The late Pat Nakata sensei, demonstrating Okinawan kobudo.
Karate wa kunshu no bugei (Karate is the martial art of intelligent people).
We like to think of martial arts as being egalitarian, in which ethnic or racial prejudices should hold no sway. Unfortunately, budo is a reflection of the culture it is in, and it will therefore reflect that culture’s positive as well as negative aspects, carried into the training hall. Yet, of course, budo, as a Way, a shugyo, should aim for being better than the narrow minded prejudices that negatively color the society it is bound in.
However, martial arts is not for everyone. The quote from Funakoshi Gichin, who brought Shotokan karatedo to Japan from Okinawa, reflects that sentiment. The martial art of karatedo, he thought, was for people who had the maturity and intelligence who would do credit to the art, not drag it down as a street brawling technique. It was an art for gentlemen and gentlewomen.
Funakoshi had several reasons why he made that statement., not just speaking only in a grand, philosophical way. He was trying to overcome the prejudice Mainland Japanese (Naichi) had at the time for Okinawans (Uchinanchu). Historically, the Ryukyu Islands were late to Japan’s feudal unification. It had been, in fact, its own separate kingdom, under a series of kings. When it was subsumed under the shogunate, it maintained its lineage of kings, although it became controlled by Japan. The nature of this takeover made Okinawans, although their islands were part of Japan, treated like “second class citizens.” They weren’t “pure” Japanese, so to speak (although, as one native Japanese history buff told me, the notion that Japanese are a “pure” race is just bunk. From ancient times, and through DNA studies, the Japanese people are a mongrel race, closer to Koreans than many of them would like to think). They were looked down upon., their art and peoples considered foreign and inferior.
When Okinawan karate masters were invited to teach karate in Japan, I am sure they were keenly aware of this ethnic prejudice. It is, therefore, probably no accident that Funakoshi was one of the first teachers to bring this art to Japan in the early 1900s. His social standing as an educated man, an elite in a society that still clung to Confucian values of respect for intelligence, gave him the social status that a better but less literate karate teacher could never hold.
Funakoshi taught first at a dormitory for students from Okinawa. Later, he set up a dojo at Keio University. Again, this was no accident. Funakoshi was trying to make karate a martial art for the intelligentsia, not just for brawlers or thugs.
That’s the historical context. In addition to that, when we look at the comment, philosophically speaking, “kunshu” can more specifically be termed “noble elite,” or, as the Nelson Dictionary translates it, “(royal) ruler.” Why did Funakoshi use that term when there no longer was a royal class to speak of, outside the main Japanese imperial family and the remnants of the old Japanese lords and Okinawan kings, who were now called “counts”?
In Okinawa, kunshu once referred to the Okinawan royalty, but the royalty relied upon an upper class of bureaucrats who served in government positions. These positions were based upon passing examinations based upon a study of the traditional Confucian classics. Thus, entrance to the intelligentsia, the elite among the Okinawans, outside of those in the royal bloodline, was based upon knowledge. A “noble elite” was a person who was versed in the wisdom of his society, his culture. In the past, it was the Confucian classics. In Funakoshi’s modern era, it was having a grasp of the Westernized education of the day. A kunshu, to Funakoshi, probably meant that nobility was gotten in these times through diligent study, a proper education, and a grounding in morals and ethical behavior reflective of those times. To go further, Funakoshi wanted karatedo to be a budo for the intelligentsia, but not just for book-smart people. By using the term kunshu, which reflected a kind of traditional nobility, he may have been saying that karatedo was for people who had a nobility of spirit, not just of the mind.
Of course, I could be putting words into Funakoshi’s mouth that he never meant, but I do suspect that his specific use of the term kunshu meant that he wanted his beloved karatedo to be for people noble in spirit, not just for actual, blood royalty, or for heartless intelligentsia. Not everyone can avail himself of an advanced college degree, but everyone can cultivate such a spirit, no matter what one’s social standing or occupation is in society, no matter one’s race, religion, ethnicity or sexuality. When I started judo classes as a youngster, my teachers were blue collar workers: sugar plantation workers, auto mechanics, mill workers. When I joined a karate club a few years later, my first teachers were police officers. They weren’t intellectuals, university professors or upper class white collar workers. But they all carried themselves with dignity, and served as role models for me, a young man, not just for martial arts, but for life: this was what being a decent, honorable citizen was about. They brought honor to their martial arts. That honor, I think, is the nobility that Funakoshi Gichin was hoping his art would bring to people.