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Pierre's picture
Karate-Do Kyohan: A disturbing read

I just finished reading Gichin Funakoshi's Karate-Do Kyohan (yeah, I know, it was high time), and, well, I've got mixed feelings about it.

I really appreciate some of the broad principles about karate practice, especially the four-level interpretation of the word "kara" (technical / mental / moral / spiritual).

However, the wide section devoted to kata got me quite perplexed. To say the least. I found examples of bunkai that I wouldn't teach to a five-year old white belt. Two examples among many others: the first three moves of Heian Sandan are a block, followed by...a double block, followed by...a double block. Later in the kata, the sequence with the fists on the hips is explained as a kick to the thigh (why not), followed by...an elbow strike. It seems even worse than the old "block with the elbow" I was taught 25 years ago.

I've been drawn to practical karate by the functionality and subtlety of the bunkai shown by people like Iain, Patrick McCarthy and Andy Allen, and I see them as a return to the source. And so I wonder what to make of some of the very rough and unrealistic explanations I found in Funakoshi's book. 

The first thing I can think of is levels of bunkai. The book is a very general introduction to karate, and so the bunkai given are the most basic level. But I don't like the idea of teaching BS to beginners, and I doubt that the old masters gave into this. 

I really don't mean to be disrespectful, as God knows I love the good old fellow, but I just wanted to share my impressions and ask you what you think of all this.

Heath White
Heath White's picture

I have a theory about this book.  I agree there is some not-so-good bunkai in there.  I wonder though if it is there on purpose.

For example, the "double block" in Sandan is "really" (more functionally) an arm break.  I think the same thing about the "elbow strike" later in the form. 

Here is another example: according to the text, spearhands are to the solar plexus.  But if you look at the pictures, they are to the throat.

Another example is the first several moves of Bassai, where there are three sets of blocks.  Each  time the last block is inside-to-outside.  The book says that this is to practice passing a blocked arm from one position to another, which I think is both impossible and not too useful.  But the original motion in  this form was a spearhand delivered like an uppercut to the throat, and various styles watered that strike down in different ways.  Itosu made it a block.

So the pattern I see in Funakoshi is that the most dangerous bunkai are given some less functional interpretation.  Possibly Funakoshi was himself given this less functional interpretation.  Or maybe it was understood in early karate circles that you would not publish that sort of thing to the general public. 


Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

There are two main possiblilities:

1) The material shown is intentionally watered down

2) it is not intentiionally watered down, and some of the famous old masters simply didn't have very good understanding of bunkai and combaative principles.

If i'm honest, I think it is probably a combination of the two. This will sound arrogant or heretical (depending on who you are) but being well-known does not mean being the best at something, neccessarily. Perhaps practicality was just not Funkoshi's strength.

I come originally from a lineage of Goju Ryu (Shorei Kan) that teaches a series of silly drills that are on the level of some of the things in Karate Do Kyohan. I have never been able to decide whether I think these drills are just strangely intepreted and suffering from the "telephone game" over time, or if the founder Seikichi Toguchi (a highly respected Goju Ryu teacher, to eb sure) simply had some weird ideas about combat.

The strange thing in both cases is that there is sensible, functional material interspersed with the bizarre stuff, which maybe lends more credence to the idea it was intentional.

Pierre's picture

Thank you Heath and Zach for your very interesting answers. Nice to have people around who won't jump at my throat for questioning the old masters!

deltabluesman's picture


It's an interesting coincidence that you posted this thread, because I have just been re-reading Karate Do Kyohan and having many of the same thoughts.  I should emphasize that I am not yet finished with the book (only about 1/3 of the way through this read-through).  My version is from Neptune Publications, second edition.

Initially, I wondered if some of the notes and explanations were added by an editor other than Funakoshi.  However, the preface claims that virtually everything in the book has been "reproduced in sequence, just as the author intended." 

It raises a lot of interesting questions, just as Heath and Zach have mentioned.  I'll build off what they have written with a few additional thoughts.

# I do wonder if the culture of secrecy that surounded karate in Okinawa led to these problems.

# Unfortunately, some of these applications are so bad that anyone who trained against live resistance would recognize quickly that they are unworkable.  (For example, there's a picture near the beginning of my book that shows the use of a front crescent kick to "parry" a right punch.  This is followed by a very weak side kick using the same leg.)  There's text which sugges the use of gedan-barai as a generic "low block" (implying that the block would be chambered, as is taught in 3K karate).

# A lot of the other bunkai falls into a gray area of "might work, but not high percentage or worth preserving in any form."  I haven't read the whole book yet, so it's possible there are better applications that I'm missing.

For me personally, the solution is easy and clear.  We discard the useless material and preserve what works for our purposes.  Even if Funakoshi had a deeply incomplete understanding of karate and/or unarmed combat, I still like what he passed on and I believe it can be repurposed for much more practical outcomes.  (I take this exact same approach to some of the other martial arts that I have studied, such as Ed Parker's Kenpo.)

There is also an intriguing philosophical question lurking under the surface here.  My analysis of kata such as Heian, Kanku Dai, and Jion reveals fighting systems that are worth studying and preserving.  But it is entirely possible that my interpretation of those motions is new, something completely unintended by their creators. 

There are times when a person looks at a work of art and draws great meaning from it in a way that was never considered by the artist.  Perhaps something similar is happening here . . . we are discovering ways of reinterpreting the kata to serve our vision of pragmatic karate. 

If that turns out to be the case, I don't think it's a problem.  History contains many examples of cultures and leaders effectively reinterpreting their past to serve new purposes.  Nevertheless, even though I've raised this point for consideration, I'm not yet convinced it's true.  Unarmed combat is unarmed combat, and if we believe the past masters (other than Funakoshi) were experienced and knowledgeable, we should give them the benefit of the doubt.

Ultimately, my long-term goal is to try and find an answer to this question that best fits the evidence.  I don't know whether the answer will be something like:

1.  The kata were designed to have pragmatic bunkai, but Funakoshi misunderstood this or forgot the pragmatic bunkai, or

2.  The kata were designed to showcase impractical bunkai, but they can be reinterpreted effectively to serve pragmatic purposes.

I normally would wait to contribute to this thread until I had finished reading the book and studying these questions more thoroughly, but I couldn't resist adding my comments, since it seems like we're both encountering this problem at the same time.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

One of the things we need to keep in mind with all karate books is that there was not a large enough audience to justify a book until the “3K-ification” of karate was well underway. Kyohan reflects the karate of the 1930s (or decades later if you are looking at one of the “translated” / revised editions). For those of us looking to know what the older karate was like, we need to look for the references to that older karate in the books and other sources we have; while accepting that the books themselves are written for the audience of that time to reflect the karate of that time.

I think that sometimes people want these books to be the “definitive guide to old-school karate”, but they aren’t. It’s by researching the references to the older versions of karate, across a wider variety of sources, that we get a picture of what the karate of the past was like.

If I bought a book on boxing today, I’d not expect to see the throws of old-school boxing. However, I would expect to see some references / examples of those throws in the books written withing a decade or so of those methods falling by the wayside. A similar thing exists within the karate texts.

As Funakoshi himself said, “The Karate that high school students practice today is not the same Karate that was practiced even as recently as ten years ago, and it is a long way indeed from the Karate I learned when I was a child in Okinawa.”

All books predominately capture the karate the karate of the time in which they were written. Kyohan is a book on the karate that "high school students practice today" with some referances to the karate that Funakoshi "learned when he was a child in Okinawa".

All the best,


Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Yes, Karate Do Kyohan is quintessential 3k Karate. In fact, I have always thought of it as sort of the seminal "3k" book, with a few good tidbits here and there, mostly with the throws if I recall. In that sense it doesn't look all that much different from books that came decades later, the Best Karate series for example. Although there is later stuff from JKA sources (multi-man bunkai and such) that can make Karate Do Kyohan look practical in comparison.

"One of the things we need to keep in mind with all karate books is that there was not a large enough audience to justify a book until the “3K-ification” of karate was well underway."

Makes sense Iain. I feel this is a compelling explanation for dearth of decent old bunkai books.

Pierre's picture

I understand the need to place the book in the context of its time. Still...do we know why Funakoshi would actively promote this 3K-ification of Karate? Was he, in a way, trapped by the popularization Itosu and himself had initiated? And in what measure did, or did not, other pioneers such as Miyagi and Mabuni follow the same movement?

deltabluesman's picture

That's the question on my mind as well . . . the extent to which Funakoshi was involved in driving the change towards 3K karate.  I was always under the impression that the development of 3K karate was primarily led by the students in the Japanese university system, reflecting their own attempts to redesign karate to suit their own interests (and misunderstandings).  But when I saw some of this material in Karate-Do Kyohan, I started to wonder if Funakoshi himself introduced many of these changes. 

To give concrete examples:  when he talks about Kanku, he says that the beginning motions "are to show that you do not have any weapons."  He also says that the hands represent the negative and positive, which are "two separate entities but yet are still one and the same."  This doesn't really bother me.  It's not my cup of tea, but it sounds like he's just trying to connect philosophical lessons with the practice of kata.  I can see why he might do that as part of a shift towards Karate-Do.

At another point in the book, he shows nidan geri.  It seems like he wants to show the athleticism and vigor of karate.  That doesn't bother me either.  I can understand the value of highlighting this kind of physical skill to a 3K audience.

But then we have notes about using the beginning of Heian Sandan to block an opponent's simultaneous kick and punch.  This is where I think he goes too far.  It degrades the kata and teaches principles that could sabotage someone's development as a fighter and karateka.  (And of course, I've already mentioned the part about parrying punches with the feet.) 

It's worth noting that there is an essay in Chapter Two in which Funakoshi writes at length about a proposal to teach karate to the Japanese navy personnel.  The proposal was rejected because of concerns about what might happen if "these hot-blooded young sailors" misused their skills.  Funakoshi himself acknowledges that this is a reasonable concern, but he then warns that it would be "extremely regrettable to distance ourselves from this exquisite bujutsu which should be honorably presented to the world."  Could this explain why he might have been motivated to conceal the actual meanings of many karate kata and techniques?  Did he "de-claw" karate in order to ensure it would be shared with the world? 

Regardless of the answer, I'll still continue to practice Shotokan.  It just changes my perception of Funakoshi and his legacy.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Hi All,

Pierre wrote:
Was he, in a way, trapped by the popularization Itosu and himself had initiated?

Itosu seems to have wished to produce two complementary streams of karate; one for the children (primarily focused on health), and one for the adults (the existing martial art). We can see this reflected in his 1908 letter:

“You must decide if karate is for your health or for its practical use.”

This attitude would also seem to reflected in the name he eventually decided upon for his “summary of Shuri-te. Itosu was a well-educated man who worked as both a scribe and a teacher. In the Japanese run education system, the kanji for “Pinan” would be read as “peace and tranquillity” (a very non-violent name), but the adult students – Karate still being considered to be “Chinese hand” at the time – could take the same kanji to mean “Safe from Harm” (the Chinese way of reading them and a name reflecting their self-protection intent). The name therefore has a clever double meaning for the two ways in which those kata were being taught. Also, worth noting that Motobu reports that Itosu settled on the name “Pinan” because it was better for the “young people”.

Funakoshi was a schoolteacher too of course and it was he who is primarily responsible for karate becoming popular due to its “budofication” i.e. copying the ethos of existing popular forms of Budo i.e. Judo and Kendo. This is why Funakoshi is often referred to as, “The Father of Modern Karate”.

In short, Itosu started the ball rolling, but Funakoshi was the one who got it up to speed and over the finish line. It was then Funakoshi’s son (Gigo) and Nakayama who took what Funakoshi had taught and made it into what we would recognise as today’s Shotokan. Worth mentioning that Funakoshi was not entirely happy with the subsequent evolution, as you can see when you read his introduction to the 1950s reissue of Karate-Do Kyohan. It would be a mistake to assume that Funakoshi was the only one making such changes and that the other styles were unaffected. The popularity of Funakoshi’s innovations saw many of his peers climb aboard that bandwagon.

On the 25th of October 1936, many of the leading karate practitioners of the time met to discuss karate’s future in light of the changes Funakoshi had instigated and the popularity of the “new karate” on mainland Japan (Google “Meeting of the Masters, Karate” and you will find the minutes of that meeting). At the meeting it was decide that Karate should be written as “Empty Hand” as opposed to “Chinese Hand”, that the suffix “Do” could be added to reflect “mind training”, that there was a need for a standardised uniform, that the kata should be standardised, that there was a need to consider a competitive format, etc.

Chojun Miyagi wanted to preserve the older kata, but he was not averse to new kata being created for “students of primary schools, high schools, universities and youth schools”. He went on to say,

“I think old kata should be preserved without any modification while new kata should be invented; otherwise, I am convinced that no one will be interested in karate any longer in the future.”

They all seemed to understand that it was the new “budo version” of karate that was going to be popular going forward. It’s important to understand the radical changes that Japanese society was undergoing at this time. The need to modernise the military to catch up with western countries had seen martial arts being regarded as old fashioned and not a fitting pursuit for Japanese youth, while anything that could produce fit and healthy young recruits for the military was seen as a very positive thing. Kano (founder of Judo) had huge success with what he had done with jujutsu, so the karateka basically fully adopted his proven winning formula. Funakoshi was showing it could work with karate, so the other masters of the time jumped onboard.

Before we get too critical of Funakoshi’s “de-clawing” of karate, and the other masters then copying him, we need to remember that without these changes, there would be no karate. They made these changes because they knew karate was dying out. The changes they made ensured karate had a future and eventually became one of the world’s most popular martial arts. Ironically, I think we are now at a point in history where karate needs to reconnect with its pre-budo roots to remain popular going forward.

The point is that almost all of the books written on karate around this time were written for karateka who were learning the new version of karate. As per the post above, for us, we will find most value in the references to karate as it was practised, as opposed the 3K material written for a 3K audience.

While Funakoshi was without a doubt the man primarily responsible for saving karate (all styles) for future generations – an achievement for which he deserves high praise – it’s worth noting that some of his contemporaries were quite critical of his levels of knowledge and expertise with regards to “old school karate”. Motobu was probably his harshest critic and wrote the following about Funakoshi:

“When I first came to Tokyo, there was another Okinawan [Funakoshi] who was teaching Karate there quite actively. When in Okinawa I hadn’t even heard of his name! Upon guidance of another Okinawan, I went to the place he was teaching youngsters, where he was running his mouth, bragging. Upon seeing this, I grabbed his hand, took up a position of kake-kumite and said, “what will you do?” He was hesitant and I thought to punch him would be too much, so I threw him with kote-gaeshi at which time he fell to the ground with a large thud. He got up, his face red and said “once more.” And again, I threw him with kote-gaeshi. He did not relent and asked for another bout, so he was thrown the same way for a third time.” - Ryukyu Kenpo Karate-jutsu Tatsujin Motobu Choki Seiden” by Nakata Mizuhiko (translated by Joe Swift)

Motobu is also recorded as saying:

“Funakoshi can only copy the grace of the karate masters of prior generations by performing the outer portion of what they taught him and he uses that to mislead others into believing he is an expert when he is not. His demonstrations are simply implausible. This kind of person is a good-for nothing scallywag. In fact, his tricky behaviour and eloquent explanation easily deceive people. To the uninitiated, Funakoshi’s demonstration and explanation represents the real art! Nothing is more harmful to the world than a martial art that is not effective in actual self-defense. If that stupid person opens a dojo, then let him fight with me and I’ll make him go back to Okinawa. That would be a real benefit to the world!”

Harsh! We know the two of them disliked each other, and they had radically different views of what karate should be – Funakoshi fully embracing the do-zeitgeist, and Motobu wishing to keep to karate’s combative roots – however, it does show that, when it came to the practical side of things, Funakoshi was not universally regarded as the karate genius that he is today.

Back to Kyohan:

The book was written for the 3K karateka of the time (as were most others). It was revised in the 1950s making it even more 3K in nature (and that’s the version of the book most people have). Whilst Funakoshi is undoubtedly one of the most influential and important karateka of all time, his abilities in the pre-budo version of karate were questioned by some of his contemporaries. We need to know all of this when factoring the book into the big picture. We can’t read it expecting a definitive guide to old school karate. It was not written to be that. That said, the original book does have a few interesting references to pre-budo karate and it gives us a snapshot of the karate of that time, before further changes were instigated (as we see in the revised 1950s issue and then Nakayama’s Best Karate series).

When it comes pre-budo karate, I think Funakoshi’s most useful book is, Karate-Do: My Way of Life. In that book, he describes his early training and details the changes he sought to make and why.

Zach Zinn wrote:
Karate Do Kyohan is quintessential 3k Karate. In fact, I have always thought of it as sort of the seminal "3k" book, with a few good tidbits here and there, mostly with the throws if I recall. In that sense it doesn't look all that much different from books that came decades later, the Best Karate series for example. Although there is later stuff from JKA sources (multi-man bunkai and such) that can make Karate Do Kyohan look practical in comparison.

I agree with that observation.

Pierre wrote:
Still...do we know why Funakoshi would actively promote this 3K-ification of Karate?

Because he was very aware of the political climate and what would make karate as popular as Judo and Kendo.

Pierre wrote:
Was he, in a way, trapped by the popularization Itosu and himself had initiated?

It seems he was very keen on developing karate this way and he certainly seems to have taken it further than Itosu anticipated. I therefore don’t think we can say he was “trapped” but was in fact keen to move karate in that direction. Although he was critical of how karate continued to develop. It is a good thing Funakoshi did what he did, because we would never have heard of karate had he not done so.

Pierre wrote:
And in what measure did, or did not, other pioneers such as Miyagi and Mabuni follow the same movement?

They certainly followed Funakoshi’s lead, but perhaps were more mindful of preserving the older version of the art in the process. As we know, Shotokan has more practitioners than any other style, so it would seem history has clearly told us which approach was most popular. Motobu seems to have stuck to his guns as a pragmatist much more than his contemporaries. While he had a marked influence on styles such as Wado-Ryu and Matsubayashi-Ryu (particularly in their two-person drills), it is only now that people are looking back to the pre-budo era that he is starting to be talked of alongside the karateka who embraced the budo approach and gained the popularity that clearly came from it.

All the best,


ky0han's picture

Hi everyone,

I think what most people completely tend to ignore is the fact that they are reading translated material. Depending on the translator and his prior exposure to martial arts and his own experiences and expectations the outcome of a translation can vary vastly. So when you have a translator with prior exposure of 3K Karate guess what the translation will look like.

Here is a very good article by Henning Wittwer regarding problems with translations.

So when Funakoshi is writing about Heian Sandan do you really think he is writing about how to do "blocks" and other things. And when you read "block" what do you have in mind automatically? Do you have a specific picture in your head when you read "you can use this to encounter an atack with hands and feet"? And why is the picture in your head the way it is?

I guess you get the idea. 

Regards Holger

deltabluesman's picture

Holger, I appreciate your input.  While I am aware of the limitations of reading material in translation, it was my understanding that the Neptune Publications version was considered to be one of the better options available in English.  Having said that, if the notes from Heian Sandan (and from the portion about parrying with the feet) are actually the result of seriously misleading translation errors, that would be a relief to me.  I'll certainly take a look at what Henning Wittwer has written.

deltabluesman's picture


Thank you for taking the time to put together this comprehensive and compelling explanation, it really helps to clarify these issues for me.  I see what you mean about acknowledging Funakoshi's success in preserving karate for future generations.  As a Shotokan practitioner, I always felt that I should take the time to learn more about this slice of history, so this will be valuable (even crucial) background knowledge to have in hand for future studies.

I'll definitely be saving a link to this discussion thread in my notes for future reference.  

Best regards,


Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

ky0han wrote:
I think what most people completely tend to ignore is the fact that they are reading translated material. Depending on the translator and his prior exposure to martial arts and his own experiences and expectations the outcome of a translation can vary vastly. So when you have a translator with prior exposure of 3K Karate guess what the translation will look like.

That is a very valid and important point. In terms of this discussion, I think this is particularly relevant when looking at the 1950s translation which sees a lot of “modernising” of the original (whole sections missed out, totally new photos, etc).

All the best,


Pierre's picture

Well, this has been an excellent thread, thanks to all for your contribution, and particularily to Iain for your extensive and precise answer. My knowledge of karate history in general and of Funakoshi's pivotal role in particular has definitely been broadended and refined! 

manusg34's picture

If you compare the older version of Kyohan and the newer version of Kyohan you can really see the changes in karate. They are almost two different books. Also if you get a copy of Karate Jutsu which I am pretty sure is Funakoshi's first book you can see differences. I dont buy these books for the bunkai but to see the evolution of the art. I find that really interesting and try to follow their thinking. But what I like or where I find the most knowledge in these books is in the techniques list like the foot techniques they taught.  How few kicks and what type of kicks and techniques like fukikomi. There is a lot I get from the books but it was not what I thought when I first bought them ! No secret deadly techniques hahhaahah!

Zach Zinn
Zach Zinn's picture

Great post Iain.

it really brought some things to mind for me, namely that the old masters were right that "Budo Karate" was the key to it's survival - and popularity at the time.

This change to a desire for functional Karate is just new.

I remember in the 80's and early 90's when most Karateka thought you were crazy if you asked about kata application. I still remember my dad getting early Vince Morris, Erle Montagiue etc. books and us playing with stuff together, it was so new that no one in our dojo was interested at all, and there were maybe 2-3 people that understood anything at all of Kata application. We sparred for tournaments (there was some harder sparring that I guess you could argue indirectly was more "practical" in some ways), and we did kata for tounaments, that was it. The only time you got anything approaching "application" was when we had a self-defense class, where the material was mainly modern (well, for the time) combatives type stuff...but which ironically was often close to application in some kata.

While I don't know the whole Karate world at the time, at least in the US I think  this was pretty standard. It is of course with the first UFC's that everyone started talking more about function, and I remember my instructors at the time hosting seminars with a more functional bent. I think one of them even had the Gracies around once, long before they were so famous or there were any BJJ schools around here.

So, the interest in functional martial arts is pretty new generally speaking; in this "cycle" of things at least. Obviously it's been primary in the past. So, it's not like 3k Karate is some thing of the past either, I think all the Karate schools in my town other than my own little club are in some sense "3K". This is changing, but it is slow and I don't know that I expect functional Karate to ever be what most people googling "Karate" will be looking for. I almost wrote "thumbing through the phonebook", truly dating myself.

In many ways it's a catch 22 to have been around for this particular era of Karate, we get to see it change in a way that I think is largely positive, but it's strange because we end up in such a different place than where we started.

I think what you say about Karate's survival being based on these changes is important to keep in mind.