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History

The beginnings of Shotokai and Shotokan : A brief overview.

By Master Mitsusuke HARADA

The study of history, even when it is not concerned with world events but more closely with our own family history or that of the group we belong to, has always been a fascinating subject, for it reinforces our sense of belonging to a tradition, a lineage. But unfortunately it is frequently, if not always, fairly difficult to ascertain the truth of the information we gather in these matters. Past events are not always recorded faithfully at the time they occur, and later memories tend to be clouded by emotions, passions, and sometimes mere forgetfulness. But to minimise the risk of distorting facts we should at least do our best to gather as much data as possible from living witnesses whenever that is still feasible. Cross-references are always a great help in determining the truth of a matter. Our topic being the history of karate as it developed in Japan before and after the war, I feel it is most important we should set some details straight, and this even more so as I keep reading so-called informed historical studies and articles which convey ideas and theories which I know to be at best misinformed. A recent trip to Japan where I met some of my seniors who still happen to be alive, allowed me to confirm the information I propose to put down in writing.

Thus, as some of you will know already, when Funakoshi Gichin, or O’Sensei as we called him eventually, first came to Japan in 1922 he first taught a group of pupils who came to be known as the Karate Kenkyu Kai, or ‘Karate Study Circle’.

Among this circle of people some, like Mr Shimoda Takeshi, later went on to teach in universities where the activity developed. But it seems that when it came to establishing a system of standard recognition or grading, each university established its own way of assessing capabilities. In any case, I know that seven of these first pupils had got their own 1st Dan in 1924, but unfortunately all my attempts to find under which heading these grades had been granted failed, as none of the persons I contacted (for instance Mr Mizukami, one of our seniors at university and a contemporary to Mr Okuyama), kept any trace of these early distinctions.

However, in 1934, Mr Shimoda suddenly died of pneumonia, and several universities then requested that O’Sensei’s son, Yoshitaka, should take over as leading instructor, which he at first refused as his job kept him quite busy. But eventually he relented and accepted the position. Still, you must understand that at the time, as they did not have any specific dojos of their own, all the groups rented ordinary houses which they used for practising, with the logical consequence that the owners would frequently complain about the disturbance they created. So, father and son soon agreed on the need to build a dojo for karate practice, and this was why the group finally formed the organisation which could supervise the whole operation and run things afterwards. Thus in 1936 THE GREAT JAPAN KARATE-DO SHOTOKAI was created. In this organisation Funakoshi Gichin was given the title of Chairman while Yoshitaka received that of Vice-Chairman.

Subsequently, this organisation duly collected the necessary funds and in 1938 the dojo was eventually built, while the official inauguration occurred one year later, in January 1939, on which occasion the place was then given the name: THE GREAT JAPAN KARATE-DO SHOTOKAN.

After this, of course, many rules were established within the organisation, including a system of grading up to 5th Dan as the top rank to be considered. With Yoshitaka in charge several creations appeared in the practice, such as Ten-no-kata, the Taikyoku katas as well as the Bo kata, Matsukase. Yet it appears that no one at the time did receive a 5th Dan, the highest to be awarded then being 4th Dan, while for those who practised at the universities 3rd Dan was the maximum, which is understandable as people’s university careers, because of the normal duration of studies, was bound to be relatively short. It was indeed very hard to continue practising once you joined the world of work as you would then have very little free time for practice, and Yoshitaka met great difficulties trying to find individuals who were willing and capable to help.

Meanwhile, it is true that among the people practising then the word SHOTOKAI was very seldom mentioned and everyone would use the expression SHOTOKAN DOJO when speaking about their group. But unfortunately everything came to an end in April 1945 when the said Shotokan Dojo was destroyed in an air-raid, putting an end to all activities. You may already know from my Reminiscences what happened then as far as I was concerned, but to all intents and purposes most pupils thought that all was finished.

Eventually, in 1946 at Waseda, many students having come back from active service wanted to practise karate again. We all know that there had been a ban on all martial arts activities imposed by the Americans, but at Waseda, Professor Ohama who was director of the karate section, and originally came from Okinawa, being a very close friend of O’Sensei’s he tried to get everything going again.

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