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How the Samurai Art Bujutsu influenced Shotokan Karate

Bujutsu, the martial and military arts of the samurai, had a great influence on the evolution of Shotokan karate do. Especially Gichin Funakoshi was highly impressed by Jigen-ryu, a bujutsu style from the south prefecture Satsuma in Japan. Later, Gigo Funakoshi enriched Shotokan with elements from kendo and other types of Japanese fencing. The following historical reconstruction illuminates the relationship between the samurai art bujutsu and Shotokan karate do. Thus it offers a new foundation to reflect about the style in general and its techniques and ideals in particular. By Geoffrey Wingard

How has traditional bujutsu (武術, martial and military arts) influenced Shotokan karate do? This question has to be addressed because Shotokan karate do, the ubiquitous karate of post-war Japan, is unique. It differs in significant ways from its Okinawan roots and from karate on Okinawa today. But how could that happen? Was Gichin Funakoshi not from Okinawa and did he not learn karate from Okinawan masters? Both facts are true.

Bujutsu, Jigen-ryu, and Shotokan Karate Do?

But Funakoshi and other pioneers of Shotokan designed their karate differently than most other major karate styles in Okinawa. The reasons for this difference can be found in the strong influence by traditional bujutsu in general and the southern Japanese swordsmanship Jigen-ryu in particular on the Shotokan. For instance:

  • Shotokan places great emphasis on the perfection of basic form;
  • While traditional, tries to avoid symbolic and esoteric techniques that obscure its singular focus;
  • It requires an austerity of practice unlike that of many other systems;
  • Shotokan karate uses longer stances;
  • It emphasizes fighting at greater distances;
  • It places much more emphasis on the ideal of ikken hissatsu, one hit – certain kill. 

These elements can be found in traditional Japanese swordsmanship.

However, Shotokan karate do shares tactical and strategic characteristics with both Okinawan and Japanese martial arts. It combines various Okinawan styles of karate with post-Meiji-era budo and koryu Japanese bujutsu. 

When Started the Influence of Bujutsu and Jigen-ryu on Shotokan Karate Do?

Funakoshi Adjusted Shotokan after the he moved to Tokyo

But how could this incorporation of Japanese bujutsu elements and concepts happen? The answers to these questions are complex. Both because Gichin Funakoshi had to face certain challenges when he moved to Japan, which made him adjust his style and because Shotokan continued to evolve throughout the twentieth century. Following his expatriation from Okinawa to Japan Funakoshi consciously molded his form of budo to appeal to Japanese audiences. The changes include 

  • the introduction of ranks and uniforms similar to those devised by Funakoshi’s Japanese sponsor Kano Jigoro of Kodokan Judo, 
  • the establishment of clubs at elite universities and
  •  the introduction of an “old boy” network, a system of informal yet important client/sponsor relations that characterizes many successful Japanese enterprises (Ashkenazi, 2002). 

Bujutsu Influence on Shotokan before Funakoshi Moved to Tokyo?

However, some of the particular technical aspects of Shotokan pre-date Funakoshi’s time in Tokyo. Therefore, the influence of Shotokan by bujutsu must have begun earlier than the 1920´s.

For instance, Shotokan’s stances undeniably got longer and deeper in the 1930s and 1940s under the influence of Gigo (Yoshitaka) Funakoshi, Gichin Funakoshi’s son and heir. But they were already longer and deeper than many Okinawan styles during the elder Funakoshi’s time. The same goes for Gigo´s emphasized ikken hissatsu in his new randori–style kumite. The concept of total commitment to initial technique was already present in his father’s karate. Furthermore, the introduction of kihon kata, shiai karate and bogu kumite also existed to some degree in the karate of other teachers from Okinawa, both in the Ryukyu Islands and on the Japanese mainland.

How did Bujutsu influence Shotokan Karate Do?

So, where did the differences that characterize Shotokan originate if they didn’t suddenly emerge in 1922 from the imagination of Gichin Funakoshi, a middle-aged displaced schoolteacher? In other words: is it logical that a socially conservative, impoverished, fifty-five year old man, living alone hundreds of miles from his home would abandon a lifetime of orthodox karate practice and come up with a new, untested methodology to sell to the Japanese public on the fly? Would Funakoshi, the former kaicho (president) of the Okinawa Karate Shobu-kai, simply abandon or radically alter karate-do on a whim? This seems unlikely. 

Another hypothesis, as I am going to show, is more likely: Shotokan, already contained characteristics that made it distinct from other Okinawan styles prior to its expatriation from Okinawa.

Anko Azato and Jigen-ryu

Famed British karate historian Steve Cattle argued that the distinctive characteristics of Funakoshi karate arose from the budo of one of his primary teachers: Azato Ankoh. According to Cattle (1990), the unique qualities of Shotokan emerged due to its association with Jigen-ryu kenjutsu through Master Azato. Azato was renowned on Okinawa for his Jigen-ryu swordsmanship. And he  impressed upon young Funakoshi the importance of training one’s hands “like a sharp steel sword” (Funakoshi, 1975, p. 94).

Furthermore, the Jigen-ryu was, as Cattle observes, the official style of the former Satsuma daimyo and their retainers, the closest samurai to Okinawa (based in what is now Kagoshima prefecture). Azato’s teacher, Matsumura Sokon, had mastered this style due to his association with the Satsuma clan as a bodyguard for the Okinawan king

The picture shows samurai of the clan Shimazu, which reigned Satsuma prefecture for several centuries. The Shimazu practiced the bujutsu style of Jigen-ryu, which later influenced the development of Shotokan.
The picture shows samurai of the Shimazu clan, which reigned Satsuma prefecture for several centuries. The Shimazu practiced the bujutsu style of Jigen-ryu, which later influenced the development of Shotokan.

Characteristics of Jigen-ryu

Jigen-ryu has distinctive characteristics. Many parallel with those in Shotokan karate do. 

  • It employs long stances, direct linear strikes, lunging attacks and an almost obsessive cultivation of perfect, basic techniques. 
  • It requires constant attention to technical efficacy trained through hitting springy wooden poles (not so unlike karateka hitting the makiwara). 
  • It is concerned primarily with training for an initial, instantaneous lethal blow, similar to Shotokan’s storied emphasis on ikken hissatsu. 

Historian G. Cameron Hurst explains that, “Jigen-ryu emphasized an initial offensive attack designed to either split the opponent in two or fell him with a single blow.” (1998, p. 62). Students of modern Shotokan will recognize both philosophical and technical similarities between the Jigen-ryu and Shotokan karate do.

Lunging Strike in Jigen-ryu and Oi-tsuki of Shotokan karate do

In 2001, at the University of Missouri – St. Louis’ Budo Symposium, koryu bujutsuka Ellis Amdur demonstrated the similarities of the primary lunging strike of Jigen-ryu to the oi-tsuki of Shotokan karate do. Amdur explained and demonstrated with startling ferocity how the lunge from what Jigen-ryu calls tonbo-no-kamae or dragonfly stance to a full extension of the sword following an overhand strike is analogous to Shotokan’s full extension into zenkutsu dachi with a lunge punch. Both techniques require total commitment to attack, the full extension of the arm and body, and synchronized stepping and striking movements.

These characteristics employed in seizing the initiative will be familiar to Shotokan karateka, but they are also present in Jigen-ryu, which has been described as “a system of all-out attack.” (Amdur, 2002, p. 165).

Kiai in Jigen-ryu and Shotokan Karate

Other, circumstantial evidence supports Shotokan’s association with Jigen-ryu swordsmanship. For example, Jigen-ryu is known for its unique kiai sometimes called a monkey’s shout (enkyo). It is a wailing, high-pitched yell performed with every downward cut of the sword. In English, the Jigen-ryu shout is most often transliterated as “Ei!” rather than kiai.

In Funakoshi’s final written work on his form of karate, Karate-do Kyohan, he uses the term kiai to describe the technique of shouting/expelling breath. But he also uses the English transliteration “Ei!” to describe the sound the karateka should make when performing kiai (1973, for example on p.75). In formal kumite training Shotokan karateka, like Jigen-ryu swordsmen, kiai to emphasize their lunging techniques.

The emphasize on a single-blow also leads to a rigorous trainings regime of Jigen-ryu.

Students of Funakoshi had Bujutsu Background

Another intriguing aspect underlines the relationship between Jigen-ryu and Shotokan. In the decades following Funakoshi´s introduction of karate to Japan he relied heavily on a few trusted senior students. Among these were Okinawans living in Japan such as Makoto Gima and Japanese natives trained in other bujutsu who became his students, notably Hironori Ohtsuka and Takeshi Shimoda. Each of these men brought their own preferences to Funakoshi’s style. But none succeeded him, meaning that the Shotokan we have inherited is more likely directly influenced by Funakoshi’s own budo than by outside contributors. 

Makoto Gima

Gima remained a follower of Funakoshi. However, he retained elements of his Okinawan teachers’ karate in his version of Shotokan. Schools of his lineage, the Kenkojuku, differ slightly from orthodox Shotokan today. A plausible reason might be the influence of Ankoh Itosu and Kentsu Yabu (n.b. Funakoshi had also studied extensively under Itosu, but not under Yabu). While the Kenkojuku is clearly a lineage of Shotokan karate, it does not necessarily reflect a pure lineage of Funakoshi’s particular style. 

Hironori Ohtsuka

Ohtsuka eventually left Funakoshi’s tutelage to train under rival teacher Motobu Choki. While Funakoshi never publicly spoke ill of him, neither did he train with him after the break. Ohtsuka founded the Wado-ryu karate style and did not inherit Shotokan.

Takeshi Shimoda

Shimoda, Funakoshi’s senior student in Japan, died unexpectedly after a brief illness at only thirty-three years old. While Shimoda’s expertise in nen-ryu kenjutsu inevitably influenced his personal interpretation of Funakoshi’s karate, his death limited his influence on the Shotokan method. That left Funakoshi’s third son, Gigo (Yoshitaka), to carry on the Shotokan tradition in Japan.

Bujutsu, Gigo Funakoshi, and the Evolution of Shotokan Karate Do

As a boy on Okinawa, Gigo had trained under both an elderly Itosu Ankoh and under his father. In Japan he was junior to Shimoda and studied directly under him and the elder Funakoshi. After Shimoda’s death, however, when the weight of inheritance fell upon him, Funakoshi Gigo began to train in earnest. At this time, he began to change the Shotokan curriculum and develop it into what many would recognize as a more modern form of Shotokan. He didn’t do this in a vacuum, however. 

The pictures shows Yoshitaka "Gigo" Funakoshi, who developed the style further of Shotokan further. Research shows that he was influenced by bujutsu and brought this influence into Shotokan karate.
Yoshitaka “Gigo” Funakoshi developed Shotokan further and implemented bujutsu elements into the style.

Gigo Funakoshi´s interest in Kendo and Gendai Budo

Kendo and other gendai budo influenced Gigo a lot (an influence in Shotokan that would grow after Gigo’s passing as most Shotokan dojo came under the direction of the Nakayama Masatoshi and the JKA), particularly concerning o-waza or long-distance techniques. Taiji Kase explained that Gigo Funakoshi developed and practiced o-waza in Shotokan for the same reason that kendoka practiced o-waza, “in order to develop and strengthen the body.” (Rincon, 2000).  But there are hints that some of Gigo’s changes to Shotokan may have, in fact, arisen from some continued association with the legacy of Jigen-ryu kenjutsu or from other lesser known Okinawan sources.

Gigo Funakoshi´s Time in Okinawa

Sometime between 1934 (after Shimoda’s death) and 1937, when Japan went to war in China and travel became restricted, Funakoshi Gigo traveled back to Okinawa to study karate. Who he studied with and what he studied are still something of a mystery. Both of his father’s primary teachers had passed away, Azato Ankoh in 1906 and Itosu Ankoh in 1915. However,  both had students remaining on Okinawa. 

Itosu’s legacy is impressive and he had many branch dojo and students teaching throughout the region including many in public schools. Azato’s karate is more of a mystery. However, research has shown that Azato had at least one son, a close friend of Funakoshi Gichin. He also practiced karate and remained on Okinawa. Azato also had other descendants and family members who practiced karate, a lineage of which is rumored to be extant in Kagoshima prefecture today. One can plausibly argue that Gigo could have studied with these men or with others influenced by them.

Did Gigo Bring Bujutsu Elements from Okinawa to Tokyo?

Were any of these influences related to the Jigen-ryu or in other ways formative for Shotokan? It is intriguing to think so for a few reasons. We know, for example, that upon his return to Tokyo from Okinawa Gigo introduced new techniques and stances to Shotokan that he may have learned on Okinawa. Other styles  related to the Shotokan/Shorin-ryu lineage do not accept these. He reportedly trained harder than ever upon his return and made great advances in his personal technique.

Gigo’s students, including Kase Taiji, one of the JKA’s renown masters, recalled Gigo attacking the makiwara over and over with powerful lunge punches and thrusts putting all his spirit and will into the practice after his return from Okinawa. There is an axiom in Jigen-ryu kenjutsu that states students should strike the tategi or freestanding striking pole, “3,000 times in the morning and 8,000 times at night”. Is this what Gigo was doing? Was this indomitable dedication and his new impressive lunging technique what he had learned in Okinawa?

The picture shows Gigo Funakoshi practicing at the makiwara. His interested in makiwara training might be influenved by his exposure to Jigen-ryu and other bujutsu, which also use striking devises made from wood.
Gigo Funakoshi during makiwara training.

Bujutsu and Shotokan Karate Do: A Close Relationship

Unfortunately, we may never know. Like Shimoda before him, Gigo’s life was cut short by disease at a young age. He died of tuberculosis at age thirty-nine and the Shotokan dojo itself was destroyed in the ravages of the Second World War. The Shotokan karate that emerged after the war took time to reform and was reconstructed to meet new challenges. The post-war karateka who followed Funakoshi made changes of their own to the style for both technical and political reasons that have unintentionally obscured some key details necessary for a comprehensive analysis of early Shotokan. 

What we can say with confidence, however, is that Shotokan karate, while distinct from other lineages of Okinawan martial arts, has a tradition that is both linked to traditional karate and that is intriguingly similar to other classical bujutsu, especially Jigen-ryu.


Amdur, E. 2002: Renovation and Innovation in Tradition. In: Skoss, D. (ed.): Keiko Shokon: Classical Warrior Traditions of Japan Volume 3. Berkley Heights, NJ: Koryu Books, pp. 145-178.

Ashkenazi, M. 2002: Ritual and the Ideal of Society in Karate. In: Jones, D.E. (ed.): Combat, Ritual and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, pp. 99-118.

Cattle, S. 1990: What is Shotokan? In: Shotokan Karate Magazine. Issue 24.

Funakoshi, G. 1973: Karate-do Kyohan: The Master Text. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Funakoshi, G. 1975: Karate-do My Way of Life. Tokyo: Kodansha International.

Hurst, G.C. 1998: Armed Martial Arts of Japan: Swordsmanship and Archery. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Rincon, Martin 2000: Interviewing Sensei Taiji Kase 9º Dan Of Shotokan Ryu Karate-Do. In: Karate-Do Shotokan Ryu Kase Ha Albacete – España.