98. The Nobility of Budo


The late Pat Nakata sensei, demonstrating Okinawan kobudo.

空手は 君主の武芸

 Karate wa kunshu no bugei (Karate is the martial art of intelligent people).

–Funakoshi Gichin

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.


3 thoughts on “98. The Nobility of Budo

  1. I enjoyed reading the blog entry. Very refreshing. Usually much of what is written about Funakoshi is in my opinion so technically orientated instead of historically and philosophically orientated, as you did here in your blog entry, Wayne.

    It was my understand Funakoshi needed to prove something as a minority to the majority. I formulated, what worked in his favor was the time period he was in. I am under the impression the progressive time period when Funakoshi developed his art, most of Japan was progressive-thinking, thus open to Funakoshi, his art and philosophy then previous generations of Japanese. Funakoshi was Progressive and open thinking in Japanese society really helped Funakoshi establish his art, and be accepted into mainstream Japan. Something, I don’t think it would have happened otherwise.

    It is my suspicion Funakoshi had is own prejudices against the old Japanese guard. And in someway was making a statement that the old Japanese guard, for past trespasses, and general purposes, and for the most part, where a bunch of backward-thinking, brutish(lacking self-control also), braggart, sword swinging, war-mongering dolts -I might be a bit harsh there. I think he was not the only one with such a sentiment of the old Japanese guard, as many Japanese felt similarly the same way.

  2. Now as I said, Funakoshi may have had an easier time being accepted in his time then say during the previous generations. Something I think he realized, because some of those guys where still around early in his life. Those old timers probably treated he poorly, scoffed, and looked down their noses at him. And he probably suffered when he first came to Japan, especially from the older generations. That could have been very demeaning to him. He was after all trained and educated properly in Chinese and Japanese classics – a samurai education, as well as having the added intelligence to get into medical school. Funakoshi was a well educated highly intelligent man. Being dissed by lesser educated men stuck in time probably had an effect on him. Maybe became a driver to make his Okinawan Karate acceptable and a success.

    By no means am I saying Funakoshi had an easy time being accepted during his time. It is a fact Funakoshi faced prejudice in the 1920s for a couple of decades or so from Japanese “purest” who felt his art wasn’t a pure art, and rejected him. A koryu snobbery? I think so. A snobbery that has been adopted in some Koryu practitioners. And may have been the start of the riff and even prejudice between Koryu and Gendai arts that has existed up until today. A koryu snobbery, I have said was kept alive by those who didn’t truly understand a Koryu outside Japan. That being a tangent, Funakoshi got crap from his peers and other Gendai arts. I think Jigro Kano recognized that and put out his hand to Funakoshi.

    At any rate, point is, Funakoshi I think had something to prove and was subtly attacking his critics. He was not “Japanese” a minority, a second class citizen in the eyes of many Japanese. Who was looked down upon, who assembled an impure, pagan art. Like any one who suffers from being a minority, he had resentment and something to prove. I see it in what Wayne highlighted, and with things like his emphasized humble demeanor. Him stating, “Karate stands on the side of justice, The ultimate aim of karate lies not in victory nor defeat, but in the perfection of the character of its participants. ” Along with all his writings defining Karate. I think too he knew to start clubs in universities where younger generations where educated and thus more accepting. I think establishing Karate in universities gave credibility as well. The same credibility that many Koryu established with their lore being birthed from deities, demons, and kami.

    So, here is the caveat, be careful of what you read because I could easily be transferring and reflecting my own cultural perspective upon Funakoshi. Because that is all I know. All I know is my culture and there is a huge propensity for me to be interpreting Funakoshi’s actions and life through that filter. That likelihood is the danger, the fatal flaw, we outsider’s make.

  3. In conclusion, Wayne’s blog has a great point and insight. His blog has given me a different light on Shotokan Karate and Funakoshi. And my comments by no means reflect any other opinion other than what I stated here.

    I think there is a sense of nobility in Budo that gets lost. Funakoshi’s factual poor treatment by peers and others in the martial arts community in his time, I think, really shaped his perspective to make Karate a noble art. A socially responsible art. Now a days, we have people taking certain martial arts that lack the teaching of honor and nobility, martial arts provoke their students to violence where the students are biting at the bit to fight someone in the street to prove their skill. Kind of like a time in old Japan, that I have read about. There are many cases these martial artists lack that nobility and brawl on the street which in some cases cost them their lives. Lives that would have been saved if their martial art taught and observed nobility, bring honor to themselves and their art.

    This is how I apply Wayne’s message in his blog.

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