The Tiger symbol of Shotokan karate


The tiger symbol of Shotokan Karate is one that is instantly recognised by karate practitioners around the world yet two questions often asked are; what does this symbol represent and where did it come from?

Tigers in Japan?

Tigers themselves don’t exist in Japan so it may seem somewhat unusual for a Japanese martial art to be represented by such an animal however sometimes it isn’t wise to take things in the literal sense. When Funakoshi Gichin Sensei came to Japan in the early 1920’s, he had a great friend there named Kosugi Hoan who, along with Judo master Kano Jigoro, encouraged Funakoshi Sensei to remain in Japan to teach and promote his style of karate. Kosugi, a very famous artist and painter at the time, proved to be very influential in the development of karate-do in Japan.

Kosugi Hoan, also a karate student of Funakoshi Sensei, encouraged his teacher to write a book about his style of karate . . . a master text. In Japan such a treatise is known as “Tora no maki” or “Tiger Scroll (or roll)” and this nomenclature dates back to a time when such master works were written on a long scroll – a practice long abandoned but the name still remained.

Kosugi Hoan - tiger symbol of shotokan karate

Kosugi Hoan (1881 – 1964) at various stages of his life

First karate book ever published

Funakoshi Sensei published his first book “Ryukyu Karate Kenpo” in 1922 and was in fact the first ever karate book published in the world. The illustration of performances inside the book were drawn by Kosugi’s student Yamashiro Masatsuna, and the cover itself was designed and drawn by Kosugi Hoan and showed what is now the famous Shotokan Tiger. Kosugi’s inspiration for the tiger came from the words “Tora no maki” and he used this play on words as a representation of Funakoshi Gichin’s work. This symbolism also dates back to a period when the young Funakoshi would spend times of contemplation on Okinawa’s Mount Tarao or Tiger Tail mountain, a place he would often speak of, listening to the wind blow through the pine trees, as sounding like waves breaking on a shore.

Tora no maki - tiger symbol of shotokan karate

Tora no maki

With all this in mind, the symbol of the tiger seemed very appropriate. It represented the strength, power and tenacity developed by training in Funakoshi Sensei’s karate, and also the traditional Chinese attitude that the tiger never sleeps but maintains a constantly keen alertness. It may be conjecture but the tiger being drawn inside the circle shows that its power, like the power of Shotokan karate, is contained and should never be used indiscriminately . . . only when absolutely necessary.

And so this design, from that time on, came to represent Shotokan karate-do. One final point to note  is that the freehand nature of the circle in the original drawing has an unevenness about it that implies it was done in one circular motion as well, the artist’s signature can be seen inside this circle in the upper right quadrant.