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Paul Herbert 5th Dan
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Shotokan Karate: Its History and Evolution

by Randall G. Hassell

As a beginner in karate, I read translations of Karate-do: My Way of Life and many other books which tell how karate evolved from the practice of Shaolin temple monks exercising and learning self-defense. Over the course of ages, these arts were passed across China, Okinawa, and Japan. As this was my first exposure to karate books, I took what I read at face value. Now I know that this is the mythology of karate, not its history. A more critical analysis reveals that the path of karate’s development is much more complicated than this popular legend. Despite this, nearly every new book published about Shotokan karate continues to tell some variation of the Shaolin Temple Monk story. Randall Hassell has written one of the few books that actually approaches the history of karate in a scholarly manner, starting from ancient Okinawa up to the modern day, and he is unafraid to address the myriad political dramas of Shotokan karate groups. While doing this, Hassell approaches the material without any political axe to grind and sticks to the facts without getting bogged down in emotional or political agendas.

Specific comments on each section of the book:

Chapter 1: A scholarly approach to the early roots of Okinawan martial arts and the development of karate. Dispensing with the often-repeated legendary roots of karate involving Shaolin temple monks, Mr. Hassell presents a historical approach to the development of the arts in Okinawa. Surprisingly, nearly one-third of the chapter deals with kobudo weapons and Okinawan training tools which are not associated with mainstream Shotokan style karate. However, the information is well-presented and interesting.

Chapter 2: Primarily the background of Gichin Funakoshi, this material goes beyond the short summary typical of most Shotokan texts. Hassell deals frankly with both the popular mythology and the facts, including detailed biographical background and noting how Funakoshi managed to combine his passion for karate and his work as a school teacher by convincing the school system to incorporate karate as a physical education program for school age children.

Chapter 3: This chapter relates how Funakoshi traveled to Japan to demonstrate karate and ended up remaining in Japan to teach karate to the Japanese. The other major styles of karate and their respective introductions to Japan are also briefly discussed.

Chapter 4: Post-war Japan and the evolution of Shotokan training methods from the early 1920's style to the now-classic “kihon, kata, and kumite” methods which are the norm today. Hassell explains how the early rifts began to form between the Japanese university karate clubs in the 1950's and discusses the JKA and their program to send instructors out into the rest of the world.

Chapter 5: Further describes the development of Shotokan in the USA, beginning with the GI's stationed in occupied Japan and then followed by the dispatch of JKA instructors overseas to Hawaii and the mainland USA. Hassell goes on to describe the difficulties and growing pains of expansion, leading to the eventual splits of Shotokan groups in the USA.

Chapters 6-7: Analysis of the JKA in the US and the political factors of the 1970's and 1980's culminating in the formation of AJKA. Hassell does an admirable job of relaying the facts in a relatively neutral manner, particularly considering that he was directly involved as one of the major figures in the formation of the AJKA. In spite of this, the material is presented with minimal emotional baggage and the author does an enviable job by sticking to the major facts and public announcements and avoiding excessive melodramatics.

Reference Material: After the main text, are extensive appendices, including: Shotokan Karate-do chronology at a glance (1350-1994); The Origins of Shotokan Karate Kata; The 15 Basic Kata of Shotokan Karate and Their Technical Value; The Genealogy of Modern Karate. Following this is an epilogue featuring the Shotokan Niju-kun, or “20 precepts”, as well as an extensive bibliography and about 20 pages of index material.


On a scale from 1 to 10, each criterion is assigned a rating. The numerical ratings are then summed to reach the overall rating of the book.

Quality of information 8
Quantity of information 8
Quality of book (printing, binding, etc) 7
Value for karate development 7
Readability/tone 9
Flow between/within topics 7
Technical details 7
Photos – quality and quantity 4
Photos – form of examples 7
Value/cost 10
Total 71

Notes on ratings:
Quality of information
Probably the only book of its type that most Shotokan practitioners will be able to locate. Excellent scholarly approach, and worthwhile just for content alone. Mr. Hassell also includes extensive lineage tables of major karate instructors and organizations in the material at the back of the book.

Quantity of information
Extensive background information presented in a scholarly form. Considering the price and rarity of the other book of this type (Shotokan Karate: A Precise History by Harry Cook), it is probably the most comprehensive book most of us will own.

Quality of book (printing, binding, etc)
After one reading, pages were separating from the binding; about the bottom third of the first 40 pages were coming loose. I contacted the publisher, and the nice folks at Tamashii Press immediately offered to replace the book with a new, autographed copy at no cost. I sent them an e-mail and received their response within hours, so I can’t really count this too much against them; occasional problems will occur, and the acid test is how they handle it. I have to give them an “A+” in customer service for this.

Value for karate development
This book will not help your technique but the insight into the way the Shotokan style of karate has reached its present global appeal and the myriad splits of organizations is nearly unique in the world of karate books.

Well written and edited, I stayed up well past my bedtime one a couple of nights reading this book.

Flow between/within topics
See above. Once chapter leads naturally into the next.

Technical details
Not specifically details, but the background of the development of the modern kihon-kata-kumite style of training and other insights is enlightening

Photos – quality and quantity
This is the second disappointing facet for this book. While many of the line illustrations and photos are of acceptable to good quality, there is a sizable fraction of photos that are simply not of publication quality. While this is understandable for photos from the early 1900's where the original photograph quality was poor, many of these photos are from the 1950's to 1970's, and I have seen several of them printed clearly in other books and magazines. Some photos are blurry, or suffer from digital distortion as if they were scanned in very low resolution and then enlarged too much. Others have dot patterns as if they have been scanned and enlarged from old newspaper clippings, including the cover photograph. Even some of the Japanese calligraphy examples suffer from these problems. While this was a significant (and distracting) point, the overall quality of the written material of the book far outweighs this shortcoming.

Photos – form of examples
Not particularly applicable, since most shots are either candid or tournament examples of well-known karate practitioners such as Nakayama, Nishiyama, Kanazawa, Frank Smith, Ray Dalke. Emphasis is placed on historical value and candid photos rather than demonstrating techniques.

While the shortcomings of the photographs and binding were a letdown, it was corrected promptly and professionally by the publishers, and shouldn’t really count against them. Consider that this is only one of two books that deal with Shotokan history on this sort of comprehensive scale. The other book, Shotokan Karate: A Precise History by Harry Cook tips the scales at $75.00 if you can find it for sale -- the first printing is sold out. Clearly, Hassell’s work is a bargain at $17.95, and I count it as a “must-have” for any serious student of Shotokan.

Rob Green