Gichin Funakoshi wrote the Nijū kun principles, which he likely developed through his personal experiences and contemplation of karate’s practice and philosophy.
The principles serve as guidelines for practitioners to follow not only in their training but also in their daily lives.
Here is a detailed elaboration of each Nijū kun principle along with its meaning:
Karate-do begins and ends with bowing.
Hitotsu, karate-dō wa rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru koto o wasuruna.
This rule signifies the significance of etiquette and respect in the practice of karate. It highlights the tradition of starting and concluding each training session with a bow, symbolizing respect for the dojo, instructors, fellow practitioners, and the art itself. By emphasizing the importance of bowing, practitioners are reminded to cultivate a humble and disciplined mindset throughout their karate journey.
There is no first strike in karate.
Hitotsu, karate ni sente nashi.
This principle teaches practitioners the value of self-control and restraint. It emphasizes that karate is primarily a defensive martial art, encouraging practitioners to avoid initiating physical aggression or using their skills recklessly. Instead, they should focus on self-defence and only use their techniques when necessary to protect themselves or others.
Karate stands on the side of justice.
Hitotsu, karate wa, gi no tasuke.
This rule highlights the moral aspect of karate. It emphasizes that practitioners should strive to align their actions and conduct with principles of justice, righteousness, and moral integrity. Karate empowers individuals to stand up for what is right, protect the weak, and uphold ethical values both within and outside the training environment.
First know yourself, then know others.
Hitotsu, mazu jiko o shire, shikashite ta o shire.
This principle emphasizes self-awareness and self-reflection as fundamental steps in personal growth and understanding others. It emphasizes the importance of introspection, encouraging practitioners to explore their own strengths, weaknesses, emotions, and limitations. By knowing oneself deeply, individuals can develop empathy, compassion, and a better understanding of others, fostering harmonious interactions and personal development.
Mentality over technique.
Hitotsu, gijutsu yori shinjutsu.
This rule emphasizes the primacy of mental attitude, mindset, and character development over technical skills. It highlights that while technical proficiency is important, the mental aspects of karate, such as discipline, focus, determination, resilience, and emotional control, play a vital role in achieving true mastery. It reminds practitioners that a strong mind and indomitable spirit are crucial for overcoming challenges and progressing in karate.
The heart must be set free.
Hitotsu, kokoro wa hanatan koto o yōsu.
This principle emphasizes the importance of emotional liberation, inner peace, and letting go of negative thoughts and attachments. It encourages practitioners to cultivate a calm, clear, and focused state of mind during training and in life. By freeing the heart from negativity, distractions, and self-imposed limitations, individuals can approach their karate practice with openness, receptiveness, and a sense of freedom.
Calamity springs from carelessness.
Hitotsu, wazawai wa ketai ni shōzu.
This rule serves as a cautionary reminder of the consequences that can arise from negligence, complacency, and carelessness in karate practice. It emphasizes the importance of maintaining constant vigilance, attention to detail, and adherence to safety protocols to prevent accidents, injuries, or negative outcomes. By being diligent and responsible in their training, practitioners can minimize the risk of harm to themselves and others.
Karate goes beyond the dojo.
Hitotsu, dōjō nomi no karate to omou na.
This principle encourages practitioners to extend the principles and values of karate beyond the confines of the training hall. It emphasizes that the lessons learned in karate, such as discipline, respect, perseverance, and humility, should be applied to all aspects of life. By embodying karate’s teachings outside the dojo, practitioners can become better individuals, positively influencing their relationships, work, and community.
Karate is a lifelong pursuit.
Hitotsu, karate no shūgyō wa isshō de aru.
This rule emphasizes that karate is not a short-term endeavour but a lifelong journey of learning, growth, and self-improvement. It highlights that the process of mastering karate techniques, refining one’s skills, and deepening one’s understanding of the art is continuous and never-ending. It encourages practitioners to embrace a long-term perspective, dedicating themselves to karate as a lifelong practice.
Apply the way of karate to all things. Therein lies its beauty.
Hitotsu, arayuru mono o karate kaseyo; soko ni myōmi ari.
This principle encourages practitioners to integrate the principles and mindset of karate into all aspects of their lives. It emphasizes that the true beauty and essence of karate lie in its application beyond physical techniques. By embodying karate’s values of discipline, respect, integrity, and perseverance in daily interactions, challenges, and endeavours, practitioners can find profound meaning, harmony, and fulfilment in their lives.
Karate is like boiling water; without heat, it returns to its tepid state.
Hitotsu, karate wa yu no gotoshi, taezu netsu o ataezareba moto no mizu ni kaeru.
This metaphorical rule compares karate to boiling water, illustrating that without continuous effort, passion, and dedication, one’s skills and progress in karate can regress and become stagnant. It emphasizes the importance of maintaining enthusiasm, motivation, and consistent practice to keep the flame of karate alive and ensure ongoing growth and improvement.
Do not think of winning. Think, rather, of not losing.
Hitotsu, katsu kangae wa motsuna; makenu kangae wa hitsuyō.
This principle redirects the practitioner’s focus from a narrow obsession with victory to a broader perspective of personal development and perseverance. It emphasizes that the ultimate goal in karate is not merely to win competitions or defeat opponents, but to cultivate resilience, determination, and the ability to overcome challenges. By shifting the mindset to one of not losing, practitioners prioritize continuous improvement, learning from setbacks, and maintaining an unwavering spirit.
Make adjustments according to your opponent.
Hitotsu, teki ni yotte tenka seyo.
This rule highlights the importance of adaptability and flexibility in karate. It emphasizes the need to assess and adjust techniques, strategies, and tactics based on the strengths, weaknesses, and movements of the opponent. By understanding and responding effectively to the opponent’s actions, practitioners can optimize their own performance, exploit vulnerabilities, and create advantageous opportunities for success.
The outcome of a battle depends on how one handles emptiness and fullness (weakness and strength).
Hitotsu, tatakai wa kyojitsu no sōjū ikan ni ari.
This principle emphasizes the importance of perceiving and utilizing the concepts of emptiness and fullness, or weakness and strength, in combat situations. It highlights that victory or defeat in a battle relies on the practitioner’s ability to navigate and manipulate the balance between these opposing forces. By skillfully assessing and exploiting the gaps and strengths in their opponent’s defence, practitioners can gain a tactical advantage and increase their chances of success.
Think of hands and feet as swords.
Hitotsu, hito no teashi o ken to omoe.
This rule encourages practitioners to regard their hands and feet as lethal weapons, symbolizing the serious and disciplined approach to karate practice. It reminds them to treat each movement and technique with utmost focus, precision, and respect, as they would handle a sword. By cultivating this mindset, practitioners aim to develop controlled and effective striking techniques, emphasizing the importance of proper technique, timing, and accuracy.
When you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies.
Hitotsu, ie no mon o izureba hyakuman no teki ari.
This statement serves as a reminder of the challenges and adversities that exist outside the familiar and secure environment of one’s own training space. It highlights that the world is vast, diverse, and full of potential opponents or obstacles that one may encounter. It encourages practitioners to be prepared, vigilant, and adaptable, recognizing that every interaction and experience can provide valuable opportunities for growth, learning, and self-improvement.
Formal stances are for beginners; later, one stands naturally.
Hitotsu, kamae wa shoshinsha ni ato wa shizentai
This rule emphasizes that formal stances (kamae) are primarily taught to beginners as a means to develop fundamental skills, such as balance, stability, and technique. As practitioners progress, they are encouraged to move away from rigid stances and allow their stances to become more natural and adaptive to different situations. This reflects the idea that true mastery comes from a deeper understanding of one’s body and the ability to adjust one’s posture according to the demands of the moment.
Perform prescribed sets of techniques exactly; actual combat is another matter.
Hitotsu, kata wa tadashiku, jissen wa betsumono
This rule emphasizes the distinction between training in prescribed sets of techniques (kata) and real-life combat situations. While kata provides a structured and systematic way to practice techniques, it is important to recognize that actual combat scenarios may require adaptation, improvisation, and spontaneity. The rule reminds practitioners not to become overly fixated on the form but to develop the ability to apply techniques effectively and adaptively in real-world encounters.
Do not forget the employment of withdrawal of power, the extension or contraction of the body, the swift or leisurely application of technique.
Hitotsu, chikara no kyōjaku, karada no shinshuku, waza no kankyū o wasuruna
This rule highlights the importance of understanding and utilizing various aspects of timing, power control, and body movement in Karate. It reminds practitioners not to neglect the concepts of withdrawing or reducing power when appropriate, extending or contracting the body as necessary, and employing techniques with varying degrees of speed and intensity. This rule encourages practitioners to develop sensitivity, versatility, and strategic awareness in their application of techniques.
Be constantly mindful, diligent, and resourceful, in your pursuit of the Way.
Hitotsu, tsune ni shinen kufū seyo
This rule emphasizes the importance of maintaining a continuous state of mindfulness, diligence, and resourcefulness in the pursuit of Karate-do. It encourages practitioners to approach their training with focus, discipline, and a commitment to personal growth. The rule reflects the idea that the true essence of Karate-do lies not just in the physical techniques but in the cultivation of one’s character, mental fortitude, and dedication to the path of self-improvement.
These rules offer guidance and principles for practitioners to follow, reflecting the deeper aspects of Karate-do beyond mere physical techniques. They serve as reminders to approach training with an open mind, adaptability, and a commitment to personal and spiritual development.
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