History of Shotokan Karate

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Karate began somewhere in the distant past with elements of unarmed fighting methods from China and Japan coming together to be shaped by the unique culture and people of a small group of islands known as Okinawa. Situated geographically and sociologically at the halfway point between two great cultures, Okinawans developed a strong fighting spirit, which allowed them to exist for centuries as a culture distinct from their stronger neighbors.

During the 17th and early 18th centuries, first under its own central rulers and then later under clans from the main islands of Japan, a small ruling elite outlawed the possession of weapons by the general population. The secret study of weaponless fighting, or te as it was called, became one of the only means native Okinawans had to protect themselves from heavily armed warriors and brigands.

It was during this time that Okinawans put their own stamp on unarmed fighting methods by emphasizing the use of the natural physics of the body and connection to mother earth to achieve high levels of power. Early practitioners spent a lifetime developing and organizing the technical skills needed to perfect elements of various foreign and native weaponless fighting schools. As time went by, the need and therefore the emphasis on fighting for purely reasons of self-preservation began to diminish.

At the same time, practitioners of this pure fighting method began to recognize that many aspects of native religious and philosophical beliefs primarily from Buddhism and Taoism provided unarmed warriors with a level of mental peace and disconnection from worldly concerns needed to enhance chances for success during combat. Practitioners of unarmed martial arts realized too that the focused application of the art itself led the warrior to a greater level of self-awareness and inner peace. This melding of the outer, physical and inner, mental elements is what defines eastern martial arts.

The physical and mental benefits of this art form have been recognized worldwide. Through physical training, a student learns that emotions control the physical body. Karate is the mastering of the body, the mind, and the emotions. It creates self-confidence in ones ability to stop an opponent with a single finishing blow (todome). Such confidence leads to stable emotions. Stable emotions eliminate negative emotions, to the benefit of physical and mental health.

In the late 1950s, Japan introduced traditional karate to the general population, and it soon became very popular worldwide. In the late 1960s, however, karate competitions began to appear that de-emphasized the inner developmental aspects of martial arts and instead emphasized scoring points by using common karate-like kicks and punches. While traditional karate requires the high technical level of the “finishing blow”, the newer karate sports have become concerned with merely winning a match by touching the fist or foot to a part of the opponent.

Traditional Karate tournaments maintain the original techniques and spirit of the ancient martial arts of karate and judges its participants based on a balance of technique, control and ability to finish a real-life opponent with a single blow. Participants fight at full strength, stopping a potential blow or kick within centimeters of their opponent. This combination of power and control takes years to develop and perfect.


The House of Shoto (Shotokan) was the house of Gichin “Shoto” Funakoshi, who is widely considered the primary “father” of modern karate due to his efforts to introduce the Okinawan art to mainland Japan, from where it spread to the rest of the world. Born in 1868 as a premature and frail infant, he was given to his maternal grandparents to raise.

funakoshi      AYKJ GICHIN Funakoshi

Funakoshi began receiving karate instruction at the age of 11under the guidance of Anko Itosu and Yasutsune Azato, both reputed to be among Okinawa's greatest experts. According to Funakoshi, after he had trained a couple of years, he realized that his health had improved tremendously and that he was no longer frail. It was at this time, he began to contemplate making Karate-do “a way of life”.

Gichin Funakoshi became a school teacher, but continued to train at the house of Master Azato and also under a number of other great instructors. At the time, there were not many formal “schools” of karate and many karate practitioners sought and received instruction from a number of great masters. These masters also shared information amongst themselves, often not seeing themselves in competition with each other, but as kindred spirits with the same love of martial arts.

It is also during the early years of Gichin Funakoshi that great changes swept through Okinawa and mainland Japan. The government actively sought to develop a stronger sense of nationalism and militarism and martial arts was definitely a major player in nationalist mores. In 1902, Funakoshi performed the first formal recorded demonstration of karate. He was also the first expert to introduce karate-do to mainland Japan. In 1916 he gave a demonstration to the Butokuden in Kyoto, Japan, which at that time was the official center of all martial arts.

On March 6, 1921, the Crown Prince, who was later to become the Emperor of Japan, visited Okinawa and Master Funakoshi was asked to demonstrate karate. In the early spring of 1922 Master Funakoshi traveled to Tokyo to present his art at the First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo organized by the Ministry of Education. He was strongly urged by several eminent groups and individuals to remain in Japan, and indeed he never did return to Okinawa.

As a result of his efforts, karate not only earned the approval of the Ministry of Education and introduced into public school curriculums, but it also became an institution in Japanese youth organizations, the military, colleges, commercial businesses, and with the general public. Funakoshi was extensively sought after as an instructor and found himself permanently relocating to mainland Japan to pursue instruction of karate to the Japanese people. His students initiated the building of the first public karate dojo (training hall) which opened in 1939 and which was called the “Shoto-kan” (using the pen name of Funakoshi - “Shoto” and “kan” for hall).

Master Funakoshi taught only one method, a total discipline, which represented a synthesis of Okinawan karate styles. This method became known as Shotokan, literally the clan or the house of Shoto, which was the Master's pen name for his poetry, denoting the sound of the wind blowing through pines.

 nis3       Hidetaka Nishiyama 1

Master Hidetaka Nishiyama is considered to be one of the great masters and pioneers of Japanese Traditional Karate, which is why the Emperor of Japan designated him as a Living National Treasure in 2000. This designation is given to only a few individuals each year who have dedicated their lives to the preservation of Japans cultural heritage.

Master Nishiyama began his study in 1943 at the age of fifteen, with Master Gichin Funakoshi and trained with him until his death. At that time, karate was not yet popular. Other martial arts, such as judo and kendo were taught as compulsory classes in Japanese middle schools, similar to American physical education classes. After a difficult search, he found Master Funakoshi and his karate dojo in Tokyo. He continued his study with Master Funakoshi until the great masters death.

In the late 40's the American Strategic Air Command (SAC) Special Forces began combat training in judo, aikido and karate. Master Nishiyama accompanied a special demonstration group, which toured the American bases.

”We were invited to the American bases to instruct... I was the youngest. Every time we went to the bases we were expected to give demonstrations. These were very tough, because I had to break many boards. Pretty soon my hands and forearms were in a bad state. This happened 3 or 4 times a day. Eventually I couldn't move my arms.”

According to a student of Master Nishiyama, “...many times the American instructors would present Mr. Nishiyama with very thick boards that had been soaked in water. Mr Nishiyama never failed to break these boards and never once asked his seniors to break them for him.” Although this was a difficult time for Master Nishiyama and his fellow karate enthusiasts, it helped him realize that karate could be spread internationally.

Master Nishiyama later became one of the original founders of the Japan Karate Association, home of the famous JKA Instructors School which has produced some of the most famous karate masters in the world: Kanazawa, Enoeda, Shirai and Mikami. In 1960 he published “Karate: The Art of Empty Hand Fighting”. It is still considered the definitive text on the subject and the best selling karate book in history. In 1961 he moved to the United States and founded the All American Karate Federation AAKF.

In 1975, Master Nishiyama helped found the International Traditional Karate Federation (ITKF) to help avoid confusion between the ”new” karate styles and traditional karate, and to maintain consistency in traditional karate training throughout the world. Currently, Master Nishiyama and the ITKF are diligently working with the International Olympic Committee to have traditional karate recognized as an official Olympic event.

Master Nishiyama is now working on a new karate book aimed at karate instructors. He continues to travel throughout the world teaching karate. He is currently the Chairman of the AAKF and President of the ITKF, and is one of the highest-ranking black belts in karate (9th Dan).

In the U.S., traditional karate became organized in 1961 with the All American Karate Federation (AAKF). The AAKF conducted annual, regional, and national championships as well as many developmental programs based on the high standards and goals of traditional karate. Also, on the international scale, the AAKF hosted the U.S. - Japan Goodwill Match in 1965. It continued in 1968 with the invitation of athletes from the U.S., Europe, Asia, and Pan American countries. World Invitational Tournaments were held in Los Angeles and Mexico City, the first world scale events in the history of traditional karate.

In 1979, the All American Karate Federation became officially the American Amateur Karate Federation (still referred to as AAKF). AAKF is a nationwide public benefit, tax exempt, corporation. The main purpose of the AAKF is to benefit the physical and mental health of it participants through the refinement of traditional karate. For this purpose, it continually develops the technical skill level of coaches, officials, and judges. In addition, it is responsible for setting guidelines, and for sanctioning local, regional, and national traditional karate events.

On the international front, the AAKF is a member of the International Traditional Karate Federation (ITKF) and its sole representative in the U.S. Through the ITKF, the AAKF sends a U.S. Team to participate in the international events and promotes international communication through Traditional Karate. The AAKF organizes traditional karate clubs and individual members nationwide. The resulting state and regional committees have planned and conducted state and regional events. Within the individual regions, the elected representatives serve on the Board of Directors, which is the highest decision making body. The Board of Directors elect a President, Vice President, General Secretary, and other officials of the region.