Master Gichin Funakoshi, whom many consider to be the father of modern karate, wrote the 20 precepts of karate or the Niju Kun which was published with commentary by Genwa Nakasone in a book titled “The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate” in 1938.

These precepts convey karate philosophy and its principles and reflect Bushido and Zen spirits. Let’s have a look at them below.

1. Never Forget: Karate Begins with Rei and Ends with Rei

Rei means courtesy or respect and is represented in karate by bowing.

We bow many times at each karate lesson: at the beginning and at the end of each karate lesson, when receiving personal instructions, when partnering up, when using training equipment, and before and after a sparring session with your partner.

We do this to show respect to our instructors, partners, training equipment, and our place of training.

And this respectful attitude should not be confined to the dojo floor. As you train and make karate a part of your life, this respectful manner should become part of your character.

Life is short and the world is small. You will surely brighten someone’s day up and yours too with your courtesy and respect.

You might meet someone who you don’t think deserves your respect, but if you are being disrespectful to that person, you’ll stoop down to their level.

Remember the opening line of The Great Gatsby:

In my younger and more vulnerable years, my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had”

The arrogant, the totally selfish, the foul-mouth, the homeless and the alcoholic may not have had the kind of upbringing you had, so show empathy and treat them with respect as you would with more fortunate people.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

2. There Is No First Attack in Karate (Karate Ni Sente Nashi)

Karate is the art of self-defense, first and foremost. We should only use what we learn in karate to defend ourselves and not to provoke conflicts and seek violent encounters.

Even when faced with challenges and conflicts, physical forces should not be the first port of call. Only after all other non-physical means have been exhausted that one would resort to physical weapons, or hands and feet as in the case of karate practitioners.

“A sword must never be recklessly drawn” was the most important tenet of conduct in the daily life of a samurai. It was essential for the honorable man of the day to bear things to the very limit of his ability before taking action. Only after reaching the point where the situation could no longer be tolerated was the blade drawn from its scabbard…

In karate, the hands and feet can be as deadly as the blade of a sword. Thus, the principle that “there is no first strike in karate” is an extension of the basic samurai principle that one must avoid the reckless use of weapons. It underscores the absolute necessity of patience and forbearance.

Genwa Nakasone

While you definitely should not initiate a fight, it does not mean you should not strike first when a fight is unavoidable.

… karate ni sente nashi … means that you should not cause harm indiscriminately, and if you are forced to, that is, when it is unavoidable, and the enemy tries to harm you, you must stand up and fight ferociously.

When entering a fight, it is essential to dominate the enemy, and to dominate the enemy, you must move (attack) first. Therefore, when entering a fight, you must move (attack) first. This is important to keep in mind.

Choki Motobu

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

3. Karate Supports Righteousness

“With great power comes great responsibility”.

While you shouldn’t use your karate skills to cause conflicts, if conflicts arise, you should use what you know to the best of your ability to defend, protect and support what you believe is right.

With this precept, Gichin Funakoshi wanted karate students to follow the Bushido code of conduct which emphasizes self-discipline, respect, bravery, honor, devotion, and loyalty. He wanted karate students to become moral guides for society like the samurai and use what they learn for the greater good, not just for their own personal self-defense.

Karate is a martial art in which the hands and feet are like swords, and it must not be used unjustly or improperly.

Karate practitioners must stand on the side of justice at all times and only in situations where there is no other choice should their power find expression through the use of their hands and feet as weapons.

Genwa Nakasone

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

4. First Understand Yourself, Then Understand Others

Gichin Funakoshi probably had borrowed this precept from Sun Tzu’s famous line “Know yourself, know your enemy. A hundred battles, a hundred victories” in “The Art of War”.

In the context of martial arts, you need to understand your strengths and weaknesses and that of your enemy as well as his characteristics, motives, the preferred method of attack, and strategies. It is only then you will be able to devise appropriate battle strategies and plans to neutralize his strengths, exploit his weaknesses and achieve a desirable outcome.

This precept can be applied not only in combat but also in business and personal life. Self-awareness is a fundamental aspect of personal growth and development. When you truly know yourself, you’re better equipped to make informed decisions, set meaningful goals, and navigate life’s challenges with confidence.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

5. The Art of Developing the Mind Is More Important Than the Art of Applying Techniques

Training in karate involves the development of mind, body, and spirit and Gichin Funakoshi’s view is that the development of the mind is far more important than the others.

You may have superior techniques, but if you mindlessly walk straight into a dangerous situation, you are putting your life at risk unnecessarily. You may even get killed because, no matter how good you are, there is always somebody who is better than you.

You may have an impeccable fighting stance, but if you let your mind wander, you can’t fight effectively and to the best of your ability.

You may be a great fighter, but if you are boastful and arrogant, it is difficult to lead a meaningful and fulfilling life and, in the end, your life will amount to very little.

In karate, most of the time you learn to block, punch and kick and there is not much time where your instructor would stop to talk about developing the mind. But that would come about gradually and subtly through years of training. You will develop a strong mind, resilience, focus, confidence, and a sense of justice by turning up to train no matter what, pushing through and mastering a difficult technique or a kata, having an open mind and continually seeking to better yourself, being there and helping your training partner and supporting your karate family.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

6. The Mind Needs to Be Free

The mind needs to be free of judgment, your existing knowledge, worries, plans, and anticipations so that you can be readily open to new ideas, instructions, and situations to learn, adapt and deal with them accordingly.

In the martial art context, at the initial stage of your martial art journey, your mind will be occupied with techniques, observations, strategies and planning when you face an opponent.

But as time goes on, after many years and decades of diligent practice, you mind has the potential to be set free. When you face an opponent, your mind is in the here and now, observing and taking everything in but retaining nothing. Your mind is free of thoughts, emotions, and planning. Your body is now fighting unconsciously and instinctively. You have reached the final stage of learning called “unconscious competence”.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

7. Trouble Is Born of Negligence

In karate, carelessness leads to accidents, injuries, and, potentially, disasters as well. Every single karate technique when mastered can be deadly and if you are not careful, you can easily cause serious injury to yourself and your training partner.

In life, carelessness can lead to a variety of problems and negative consequences across different aspects of life and it can lead to missing out on life, failing to reach our true happiness and potential and living our lives to the fullest.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

8. Do Not Think Karate Belongs Only in the Dojo

Whether you are aware of it or not, what you practice in the dojo over time will have a positive impact on you mentally and physically as a person and influence what you do outside the dojo.

However, if you consciously make an effort to train outside the dojo and try to apply the principles and philosophies that you learn in karate to all aspects of your life, the benefits can be manifold.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

9. Karate Training Requires a Lifetime

People learn karate for different reasons, for example, for physical fitness, for self-defense, or simply for being part of a community. But for those who love karate and the many things it has to offer, training in karate is a lifelong pursuit.

There is so much to learn from karate and even karate masters note that they feel like they’ve only been scratching the surface even though they spend their entire lives studying the art.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

10. Transform Everything into Karate; Therein Lies Its Exquisiteness

With this precept, Funakoshi encourages us to apply the concepts, principles, and values that we learn in karate to our everyday living and realize the potential that karate has to offer.

Most of us who learn karate will never have to use it in our lives to defend ourselves. But it doesn’t mean that we have all wasted our time. Far from it, karate will have a positive impact on us in many ways from improving our physical fitness and mental strength to increasing focus, resilience, discipline, and self-confidence.

Furthermore, if we consciously try to apply the principles and philosophies that we learn from karate to our daily life, its benefits can be multifold. For example, being respectful to people we meet in daily life, having an open mind and attentively listening to our partners when we have an argument, or applying what we learn in sparring strategies to solving problems at home and at work, all of these can help us live a happier and more fulfilling life.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

11. Genuine Karate Is Like Hot Water; It Cools Down If You Do Not Keep on Heating It

With this precept, Funakoshi encourages us to put consistent effort into our karate training.

Just as boiling water requires heat to maintain its high temperature, karate requires consistent practice to maintain its effectiveness. Only through continuous hard work over many years that we’ll get to see karate’s true beauty and its potential to transform our lives.

Karate skills, like all physical and mental abilities, once acquired can’t be stored and must continuously be used and challenged to maintain and improve over time.

If we stop training after getting our black belt and becoming a decent fighter, our muscle strength will decline gradually and our techniques will eventually become rusted. So, if karate is something worth pursuing for us, it should indeed be our lifelong pursuit.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

12. Do Not Think of Winning; You Must Think of Not Losing

Traditional karate was developed for self-defense, with the primary goal of ensuring the safety of you and your loved ones. And this mean your goal should be to not lose in a physical confrontation rather than to win.

In sports karate, however, “do not think of winning; think, rather, of not losing” has a slightly different meaning. If you are in a tournament match, you may not know what your opponent is like. He or she could be far better than you technically or could be a definite underdog. If you have the mindset that you must win, you will put unnecessary pressure on yourself, become tense, and are less likely to be ready to react to the fight as best as you can.

You mustn’t think about losing either before a fight. Thinking that you’d lose means you’ve already surrendered to your opponent, your spirit is down, you are unlikely to actively defend yourself or deploy techniques and strategies to overcome your opponent.

Therefore, instead of thinking about winning or losing, focus on the fight at hand and try to fight to the best of your ability. May the best man or woman win and you will be content with whatever the outcome might be because you’ve done your best. When you are being the best version of yourself, nobody can ask more of you than that.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

13. Transform Yourself According to the Opponent

In a fighting context, “transforming yourself according to your opponent” refers to the strategic and tactical changes you make during a fight based on your observations of your opponent’s physique, behavior, strengths, weaknesses, and patterns. Unless you are physically and technically superior to your opponent and can dictate the fight, you need to remain flexible and adapt to the opponents you are facing in order to maximize the chance of securing victory.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

14. The Outcome of the Fight Depends on How One Controls Truth and Fiction

In this precept, Funakoshi emphasizes the fact that the outcome of a conflict, a battle, a fight, or a competition depends on how one navigates and manages the opposing forces, whether they are ‘truth and falsehood’, ‘strength and weakness’, ‘reality and fiction’, ‘honesty and deception’, or ‘substance and hollowness’.

This concept is rooted in a broader philosophical concept known as the “unity of opposites.”

At its core, the unity of opposites suggests that opposing forces or ideas are not separate and isolated, but rather interconnected and interdependent. In other words, these opposites are not entirely contradictory but rather complement and define each other. The concept can be traced back to ancient philosophies and has been explored in various cultures and traditions.

In every person and every object, there exists opposing characteristics, elements and forces and the key to progressing and resolving conflicts is to identify and work with these opposite sides.

In the context of conflicts, battles, fights, or competitions, the concept suggests that success is achieved not by favoring one side of the opposition over the other, but by recognizing the interplay between them and finding a balance or harmony.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

15. Imagine One’s Arms and Legs as Swords

In a fight, when we face an opponent with a staff, knife, or sword, our instinct is to treat the situation with greater seriousness than when we face an weaponless opponent but we shouldn’t. The hands and feet of well-trained skilled fighters can be as lethal as a sword. And not only their hands and feet, their other body parts like the head, teeth, shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees can all become formidable weapons too.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

16. Once You Leave the Shelter of Home, There Are a Million Enemies

This precept conveys a message about the challenges and potential adversities that we may encounter when venturing out of our own home or out of our own comfort zone into unfamiliar or external territories. However, in addition to potential challenges, stepping outside our comfort zone can also mean opportunities that lead to personal growth, increased resilience, and a broader perspective.

If we want to grow, we must be willing to venture beyond our comfort zone even though it means facing unexpected risks and challenges because otherwise meaningful changes within us cannot happen. The key is to approach new experiences with an open mind, be aware of the potential challenges but be willing to learn and adapt and embrace the new opportunities to grow.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

17. Kamae Is for Beginners; Later One Stands in Shizentai

Kamae or fighting stance refers to the physical posture one assumes in combat.

According to Funakoshi, only beginners are concerned with the physical posture when fighting, experienced fighters or masters would stand naturally and he was absolutely right.

Experienced fighters understand that a ready state of mind is far more important than the outer physical form. You may assume the best fighting posture possible but if your mind is not fully present and, instead, filled with tension, arrogance, anger, animosity, fear, or other similar emotions, your ability to be fully attentive to the present situation and swiftly respond to your opponent’s actions could be compromised.

On the other hand, if you stand naturally but your mind is calm and perfectly clear, you will be able to react instantaneously, appropriately and unconsciously to any situation and fight to the best of your ability.

Therefore, novices may be overly concerned with the physical form, but masters understand that the mental “kamae” is far more important. They may stand naturally, yet they are as ready as they can ever be.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

18. Do the kata correctly; the real fight is a different matter

Funakoshi wants karate students to perform kata exactly as they are taught. However, this is rather interesting given the fact that Funakoshi himself had changed many kata that he was taught.

Nevertheless, I think Funakoshi does have a point here. If you are learning a kata, you should definitely perform exactly as you are taught. If you don’t understand something, ask your instructors and do your research. Don’t be tempted to change a kata when you are only learning it. If you’ve spent your lifetime to study karate like Funakoshi and really know a kata, then you may become sufficiently qualified to contemplate any modifications.

As to the second part of the precept, “actual combat is another matter“, although nobody fights the same way as during kata practice, I do believe that practicing kata can help us become better fighters. To me, each kata is like a a treasury of combat techniques, it is up to us to extract what’s useful to us personally and apply those techniques in actual fighting scenarios.

Check out our more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

19. Do Not Forget the Employment or Withdrawal of Power, the Extension or Contraction of the Body, the Swift or Leisurely Application of Technique

Here, Funakoshi reminds us that we need to know when to use power and when to abstain, when to expand and contract our body, and which techniques are meant to be performed swiftly and which ones are to be executed deliberately slowly.

Check out a more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

20. Be Constantly Mindful, Diligent, and Resourceful, In Your Pursuit of the Way

With this precept, Funakoshi encourages us to be thoughtful, resourceful and ingenious in our pursuit of the Way and in our life.

Being thoughtful in martial arts means thinking deeply about everything we do, including all aspects of kihon, kata and kumite practice, and constantly seeking ways to improve our techniques.

Being resourceful in martial arts involves creatively utilizing the tools, techniques, and knowledge at your disposal to overcome challenges both in your training and physical confrontations. It’s about adapting to unexpected situations and finding innovative solutions to make progress and achieve your goal.

Check out a more in-depth discussion of this precept here.

20 precepts of karate in Japanese

Below are the 20 precepts of karate in Japanese text along with their phonetics for those who are interested.

  • Karate-do begins and ends with bowing
    一、空手道は礼に始まり礼に終る事を忘るな Hitotsu, karate-dō wa rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru koto o wasuruna
  • There is no first strike in karate
    一、空手に先手なし Hitotsu, karate ni sente nashi
  • Karate stands on the side of justice
    一、空手は義の補け Hitotsu, karate wa, gi no tasuke
  • First know yourself, then know others
    一、先づ自己を知れ而して他を知れ Hitotsu, mazu jiko o shire, shikashite ta o shire
  • Mentality over technique
    一、技術より心術 Hitotsu, gijutsu yori shinjutsu
  • The heart must be set free
    一、心は放たん事を要す Hitotsu, kokoro wa hanatan koto o yōsu
  • Calamity springs from carelessness
    一、禍は懈怠に生ず Hitotsu, wazawai wa ketai ni shōzu
  • Karate goes beyond the dojo
    一、道場のみの空手と思ふなHitotsu, dōjō nomi no karate to omou na
  • Karate is a lifelong pursuit
    一、空手の修業は一生である Hitotsu, karate no shūgyō wa isshō de aru
  • Apply the way of karate to all things. Therein lies its beauty
    一、凡ゆるものを空手化せよ其処に妙味あり Hitotsu, arayuru mono o karate kaseyo; soko ni myōmi ari
  • Karate is like boiling water; without heat, it returns to its tepid state
    一、空手は湯の如し絶えず熱度を与えざれば元の水に還るHitotsu, karate wa yu no gotoshi, taezu netsu o ataezareba moto no mizu ni kaeru
  • Do not think of winning. Think, rather, of not losing
    一、勝つ考は持つな負けぬ考は必要Hitotsu, katsu kangae wa motsuna; makenu kangae wa hitsuyō
  • Make adjustments according to your opponent
    一、敵に因って轉化せよ Hitotsu, teki ni yotte tenka seyo
  • The outcome of a battle depends on how one handles emptiness and fullness (weakness and strength)
    一、戦は虚実の操縦如何に在り Hitotsu, tatakai wa kyojitsu no sōjū ikan ni ari
  • Think of hands and feet as swords
    一、人の手足を剣と思へ Hitotsu, hito no teashi o ken to omoe
  • When you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies
    一、男子門を出づれば百万の敵ありHitotsu, danshi mon o izureba hyakuman no teki ari
  • Formal stances are for beginners; later, one stands naturally
    一、構は初心者に後は自然体 Hitotsu, kamae wa shoshinsha ni ato wa shizentai
  • Perform kata exactly; actual combat is another matter
    一、形は正しく実戦は別物 Hitotsu, kata wa tadashiku, jissen wa betsumono
  • Do not forget the employment of withdrawal of power, the extension or contraction of the body, the swift or leisurely application of technique
    一、力の強弱体の伸縮技の緩急を忘るな Hitotsu, chikara no kyōjaku, karada no shinshuku, waza no kankyū o wasuruna
  • Be constantly mindful, diligent, and resourceful, in your pursuit of the Way
    一、常に思念工夫せよ Hitotsu, tsune ni shinen kufū seyo


The Twenty Precepts of Karate

Gichin Funakoshi (1938). The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate

Nijū kun

Choki Motobu (1932) My Art and Skill of Karate