Shotokan karate history was started with Gichin Funakoshi (1868-1957) in Tokyo in 1938. Funakoshi is considered to be the founder of modern karate. Born in Okinawa, he began to study karate with Yasutsune Azato, one of Okinawa’s greatest experts in the art. In 1921 Funakoshi first introduced Karate to Tokyo. In 1936, at nearly 70 years of age, he opened his own training hall. The dojo was called Shotokan after the pen name used by Funakoshi to sign poems written in his youth. Shotokan Karate is characterized by powerful linear techniques and deep strong stances.
Karate history can be traced back some 1400 years, to Daruma, founder of Zen Buddhism in Western India. Daruma is said to have introduced Buddhism into China, incorporating spiritual and physical teaching methods that were so demanding that many of his disciples would drop in exhaustion. In order to give them greater strength and endurance, he developed a more progressive training system, which he recorded in a book, Ekkin-Kyo, which can be considered the first book on karate of all time.
The physical training, heavily imbued with Daruma’s philosophical principles, was taught in the Shaolin Temple in the year 500 A.D. Shaolin (Shorin) kung-fu, from northern China, was characterized by very colorful, rapid, and dynamic movements; the Shokei school of southern China was known for more powerful and sober techniques. These two kinds of styles found their way to Okinawa, and had their influence on Okinawa’s own original fighting method, called Okinawa-te (Okinawan hand) or simply te. A ban on weapons in Okinawa for two long periods in its history is also partly responsible for the high degree of development of unarmed fighting techniques on the island.
In summary, karate in Okinawa developed from the synthesis of two fighting techniques. The first one, used by the inhabitants of Okinawa, was very simple but terribly effective and, above all, very close to reality since it was used throughout many centuries in real combat. The second one, much more elaborate and impregnated with philosophical teachings, was a product of the ancient culture of China. These two origins explain the double character of Karate–extremely violent and efficient but at the same time a strict and austere discipline and philosophy with a nonviolent emphasis.
Master Gichin Funakoshi was the first expert to introduce karate-do to mainland Japan, in 1916. One of the few people to have been initiated into all the major Okinawan karate methods, Master Funakoshi taught a synthesis of the Okinawan styles, as a total discipline. This method became known as Shotokan (literally “House of Shoto,” Funakoshi’s pen name). Because of the great popularity of the style in Japan and, later, around the world, Funakoshi is widely considered to be the “father of modern karate-do.”
Tsutomu Ohshima was one of Master Funakoshi’s last direct pupils (1948-1953), studying under him while attending Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan. In 1955 Mr. Ohshima came to the United States and was the first person to teach karate to the US public. By 1959 the Southern California Karate Association (SCKA) was formed, which has grown over the years to become a nationwide organization, Shotokan Karate of America, and Mr. Ohshima’s influence on karate is felt around the world.
Despite the secluded nature of Mr. Ohshima’s early US practices, knowledge of his teachings quickly spread and membership steadily increased. In August of 1957 Mr. Ohshima was asked to demonstrate Karate during the intermission of the annual Nisei Week Judo Tournament, held in Koyasan Hall in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles. This was the first public demonstration of traditional Shotokan karate in the United States, and has since become an annual SKA activity. In 1958 a separate karate tournament was added as part of Nisei Week under the direction of Mr. Ohshima. The Nisei Week tournament is now the oldest annually held karate tournament in the United States, and is still presided over by Mr. Ohshima.
In addition to the formation of the SCKA, several other events of historical importance to Shotokan Karate of America occurred in 1959. In July the first US Special Training was held. In December Mr. Ohshima awarded six of his students the rank of shodan (first degree black belt), making them the first American-trained black belts in Shotokan karate. (These honored six were Caylor Adkins, George Murakami, Mas Norihiro, Jordan Roth, Roe Suzuki, and George Takahashi.)
In 1960, three years after the death of Master Funakoshi in Japan, Mr. Ohshima led the Waseda Karate Club black belts on a tour of Okinawa and its karate experts. This was the first official visit by students from the Japanese mainland since before the Second World War.