Comparing Translations of Itosu’s Ten Precepts of Karate

What did Ankō Itosu really say in his first precept of Karate? 


I finished reading Sensei Patrick McCarthy's latest edition of the Okinawan Bubishi, a martial arts manuscript that will be the subject of future book reviews. In the book, Sensei McCarthy included his translation of a related document by Sensei Ankō Itosu (1831-1915), a karate master who is beginning to receive more attention for his role in creating modern karate. 

In 1908 Sensei Itosu wrote a letter titled Ten Precepts of Karate, intended to be read by Japan's Ministry of Education and Ministry of War. Itosu wanted to promote karate within Japan and explained its benefits. It was McCarthy's translation of the first precept that prompted this post.

McCarthy's Translation of the First Precept

McCarthy's Translation of the First Precept, 2016
McCarthy's Translation of the First Precept, Bubishi, 2016

The underlined text from page 254 of the 2016 edition of McCarthy's Bubishi made me stop and think. McCarthy translated Itosu as saying the following, with "it" being karate:

"It is not meant to be employed against a single adversary but rather as a means of avoiding the use of one's hands and feet in the event of a potentially dangerous encounter with a ruffian or villian." (emphasis added)

Avoiding? That didn't seem to make sense to me, especially as the material that follows explicitly talks about using the hands and feet. Could it be a typo? Could Sensei McCarthy have intended to say "employing the use of one's hands and feet" instead of avoiding?

If avoiding is the right wording, I'm not sure what a person is supposed to do with this advice. Perhaps it means not fighting at all? I decided to see when this version first appeared in print.

McCarthy's Translation from 2000

McCarthy's Translation of the First Precept, Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters, 2000
McCarthy's Translation of the First Precept, Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters, 2000

I discovered that Sensei McCarthy's translation dated to at least 2000, when he translated the book Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters by Shosh Nagamine, as shown above. 

Update 28 June 2020: I just had a brief, pleasant exchange with Sensei McCarthy. He shared that "my Itosu [and Matsumura's 1882 & 1885] translation were 1993. I just used them in the Nagamine translation for simplicity."

What came next?

Ross' Translation from 2002

Tom Ross' Translation, 2002
Tom Ross' Translation, Fighting Arts, 2002

Next I found a translation from 2002 in Fighting Arts by a gentleman named Tom Ross. As a source, he notes "There are many translations of these Ten Precepts. I based this interpretation on the translations in works by the historians Sells, Nagamine (McCarthy) and Bishop. I believe it preserves the integrity of what Itosu said and is a compromise of the points made by the above translations which vary significantly in some areas." He wrote:

"China Hand is not merely practiced for your own benefit: it can be used to protect one's family or master. It is not intended to be used against a single assailant but instead as a way of avoiding a fight should one be confronted by a villain or ruffian." (emphasis added)

This version is about avoiding fighting altogether. I included the second precept to show that karate (China Hand) indeed involves "hands and legs," so the translator here did not drop those concepts entirely.

That makes McCarthy's version clearer. Karate seems to be about avoiding fighting.

I could not find online versions of the translations by John Sells and Mark Bishop, but if anyone wants to share them, please let me know. 

North American Beikoku Shido-kan Association's Translation from 2002

North American Beikoku Shido-kan Association, 2002
North American Beikoku Shido-kan Association's Translation, 2002

When searching for the version cited by Wikipedia, I found the following by the North American Beikoku Shido-kan Association, dating from 2002. (Incidentally it does not match what appears on Wikipedia. Shocker!)

"1. You should not practice karate only for the purpose of developing your physical strength. What is essential is to serve your sovereign and your parents at the risk of your life in case of emergency. If you should involve in a fight with a robber or a rough neck by any chance, you should ward off a blow. You should not harm him." (emphasis added)

In this version, the karate practitioner is supposed to block or deflect attacks, but not harm the opponent. Fighting may happen, but the emphasis is on not hurting the assailant.

Abernethy's Translation from 2010

Abernethy's Commissioned Translation, 2010
Abernethy's Commissioned Translation, 2010

As a part-time listener of the Iain Abernethy podcast, I remember that Sensei Abernethy had commissioned a translation of this document in 2010. His translator produced this text:

"Karate is not merely practiced for your own benefit; it can be used to protect one's family or master. It is not intended to be used against a single assailant but instead as a way of avoiding injury by using the hands and feet should one by any chance be confronted by a villain or ruffian." (emphasis added)
This is a completely different interpretation. Here the focus is on avoiding injury to one's self, i.e., "self protection," by using the hands and feet. 

This is what I thought Sensei McCarthy's verison was supposed to have said, i.e., "as a means of [avoiding] applying the use of one's hands and feet in the event of a potentially dangerous encounter with a ruffian or villian." 

However, the focus here is not on avoiding fighting. Instead it is on using the hands and feet to protect the karate practitioner. This is a big departure from the previous interpretations.

Enkamp's Version from 2012

Jesse Enkamp's Translation, 2012
Jesse Enkamp's Translation, 2012

I found that Sensei Jesse Enkamp published a version on his site in 2012 with the following text:

"Karate is not meant to be employed against an adversary, but rather as a means to avoid the use of one’s hands and feet in the event of a potentially dangerous encounter."

This is basically Sensei McCarthy's version, but Sensei Enkamp says "In essence, Itosu defines Karate as a defensive martial art used as last resort." I think he has the right spirit.

Quast's First Translation, 2016

Quast's First Translation, 2016
Quast's First Translation, 2016

Sensei Anreas Quast wrote a blog post about this very topic in 2016. He included two translations. The first said the following:

"Karate is not merely limited to train physical education, but also strengthens the intent to formally consecrate one’s own body and life at any time, without regret, loyal and courageously for ruler and parents. One should never bear the intention to wage a fight against an adversary. Therefore, should the unlikely event (or emergency) occur that one encounters a thief, burglar, or robber, or an otherwise lawless person, thou shalt as much as possible avoid striking. The quintessence should be, by word of honor, to never injure human beings by means of one’s fists and feet." (emphasis added)

Sensei Quast called this a "literal translation." Note that it involves a pledge to avoid hurting another person. This is reminiscent of the North American Beikoku Shido-kan Association version and invokes the spirit of everything but the Abernethy version.

Quast's Second Translation, 2016
Quast's Okinawan Master Translation, 2016
Quast's Okinawan Master Translation, 2016

In the same post, Sensei Quast included a second version, from a "scholarly assessment of the text by an Okinawan karate master." Quast declines to name his source but offers the following:

"Karate does not only serve the purpose of physical education of individual private persons, in fact not at all. In case that serious affairs should befall lord and parents in the times ahead, it means to take upon oneself the moral duty to consecrate oneself without hesitation and at any time, without even sparing one’s own body and life, with justice and courage, for the progress of society and empire. 

Therefore, it is by no means intended to fight against one enemy. Because this being the case, in the unlikely event that you are attacked by a thief, burglar, or robber, or an otherwise lawless person, whenever practicable you should act towards bringing to bear your everyday training, skillfully handle the situation well, and put him to flight. Never intend to harm a person by punches or kicks. This is the true spirit of karate and it is what you want to deeply engrave on your heart." (emphasis added)

Quast adds the following commentary:

"As can clearly be seen from the development of this interpretation, karate – in Itosu’s mind – was apparently not created to serve as a 'civilian self-defence system.' It was also not created for 'use against untrained attackers.' Not at all.

During the era of the Ryūkyū kingdom, what was to become karate (and kobudō) appears to have been a matter of various royal government duties fulfilled by all levels of society. In other words, it doesn’t seem to have meant a 'civilian self-defence' at that time, but rather a means to control society, and in fact along Neo-Confucian thought. Influences from a methodical system of 'civilian self-defence' were marginal at best.

Therefore, the question is: When exactly did karate become a 'civilian self-defence system?' 1950s onward?"

Sensei Quast's "Okinawan karate master" could be projecting his own interpretation onto the text, just as might have happened to every version seen already. However, I believe he is on to something here. Thus far, Abernethy continues to be the outlier.

Shahan's Translation from 2020

Shahan's Translation, 2020
Shahan's Translation, Karate Jutsu: Kumite, 2020

Finally, I contacted my friend Eric Shahan, author and translator of many Japanese sources. I asked what he thought, and he said he had included a translation of the Ten Precepts in his book on Sensei Motobu Choki titled Karate Jutsu: Kumite. He wrote:

"Karate is not intended to be used against a single assailant, rather it is a last resort when confronted with a thief or villian. You take a vow not to use your hands and feet to harm a person." (emphasis added)

This is interesting, and reminds me of what Sensei McCarthy said about "avoiding the use of one's hands and feet." In this version, however, there is a reference to promising not to use karate to harm others, but rather as a "last resort." This is in the spirit of what Sensei Enkamp wrote and what is found in every translation except for Abernethy.


This was quite a journey. What started with a simple investigation into a presumed typo ended up with multiple translations. There are even a few more out there!

The bottom line for me is that Itosu's message was to avoid fighting, but possibly use it as a last resort. That is the message of the majority of the translations. 

Next Steps

Okinawa Karate Research Center
Okinawa Karate Research Center

While investigating Sensei Itosu, I found there is quite a controversy about what he even looks like! Sensei Quast has the most up-to-date research, showing that the picture we see on Wikipedia and elsewhere is not Itosu, but rather Miyake Sango. This 2019 Jissen Karate article shows the two men in a single photograph and contains what is likely a real picture of Itosu. This is an active topic at the Okinawa Karate Information Center. The photo at the top of this post is a version of that shown in the image above, and it reflects the latest research.

If you like this article, check out our Facebook pageInstagram account, and Twitter feed. Be devoted!

Update 29 June 2020: While looking at the Amazon "look inside" feature of a 2019 book by Sensei Joe Swift, I noticed he included a translation of the first precept, as shown below:

Joe Swift, 2019
Joe Swift, 2019

Note this translation is similar to those shared by Sensei Quast.


  1. I have a book on Shito-ryu karatedo, by Kenei Mabuni and Hidetoshi Nakahashi. Nakahashi sensei lived in France, so this book has been published in french. Included, there is a photo of the two sensei holding a scroll with the makimono left by Anko Itosu to his student Kenwa Mabuni, the founder of Shito-ryu. The following two pages contain the translation of the 10 precepts, in french.

    "1. Le but ultime du karaté-do n'est pas de se constituer un corps robuste, mais de mettre sa vie au service d'une cause juste.
    A l'entraînement, il faut toujours supposer plusieurs adversaires à combattre. Mais si vous avez maille à partir avec un voleur ou un agresseur, évitez de le blesser gravement en le touchant à un point vital."

    The translation from French to English becomes somewhat different.

    "The ultimate goal of karate-do is not to build a strong body, but to put your life at the service of a just cause.
    In training, it is always necessary to assume several opponents to fight. But if you have a problem with a thief or assailant, avoid seriously injuring them by hitting them at a vital point."

    I can send you scanned copies of the relevant pages. Maybe the direct translation from the original makimono would be fruitful.

  2. It was really enlightening to read this excellent translation from the manuscript of Sensei Ankō Itosu. If you are someone interested in Karate then we highly recommend you check out our website when we have online training courses on Karate which you can take part in from the safety of your home. We at MAE(Martial Art Extreme) believe that everyone should know some form of martial art such as Karate, Taekwondo, Judo etc.


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