About 8 years ago, I was trying to create a page about the Niju Kun for this web site. After reading many English interpretations of the document, I began to realize that I would have to do some translating myself in order to be satisfied with the final product. While translating it, I found that most of the English versions of this document were a little off here and there, leaving important alternative interpretations out while pursuing a singular agenda.I do not know when Funakoshi codified his Twenty Principles, but his earliest books contain some of these principles scattered about as random advice in various sections.
Most writings about the Niju Kun are catalogs of moralizing. Each principle is examined, translated, and then helpful anecdotes are combined with fatherly advice as to how one should approach Karate and life. Like every other piece of philosophical insight or wisdom, the Niju Kun is often used as a blunt object with which some strike others over the head. Quoting old documents and proverbs as if they were holy and incontrovertible Law will always be a favorite pastime of controlling individuals who cannot leave the rest of us alone.
I believe an amoral approach to the document is more respectful of the reader’s maturity and intelligence. Find here what wisdom you may, but understand that the document itself is not the wisdom, it is the creative imagination of the reader who interprets and applies what they believe to be found in these phrases that is commendable. Thus, my approach is not to process the Niju Kun into consumable advice for living, but rather to simply analyze each statement in context with the state of Japan and Funakoshi’s life during the time these principles were coming together.
I prefer to look at this document in its historical context. It is interesting to read what Funakoshi felt was important, and it is interesting further to attempt to interpret what he actually meant by some of these points. Like the Dojo Kun, Funakoshi’s advice is blurry and vague – very difficult to interpret not only from Japanese into English, but also within Japanese itself.
Back in Japan, the dojo I did most of my training in had a framed set of these principles on the wall. They were never read to us. No one ever looked up at them. They were never mentioned. I feel far more meaning and importance is placed on this kind of thing in the West than it is in Japan, and thus it is among Westerners that these principles deserve not mere publication, trumpeting, and adoration, but also cynical criticism and analysis that takes them and their author off of the pedestal of sacrament and sets them gently upon the floor the rest of us stand upon.
I believe you will find, as I have from analyzing these statements in the original Japanese and interpreting them for myself, that Funakoshi’s principles are, for the most part, excellent advice. Unlike the Dojo Kun, most of this advice is fairly straightforward and easy to apply in daily life. While some of the principles are a little corny or unlikely, many are the kind of wisdom that a father will hand down to his son: a combination of manly life strategy mixed with principles of self-mastery.
Principle 1: Karate-do wa rei ni hajimari, rei ni owaru koto wo wasuru na
karatedo = karate way
rei = courtesy, salutation, salute, bow, gratitude, return present.
hajimari = beginning/start (n.)
owaru = to end (v.)
koto = thing
wasuru na = do not forget; another form of wasureru
“Do not forget that the karate way begins with a bow and ends with a bow.”
You will have to choose the one your prefer from the potential meanings. I am drawn toward bow, because it could be inferred to mean courtesy, but courtesy does not necessarily indicate the very Japanese physical expression of a bow. The expression is obviously not pointing to the fact that we should remember to bow at the beginning and end of each lesson. It is a figurative statement, while also being a pun of the literal meaning of bow. This could just as easily have been written as “Behave during karate class. Don’t be nasty, don’t be rude, and don’t be a jerk.”
And, that kind of request makes sense, considering how bruised the ego can become when practicing fighting techniques. The last thing an instructor needs is to have beginners quitting because the senior students not only defeat them handily but also gloat about it and humiliate them.
Baseball players learn the same sort of imperative. Notice that unlike many other athletes, baseball players do not dance and strut after they have hit a home run. They seem to be trained to conduct themselves with a certain sense of decorum. I once listened as a baseball player explained this feature of the sport. He said that a baseball player never knows when things are going to go sour, so if you gloat over your successes, it makes your failures just that much more humiliating. So, gloating is discouraged in baseball.
On the other hand, some people use this particular rule to justify the physical practice of bowing. They think that because the point says that karate begins and ends with a bow, that real karate cannot exist without proper Japanese bowing. For me, such an interpretation is enslaved by simple-minded literalism. Thus, I find it difficult to accept as an admonition to bow.
Principle 2: Karate ni sente nashi
Karate = empty hand
sente = the first move; the initiative
nashi = to not exist, to not be there
“In Karate the initiative does not exist.”
Most people translate this principle as “There is no first strike in karate.” That is one possible translation, but I’m not convinced that is the best one. As you can see in the definitions given above, quite a bit of interpretation and inference is required to come up with the words strike, attack, or hit – as none of these words are present. “There is no first attack in Karate” is the common translation, but I would warn people away from the canned interpretations that are possibly devised to support a particular doctrine than provide accurate insight into what a Japanese hears when someone says this phrase to him.
So what does it mean? Interestingly, Funakoshi doesn’t refer to Karate-Do here. Notice throughout his 20 principles he moves back and forth between Karate and Karate-Do depending on the context. I believe when he is giving physical advice, he uses Karate, and when he is giving philosophical advice he uses Karate-Do. Here, he refers to Karate.
In other words, this statement is about karate and what is inherent to the art, not what is inherent to our behavior or the typical karate enthusiast. I feel that Funakoshi is trying to say that he believes that karate is unsuited to being used to initiate attacks upon people. Funakoshi isn’t telling us to not attack first, he is saying that Karate techniques work best in a reactionary way.
It fits Funakoshi’s character to have said and believed such a thing, since he repeatedly expressed his belief that karate training, by its very nature, converted ordinary people into good Japanese citizens. This is probably why the Japanese were interested in Okinawan Karate in the first place. The Japanese were invading other Asian nations and had troops deployed in occupation of Manchuria. Karate seemed like an excellent hand to hand combat system which could also then be turned around to train conquered people in other lands to behave like obedient Japanese citizens. Physically, it was good for soldiers, and mentally, it was good for instilling obedient discipline in ordinary people.
If you find this concept bizarre, consider that it is repeatedly mentioned in Funakoshi’s early books. These are not the nuttiest ideas to come out of the period leading up to the end of World War II. Eugenics, master races, and other such notions were common beliefs back then. Even so, if it were not in print, it might be difficult to believe that Funakoshi is quoted in his own book as saying, “War is a tool God gave man to organize the world.”
“Karate ni sente nashi” is engraved on Funakoshi’s memorial stone in Tokyo. When taken in a larger context, the phrase seems part of an overall marketing package for Karate than it does actual advice. The conclusion I draw is that this principle is aimed not at the Karate practitioner, but at those who seek to learn about Karate without actually doing it to prevent those observing people militantly practicing hand to hand combat from feeling threatened.
While the words are not there, given the target audience, “Please don’t shut down our dojo. We are not a terrorist organization,” seems just as appropriate.
Principle 3: Karate wa gi no tasuke
gi = justice, righteousness, loyalty, meaning, significance
tasuke = rescue, help
“Karate is a helper of justice.”
Was Funakoshi thinking that all of his karate students would use their karate the way that superman used his superpowers for truth, justice, and the Japanese Way? Perhaps. It was the 1930’s, Japan’s government was weak, and the military was gaining more and more power. In 1937, the Japanese military, without the permission of the government, would launch an invasion from occupied Korea and Manchuria and strike at China’s capital. The military was taking over in Japan, and the society was becoming more and more militarized.
Considering Funakoshi’s superstitious beliefs about the efficacy of karate training and its effect on human behavior and personality, I do not believe it is unreasonable to imagine Funakoshi believed that through Karate training he could make men into better people.
The obvious question today is, “Do people who learn to punch and kick use their training only for justice? Or are they just as likely as anyone else to smart-mouth police officers who catch them doing 85 mph in a 55 mph zone?”
In his earlier years, Funakoshi made very strong statements about karate helping the cause of Japan’s War of Aggression in Southeast Asia. Did he have later regrets about this position? While he never recants his earlier statements, Funakoshi seems to have been very concerned in his later years that karate be used only for the cause of good.
As is true for any writer, the writings they produce when they are young often contrast their writings in late life, thus, our desire to see Funakoshi as a fixed individual with a clear set of beliefs becomes a realization that he was a complicated man who’s beliefs changed over the course of time. There are several Funakoshi’s to take into consideration.
Funakoshi may have always thought Karate as a helper of justice, first as a method of strengthening Japan’s soldiers and pacifying the conquered, and then later as a way of strengthening Japan’s citizens following defeat and providing a way to spread an appreciation for Japanese culture throughout the world.
Principle 4: Mazu jiko wo shire, shikashite ta wo shire
mazu = first of all
jiko = one’s self
shire = to know (command)
shikashite = and, also, then
ta = others
“First of all, know yourself, then know others.”
Denial is perhaps the one and only favorite hobby of modern man. It is fascinating to listen to other people completely and totally lie to themselves in order to avoid having to face an ugly truth that they would rather not – especially when that ugly truth tells us something we would rather not know about ourselves.
Almost every famous humanist from Ghandi to Jesus Christ extolled men to understand themselves in order to understand the world around them.
Funakoshi’s advice is timeless, wise, and proven. But some agree with Andre Gide:
Know thyself! A maxim as pernicious as it is ugly. Whoever observes himself arrests his own development. A caterpillar who wanted to know itself well would never become a butterfly.
I know several very successful and effective people who swear that the secret of their success was to change the focus of the self-development away from understanding themselves and toward understanding others. What do you care what kind of person you are, after all, if you are successfully able to communicate and empathize with other types of people? Perhaps Gide is right and the conventional wisdom is wrong.
Or are they both correct, as understanding of what is needed to communicate with others is knowledge of one’s own shortcomings?
Funakoshi focused in on self-knowledge because that is what Karate training is – an exploration, testing, and development of the self through individualistic activity. Karate training sessions seem like group activities, but they truly are not. A room filled with people each pursuing his own agenda and his own development is not a team-building experience.
Principle 5: Gijutsu yori shinjutsu
gijutsu = technology, technique, skill, art
yori = more than (comes after thing that it should be “more than”)
shinjutsu = spirituality“Spirituality more than technology.”
Funakoshi’s words ring more and more true for me as I continue to age and mature, even if by this statement he meant that our Karate practice should be more about developing our own fortitude and less about worrying about perfect techniques and competitive success.
Consider that gijutsu, our karate ability, is parallel to our society’s skill and technique at building electronics and machinery. We live in a world where cell phones interrupt the family meal, pagers contain email messages and people wander around the world staring down into the glowing screens of personal electronics devices completely oblivious to the life they are living at that moment.
Rather than having been freed by all of this technology, we have been captured by it and the people who provide it to us so that they can use it to access us when we were previously unreachable. Sometimes a man should be unreachable.
Sometimes we put a little too much thought into our karate training, and we miss meals around the table or those important moments in life blow right past while we blow hours away doing our oh-so-important karate.
Life needs perspective. If this were your last day on Earth, what would you do, and why are you not doing it now? There is great power in this concept. So many give it lip service, but very few are willing to write down what they would do if this were their last year on Earth and then change their lives immediately and without hesitating to live their lives that way.
Principle 6: Kokoro wa hanatan koto wo yosu
kokoro = heart, mind, core
hanata-n = separate, set free, release, emit, let go
koto = thing, stuff
yosu = (v.) require, need (form of yo-suru)“The heart (mind) requires that you let go.”
Funakoshi was far more philosophical than he was combative. There are no writings by his contemporaries speaking of his amazing Karate skills. His students tell such stories, some of them crediting Funakoshi with amazing abilities even as he was in his 70’s and 80’s. But given the lack of acclaim he received from his peers, it is fair to say that such stories are more than a little dubious. What Funakoshi was did receive ample credit for was his philosophical and people-oriented approach to life. Funakoshi was a charming philosopher and a Japanese conservative. Some of his best principles are the ones which read almost as though they were written by a therapist or self-help author rather than a martial arts instructor.
Here, he captures the essence of powerful emotions and how it is healthy for such feelings to be fleeting rather than prolonged.
The heart requires that we let go in so many ways. We must let go of old resentments, or they will build inside of us gradually until we are filled with rage, rebellion, and defiance that cannot be quenched. In order to be free of our pasts and learn from them, we must be able to discuss and view our experiences with the perspective gained by no longer living it.
The mind requires that we let go as well. No professional basketball player ever made a spinning slam dunk while worrying about whether or not he filled out his tax forms properly. To be in the zone, you must be in the moment. Stay in the moment, and let go of the future and the past. Where are you now? When you find you are not in the moment, look around you and fix your senses on your current environment.
A fighter who is afraid of losing fights conservatively and avoids taking risks, and therefore limits himself to containing his defeat rather than striving for victory.
When considered in military strategy, tactical decision making, and personal emotional management, this particular principle resonates. Entire volumes could be written on this one concept.
Principle 7: Wazawai wa ketai ni shozu
wazawai = calamity, misfortune
ketai/kaitai = lazy, negligent
shozu = (v.) produce, bring about, come about (form of shozuru)“Misfortune is brought about by negligence.”
The thing that comes to my mind when I see the words negligence and misfortune together in a sentence is a car accident. I have twice in my life been about ten feet away when a man on a motorcycle met his death due to inattention. The first time, I was walking to the elementary school as a child on a Saturday to play ball with my friends on the field when a motorcycle rounded the bend, swerved to miss a rabbit hopping across the street, hit the curb, flew through the air, and tossed its rider into the “Do Not Enter” signpost at the exit. He hit that sign right at the neck, fell to the ground, and his face turned dark purple. An ambulance arrived as my friends and I stood in shock staring at him. We were too young to do anything, and given the lack of hurry in the EMT’s, I’m very sure the man died the instant his neck hit that metal signpost at 50 mph.
The second motorcycle death I have witnessed was when I was headed north on a four lane road one morning on my way to work. A truck was coming down the hill and began to cut across traffic making a u-turn. The motorcycle behind it pulled out to pass him, going fairly fast, and slammed into the cab of the truck doing at least 35 mph – maybe faster. The sound it made sounded like a large bell being rung. I was first on the scene, and again, his face turned color and he was non-responsive. We tried to keep him warm and calm while the ambulance drove our way, but he died at the hospital later, and again, there was nothing we could do.
Seeing that the ambulance had no lights flashing because no one in the car survived, I was struck by wondering what the driver was doing at the moment that he died. I learned and will never forget his name, as the county district attorney interrogated me repeatedly on my recollection of events in case I was needed in a court case against the truck driver for involuntary manslaughter.
In combat, on the highway, or on any stair case, one bad moment of inattention, and it could be the last moment you ever experience, or it could be the beginning of your journey through the court system on your way to an extended life behind bars.
Principle 8: Dojo nomi no karate to omou na
dojo = way place, training hall
nomi = only
karate = empty hand
omou na = do not think (command)“Do not think ‘dojo-only-karate.’”
For the true believers, karate training is something that is all day long. They practice punching when alone in elevators. They check their stances in bathroom mirrors. They pretend that they are about to spar people around them. They think, eat, sleep, and breathe karate. The state that they live in is called obsession. It is not healthy, nor will it make you a master of the martial arts. Most people recoil and are turned off from this principle of Funakoshi’s 20 because they infer from it more of the “Karate is my whole life because I am a nutty cult member and everything I see and hear relates back to the fascinating topic of Karate” sort of interpretation that the annoying few seem to enjoy.
However, I see something more benign here: Simple advice that if all you take away from each experience is the literal experience itself rather than lessons that can be applied elsewhere, you’re missing out. And you are. Note the motorcycle incidents I described previously. I took those two accidents as excellent advice: Stay away from motorcycles, pay attention when you are driving, don’t pass 18 wheel trucks on the left that are making wide turns, and don’t swerve to avoid little rabbits who’s lives are less valuable than my own.
Every experience we have is a life lesson if we are expansive and open-minded in our thinking and self-reflection. Every negative experience we have instructs us on how not to do things, and every negative event we witness is a warning to us to pay attention and take note of the pattern developing. Every positive experience is something to pay forward to others, and every positive event we witness is inspiration.
This principle could be rewritten to read, “The world is what we make it.”
Principle 9: Karate no jugyo wa issho de aru
karate = empty hand
jugyo = training, instruction
issho = life, lifetime
de aru = literary, very polite form of desu (to be)“Karate training is a lifetime.”
One could just as easily interpret this to mean “Karate class seems to last a lifetime.” That seems more realistic than the idea that something like karate literally requires your entire life to study. You may always learn something new, but there’s no reason to think that you won’t be completely trained within a decade or so if you have good coaching. Personally, I question the competence of any Karate teacher who looks me in the eye and says it will take him longer than 10 years to teach me his Karate system thoroughly assuming I put in the effort.
This ridiculous point is shoved down so many throats every year that it should win an award as “Most abused concept in the martial arts dedicated to revenue enhancement.” Irritatingly, many interpret this slogan to mean that everyone is forever a student and requires more training into infinity. While you might always learn something new if you keep training your whole life, a more realistic view would be that after a lot of training, you really won’t qualify as a student anymore unless your teacher stinks at his job.
I would agree with the sentiment that learning lasts a lifetime, but not that karate must necessarily be part of it nor that it would require that long. I’m also not a big fan of approaching Karate practice as if obsessive-compulsive disorder were a healthy lifestyle.
However, I agree with anyone who interprets this principle as “Karate training is for having a life” or “If you are flexible in your approach, you can find a way to enjoy Karate training for most of your life.”
The next principle isn’t much better, but there are some good ones coming.
Principle 10: Arayuru mono wo karate kaseyo, soko ni myomi ari
arayuru = all, every
mono = thing(s), stuff
karate = empty hand
kaseyo = (v.) make into, transform (command)
soko = there (not too far away)
myomi = charm, exquisite beauty“Change everything into karate, that is where exquisite beauty is.”
Change everything you do into karate? I thought the admonition about not doing karate only at the dojo was sufficient. This point reads as though once again we are embracing dysfunction as a lifestyle – turning ourselves into a monotonous single-tool creature of Karate who annoys all around him and lives a shallow, silly existence obsessed with his hobby to the point that none can stand to be in his presence.
However, it is a valid point that someone who attends karate lessons every now and then should not expect to become a brilliant master of the martial arts. But couldn’t this have been written with less extremism?
A better credo than this one would be “Set expectations appropriately.”
This ends part 1 of this two-part article. There are ten more principles to go, and some of them are actually quite good. The second part will appear here in a couple of days.
This is the second of a two-part series about the Niju Kun of Funakoshi Gichin. The Niju Kun is a set of 20 principles which he listed for others to follow. Some of the principles are, like most martial arts wisdom, a bit hokey and difficult in which to find any redeeming value. However, many of the principles are excellent advice for any young adult facing a lifetime of decision-making.
It is what we infer from them and how we interpret them for ourselves that really makes all the difference. Of course, it helps to have excellent source material to interpret in the first place. Principles which are vague or puritanical are often tossed like hand grenades at people by those seeking to achieve power over others through manipulation. Yet principles which are specific and moderating provide insight into life’s many challenges. Funakoshi left us with both platitudes and wisdom mixed together in his list of 20.
There does not seem to be an over-arching theme to the Niju Kun. The principles are not steps one can take, nor do they seem comprehensive, complete, or even targeted toward a specific objective. Some are strategic, some tactical, and some philosophical or spiritual in nature. The Niju Kun reads as though 20 random quotes of varying quality were pieced together without any sort of flow or relevance of one to the next.
The first ten were covered in part 1. In part 2, we cover the second half of the Niju Kun.
Principle 11: Karate wa yu no gotoshi taezu netsudo wo ataezareba moto no mizu ni kaeru
karate = empty hand
yu = hot water
gotoshi = like, as if
taezu = always, continually, continuously, incessantly
netsudo = degree of heat/enthusiasm
ataezareba = unless given, unless you give
moto = origin, previous state
mizu = water
kaeru = return“Karate, like hot water, will return to the original cool water if you don’t continually give it a degree of enthusiasm.”
I like this one. Karate training, foreign language ability, musical ability, scientific knowledge, and even child-like playfulness and wonder are all learned skills which fade when not used.
Short version: “Use it or lose it.”
If you stop training, your skills will crap out on you in about six months. If you don’t train often enough, you’ll get stiff, forget your kata, lose your reaction time, and get your butt kicked sometime down the road because you are an out of shape slob who wasted all of the work he did building up all of those karate skills.
And coming back from retirement is quite difficult – not something to be scoffed at. The mind and certain body parts are still able to operate at full speed in some ways, but not in others. So, unlike a white belt, a returning black belt has the possibility of injuring himself through kicking too high, too quickly, or pushing his stiffest body parts as hard as the loosest ones can go.
Keep going. Or stop. But stopping and starting Karate training will be dangerous, painful, and yield terrible results without returning the balance of your time back to you.
Principle 12: Katsu kangae wa motsu na makenu kangae wa hitsuyo
katsu = to win
kangae = a thought
motsu na = do not have (command)
makenu = to not lose (form of makenai)
hitsuyo = required“Do not have thoughts of winning. Thoughts of not losing are necessary.”
This is one of my favorite quotes from Funakoshi. Most martial arts texts rant on and on about not thinking in order to win. They say you should move on auto-pilot with an empty mind filled with vacuum. I despise that advice, because there was never a time in the history of the human race when anyone’s mind was empty of thoughts. I believe the concept of “empty mind” is little more than religious faith with absolutely nothing scientific or evidence-based to back it up. I’ve never had an “empty mind.” Yet, I have been “in the zone” before and have managed to pull off feats that I didn’t think I was capable of. The entire time, however, my mind was filled with conscious thought.
But this point of the Niju Kun does not say that. It clearly says that you should think, and what you should think about is not losing. Rather than imagining that you win your matches, and thereby causing yourself anxiety and preoccupation with success, think only of not losing, and avoid both the dread of loss and the anticipation of success. This is good advice.
Principle 13: Teki ni yotte tenka seyo
teki = enemy, rival, competitor, opponent
ni yotte = depending on
tenka seyo = change (command)“Change depending upon your opponent.”
While I was busily working on translating each of these statements, I noticed that the typical English translations of this point of the Niju Kun were all very long, and yet the Japanese is very short with few words. That is usually a sure sign that someone has been fudging around with their interpretation a little too liberally. This one changes meaning drastically from the usual translation of “victory depends on your ability to tell vulnerable points from invulnerable ones” which is very wrong translation, by the way.
I believe this principle provides misguided advice. Having intelligence about what your opponent will do is an excellent strategy, and the powerful people throughout history have had their spies out gathering information for them since time immemorial. However, taking a reactionary role will always put you at a strategic disadvantage. I advise that you be proactive in your strategy, tactics, and any other situation where you find yourself in any sort of conflict.
If you want to win and win often, you must learn to control and manipulate your opponent. Draw him out. Make him do what you want. Knowing his strengths and what he is likely to do can perhaps change your planning and preparations to a degree, but ultimately people are people, and if you have the initiative, what your opponent does will hopefully be exactly what you planned for him to do, and thus it should play into your hands.
On a micro scale, the winner of a Karate match can usually be seen before any techniques are thrown: It’s the player who is moving forward. The loser is usually backing off and being driven backward. While the possibility he will block and counter is always there, statistically, the man who is moving forward into him is in charge and holds the center – a powerful principle in swordplay and chess.
If I were the one who wrote the Nijukun, I would have said, “Learn about your opponent and make him your puppet.”
Principle 14: Tatakai wa kyojutsu no soju ikan ni ari
tatakai = fighting, war
kyojutsu = truth or falsehood, clever fighting, trying every strategy
soju = control, pilot
ikan = what, how“Fighting is in how well you control trying every strategy.”
The English version would probably sound like, “If you throw a side thrust kick, and it is blocked and you get scored on, guess what you shouldn’t do during round two?” Being that I had the embarrassing experience of doing just that, and getting trounced in a very public match one Sunday in Japan, I can go along with it. You could also expand the meaning to embrace “every aspect of strategy.” What you wear, where you are, and what your opponent eats for breakfast could all be part of your strategy. Think big picture — big scope.
A really good fighter is able to perform a mental task called “chunking.” When he learns to punch, he learns to watch both his wrist and his elbow. Once these are in satisfactory shape, he combines the two thoughts into one, and then begins thinking two larger, second tier thoughts. As he progresses, eventually, the entire technique is a single thing in his mind, not a collection of things.
As this process continues, eventually, the match itself is just a couple of things, and all of the possible strategies occur almost naturally without conscious will.
I have no idea what that feels like.
Luckily, neither does anyone else.
Principle 15: Hito no teashi wo ken to omou
hito = people
teashi = arms and legs
ken = sword
to omoe = think (command)“Think of people’s arms and legs as swords.”
The usual translation of this point of the Niju Kun tells us to think of our own arms and legs as swords. However, after translating it myself, I believe that is not what it means.
This is more interesting than the usual “Think of your own arms and legs as swords.” This advice is directed at no one in particular. Perhaps you should think of all arms and legs as swords. The original statement was vague, and restoring that sense of vagueness makes the advice change somewhat from offensive to both offensive and defensive.
On a small scale, in any Karate match your attention must be firmly on the arms and legs of your opponent using your peripheral vision to detect his movements and your own tactics to execute a strategy of domination and control. Obviously the opponent’s torso and head are not nearly the threat to you that his arms and legs are, so this advice applies on that level.
On a larger scale, this is also an admonition to beware your own and other people’s actions in daily life. Others are ambitious and their arms and legs are swords to be used against you. They will use their legs to propel themselves from place to place as they work against you. They will use their arms to shake hands and build bridges with your allies and enemies, boxing you out, while also working to damage your reputation.
Most people have no such evil in mind, but the power hungry among us do, and if we are to take this advice as strategic and obey the excellent principle about how we should not think ‘Dojo only Karate,’ we must take this under consideration no matter how paranoid we might feel thinking of some others this way.
Principle 16: Danshi mon wo shuzureba hyakuman no teki ari
danshi = man, male
mon = door, gate
shuzureba = (conditional) if [someone] goes out (unusual form of derareba using the ON reading of the kanji – shutsu)
hyakuman = 100 man. (1 man is 10,000. 100 man is 1,000,000)
teki = opponent, enemy
“If men go out a door, there are one million enemies [out there].”
I had a great deal of trouble translating this particular point. The Niju Kun is written using archaic and obsolete Japanese expressions that frequently do not make it into modern dictionaries and textbooks written in English. I had given up on translating it myself when Jon Keeling, a friend living in California who has spent much time in Japan, graciously offered his own translation.
Jon suggested that danshi indicates men, and that door should stand alone. Once viewed that way, I realized that the romanized versions I had of the Niju Kun were confusing my efforts to look the words up in Japanese language dictionaries. Basically, this says when a man leaves his home, he’s got danger all around him. It is chauvinistic, but then the Niju Kun is from the pre-WWII era, and it is from Japan.
When you walk out of your front door in the morning, you have to put yourself in self-defense mode, and watch everyone around you very carefully, all of the time, all day long. If you do that, you have mastered self-defense. Paranoid ramblings of fantasy-driven people who imagine themselves modern-day Samurai? Perhaps.
But the books written about power and politics all give the same advice. You are surrounded by enemies all the time. Even the kids who work in McDonald’s are involved in power struggles with one another. They are hard at work manipulating their situation so that they don’t pull the most difficult shifts, the most difficult duties, and that the boss sees them and not their coworkers as in need of a pay raise. Politics are everywhere. Put two people in the same building, and you have a political struggle. Add a third, and one of them will ultimately be thrown under a bus.
At the very least, this gives solid advice for crossing a parking lot at night. On one level, be very observant and have a defense plan at your disposal. On another level, consider not going to a scary parking lot at night, as enemies will be all around you.
Principle 17: Kamae wa shoshinsha ni ato wa shizentai
kamae = posture, stance, structure, appearance
shoshinsha = inexperienced person/people, novice(s)
ato = later
shizentai = natural body“Stance is for novices, later [use a] natural body.”
This is physical advice for execution of Karate techniques. When you first begin Karate training, the tendency is to view stances as if they were the tracks on a tank. They support your techniques and give your feet the grip they need to resist any reaction force from impact.
As we advance, however, we come to realize that we are at our most powerful when our bodies are in motion and nothing is supporting us. If we push off with the rear foot and it is dragging behind us while our front foot is still in the air and land a blow then, it can be the most powerful blow we will ever land because our body weight will “fall” into our fist and make the blow much heavier.
Thus, stances become landing gears and little else – snapshots of air combat movement rather than fixed positions from which artillery is fired.
Some of the best fighters I have ever seen did not raise their hands in a guard or assume any pose. They simply walked up to their opponents with their fists clenched and started punching them out.
Principle 18: Kata wa tadashiku jissen wa betsu mono
kata = shape, form, karate exercise routine
tadashiku = correctly
jissen = real fighting, real combat, real war
betsu mono = separate thing, something else“Do kata correctly, real combat is something else.”
I should probably have this advice branded on my forehead. I spent unbelievable amounts of effort and time attempting to perfect the appearance of my technique at the expense of amassing experience in sparring skills. That is not an effective way to become an excellent fighter. It is rather an effective way to become and excellent dancer, and I think that is the point that Funakoshi is trying to make here.
Maybe this slogan should be written in English on a board and hung over the door of every martial arts school in the world. Martial arts clubs have a terrible habit of getting caught up in righteous indignation during debate about correct technical methods – which are largely unproven as to efficacy and importance. Meanwhile, the real effectiveness of the training is what actually will matter in the end.
And what is that effectiveness? For some it is whether or not the training is excellent exercise. For others it is whether or not they are able to compete. Some find the training to be a great way to socialize. Others enjoy it for the meditative aspects. There are many approaches.
It is the results that matter. Over focusing on perfection of the journey instead of the results you came to Karate class for can blind you to the fact that you are not getting the results you want, perhaps.
Principle 19: Chikara no kyojaku, tai no shinshuku, waza no kankyu wo wasaruna
chikara = power
kyojaku = strength + weakness, relative strength
tai = body
shinshuku = expansion and contraction, elasticity, flexibility
waza = technique
kankyu = relative speed, slow + fast
wasaru na = do not forget (archaic, obsolete form of wasureru na)“Do not forget about relative strength of power, flexibility of the body, and the relative speed of techniques.”
This principle is usually translated as “Application of power, expansion and contraction of the body, and speed of technique.” I believe the source for that bad translation is in Dynamic Karate by Nakayama. Whoever the fellow at the publishing company was who translated this book, he translated that particular phrase poorly. He was probably not a martial artist, and perhaps not even a native speaker of English.
When I set about translating these Twenty Principles, I was especially fascinated by what I learned when I looked up “tai no shinshuku.” I found that rather than necessarily referring to the ridiculous idea of expansion and contraction of the body, it refers also to basic flexibility, which, when you think about it, makes much more sense. That’s what flexibility is. Tai no Shinshuku means to be flexible, not to huff and puff like a bellows.
It really unnerved me, once, to listen to an aging Karate instructor lecture for 30 minutes on how the body should expand and contract, when I was quite convinced that what he was describing was quite useless. Sure enough, the entire expression really means, “Stay flexible, be strong, be fast, and use each appropriately for maximum result.”
Principle 20: Tsune ni shinen kufu seyo
Tsune ni = all of the time
shinen = thought
kufu = device, contrivance, invention, means, scheme
seyo = do it (command)“Be creative all of the time.”
I think this principle is Funakoshi saying you should be creative. It is the capstone of the rest of the principles: put them all together, and scheme, contrive, devise, and invent as necessary while implementing them in a creative fashion to respond to the world around you and also approach it aggressively. Be versatile.
I don’t like the word scheme. I think it rings better in British than American English. In the US, scheme has connotations of manipulation or planning acts of evil. In the UK, the meaning is much more benign and soft on the ear.
Creativity seems to be a lost art within the Karate community these days. Japanese Karate practitioners differentiate themselves from the people that they see as fakers and fraudsters by embracing and solidifying their practice of what they see as traditional Japanese methods. They use kata from Japan, they use techniques from Japan, uniforms are from Japan, and even preferably the instructors are from Japan.
This stands in sharp contrast to the way Karate was developed on Okinawa and brought to Japan. Okinawan methods were scrapped. Okinawan names were thrown out. Japanese uniforms, labels, leaders, and such were all brought in to the practice. Karate was a creative practice in which up until the 1940’s there were still inventions of new kata occurring.
Today, this is almost unheard of, and every time I suggest to one of my more experienced friends that they create a few kata and let us try them out, they look at me as if I just suggested they wear silk and dance to rap music while spinning flaming batons.
Creativity and adaptability are two core human strengths. Karate cannot be said to be a truly human experience nor can it be said to be improved or developed if only the people at the very top are allowed to make changes. Usually those people are the least brilliant in their organizations. And the changes they make are so conservative that they usually qualify only as token modifications intended to leave someone’s fingerprints on the methods used in arbitrary fashion.
Creativity is a lost pursuit – but it is the highest tradition in Okinawan Karate to be creative. What’s happened to us and how do we fix it?
Final Thoughts: Why We Don’t Need a Niju Kun
Some of the sayings are pretty catchy, and there is some good advice there, but there is nothing in the 20 principles that is not available in large quantities in the writings of our own strategists, philosophers, and wise men of the West.
If you really want life principles to live by, try reading Plato, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Drucker, Covey, and Machiavelli. Compared to the works of those men, and others, the Niju Kun barely scratches the surface of what you need to be competitive strategically and tactically..
Yes, there are a few good pieces of Karate advice there, but these twenty points, which once you remove the silly ones really only number around eleven, don’t really have anything to offer that is particularly brilliant given all of the material that is out there in our own culture ready for us to consume.
Unfortunately, so many Karate enthusiasts are so interested in Japan to the exclusion of their own society that they have read every Karate book and have any new ones on order – yet they have not read and know next to nothing about what their own society’s historical philosophy writers had to say on these same topics.
Consider this example:
Stand upright, speak thy thoughts, declare The truth thou hast, that all may share; Be bold, proclaim it everywhere: They only live who dare.
Personally, I find the quote from Voltaire to be more poignant than anything the Niju Kun has to offer. So why do we keep dragging out the Niju Kun as if it is a sacred scroll which we use to perform a ritual?
There is a disturbing trend amongst a few karate philosophers in that they tend to be very interested in what almost anyone from the East has to say on a subject while being relatively uninterested in what a more learned man from the West might have written. Despite the fact that none of the points of the Niju Kun turns a phrase well enough or is particularly poignant enough to qualify to be listed with quotes from Emerson, Shakespeare, or even Stephen King, it is automatically and unthinkingly viewed as being a terribly important document by some enthusiasts of karate merely because it comes from Japan.
Case in point: Does it make my own coverage of the Niju Kun seem somehow more authentic because I wrote out the Japanese language for each principle? Can you even read the Japanese that I wrote? The answer for 99% of the people who read this two-part series is “No,” yet it looks pretty and makes it seem more important somehow.
This is the belief in the inherent superiority of one people over another – that the Japanese have answers that we ourselves cannot find at home. It is not only racism, it is a false belief. There are mountains of books out there written throughout the centuries that document fighting postures, tactical advantage, strategic planning, and power politics. If you have any interest in the Niju Kun at all, then I would highly recommend you seek out and read the authors of the great works on these topics and not limit yourself to these random twenty points documented by a charming but hardly worldly elementary school teacher from wartime Japan.
Perhaps one day I will write my own principles down. Here is the first of them:
Bending knee to tradition
Is no way to live a life
The way to live is this:
Stand upon your own two feet
until you find a way yourself
and the sky you’ve kissed