Two Amazing Okinawans Who Helped Change the World

Rodney Header

Two Okinawans who helped change the world were born not only the same year and the same month, but almost on the same day. Kyuzo Toyama, known as the “Father of Okinawan Immigration,” was born on November 9, 1868, in Kin, Okinawa. Gichin Funakoshi, known as the “Father of Modern Karate,” was born on November 10, 1868, in the Yamakawa district of Shuri, Okinawa.

Toyama and Funakoshi

Both Kyuzo Toyama and Gichin Funakoshi started out as teachers.

Kyuzo Toyama was such a bright student, he completed the compulsory four years of elementary school in two years. In 1884 at age 16, he entered the Okinawa Normal School for teachers on scholarship, graduating in 1889. In 1893, at age 25, he became principal of Kin Elementary School. However, because he felt that he and his school were being treated unfairly by the Japanese education system, he resigned his post. After leaving, he became head of Namisato Ward in Kin, where he worked to find a new site for the Kin Elementary School and pursued several other improvement projects for the village. Some people opposed Toyama’s efforts and took physical action against him. Because of these unpleasant experiences, he ended up living in a cottage in the mountains working as a farmer and studying at night (Hijirida & Oshiro, ch. 2).

In 1896 at age 29, Toyama decided to go to Tokyo to continue his studies and to seek solutions for Okinawa’s problems (Hijirida & Oshiro, ch. 2).

Gichin Funakoshi was born premature and was sickly as a child. While growing up, his grandfather on his mother’s side began teaching him the Chinese classics. While attending elementary school, he became friends with the son of Yasutsune Azato who was a noted karate master. In 1879, after Azato’s son introduced Funakoshi to his dad, the 11-year-old became Azato’s student. Through diligent karate training, Funakoshi’s health improved. Besides karate, Funakoshi also had many conversations about the Chinese Classics with his karate teacher. And because of his studies in the Chinese classics with both his grandfather and Azato, he decided to pursue a teaching career. Funakoshi considered himself a Confucian scholar (Funakoshi). 

According to Funakoshi, there were four categories of primary school instructors: those who taught the more elementary classes, 1st and 2nd grades, those who instructed higher grades, 3rd and 4th grades, those who had charge of special courses, and those who served as assistants. At that time, four years of primary school education were compulsory for Okinawan children. Teachers in the first category taught 1st and 2nd grades, while teachers who had a more advanced educational background taught the 3rd and 4th grades as well as the upper grades 5th through 8th. These upper grades were not compulsory (Funakoshi).

In 1888 at age 21, Funakoshi was first hired as an assistant. In 1889, Funakoshi passed the examination that qualified him to teach as a lower-grade instructor. He became a primary school teacher at a school in Shuri. In 1891 or 1892, Funakoshi qualified as an instructor in the higher grades, but since he did not graduate from the teacher’s training college, further promotion proved to be difficult. He eventually attended Shihan Gakko, which was an Okinawa teachers college (Funakoshi).

During his time as a teacher, Funakoshi led a double life. During the day, he was a teacher. But at night he was a karate practitioner. He would walk 2 1/2 miles to master Azato’s house where he continued his karate training under moonlight and starlight. At the time, karate was against the law so training had to be done secretly in the dark of night. Master Azato encouraged Funakoshi to study under other karate masters. One of them was Azato’s close friend Yasutsune Itosu. Of the many karate masters Funakoshi studied with, he considers Azato and Itosu his primary karate teachers (Funakoshi).

In 1896 in Tokyo, Kyuzo Toyama had little luck in finding employment. He would sometimes spend nights sleeping on park benches. One day in a secondhand bookstore, he discovered the book Shokuminron (Theory of Colonization) and spent all his money to buy the book. Avidly reading it on a park bench, he became strongly interested in emigration. Finally, Toyama was hired as a teacher at an elementary school in Tokyo and, not long after, became its principal. At about the same time, Toyama met fellow Okinawan Noboru Jahana, who was a high official there. They became close friends and swore to fight for freedom and emancipation of the Okinawans (Hijirida & Oshiro, ch. 2).

In the spring of 1898, they returned to Okinawa where they started a movement for freedom and people’s rights. They began to make plans for emigration from Okinawa as a way to emancipate the Okinawans. At first, they met great resistance from Okinawa prefectural governor Shigeru Narahara, but in 1899, Governor Narahara and the Japanese government relented (Hijirida & Oshiro, ch. 2).

On December 5, 1899, 30 Okinawan emigrants left the port of Naha for Hawaii. The Japanese government quarantined 3 of the 30 in Japan. The remaining 27 embarked for Hawaii, arriving on January 8, 1900. A 4th emigrant was not allowed entry in Hawaii (Hijirida & Oshiro, ch. 2).

Not knowing what happened to the first group of emigrants, Toyama organized a second group of 40 men in 1903, which included himself and his younger brother, Matasuke. After spending six months in Hawaii observing how Okinawa’s emigration was working out, Toyama returned to Okinawa satisfied that emigration was a success. In Okinawa, Toyama became an emigration agent, sending many emigrants to Hawaii and North and South America (Hijirida & Oshiro, ch. 2).

In 1909 at age 41, Kyuzo Toyama was elected to Okinawa’s first prefectural assembly. However, he passed away at his home in Yonabaru on September 17, 1910, at age 42 (Kyuzo Toyama).

Today, there are about 275,000 people of Okinawan ancestry living in other countries outside Okinawa (Kyuzo Toyama).

After karate was legalized in 1901, karate master Yosutsune Itosu and his pupils, including Funakoshi, performed a karate demonstration for Shintaro Ogawa who was the School Commissioner for Kagoshima Prefecture. This led to schoolteacher Funakoshi and other Itosu students teaching karate in the Okinawa school system (Funakoshi).

In 1912, a dozen sailors from the Imperial Navy’s First Fleet studied karate for a week at the Daichi Middle School. Admiral Dewa, then a captain, and Captain Yashiro took what they learned and introduced karate socially in Tokyo (Funakoshi).

From 1914 to 1915, Funakoshi and other instructors performed public demonstrations throughout Okinawa. In 1917, Funakoshi was invited to Kyoto to demonstrate karate (Funakoshi).

In 1920, after three decades of teaching in the Okinawa school system, Funakoshi resigned his post as schoolteacher and thereafter devoted his life to karate. That year, Funakoshi and other Okinawan instructors established the Okinawan Martial Arts Association with Funakoshi installed as president.

In 1921, Funakoshi performed a karate demonstration for Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan in the Great Hall at Shuri Castle, leaving a deep impression on the prince (Cook).

From April 30 to May 30 1922, Funakoshi, at age 54, was invited to demonstrate karate at the All Japan Athletic Exhibition held at the Women’s Higher Normal School in Ochanomizu, Tokyo. The Okinawan Education Affairs Office encouraged Funakoshi to introduce Okinawan karate to Japan proper.

Funakoshi had plans to return to Okinawa immediately after the demonstration but postponed them when judo founder Jigoro Kano asked Funakoshi to give a brief lecture on the art of karate at the Kodokan Judo Hall. Not expecting many attendees, he was quite surprised when he saw a hundred spectators waiting for him (Funakoshi).

Funakoshi again was making plans to return to Okinawa when painter Hoan Kosugi asked him if he could stay a little longer in Tokyo to teach karate to him and members of his club. Funakoshi then began to give karate instruction to a painter’s group called the Tabata Poplar Club, for which Kosugi served as president.

It was then that Funakoshi realized that teaching karate in Japan was his mission in life and decided thereafter to stay in Tokyo to teach and promote karate. Funakoshi opened his dojo at the Meisei Juku building, which was a dormitory for students from Okinawa in Koshikawa. To make ends meet, Funakoshi worked as a janitor and handyman for the building.

On October 15, 1924, Funakoshi established the first university karate dojo at Keio University (Cook).

In 1926, the Tokyo University (Todai) karate dojo was established (Cook).

Between 1928 and 1935, more than 30 karate dojos opened in institutes of higher learning and businesses.

Many of those who studied karate under Funakoshi later became famous karate masters. Two of those were Masatoshi Nakayama and Hidetaka Nishiyama.

In 1932, Nakayama began attending Takushoku University to study the Chinese language. While there, he studied karate under Funakoshi and eventually received his 1st dan black belt. He graduated in 1937 and went to China as a military interpreter. He returned to Japan in 1946 and continued to train in karate (Wikipedia).

In 1943, Nishiyama started studying karate at the honbu dojo (heaquarters training hall) under Funakoshi. In 1946, he became a 1st dan black belt. Nishiyama attended Takushoku University where he was on the university karate team. In 1949, he was the team captain (Wikipedia).

In May 27, 1949, Nakayama, Nishiyama, and another senior student, Isao Obata, formed the Japan Karate Association (JKA). Funakoshi, who was 81 at the time, was designated the emeritus chief instructor. Nakayama became the chief instructor and leader for JKA. Under Nakayama’s leadership, a generation of many fine karate instructors were developed who, after graduating from the JKA instructor course, went out into the world to teach karate. In July 1961, Nishiyama moved to Los Angeles and opened a dojo. He played a big part in promoting karate in the United States (Wikipedia).


Cook, Harry. Shotokan Karate: A Precise History. Dragon Books, 2001.

Funakoshi, Gichin. Karate-Do: My Way of Life. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1975.

Hijirida, Kyoko, and Tomoko Oshiro. Introduction to Okinawan Culture. n.p. 2011.

Kerr, George. Okinawa: History of an Island People. Charles Tuttle, 1959.

Kyuzo Toyama, Father of Okinawan Immigrants: In Commemoration of His 50th Memorial Service. Japan Print Co., 1959.

To Our Issei… Our Heartfelt Gratitude. Hawaii United Okinawa Association, 2000.

Uchinanchu, A History of Okinawans in Hawaii. University of Hawaii and United Okinawa Association of Hawaii (eds.), 1981.

This entry was posted in Emigration, History, International, Karate. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s