Shotokan Niju Kun 松濤館二十訓; Twenty teachings from Master Funakoshi


Niju kun 2Gichin Funakoshi created both Dojo Kun 道場訓 in which you find five principles and Niju kun in which 20 more principles are described. I suspect Funakoshi wanted to make the dojo kun to cover only a few kun so that the students could recite daily. He ended up with the five most important ones. However, there were many more teachings he wanted to hand down so it became the second Kun which was originally named Karate Niju kajo 空手二十箇条 (Karate 20 principles). Now it is commonly called Shotokan Niju kun 松濤館二十訓 or simply Niju kun 二十訓.

Niju means twenty and Kun literally means “motto” or “teaching”. Niju Kun is a valuable list of 20 motto we can use to seek the way of karate. But in the end, you must apply these 20 motto to your life through the practice of karate. Niju kun has a Wikipedia page and each kun is translated there:

I will refer to the translation by Wikipedia as it is most popularly accepted. I must say that the translation found in Wikipedia of some of the kun is good but I find most of them needing corrections and further explanation. I will place the additional information to complete the meaning of each kun. Just as shown in Wikipedia, I will list each kun in Japanese then in roma-ji (alphabets) and the translation by Wikipedia. Then I will put my explanation at the end.

1. 空手道は礼に始まり礼に終る事を忘るな
Karate-do wa reini hajimari reini owaru koto o wasuruna
“Karate-do begins and ends with bowing.”

Rei 2

It is true that the word rei 礼 can be translated as bowing. So, it is true that we always start our kata with a bowing and ends with another. However, here I believe Funakoshi was trying to say something that is more comprehensive and deeper. I believe he wanted to cover the general etiquette and respect by this kun. You can find another word in the 4th principle of Dojo jun, Reigi 礼儀 which means good manners. So the meaning of this kun should be understood as we must not forget that Karate-do means to live always with good manners whether you are inside the dojo or out.

2. 空手に先手なし
Karate ni sente nashi
“There is no first strike in karate.”

karate ni sente nashi

It is commonly translated as “There is no first strike in karate.” but the meaning of this kun is deeper. He did not literally mean that we must not throw the first strike. He meant that we will not instigate or cause a fight. But once it becomes obvious or clear that we must defend ourselves, we must do what is absolutely necessary including striking first. In Okinawa there is another popular saying, “Sente hissho” which means a first attack always brings a victory.

3. 空手は義の補け
Karate wa gino tasuke
“Karate stands on the side of justice.”

Wikipedia’s translation, unfortunately, makes the meaning unclear. Gi 義 means righteousness or justice. Tasuke 補け means to supplement or supply. So, this means by practicing karate we must always abide by the laws or do what is right.

4. 先づ自己を知れ而して他を知れ
Mazu onoreo shire, shikashite tao shire
“First know yourself, then know others.”

Sun Tzu 2Funakoshi was an educated person so he knew about Sun Tzu 孫子and his famous book, The Art of War. In it Sun said “If you know the enemy and know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.” There are two interesting points here. One is Funakoshi said “FIRST know yourself” while Sun listed the enemy first. I think this is extremely important as it came from the bushido philosophy. Another interesting point is that Funakoshi said to know “others” instead of the enemy. I think Funakoshi’s teaching was more comprehensive and that you can apply to your daily life both in peace and war or battle. I am not saying Sun’s teaching is less valuable. I am only stating that Sun’s idea focused only with war.

5. 技術より心術
Gijitsu yori shinjitsu
“Mentality over technique”

This translation needs further explanation to understand the deep meaning of this kun. Let me explain the meaning of each word and that should help us understand this important kun. Gijutsu 技術 means technique but gi 技 itself means technique and jutsu 術 means art, way, method and means. So, it means technical method or technical way. So, it does not necessarily mean karate techniques. When we say “gijutsu sha” or gijutsu person we mean engineer and craftsman. Regardless, he meant the karate techniques by gijutsu.
Then what is shinjutsu 心術? Shin means heart, mind and intelligence. So, we may quickly translate shinjutsu as mind way or intelligent way, however, this translation is not exactly what Funakoshi really wanted to mean. The Japanese word shin 心 has many meanings and it is a very important word for Japanese. Shin can mean center or core (kan 幹) and even stomach or guts (hara 腹). Samurai considered shin and hara to be the center of their samurai spirit or value. This is why they cut the belly when they committed seppuku or harakiri to show that their center is pure. I do not think Funakoshi was thinking of harakiri but he was thinking of the samurai spirit. He was thinking of Gojo no toku 五常の徳 which is the five virtues of Confucian. Those virtues are Jin 仁 (benevolence), Gi 義 (justice), Rei 礼 (courtesy), Chi 智 (wisdom), Shin 信 (trust). I will write about Bushido in the near future and I will include further explanation of Gojo no toku there.

In short, Funakoshi put the essence in the Dojo Kun he created. He did not deny the needs for karate training but he wanted to emphasize the importance of the mental and spiritual or ethical part of self-development. He put the concept in a very short sentence and I suspect he spent a lot of time with the students explaining what he really meant by this kun.

6. 心は放たん事を要す
Kokorowa hanatankoto o yosu
“The heart must be set free.”

This is another difficult one. Interestingly the same kanji 心 is used here. The direct translation of “The heart must be set free.” does not make sense to most of the readers. As you can see the pronunciation of the kanji is different in this kun and it is kokoro. Even though the literal translation of kokoro is heart, Funakoshi meant something deeper. It is closer, I should say, to the meaning of psychological mind. In other words, he was stating that we tend to get trapped in one way and do not see the other options or methods. To practice and to improve in karate we must not be trapped in one way or one method. One good example may be a bunkai. You may believe one bunkai is correct but you need to open your mind and consider other options. He wants us to be flexible with our mind and thinking.

7. 禍は懈怠に生ず
Wazawaiwa ketaini seizu
“Calamity springs from carelessness.”

The translation I find here is unfortunately incorrect. First kanji wazawai 禍 is not really calamity in this context. He meant rather a smaller problem or an accident. The next word ketai 懈怠 is a difficult one and it means to be lazy or to slack off. He wanted to warn us that if we slack off from our training and whatever in our life it may result in an accident or a problem. He is telling us to pay 100% concentration and dedication to karate training.

8. 道場のみの空手と思ふな
Dojo nomino karate to omouna
“Karate goes beyond the dojo”

Miyagi teaching at naha koko bukatsu

The translation here can be expanded a little though most of the readers understand what this kun means. Some may misunderstand that the meaning of this kun is limited only to the self defense and danger outside of the dojo. Of course, it is included but his kun covers much more. He wanted to tell us that we have to apply all the virtues (that I mentioned above) and the self discipline must be applied to our daily life.

9. 空手の修業は一生である
Karate-do no shugyowa isssho de-aru
“Karate is a lifelong pursuit.”

The translation in Wikipedia is not wrong but the word of shugyo 修業 needs to be explained to better understand the meaning of this kun. It means to study, learn and train. Therefore, I prefer to translate this kun as “Karate training is a lifelong pursuit.” This was the reason why Master Asai did not accept 10th dan rank during his life time. He said he was still pursuing the perfect karate which he said he had not found. I believe Master Asai kept this kun and lived by it.

10. 凡ゆるものを空手化せよ其処に妙味あり
Ara-yuru mono o karatekaseyo; sokoni myomi ari
“Apply the way of karate to all things. Therein lies its beauty.”

I agree with the translation but the second one needs further explanation. The word myomi 妙味 is a difficult one to translate. It literally means good taste, charm or profit. If you can expand the benefits of karate to your life you can really enjoy your life. For an example, Master Funakoshi was always healthy until his death at 89 years old. He said he was applying the self-defense against illness. Another example is to avoid an accident (automobile or just falling down) and there are many others. So, the translation is “beauty” but it really means “true benefit” or “enjoyment in your life”.

11. 空手は湯の如し絶えず熱度を与えざれば元の水に還る
Karatewa yu no gotoku taezu netsu o ataezareba motono mizuni kaeru
“Karate is like boiling water; without heat, it returns to its tepid state.”

I agree with the translation and there needs no further explanation.

12. 勝つ考えは持つな負けぬ考えは必要
Katsu kangae wa motsuna; makenu kangae wa hitsuyo
“Do not think of winning. Think, rather, of not losing.”

The translation is fine. In the case that you are a competitor, you may wonder whether you should fight to a draw if you are not supposed to be thinking of winning or losing. Of course Master Funakoshi was surely not thinking this as he had opposed any tournaments and competitions. So, I assume he was talking about a real fight. By this somewhat contradictory kun, he was telling us that the ultimate aim is not to get into any fights or conflicts.

13. 敵に因って轉化せよ
Tekki ni yotte tenka seyo
“Make adjustments according to your opponent.”

I want to mention teki 敵 is more than just an opponent. It means the enemy and the challenges in general. Therefore, he was not talking about adjusting only to the people you fight but to all possible challenges you may face in your life.

14. 戦は虚実の操縦如何に在り
Tatakai wa kyo-jitsu no soju ikan ni ari
“The outcome of a battle depends on how one handles emptiness and fullness (weakness and strength).”

This kun is a challenging one to translate and what makes this kun difficult is the kanji of kyo jitsu 虚実. Let’s investigate the meaning of these two kanji letters. Kyo 虚 literally means imaginary, hollow, falsehood or fake. On the other hand jitsu 実 means the opposite including truth, reality and substance. Then another word, soju 操縦 is translated as handles which is not incorrect but the word is passive. In fact, soju is more aggressive and it means control and drive. So, it can be translated as the outcome of a battle depends on how one controls the falsehood and the reality. In a kumite situation it can be a fake technique and a real technique. However, the first kanji tatakai 戦 does not necessarily mean a battle against an enemy. Funakoshi was thinking larger. He was referring to all the battles in your life such as sickness, wealth, work, etc. When he migrated to Japan he was already 54 years old. He was a respected school teacher in Okinawa but when he moved to Tokyo he had no place to live. For many years, he had to live in a school’s very small maintenance room. He used to say with a smile on his face that he had a small bedroom but the backyard was huge. Of course, it was not a backyard but the school campus. He won the battle against poverty by controlling his mind.

15. 人の手足を剣と思へ
hi to no te-ashi wa ken to omoe
“Think of hands and feet as swords.”

This is a simple one and the translation is fine. I just would like to add that Funakoshi truly believed in this concept. You can see this from at least two things he did. One is he rejected both kata and training method of Sanchin which is a very popular kata among the Naha-te  那覇手 styles such as Goju ryu  剛柔流 and Uechi ryu 上地流. I have written in one of my books that Funakoshi created a new stance, Hangetsu dachi from Sanchin dachi. What he rejected was not the kata itself but its training method in which a sensei would hit and kick the performer to check his chinkuchi (body tension). This is the exercise to prepare the practitioner for getting punched and kicked. Funakoshi thought such an exercise or preparation was useless as he believed that the opponent’s hand and foot were swords. His concept was not to get hit at all. The other action by Funakoshi was the rejection of the tournament. He had a few reasons to oppose this. One of them was his belief that a karate technique must be improved to the point of Ikken hissatsu  一拳必殺 which means one punch certain kill. ikken hissatsu 2Just as you do not have a tournament with a real sword, he considered it impossible to have a tournament using karate techniques at full speed and power. Despite strong opposition by Funakoshi, JKA went ahead with the first all Japan championship in 1957. It has been more than 50 years since the introduction of large scale tournaments in Japan. Considering Funakoshi believed in the hand and foot being a sword, it is rather ironic that no one has been killed or even seriously injured in any of the major tournaments in Japan so far. This would be another interesting subject to discuss further at another opportunity.

16. 男子門を出づれば百万の敵あり
Danshi mon o izureba hyakuman no teki ari
“When you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies.”

This is a literal translation of the Japanese kun. 百万 hyakuman means one million but it also means simply a lot. This is the same as an English phrase “Thanks a million”. So, I think the following translation is more appropriate, “…………., you face many enemies.”

17. 構は初心者に後は自然体
kamae wa shoshinsha ni atowa shizentai
“Formal stances are for beginners; later, one stands naturally.”

EgamiThis translation is, unfortunately, a poor one. The words “formal stances” are not clear nor accurate. We know what “kamae” 構 means and it is a fighting stance. We also know the word shizentai 自然体 and it was translated correctly. It is a natural stance. The tricky part is the translation of “atowa”. Its literal meaning is “later” but the question is how much later. It is not a few minutes or even a day later. The time span is much longer as it means when a beginner gets to be an advanced practitioner. So, the better translation may be “A fighting stance is only for the beginners, when they become advanced they should fight from the natural stance.”

18. 形は正しく実戦は別物
Kata wa tadashiku, jissen wa betsumono
“Perform prescribed sets of techniques exactly; actual combat is another matter.”

I can tell that the translator had a big challenge with this kun. The translator intentionally changed the meaning of kata 形. I do not know why but we all know that kata is kata though “prescribed sets of techniques” is not totally wrong. However, the translation is done for karate practitioners and not for the general public. Thus, this word should be kept as kata. Funakoshi stated that we should do the kata correctly which means he did not want us to change or modify them. The translation for the second part is acceptable. I prefer, “actual fighting is a different story”. He wrote this kun as I suspect that many university students wanted to change the katas. There was also a big difference between how you perform the katas, and the movements in bunkai. He must have spent a lot of energy explaining the reasons for the difference, however, I am afraid the students did not possess the necessary skill to understand what Funakoshi meant. He wanted to impress on the students that the katas must be done as they were taught. This brings up a very interesting point as Funakoshi was the one who changed and modified the katas he brought from Okinawa. I know he received a lot of criticism from the masters in Okinawa at that time but he believed those changes were needed. I agree with most of them though with great respect I disagree with the rest. One good example of my disagreement is that he switched all neko ashi dachi to kokutsu dachi. Another is his change of sanchin to hangetsu. In other words, he de-emphasized short stances and focused on the long and low stances. I suspect that his son, Gijo had a big influence on this. I should write about this one day.

19. 力の強弱, 体の伸縮, 技の緩急を忘るな
Chikara no kyojaku, tai no shinshuku, waza no kankyu o wasuruna
“Do not forget the employment of withdrawal of power, the extension or contraction of the body, the swift or leisurely application of technique.”

This is another challenging kun and it contains three important essence of karate. I consider this kun one of the most important from the karate training perspective. Let’s look at those three elements. First one is chikara no kyojaku 力の強弱. Chikara is power that a practitioner executes. Kyojaku means literally strong and weak. So, Funakoshi is saying you need to know when to use power and when not to. You see this in many of the advanced katas and this must be the same in kumite. The teaching here is not to tense all the time. Probably the most difficult is to master how to change the level of power used. For instance, in mawashi uke you need to start from rather non tension (weak) to tension or strong ending. Another situation may be from a strong kime technique to the next move that is slow and without tension (ie. Heian sandan, from oi zuki/ki-ai to heisoku dachi morote koshi kamae).
The second one is tai no shinshuku 体の伸縮 tai means body and shinshuku means expansion and contraction. My sensei used to tell us to make our techniques big. I had some difficulty understanding him at that time but now I understand he wanted us to expand our body (as we were too tensed). We need to extend our arms and legs when we execute many long techniques such as oi zuki, gyaku zuki, mae geri and yoko geri. Even for the straight blocking techniques despite the blocking arm being bent, you must expand the chest or back. The students tend to contract too much and fail to expand sufficiently.

The last one is waza no kankyu 技の緩急. Waza means techniques and kankyu means fast and slow. What is important is that this fast and slow is not only described in speed but also in timing. I am afraid that Funakoshi would be crying if he could see how the katas were modified in the tournaments. Not only the techniques themselves but also the speed and timing have been altered these days. I particularly see the katas done with extremely long pauses and also without the slow tempo or timing that is necessary. We must remember that the katas were created from actual fighting experience and there is a well thought out reason in each combination and sequence.

20. 常に思念工夫せよ
Tsune ni shinen kufu seyo
“Be constantly mindful, diligent, and resourceful, in your pursuit of the Way.”

The literal translation of this kun is “Always think deep 思念 and be creative 工夫.” The Wikipedia translation is much longer than what the Japanese kun says. The translator was correct by adding “in your pursuit of the Way” as this kun is also not only for the karate training but also for the pursuit of the way 道, karatedo .

I suspect Funakoshi purposely placed this kun at the very end. He was blamed by many Okinawan masters that he made many changes in not only the karate techniques such as stances but many of the cultural things that came along with karate including the names of the katas, gi or uniform, dan ranks, etc. I am sure he hesitated in making those changes but after deep consideration he made those changes because he believed they were necessary. Not to simply justify his behavior but he felt this stance or attitude is absolutely necessary if you pursue the way of karate-do in your life. He is telling us how to get to the Ha 破 stage of Shu Ha Ri  守破離. He of course meant this to apply to more than just practicing karate. He wants us to follow this path and apply it to everything in your life.shuhari (1)


2 Responses to Shotokan Niju Kun 松濤館二十訓; Twenty teachings from Master Funakoshi

  • I’d like to translate this entry to spanish and put it on my blog. Is that possible? I’d mention original blog and author for sure!


    • Dear Kanotengu,
      You are welcome to translate any of the articles and you may distribute under two conditions.
      1) Send me the translated manuscript so that I can post it here.
      2) Be sure to mention my name as the author.

      If you agree to this, please go ahead.
      Shihan Yokota

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *