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How the Samurai Art Bujutsu influenced Shotokan Karate

Bujutsu, the martial and military arts of the samurai, had a great influence on the evolution of Shotokan karate do. Especially Gichin Funakoshi was highly impressed by Jigen-ryu, a bujutsu style from the south prefecture Satsuma in Japan. Later, Gigo Funakoshi enriched Shotokan with elements from kendo and other types of Japanese fencing. The following historical reconstruction illuminates the relationship between the samurai art bujutsu and Shotokan karate do. Thus it offers a new foundation to reflect about the style in general and its techniques and ideals in particular. By Geoffrey Wingard

How has traditional bujutsu (武術, martial and military arts) influenced Shotokan karate do? This question has to be addressed because Shotokan karate do, the ubiquitous karate of post-war Japan, is unique. It differs in significant ways from its Okinawan roots and from karate on Okinawa today. But how could that happen? Was Gichin Funakoshi not from Okinawa and did he not learn karate from Okinawan masters? Both facts are true.

Bujutsu, Jigen-ryu, and Shotokan Karate Do?

But Funakoshi and other pioneers of Shotokan designed their karate differently than most other major karate styles in Okinawa. The reasons for this difference can be found in the strong influence by traditional bujutsu in general and the southern Japanese swordsmanship Jigen-ryu in particular on the Shotokan. For instance:

  • Shotokan places great emphasis on the perfection of basic form;
  • While traditional, tries to avoid symbolic and esoteric techniques that obscure its singular focus;
  • It requires an austerity of practice unlike that of many other systems;
  • Shotokan karate uses longer stances;
  • It emphasizes fighting at greater distances;
  • It places much more emphasis on the ideal of ikken hissatsu, one hit – certain kill. 

These elements can be found in traditional Japanese swordsmanship.

However, Shotokan karate do shares tactical and strategic characteristics with both Okinawan and Japanese martial arts. It combines various Okinawan styles of karate with post-Meiji-era budo and koryu Japanese bujutsu. 

When Started the Influence of Bujutsu and Jigen-ryu on Shotokan Karate Do?

Funakoshi Adjusted Shotokan after the he moved to Tokyo

But how could this incorporation of Japanese bujutsu elements and concepts happen? The answers to these questions are complex. Both because Gichin Funakoshi had to face certain challenges when he moved to Japan, which made him adjust his style and because Shotokan continued to evolve throughout the twentieth century. Following his expatriation from Okinawa to Japan Funakoshi consciously molded his form of budo to appeal to Japanese audiences. The changes include 

  • the introduction of ranks and uniforms similar to those devised by Funakoshi’s Japanese sponsor Kano Jigoro of Kodokan Judo, 
  • the establishment of clubs at elite universities and
  •  the introduction of an “old boy” network, a system of informal yet important client/sponsor relations that characterizes many successful Japanese enterprises (Ashkenazi, 2002). 

Bujutsu Influence on Shotokan before Funakoshi Moved to Tokyo?

However, some of the particular technical aspects of Shotokan pre-date Funakoshi’s time in Tokyo. Therefore, the influence of Shotokan by bujutsu must have begun earlier than the 1920´s.

For instance, Shotokan’s stances undeniably got longer and deeper in the 1930s and 1940s under the influence of Gigo (Yoshitaka) Funakoshi, Gichin Funakoshi’s son and heir. But they were already longer and deeper than many Okinawan styles during the elder Funakoshi’s time. The same goes for Gigo´s emphasized ikken hissatsu in his new randori–style kumite. The concept of total commitment to initial technique was already present in his father’s karate. Furthermore, the introduction of kihon kata, shiai karate and bogu kumite also existed to some degree in the karate of other teachers from Okinawa, both in the Ryukyu Islands and on the Japanese mainland.

How did Bujutsu influence Shotokan Karate Do?

So, where did the differences that characterize Shotokan originate if they didn’t suddenly emerge in 1922 from the imagination of Gichin Funakoshi, a middle-aged displaced schoolteacher? In other words: is it logical that a socially conservative, impoverished, fifty-five year old man, living alone hundreds of miles from his home would abandon a lifetime of orthodox karate practice and come up with a new, untested methodology to sell to the Japanese public on the fly? Would Funakoshi, the former kaicho (president) of the Okinawa Karate Shobu-kai, simply abandon or radically alter karate-do on a whim? This seems unlikely. 

Another hypothesis, as I am going to show, is more likely: Shotokan, already contained characteristics that made it distinct from other Okinawan styles prior to its expatriation from Okinawa.

Anko Azato and Jigen-ryu

Famed British karate historian Steve Cattle argued that the distinctive characteristics of Funakoshi karate arose from the budo of one of his primary teachers: Azato Ankoh. According to Cattle (1990), the unique qualities of Shotokan emerged due to its association with Jigen-ryu kenjutsu through Master Azato. Azato was renowned on Okinawa for his Jigen-ryu swordsmanship. And he  impressed upon young Funakoshi the importance of training one’s hands “like a sharp steel sword” (Funakoshi, 1975, p. 94).

Furthermore, the Jigen-ryu was, as Cattle observes, the official style of the former Satsuma daimyo and their retainers, the closest samurai to Okinawa (based in what is now Kagoshima prefecture). Azato’s teacher, Matsumura Sokon, had mastered this style due to his association with the Satsuma clan as a bodyguard for the Okinawan king

The picture shows samurai of the clan Shimazu, which reigned Satsuma prefecture for several centuries. The Shimazu practiced the bujutsu style of Jigen-ryu, which later influenced the development of Shotokan.
The picture shows samurai of the Shimazu clan, which reigned Satsuma prefecture for several centuries. The Shimazu practiced the bujutsu style of Jigen-ryu, which later influenced the development of Shotokan.

Characteristics of Jigen-ryu

Jigen-ryu has distinctive characteristics. Many parallel with those in Shotokan karate do. 

  • It employs long stances, direct linear strikes, lunging attacks and an almost obsessive cultivation of perfect, basic techniques. 
  • It requires constant attention to technical efficacy trained through hitting springy wooden poles (not so unlike karateka hitting the makiwara). 
  • It is concerned primarily with training for an initial, instantaneous lethal blow, similar to Shotokan’s storied emphasis on ikken hissatsu. 

Historian G. Cameron Hurst explains that, “Jigen-ryu emphasized an initial offensive attack designed to either split the opponent in two or fell him with a single blow.” (1998, p. 62). Students of modern Shotokan will recognize both philosophical and technical similarities between the Jigen-ryu and Shotokan karate do.

Lunging Strike in Jigen-ryu and Oi-tsuki of Shotokan karate do

In 2001, at the University of Missouri – St. Louis’ Budo Symposium, koryu bujutsuka Ellis Amdur demonstrated the similarities of the primary lunging strike of Jigen-ryu to the oi-tsuki of Shotokan karate do. Amdur explained and demonstrated with startling ferocity how the lunge from what Jigen-ryu calls tonbo-no-kamae or dragonfly stance to a full extension of the sword following an overhand strike is analogous to Shotokan’s full extension into zenkutsu dachi with a lunge punch. Both techniques require total commitment to attack, the full extension of the arm and body, and synchronized stepping and striking movements.

These characteristics employed in seizing the initiative will be familiar to Shotokan karateka, but they are also present in Jigen-ryu, which has been described as “a system of all-out attack.” (Amdur, 2002, p. 165).

Kiai in Jigen-ryu and Shotokan Karate

Other, circumstantial evidence supports Shotokan’s association with Jigen-ryu swordsmanship. For example, Jigen-ryu is known for its unique kiai sometimes called a monkey’s shout (enkyo). It is a wailing, high-pitched yell performed with every downward cut of the sword. In English, the Jigen-ryu shout is most often transliterated as “Ei!” rather than kiai.

In Funakoshi’s final written work on his form of karate, Karate-do Kyohan, he uses the term kiai to describe the technique of shouting/expelling breath. But he also uses the English transliteration “Ei!” to describe the sound the karateka should make when performing kiai (1973, for example on p.75). In formal kumite training Shotokan karateka, like Jigen-ryu swordsmen, kiai to emphasize their lunging techniques.

The emphasize on a single-blow also leads to a rigorous trainings regime of Jigen-ryu.

Students of Funakoshi had Bujutsu Background

Another intriguing aspect underlines the relationship between Jigen-ryu and Shotokan. In the decades following Funakoshi´s introduction of karate to Japan he relied heavily on a few trusted senior students. Among these were Okinawans living in Japan such as Makoto Gima and Japanese natives trained in other bujutsu who became his students, notably Hironori Ohtsuka and Takeshi Shimoda. Each of these men brought their own preferences to Funakoshi’s style. But none succeeded him, meaning that the Shotokan we have inherited is more likely directly influenced by Funakoshi’s own budo than by outside contributors. 

Makoto Gima

Gima remained a follower of Funakoshi. However, he retained elements of his Okinawan teachers’ karate in his version of Shotokan. Schools of his lineage, the Kenkojuku, differ slightly from orthodox Shotokan today. A plausible reason might be the influence of Ankoh Itosu and Kentsu Yabu (n.b. Funakoshi had also studied extensively under Itosu, but not under Yabu). While the Kenkojuku is clearly a lineage of Shotokan karate, it does not necessarily reflect a pure lineage of Funakoshi’s particular style. 

Hironori Ohtsuka

Ohtsuka eventually left Funakoshi’s tutelage to train under rival teacher Motobu Choki. While Funakoshi never publicly spoke ill of him, neither did he train with him after the break. Ohtsuka founded the Wado-ryu karate style and did not inherit Shotokan.

Takeshi Shimoda

Shimoda, Funakoshi’s senior student in Japan, died unexpectedly after a brief illness at only thirty-three years old. While Shimoda’s expertise in nen-ryu kenjutsu inevitably influenced his personal interpretation of Funakoshi’s karate, his death limited his influence on the Shotokan method. That left Funakoshi’s third son, Gigo (Yoshitaka), to carry on the Shotokan tradition in Japan.

Bujutsu, Gigo Funakoshi, and the Evolution of Shotokan Karate Do

As a boy on Okinawa, Gigo had trained under both an elderly Itosu Ankoh and under his father. In Japan he was junior to Shimoda and studied directly under him and the elder Funakoshi. After Shimoda’s death, however, when the weight of inheritance fell upon him, Funakoshi Gigo began to train in earnest. At this time, he began to change the Shotokan curriculum and develop it into what many would recognize as a more modern form of Shotokan. He didn’t do this in a vacuum, however. 

The pictures shows Yoshitaka "Gigo" Funakoshi, who developed the style further of Shotokan further. Research shows that he was influenced by bujutsu and brought this influence into Shotokan karate.
Yoshitaka “Gigo” Funakoshi developed Shotokan further and implemented bujutsu elements into the style.

Gigo Funakoshi´s interest in Kendo and Gendai Budo

Kendo and other gendai budo influenced Gigo a lot (an influence in Shotokan that would grow after Gigo’s passing as most Shotokan dojo came under the direction of the Nakayama Masatoshi and the JKA), particularly concerning o-waza or long-distance techniques. Taiji Kase explained that Gigo Funakoshi developed and practiced o-waza in Shotokan for the same reason that kendoka practiced o-waza, “in order to develop and strengthen the body.” (Rincon, 2000).  But there are hints that some of Gigo’s changes to Shotokan may have, in fact, arisen from some continued association with the legacy of Jigen-ryu kenjutsu or from other lesser known Okinawan sources.

Gigo Funakoshi´s Time in Okinawa

Sometime between 1934 (after Shimoda’s death) and 1937, when Japan went to war in China and travel became restricted, Funakoshi Gigo traveled back to Okinawa to study karate. Who he studied with and what he studied are still something of a mystery. Both of his father’s primary teachers had passed away, Azato Ankoh in 1906 and Itosu Ankoh in 1915. However,  both had students remaining on Okinawa. 

Itosu’s legacy is impressive and he had many branch dojo and students teaching throughout the region including many in public schools. Azato’s karate is more of a mystery. However, research has shown that Azato had at least one son, a close friend of Funakoshi Gichin. He also practiced karate and remained on Okinawa. Azato also had other descendants and family members who practiced karate, a lineage of which is rumored to be extant in Kagoshima prefecture today. One can plausibly argue that Gigo could have studied with these men or with others influenced by them.

Did Gigo Bring Bujutsu Elements from Okinawa to Tokyo?

Were any of these influences related to the Jigen-ryu or in other ways formative for Shotokan? It is intriguing to think so for a few reasons. We know, for example, that upon his return to Tokyo from Okinawa Gigo introduced new techniques and stances to Shotokan that he may have learned on Okinawa. Other styles  related to the Shotokan/Shorin-ryu lineage do not accept these. He reportedly trained harder than ever upon his return and made great advances in his personal technique.

Gigo’s students, including Kase Taiji, one of the JKA’s renown masters, recalled Gigo attacking the makiwara over and over with powerful lunge punches and thrusts putting all his spirit and will into the practice after his return from Okinawa. There is an axiom in Jigen-ryu kenjutsu that states students should strike the tategi or freestanding striking pole, “3,000 times in the morning and 8,000 times at night”. Is this what Gigo was doing? Was this indomitable dedication and his new impressive lunging technique what he had learned in Okinawa?

The picture shows Gigo Funakoshi practicing at the makiwara. His interested in makiwara training might be influenved by his exposure to Jigen-ryu and other bujutsu, which also use striking devises made from wood.
Gigo Funakoshi during makiwara training.

Bujutsu and Shotokan Karate Do: A Close Relationship

Unfortunately, we may never know. Like Shimoda before him, Gigo’s life was cut short by disease at a young age. He died of tuberculosis at age thirty-nine and the Shotokan dojo itself was destroyed in the ravages of the Second World War. The Shotokan karate that emerged after the war took time to reform and was reconstructed to meet new challenges. The post-war karateka who followed Funakoshi made changes of their own to the style for both technical and political reasons that have unintentionally obscured some key details necessary for a comprehensive analysis of early Shotokan. 

What we can say with confidence, however, is that Shotokan karate, while distinct from other lineages of Okinawan martial arts, has a tradition that is both linked to traditional karate and that is intriguingly similar to other classical bujutsu, especially Jigen-ryu.

References

Amdur, E. 2002: Renovation and Innovation in Tradition. In: Skoss, D. (ed.): Keiko Shokon: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan Volume 3. Berkley Heights, NJ: Koryu Books, pp. 145-178.

Ashkenazi, M. 2002: Ritual and the Ideal of Society in Karate. In: Jones, D.E. (ed.): Combat, Ritual and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, pp. 99-118.

Cattle, S. 1990: What is Shotokan? In: Shotokan Karate Magazine. Issue 24.

Funakoshi, G. 1973: Karate-do Kyohan: The Master Text. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Funakoshi, G. 1975: Karate-do My Way of Life. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Hurst, G.C. 1998: Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rincon, Martin 2000: Interviewing Sensei Taiji Kase 9º Dan Of Shotokan Ryu Karate-Do. In: Karate-Do Shotokan Ryu Kase Ha Albacete – España.

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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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What is Zanshin? – The State of A Fighting Mind

The picture shows karateka in full zanshin expecting the next attack or counter.

Zanshin belongs to the central concepts of budo and Shotokan karate. In this article give you a detailed account about the fighting state of mind. By Thomas D. McKinnon

What does Zanshin mean?

Literally translated, zanshin means ‘left over or remaining heart /spirit/mind’. However, for the dedicated karateka, it means the state of total awareness. Being still within, while aware of one’s surroundings, and being totally prepared for anything.

It also conveys the fighting spirit of the individual after the fight. If victorious, the fighter needs a forward-looking awareness and should not lose focus by the victory. If by chance the fighter loses, he will carry an indomitable spirit with honor and grace. Then no real defeat of the character takes place. To encapsulate in a single sentence:

‘Zanshin can be said to be a state of total, calm, alertness. Before, during and after combat a physical, mental and spiritual state of awareness.

Our friends from WaKu Karate in Tokyo give in this video a hint about the concept.

Some Western Interpretations

I’ve heard many attempts by instructors to translate the concept into English for the western student to understand:

  • being in the zone, a mental state of focused concentration on the performance of an activity; while dissociating oneself from distracting, irrelevant aspects of one’s environment.
  • a state of readiness to do again what you have already successfully done.
  • to focus intently on the moment (without emotion)… a state of sustained, committed concentration.

Other Arts also Require Zanshin

Zanshin is not the exclusive property of karate, or even the martial arts in general. It is a necessary characteristic of any credible soldier, police officer, security operative or martial artist. Also, outside of any fighting formats, the Japanese art of ikebana (flower arranging), chado (the tea ceremony) and Sumi-e (ink painting) requires zanshin: a state of being ever ‘present’.

In kyudo, the Japanese martial art of archery, it refers to the body posture after the loosing of an arrow. The posture reflects the mental aspect (zanshin) maintained before, during, and after an action.

In kendo, the concept describes the continued state of alertness, spirit, mind and body, and readiness to meet the situation maintained throughout the whole situation. Zanshin – maintained before, during, and after an action – is one of the essential elements that define a good attack.

In iaido, the practice is calm and quiet, and the most important feature of iaido is the development of zanshin (a calm, reflective mind) throughout.

Zanshin in Shotokan Karate

In Budo karate competition, shobu sanbon or shobu ippon, to score with a technique requires zanshin. Fighters must maintain the mental aspect before, during, and after the scoring technique and not just a show at the end for performance.

Our author Thomas D. McKinnon exactly knows what zanshin means. He was soldier in the British Army and operated a high-level security company.
Our author Thomas D. McKinnon

Without zanshin, kata would appear only as a number of techniques performed in a dramatic arrangement (as seems to be the case for most sport karate performers). Enoeda Keinosuke Sensei (whom I had the good fortune to have as my chief instructor in my formative karate years), for instance, performed kata like the midst of battle.

Certainly, as well as kime, one of the aspects that a Shotokan karateka should be displaying, at the very latest, in preparation for shodan (that first blackbelt grading) is a solid understanding of zanshin.

Being Aware: The Foundation of Fighting Spirit

The famous samurai, Miyamoto Musashi, reputedly said:

“Both in fighting and in everyday life, you should be determined though calm. Even when your spirit is calm do not let your body relax, and when your body is relaxed do not let your spirit slacken… Zanshin.

Toshiro Mifune as Miyamoto Musashi depicts zanshin at its best.

From a personal perspective: Formerly, as the CEO of a high-end, close personal protection company, I was responsible for selecting the personal protection operatives. All trained martial arts, some were former soldiers, and some were former police officers. Most would say that we obviously engaged them for their martial skills. However, their combat ability, certainly a desirable factor, wasn’t the primary dynamic in their engagement. Each successful CPPO applicant possessed that subjective but essential, qualitative characteristic: zanshin.

Zanshin in Everyday-Life

Zanshin means always being ready to do what is needed when it is needed. Having it in your life has many merits but one of the chief benefits would be the tendency to avoid pitfalls. Think about it: is it not better to avoid disasters than, after the fact, figuring out how to survive them?

Having a sense of when something is not quite right may not be a measurable element.

However, with zanshin in your daily experience, you will fortuitously take the only route through a disaster zone that delivers you, hale and hearty, to the other side. That is part of what it can deliver for you: a more fruitful life experience.

Zanshin is a characteristic that will help and assist anyone who takes on the way of life that we call ‘Karate-do’. Regardless of what other choices you make in your life i.e. career, family, living environment et cetera, zanshin enriches all.

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To “Oss”, or Not to “Oss”? The Difficult History of Oss!

Should we use the term “oss”? Although Shotokan karateka take it for granted a look back in its history suggest that one should rethink whether it is appropriate to use it. By Andreas Quast

Especially in Shotokan, the term “oss” is omnipresent. But most of the Shotokan Karateka do not know where and why it emerged. In fact, it has a difficult history that dates back to the 19th century and the foundation of the Dai Nippon Butokukai. A brief look into the history of “oss” suggest to think twice about whether we should still use it or better not.

The Dai Nippon Butokukai

The “Society of Martial Virtue of Greater-Japan” (Dai Nippon Butokukai) was established in 1895. It was the year of Japan’s victory against China, ending millennia of cultural and military hegemony of the “Middle Kingdom”. The purpose of the Butokukai was to promote the Japanese bujutsu. It should also galvanize them with the “martial spirit” of Emperor Kammu (reigned 781 – 806) into an ideology of a Japanese spirit (wakon 和魂). This was later propagandized by Japanese nationalists as “the brave, daring, and indomitable spirit of Japanese people”. It also became one of the key doctrines of Japanese militarism. The construction of the Hall of Martial Virtue (Butokuden) was completed in 1899 close to the Heian Shrine in Kyōto and branches of the Butokukai were established throughout the country. Every year in May the Butokukai held its Festival of Martial Virtue (Butokusai) Here it was where Okinawa karate first appeared in Japan.

Ad: Okinawan Samurai: The Instructions of a Royal Official to his Only Son translated by Andreas Quast & Naoki Motobu

The Birthplace of Oss: The Senmon Gakkō

In 1905 the Butokukai opened a private training institute in Sakyō, a district of Kyōto. It became known as the Dai Nippon Butokukai Budō Senmon Gakkō. Literally translated this means the “Specialized School for Budō of the Society of Martial Virtue of Greater-Japan”. Built and managed by the Butokukai, the school served the training of bujutsu-instructors – mainly kendō and jūdō – who were active in regular school education. The purpose of this institution was the same as that of the Butokukai: i.e. the practice of bujutsu and the cultivation of a samurai spirit. A main focus in the education of the bujutsu-instructors for higher school education was the study of the Japanese language and of classical Chinese texts. This was deemed necessary to ensure that the students were also able to theoretically study and understand them.

Senmon Gakkō: A Ferocious Training Regime

The Senmon Gakkō was considered as one of the best institutes for the training of martial arts instructors in the country. Admission was granted without exception to the male gender only. A minimum necessary rank in budō had to be achieved, too. In the event of failure to achieve this rank the university degree was denied.

In kendō the students in the first grade were only allowed to practice kirikaeshi (diagonal strikes to the head alternating from the left to right). In the second grade they were only allowed kiri-kaeshi and kakarigeiko (fierce repetition of techniques in the chord). Jigeiko (free fight, without scoring) was allowed only in the third and fourth grade. Strong basics and spirit were emphasized. Techniques included even grappling and brawls and other techniques unknown to modern kendō. Training was ferocious, including fatalities.

Strict Hierarchy and Evaluation

Once a month an “Evaluation Meeting” took place, hosted by the students of the fourth grade. The third and lower grades had to listen to their “sermons” and exhortations for around two hours while kneeling in seiza. In case of failures in everyday life or elsewhere, such as failing to show courtesy or satisfactory submissiveness, they were physically chastised. A pronounced sempaikohai-relationship with its hierarchical pecking order was a serious matter in this school’s tradition. Graduates of the school received a state license as middle school teachers without having to have completed a proper teacher training course or the accompanying examination.

Budo and the Pre-War Era in Japan

From the 1920s to the 1930s budō witnessed a rapid growth, however, just as a bone in the skeleton of Japanese militarism. While militarism, colonialism, and imperialism were clearly visible already for decades, war escalated from the Manschurian Incident (1931) into the 2nd Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and the Pacific War (1941-1945) as part of World War II. Budō as well as the Butokukai as the most prestigious and influential institution became closely associated with ultranationalism and “Emperordom”. Japanese martial arts grew during this time primarily because they were a cog in the ideological machine of national mobilization.

Ad: A Stroll Along Ryukyu Martial Arts History by Andreas Quast

Dissolution of the Dai Nippon Butokukai abd the Senmon Gakkoo

With the defeat of Japan in 1945, the General Command of the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces dissolved the Dai Nippon Butokukai and banned the teaching of budō in schools and universities. The Senmon Gakkō was renamed to “Kyōto Specialized School – Department of Humanities and Literature” (!!!). But it closed its gates after the last graduation ceremony in January 1947.

It was the Senmon Gakkō where the salutation “oss!” was born. It is the gross residue of an obsolete male language, bordering to the obscene, and the expression of an ideological budō closely related to ultranationalism, militarism, and imperial megalomania.

To “Oss”, or not to “Oss”? For me it is not a question!