Anko Itosu

- The Grandfather of Modern Karate -

Written by Sensei Jon Davis

7 June 2024

Anko Itosu (alternately called Yasatsune Itosu in Japanese) is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of karate. He was born in Shuri, Okinawa in 1831 and died on January 26th, 1915. Itosu was born to a prominent family and was well educated in the classics of Chinese literature and calligraphy.


He grew up during a time when the art of karate was practiced in secret and primarily passed down through family lineages. Itosu was of short stature, but there are several accounts of his strong build and incredible punching ability.


His initial exposure to the art was under the instruction of Nagahama Chikoudin Peichin. In his thirties, he began training with the legendary Sokon "Bushi" Matsamura and would go on to master the style of karate known as Shuri-te alongside another disciple by the name of Anko Azato. This pair - Itosu and Azato - would go on to together teach and mentor Gichin Funakoshi.


When Anko Itosu was a young man, he built up a reputation by winning several fights and there are a number of legends about his endeavors that have been handed down over the years:


  • Tomoyose - One such story tells of how he challenged an obnoxious bully named Tomoyose who was criticizing the Shuri-te style, calling it "parlour karate." Itosu was then attacked by Tomoyose's gang but he quickly dispatched three of them using one knockout blow for each. Tomoyose then decided to attack himself and met a similar fate, being rendered unconscious in a short time.
  • Itosu and the Thief - Gichin Funakoshi referred to his teacher's ability to withstand blows, his vice-like grip and his amazing strength. Itosu was a well built, strong man who conditioned his body to be able to give and take the hardest of blows. He insisted his students regularly use the makiwara board to prepare them for high impact hits. One story that illustrates this powers tells of a thief who tried to break into the master's house. When Itosu heard his wooden gate rattle, he went to investigate only to realize that on the other side was the thief trying to break in. Itosu, so the legend goes, punched straight through the thick wooden gate, grabbing the would-be thief by the arm and leaving a gaping hole in the gate.


Itosu can be said to be the first person to practice what would closely resemble the movements of Shotokan karate that is practiced today, and he was responsible for taking the art from being practiced in secret to being spread to the general public in Okinawa.


In 1901, Itosu began implementing his well-rounded and organized curriculum of karate techniques and kata by teaching schoolchildren. He first taught at the Shuri Jinjo Primary school and then on to the Dai Ichi middle school and the Okinawa prefectural Mens Normal School in 1905.


Known to stress the importance of the basics, Itosu created the Pinan (Heian in Japanese) kata series to be more approachable for schoolchildren to learn, as he felt the older kata were too difficult for them to learn. These five kata are thought to have been created by drawing from two older kata: Kusanku and Channan.


He is also credited with taking the large Naihanchi (Tekki in Japanese) kata and breaking it into the three well-known modern kata of Naihanchi Shodan, Naihanchi Nidan and Naihanchi Sandan. 


In October of 1908, Itosu wrote a letter to the Japanese Ministry of Education and Ministry of War, where he emphasized karate as a means of physical and moral development, rather than merely a combative art. This letter became referred to as the, "Ten Precepts (Tode Jukun) of Karate" and profoundly influenced the way karate was perceived and practiced. These 10 precepts are as relevant to modern karateka today as they were then.


Itosu planted the roots for the transmission of Okinawan karate to mainland Japan through his writings and demonstrations. When Itosu died at the age of 85, this mission would be vigorously pursued on the mainland by his student, Gichin Funakoshi. The imperialistic Japanese government of the time saw the art's usefulness in developing young fighting men, and jumped on the opportunity.


Anko Itosu's legacy extends beyond his own students, who include notable karate masters such as Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, and Chojun Miyagi. These disciples carried his teachings to mainland Japan and eventually to the rest of the world, laying the foundation for modern karate to flourish.


Remembered as the "Grandfather of Modern Karate," Anko Itosu's vision and efforts transformed karate from a secretive practice into a globally recognized martial art, ensuring its preservation and growth for generations to come.

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