Our Long Break from Karate Training

Well this has certainly been a long break from karate training for all of us, eh?  Recently, the state is beginning to reopen in phases, so there’s hope that sometime in the future (weeks? a month?) we’ll be able to train again, perhaps with new social distancing rules, with no kiaiing, and maybe masks -we’ll see.

In looking forward to that day, I’ll bet that that returning to the dojo that first time, it’s going to feel strange putting the old karate gi on, lining up (6’ apart) and doing warmups.  I’m sure that everyone has gotten a little rusty during this time. Actually, on those few occasions that I’ve driven on the freeway at night, it felt almost like I was driving somewhere new.  As bad as this time seems, our mandatory break from training pales in comparison to a training break that happened to the art just as it was growing in Japan. From 1922-1941, the Founder’s karate classes had enjoyed increasing popularity and spread to universities throughout Japan.  Then, in 1941, something called World War II came along, which was to essentially shut down the master’s karate for years, and nearly lead to its dissipation.

Descriptions about the beginning of the JKA and the formation of what was to become modern-day Shotokan-ryu are usually very brief.  Often, these are limited to a couple of sentences saying former students of the Founder came together to rebuild Shoto’s (the Founder’s pen name) Kan (hall of training, which had been destroyed during the war.  Actually, there is much more to the story…(Here’s an excerpt from “Master Funakoshi’s Karate”, written by well-known karate historian Graham Noble. It gives better insight into what they went through.  You can find the whole article at: articled1.htm)

“The Post-War Years The Shotokan dojo was destroyed in a bombing raid in the spring of 1945. When Japan surrendered in August of that year Funakoshi left for Oite in Kyushu where his wife was living. (She had been evacuated there during the battle of Okinawa.) Life was hard during those early post-war years and Funakoshi sensei’s involvement with karate ceased for the time being. However, in 1947 his wife died, and he moved back to Tokyo. As his train stopped at each station on the way there were former students waiting to meet him and offer their condolences. He was moved to tears. Many fine karate students had been lost in the war, and such was the chaos afterwards that for a couple of years Masatomo Takagi (Secretary of the JKA) was not even aware of what had become of Master Funakoshi. Eventually Takagi discovered that he was still alive and recovering from illness. It had been almost 19 years since he had seen Funakoshi and when he introduced himself the old master failed to recognize him.

“I once knew someone called Takagi, a long time ago” he said. When Takagi exclaimed “It’s me, sensei!” Funakoshi took his hand in surprise. It took a few years for the karate world to pick itself up and by then its development was in the hands of a younger generation. Gichin Funakoshi was the rallying point for Shotokan karateka but by this time he was over 80 years old and did not take an active role. But he still retained his love of the art and taught when he could. He taught on a limited basis at Waseda, Keio, and maybe at times at other universities. His class at Waseda was held on a Saturday, but attendance was poor. Things had moved on and few of the young trainees wanted to learn from an eighty-year-old teacher who was interested only in kata–especially when they wanted to practice kumite. At one point Tsutomu Ohshima, the club captain, had to tell trainees that, unless they attended Funakoshi sensei’s classes, they would not be allowed to take their gradings. So, they turned up, albeit grudgingly. All credit to Ohshima for taking this action because those classes were the bright spot in Master Funakoshi’s week.

After the war many budoka saw their arts as fulfilling a need in installing values in the Japanese people. In 1954 a major demonstration of Budo took place in Tokyo. It featured demonstrations by greats such as Mifune (Judo), Nakayama (Kendo), and Gichin Funakoshi, who was then 86 years old. His demonstration was loudly applauded and when he was invited onto the dais he received a standing ovation.

By the time Funakoshi died in 1957, things were moving in the Japanese karate world. Immediately after the war the Shotokan group was dispersed, and it was not till the late 1940s that the seniors began to organize. Even then it was a faltering start. In his interesting interview in this magazine (F.A.I. No. 51) Hidetaka Nishiyama recalled that many of the seniors had forgotten their kata and often had to get together to pool their knowledge. But, through the efforts of people such as Genshin Hironishi the various Shotokan groups were brought together and in 1949 or ’50 the Japan Karate Association was founded.”

I think that the excerpt gives one a better understanding of  the love that the Founder and his surviving students maintained for the art during devastating hardship.  I have a hard time imagining how difficult things were in post-war Japan, with homes/infrastructure in ruins, finding jobs, and just placing food on the table.  Yet these students overcame the obstacles and persevered in rebuilding Shotokan from the ashes of war – both the physical dojo, and the art itself.  This post-war generation of karateka succeeded in preserving, improving, and spreading the art that they had inherited, into the world-wide phenomenon of modern Karate-Do.  We are very fortunate that Shotokan survived and made its way down to us.

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