitioners. They see seiza and bowing as something unpleasant and antiquated, only done to fulfill some kind of Asian tradition but with no real usefulness to Karate practice, let alone fighting proficiency.

This lack of appreciation often shows in sloppy reihō. Even advanced belts are struggling while getting up from seiza, glad that the unwanted part is over and the ‘real’ Karate practice begins. But why not staying true to Funakoshis precept and starting Karate practice (yes, I mean the actual physical training) with rei and not after it? You might ask why? Seiza and bowing have no real relevance in the western world, they don’t apply to your everyday life, let alone to physical Karate practice. Guess what: you’re wrong.

Bowing in Rei

Did you ever drop something? Did you have to pick it up from the floor? Happens all the time, right? This is essentially bowing! The question is, did you pick it up correctly in a back sparing way? Or did you struggle somewhat, picking it up in an awkward position? Unfortunately many people tend to hurt their backs while picking up stuff.

We all look like really folded cashews.

Jean Couch

This is were we can learn from other cultures. Use your hips! Ever heard about using your hips in Karate training? Do it properly while bowing, too. Bending at the hips engages the hamstring muscles and takes the pressure off the back muscles, sparing your spine and possibly preventing back pain.[1]

A correct bowing will change your body!

Tatsuya Naka

Seiza in Rei

Ok, so now you might agree to the relevance of bowing. But seiza certainly doesn’t relate to your everyday life and it hurts your knees. So more modern- and practical oriented martial arts are better of without seiza practice? Sorry, you’re wrong again.

Tastsuya Naka shows how to get up from seiza correctly.

The 2012 IFA Report (Institute for Work Safety of the German Social Accident Insurance) about work-related knee-strains mentions seiza and kiza as a common posture within certain crafts while working on the knees (e.g. tilers, plumbers and painters). Laboratory screening shows, that the knee is exposed to less straining forces while sitting on the heels compared to other forms of kneeling and crouching. Seiza and hiza are identified as a recovery posture for the lumbar spine and knees, especially the knee caps. The erected upper body, a relieve of the patella exterior and the contact with soft tissue furthermore reduces the forces on thighs and knee joints.[2]

Seiza and MMA

And regarding ‘modern’ martial arts, actually most BJJ- and MMA practitioners will find themselves in seiza in nearly every training. Working from inside closed guard, a very common grappling posture, will most certainly lead to a seiza position. Therefore you often read about problems with sitting on the heels in MMA and Grappling related internet groups. So if you deem traditional seiza to be not relevant for you, think again.[3]

Seiza and bowing in MMA training

Rei: Seiza and bowing in MMA training
Rei: Seiza and bowing in MMA training

While longer periods of seiza sitting can have a negative effect on postural control after standing up because of occluding the blood flow of the lower limbs[4]and seiza at first can be very uncomfortable, especially on individuals not used to it. Seiza per se is deemed to be innocuous for the knees.[5] Of course regular training of seiza will reduce the negative effects so you can use the practice of seiza to it’s full potential.

Getting up

And there is more to seiza than to just sit on the floor. You have of course to transition from standing to the floor and get up again. While this is happening on a regular basis in every grappling- and throwing related art and is also still very present in middle east- and east asian cultures with a more floor-living lifestyle, this transitional movements are sadly very underrepresented in regular Karate practice. Transition into- and from seiza is your chance to experience this very important movement patterns.

Sitting/kneeling on the ground and transitioning to and from standing are a fundamental movement macronutrient, many are missing in their life and their natural movement training.

Ben Medder[6]


The osteopath Phillip Beach lists three common sense and clinically practical approaches to prevent musculoskeletal pain and dysfunction:

  • spending more time on the floor in archetypal positions (e.g. squatting[7], kneeling and seiza, cross legged sitting – ‘sitting on the floor in comfort is a developmental birthright’)
  • paying attention on the feet (our feet play a crucial role in our biomechanical well being and the rehabilitating of our feet is essential for reducing musculoskeletal distress)
  • revisiting the processes involved in rising from the floor to upright (‘the effort to erect oneself from the floor to standing are a way of finetuning the many muscles we use in life’) [8]

To love your reihō is to love your body! Make yourself familiar with correct bowing, squatting, seiza and corresponding transitional movements. This will improve your health, posture and after all your martial arts proficiency.

Florian Wiessmann: Practising Karate since the mid 1990s, I am currently a Nidan at the Nihon Karate-dō Shūshūkan, which is headed by Sugimori Kichinosuke (9.Dan) and its german branch is lead by Stephan Yamamoto (6.Dan).


[2], p.70

[3] and




[7] s. also

[8] Beach, Phillip: Muscles and Meridians – The manipulation of shape, Elsevier Ltd. 2010, p. 3-4 and Foreword

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Masatoshi Nakayama: The CEO of Shotokan Karate

Masatoshi Nakayama was a unique personality in many regards. However, no person has done more to expand Shotokan karate around the the World than him. As a long time student and anointed successor of Gichin Funakoshi he carried along the legacy of the grandmaster. As foundeer and chief instructor of the Japan Karate Association (JKA), Masatoshi Nakayama oversaw the expansion of Shotokan Karate. It has been growing from an art practiced only in Japan to an art practiced all over the global by a diverse range of people. By Patrick Donkor and Dr. Christian Tribowski

Masatoshi Nakayama: Early Years

Masatoshi Nakayama was born in 1913 in the Yamaguchi Prefecture, in the southwest of Japan. Until today, Yamaguchi and the Japanese southwest has been bearing powerful figures in Japanese politics and economy. Shinzo Abe, Japans present prime minister, was born into a powerful political family, which originated from Yamaguchi Prefecture. Thus, it is no wonder that Nakayama´s social pedigree was upper-class. He came from a family descended from the Sanada samurai and steeped in the martial tradition. His grandfather and father were accomplished Kendo instructors.

Being from a medical family, Nakayama they expected him to follow in his father’s footsteps. However, he loved Chinese culture and secretly took and passed an entrance exam for Takushoku University, the premier university for those wanting a career in the foreign service. As a result he entered Takushoku University in 1932.

The picture shows Masatoshi Nakayama (Source: JKA).
Masatoshi Nakayama (Source: JKA)

First Encounter With Shotokan Karate

In a twist of fate Nakayama mis-read the timetable for attending a kendo class and instead found himself in a Karate class. Karate was still a fairly new martial art in Japan. However, Masatoshi Nakayama was intrigued and stayed to watch the class. He thought since having a background in kendo and Judo he would find karate easy. So, he decided to come back and try the next lesson. In that lesson he came to realize just how difficult karate really was. He began his training under Master Gichin Funakoshi and his son Yoshitaka. Evetually, it became a lifelong love affair with karate.

Travel to China, Experience with Kung Fu, and the Time After World War II

During his university studies, Masatoshi Nakayama traveled to China as an exchange student. There he advanced his studies in Chinese language and history. While in China he continued his karate practice and even taught a few classes. In addition, he came into contact with Kung Fu training under several masters. His main teacher was Sifu Pai, with whom he studied a Northern Kung Fu style. Northern style Kung Fu is characterised by having long stances, deep punches and high flashy kicks. Under Sifu Pai, Nakayama learnt taisoku uke (pressing block with sole of foot) and reverse roundhouse/hook kick (ura mawashi geri). Both of these techniques were eventually incorporated into the Shotokan syllabus with the permission of Gichin Funakoshi.

Masatoshi Nakayama together with senior students of Gichin Funakoshi demonstrating Shotokan Karate.

During World War II,  Masatoshi Nakayama remained in China working as a translator. In 1946, he returned back to a Japan devastated by the war. He tried to get in contact with some of Funakoshi’s senior students. However, many of them had been killed during the war. Moreover, Master Funakoshi’s son, Yoshitaka, had also died from tuberculosis. However, Nakayama showed first management and leadership skills. In 1947 he managed to gather senior students, who survived the war. They resumed their training under the watchful eye of Master Funakoshi.

Masatoshi Nakayama and US Soldiers

In 1948, Nakayama and other senior students of Funakoshi gave a karate demonstration to personnel stationed at the U.S. Air Force Base at Tachikawa. The participantes received it well. As a result, he traveled around Japan giving demonstrations and teaching karate to the Americans for the next couple of months.

With the permission of Master Funakoshi, Nakayama and some of the other senior students formed the Nihon Karate Kyokai – Japan Karate Association (JKA) in 1949. Master Fuankoshi was named as Chief Instructor with Nakayama as Chief Technical Adviser.

Nakayama demonstrating self-defense.

In 1951, the US Air Force sent Air Force personnel from the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to learn various Japanese martial arts. Karate belonged to them. This encounter became an important learning experience for Nakayama. The Americans asked a lot of questions and wanted to know the theoretical background for performing techniques in a particular way.

In an interview given to Black Belt Magazine (November 1982), Nakayama said:

It immediately became apparent to me and to Master Funakoshi that if we were going to teach the Americans, we would have to provide a theoretical basis for our art.”

So under Master Funakoshi’s instruction Nakayama began an intensive study of kinetics, physiology and anatomy. The idea was to provide a scientific grounding to karate and the body dynamics it incorporated.

Masatoshi Nakayama with US officials
Masatoshi Nakayama with US officials

The Formation of the JKA by Masatoshi Nakayama

After the War, Nakayama also began to working on the establishment of a Shotokan associations. Together with the senior students he gathered after the War he formed the Japan Karate Association. The official formation of the organization took place in 1948. Among his peers were Shotokan enthusiast and later high-level instructors like Teruyuki Okazaki and Hidetaka Nishiyama. However, Gichin Funakoshi played no decisive role in the formation of the organization. Instead, he became chief instructor and oversaw the karate education. Nakayama, however, took the responsibility for the management.

Masatoshi Nakayama proved at this time to be a skillful manager and visionary. For him it became clear that only a formalized and structured association had the power to spread Shotokan karate. His education at Takushoku University had a huge influence on this judgement. Trained to become an oversees public servant he understood the necessity of good organization and governance. In 1955, the members of the JKA elected Masatoshi Nakayama head of JKA.

Establishment of the Instructors Program

In 1956, Nakayama formulated the JKA’s Instructor Program with the help of Teruyuki Okazaki. The program followed the design of an intensive one year karate course. Among the first graduates of the course were Takayuki Mikami and Hirokazu Kanazawa. Apart from the intensive karate practice, students received a theoretical grounding in karate. They also learnt kinetics, physiology and anatomy. In addition, the course required them to learn key principles of other fighting systems. Many of the graduates of the program traveled around the globe later. Their aim was to expand the JKA’s brand of Shotokan.

The picture shows Masatoshi Nakayama with Teruyuki Okazaki.
Masatoshi Nakayama with Teruyuki Okazaki

Development of Competitions

Nakayama believed if Karate did not incorporate some form of competitive element, like Judo or Kendo, then people would lose interest in karate. With the permission of Master Funakoshi, Nakayama started looking at ways of adding a competitive element into Karate. He explored many avenues, including having competitors wear a form of light amour, similar to Kendo practitioners. However, this still resulted injuries.

Eventually, after much deliberation Nakayama decided on a set of rules for competing. He believed that competitions should not be about winning, thus keeping the ethos of Master Funakoshi’s principles. Moreover, he believed that competition should be another part of one’s training, helping to build one’s character.

Some months after Master Funakoshi’s death in 1957, the first ever JKA All Japan Karate Championship took place at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. Hirokazu Kanazawa won the kumite titlle and in kata Shoji Hiroshi succeeded. The event proved such a success that it takes place annually.

Masatoshi Nakayama Developed the Foundation of Karate Teaching

Today’s karate education has been highly coined by Masatoshi Nakayama. From the 1950´s onward, he developed a the modern method of teaching karate. His deep and wide knowledge of physiology and kinetics as well as didactic and methods of education helped him to set up a general scientific trainings system. As a result, every aspect of Karate like physical and mental development, self-defense sports etc. can be taught within this system.

In 1965 he published “Karatedo Shinkyotei (A New Method For Teaching Karate-do)”. In English it is published as “Dynamic Karate”. This work by Nakayama details much of the knowledge he gained from his studies in kinetics, physiology and anatomy. It is his opus magnum and a must-read book for any serious martial artist. It gives scientific explanations on how certain techniques work and illuminates the physic behind the Shotokan.

Masatoshi Nakayama explaining Hangtsu.

Masatoshi Nakayama and his Students

Nakayama guided the JKA through its difficult early days. Through his hard work the JKA made it into one of the biggest and most respected Shotokan associations in the world. Many of the students trained by Nakayama describe him as a tough but fair teacher. Some of his most able students heave become famous masters in their own right. Some of Nakayama’s most notable students, many who can be seen in his “Best Karate Series”, include:

Masatoshi Nakayama with JKA Instructors
Masatoshi Nakayama with JKA Instructors

He Kept Teaching Despite a Horrible Accident

In 1971, Nakayama an accomplished ski instructor, was caught in an avalanche, which almost cost him his life. At first doctors thought he would die, later changing their prognosis to him never ever being able to walk. However, Nakayama made a full recovery and resumed his active schedule traveling around the world and conducting various courses and seminars in karate.

Masatoshi Nakayama: First 9th Dan

Master Nakayama became the first living master to be awarded 9th Dan. He continued to travel around the world giving courses and seminars to members of the JKA associations he helped create, until his death in 1987 aged 74. After his death JKA awarded him posthumously the rank of 10th Dan.

Following his death, internal politics saw many of the top instructors breaking from the JKA to form their own associations. This shows how well respected Nakayama was, that these conflicts did not happen until his death.

It can be argued that no one has done more to promote the growth of Shotokan karate around the world than Masatoshi Nakayama. As a true institutional entrepreneur he developed the structures of modern Shotokan karate, expended its influence far beyond Japanese boarders, and educated a myriad of excellent and successful instructors. He create a system, which can be learnt by each and everyone. As theorist and intellectual he published several groundbreaking books which led to deeper insights into Shotokan. Like no other he had a vision what Shotokan could be and how it could change the life of people. He kept the organization together although he surrounded by strong hotheads, who all wanted their own stake. Masatoshi Nakayama was the CEO of Shotokan, who steered the art into the water of success. His legacy will always be one of excellence.

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Hirokazu Kanazawa: The Life of A Shotokan Legend

Hirokazu Kanazawa belongs to the group of Shotokan pioneers, who made karate what it is today. In this portrait we give you an overview about his life as a Shotokan legend. By Patrick Donkor and Dr. Christian Tribowski

For many Shotokan karateka Hirokazu Kanazawa is a living legend. His supporters place him behind Gichin Funakoshi and Masatoshi Nakayama in the hierarchy of the martial arts. However, it cannot be doubt that nobody has coined Shotokan karate like Hirokazu Kanazawa in the last 50 years. Thus, he is among the most recognizable faces of karate in general. This admiration arises from his exquisite technique and his humble approach of Shotokan.

However, who is Hirokazu Kanazawa? Why did he start Shotokan karate? And how did his karate career unfold? We are going to answer this question in the following portrait, which was co-authored with Patrick Donkor from Finding Karate.

Hirokazu Kanazawa´s Early Years and First Encounter with Karate

Kanazawa was born on 3 May 1931, in Iwate Prefecture, Japan. His father was a fisherman who died young in the 1940s. Therefore, his mother, Masue, became a big influence on his life. The middle child of three, his older brother, Tatsuo, would eventually run the family’s fishing business. His younger brother, Hideo, became eventually a doctor. Therefore, his family background was rather labor class and nothing indicated his later career.

During high school, on the other hand, Kanazawa developed an interest in martial arts. For instance, he was describe to be a keen boxer and judoka. In Judo he eventually reached the rank of 2nd Dan.

Hirokazu Kanazawa first became aware of Karate in the 1940s while he was a senior at high school. The person, who got him in touch with the art, was an Okinawan friend of his brother named Yamashiro, who visited him during holidays. One night the small man from Okinawa became drunk and got into a fight with several local fisherman. Somebody called the police and Officer Kodama, a very big man and a renowned 5th Dan judoka attended the squad. After a while a fight broke out in which the smaller Yamashiro broke Officer Kodama’s nose. This was Kanazawa’s first experience of Karate in action. And it had a gigantic effect on him. As a result he wanted to become a karateka. However, there were no Karate clubs locally. Thus, he had to wait until he entered university.

Takushoku University Karate Club

In 1951, Kanazawa enrolled at Nippon University in Tokyo. He joined the university’s Karate club, but was soon disappointed with the training. In his perception the club was weak because it had only one black belt student and many white belts. Fortunately, he also had the chance to watch a training session conducted by students from Takushoku University. The performance of the Takudai´s impressed him so much, that he chose to transfer to Takushoku Unversity. This decision became formative for his later career.

Later the year, Hirokazu Kanazawa took and passed the entrance exams for Takushoku University, and transferred to the university. In addition, he also joined the university’s Shotokan karate club, which was considered the strongest in the country. Having developed close-range and ground fighting skills with boxing and Judo, he was impressed by the long-range fighting techniques of Shotokan karate.

A picture of the still very young Hirokazu Kanazawa from the 1950´s.
A picture of the still very young Hirokazu Kanazawa from the 1950´s.

Hirokazu Kanazawa Trained 5-6 Hours a Day

His passion for the art grew so much that he trained 5 to 6 hours a day beside his general studies. But Hirokazu Kanazawa also had to catch up with the other student. Some of them already studied Karate at high school. To overcome this deficit he trained by himself at night. He also used a lot of mental imagery to rehearse the techniques he practiced.

Every now and then, Gichin Funakoshi would come to the club to teach. Kanazawa had the responsibility to collect him from his home and to bring him to the club. As a result, he developed a string relationship to master Funakoshi.

Hirokazu Kanazawa in a video about karate self-defense.

How Hirokazu Kanazawa Became a JKA Instructor

In 1956, Kanazawa was promoted to 3rd Dan and graduated from Takushoku. Like many other young graduates he became interesting for the corporate world. So, the Taiyo Fisheries Company tried to recruit him. However, Masatoshi Nakayama the Chief Instructor of the JKA, wanted him to join the newly formed Instructors Course. Therefore, Kanazawa chose this option instead of becoming a corporate man. Because he already had joined the Japan Karate Association during university and felt the confidence that he wanted to become a karate instructor.

Alongside Takayuki Mikami he graduated from the grueling instructors course in 1957. Their instructors included Nakayama, Hidetaka Nishiyama, Taiji Kase and Teruyuki Okazaki. As a result, he became an instructor at the JKA Honbu dojo, at several companies, and universities. So, he gave training at organizations like Musashi Industrial University, Mitsubishi Shoji Company, and Arabia Oil Company.

Winning the First JKA Championships with A Broken Wrist and Becoming Grand Champion

On 28 October 1957, the 1st All Japan Karate Association Championships took place at the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium. Therefore, Kanazawa had trained intensively for the championships. However, five days before the championships were due to start, he broke his wrist in two places.

The injury upset Kanazawa and he decided not to compete. But his mother had traveled to Tokyo to watch him compete in the tournament. She asked him whether he had other limbs he could use. Certainly, not wanting to disappoint her he entered the tournament. He used his good hand for blocking and his kicks for scoring, all the way through the tournament. To the astonishment of the audience and himself he won four fights by ippon. Moreover, he defeated Katsunori Tsuyama in the kumite final and became the first JKA kumite champion ever.

Hirokazu Kanazawa together with his mother after winning the first JKA championships in kumite.
Hirokazu Kanazawa together with his mother after winning the first JKA championships in kumite.

In the following year in 1958, he exceeded his success from the previous year. Hirokazu Kanazawa became the first ever Grand Champion of the All Japan Karate Championships. While his victory was clear in kata, kumite posted a bigger challenge. In a memorable kumite final he faced Takayuki Mikami. Both men fought as if it was a battle about life and death. In the end, the judges decided on a draw. Therefore, Kanazawa and Mikami shared the kumite title.

First Deployement of Hirokazu Kanazawa Abroad

The year 1961 hold many changes for Hirokazu Kanazawa. Firstly, he got promoted to the rank of a 5th dan. Secondly, the JKA send him to Hawaii to become Chief Instructor on 22 January 1961. For the next two years, he introduced the new art of Shotokan karate to the island.

Our partner website Finding Karate

However, his first deployment was not free of problems. For instance, he had to face challenges from other instructors of other karate styles and martial arts. They wanted to test the authenticity of his karate and his strength. He managed to prevent some escalations through talking many conflicts. However, five challengers post more difficulties. Even after several rounds of talking they still wanted a physical confrontation. They all lost.

Hirokazu Kanazawa: Very old fighting scenes.

Visit of Okinawa, the Birthplace of Karate

Always eager to experience other styles of karate, Kanazawa visited the birthplace of Karate, Okinawa. While on the peninsula he traveled around in order to train in as many dojos as possible. For instance, he visited the dojos of Shorin-Ryu founder Chosin Chibana and that of his student Higa Yuchoku. I would not be his last visit to Okinawa.

Hirokazu Kanazawa and The First JKA Promotion Tour

On 29 March 1965, Kanazawa embarked from Haneda Airport, Tokyo, alongside Taiji Kase, Keinosuke Enoeda and Hiroshi Shhirai on a world tour for the JKA. The tour aimed to introduce the JKA and Shotokan karate to the global stage. The touring party visited cities in the United States, West Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, England and South Africa. The tour succeeded and led to a request for JKA instructors to teach outside of Japan.

For Hirokazu Kanazawa himself the tour also led to another major change in his life: He became the resident instructor to the British Karate Federation (BKF), which had joint JKA. However, his contract duration was only for one year. When he left the BKF in 1966 many of his students felt a huge disappointment, because Hirokazu Kanazawa had gained popularity among British karateka. The reason for him leaving the BKF laid in the split of the organization. Thus, he became the chief instructor of the newly formed KUGB. That same year the JKA promoted him to 6th Dan.

One year later, Hirokazu Kanazawa moved again. The JKA asked him to become chief instructor to the German Karate Federation in 1967. So, Keinosuke Enoeda took over his role as chief instructor to the KUGB.

During this time in Great Britain he also must had got in contact with somebody from the film industry. In 1968, he played a very tiny role as a karate fighter in the British tv series The Saint with Roger Moore. As far as we know, this was his only detour to the film industry though.

When Kanazawa left the Germany to return to Japan in 1970, he recommended Hideo Ochi to take over from him.

Hirokazu Kanazawa in the tv series The Saint with Roger Moore.

Back to Japan and Moving Up in the JKA-Hierarchy

1971 became another year of changes for Hirokazu Kanazawa. The JKA promoted him to 7th Dan and he became general manager of the international division of the JKA International Section. Furthermore, he received appointments of Musashikogyo, Kantogakuin, and Kitasato universities to become their chief instructor

For the next few years, Kanazawa worked tirelessly as a senior member of the JKA. He was the General Manager of the Japanese team sent to the 2nd WUKO World Championships, held in Paris, France. He also referred at the 1st IAKF World Championships and the JKA Asia-Oceania Championships, both in 1976.

Hirokazu Kanazawa´s “Dismissal” from the JKA and Founding of SKIF

For many years, Kanazawa occurred as one of the main faces of the JKA. Thus, it came as a huge shock when he left the JKA in 1977. What really happened at that time is only in the knowledge of the participants. But two legends exist. The first one says that Hirokazu Kanazawa sent a letter of resignation as a JKA director to the honbu dojo. However, he did not resign as a JKA instructor.

Legend I

The reasons for his resignation was that one of his major tasks was to unify all the different JKA groups around the world. He felt he had failed to do this. Therefore, he step down as director of the international division. For some people within the JKA this came as treason and a sign of weakness and the wanted to see him expelled. While on a trip to Europe he received a dismissal letter from the JKA. He was shocked, because he had never wanted to leave the JKA.

Legend II

The second legends says that Hirokazu Kanazawa had already engaged in talks with other former JKA instructors, who had left the organization. Some of them already started to setup their own karate associations in Europe. They felt treated unfair within the Nakayama dominated JKA. Therefore, they organized and approached Hirokazu Kanazawa to become their figurehead. When high ranking official in the JKA honbu dojo became aware of the talks they preempted Kanazawa´s resignation and removed him from the organizations by themselves.

Hirokazu Kanazawa found the Shotokan Karate International Federation

Independent of which legend one beliefs, Hirokazu Kanazawa formed the Shotokan Karate-do International Federation (SKIF) under his leadership in 1977. His technical prowess and international profile soon attracted many students and countries joined the organization. As a result, it is still one of the biggest Shotokan association world wide.

International Tournaments

In the 1980´s and 1990´s Hirokazu Kanazawa focused to established the SKIF on the international stage. He also acted as an international referee. In 1980, he was the referee at the 5th WUKO World Championships held in Madrid, Spain. The following year he acted as referee at the 1st World Games, held in Santa Clara, California. In 1983, the 1st SKIF World Championships took place in Tokyo, Japan. 25 countries took part. Hitoshi Kasuya of Japan won the kata title, with Aidan Trimble of England winning the men’s kumite title. H. Kumakura of Japan won the women’s kata title and Japan won the team kumite title. Two years later, the SKIF World Championships in Düsseldorf, Germany. Since then, they have become an important event in the Shotokan calendar.

In 1990 at Osamu Ozawa’s 10th Traditional Karate Tournament International, one of the biggest showcases in the world for traditional Karate styles, the organizers invited Kanazawa to demonstrate his style of Shotokan Karate. THe audience received his demonstration well. He was also invited to the 14th and 15th Traditional Karate Tournament international events, also held in Las Vegas.

Dan Promotions of Hirokazu Kanazawa

The International Martial Arts Federation (IMAF) promoted Hirokazu Kanazawa to 8th dan in 1988. Ten years later, he received the 9th Dan by SKIF. In April 2000 and at the 7th SKIF World Championships held in Bali, Indonesia, the IMAF awarded his 10th dan. Currently, he is together with Teruyuki Okazaki, Hiroshi Shirai, and Ueki Masaaki the only Shotokanka, who has ever promoted to 10th dan.

Hirokazu Kanazawa during a seminar in Germany in 1999.

Later Years and Retirement

In January 2009, Kanazawa suffered a skiing accident. He fell badly, crushing three of his vertebra. He was in his 70s. After he recovered, he continued traveling around the world conducting courses and seminars.

However, after decades of traveling, Kanazawa decided to spend more time in his native Japan in 2012. That year after the SKIF World Championships held in Sydney, Australia, he retired from active traveling and teaching. Over the course of his career he had traveled to more than 130 countries and instructed hundred thousands of students.

Two years later at a special ceremony held in Tokyo on 5 April 2014 Hirokazu Kanazawa officially passed the leadership of the SKIF to his son Nobuaki and Manabu Murakami.

Hirokazu Kanazawa together with his son Nobuaki (right) and Manabu Murakami (left)

Hirokazu Kanazawa´s Life Beside Karate

Kanazawa has practiced Tai Chi for many years and credits it for his longevity in karate. He started practicing the art in 1957 under the tutelage of Mr Yang. He has also made extensive studies of Okinawan weapons such as the sai, tonfa and nunchuku. A keen historian he has also researched many of the kata found in Shotokan Karate.

Kanazawa has three sons, Nobuaki, Fumitoshi and Daizo. Unfortunately, their mother died at a young age. All three of Kanazawa’s sons are professional karateka with an exceptional skills. Hiyori Kanazawa, daughter of Nobuaki Kanazawa and grand champion of the SKIF world championships 2019, has already step into to the footsteps of her grandfather. With her the 3rd Kanazawa generation coins the global Shotokan community.

Hirokazu Kanazawa with his grand daugther Hiyori.

Noted Shotokan practitioner, Terry O’Neill, once wrote about Kanazawa,

“He is the perfect specimen of the type of person the art of Karate can develop – there will never be a finer living example of what Karate at its highest level really is.”

Hirokazu Kanazawa is considered one of the most skillful karate masters of all time. A great technician and an excellent instructor, he has built up a loyal and dedicated following of students. A gentle and sincere man, he has been able to convey the concepts of karate to many generations of students. As prolific author, he has also had many instructional books and videos produced. It could be argued that many people would not have started karate if they had not seen demonstrations from this very talented master. In any case, he is a true legend of Shotokan karate.

Opener picture by Jim Palmer

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The Shotokan Times Supports UNICEF

The Shotokan Times proudly announces its support for UNICEF. From today onward, it is going to donate 10 percent from every item it sells in its newly opened shop to the United Nations Children’s Fund.

Managing director and chief editor Dr. Christian Tribowski commented this step as follows:

“Shotokan Karate has the paramount aim to civilize mankind and to make the world a better place. Physical, mental, and ethical education, equality and justice are its core values. We at The Shotokan Times are highly committed to these values and to turning them into practice in our daily work.

However, a huge number of children worldwide live in poverty, under constant threat of war and crime, as daily victims of abuse, neglect, and discrimination. Children are also the weakest group of society and cannot protect themselves. To provide them with an appropriate education and to fight for the enforcement of their rights we are going to support UNICEF.

As Gichin Funakoshi wrote in his 20 Precepts of Karate Do: “Karate is an assistance to justice”. Therefore, we assist UNICEF in its endeavor to serve justice to children worldwide.”

The Shotokan Times opened an online shop in partnership with spreadshirts this week. It offers Shotokan clothing and merchandise. From every item it sells The Shotokan Times is going to donate 1 Euro to the German UNICEF branch. The branch supports child protection, support, and education projects world wide.

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Gichin Funakoshi: The Effects of the Wrong Translation of his Biography

The pictures shows Gichin Funakoshi who was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do. He coined the Shotokan Karate Philosophy in a pacifistic way. He although wrote Karate-Do Kyohan.

The Importance of Gichin Funakoshi´s Autobiography for Shotokan Karate

Today’s convictions about Shotokan Karate are predominantly based on karate literature. Gichin Funakoshi´s autobiography (1868–1957) has become one of the most popular and influentially books for the understanding of Shotokan Karate. One reason for this is that it was also published in English as Karate-dō: My Way of Life (1975) and in German as Karate-dō – Mein Weg (1993) as well as into other languages.

By Henning Wittwer

Translation Problems between Languages

Translations from one language into another pose difficulties. Above all Gichin Funakoshi’s autobiography shows to what wrong translstion lead. They mostly happen especially between those languages without common cultural roots. Therefore, the English version already contains various inconsistencies. They all emerged due to defective and incorrect translation and/or “smoothing out” the text. The German version, which is based on the English version, adopted these problems. Unfortunately, they spread as “truths” of karate and about the person of Funakoshi in the field of Shotokan.

In this article, I highlight four problematic passages by comparing them with the original Japanese text and additional Japanese sources. For reasons of thoroughness, I am going to use the first edition from 1956 of Gichin Funakoshi´s Biography and the following editions from 1976 and 2004.

Example 1: Prohibition of the Karate Practice in Ryūkyū

“Prohibition” in the English an German Translations

Especially widespread and popular is the conception of karate as a forbidden fighting art on the Islands of Okinawa. In the chapter “Losing a Topknot” of the English version of Funakoshi´s autobiography can we find traces of this supposed prohibition:

“At that time the practice of karate was banned by the government, so sessions had to take place in secret and pupils were strictly forbidden by their teachers to discuss with anyone the fact that they were learning the art.”

Following this, the German version reads in the chapter “So verlor ich meinen Haarknoten” (“The way I lost my Topknot”):

„In jener Zeit war die Ausübung des Karate durch die Regierung verboten, und die Treffen mußten deshalb geheimgehalten werden.“

The German citation underlines that wrong translations easily gain an unpredictable momentum. It differs considerably from the English edition.

The Statement in the Japanese Original

My own translation of the corresponding passage of the Japanese original has, however, a somewhat different tenor:

“At that time one could not learn karate in public [oyake].”

It is important to mention that wording and grammar of this sentence are the same in the Japanese original editions.

So, what happened in the English translation? The Japanese word oyake (“public”) became “government”. Misleadingly, the German edition picked up on that and used the term “Regierung”, which means  “government” in English. But the original text only states that Karate “could” not be learnt in publicly. It neither mentions a prohibition or even a prohibition ordered by the government. On the contrary, the royal government of Ryūkyū encouraged the karate practice at the end of the Edo period (1603–1867). In this case we must clearly differentiate the two aspects “secret practice” (fact) and “karate was forbidden” (historical nonsense).

Example 2: Is Karate a Sport?

“Sport” in the English Translation

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Now and then, the term “sport” arises in the English and in the German edition. Naturally the reader associates this word with notions like Olympic sports, sport tournaments etc. It also might seem to support the modern idea of sports karate. However, we find the following sentence in the chapter “Chinese Hand to Empty Hand” of the English edition:

“What is most important is that karate, as a form of sport used in physical education, should be simple enough to be practiced without undue difficulty by everybody, young and old, boys and girls, men and women.”

Karate as “Physical Education” in the Japanese Original

Let’s proceed to my translation of the Japanese original:

“Of course, karate as physical education [taiiku] has to be an easy to do matter for whosoever, old and young, man and woman.”

The original text uses the term taiiku, which means “physical education”. Then it somehow became “sport”. The Japanese language offers equivalents for the English word “sport”. Yet, Gichin Funakoshi did not refer to it in any way. In the cited passage he writes that “karate as physical education” must be “easy” respectively “without (too much) trouble” practicable for young and old, man and woman. Funakoshi speaks nowhere about a “form of sport used in physical education”, or “sportlicher Form” (“sportive form”) as later suggested in the German edition. These are interpretations of the translators and/or editors.

Gichin Funakhoshi´s Understanding of Shotokan Karate

Gichin Funakoshi saw karate from three angles in his books:

  1. Physical education (taiiku 体育),
  2. Art of self-protection (goshin-jutsu 護身術), and
  3. Spiritual practice (seishin shūyō 精神修養).

Gichin Funakoshi´s Understanding of Physical Education

The Japanese term for physical education, taiiku, consists of the two characters for “body”/“physique” (tai) and “to raise”/“to educate” (iku). (It should be noted that “physical education” doesn’t automatically refer to the educational activity PE in school curricula.) Gichin Funakoshi chose the term consciously and it should not be reinterpreted. He explained the term in his earlier works: all five parts of the body are well-proportioned moved to the right and left, upwards and downwards. So, the body is exercised. Moreover, he points out that exactly this well-proportion of exercise of a karateka is an advantage over practitioners of other disciplines like, for example, the rower or the jumper.

The Benefits of Physical Education trough Karate-Do

He also believed in the development of tendons and bones as a particular strong point when compared Karate with other fighting arts (bugei). Above all, he underlined this by mentioning the increase of strength through karate practice. Men, women, and children alike exercise Karate without being unchallenged or over-challenged.

For Gichin Funakoshi´s the physical education through karate practice resulted also in a healthy and long life – another positive argument for him. Therefore, even older karateka could compete with the several people. All these points are not related with “sportive tournaments” etc.

  • Gichin Funakoshi training Kumite with an American military officer
  • Gichin Funakoshi doing some Shotokan techniques during kumite

Besides of the distortion of the term taiiku the editors also used the term “sport” as a filler word in some cases. This happened without reason. It also happened directly in Funakoshi’s foreword.

Example 3: Funakoshi an Anti-Alcoholic?

Sometimes, karate is connected with certain values or even ways of life. Therefore, Karate pioneers serve as role models in this respect. Reading Funakoshi’s autobiography it seems to be evident that he lived the life of a teetotaller (a person who does not drink). The chapter “Difficult Days” of the English edition states, for instance:

„Although I do not drink alcohol, my complexion is quite ruddy, and as my skin is also extremely smooth, I could understand how, in this little boy’s mind, I looked like a melon that becomes bright orange when ripe.”

Gichin Funakoshi´s “Snake Gourd” Anecdote

This passage belongs to an anecdote: Funakoshi has been loudly derided by children, who repeatedly named him a “snake gourd” (“melon” in the English edition). Funakoshi could not understand, why they compared him to a snake gourd. But, when he looked into the mirror “later”, he realized the reason. He explained it as follows:

“I am drinking no sake [right now]; however, also today I [still] have a red face which does not resemble my age. Since at that time it was the same and the brightness [of my face], too, was good, that is the reason that I really was a magnificent snake gourd.”

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The first sentence refers to a present situation taking place in the present. In doing so, Funakoshi finds out that he has a red face in that moment, although he does not drink alcohol at the moment. In the following sentence he compares this situation with his condition at that time. As a result, he realized that it was like the children said. Although, he had not drunken alcohol, he had a red and bright face.

However, in other writings Funakoshi talked about his alcohol consumption. In his Karate Stories he reveals, for example, that he completed the draft of his first karate book tipsy after a party. Moreover, I also asked witnesses, who personally met Funakoshi, like Asai Tetsuhiko (1935–2006). They confirmed that Funakoshi drank alcohol.

Example 4: Karate-Dō is One. Isn’t It?

The title of a chapter in the English version sounds like an important and profound epigraph:

“Karate-dō is One”

Analogous it reads in the German edition:

“Karate-dō ist Eins”

But what is the Japanese original of this “principle”? The title of the corresponding chapter is almost unrecognizable. It simply runs:

“The Schools of Karate” [Karate no ryūha]

Translated more literal it means the “Currents and Branches of Karate”. Funakoshi did not express with the title a unification of Karate. A creative interpreter or editor inserted it.

Ad: Higaonna Kamesuke: on Karate in Okinawa,
Japan & Hawaii by Henning Wittwer

In his very first works he already discussed “The Schools of Karate”. From the beginning, they were equivalent for him to the concept of shorei-ryu and shorin-ryu. They in turn had nothing to do with the traditions (ryūha), which were known in mainland Japan back then. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Shōrei and Shōrin were used as two rough categories. They classified types of students (small and light on the one hand, tall and heavy on the other hand). Gichin Funakoshi described this concept constantly under comparable headings. Above all, he emphasized that in his opinion a karate student shall ideally learn from both categories to become a balanced karatea. He puts it into practice by teaching his students the Heian as well as the Tekki series as fundamental kata.

His biography at the end of this section in the book states that various denotations had been created for currents and branches recently. He offered a remark that it would be more adequate to simply speak of “karate-dō” in such cases. However, here he wrote nothing of a presumed “unification”, or that supposedly “karate-dō is one”.

The Consequences of Wrong Translations for Shotokan Karate

These examples show that even simple but wrong translations cause today’s widely spread misunderstandings and misconceptions of Karate. We must also take into account that Japanese books might have been manipulated as well during the process of publishing new editions.

When I was a teenager I read Gichin Funakoshi’s German biography for the first time. It naturally influenced my understanding of karate and my expectations. Therefore, I am convinced that a correct translation would have saved me to follow a few wrong tracks and dead-end roads on “my way” of karate.


I sincerely would like to thank Pierre Dobrzykowski for helping me with the 1956 edition of the Funakoshi biography as well as Mark Tankosich for providing me with a copy of Funakoshi’s Karate no Hanashi.


About the Author

Henning Wittwer took up his karate practise in 1992. From the beginning he followed the Shotokan current, initially in the more sport and tournament orientated organisations. Since 2005 he published his translations of old Japanese sources and his research regarding karate in German as well as in English journals and magazines.