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The Kobudo of Shimabuku Tatsuo
1998, Joe Swift

This article is a revised version of the one found in "Insights into Martial Arts" Issue #5 (May-June 2000)

Shimabuku Tatsuo (1908-1975) was the founder of Okinawa Isshinryu Karatedo. He studied martial arts under his uncle Ganeku, Kyan Chotoku (1870-1945), Motobu Choki (1871-1944), Miyagi Chojun (1888-1953), and Taira Shinken (1890-1970), among other possible influences. His Okinawan students include, among others, his sons Kichiro and Shinsho, Kaneshi Eiko, Shikema Genyu, his son-in-law Uezu Angi, and Tokumura Kensho. Shimabuku's kobudo was mainly influenced by his primary teacher Kyan Chotoku as well as the famous kobudo teacher Taira Shinken. From these two teachers he learned the arts of bojutsu (wooden cudgel 180 cm long), saijutsu (3-pronged iron truncheon), and tuifajutsu (wooden, L-shaped weapon consisting of a shaft and a handle set at 90 degrees)

Isshinryu Kobudo Kata

Tokumine no Kon

This kata was passed down from Kyan to Shimabuku. Kyan is said to have learned the kata from a direct student of Tokumine Peichin. According to the story, Tokumine Peichin was said to have been a teacher of Motobu Choki. Tokumine loved to drink liquor, and one day got into a drunken brawl in which he injured 20 to 30 constables to the point where they could not even stand up. For this he was exiled to Yaeyama Island. Kyan, wishing to learn the cudgel tradition of Tokumine, traveled to Yaeyama to seek out his instruction. Upon arriving, Kyan learned that Tokumine had already passed away, but had taught his kata to the old man who acted as the landlord of the place where Tokumine had lived. It was from the landlord that Kyan had actually learned this form. (Jahana, 1978)

Uezu Angi stated that Shimabuku studied this kata from Kyan, but later relearned it from Taira (Uezu, 1997). This author, however, has found no evidence to date that Taira ever taught or even knew this kata. It is one possibility that Shimabuku studied Tokumine no Kon under Kyan, but later when re-modifying the kata to fit his vision of kobudo, may have been influenced by Taira's method of utilizing the bo.

Urashi Bo
This kata came directly from Taira, and was modified by either Shimabuku or Taira. This kata is called Urasoe no Kon in Taira's syllabus, and can be found in Inoue's series. Urasoe is the standard Japanese pronunciation of the name whereas Urashi is the old Okinawan pronunciation. According to Nakamoto (1983) Taira supposedly learned this kata from Mabuni Kenwa (1889-1952), founder of Shitoryu, which went on to become one of the "big four" styles of modern Japanese karatedo. Mabuni gained most of his influence from the likes of Itosu Anko (1831-1916), Higaonna Kanryo (1852-1915), Aragaki Seisho (1840-1920), etc.

By sheer coincidence, Mabuni's karate, like that of Shimabuku, is a unique blend of the various kata traditions that were formerly practiced in and around the three main "karate areas" i.e. the Shuri, Tomari, and Naha districts.

Shishi no Kon no Dai
This kata was quite difficult to trace the origins of. The kanji (Sino-Japanese ideogram) for this kata in Isshinryu are usually written in a manner that is very similar to the name for a separate bojutsu tradition called Shushi no Kon. However, upon witnessing these two kata being performed, one can immediately see that they are two different kata.

In Matayoshi Kobudo there appears a kata named Shishi no Kon. However, the form is quite different from Isshinryu's Shishi no Kon, and the kanji for the Matayoshi kata are the same as the kata that in the Taira lineage this is pronounced Soeishi no Kon (Matayoshi, 1996).

Observing this, this author immediately looked up the kata Soeishi no Kon in Inoue's series. The similarities are striking. Upon further investigation, it was found that Shishi is the Okinawan pronunciation of the kanji. Based upon these observations, this author concluded that the Shishi no Kon no Dai of Shimabuku Tatsuo is based upon the Soeishi no Kon Dai of Taira. As with Chatan Yara no Sai, Taira learned this kata from Kamiya Jinsei. As with the other Taira-based kata within the Isshinryu Kobudo curriculum, it is unclear whether Shimabuku or Taira made these changes, or if it was a collaborative effort.

This kata is named after the Soeishi family, who, according to Miyagi (1987) were the instructors to the King. The kata itself, again according to Miyagi (1987) uses the bo in a horizontal manner, different from other cudgel traditions. According to Nakamoto (1983), this kata, along with the previously mentioned Shushi no Kon, as well as Choun no Kon, are said to have been developed by a certain Soeishi Sensei, who was a high ranking lord in Shuri.

Table One: Shishi no Kon
Table One: Shishi no Kon

Kusanku Sai
This kata was created by Shimabuku himself, based upon the Kusanku kata he had learned from Kyan. The following information was gleaned from a personal communication from A. J. Advincula (1998), who studied with Shimabuku in Okinawa. Before studying with Taira Shinken in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Shimabuku only knew the cudgel tradition of Tokumine that he had learned under Kyan, as well as a sai kata called Kyan no Sai. It is unknown whether this sai kata was created by Kyan or created by Shimabuku from techniques that he learned under Kyan.

Kusanku was, along with Chinto and Passai, Kyan's specialty, and this may have influenced Shimabuku's decision to create a sai kata from this form.  According to Advincula (1998), Shimabuku originally included kicks in the kata, but later removed them. Upon being asked why, Shimabuku stated that when he first created Kusanku Sai, he knew little about kobudo, but after gaining more experience apparently removed the kicks.

Chatan Yara no Sai
This kata was also passed down by Taira, who is said to have learned it from Kamiya Jinsei. It was either created by a master called Chatan Yara or based upon his teachings. Yara was, according to Nakamoto (1983), a karateka who lived before Bushi Matsumura (1809-1901), and studied under Kusanku who came from China in 1762. He also states that Yara, who held the title Peichin, lived during the time of King Sho Boku who reigned from 1752-1795, and held a stipend of land in Chatan, where he carried out the last years of his life. This kata can also be found in Inoue's series.

Hama Higa no Tuifa
This was another kata taught to Shimabuku by Taira. In the now-famous 1966 film taken of Shimabuku during his second and last visit to the United States, this kata is often denoted as Chie-fa in English. However, this is nothing more than a misspelling of a misspelling.

It is said that Shimabuku always referred to the weapon as tuifa. On the 1966 film, the katakana syllabary for this kata reads Tsuifa, an innocent misspelling, apparently made my the Japanese translator, which was then misspelled again as Chie-fa in English.

According to Perkins (1998) Tokumura Kensho, a direct student of Shimabuku, stated in an interview that Shimabuku never taught the kata on the film in Okinawa. There is speculation that this kata is what bits and pieces Shimabuku remembered from the longer, older Hama Higa no Tuifa as taught by Taira.
This longer, older version can be found in Inoue's series as well as in Taira's own book. On the film, one can clearly see him fumbling for movements and techniques. However, there are still Isshinryu groups in the United States and elsewhere who still refer to this kata as Chie-fa no Tonfa, apparently because that's what it says on the film.

The following account of Hama Higa Peichin is a summary of an essay written by Taira Shinken, and can be found in the 1998 republication of his 1964 Ryukyu Kobudo Taikan (pages 183-184). Hama Higa accompanied King Sho Shin and Prince Nago Chogen on their trip to Edo, where he played a game of go with the famous Japanese master Hon'inbo Dosaku on 17 April, 1682. It is also said that with the permission of Shimazu Hidehisa of Satsuma, Hama Higa also performed Toudi (Karate) and Saijutsu in front of the 4th Shogun Tokugawa Tsunayoshi. This sai kata later became known as Hama Higa no Sai, and is still practiced in Okinawa kobudo today. (Taira, 1998)

Table Two: Tuifa Mis-spellings
Table Two: Tuifa Mis-spellings

Other "Official" Isshinryu Kobudo Kata
In addition to the solo kata exercises, Shimabuku, like many other kobudo teachers, also developed a series of two-man weapons exercises, to teach practical applications of the kobudo implements. These are Bo tai Bo Kumite and Bo tai Sai Kumite. Each teaches a set of ten basic but important applications to the bo and the sai.

The Okinawa Isshinryu Karate Kobudo Association (OIKKA) founded by Uezu Angi in 1990 and taken over by Uechi Tsuyoshi upon Uezu's retirement in late 1995, also teaches what is known as Nunchaku Kihongata, a basic form for the nunchaku. This kata is the same as found in Sakagami Ryusho's booklet Nunchaku (1966), and teaches the basic aya-furi (figure-8) and reverse figure-8 swinging pattern of this formidable weapon.


Shimabuku Tatsuo's life work is exemplified in his karate and kobudo system. While retaining the kata from his teachers, he modified them, sometimes subtly, sometimes radically, until Isshinryu took on the shape recognized the world over today. However, when examining Okinawan martial arts, one should not look at the differences in the "styles" propagated today, but at their common roots and the principles upon which they rest. There is only one kobudo, but many ways of teaching it.

Table Three: The Kobudo Kata of Isshinryu
Table Three: The Kobudo Kata of Isshinryu

Table Four: Isshinryu Kobudo Kata Lineage

Tokumine no Kon Tokumine Peichin - Landlord - Kyan Chotoku - Shimabuku Tatsuo
Urashi Bo Mabuni Kenwa - Taira Shinken - Shimabuku Tatsuo
Shishi no Kon Kamiya Jinsei - Taira Shinken - Shimabuku Tatsuo
Kusanku Sai Created by Shimabuku Tatsuo
Chatan Yara no Sai Kamiya Jinsei - Taira Shinken - Shimabuku Tatsuo
Hama Higa no Tuifa Yabiku Moden - Taira Shinken - Shimabuku Tatsuo

* Advincula, A.J. (1998) Personal Communication.
* Inoue M. (1972) Ryukyu Kobudo Vol 1. Tokyo: Sekibundo.
* Inoue M. (1974a) Ryukyu Kobudo Vol 2. Tokyo: Sekibundo.
* Inoue M. (1974b) Ryukyu Kobudo Vol 3. Tokyo: Sekibundo.
* Jahana K. (1978) "Buyu Motobu Choki." Aoi Umi No. 70, pp. 106-110. Naha.
* Matayoshi S. (1997) Ryukyu Ocho Jidai Kobudo Karatedo (video). Tokyo: BAB Japan.
* Miyagi T. (1987) Karate no Rekishi. Naha: Hirugisha.
* Nakamoto M. (1983) Okinawa Dento Kobudo: Sono Rekishi to Tamashii. Naha: Bunbukan.
* Perkins, J. (1998). Personal Communication.
* Sakagami R. (1966) Ryukyu Kobudo Series I: Nunchaku. Tokyo: Tokaido.
* Sells, J. (1993) "The Kobudo of Taira Shinken, the Pied Piper of Weaponry." Budo Dojo Magazine, Spring 1993, pp 23-26. California: Pacific Rim Publishing.
* Taira S. (1998) Ryukyu Kobudo Taikan (1964). Revised, expanded and republished by Gajumaru Shoten, Naha, Okinawa.
* Uezu A. (1982) Encyclopedia of Isshinryu Karate, Volume One. California: Panther Productions. With Joseph Jennings.
* Uezu A. (1997) Personal Conversation. Gushikawa, Okinawa.


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