Tatsuo Shimabuku, the founder of isshin-ryu karate, was a small,
gentle individual approximately five feet tall and about 125
pounds. He was an easy going person, with a good sense
Shimabuku was not a disciplinarian, and never forced anyone
to follow or change to his system. What he did do was
set the example for his students. He not only taught kata,
he lived it. He lived in his Agena Village dojo (training
hall) from the late 1950's until his death on May 30, 1975.
His living space covered about 50 square feet. Here he
ate, watched TV, drank and slept.
His dojo was always open, with formal classes conducted weekdays
from 7:00 until 9:00 p.m. Students who came early in the
morning were asked not to kiai (shout) or hit the makiwara
(punching board) until later so as not to disturb the
neighbors. The workout area was a concrete floor about
35 feet by 50 feet, surrounded by a concrete block wall over
six feet tall. Students bowed when entering the dojo,
removed their shoes, and went to the dressing area to change
into their gi (uniforms). Students would bow and
greet instructors, seniors or juniors as they passed them.
Prior to the formal class, students would work out on their
own or with a partner, limbering up, striking
makiwara or heavy bags, practicing
kata (prearranged fighting forms), and sparring.
At the correct time, the senior students (dai sempai)
would call the students to line up facing him according to their
grade, with the senior person to the right.
Shimabuku, or the dai sempai, would have the students face the
Buddhist altar--where a picture of the isshin-ryu
megami (goddess) was placed along with the pictures
of Shimabuku's karate teachers--and bow, then face him and bow.
They would run around the dojo for five minutes and go through
exercise charts for the upper and lower body. There
were 15 upper and 15 lower exercises, which included striking
and blocking (upper exercises), and kicking, kneeing and limbering
(lower exercises). As a general rule, students performed
ten repetitions of each exercise.
in front of Agena dojo.
After the basics, students practiced forearm conditioning
(kotekitai). There were three sets of these exercises.
In the first exercise, partners faced each other while standing
in seisan dachi (basic stance). The attacker punched
at his opponent's chest, and the defender chopped down.
Thus, the attacker developed his punch and conditioned his forearm,
while the defender developed his chop and conditioned the edge
of his hand.
In the second exercise, the attacker threw a vertical punch
at the defender's chest. The defender used an outside
forearm block to deflect the blow and simultaneously reached
across with a knife-hand inside block, catching the attacker's
wrist and pilling it off to the side. The defender followed
with a chop to his opponent's forearm. The exercise developed
two hard techniques (the first punch and block) and two soft
techniques (the second block and strike).
The third kotekitai exercise incorporated breathing techniques.
Both opponents faced each other in sanchin stance and locked
arms, palms facing up. One began to twist his hand, sweeping
his opponent's hand down, creating an opening to strike or punch.
His opponent allowed him to go only so far, then suddenly reversed
the action, sweeping the attacker's arm back and beyond where
it started. This was the Okinawan equivalent of the Chinese
exercise "pushing hands". Breath control was used to increase
power, the student exhaling as force was needed. The purpose
of the exercise was to teach cultivation of ki (inner energy).
Shimabuku called ki by its Okinawan term, chinkuchi, which means
sinew, bone and energy. He perfected his chinkuchi, which
made his techniques exceptionally strong. "You can't hold
(chinkuchi) or keep it; it is brought out when and where
you need it," Shimabuku said.
Shimabuku took what he believed were the best elements of
shorin-ryu and goju-ryu karate to make isshin-ryu.
But what did he take, and why? And what did he create?
Shimabuku was always an innovator and inventor. At one
time, mud was used to bind the tiles to the roofs in Chan village,
but Shimabuku found a way to do it without mud, which the other
villagers followed. He was a pioneer in the use of protective
gear in free fighting. Other karate teachers disagreed
with its use, saying it detracted from the true spirit of karate,
but today, safety equipment is widely accepted.
Shimabuku had many questions for his teachers, which they never
answered to his satisfaction. It was only after a vision
he thought he was divinely inspired that he publicly announced
his new system. He felt if he could make a system stronger,
shouldn't he do it? If he could make it faster, was it
not correct to modify the techniques? He did not believe
in change just to be different, but because it served a purpose.
For over 30 years, Shimabuku experimented with different methods
of holding the fist. He found that if you placed the thumb
on top of the fist, instead of on the side, the wrist became
stronger. He therefore settled on this position for the
Isshin-ryu vertical fist.
Shimabuku tried different blocks by using the bone area of the
forearm, which was the classical method, and by using the muscle
portion, which is the method used when breaking boards with
the forearm in demonstrations. He felt the muscle block
was superior because it took less time to initiate, and thus
generated more power. A person without any training should
be able to strike a two-by-two with full power and receive no
more than a welt if he uses the muscle of the forearm instead
of the bone. Shimabuku settled on this method as the basic
blocking procedure for Isshin-ryu.
The punch or thrust, whether with fist, spear hand or palm,
is used a good percentage of the time in Okinawan karate.
There are only two times you can't use your arms in a confrontation:
If your hands are tied behind your back, or if you're climbing
up or over something. That is why punches are very important.
Shimabuku didn't understand why most karateka (karate practioners)
used a twist punch, corkscrewing their arm out at their opponent.
If the opponent moved in on you, Shimabuku insisted, your fist
would never fully turn to strike correctly. He also noticed
that when punching to a target higher then shoulder level, the
lower fingers had a tendency to hit first instead of the top
Another thing Shimabuku observed was that, when throwing multiple
punches, it took a lot of training and effort to throw twist-type
punches. When not twisting, speed was greater and more
punches could be thrown in less time, using less energy.
But the twist punch, his instructors told him, was like a bullet
which, twisting out of the barrel of a gun, generated better
accuracy and power.
Shimabuku disagreed with the twist punch theory, however.
In his opinion, faster was better--as long as there was power.
He learned from shorin-ryu that punching from the hip, using
a rising punch and hip rotation, gave one a stronger punch.
From goju-ryu, he found that by proper breathing he could bring
out even greater energy. Hence, the basic isshin-ryu punching
method included punching from the hip without a twist, but use
a rising punch, and utilizing hip rotation and proper breathing.
Stance is the foundation of all Okinawan karate. Because
Okinawa is a coral island with very hilly terrain, and is covered
with tropical vegetation surrounded by sandy or coral beaches,
fighting methods became more static than systems from other
countries, which had plains or open areas which to move about
freely. Okinawans would stand in rice patties and await
opponents to come in them. They even had one foot out
of the mud prepared to kick. Those on rice patty dykes would
have to move sideways in stances like
naihanchi , while others on the numerous stone bridges
in Okinawa could move around more freely and use techniques
like flying jump kicks. Persons caught on the beaches
would have to learn how to get into stable stances on slippery
coral, then change stances once they moved to the sandy areas.
On their small boats, fisherman learned to utilize completely
Naha-te forerunner to goju and uechi-ryu karate, put its
emphasis on the sanchin stance, where one can grip the floor
using inside tension. This stance is excellent for infighting
and against multiple attackers. Shuri-te, another
early Okinawan art, emphasized the forward stance
(zenkutsu), which gave power to the front of the body,
making it an excellent one-on-one stance. Shimabuku wanted
a little of both positions for isshin-ryu's basic stance.
He created what he called
seisan stance, whereby one stands in a high, upright
stance similar to naha-te, but with the knees bent and even
with the toes, and without any inward tension. This allows
greater spring and lowers the center of the body. Weight
was evenly distributed on both legs, allowing kicks with either
leg in all directions. To get the same protection and
strength of shuri-te, all one had to do was face his opponent
diagonally, exposing less body mass, but still allowing punching
and kicking power in any direction.
Shimabuku's new seisan stance allowed flexibility never before
enjoyed. He could move into any other stance with minimum
sanchin, he would just turn the toes in and grip the floor
by exerting inward tension. To move into the
seiunchin stance, all one had to do was turn the rear foot
to a 90 degree angle and drop the body down. movement
in any direction was now possible, and kicking with either
foot could be accomplished without leaning or transferring weight,
which telegraphs the movement.
From goju-ryu, Shimabuku took the
sanchin kata and incorporated them into his new system.
He also took the code of karate, which came from the Chinese
martial arts book Bubishi. It was the guiding force for
most of Shimabuku's philosophy on isshin-ryu.
From shorin-ryu, he took
kusanku. Most of the basic isshin-ryu exercises are
also derived from shorin-ryu, along with a larger variety of
kicks not found in naha-te. Shimabuku had already learned
a number of weapon forms and added two of his own weapons kata
to isshin-ryu: sai and kusanku sai. Shimabuku also created
the sunsu kata, considered the easiest of all isshin-ryu forms
to perform because most of its techniques have already been
taught in basics or other kata. Its novelty lies in its
return to the basics. Shimabuku never taught advanced
techniques, only basic moves made to look like they were advanced.
Shimabuku with American
What made Shimabuku so controversial? For one, he changed
the name of the shorin-ryu system to isshin-ryu. Second,
he discarded the traditional twist punch in favor of the faster,
rising punch. Third, he had a contract to teach American
servicemen and most of his students were soon Americans.
Word got out that he designed his style for Americans.
Fourth, he used protective gear, which many said made karate
into a sport. Fifth, since many Americans were taking
isshin-ryu, Shimabuku was holding demonstrations on and off
base and was getting tremendous publicity. Sixth, he broke
away from the Okinawan Karate Association in 1960, making himself
and independent and therefore a maverick. Because he left
the association, many of his Okinawan students broke away from
him because they did not want to lose their identity with a
recognized system (shorin-ryu).
But perhaps the most controversial thing Shimabuku did, and
one which brought discord from his Okinawan students causing
many of them to leave isshin-ryu was the double standard he
established for promoting Americans. Shimabuku first gave
green and black belts to Americans in the late 1950's.
It took six or seven months to make green belt, and a couple
more to make black. He didn't give a certificate to Americans
until they left Okinawa. At first he gave low grades,
but the students persisted until he began to give high grades
for a minimum time. One American was given and eighth
dan (black belt rank) after only two and a half years in isshin-ryu,
while another made seventh dan after one and a half years.
To justify such ranks, Shimabuku would say "You'll rate it in
15 or 20 years." He gave higher grades because he thought
most Americans would not be returning to Okinawa.
According to Kenji Kaneshiro, Shimabuku's senior student, "Americans
would beat the smaller Okinawans in free fighting, then they
would push Shimabuku for higher grades than the Okinawans.
When they came back to the States, they would proclaim that
they were number one or the best of Shimabuku's students.
Some would claim to be champions of Okinawan karate. They
couldn't even say karate correctly, so how could they teach
it correctly? Diplomas have nothing to do with karate."
Nevertheless, when the Americans returned to the United States
from Okinawa, most did not wait 15 or 20 years, but proclaimed
their high grades immediately. Genyu Shigema, another
of Shimabuku's senior students, said "Shimabuku had me teach
the first Americans because I worked for the marine Corps and
could speak English. I was one of their instructors, and
now they all outrank me!"
Shimabuku finally sent a letter to each of his students stating
that "all dan awarded prior to June 10, 1961, are considered
invalid." Most Americans ignored this memorandum, however,
and kept wearing their higher ranks.
founder Tatsuo Shimabuku
was not only controversy about the high ranks Shimabuku gave
to his American students, but how he also received his own tenth
dan. Steve Armstrong, one of Shimabuku's American students,
purchased a red belt and gave it to Shimabuku in 1960, telling
him he deserved it because he was the founder of isshin-ryu.
Shimabuku then reportedly took off his red and white belt and
gave it to Harold Mitchum, who was the first American to be
promoted to eighth dan.
Shimabuku was an innovator who searched for ways to improve
karate techniques. Although many instructors before him
had their own ideas and also made changes in techniques, Shimabuku
was even too radical for them. Today, several branches
of shorin-ryu use the muscle block in some techniques as opposed
to bone-on-bone forearm block. Some now also use the vertical
punch when punching to the face. Shimabuku's problem was
that he was born too soon. He was in the wrong place at
the wrong time. But because Isshin-ryu now has the largest
following of practioners of Okinawan karate in the United Stated,
he has the last laugh.
The following story sums up the true spirit of isshin-ryu.
Shimabuku and a group of students were sitting around a table
drinking at the dojo after a workout. There were many
bottles of sake, soda and beer of various sizes on the table.
Shimabuku asked the students "Which is the best bottle?"
Those who were drinking beer stated the beer bottles, others
picked the largest bottles, and some chose the smaller bottles.
Shimabuku said all the bottles were good. All of them
served a purpose: to hold what they were intended to, "There
is no best bottle," he said.
Each individual must find what he is looking for in a martial
art, what is right for him. If he should choose Isshin-ryu,
the "one-heart way," the offspring of shorin-ryu and goju-ryu,
all the better.
About the Author:
Arcenio J. Advincula studied for 17 years on Okinawa directly
under the late Tatsuo Shimabuku--longer than any other American.
He currently runs a martial arts school in Oceanside, California.