Guest Blog: Pondering Links to Sensei Funakoshi’s Time

Guest Blog By Katie Coleman, 1st Dan

When preparing for my black belt exam, I re-read Gichin Funakoshi’s auto-biography, “Karate-Do: My Way of Life.” This fun, short book includes snippets of karate history as well as a window into Master Funakoshi’s remarkable life, following his karate journey from Okinawa in the 1860s to the United States in the 1940s. As I read, I couldn’t help but see corollaries between Master Funakoshi’s training and the training students receive at the Enso Karate dojo today. While I’d never be so arrogant as to compare our skills to his, or our modern struggles to the hard life he led, I found comfort in the fact that the essence of karate remained despite the distance of years and cultures. Here are some of my observations.

1. Late nights. When Funakoshi was a student, practicing karate was forbidden and therefore conducted in secret. These clandestine classes were held very late at night and very far from Funakoshi’s home. He recalls: “Once my enthusiasm for the art began to take hold, I never found that nighttime walk too long.” In some ways, Enso’s late-night classes are the modern equivalent of his experience. Before I embraced karate, I could not have imagined getting home at 9:30-10 p.m. several nights per week. Now I love that

trek home – high on exercise endorphins, enjoying the company of my classmates as the cool night air hits our sticky bodies.

2. Different sides of sensei. Funakoshi noted that after practice ended, his Sensei Azato would “become a different kind of teacher … theorizing about the essence of karate or, like a kindly parent, questioning me about my life.” Certainly all of us at Enso have experienced this with various sensei and sempai, especially with Sensei Jay, who truly cares about seeing his students succeed on and off the dojo floor.

3. Learning from the greats. During times when Funakoshi trained with two masters, Sensei Azato and Sensei Itosu, he would “listen most attentively to the discussions between the two, and by doing so learned a great deal about the art.” How many of us have witnessed friendly debates between Enso’s senseis? And how many of us have attended one of Enso’s regular seminars, welcoming the greats from around the region and around the world? Enso truly brings this spirit of “learning from all the masters” to our dojo.

4. Being asked stupid questions about karate. As Funakoshi said: “A man who is relatively unfamiliar with the art may say to an adept: ‘I understand you practice karate. Tell me, can you really shatter a huge rock with your fingers? Can you really make a hole in a man’s belly with them?’” I can say for certain that every time someone learns that I do karate, they ask me how many boards I can break with my bare hands. It’s apparently been an annoyance for over 100 years!

5. Teachers who are great at other stuff. Funakoshi noted that his master Azato was a highly skilled fencer as well as a politically astute man. He was astonished that someone who was such a master at karate could also be such a master at so many other things. This, too, is clearly seen in the Enso community. Look at Sensei Denise, who is a Ph.D. professor, amazing designer, and decent piano player, not to mention a phenomenal mom! Enso also relies on its network of students and instructors to help keep the non-karate aspects of the dojo running – Sensei Chris’ legal expertise, Judie’s awesome design skills, Elaine’s amazing organizing abilities, etc.

6. Growth. Funakoshi saw hockey-stick-like growth in karate’s popularity in Japan. What began as a forbidden practice conducted on the Okinawan islands, to its first introduction in Tokyo in the 1920s, to its inclusion by the Japanese education department at all schools nationwide, and then to its introduction to the U.S. Air Force at the end of World War II. While I have only been an Enso student for 5 of the 12 years it has existed, I know enough from senseis’ stories that we have grown quite significantly – from just a couple dozen students learning from Sensei Jay at the Michigan Avenue dojo into nearly 300 students taught by a dozen well-respected instructors at three different locations in downtown Chicago, the south side, and Oak Park.

7. Building the dojo. Funakoshi built and re-built dojos during his career spreading karate throughout Japan. He speaks of his students and benefactors literally helping him procure materials and build the structure. This, too, happened at Enso. I witnessed it when we moved to the current Wells Street location. Students packed up and cleaned the old dojo, unpacked the moving truck, painted walls, installed shelves, etc. Truly, it took a village.

8. Embracing karate. Throughout Funakoshi’s book, there are many references to the importance of embracing the spirit of karate with one’s heart and soul. He frequently recounts tales when he was proud to avoid using karate or ashamed to use karate because, to him and his instructors, mastering karate was just as much about this self-control and respect as it was about mastering kata and kumite. Certainly this spirit lives on at Enso, where respect and tradition have found their place from the littlest tikes to the most experienced seniors.

I’ve only trained at Enso, but my guess is that other great dojos also share a lot in common with Funakoshi’s story and legacy. That’s one of the things that’s so great about karate-ka and karate-do around the world: We share a commitment to discipline, respect, and self-improvement. Osu.


Katie Coleman is a 1st Dan student in Shotokan Karate at Enso.