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Gichin Funakoshi: The Effects of the Wrong Translation of his Biography

The pictures shows Gichin Funakoshi who was the founder of Shotokan Karate Do. He coined the Shotokan Karate Philosophy in a pacifistic way. He although wrote Karate-Do Kyohan.

The Importance of Gichin Funakoshi´s Autobiography for Shotokan Karate

Today’s convictions about Shotokan Karate are predominantly based on karate literature. Gichin Funakoshi´s autobiography (1868–1957) has become one of the most popular and influentially books for the understanding of Shotokan Karate. One reason for this is that it was also published in English as Karate-dō: My Way of Life (1975) and in German as Karate-dō – Mein Weg (1993) as well as into other languages.

By Henning Wittwer

Translation Problems between Languages

Translations from one language into another pose difficulties. Above all Gichin Funakoshi’s autobiography shows to what wrong translstion lead. They mostly happen especially between those languages without common cultural roots. Therefore, the English version already contains various inconsistencies. They all emerged due to defective and incorrect translation and/or “smoothing out” the text. The German version, which is based on the English version, adopted these problems. Unfortunately, they spread as “truths” of karate and about the person of Funakoshi in the field of Shotokan.

In this article, I highlight four problematic passages by comparing them with the original Japanese text and additional Japanese sources. For reasons of thoroughness, I am going to use the first edition from 1956 of Gichin Funakoshi´s Biography and the following editions from 1976 and 2004.

Example 1: Prohibition of the Karate Practice in Ryūkyū

“Prohibition” in the English an German Translations

Especially widespread and popular is the conception of karate as a forbidden fighting art on the Islands of Okinawa. In the chapter “Losing a Topknot” of the English version of Funakoshi´s autobiography can we find traces of this supposed prohibition:

“At that time the practice of karate was banned by the government, so sessions had to take place in secret and pupils were strictly forbidden by their teachers to discuss with anyone the fact that they were learning the art.”

Following this, the German version reads in the chapter “So verlor ich meinen Haarknoten” (“The way I lost my Topknot”):

„In jener Zeit war die Ausübung des Karate durch die Regierung verboten, und die Treffen mußten deshalb geheimgehalten werden.“

The German citation underlines that wrong translations easily gain an unpredictable momentum. It differs considerably from the English edition.

The Statement in the Japanese Original

My own translation of the corresponding passage of the Japanese original has, however, a somewhat different tenor:

“At that time one could not learn karate in public [oyake].”

It is important to mention that wording and grammar of this sentence are the same in the Japanese original editions.

The picture shows Karate-Gis by SaikoSports, Taisei, and Momoko in the The Dojo Shop.

So, what happened in the English translation? The Japanese word oyake (“public”) became “government”. Misleadingly, the German edition picked up on that and used the term “Regierung”, which means  “government” in English. But the original text only states that Karate “could” not be learnt in publicly. It neither mentions a prohibition or even a prohibition ordered by the government. On the contrary, the royal government of Ryūkyū encouraged the karate practice at the end of the Edo period (1603–1867). In this case we must clearly differentiate the two aspects “secret practice” (fact) and “karate was forbidden” (historical nonsense).

Example 2: Is Karate a Sport?

“Sport” in the English Translation

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Now and then, the term “sport” arises in the English and in the German edition. Naturally the reader associates this word with notions like Olympic sports, sport tournaments etc. It also might seem to support the modern idea of sports karate. However, we find the following sentence in the chapter “Chinese Hand to Empty Hand” of the English edition:

“What is most important is that karate, as a form of sport used in physical education, should be simple enough to be practiced without undue difficulty by everybody, young and old, boys and girls, men and women.”

Karate as “Physical Education” in the Japanese Original

Let’s proceed to my translation of the Japanese original:

“Of course, karate as physical education [taiiku] has to be an easy to do matter for whosoever, old and young, man and woman.”

The original text uses the term taiiku, which means “physical education”. Then it somehow became “sport”. The Japanese language offers equivalents for the English word “sport”. Yet, Gichin Funakoshi did not refer to it in any way. In the cited passage he writes that “karate as physical education” must be “easy” respectively “without (too much) trouble” practicable for young and old, man and woman. Funakoshi speaks nowhere about a “form of sport used in physical education”, or “sportlicher Form” (“sportive form”) as later suggested in the German edition. These are interpretations of the translators and/or editors.

Gichin Funakhoshi´s Understanding of Shotokan Karate

Gichin Funakoshi saw karate from three angles in his books:

  1. Physical education (taiiku 体育),
  2. Art of self-protection (goshin-jutsu 護身術), and
  3. Spiritual practice (seishin shūyō 精神修養).

Gichin Funakoshi´s Understanding of Physical Education

The Japanese term for physical education, taiiku, consists of the two characters for “body”/“physique” (tai) and “to raise”/“to educate” (iku). (It should be noted that “physical education” doesn’t automatically refer to the educational activity PE in school curricula.) Gichin Funakoshi chose the term consciously and it should not be reinterpreted. He explained the term in his earlier works: all five parts of the body are well-proportioned moved to the right and left, upwards and downwards. So, the body is exercised. Moreover, he points out that exactly this well-proportion of exercise of a karateka is an advantage over practitioners of other disciplines like, for example, the rower or the jumper.

The Benefits of Physical Education trough Karate-Do

He also believed in the development of tendons and bones as a particular strong point when compared Karate with other fighting arts (bugei). Above all, he underlined this by mentioning the increase of strength through karate practice. Men, women, and children alike exercise Karate without being unchallenged or over-challenged.

For Gichin Funakoshi´s the physical education through karate practice resulted also in a healthy and long life – another positive argument for him. Therefore, even older karateka could compete with the several people. All these points are not related with “sportive tournaments” etc.

The picture shows a Karate-Gi by Taisei in the The Dojo Shop.
  • Gichin Funakoshi training Kumite with an American military officer
  • Gichin Funakoshi doing some Shotokan techniques during kumite

Besides of the distortion of the term taiiku the editors also used the term “sport” as a filler word in some cases. This happened without reason. It also happened directly in Funakoshi’s foreword.

Example 3: Funakoshi an Anti-Alcoholic?

Sometimes, karate is connected with certain values or even ways of life. Therefore, Karate pioneers serve as role models in this respect. Reading Funakoshi’s autobiography it seems to be evident that he lived the life of a teetotaller (a person who does not drink). The chapter “Difficult Days” of the English edition states, for instance:

„Although I do not drink alcohol, my complexion is quite ruddy, and as my skin is also extremely smooth, I could understand how, in this little boy’s mind, I looked like a melon that becomes bright orange when ripe.”

Gichin Funakoshi´s “Snake Gourd” Anecdote

This passage belongs to an anecdote: Funakoshi has been loudly derided by children, who repeatedly named him a “snake gourd” (“melon” in the English edition). Funakoshi could not understand, why they compared him to a snake gourd. But, when he looked into the mirror “later”, he realized the reason. He explained it as follows:

“I am drinking no sake [right now]; however, also today I [still] have a red face which does not resemble my age. Since at that time it was the same and the brightness [of my face], too, was good, that is the reason that I really was a magnificent snake gourd.”

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The first sentence refers to a present situation taking place in the present. In doing so, Funakoshi finds out that he has a red face in that moment, although he does not drink alcohol at the moment. In the following sentence he compares this situation with his condition at that time. As a result, he realized that it was like the children said. Although, he had not drunken alcohol, he had a red and bright face.

However, in other writings Funakoshi talked about his alcohol consumption. In his Karate Stories he reveals, for example, that he completed the draft of his first karate book tipsy after a party. Moreover, I also asked witnesses, who personally met Funakoshi, like Asai Tetsuhiko (1935–2006). They confirmed that Funakoshi drank alcohol.

Example 4: Karate-Dō is One. Isn’t It?

The title of a chapter in the English version sounds like an important and profound epigraph:

“Karate-dō is One”

Analogous it reads in the German edition:

“Karate-dō ist Eins”

But what is the Japanese original of this “principle”? The title of the corresponding chapter is almost unrecognizable. It simply runs:

“The Schools of Karate” [Karate no ryūha]

Translated more literal it means the “Currents and Branches of Karate”. Funakoshi did not express with the title a unification of Karate. A creative interpreter or editor inserted it.

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In his very first works he already discussed “The Schools of Karate”. From the beginning, they were equivalent for him to the concept of shorei-ryu and shorin-ryu. They in turn had nothing to do with the traditions (ryūha), which were known in mainland Japan back then. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries, Shōrei and Shōrin were used as two rough categories. They classified types of students (small and light on the one hand, tall and heavy on the other hand). Gichin Funakoshi described this concept constantly under comparable headings. Above all, he emphasized that in his opinion a karate student shall ideally learn from both categories to become a balanced karatea. He puts it into practice by teaching his students the Heian as well as the Tekki series as fundamental kata.

His biography at the end of this section in the book states that various denotations had been created for currents and branches recently. He offered a remark that it would be more adequate to simply speak of “karate-dō” in such cases. However, here he wrote nothing of a presumed “unification”, or that supposedly “karate-dō is one”.

The Consequences of Wrong Translations for Shotokan Karate

These examples show that even simple but wrong translations cause today’s widely spread misunderstandings and misconceptions of Karate. We must also take into account that Japanese books might have been manipulated as well during the process of publishing new editions.

When I was a teenager I read Gichin Funakoshi’s German biography for the first time. It naturally influenced my understanding of karate and my expectations. Therefore, I am convinced that a correct translation would have saved me to follow a few wrong tracks and dead-end roads on “my way” of karate.


I sincerely would like to thank Pierre Dobrzykowski for helping me with the 1956 edition of the Funakoshi biography as well as Mark Tankosich for providing me with a copy of Funakoshi’s Karate no Hanashi.


About the Author

Henning Wittwer took up his karate practise in 1992. From the beginning he followed the Shotokan current, initially in the more sport and tournament orientated organisations. Since 2005 he published his translations of old Japanese sources and his research regarding karate in German as well as in English journals and magazines.

6 thoughts on “Gichin Funakoshi: The Effects of the Wrong Translation of his Biography

  1. […] to find that a word can mean many things, and it is even less unusual to find that a term in Japanese doesn’t translate smoothly into English. Outside of the martial arts, the word kime is ambiguous at best. However, within that esteemed […]

  2. So many grammatical errors in this article, it was actually painful to get through. I recommend you get a good English proofreader next time you publish an article.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Do you recommend one?

      1. Very good article. Taiiku is the same word and the same kanji used by Itosu Anko in his Todejukun (kun numeber 1).

  3. […] Funakoshi Gichin and Motobu Chôki indeed use the Kanji 型 in their writings. JKA uses 形, SKIF (Kanazawa) prefers 型. […]

  4. […] castaways in particular and seeked instruction by martial arts experts under them. According to Gichin Funakoshi, who was recollecting the words of his master and Itosu friend Ankō Asato, many martial artists […]

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