A big mystery of Funakoshi 船越翁のミステリー 

I assume all the readers know that Gichin Funakoshi is known as the father of modern day karate. It is a well-known historical fact that Funakoshi was one of the first Te (old name for karate) practitioners to be dispatched from Okinawa to mainland Japan namely Tokyo to introduce karate. His first visit to the mainland was in 1917, but it was a very short visit. When he made the second trek in 1922 at the age of 54, he was destined to stay until his death even though he had planned initially to return after a short stay like the first trip five years earlier.


Even though there were a few other Okinawan karate masters like Uechi Kanbun, Mabuni Kenwa and Motobu Choki (photo left) to visit the mainland to teach karate, Funakoshi was the most successful thus he received the title of “Father of modern day karate”. It is a very interesting subject to discuss why he was so successful but we will not go into it in this essay. On the contrary, I wish to discuss where he “failed”.


There are many mysteries about Funakoshi and his activities on mainland Japan. Some of those mysteries are well known such as he created kokutsu dahci and de-emphasized nekoashi dachi. I have already written about some of those mysteries before. If you are interested in them, please look for my books available from Amazon Books.


The mystery I am going to write in this essay is rather unknown not only overseas but also in Japan. This is so because it is almost like a taboo subject. In other words, the senior Japanese practitioners and instructors are discouraged from touching this subject. So, what is the mystery and why is it a taboo?


Funakoshi came to Tokyo in 1922 and stayed there till his death in 1957. He was 88 years old when he passed. His age is impressive when the average life expectancy for the Japanese male at that time was less than 50 years of age. Of course, Japan went through a war and that kept the figure low. Nonetheless, it proves he was very healthy and active.


So, here is the big mystery. Do you know that he had never returned to Okinawa? He stayed in Tokyo for nearly 35 years.  A few mention that Funakoshi made a very quick and secret visit back to Okinawa in 1941 right before the beginning of WWII (photo right). However, the many historic documents about him never mention of any trip back. They seem to avoid this subject or ignore it. In fact, I have not seen any documents written in English that mention his return. If any of the readers happen to see such a document, I would like to know about it.


Even if it is true that he went back to Okinawa once, isn’t it a little strange that there were so few visits for the period of 35 years? His wife and children remained in Okinawa and did he not want to visit them more often? Even though his sons eventually made it to Tokyo to join him, Mrs. Funakoshi never came to Tokyo to visit him, not even once. This is not natural. There has to be a good reason and I will share the answer to this mystery.


I did my investigation but it certainly was not easy to find any documents talking about this. This is why I say that maybe this subject is taboo. I wondered why no one seemed to want to touch this subject of why Funakoshi never returned to Okinawa. Here are my initial thoughts. I wondered if he was too poor to travel. We know he was a school teacher by trade in Okinawa so he was not rich. Teaching karate does not make you rich nowadays and I am sure it was the same way when Funakoshi was teaching karate to the college students in Tokyo.


Now let’s see how much it would have cost if a person wanted to travel to Okinawa in the early twentieth century. Okinawa was a remote island so we can easily guess that the travel cost was not too cheap. By checking the historic documents about the ship fare between Tokyo and Okinawa in the early 20th century, I found it was 15 yen to 40 yen depending on the class which, translated to the present currency, is approximately between $2000 and $4000 (a round trip ticket). It took more than several days one way by boat between Tokyo and Okinawa.


OK, we know that Funakoshi was not well off and the ship fare was rather expensive. Despite that, I cannot believe that that was the sole reason for him to stay away from Okinawa and never returned home. If he really wanted but did not have the money, he could have easily borrowed the money. He had so many supporters and dedicated students who respected him and would have assisted him. I am sure they would have been happy to lend if not give him the necessary money.


Let’s think about him. He was living all by himself in Tokyo. At his age he could have spent his days in comfortable retirement. Do you believe he did not miss his home, his kids and his wife? I would bet a million dollars that he did. If it was not of the financial reason, then what else could it be? Was he too busy with his teaching? I doubt it. He had many assistants including his son, Gigo or Yoshitaka (photo right), who was helping his father in the 1930’s. So, Funakoshi Sr. could have asked them to watch over the dojo so he could return to Okinawa to see his wife and his family grave.


For many years I wondered why he did not return and could not find the answer. One document stated that Mrs. Funakoshi chose not to move to Tokyo because someone had to watch over the family grave of the Funakoshi family. This is an important role and it must be done by a man of the family or his wife. I, being a Japanese, can understand this reason. So, even if we believe Mrs. Funakoshi could not move to Tokyo, we still do not know why Funakoshi did not return to Okinawa to see his wife and to visit his family grave (even though he might have done it once in 1941).


So I further studied the history of Okinawa. As I learned more about it I understood better about the Okinawan people. They had a hidden or dark side of their history during the last few centuries. I will not go into the details of the dark side as we need to focus on the Funakoshi situation.


Here is a summary of the Okinawa history during the last several centuries. In the medieval period (14 to 19 centuries) Okinawa stood as an independent country called Ryukyu Kingdom (琉球王国). In 1429, King Sho (尚巴志) completed the unification of the three kingdoms of the islands. He established one Kingdom with its capital at Shuri (首里), now a part of Naha City (那覇). They traded with both Japan and China all through those periods. Until the beginning of the seventeenth century Ryukyu Kingdom enjoyed total freedom and prosperity.


However, in 1609, the Satsuma Clan, one of the Daimyo of Kyushu Island invaded the castles in Naha and Shuri. With a huge military capability Satsuma army quickly occupied the island. After a few short battles, the king of Ryukyu Kingdom formally surrendered. Satsuma kept Ryukyu Kingdom independent with some restrictions and demands. One of the demands was that all samurai of the Kingdom had to give up all the weapons such as swords, spears, guns, etc. Even though there were some people of Ryukyu who resisted the changes, in general they accepted those demands and changes as they could continue the Kingdom with their king Sho.


That condition and the terms lasted till the middle of the nineteenth century. What happened to Japan who kept the isolationism through all of her history was a visit by a US ship which, affected not only Japan but also Ryukyu greatly. In 1853 commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry (photo above) came to Japan and demanded that Japan open their ports. The opening of her door did not come smoothly or without blood. In the end, Tokugawa Shogunate grudgingly signed the agreement with the US in 1854. Consequently, Shogunate lost its power and the new government was formed in 1868. This reform or revolution is called Meiji Restoration where the emperor regained its governing power.


With this change, the new Japanese government changed the status of the Ryukyu Kingdom. In 1872 the government forced them to call Ryukyu Han or Domain instead of Okoku or Kingdom. The Ryukyu people followed as their king remained as the top of the Han. However, in 1879 the government gave an order to change the status again to make Ryukyu Han into Okinawa Prefecture. With this change the ending of the Kingdom was announced and their last king,  Sho Tai (尚泰, 1843 – 1901 photo left) had to move to Tokyo. Though these changes were unavoidable, it is also true that many Ryukyu people did not accept them. The hardcore group who resisted was called Gankoto (頑固党 photo below right). Its literal meaning is the stubborn group or party because they did not want to accept the changes and wanted to keep the old ways. For the Gankoto people any changes or new things coming from Tokyo were a bad thing and to be resisted. Any Ryukyu people including the officials and leaders were criticized and sometimes attacked.


I know I sort of chopped up the history of Okinawa but I had to do this to put more than 500 years of history into less than two pages. I hope the readers can get the general idea of what had happened to Okinawa since the mediaeval time up to the beginning of the nineteenth century when Funakoshi moved to Tokyo.


With these historic facts being studied, I came to the following hypothesis. What I will share here may not make me popular in the Shotokan world and I may receive much skepticism. Some of the Okinawan karateka may deny my conclusion. However, I still need to share what I have found and what I now believe what the situation was.


The facts seem to indicate that it was not that Funakoshi did not have a desire to return to Okinawa. The sad fact seems to be that he simply could not return. It was not because of the financial reason or his busy schedule, but because of the political and cultural reasons. Let me explain and give you two major reasons.


Reason one: Gankoto

The members of Gankoto that I mentioned above considered Funakoshi as a traitor. The Gankoto people were upset, first of all, that Funakoshi used Te to bring Okinawan culture to the capital of Japan. Gankoto wanted to keep independence and did not want to cooperate with the Japanese government.


They also believed in Te as a valuable and unique Okinawan heritage, and that it should not be taught to the outsiders, even the people on the mainland. Funakoshi taught Te to the hundreds, if not thousands, of university students who lived in Tokyo, the capital of Japan. To them it was a traitor’s act.


Those revolutionary minded people could be very violent. I am sure Funakoshi expected this and that his family members must have informed him of the situation. It was better and safer for his wife to stay away from Funakoshi. If he had returned to his home, many Gankoto members might have come and caused some serious problems to the family members. I do not think Funakoshi feared for his own safety, but he wanted to avoid the problems and possible harm to his family members. This is why I believe he chose not to return.


Reason two: Okinawa masters

Even though the commission of Okinawa masters, Chorokai (長老会), had selected Funakoshi to travel to Japan to demonstrate Te in 1922, they did not expect him to promote it so much in Tokyo and stay there for so many years. In fact, they expected that he would return right after the demonstration.


Here is another sad fact which the Shotokan people may not like to hear. Master Funakoshi when he moved to Tokyo was not regarded as one of the senior members in Okinawa. This can be proven when you read the books written by the Okinawa masters. There is little mention of Funakoshi and they give not much credit to him when they talk about the development of karate.


There is another proof that Funakoshi was not welcomed in Okinawa at that time. The following event was documented that there was an official Karate Masters meeting in Shuri Okinawa in Showa 11 (1936) to discuss the future plans for karate. The attendees were Hanashiro Chomo (photo left), Kiyan Chotoku, Motobu Choki, Miyagi Chojun, Kyoda Juhatsu, Chibana Choshin, Koroku Chotei, Gasukuma Shinpan and Nakasone Genwa. Two names of karateka who were living in the mainland, Funakoshi and Mabuni were missing. It is interesting that Motobu was also living in the mainland (Osaka) returned to Okinawa to join the meeting.


It proves my point as it seems that the committee invited only Motobu from the mainland to the meeting. By 1936 (14 years after his initial demonstration), Funakoshi was showing much greater success in promoting karate and becoming known and respected among the martial artists on the mainland. It does not make sense not to invite him to the meeting where they discussed the future of karate.


I must conclude that the masters in Okinawa did not appreciate what Funakoshi was doing in Japan. In fact, I understand that they had mixed feelings with his activities and success in Tokyo. In one sense they were happy that Te was gaining in popularity in Tokyo. On the other hand, they were not very pleased that Funakoshi was making many changes.


The biggest change, probably, was the name of their art, Te from Tode (meaning Chinese Hand) to Karate (meaning Empty Hand). Another one was the names of many kata such as Kanku from Kushanku, Heian from Pinan, Tekki from Naifanchi, etc. He changed some of the techniques such as yoko geri from mae geri and kokutsu dachi from nekoashi dachi (photo right). He also adopted several things from Judo such as wearing a Gi, dan rank system, black belt, etc. There are almost too many to mention. I wrote an essay on Funakoshi’s changes.


We consider those changes to be improvements. However, the Okinawan senior masters did not like them as they wanted their art to remain unchanged. They may be a little jealous too but we may never know. Why Funakoshi decided to change many things of Te is another very interesting and important subject. Even though I support what he did, I will not go into this subject in this essay. I have written another essay discussing Funakoshi and the changes he made in one of the books I have published. Even though that essay does not cover all the changes he made, it does explain the main reasons why he “had to” make some of those changes. If you are interested in this subject I recommend that you get a copy of Shotokan Mysteries (Chapter 1), available from Amazon Books.




Funakoshi feared the Gankoto members would cause some harm to his family if he had returned. Those people were violent in some of the situations, thus Funakoshi chose not to cause any problems by returning to Okinawa.


He also changed many things of Te without discussing or receiving an approval from the Chorokai. Thus, he knew he was not too welcomed by the Okinawan masters (photo left). If he had returned he had to face them. We can easily guess that those senior Okinawan masters would have accused him for the changes. They might have even demanded that he would reverse the changes.


Funakoshi was an educated man and saw what was happening in Tokyo. Entire Japan was going through the largest cultural and political change. He was convinced that those changes in Te or Tode were quite necessary if he wanted karate to be adopted by the main stream Japanese martial arts society. I believe he was correct and I am impressed with his ability to adopt and to be creative.


On the other hand, the senior Te masters in Okinawa at that time were not well informed about not only the Japanese martial arts but also, more importantly, the major society change that Japan itself was going through. For this reason, Funakoshi figured that it would be impossible to convince them, thus decided not to visit Okinawa.


At the beginning of this essay, I wrote that I wish to discuss where he “failed”. I put a quotation mark to the word of failed because I do not believe Funakoshi failed in his activities in Tokyo. He made a big success in Tokyo and became the father of modern day karate. Despite this, he could not gain or earn the acceptance and the due respect that he deserved from the Okinawan karateka. This is, sadly, where Funakoshi failed.



Funakoshi’s grave is located in Kanagawa, out skirt of Tokyo at Zenshoji (善正寺 photo left).


The monument of Funakoshi in Okinawa (photo right below) with his famous saying, Karate ni sente nashi (there is no first strike in karate), built only in 2007.

The story of this famous monument is available at the website of Okinawa Karate Information Center: http://okic.okinawa/en/archives/sites_and_monuments/296-2

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