The Life and Legends of Anko Itosu

Talk the Talk

The word Kata is used in several Japanese martial arts and refers to a sequence of specific basic movements that are used to train the mind and body of the participant. 

When done correctly, absolute perfection of technique is the aim which while unattainable, encourages constant practice and focus.

Walk the Walk

When Anko Itosu was 75 years old, he was challenged to a fight by a student of Judo, who not only had home advantage but happened to be half his age. 

The karate master hit the judo champion once in the body with his left hand, rendering the judoka unable to breathe and collapsed on the floor. 

Once Sensei Itosu had helped the Judo champion regain his breath, he bowed respectfully and left.

Karate Quote

"When you train, do so as if on the battlefield. Your eyes should glare, shoulders drop, and body harden.

You should always train with intensity and spirit as if actually facing the enemy, and in this way, you will naturally be ready".

~ Anko Itosu ~

Anko Itosu’s teachings are legendary in world martial arts and along with his Master, Sokon ‘Bushi’ Matsumura, he was instrumental in the development of the Shuri-te style of Okinawan karate.

Itosu can be said to be the first person to practise what would closely resemble the type of Shotokan karate that is common today and was responsible for taking the martial art from being practised secretive and behind closed doors, to being spread to the general public in Okinawa.

The Early Life of Anko Itosu

Born in 1831 in the city of Shuri in Okinawa, Itosu is believed to have had a rough childhood, often being beaten and abused by his father who would tie him up and continually poke him with a stick in order to teach him fighting spirit. This would be reflected later in the teachings of Sensei Itosu, as many of the kata he is thought to have invented and influenced have moves that are designed to disarm a would-be attacker brandishing a stick.

At the age of sixteen, he started learning karate from Master Matsumura and by the time he grew up, Itosu was a well-educated man and worked as King Sho Tai’s personal secretary, whom he served for thirty years. For Itosu and the rest of the inhabitants of the island, everything changed in 1879 as the newly empowered Japanese emperor ended the Royal Dynasty of Okinawa, sending the king into exile. Most of the Okinawan martial arts masters had worked for the king so as a result of his fall from grace many, including Itosu, suddenly found themselves living in abject poverty even though they were of the higher social class. 

Anko Itosu and his Legendary Fighting Prowess 

When Anko Itosu was a young man, he built up a reputation by winning several fights and there are a number of legends about his endeavours that have been handed down to us from an oral tradition:

Tomoyose – One such story tells of how he challenged an obnoxious bully named Tomoyose who was criticizing the Shuri-te style, calling it parlour karate. Itosu was then attacked by Tomoyose’s gang but he quickly dispatched three of them using one knockout blow for each. Tomoyose then decided to attack himself and was also subdued in a similar fashion, being rendered unconscious in a short time. 

Sensei Itosu and the Thief – Gichin Funakoshi referred to his teacher’s incredible ability to withstand blows, his vice-like grip and his amazing physical strength. Itosu was a well-built, strong man who conditioned his body to be able to give and take the hardest of blows. He insisted his students regularly use the makiwara board, a pad that is repeatedly struck to make the hands tougher and to prepare them for high-impact hits.

One story that illustrates this power tells of a thief who tried to break into the master’s house. When Itosu heard his wooden gate rattle, he went to investigate only to realise that on the other side was the thief trying to gain access. Itosu, so the legend goes, punched straight through the thick wooden gate, grasping the would-be thief by the arm and creating a gaping hole in the gate.

Anko Itosu’s Influence on Karate History

While it can often be difficult to know where the truth ends and myths and legends begin, both these stories illustrate why Anko Itosu’s teachings are so important to karate history. It was him through the Shuri-te that popularised and possibly brought in the concept of finishing an opponent off with one blow, which is often delivered when an opponent begins their opening attack or following a defensive move or block.

Previously karateka, much like kung fu practitioners, would attempt to overwhelm their opponents with less powerful rapid-fire techniques and use grappling moves or lighter strikes to vulnerable areas such as pressure points, the eyes or the groin. For this reason, the master’s karate is said to be the first that closely resembles what is practised in Shotokan karate today, leading many to see him as the grandfather of modern-day karate.

Another major contribution made by Sensei Anko Itosu was to take the art out of secrecy and get it taught in Okinawan schools. This would start a chain of events that would lead to traditional karate being popularized throughout the world and becoming one of the most practised martial arts there is.

Written by Andrew Griffiths – Last updated 05/06/2023. If you like what you see, consider following the History of Fighting on social media.

Further Reading:

Clayton, B.D.  2004.  Shotokan’s Secrets. Via Google Books. Available from:
et&hl=en&redir_esc=y [Accessed 11 November, 2012].

Funakoshi, G.  1981.  [New Edition].  Karate-do: My Way of Life.  Kodansha America, Inc.  Tokyo.

Martial Arts – A Way of Life
. [Internet]. 2012. Rochester Institute of Technology. Available from: [Accessed 11 November, 2012].

Master Yasutsune (Ankoh) Itosu (1830-1915). [Internet]. 2012. Shotokai Encyclopedia. Available from: [Accessed 11 November, 2012].

The 10 Precepts of Anko Itosu. [Internet]. 2012. Physical Arts. Available from:  [Accessed 11 November, 2012].

 More Karate History

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