A month ago I finished reading Gichin Funakoshi`s autobiography “Karate-Do: My Way of Life”.

For those who do not know who Funakoshi is, he is the man widely recognized as the founder of modern karate and in particular the father of Shotokan karate.

So what is his biography like?
In short, quite funny and interesting.

Being born the year of the Meji Restoration (1868), Gichin grew up in Okinawa (a small island south of the main Japanese archipelagos) during the early days of the post-shogunate Japan when democracy was introduced and Japan saw it’s society modernise. For him, as for his generation, this meant a significant break with various traditions of Japan’s feudal past. He would for instance not fashion his hair as a teenager in the way seen as appropriate for someone of his and his family’s rank (in feudal Japan certain haircuts were only allowed for certain social ranks, becoming therefore an indicator of status). But more radically still, he would start practicing karate. This was to some extent a brave act as karate was considered an illegal activity by the government. A modern reader might wonder why a sport or martial art like karate was deemed illegal, to which the answer is that even since before the establishment of the Tokugawa shogunate in 1612, the famous Japanese general and statesman Hideyoshi had decreed that only the samurai caste would be allowed arms and the means to defend themselves. This as an effort to contain the possibility of uprisings and dissent among the peasantry. A policy continued by the shogunate until the late 19th century. As a result young Gichin had to practice in secret at his coaches’ houses, sneaking out of his house at night.

While the autobiography becomes more relatable as he ages into the 20th century, his young days has the unmistakable sense of martial arts mysticism about them. There are stories of his teachers and their contemporaries that seem almost too romantic to be true. There is for example the story of the teacher who beat his opponent simply by shouting a kiyai, or that time Gichin himself was practicing kiba dachi on the roof of his house during a thunderstorm. He tell these stories in such a way that intimidates the modern reader (or at least me) as it gives the impression that these earlier generations of karatekas had some sort of hardness or devotion that seems lacking in our 21st century world. Its funny but it kind of feels like reading a legend more than an actual human biography.

Regardless the story goes on and Gichin eventually moves to Honshu in 1917 (Japan’s main island) where he establishes his own dojo in Tokyo (at this point karate has finally become legal). This latter half of the story sees him take on more the role of teacher than student, as well as manager of the sport. He makes frequent remarks on how he is invited to dojos all over Japan to show them his style, how he networks with government and military officials in efforts to promote karate as a martial art, and how he has to build his own dojo. To me, the most interesting aspect of this part of his biography is his relation to politics and world-affairs, as well as to women and karate.

To start with the former, what struck me is more what he leaves out than what he says. More specifically, while both the Japanese-Russian war of 1904-5 and the Pacific war of 1941-45 are mentioned, they are hardly discussed. The latter conflict receives more attention, but only to the extent that he describes how it affected his classes. He tells for example of how many of his young students go off to war, while only a few of them return and then often with severe trauma. There is also an interesting mention of how American soldiers during the occupation would attend his dojo, and then later be the first generation of karatekas in the US. Regardless, I found it intriguing that he does not voice any explicit opinion about these two great conflicts other than how it affects his dojo and training.

The other point is his views on women and karate. What must be remembered when thinking about Gichin in this context are the cultural values of his time. As regards women, the values were the more traditional values of women being the caretaker of the house, her ‘duty’ (to use a Japanese concept) being to her husband and family. As such, the debate Gichin had to have when considering the involvement of women in karate was whether or not karate would interfere with their household obligations. He makes it clear that this is a rather controversial issue with many men feeling that it is inappropriate for women to attend karate classes, nevertheless, Gichin himself arrives at the opposite conclusion. However, he does so not in defiance of traditional values but rather in support of them. He makes the argument that karate, rather than creating disruption to the household by making women more rebellious actually helps facilitate ‘normal’ and healthy household relations as karate provides harmony and inner balance. As a 21st century feminist I thought this was hilarious: that he bases his liberal views of women in karate on his traditional view of women as mothers.

All in all, I thought it was a very enjoyable book that provided both history of the art, cultural knowledge of Japan, and funny stories from Gichin’s private life. As a karateka it also made me hungry for reading more about the martial art. This was intriguing as I had never (and still dont) really realised the extent of the martial art’s literary and philosophical background. Though for that I guess Ill have to read his other books…

Written by Alex Mellbye