Out of personal interest I regularly surf the internet and also read, participate in and contribute in discussions in social media groups. One of the stereotypes found almost everywhere is what I would paraphrase as follows:
Gichin Funakoshi introduced and popularized karate on the main islands of Japan.
Needless to say, it is true that Funakoshi’s move to the mainland and his activities and publications were a milestone of Karate’s development. But did he really introduce Karate to mainland Japan?
In a broader sense, it is hard to argue against it, and why would I anyway? Yet, the verb “introduce” is often understood such as if he was the first to do so. The surrounding stories also imply that he made a deliberate decision to do so. In the end, we want an image of an autarkic person as positive and important as possible.
Yet, Funakoshi was not the first to introduce Karate to the mainland. Neither was it an individual undertaking detached from societal developments of the time, and this is true for Karate as a whole.
In fact, Karate circles — while showing respect at any time — partly appear to completely underestimate the influence of one person. This person is Kanō Jigorō (嘉納治五郎, 1860–1938). Without going into much detail about the sky-high influence and authority of Kanō — not only in comparison to Okinawan Karate persons of the time, but for Japanese Budō and sports in general — in the following I will just list some events which were important for Karate and which are directly or indirectly related to Kanō.
As regards the (first) introduction of Karate to the mainland, already in 1908 six students of the Middle School in Shuri participated in the 10th Youth Martial Demonstrations Meeting (Dai-jū-kai Seinen Daienbu Taikai). There they performed Karate in front of — guess who — Kanō Jigorō, as well as other visitors. This demonstration took place just a few years after Karate had become a compulsory subject at the Middle School in Shuri and in the same year when Itosu Ankō forwarded his “10 Precepts of Karate” to draw the attention of the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of War. Kanō at that time was the director of Tōkyō Higher Normal School (Tōkyō Kōtō Shihan Gakkō) under exactly the same Ministry of Education, and this school was the national level pendant of the prefectural Shuri Normal School.
In 1910, on invitation by none else than Kanō Jigorō — ! — six students of the Shuri Middle School and their leading teachers visited Kanō’s Kōdōkan in Tōkyō. For about two hours they gave explanations of Karate, performed Kata, and broke boards in front of Kanō and other high-ranking masters.
In the following year, in June 1911, a “red vs white jūdō contest” took place at the Shuri Normal School. This “red vs white jūdō contest” (kōhaku-shiai 紅白試合) had been invented by Kanō Jigorō and by 1911 it was already a traditional tournament at the Kōdōkan in Tōkyō. Here it was adopted at the Shuri Normal School in 1911 and this was still during the lifetime of Itosu Ankō.
Motobu Chōki (1870 – 1944) moved to Ōsaka in 1921 and Funakoshi moved to Tōkyō in 1922. It was again none less than Kanō Jigorō who helped Funakoshi on various occasions and in various matters.
A few years later, in 1927, Kanō Jigorō visited Okinawa where he carried out an exchange with Karate persons and also gave a lecture about Jūdō. Among the persons who demonstrated in front of Kanō were Miyagi Chōjun and Mabuni Kenwa, and both performers received Kanō’s praise. It is therefore assumed that Mabuni’s move to the mainland might have been motivated by this meeting with and praise by Kanō. During that visit, Motobu Chōki and Gusukuma Shinpan acted as Kanō Sensei’s hosts and called Shimabukuro Tarō to have him perform the kata Chintō and Motobu broke a number of boards and was praised by Kanō.
I believe the above examples should give sufficient reason to reassess the roles of various individuals, as well as the role of institutions, in the process of the spread of Karate to the mainland – and particularly the role of Kanō Jigorō. To give you another incentive to do so: The first jūdō dōjō in Okinawa opened already in 1899 and was thus probably the first martial arts dōjō in a modern sense on Okinawa…
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