Master Funakoshi Gishin

In 1922, the Japanese Ministers of National Education invited an expert from Okinawa (Master Funakoshi Gishin) to give a karate demonstration. It was a great success and two years later Keio University founded Japan’s first karate dojo. The great master of Judo himself, Jigoro Kano, expressed a wish to learn karate. Under the direction of Master Funakoshi, followed in 1930 by another great master from Okinawa, Master Mabuni, karate over the years became extremely popular throughout Japan.

Bodhidharama and the Shaolin School

It seems that between 502 and 550, an Indian monk, Bodhidharama arrived in China. He was about 60 and with the powers he seemed to possess, he made an extraordinary impression. Bodhidharama went into meditation surrounded by his disciples and after nine years of leading an ascetic life, he noticed that his disciples were weak and lean through deprivation.

As a result, he taught them physical exercises combined with breathing, called ‘ta-ch’uan. Part of his teaching was formed into limbering up the joints and bones. Bodhidharama is then said to have taught in a famous Monastery called Shaolin, founded in 495 in the Henan district of North China. For centuries, the Shaolin temple was in fact the centre for over 400 varieties of Chinese boxing. Here, it is understood that the word boxing has a particular meaning, ’embracing very slow and gentle movements.

During the Sung dynasty, a monk named Fang San-feng modified and perfected the forms used and, in contrast to the external method used until then, he introduced the internal method, so defining their differences. The external method regularises respiration, exercises the bones and the muscles, teaches the art of attack and defence and the unity of the harsh and gentle forces. The internal method comprises the training of bones and muscles, facing the attack calmly, and it’s object is to overcome the enemy the moment he attacks. If Bodhidharama is surrounded by the legendary halo, it is certain that the Shaolin school ( even if it was the only one ) played a decisive role in the knowledge in the art of fighting or exercise with bare hands.

As the tradition of secrecy was, until recent times, absolute, as far as the Chinese masters were concerned, it is difficult to know how it was handed down. Even in Okinawa, there is no written evidence of the karate or it’s allied forms such as Te before the writings of Master Funakoshi himself. Numerous Japanese schools claim to practice the teaching of the Shaolin temple (called Shorin in Japanese) but they probably have little in common with this school.

Okinawa and Te, or the art of Empty Hands

Meeting and exchanges between Japanese and Chinese masters have always taken place. From Master Higaonna, (whose pupil Funkahoshi was), to Fanakoshi himself, the subtle bond with China was ever present throughout these exchanges.

Note that the Japanese masters always speak of the Chinese masters with greatest respect. Even today, such meetings sometimes take place and are revelation making one aware of the unsuspended knowledge and powers.

It is certain, in any case, that the Chinese masters took the secrets of their art to Okinawa. In fact, in the seventeenth century, the Japanese invaded the island and gradually all the fighting weapons were prohibited and confiscated. Chinese methods of combat were then adapted under the name okinawate or simply ‘te’ meaning hands.

In 1903, the Japanese, surprised at the physical performance of young conscripts during te practice, authorised its teaching in schools. The name karate-jutsu replaced the word te. Karate-jutsu, taken from the Chinese ideograms meant ‘art of the hands’ in Chinese.

In 1932, the emergence of a new style of karate in Japan meant another name: the Chinese ideogram ‘Kara’ meaning China was replaced by an ideogram pronounced the same way but meaning ’empty’. So, modern karate or ‘art of empty hands’ was born and Master Funakoshi was the first to determine its synthesis. In fact, he took his inspiration from all the martial arts connected with karate: okinawate, kempo, t’ai-chi, ect. He studied all these methods and devoted a long lifetime ( he died when he was 83) to making them known.