Kokoro — Strong Spirit 心

Our strong spirit is the mortar that holds together the bricks of our life. We develop skills and knowledge, and our strong spirit gives us the opportunity to craft an amazing self with them.

Kokoro 心 [pronounced either “koh-koh-row” or “shin”; despite the radically different sounds, these two methods of pronunciation are both correct for this kanji] is “spirit” or “strong spirit” – it is the mark of a true karateka and the development of kokoro is one of the pre-eminent goals of karatedo.

Kokoro speaks to the general attitude of never quitting, of deep regard for others, and of a deep and sincere appreciation for all that life has to offer. More than anything, kokoro is about the hopeful and positive good in life.

Importance of Strong Spirit

Kokoro is the general pronunciation of this kanji when it appears alone, but when combined with other characters it almost always is pronounced “shin” (e.g. fudoshin, shoshin [read more here], mushin, etc.) Kokoro is a part of many of the key concepts in karate; this importance speaks very much to the importance of developing one’s spirit and attitude as part of one's karatedō.

Our attitude in going about our day tells us so much about ourselves, and has a huge impact on the outcome of our day.

Without a doubt, we will be met with obstacles and challenges every day. Some days, these are minor: barely annoyances. Other days, the challenges we face are misson-critical, threatening the achievement of our goals and sometimes even more.

Our strong spirit is what powers us through those challenges and around those obstacles. We can choose to both feel and exhibit a strong and powerfully positive attitude; or we can succumb to the frustration which we might (rightly) feel.

We can choose to see our lives populated with opportunities, or we can see our days filled with minefields.

The choice we make has a huge impact on our lives.

Strong Spirit as a Reflection of Reality

Keep in mind that kokoro – as a positive and uplifting attitude – is an accurate reflection of our life and the opporunities that we have. It is most definitely not a chimera, and it is not an attempt to disguise the challenges we face daily.

We know, for a fact, that for each of those challenges there is at least one (if not usually much more than one) correspoding opportunity. Now, granted those opportunities might not be the ones we expect, or even want, right at the moment.

Nonetheless, they are there. And they are real. And they are ours to find and utilize. Our kokoro helps us to see them, and to see them especially when we are inundated with challenges and obstacles.

Strong Spirit as Identity

Occasionally, it is important to remind ourselves that kokoro itself is not about “fighting spirit” – that is in fact a different concept in karate. Rather, kokoro speaks to a calm, measured, respectful, and ever-positive attitude that suffuses everything a karateka does, both on the dojo floor and outside, in the larger world.

True kokoro is found in the most commonplace of actions and situations – the parent that calmly comforts a screaming child, the policeman that settles an argument without using force, the manager who organizes chaos into order, and the student that never complains and never shirks responsibility.

Kokoro is both a state of being and a goal of action.

We strive to have kokoro in our hearts and minds (shin sometimes is a synonym for both “heart” and “mind” in both Japanese and Chinese) and we also work hard to practice the actions to develop kokoro.

Because the world, and our training as karateka, is challenging and ever-changing, we must constantly strive to maintain and improve our kokoro – our strong spirit is a work-in-progress.

Kanji/Katakana Meaning
strong spirit (kokoro)

Editor's Note: This lecture was first delivered by Sensei at the Goju Karate dojo in Mill Valley, California on 12 March 2012; this concept was presented again at the Goju Karate NYC Dojo on 30 August 2023.