Article by Manuel Vignola

There are a large number of websites, publications, articles dealing with the life of Gichin Funakoshi, considered the "Father of Karate", some written by himself in person, however the figure of this Master is much more articulated and multifaceted than what may seem at first glance. This will be the first in a series of articles that will delve into his life, his thinking and his way of practicing Okinawan Karate.
Gichin Funakoshi (Gijin Yo the name in Chinese, Umikami the name by which he was known as a young man) was born on November 10, 1868 (the same year as the Meiji Revolution, the period in which Japan began a process of adaptation to modernity) in the village of Yamakawa-cho, in Shuri (Okinawa). His family (originally the surname was Tominakoshi of the Tomari Yo clan) belonged to the social class of the shizoku (low-middle-ranking officials of the Ryukyu Kingdom) and from his own words we know that grandfather Gifuku, thanks to his knowledge of the works of Confucius, he had been called to instruct the daughter of the sovereign's secretary, Kikoe Okimi, and as a reward he received a certain sum of money and a house near Shuri Castle, but when Gichin was born the family fortune had been spent by his father Gisu (a servant of Tomari's Yamada), a heavy drinker of alcohol, so the family was in a state of poverty.
An only child born prematurely, weak and with poor health, he was treated with all possible caution by his grandparents, especially by the maternal ones with whom he was sent to live and where he received his first education in the Confucian Chinese classics, as was the practice for young people of his social class. In his autobiography, Gichin himself tells us that at the age of about 11, thanks to a deep friendship with a schoolmate, he became a pupil of his friend's father, the great expert of Tode Anko Asato, a nobleman at the top of the state administration of the Kingdom of the Ryukyu, expert not only in Karate but above all in Ken-jutsu as well as other martial disciplines (much stranger appears the story narrated by Richard Kim, who claims in his book that Gichin started the practice always pushed by his grandparents and his doctor, Mr. Tokashiki, who prescribed him, in addition to the use of herbs to strengthen the body, also the practice of martial art with the well-known expert Anko Itosu).
Funakoshi under the guidance of Asato (who also had good credit for his academic education) began a training in great secrecy, often at sunset as at that time Karate was taught only under the constraint of secrecy, with the promise that Funakoshi he would pass on this knowledge to the son of Asato, since it was not appropriate for a Master to teach his own son; over time he also began to train with Asato's great friend, the equally famous Anko Itosu and sometimes the two trained him together, and they were the main Masters he followed. Now, although Funakoshi reports in his works that Asato had a great influence on him (in terms of manners, philosophy of life, martial level but also for his culture and in fact Funakoshi himself appreciated poetry and will compose several under the pseudonym of Shoto or "rustle in the pines" since he loved to walk in the pine forests), it is not clear how long he frequented it; in fact we know that in 1879, that is to say after a short time, Asato moved to Japan following King Sho Tai, after the incorporation of the Ryukyu Kingdom into the Japanese Empire, presumably returning around 1892 according to some sources, and we know that the his death is around 1906, so Funakoshi may have started his training with Asato, then moved on to Itosu, and resumed training with Asato upon his return until his death. One of the famous phrases that Funakoshi attributes to Asato is the now famous "consider the opponent's hands and feet as swords and don't let them touch you", which also appears in his nijukun (20 rules of practice published in "Karate do Taikan" by Genwa Nakasone ), clearly influenced by the philosophy in turn of his Master Matsumura and his experience in the art of the sword. From his books we know that Itosu also greatly influenced his person, not only on a martial level but also on a moral and philosophical level (Itosu taught to limit the occasions of conflict as much as possible, and in fact, from what we know, Funakoshi was considered a responsible and accommodating person, so much so that he was often commissioned to bring peace between various discordant factions both on the occasion of the tug-of-war, in which scuffles often broke out, and in the case of disputes between private individuals), and became one of his expert students.
They were not only his Masters. In his autobiography he tells us that both (especially Asato, who had detailed information on the other experts on the island) introduced him to their friends inviting him to learn as much as possible from them too, and in his book he mentions a few: Kiyuna, an elderly Matsumura , Toono and Niigaki. Now, Kiyuna Peichin (1845-1920) is a little known character, a guard of the royal cemetery (like the young Itosu) of Shuri, a pupil of Sokon Matsumura, a great friend of Itosu and famous for the strength of his punch which he trained assiduously with unconventional makiwara (since he destroyed them all) and with hands strong enough to tear the bark of trees, his favorite kata was the Passai (his interpretation is called Kiyuna Passai) which he demonstrated on more than one occasion (some rumors attribute to him a notable influence on Funakoshi's Seisan). Matsumura is the famous Sokon (called Bushi Matsumura for his skill, 1809-1901), the main master of Asato and Itosu and bodyguard of the king of Okinawa, the one who first began to systematize the old Shuri-te and teach it to the generation of Masters who would make it famous. Niigaki (Japanese name) refers to the well-known Seisho Aragaki (1840-1918), famous not for having left a school behind him but for having left a series of famous kata (e.g. Niseishi, Unshu, Sochin, etc.), and for having trained personalities of the caliber of Kanryo Higaonna, Kenwa Mabuni etc; another student of his, Tsuyoshi Chitose, confirmed that at the time there were few who studied with him, including Funakoshi. Much has been speculated about the third name, Toono (in Japanese), however if you think that Juhatsu Kyoda, one of Kanryo Higaonna's main students, named his Toon-ryu school in honor of his Master, we have one more clue: it could to be Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1917), the main exponent of Naha-te who became famous for being the main teacher of Chojun Miyagi, founder of Goju-ryu (as well as a great friend of Itosu), but if we go and see what Funakoshi himself tells us in his autobiography, namely that he was a renowned intellectual, here is another hypothesis, namely Kanyu Higaonna (1849-1922), known as the "Higaonna of the East", a semi-unknown character and a relative of the more famous Kanryo, who also practiced old Naha-te. In addition, Funakoshi would also have studied with Kodatsu Iha (1873-1928) of the lineage of Tomari (news reported by George Alexander and Hiroshi Kinjo), a pupil of Kosaku Matsumora, from whom he would have learned the kata Seisan (which he would have publicly demonstrated on several occasions ) and Wanshu even if another candidate would be Seyu Nakasone according to some sources (Hitoshi Uehara, nephew of Nakasone himself, reports in an article that the young Funakoshi while teaching Tomari would have asked his uncle for lessons). We also know that for three months around 1890 Funakoshi would also study with Kojo Taitei who would pass on to him the kata Pechurin (Ryozo Fujiwara and Akio Kinjo) and was also, like many other Okinawan practitioners, an enthusiast of Tegumi, the Okinawan wrestling. 
Going back to Funakoshi's life, we know that his original intent was to undertake medical studies in a Tokyo school and we know that he also passed the exams and even falsified his date of birth from 1868 to 1870 (it was necessary to have been born after that year to be admitted), however he did not enter it for a very particular reason: one of the points of the Meiji renewal was the cutting of the hair knot characteristic of the warrior class (which in the future was however abolished, however forcing him to adapt), and to be admitted to this educational institution was a basic requirement, however his family, strongly traditionalist, prevented him from adapting and therefore he had to make use of the training received in the Chinese classics to devote himself to the career of teacher which he cultivated for 30 years.
He entered as an assistant primary school teacher and married Gozei at an old age for that time due to the economic difficulties of the family (they will have a total of six children between boys and girls, Giei, Tsuru, Giyu, Uto, Gigo and Giketsu), with time passed the exams to be qualified to teach all grades of the school system also helping his wife  in the fields (in disguise, because it was not dignified for a teacher to work the land), and we know that he always worked between Shuri, Naha and Tomari, which allowed him to always study Karate under his Masters, even refusing promotions that would have sent him away to other islands of the archipelago and also starting to instruct some young people by teaching Karate in the courtyard of his house; the wind was changing and the veil of secrecy that covered this martial art had begun to fade over time.
In 1901 Itosu's group of students (with Yabu and Hanashiro in the first place but also Funakoshi who was an advanced student and teacher) began working to introduce Karate as an element of physical education in the island's schools to form good citizens and good future soldiers, given the militaristic climate of the time. A demonstration was organized precisely in those years for the visit of the school commissioner of Kagoshima, Shintaro Ogawa, who was so impressed that he wrote a report for the Ministry of Education; thanks to this report, the Japanese authorities first authorized the teaching at Shuri elementary school and then extended it to high school and the institute for teachers, and consequently many young people were able to access martial art already from school and the old masters (including also Funakoshi) began to teach publicly in small groups and to do demonstrations around the island (in 1906 he and other Masters gave a demonstration for the opening of the new prefecture building, in 1911 he performed the kata Seisan at the school of Shuri, the other Masters who performed were Kiyuna, Itosu himself and Kentsu Yabu as we know from the Memorandum of Antei Tokuda, in 1916 Shoshin Nagamine recalls a performance of the students of the elementary school of Tomari by the students of Funakoshi who performed the Naihanchi and Pinan kata), the first study groups were created in both Shuri and Tomari (Itosu and Asato were part of both).
A few years later the future Admiral Rokuro Yashiro had his crew attend a Karate demonstration and was greatly impressed and in 1912 the Imperial Navy 1st Fleet (Admiral Dewa) anchored in Nakagusuku Bay and some crew members were accommodated in the middle school hostel to practice with Funakoshi: little by little the news of the mysterious martial art of Okinawa was spreading also in the motherland thanks to these two officers of the Navy, attracting the attention above all of the Dai Nippon Butokukai, the Japanese Association who oversaw the development and spread of Japanese martial arts. At the same time Funakoshi became director of the Okinawa Shobukai (Okinawa Association for the Spirit of Martial Arts, founded in 1906). A point on which it is appropriate to clarify is his participation in the famous study group of Karate, the Ryukyu Toudi Kenkyukai organized at Kenwa Mabuni's home which brought together a large number of Masters of the various traditions of the island and which in the intentions of the participants should have brought to share among practitioners and to preserve the teachings of the last "great Masters", namely Itosu, Higaonna and Aragaki. Shuri's group was born informally in 1918 in parallel with a similar group in Naha (however roughly the participants were the same) but they were united in a single group reorganized in 1926 in the Ryukyu Toudi Kenkyukai Kurabu, considered the first proper dojo of Karate of history, a group that unfortunately broke up around 1928 with the death of the reference figure, namely Choyu Motobu, and with the departure of Mabuni for Japan (it was later reformulated in the Okinawa prefectural committee for Karate). Surely Funakoshi could not have participated in the latter group since he had already been in Japan for several years, however we know that he participated in the "informal" group born in 1918: in an interview, Mabuni's eldest son, Kenei, said that between those who frequented his father's house and who supported the group were also Gichin Funakoshi. Furthermore, even in the future when he emigrated to Japan, Funakoshi still maintained contact with many Masters of the island who often visited him. At the beginning of the 1920s Funakoshi, due to a promotion that would have sent him to a distant island abandoning his affections and Karate, resigned as a teacher, while maintaining a link with the academic world by founding the Support Society of Okinawan Students (with the support of the head of the prefectural library Shoko Makaina and the editor-in-chief of the Okinawa Times Bakumonto Sueyoshi). The first turning point is May 5, 1917 when he was chosen to present Karate with a small delegation (including Shinko Matayoshi for Kobu-jutsu) at Butokuden in Kyoto, at the request of the Directorate of the Ministry of Education of the Prefecture of Okinawa (most likely on the advice of senior Navy Ministry officials, many of the members were martial artists and had already seen Karate during their service stops in Okinawa and were interested in it); is the first "official" presentation of Karate in the motherland (the fact that he was sent may depend on the fact that he was a cultured educator with a great experience in Karate and spoke Japanese correctly as well as the Okinawan dialect). On March 6, 1921 he was given the honor of organizing the Karate exhibition together with Kentsu Yabu (in which Chojun Miyagi and Shinko Matayoshi also participated) which he would have attended in the Palace of Shuri the Imperial Prince Hirohito on his way to Europe (thanks to the interest of the ship's commander, the okinawan Norikazu Kanna), who was very impressed; for Funakoshi it was a memorable moment to present Karate to the future Emperor of Japan, but the real turning point would come soon!

Commemorative photo of the exhibition in honor of the Imperial Prince
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata 2" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: kata" (here)
  • "Shorin-ryu Karate: The legacy of the bodyguards of the king of Okinawa" (here)
  • "The legend of the masters of Okinawan Karate: Biographies, curiosities and mysteries"  (here)