An Interview with Kenneth Funakoshi Part 1

An Interview with Kenneth Funakoshi Part 1

An-Interview-with-Kenneth-Funakoshi-editKENNETH FUNAKOSHI


“Kanazawa, I want you to go to Hawaii”. ..“You’re the man for this job. I have full confidence that you will do well there. You’ll be departing in December.” These comments relay the conversation Hirokazu Kanazawa had with Masatoshi Nakayama, where Kanazawa Sensei was told he would be heading to Hawaii to become the Chief Instructor. 

This moment, relayed in Kanazawa Sensei’s autobiography “Karate – My Life”, signifies an important moment in the history of Shotokan Karate in Hawaii. 

One of the early students present at the BOOM of Shotokan Karate in Hawaii was Kenneth Funakoshi. With such a surname , it seems only logical and natural that Kenneth would go on to become a devoted follower and promoter of Shotokan Karate.

Throughout the course of this two part interview, many topics are covered, from Funakoshi’s early training career with Kanazawa Sensei, Mori Sensei and Asai Sensei; to sharing stories and information on the details from this important time in his life and training. He discusses his competitive career, and successes, moving on to talk about FSKA and its development, and sharing information on his technical understanding and insight. I thoroughly enjoyed conducting this interview and truly feel it shares some insightful responses, and gives an important insight into the life and history both of Kenneth Funakoshi and Hawaiian karate.

Sincere thanks to Sensei Funakoshi for allowing me to talk with him and put my questions to him. – S. Banfield 2010



Part 1          


(Shaun Banfield)     Like so many other Karateka, you started your karate training in Judo, under Arakaki Sensei am I correct?

(Kenneth Funakoshi)     I began training Judo under Arakaki Sensei when I was 10 years old.  After attending regular schools, some of the Japanese students went to Japanese Language schools.  I attended Fort Gakuen Japanese School and we trained Judo after Japanese school.

(SB)     What was the training like, do you recall?

(KF)     The Judo training was quite easy and fun.  Most of the students were children and we enjoyed the wrestling and throwing.  I think I attended the Japanese language school so I could train in the Judo classes.

 (SB)     With hindsight, has your Judo experience in any way influenced your karate would you say?

(KF)     My Judo training has helped me a lot in my fighting.  When we had kumite training in the dojo, it was very different from tournament competition.  We didn’t stop after exchanging punches and kicks.  When your opponent was within close range, we started to throw our opponents to the tatami and we grappled until one of us gave up.  That was the fun part.  Most karateka don’t know Judo so grappling is their weak area.  One of my favourite techniques is sweeping the foot (ashi barai) which I learned from Judo.  Many strong karate fighters are susceptible to this attack.

Most senior senseis like my senseis from Japan practiced Judo while they were young before training in Karate at JKA.

(SB)     You also practiced a little Kempo. For readers of our magazine who are not too familiar with Kempo, can you please tell us a little about it and your experiences with it?

(KF)     Kempo in Hawaii when I started to train in 1956, was not structured like the Shotokan of JKA.  It was mostly for street fighting and self-defense which is also important.  If you were not strong physically, you would have a hard time to survive the kumite and training which was very intensive.  We had to kiai every kick and punch.  There was little control during kumite.  A lot of the members had reputations of fighting in the streets.

(SB)     In 1960, Hirokazu Kanazawa, who at the time was Grand Champion in Japan, arrived in Hawaii. Prior to Sensei Kanazawa arriving in Hawaii, how widely was karate practiced in Hawaii?

(KF)     There are records and pictures that Okinawan karate was practiced in Hawaii during the early 1900’s.  However, these dojos were for Okinawan people only and were not advertised for students.

The Okinawans, including my parents and my grandparents, were a closer community of people and separate from the Japanese.  They had their own language, meetings, groups, festivals, picnics, etc.

(SB)     And had you any experience of karate prior to Sensei Kanazawa arriving? If so, how did it feel having the Grand Champion being sent to your country as a resident instructor?

 (KF)     I did not have any exposure to Japanese karate before meeting Kanazawa Sensei.  I didn’t know there were different styles of karate and that there was a style called Shotokan.  I thought all karate were one style.  I didn’t know of the size of the Japan Karate Association and its plans of expanding worldwide. We didn’t know how much it took to become a Grand Champion like Kanazawa Sensei.  He never showed off to any of us.  He was a humble gentleman.  Only later did I find out how good he was as a karateka and a fine person.  Everybody liked him because he had a good personality.

JKA had sent a perfect instructor to Hawaii as the first sensei from JKA.  Many of these recollections were not realized until later in my karate life after I compared Kanazawa Sensei to other senseis.

(SB)     What were your first impressions upon seeing this Grand Champion?

(KF)     When I first went to see Kanazawa Sensei teach classes, I thought that I was going to see a tough looking sensei beating up on all the students.  I was surprised to see a kind speaking ordinary man teaching a beginner’s class.  The training looked very easy because after all, it was a beginner’s class.

He introduced himself to me because I was staring at him all the time.  He asked me if I met him before and I told him this was the first time I had seen him.  I kept watching him and ten minutes later, he asked me again if we had met before.  I told him no again and left after the class ended.  I was puzzled by his humbleness so I came back to watch him teach every night for the next two weeks.  In the mean time, I would visit other dojos of my Kempo friends.  I was curious about Kanazawa Sensei’s style of teaching so I signed up in his beginner’s class.

(SB)     During Sensei Kanazawa’s time in Hawaii, how much training did you undergo with him? 

(KF)     I trained as much as I could in the beginner and general classes, which was about three times a week.  There were no advanced classes for brown and black belt students yet.

(SB)     Can you please relay any memories that you may have from that time?

(KF)     The classes were easy because most of the students were colour belts.

Kanazawa Sensei would let me take two kyu exams at a time during kyu examinations.  I was in my early 20’s at that time and there were many students over 40 years old because of Kanazawa Sensei’s personality and reputation of a Grand Champion from Japan.

I used to practice kumite with him frequently and started to realize how good he was when I was a brown belt because he started to punch and kick me harder than when I was a colour belt.  He broke one of my knuckles when I tried to block his front kick.

He used to take me with him to parties and demonstrations.  After his assignment in Hawaii, he went back to Japan in 1962.  When I visited Japan for the JKA Championships in 1963, Kanazawa Sensei was waiting to pick me up at the train station to go to the tournament.  Afterwards, he showed me around Japan for a few days.  I felt honoured that he would spend the time with a low ranked shodan like me.  I never forgot his kindness.

(SB)     By the time Sensei Kanazawa had left Hawaii, how much development had been made within Hawaii Karate? 

(KF)     Kanazawa Sensei had made a big development of karate in Hawaii.  He attracted students from all different ages and walks of life.  He was the first full time sensei and a former Grand Champion of Japan for many years.  He had the personality and karate techniques to make him the perfect sensei to train under.  You would be proud to say Kanazawa Sensei was your sensei.  At the present, I think he is the greatest karate sensei alive.

(SB)     Following Sensei Kanazawa’s departure, the next resident in Hawaii was Sensei Masataka Mori. Can you please tell us a little about him as a man and as a karateka?

(KF)     Mori Sensei was different from Kanazawa Sensei.  He was a serious person who barely smiled inside the dojo when he first came.  He emphasized basic training with low stances.  He was a senior sensei from JKA so his techniques and teachings were good.

(SB)     Sensei Mori was very strict in his approach am I correct?

(KF)     Mori Sensei was a big change from Kanazawa Sensei.  Every day when he came to the dojo, we had to clean the floors and stairs.  He operated the dojo like they do in Japan.  Whenever we practiced leg splits, if you couldn’t do it as low and wide as he wanted, he would jump on your back to force you lower.  One time, a student showed us the black and blue bruises around his groin and thighs from a burst blood vessel.  Some of Mori Sensei’s peers called him ‘hawk eye’ because of his serious stare.

(SB)     Do you have any stories or memories of Sensei Mori that you could share with us?

(KF)     After the regular class was finished, Mori Sensei would practice kumite with me for over an hour.  He had very good basic techniques and his kumite was good.

I volunteered to teach Mori Sensei the English language every Saturday morning.  I had to pound on his door to get him up because the older students would take him drinking after Friday night training.  He treated me to a beef teriyaki lunch after every English lesson.  He was strict in the dojo, but he was nice to me.

(SB)     The final resident Instructor in Hawaii sent by the JKA was Tetsuhiko Asai. Can you please tell us about him and your training with him?

(KF)     Asai Sensei taught the importance of speed and timing when fighting.  The good thing about his teaching was that he could do the amazing techniques he theorized.  We were fortunate to have the best Shotokan senseis from JKA who were still in the prime of their careers.

(SB)     At that time, was Sensei Asai practicing any of the non-shotokan karate that he later became renowned for teaching?

(KF)     Asai Sensei’s wife is Chinese and from Taiwan.  Her family has a long history of Gijong and Kung Fu Masters.  Mrs. Asai’s brother was a Kung Fu master and he used to practice and exchange ideas with Asai Sensei.  Mrs. Asai’s brother later converted to Shotokan.

Asai Sensei had his own advanced Shotokan movements and I think he combined them with the Kung Fu techniques.

(SB)     What was so impressive about Asai Sensei would you say? Can you give us an insight into what the day to day training consisted of?

(KF)     The most impressive thing about Asai Sensei was that he was a fine human being and a gentleman.  The second most impressive thing about Asai Sensei was his amazing speed and knowledge about advanced karate movements.

From the first day of training, he reminded us to concentrate on speed instead of power.  He taught snapping punches instead of kime punches.  He opened our eyes to a whole different kind of karate training.  This motivated me to train harder because I felt this was a unique style of techniques from a sensei who was head and shoulders above anything we have seen.  The training was not difficult for me, because I was still in my 20’s.  I trained harder than anybody else.  Many of the students couldn’t do the advanced techniques well but they were happy because everybody liked Asai Sensei as a person.

When Kanazawa Sensei was still teaching in Hawaii, he told me a story about one of Asai Sensei’s matches in Japan.  Asai Sensei’s opponent attacked him with a front kick.  Asai Sensei ducked under the kick and came up behind his opponent to score a reverse punch.  When we asked Asai Sensei about this match, he showed us how he did it in class.

During our practice, Asai Sensei would demonstrate how to block a punch with an upward reverse kick.  His body shifting movements was amazing to watch.  Jump kicks were easy for him to do.

Asai Sensei’s peers called him ‘snake eyes’ because he was blind in one eye and whenever he fought, his head was turned slightly to one side.  His fist was always in a nakadaka-ken position (middle finger knuckle fist) so his students tried to copy him.  In reality, Asai Sensei’s finger was broken during kumite when he was younger so he could never do a closed fist.

I spent many hours talking with him after dinner when I was a guest at his home in Hawaii and in Japan.  He would tell other students that I was his brother.  He was also my good friend.

(SB)     And how would you compare these three instructor’s teaching styles? Were they radically different would you say?

(KF)     Kanazawa Sensei stressed big wind ups and strong kime especially in kata movements.  Mori Sensei emphasized long and low basic stances.  Asai Sensei taught and demonstrated speed and snapping techniques in competition kumite and also self-defense in the streets.

My three senseis came from the same organization so their teaching of the basic kihon and katas were the same.  We all repeated the five principles of the Dojo Kun that Master Gichin Funakoshi practiced and taught after ever class.  The differences in their styles were in kumite techniques.

The three senseis were built differently so they emphasized different type of movements.  Kanazawa Sensei executed long and powerful kicks and punches.  Mori Sensei taught long and low basic techniques.  Asai Sensei taught distancing and timing with fast snapping punches and body shifting for evasion.

(SB)     Throughout the transition of having three instructors become resident instructors over a relatively short period of time, how smooth was the transition from one instructor arriving to the next? Were there any problems at all?

(KF)     There were no problems when changing instructors.  The current sensei stayed for one to two weeks to help the new arriving sensei with the transition.  One of the things the new sensei was getting accustomed to was the Hawaiian culture of a relaxing lifestyle.  Looking back, I think the students were fortunate to have these three outstanding senseis from the JKA.  Kanazawa Sensei attracted many beginner students with his reputation and pleasing personality.  Mori Sensei continued to teach the importance of correct basics.  By the time Asai Sensei arrived, we were sandan and ready for his advanced training.

(SB)     Do you know if any of these three instructors encountered any animosity or trouble during their time in Hawaii? From my knowledge, it was not uncommon for there to be challenges made to instructors during their time developing karate in hosting countries from my understanding?

(KF)     I don’t know of any challenges that senseis Kanazawa, Mori or Asai had while they were assigned in Hawaii.  I was surprised to read in Sensei Kanazawa’s book, “Recollections of a Living Karate Legend” by Dr. C. Layton, mentioning several encounters by some local Hawaiian martial arts instructors.

I was still stationed at Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico when Kanazawa Sensei first arrived in Hawaii.  I think the Hawaiian instructors were curious to see what a Japan Karate Champion could do, what he looked like, what kind of personality he had, etc. So, in a macho Hawaiian way, they went to see him and test his patience. From what I know, nobody could stand up to his speed and power.

Asai sensei and his wife told me that after he finished his assignment in Hawaii he visited Taiwan where his wife is from. He had several challenges from Kung-Fu instructors and he beat them and converted them to shotokan. One of the instructors that he converted was his wife’s brother.

(SB)     At what point did you embark on your competition career and why did you decide to do so?

(KF)     I never competed while Kanazawa sensei was teaching in Hawaii. I competed when Mori sensei came to Hawaii. It was understood that all the black belts were supposed to enter the Karate Association of Hawaii Tournament. I competed until I was appointed as the next Chief Instructor when Asai Sensei went back to Japan.

(SB)     Competitively you were also successful as a champion of the Karate Association of Hawaii. Who were your biggest opponents at this time?

(KF)     Most of the competitors in Hawaii entered only one tournament a year.  If you placed in the semi-final matches, you were allowed to enter Nishiyama’s All America Karate Federation Championships (AAKF).  If you placed in the AAKF finals, you were invited to compete in the Japan Karate Association Championships.  I competed in all three tournaments.

My biggest opponents in Hawaii were George Sasano and Eugene Watanabe.  They were my team mates when we defeated the Collegiate All Stars from Japan in 1965 and 1969.  Sasano was a traditional fighter with a good reverse punch and front kick.  Watanabe used to throw his opponents over his shoulders.  He and I went to Japanese school and practiced Judo together.  He was an All Star football player in high school and college.  We used to practice karate in the dojo until 2:00 in the mornings.  Those were the good old days when we were young.

I won first place in Kata five times, first place Kumite 3 times and second place Kumite two times.  I retired from competition because I was appointed the Chief Instructor for the Karate Association of Hawaii by JKA.

My biggest competitor in Nishiyama sensei’s AAKF Championships was Frank Smith who was a strong fighter.  We ended in the final kumite matches several times.  I also finished second in the kata events after James Yabe.

(SB)     Did Nishiyama Sensei produce good competitors would you say, and if so, why do you think he produced such talent?

(KF)     Yes, Nishiyama Sensei did produce some very good fighters because Los Angeles is a big place where many people were interested in karate at that time.  For a small place like Hawaii, we produced our share of good fighters. For Nishiyama Sensei’s annual All America Karate Association Championship, it was always a competitor from Hawaii against one of Nishiyama Sensei’s student in the kumite and kata finals.

(SB)     Can you please tell us about your encounters with Master Nakayama?

(KF)     Karate Association of Hawaii always invited a high ranking Sensei to be the Chief Referee at our tournaments. Nakayama Sensei was invited to referee at several of our championships. He also stopped in Hawaii on his trips to the states and other countries. We were fortunate to train under him whenever he visited Hawaii. I travelled with him to a dojo in the island Maui. He was a very good sensei and he covered many movements in detail.  He also talked about his training under Master Gichin Funakoshi. He always used to say, “My teacher Gichin Funakoshi told me to do it this way” or “My Sensei Gichin Funakoshi said…”. Now when I teach, I say one of my senseis, Nakayama Sensei said to do it this way and his Sensei Gichin Funakoshi told him to do it that way.  Nakayama Sensei’s hobby was to video his travels especially in Hawaii.  We used to go to the music stores so he could use Hawaiian music for his videos in Hawaii.  He was a nice man and spoke soft, but he developed the Japan Karate Association to what it is today. Gichin Funakoshi appointed the right sensei to be his successor.

(SB)     What other instructors have inspired you throughout your career?

(KF)     All of my instructors have inspired me in different ways.  I learned different techniques from the various senseis due to their individual movements. Every instructor has their favourite movements according to how they are built.  But the most important quality to be inspired is the role model of a fine human being. The instructors that have inspired me the most are Gichin Funakoshi and his philosophy, Masatoshi Nakayama, Hirokazu Kanazawa and Tetsuhiko Asai. Most important are my parents who raised me to become a good citizen and they themselves were excellent examples of hardworking parents who sacrificed everything for their children. The combination of the best senseis and parents have made me try and be a good sensei.


Source: The Shotokan Way, Interview with Kenneth Funakoshi Part 1