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Shindo Jinen-ryu Karate-do
History and Tradition of Budo

by Akihiro Omi

"It is doubtful whether the Japanese people and the country as a whole can really be understood or appreciated by anyone without a degree of knowledge of their martial culture." (Donn F. Draeger, Classical Bujutsu. New York: Weatherhill, Inc., 1973)


Shindo Jinen-ryu, established in 1933 by Yasuhiro Konishi (1893-1983), is deeply rooted in a rich tradition of Japanese warrior culture. To understand the tradition and the philosophies that this style of karate-do represents, we must first visit the origin of budo and trace the path on which it was formed.

1. The Birth of Japan

The land around the current Japanese islands was formed about 70 million years ago. According to archaeologists, humans lived on the land as early as 2.5 million years ago. During the last ice age (50,000 to 10,000 years ago), a massive movement of the earth separated the land from the Eurasian Continent, and the Japanese islands were formed. This geographical isolation from the continent provided the Japanese with protection and the opportunity to develop their own unique culture.

From 10,000 B.C through 300 B.C., the prehistoric peoples of Japan followed a hunting and gathering way of life. Collective farming began around 300 B.C., triggering the development of irrigation systems and iron-edged tools which increased harvests, in turn stimulating a massive population explosion. As social hierarchies and political structures developed, competition and warfare between villages intensified. Bronze and iron weapons were initially obtained from the continent, but soon the Japanese were making their own weapons such as swords, pikes, and spears. However, many of these early Japanese-made weapons were not practical; they were used for religious ceremonies and rituals, indicating a relatively peaceful island nation during its early years.

2. The Unification and the Earliest Military Actions

By the fourth century A.D., Japan was unified under the imperial family which continues to this day. The Yamato dynasty, centered around the current Osaka area, established official diplomatic relations with Paekche (one of the three kingdoms in the Korean peninsula) in 367 A.D. Two years later, the Yamato dynasty sent soldiers to the Korean peninsula to defend Paekche against its adversary, Silla. This alliance continued until 663, when Paekche was defeated and vanquished by the powerful joint military forces of Silla and the Tang dynasty in China.0

3. Acceptance of Buddhism and Confucianism

Although Shinto had been the indigenous religion of Japan, in 593 A.D., Empress Suiko declared her acceptance of Buddhism (which was introduced through the Korean peninsula in the mid sixth century) and encouraged the construction of Buddhist temples. In 604, crown-prince Shotoku issued the Seventeen-Article Constitution and instituted the court ranks, the first step in the process of establishing imperial authority, the social order, and a moral standard. Heavily influenced by Confucian ideals, Shotoku's constitution defined that civility, or courtesy, is the foundation of society.

4. The Earliest Martial Arts Competitions

The oldest documented form of martial art in Japan is "sumo." The Kojiki, Japan's first book on history, written in 712 A.D., describes a sumo match between two Shinto gods (Takemikazuchi and Takeminakata) on the beach of Izumo. Takemikazuchi won the match by twisting Takeminakata's arm and throwing him to the ground. By this victory, Takemikazuchi was awarded the right to rule the region.

The Nihonshoki, another ancient chronicle completed in 720 A.D., documents a sumo match held in front of Emperor Suijin in 23 B.C., where Nomi no Sukune defeated Taima no Kehaya by kicking and breaking Kehaya's ribs. In 726 A.D.,Emperor Seibu hosted a sumo tournament in July, which then became an important annual palace ritual along with archery contests in January and May. The archery contest in January was without horses, while the contest in May involved mounted bowmen shooting arrows at targets while riding their horses at full gallop. These earliest martial arts competitions in Japan continued for 300 years. However, a major civil war between the Taira and the Minamoto in the 12th century put an end to that tradition.

5. Heian Period and the Rise of the Warrior Class

Japan established its own cultural, political, and economic identity during the Heian Period (794-1185). Buddhism flourished, and the separation of religion and state was largely maintained. Literature and art thrived under the aristocratic civilian government rule. Until the 10th century, Japanese soldiers were mostly a combination of lower-rank aristocrats, their servants, and other civilians who took weapons whenever needed. However, the formation of specialized full-time warrior groups, consisting mostly of skilled archers, brought about the birth of a warrior class. In rural areas, warrior groups gained political power, and civilian administrators could not control them. This threatened state control over lands, and the country was headed toward anarchy and corruption. Furthermore, major Buddhist temples recruited and trained warrior-monks for protection and used militant force to make political demands on the government.

In 1167, Kiyomori Taira, the first warrior to become a member of the high court, rose to dominate the court, and the Taira warrior clan controlled the government until 1185. This signified the beginning of warrior rule in Japan, which continued for 700 years.

6. Kamakura Period and the Rise of the Samurai

In 1185, the Minamoto clan, commanded by Yoritomo Minamoto, defeated their archenemy, the Taira clan. In 1192, the imperial court granted Yoritomo the title shogun (general) and gave him permission to start a government in Kamakura. Away from the hedonistic capital city of Kyoto, Yoritomo created a warrior society with a distinct military aristocracy. In the Kamakura Period (1192-1333), the term "samurai" indicated a specific rank of mounted warriors. In later years, the term came to denote all warriors. Kamakura society exalted loyalty, honor, modesty, and frugality - ideals that later inspired the code of the warrior, or "bushido."

A sect of Buddhism that flourished in this period was Zen. Its simplicity and emphasis on self-discipline and meditation as the means to enlightenment particularly appealed to the warrior class. The Zen ideal of enhancing one's level of awareness to overcome fear of death gave much needed mental strength to warriors who had to fight constant battles. Under the guardianship of the Kamakura government, many Zen temples were constructed in the Kamakura area, and Zen became the guiding philosophy for the Kamakura warriors.

In addition to refining their fighting skills, the Kamakura warriors were expected to be proficient in calligraphy, painting, poetry, music, and other arts.

The martial arts of the Kamakura period were rugged fighting skills and are referred to "bugei." The most important fighting skill was "yabusame," or archery on horseback.

10. The Edo Period

After Lord Hideyoshi's death, Lord Ieyasu Tokugawa's army won a decisive battle in Sekigahara against the remaining Toyotomi clan in 1600. Lord Ieyasu received the title of shogun from the emperor in 1603, and opened his shogunate in Edo (current Tokyo). Law and order replaced chaos, and possession and use of weapons were strictly regulated. During the Edo Period (1603-1868), Japan isolated itself from the rest of the world, and prospered in peace for over two centuries through significant political, social, economic, and cultural developments.

The concept of "budo" was established in the early Edo Period. Although Zen has been the guiding philosophy for the samurai since the Kamakura Period in the 13th Century, the peace and social stability of the Edo Period allowed bujutsu to be integrated with Zen. The transformation from "bujutsu" to "budo" occurred.

The persons who played the key role in this transformation were Zen Master Soho Takuan and Sword Master Munenori Yagyu who was the Tokugawa shogun's chief kenjutsu instructor. Takuan wrote in his Immovable Wisdom (a series of letters to Munenori) that the mind of a zen master is the same as the mind of a swordmaster; "the mind that does not stop at all is called immovable wisdom." Munenori defined his art as "the life-giving sword," and wrote in his Family Book of Swordsmanship, "No-sword is held to be the exclusive secret of this school."

Musashi Miyamoto also accepted Zen and wrote in his Book of Five Rings, "Then you will come to think of things in a wide sense and, taking the void as the Way, you will see the Way as void."

The void ("ku" or "mu") is the essence of Zen teachings. Both "immovable wisdom" and "no-sword" indicate the emptiness of the mind. This line of thought was further developed in the Meiji Period by Sword and Zen Master Tesshu Yamaoka with his Muto-ryu ("School of No-sword").

Throughout the Edo Period, "bugei," "bujutsu," and "budo" coexisted. "Bugei" was the variety of combat skill required of all samurai. Required "bugei" disciplines included the sword, spear, pike, archery, jujutsu, horsemanship,rifle shooting, swimming, and others, for the total of 18 disciplines ("bugei ju happan"). "Bujutsu" were the weapons arts for combat purposes which were more refined and systematically developed. "Budo" was the means to improve oneself through martial training.

Beginning in the mid-Edo Period, many kenjutsu schools geared toward character development adapted bamboo sticks, or "shinai," and protective armor, or "bogu," to reduce injury during practice. These schools were heavily criticized by other bujutsu-oriented schools as impractical.

In 1609, the Satsuma clan in Kyushu sent 3,000 soldiers to Okinawa to conquer the islands. King Shonei was captured and taken to Satsuma, but was later allowed to return to Okinawa to govern the islands. Satsuma maintained Okinawa's relative independence to enable foreign trade with China and Korea which was banned by the Tokugawa government. This independence ended when the Meiji government officially incorporated Okinawa into Japanese territory in1879.

The arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 ended Japan's isolation from the rest of the world. American gun-ship diplomacy reopened Japan's diplomatic and commercial relations with the Western world, and brought down the Tokugawa regime, along with 700 years of warrior rule.

11. The Meiji Restoration

Emperor Meiji declared the restoration of direct imperial rule in 1868. Feudalism was abolished, and the modernization of Japan has begun.

The Meiji Restoration significantly altered the culture and lifestyle of the Japanese. The Meiji government's first priority was to strengthen the national defense by organizing a Western-style military force. The Military Conscription Ordinance in 1873 required all Japanese citizens to serve three years of active service and four years in the reserves. The class structure was eliminated, and the samurai class was phased out. The traditional martial arts were deemed as useless old-fashioned fighting techniques, and were all but abandoned.

As imperial rule was restored for the first time in 700 years, Buddhism (and Zen) was dismissed, and Shinto became the national religion. The samurais lost not only their privileges but also their guiding philosophy. Some former samurai became aristocrats while others became merchants or farmers to earn a living. Most of them abandoned the practice of martial arts altogether.

However, as Western sports such as baseball, gymnastics, and track & field were introduced, the once forgotten martial arts were gradually revived as native-Japanese sports. The Ministry of Education supported the movement to promote physical education among the nation.

Both Tesshu Yamaoka and Jigoro Kano opened their dojos in 1882. Yamaoka's Shunpukan was to teach kendo and Zen, while Kano transformed jujutsu to judo and taught the art in his Kodokan. Kano promoted not only judo but also sports in general. He established the Dai Nippon Taiikukai (Japan Athletic Association) in 1901 which governed all sports, and became the first Japanese member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1909. Kano participated in the 5th Olympics held in Stockholm, Sweden in 1912 as the head of the Japanese delegate.

The Meiji government's economic policies produced a rapid industrial revolution, and within a short period of time, Japan joined the industrialized nations. The Imperial Constitution, promulgated in 1889, declared the emperor "sacred and inviolable." However, the emperor himself reigned rather than ruled.

As a result of the war with China in 1894-95, Japan acquired the island of Taiwan and a large indemnity as well as its share of access to the Chinese market. In 1904-05, Japan fought a war with Russia and won. Japan gained recognition of its paramount interests in Korea, took back the southern Manchurian leases, and acquired the southern half of Sakhalin. Korea was formally annexed to Japan in 1910. In 1914, Japan took part in World War I on the side of the Allies.

The series of war victories promoted national pride, and the Meiji government decided to use martial arts as physical educational tools to improve the health of school-age children. Behind this decision, there was persistent lobbying by Tesshu Yamaoka and Jigoro Kano. In 1895, the Dai Nippon Butoku-kai was established as the governing body for all budo.

12. Yasuhiro Konishi and The Introduction of Karate to the Japanese Mainland

Yasuhiro Konishi was born in 1893 on the island of Shikoku. He started studying Muso-ryu jujutsu at age 6, kendo at age 13, and Takenouchi-ryu jujutsu at age 15. Konishi moved to Tokyo in 1915 and enrolled in the elite Keio University. He was a captain of the varsity kendo club, and after graduation was appointed the university's kendo instructor.

While in the university, Konishi was renting a room in a jujutsu dojo and earned living as bodyguard or bouncer. Just before his graduation, a junior member of the kendo club, Tsuneshige Arakaki, an Okinawan native, demonstrated at a club party a dance that he called "Kushanku dance." Konishi was intrigued by this exotic looking art from Okinawa. Konishi opened the Ryobu-kan dojo in 1923 and started teaching kendo and jujutsu, while learning karate from Arakaki.

Gichin Funakoshi (1870-1957) came to the Japanese mainland in 1917 for the first time to give a demonstration of karate at Butokuden in Kyoto. By the invitation of Judo-founder Jigoro Kano, Funakoshi returned to the mainland in 1922 to perform another karate demonstration at Kodokan in Tokyo. For this demonstration, Funakoshi hand-stitched white uniforms for himself and for his partner Shinkin Gima, an Okinawan native and a member of Kodokan.

The demonstration was attended by over 350 people, including newspaper reporters, and was a huge success. This demonstration by Funakoshi and Gima marks the starting point of modern-day karatedo. The newspaper articles on the demonstration raised public interest in the art and generated massive number of requests for additional karate demonstrations and instruction. Funakoshi postponed his return to Okinawa, and started teaching karate in Meisei-juku, a dormitory for Okinawan students in Tokyo.

In 1924, Funakoshi, accompanied by his senior student Hironori Otsuka (founder of Wado-ryu), came to see Konishi at the Keio University and asked for Konishi's permission to use the kendo dojo during off-training hours for karate practice. Konishi not only granted his permission but also invited Funakoshi to come to his Ryobu-kan dojo to teach him karate. The Keio University Karate Club was established on October 15, 1924.

In addition to training at Funakoshi's Meisei-juku dojo, Konishi received karate instruction from Choki Motobu and Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-ryu). While Konishi respected Funakoshi's personality and Mabuni's technical refinement, he was most impressed by Motobu's fighting abilities. Motobu was by far the best karate fighter of his time. Konishi, a successful bonesetter and a real estate investor, provided financial assistance to these and other Okinawan karate instructors.

Konishi continued his kendo training under the instruction of legendary master Hakudo Nakayama, who was called "kensei," or kendo god. Nakayama suggested to Konishi that karatedo had the potential to become "empty-hand kendo."

Konishi also studied Aikido under Aikido-founder Morihei Ueshiba. Under Ueshiba's guidance, Konishi developed a series of Taisabaki kata. The footwork, the body movement, and the applications ("bunkai") in these kata are based on both Karate and Aikido principles.

Ryobu-kan was the place-to-be for all serious budo-ka in Tokyo.

On the recommendation of Morihei Ueshiba and Shinto scholar Danjo Yamaguchi, Konishi named his style of karate "Shindo Jinen-ryu Karate-jutsu" in 1933 which was later renamed as "Shindo Jinen-ryu Karate-do." "Shindo (godly)" was a common prefix for many kenjutsu styles. Konishi used this prefix to indicate that his karate properly succeeded the heritage of traditional Japanese budo. "Jinen" (also pronounced "shizen" meaning "natural") indicates his natural approach to the art. Because Konishi studied under many renowned karate masters of the time, his Shindo Jinen-ryu Karate-do included cross-sections of kata and basics from many different styles. However, the most influential styles were Shotokan, Shito-ryu, and Motobu-ryu.

In 1934, celebrated boxer Tsuneo "Piston" Horiguchi joined Ryobu-kan, and studied karate and kendo under Konishi. Horiguchi also received hands-on instructions from Choki Motobu at the Ryobu-kan dojo. A few months later, Horiguchi won the Japanese Featherweight Boxing Title.

13. Transformation of Karate in the Early Showa Period

The Keio University Karate Club was the first to change karate (China hand) to karate (Empty hand) in 1929. However, the substitution meant much more than a mere cosmetic change. One of the founding members of the Keio University Karate Club, Goro Shimokawa was a member of the Enkaku Temple in Kamakura (thegarden of which contains a monument commemorating Funakoshi with the inscription written by Zen master Sogen Asahina which reads "There is no first attack in karate"). After studying Zen at this temple, Funakoshi was persuaded by his students at Keio to change the character to Kara (Empty or Void) which contains profound meaning in the Zen context.

The adaptation of Zen signified that the Chinese/Okinawan fighting art of karate had transformed itself into a Japanese budo. "Karate-do" was born.

Konishi was one of the first group of students who received Dan ranks from Gichin Funakoshi. However, Konishi knew that if karate were to be respected by the budo community, it had to be a part of the Dai Nippon Butoku-kai. Konishi used his political influence, as well as the fact that he was already a senior member through kendo, so that the Butoku-kai would recognize karate as a legitimate Japanese budo and would issue official ranking certifications. This became reality in 1935, when the Butoku-kai awarded Konishi the title ("shogo") of Karate-do Kyoshi for the first time. By 1941, the Butoku-kai awarded the Kyoshi title to Yasuhiro Konishi, Chojun Miyagi, and Sannosuke Uejima; and the Renshi title to Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, Hironori Otsuka, Takeshi Shimoda, Gigo Funakoshi, and 18 others.

As Japan prepared for an upcoming war with the United States, public interest in budo ballooned. Along with other budo masters, Funakoshi, Motobu, Mabuni, Otsuka, and Konishi instructed in military schools. However, in the age of modern-day warfare, budo was primarily to give solders the strength to face fear of death, much like what the Kamakura warriors looked for in Zen.

14. The War

After only 15 years of Emperor Taisho's reign, Emperor Showa (known to Westerners as Emperor Hirohito) acceded to the throne in 1926 at age 25. However, increasing right-wing movement and military intervention into politics pushed Japan to gradually move away from democracy and parliamentarianism toward militarism, totalitarianism, and expansionism. By means of assassination and intimidation, the Japanese military took control of the parliament.

In 1942, the military regime took over the Dai Nippon Butoku-kai and restructured it as a military-dictated national budo organization. However, the new Butoku-kai (also referred to as "Tojo Butoku-kai") failed to obtain the support of individual budo federations, and expansion of the War made it impossible to hold seminars or competitions.

To escape the U.S.-lead economic sanctions and to establish military dominance in Asia and the Pacific, the military-lead government of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941 to destroy the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The War came to an end with the blast of atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Japan's unconditional surrender brought an end to World War II.

15. Post-War Japan and Budo

The Allied Occupation directed by General Douglas MacArthur pushed through a sweeping series of reforms including the disarmament of the military, a new constitution, land reforms, the dismemberment of zaibatsu (plutocracy), and major changes in legal codes. The Dai Nippon Butoku-kai was ordered to dissolve, and all martial arts were temporarily banned, with the exception of sumo.

Konishi and Ryobu-kan survived the War which destroyed most of Japan and killed many devoted martial artists. As post-war chaos was replaced by rapid economic growth, Konishi worked hard to revive both kendo and karatedo.

When Kiyoshi Yamazaki joined Ryobu-kan in 1956 at age 16, there were approximately 50 adult students practicing kendo and karatedo under Konishi's instruction. Yamazaki, who also studied Shoto-kai style karate during his college years, left Japan for the United States in 1969 to spread the art to the rest of the world.

Like Aikido Master Morihei Ueshiba, Konishi emphasized that budo training is to build one's character and create harmony between the body, the mind, and the technique. Although bujutsu aspects still coexisted, Konishi's karate became distinctively budo, which is for building physical and mental strength through the study of the martial principles.

The 17th Century Zen Master Takuan determined that "Kendo and Zen are one and the same." Konishi applied this philosophy to karate; "Karatedo and Kendo (therefore Zen) are one and the same." The sword and the mind disappeared into void, and karatedo became "Empty-hand Kendo," as Kendo Master Hakudo Nakayama had foreseen. Konishi wrote the following poem which describes the principle of his karate:

Karate is
Not to hit someone
Nor to be defeated
It is to avoid trouble

Konishi was one of the greatest budo masters of all time. He was also a successful businessman, an educator, and a political activist. He worked tirelessly to bring respectability to karatedo, and his effort and patronage moved karatedo forward.

Yasuhiro Konishi died in 1982. His son, Takehiro succeeded Ryobu-kan, and is currently directing Shindo Jinen-ryu as Yasuhiro Konishi II, assisted by Kiyoshi Yamazaki, the International Director of the Japan Karate-Do Ryobu-Kai.

In April 1987, the Budo Charter was established by a committee consisting of representatives from all major budo disciplines. The Charter defines the object of budo as "to cultivate character, enrich the ability to make value judgments, and foster a well disciplined and capable individual through participation in physical and mental training utilizing martial techniques." The tradition of budo lives on.

Final Remarks

The history of karate-do did not begin in Okinawa. It goes back much furtherin time. Although karate-do's technical origin clearly exists in China, its philosophical origin is the tradition of budo in Japan.

Actually, Taoism and Zen also came from China, so one can say that everything came from China. However, the idea of budo is unique to Japan. Emphasis is different in Chinese arts.

Note that, by all means, bujutsu is not a lesser art. It just has different objectives than budo. Japanese word "gei-jutsu" means "art." Karate-jutsu (karate as bujutsu) is definitely an art with cultural significance, and it must be preserved as such.

Karate-do is becoming safer and, therefore, technically simpler. You can call it either progress or destruction. However, it is moving toward its objective: perfection of character.

Karate's Olympic participation would, most part, benefit karate-do, but it might be destructive to some karate-jutsu schools because they might lose students. Commercial karate dojos would slowly disappear as karate-do becomes popular. Karate-do would be mainly taught in the high school and college levels. However, I believe that is what Senseis. Kano, Funakoshi, and Konishi intended. These visionaries have foreseen the educational value in karate-do.

There is a good reason that Dr. Jigoro Kano, the founder of judo, actively promoted sports in Japan, supported the IOC, and encouraged Japan's participation in the Olympics. He would have loved to see judo being an Olympic event. Unfortunately, Dr. Kano passed away (on his way back from an IOC meeting in Europe) long before judo's inclusion in 1960.

Dr. Kano was Sensei Funakoshi's mentor. Until his death, Sensei Funakoshi always removed his hat and bowed deeply everytime he passed in front of Kodokan, even when he was riding a bus or a train. Although Sensei Funakoshi never approved of karate competition, he never stood in the way. He would probably do the same about the karate's Olympic movement.

Akihiro Omi
Japan Karate-Do Ryobu-Kai of Northern California

"But one who speaks in a borrowed tongue should be thankful if he can just make himself intelligible."
- Inazo Nitobe

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