Sensei Funakoshi wrote the Niju Kun (Twenty Precepts) to help karate students transform their art into a way of life. Each line contains superficial meaning as well as deeper truth that could take a lifetime to fully understand. The original Japanese text is terse and meant to be thought provoking. Accordingly, English translations vary with individual interpretation. Below is a synthesis of a number of these interpretations.
1. Karate-do begins with courtesy and ends with rei.
2. There is no first strike in karate.
3. Karate is an aid to justice.
4. First know yourself before attempting to know others.
5. Spirit first, technique second.
6. Always be ready to release your mind.
7. Accidents arise from negligence.
8. Do not think that karate training is only in the dojo.
9. It will take your entire life to learn karate: there is no limit.
10. Put your everyday living into karate and you will find “Myo” (subtle secrets).
11. Karate is like boiling water: if you do not heat it constantly, it will cool.
12. Do not think of winning. Think, rather, of not losing.
13. Make adjustments according to your opponent.
14. The outcome of the battle depends on how you handle weakness and strength.
15. Think of your opponents’ hands and feet as swords.
16. When you leave home, think that you have numerous opponents waiting for you.
17. Beginners must master low stance and posture; natural body positions are for the advanced.
18. Practicing a kata exactly is one thing, engaging in a real fight is another.
19. Do not forget to correctly apply: strength and weakness of power, stretching and contraction of the body, and slowness and speed of techniques.
20. Always think and devise ways to live the precepts of karate-do every day.
A perhaps more literal interpretation, along with the Japanese, is:
Karate-do begins and ends with bowing.
Hitotsu, karate-do wa rei ni hajimari rei ni owaru koto o wasuru na
There is no first strike in karate.
Hitotsu, karate ni sente nashi
Karate stands on the side of justice.
Hitotsu, karate wa, gi no tasuke
First know yourself, then know others.
Hitotsu, mazu onore o shire, shikashite ta o shire
Mentality over technique.
Hitotsu, gijitsu yori shinjitsu
The heart must be set free.
Hitotsu, kokoro wa hanatan koto o yosu
Calamity springs from carelessness.
Hitotsu, wazawai wa ketai ni seizu
Karate goes beyond the dojo.
Hitotsu, dojo nomino karate to omou na
Karate is a lifelong pursuit.
Hitotsu, karate-do no shugyo wa isssho de aru
Apply the way of karate to all things. Therein lies its beauty.
Hitotsu, ara yuru mono o karateka seyo; sokoni myomi ari
Karate is like boiling water; without heat, it returns to its tepid state.
Hitotsu, karate Wa Yu No Gotoku Taezu Netsu O Atae Zareba Motono Mizuni Kaeru
Do not think of winning. Think, rather, of not losing.
Hitotsu, katsu kangae wa motsuna; makenu kangae wa hitsuyo
Make adjustments according to your opponent.
Hitotsu, tekki ni yotte tenka seyo
The outcome of a battle depends on how one handles emptiness and fullness (weakness and strength).
Hitotsu, tattakai wa kyo-jitsu no soju ikan ni ari
Think of hands and feet as swords.
Hitotsu, hi to no te-ashi wa ken to omoe
When you step beyond your own gate, you face a million enemies.
Hitotsu, danshi mon o izureba hyakuman no teki ari
Formal stances are for beginners; later, one stands naturally.
Hitotsu, kamae wa shoshinsha ni atowa shizentai
Perform prescribed sets of techniques exactly; actual combat is another matter.
Hitotsu, kata wa tadashiku, jisen 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.
Hitotsu, chikara no kyojaku tai no shinshuku waza no kankyu
Be constantly mindful, diligent, and resourceful, in your pursuit of the Way.
Hitotsu, tsune ni shinen ku fu seyo
The precepts are not numbered or ordered; each begins with hitotsu meaning “one” or “first” to show that each rule has the same level of importance as the others.