Shotokan is one of the oldest forms of Karate. It’s origins stem from 17th century Okinawa, one of the islands of the Ryukyu chain to the south of Japan. When successive Japanese dynasties claimed the island, they made owning a weapon a criminal offense in order to prevent civil unrest and so, over hundreds of years, the Okinawans developed unarmed fighting into a deadly art.
The man responsible for introducing Karate to the Japanese mainland was Gichin Funakoshi. Born in Okinawa in 1869, he began to study karate at the age of 11, and was a student of the two greatest masters of the time, Azato and Itosu. He grew so proficient that he was initiated into all the major styles of karate in Okinawa. In 1916 he gave a demonstration at the Butokuden in Kyoto, Japan, which at that time was the official center of all martial arts. In 1921, the Crown Prince, who was later to become the Emperor of Japan, visited Okinawa and Master Funakoshi was asked to demonstrate karate. In 1922 Master Funakoshi traveled to Tokyo to present his art at the First National Athletic Exhibition in Tokyo organized by the Ministry of Education. The art quickly became popular throughout Japan, and at the same time other martial arts such as Jujitsu, Judo and Kendo were also becoming more widely practised, and western sports were beginning to catch on in Japan. Karate gradually took on some aspects of both traditional Japanese fighting arts and the influence of western sports.
In 1948 the Japan Karate Association was formed under the supervision of Master Funakoshi. This allowed many Karate experts to pool their knowledge, which lead to the gradual development of the three aspects of present day Karate: self-defense, sport, and physical/mental art.
Master Funakoshi was also a poet who went by the pen name of “Shoto”, meaning “Wind in the Pines”. When Master Funakoshi was a young man, he enjoyed walking in solitude among the pine trees which surrounded his home of Shuri. After a hard day of teaching physical education in the local school and several more hours of karate practice, he would often walk up Mount Torao and meditate among the pine trees. Master Funakoshi originally taught karate in his own home, the Japanese word for home is “Kan”, hence Master Funakoshi’s style of karate became known as “Shotokan”.
For Master Funakoshi karate was more than just a fighting art, it came to epitomize the spirituality and principles of Japanese life. The Japan Karate Association continues to emphasize the character building aspects of karate. Strength of character and mind are as important as strength of body.