Motobu & Funakoshi – The Habu & The Mongoose

You know how the old masters of Karate would always write noble things like: “The ultimate goal of Karate is to seek perfection of character” and “Seek to improve yourself and your manners” and that kind of stuff?

Funakoshi Gichin


Let’s just say that everyone didn’t really follow what they wrote themselves!

Today I thought I would tell you about a historical tidbit, involving two great, legendary, Karate masters who simply couldn’t stand each other. Even though both came from Okinawa, they were complete opposites, like oil and water, which didn’t really help their “friendship” at all.

Actually, they often acted surprisingly much like children.

I’m talking about Funakoshi Gichin (1868 – 1957) and Motobu Choki (1870-1944) of course.

Motobu Choki

Resembling the Okinawan poisonous ‘habu’ snake and it’s worst enemy, the mongoose, these two famous figures of Karate had something of an epic battle which would easily outweigh most TV dramas of today. However, many people haven’t heard of this because, let’s be honest, slander and blasphemy never looks good.

Especially not when you advocate the opposite.

So, for those of you who have never heard about this story, let’s briefly look at what these masters once said about each other.

According to Motobu himself, it all started on a beautiful day like this:

“When I first came to Tokyo, there was another Okinawan [Funakoshi] who was teaching Karate there quite actively. When in Okinawa I hadn’t even heard of his name! Upon guidance of another Okinawan, I went to the place he was teaching youngsters, where he was running his mouth, bragging. Upon seeing this, I grabbed his hand, took up a position of kake-kumite and said, ‘what will you do?'”

This quote from Motobu was written in “Ryukyu Kenpo Karate-jutsu Tatsujin Motobu Choki Seiden” by Nakata Mizuhiko (translated by Joe Swift) and as you already see, their first meeting was everything but peaceful.

How did the meeting end?

The quote continues:

“He [Funakoshi] was hesitant and I thought to punch him would be too much, so I threw him with kote-gaeshi (a wrist throw common to jujutsu and aikido) at which time he fell to the ground with a large thud. He got up, his face red and said ‘once more.’ And again I threw him with kote-gaeshi. He did not relent and asked for another bout, so he was thrown the same way for a third time.”

Imagine that.

Now, of course there are different versions of this altercation. Here’s another take on the exact same story, found in “Karatedo wo Kataru Genzai no Budo Teki Shiten” written by Konishi Yasuhiro:

“I heard that Motobu met Funakoshi and they talked about how various attacks could be effectively received, when Motobu asked him to show him a block against a punch. When Funakoshi blocked the technique Motobu seized his hand and threw him about three and a half meters. I’m not sure if this is true or not but I do know that since that time Funakoshi hated Motobu very much, referring to him as an illiterate.”

So that’s how it all started.

And as they say, the rest is history.

From this point on, it basically escalated. For instance, after hearing that Funakoshi was issued a 5th dan (at a time when grades barely existed!), Motobu apparently said “If that’s the case then what does that make me, a 10th or 11th dan?”

Sources also mention that whenever Motobu’s name was mentioned, Funakoshi’s face contorted. Conversely, Motobu often referred to Funakoshi’s Karate as a Shamisen (the 3 stringed Okinawan guitar), “beautiful sound, but hollow on the inside”.

As we can see, Motobu was all about practical Karate. You either show what you’ve got, or you get lost.

And that is exactly what he told us:

“He [Funakoshi] can only copy the masters elegance by performing the outer portion of what they taught him, and uses that to mislead others into believing he is an expert when he is not.”

“His [Funakoshi’s] demonstrations were simply implausible. This kind of person is a good-for nothing scalawag. In fact, his tricky behavior and eloquent explanation easily deceives people. To the naïve person, Funakoshi’s demonstration and explanation represents the real art!

Nothing is more harmful to the world than a martial art that is not effective in actual self-defense. If that stupid person opens a dojo then let him fight with me and I’ll make him go back to Okinawa. That would be a real benefit to the world!”


So what can we learn from this?

Well, I don’t really know if there is anything to learn. It’s more like a huge, bad example. Yet, it’s hilarious.

I guess we’ll just have to learn that Karate masters are humans too.

Better a diamond with a flaw than a pebble without.

1930’s Karate party with Motobu and Funakoshi in the center (!)

“No matter how you may excel in the art of the fist, and in your scholastic endeavors, nothing is more important than your behavior and your humanity as observed in daily life.”

– Teijunsoku Nago Oyakata, 1663


  • Why should we evaluate Choki's behavior according to Funakoshi's ethical code? An ethical code that seems to excuse Karateka from actually learning how to fight?
    • We're not - "Funakoshi's ethical code" was far from his own. As you probably know, at the time it was the politically correct Confucian tradition, which Funakoshi simply followed, advocated and of course incorporated into his concept of Karate. The result was nothing but success (evidently!), although some people (Motobu) rightly felt that the 'essence' of their native fighting tradition had been lost. Actually, Funakoshi himself even admitted this later on... sort of. Motobu was clearly a forerunner in no-nonsense "practical" Karate, and for this he should be recognized. Imagine if he had had a more businesslike attitute (and a PR adviser!) - who knows what could have been!
  • He He He. There is a similar story of serious rivalry between 2 masters of the next generation : Mas Oyama founder of Kyokushinkai, and Katsuoh Yamamoto, founder of Yoshukai. Both Full contact styles. When Sensei Yamamoto decided he would fight a Tiger (Which he did) Mas Oyama (Who himself had fought several bulls) insinuated that the Tiger would be drugged up. Sensei Yamamoto was upset by this comment, and challenged Mas Oyama to a fight. Sensei Mas Oyama did not answer This is how the Story is told in Sensei Yamamoto Purple Book.
    • Nice one Frederic! Never heard of that one before :)
    • In Oyama's film, the bear that was fought was also stunned. But this things are not relevant to the History of Karate.
  • Andi Quast
    I'am regularly challenged by mountain goblins!!! No, to be honest, if you`re a teacher - especially one with fame - you WILL get challenged. When the German Turnvater Jahn was challenged by an officer of the Prussian army in around 1815 or so, he said: "Beat three of my young students, then I will get in on with you". The soldier already lost the first fight against one young studiosus, who mentioned afterwards: "I was astonished myself how easy it was."
  • Bart Scovill
    That's a tough situation. Do we have an obligation to take action when we believe someone is teaching flawed self-defense? Motobu sure did. But on the other hand, just because one martial artist can defeat another doesn't mean the defeated one has nothing to offer. It's good to see the masters faced these very same dilemma.
  • Matt S.
    Two of my favorite old karate masters. :)
  • It's clear from both men's writing that they disliked each other, but this article fails to mention Motobu's dishonesty. Motobu had certainly heard of Funakoshi in Okinawa since Funakoshi had been a student of teachers who had rejected Motobu, Funakoshi had led the demonstration team in Okinawa that greeted the Crown Prince of Japan an event which was highly reported and Funakoshi was a member (and titular head, at one pint) of a karate kenkyukai on Okinawa before leaving for Tokyo. Funakoshi's fame riled the feelings of two karate men who were his social superiors on Okinawa (Motobu and Kyan), but the fact that these two men and their students slandered Funakoshi shouldn't tarnish his memory.
    • Tulu Ush Shams
      Absolutely agreed. Motobu was a strong fighter but he was dishonest in his many approach in life. The story about beating funakoshi may be true and a little bit coloured but it doesn't lower the status of funakoshi much. As far I studied, mebuni sensei was never mentioned as a great fighter as well rather his depth of knowledge in Kata was explicitly appreciated and recognized by funakoshi gichin. I don't see any problem in recognising mebuni as a great exponent of Karate do.
  • Yep, heard of this story from a cousin of mine years ago that they loathe one another. Except I was told the reason Funakoshi-Oo-sensei never liked Motobu-Oo-sensei was the latter got away of using karate at the Okinawan red light district because of his nobility.
  • "I went to the place he was teaching youngsters, where he was running his mouth, bragging." This really doesn't sound like Funakoshi. Unless everything else I've ever read about him is false.
  • MSanchez
    Any (superficial) research on Motobu reveals that he was little more than a thug. He was a repulsive person who delighted in violence, especially that which he inflicted! He wasn't the best student due to his attitude and slow learning ability and so all the great Masters (predecessors of the Masters pictured)rejected him as a student. He loved street fighting (and picking fights) and loved prostitutes so was disliked by pretty much all those who practiced Budo. Even his students disliked him - he used them as punching bags rather than teaching them - so always had just a few. Notice even in this article that he is quoted rather than Master Funakoshi, who just 'grimaced' on hearing his name. THose who are aware of Motobu's history likewise grimace - a disgrace to true Martial Artists. Also note that in the reported 'fight' that Master Funakoshi was asked to demonstrate one technique, which he did, and so had no idea he would actually be attacked after that - it was not supposed to be a match! I believe that 'master' Motobu would be proud of both the article and some of these comments since he was known to belittle those he was jealous of as well as lie about them. Interesting to note that his legacy is so small, no great teachers came from him and his 'art' all but vanished after his death. Pretty pitiful. Now Master Funakoshi . . . well, enough has been said about that Master of Budo.
    • Debashis
      Completely agee with you. Motubu was a shame to Martial art world. It's not surprising that his legacy vanished....That of Funakoshi remained, and still hugely respected all over the world. People has forgotten the "winner" and remembered the "looser" - the cheater Funakoshi as Motubu might have described him. This makes matter very clear. We now know who is real Martial artist and who is not.
    • mrsudo
      It doesn't take much to find out how short Motobu's fall as a human being, I wonder if he ever paid back the people from Japan from which he borrow money to sustain his lifestyle in Osaka before he went back to Okinawa defeated in his intentions to spread his Karate to the mainland. It's astonishing that today lots of "karateka" take this individual as a whole model and smile when listen to his side of the story, that is most likely a lie.
  • i believe if it was to be a fight Funakoshi would have defeated motobu. ive come across some martial artists who wouldnt want to show their weaknesses by flaunting around their strengths. motobu is an example of such people. it was supposed to be a small demonstration at the dojo and one cannot base on the fact that because motobu asked Funakoshi to stop a particular attack, and motobu in the process taking advantage of him considering motobu's motives shouldnt mean that Funakoshi was the weaker party. Moreover, if motobu was that good why did he not ever call for kumite or sparring with Funakoshi considering his level of confidence in himself? The actions and inactions of Funakoshi in the dojo on that day cannot be considered weakness on his part but a demonstration of maturity. i guess you all can imagine what would have transpired had it been a different renshi or instructor in the shoe of Funakoshi at the dojo on that day. An unpleasant scene it would have been. motobu claimed to be the best but still needed Funakoshi to prove he is the best, yet referred to Funakoshi as not good enough. if that was the case then motobu claiming to have flawed Funakoshi did that against a weak opponent and shouldnt have made much noise about it. Funakoshi led by example and this is evident in his dojo kuns as well as his 20 karate principles which stressed a lot on peacemaking and constant practice. He is a perfect example of how every karate-ka should be like. Ooos. Thanks
  • Sarah Wang
    Motobu would have been an active user on Bullshido; had it existed at the time. He sounds like the guy who wants to actively test his art, and likely disliked that Funakoshi advocated Kata over Kumite, But he severally lacks respect, like most keyboard warriors you see online.
    • Sarah Wang
      He'd been really great if he was a little more respectful to others, or headed west to the States.
  • Brian Hunt
    Motobu would've probably beaten Funakoshi soundly. He wasn't the only person at the time that was critical of Funakoshi's skills. Mas Oyama also remarked on a few occasions that he wasn't very impressed with Funakoshi's Karate and when there was a match against a GoJu Ryu school he said that Funakoshi's students lost all of their matches, much as he predicted they would. Some of this could've just been jealousy because Funakoshi was so well known, but I have found it interesting that it seems to be a common refrain. It should also be noted that Oyama's own system still kept some Shotoisms, so it couldn't have been all bad.
    • Bryan Ballew
      There were plenty of other martial artists at the time that felt that Funakoshi's Karate technique and style were excellent. Individuals such as Jigoro Kano, founder of Judo, who asked for private lessons directly from Funakoshi and Taekwondo school leaders who were influenced by his teachings and form of Karate. While there are as many that say Motobu is greater, there are just as many, if not more, who believe Funakoshi is greater. The facts are that Motobu was a vile human being who took pleasure in inflicting harm on his opponents and his students. While Funakoshi was someone who sought to teach a way of Karate that was peaceful, self-improving, and meant for protection as a last resort.
    • Chinolatino
      That match was won by shotokan guys but not for much, goju guys ended up so close in won fights that day that shoto guys went backhome really impressed.. at least according to James D.R. James in his book " An honest history of shotokan karate"
  • Mike
    Motobu once turned up with a Judo student and challenged Funakoshi. Funakoshi refused to fight and the Judo student got a hold of Funakoshi and choked him (I've heard some say he was thrown to the ground). However, Hironori Otsuka was present and said that he'd fight the Judo guy instead. Otsuka dealt with him easily using his Jujitsu skills.
    Hi Jesse, it is a pleasure to read you. I am impressed of your encyclopedic knowledge of martial arts. Congratulations. Also, I have watched many of your videos and I consider that they have a high level of quality. Congratulations again. You have talked several times about Choki Motobu and I noticed that you admired him a lot. You mentioned that he was one of the great karate fighters of all times. I agree with you. He was a great fighter and he fought many times on the red district of Okinawa. However, in my opinion, his eldest brother, Choyu Motobu, is far more interesting than Choki. There is an interesting anecdote about Choyu and Choki Motobu. Choki was interested in trying his karate techniques against his brother Choyu, because Choyu learned the family style that was known as "ushu-ganashi-m? no bugei" or "his majesty's martial art". In that time, the Motobu style was secret and only passed to the eldest son of each generation. Choyu was the eldest son and he learned it. However, Choki learned karate from different masters, but he was curious about the Motobu style. It is good to remember that the Motobu family was not a noble Okinawan family, the Motobu family was a royal Okinawan family. They descended of Okinawan's kings when existed the Ryukyu kindom. The dissolution of the Okinawan kingdom was in 1879, during the lifetime of both, Choyu and Choki Motobu. For that reason, Choki was extremely respected in Okinawa and by Okinawans, no matter the situation and no matter his lack of manners and etiquette. The fact was that, in an ocasion when they met, (they didn't meet frecuently) Choki challenged Choyu to a fight and Choyu accepted. Choyu defeated Choki, but the word "defeat" doesn't describe properly what really happened. On that fight, Choyu threw Choki many times to the ground. Choyu was so great fighter that he could defeat his brother without caused him serious damage. That was part of his teachings, to avoid of hurting an opponent seriously. Therefore, Choki felt trully humiliation and afther some point, he desisted of continuing fighting. That fight changed Choki's fighting way. He starting to use both hands, at the same time, for offense and deffense, when the usual technique in karate is using one hand for defense and the other hand is retracted to the waist for and counter attack. In his teachings of Naihanchi, his favorite kata, he added this concept, the use of both hands in offense and defense, and that concept comes from the old Motobu style. Some particularities of the old Motobu style are the following: Firstly, the old Motobu style, nowadays called "Motobu Udundi", it looks like a soft fighting style completelly diferent of any other karate style. The Motobu's techniques normally involves open hands, running and instantaneous changes of directions. Secondly, this style has a unique series of techniques called "tuidi", that consists in grabbing an opponent's hand and twisting it in different angles, causing pain and controlling the opponent. These techniques are similar to Daito Ryu Aikijujutsu or Aikido techniques, but there is not relation between this martial arts. Tuidi techniques are probably older than those martial arts. Thrirly, in this style, they use both hands for ofense and defense. Additionally, they use the front leg to kick instead of the back leg, when they are in a fighting stance. Same happens with fists. Fourthly, another particularity of this fighting style is that many of its techniques are performed when running. Part of the philosophy of this style is being in movement all the time, and movement on this style means "running". In addition, if it is necessary to escape, for example, when fighting against several attackers, running is the best option. Fifthly, the Motobu's kobudo includes few techniques that can be applied to different weapons. Also includes war weapons such as katana, wakisashi, and naginata, besides the common kobudo's weapons. This is because afther the Japanese invasion to Okinawa, the Japanese government allowed the use of war weapons to a few exclusive families. Sixthly, the old Motobu style is intrinsically related with the Okinawan dance, ry?ky? buy?, practiced in the Okinawan palace. This type of dance was practiced by nobles Okinawan families as a part of Okinawan traditions. Lastly, in karate kid 2 there is a reference of karate techniques related to Okinawan dance. However, this is very peculiar because the only relation that I know about this topic is through the Motobu Udundi style and this was a secret style, virtually unknown. Common karate schools do not includes Okinawan dance techniques. This is a mystery, how karate kid's creators thought in something that actually exists but is difficult to find that exists. Regards, Sergio Negrete
  • Chinolatino
    It is unlikely that otsuka at his age would have beaten a young judo expert (assuming this young guy was a expert) with shindo yoshin ryu techniques. Also history doesnt specify that Motobu showed up twice at Funakoshis class for challenge. (As he had already done when he threw funakoshi) I VE READ THIS STORY BEFORE BUT HIGHLY DOUBT IT.

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