Mississippi Isshinryu Karate
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Okinawan Masters

     Due to the lack of substantial documentation, much of the history of Karate-Do is clouded in secrecy and has been lost to the mists of time. Sparse documentation and a tradition of secrecy, has forced modern students to base their interpretations of Karate-Do, in part, upon fragmentary information gathered from the few surviving historical documents, but mostly from a tradition that passed on information orally, from father to son, master to student.

     Nevertheless, modern historians are in agreement that the earliest precursor of modern Karate-Do originated in India, from whence a method of self defense called Kempo was introduced in China by Buddhist monks, where it further flourished for another two thousand years.

     In 1340, Ryukyu (Okinawa) entered into a tributary relationship with China, and by 1372, Ryukyu (Okinawa) was formally invested as a tributary state of China by the Ming Chinese Emperor. At this time, the first of a succession of 23 Chinese envoys was sent to Ryukyu (Okinawa), the main island of the Ryukyu Island chain located about 3000 miles south of mainland Japan, 300 miles north of Taiwan and 400 miles east of China. These Chinese Imperial envoys traveled with several hundred craftsmen, artisans, monks, navigators, scribes, etc., who resided in the village of Kumemura (Toeii). It is believed that these envoys introduced Chinese Kempo to the native Okinawans, who in turn blended these teachings with their native Te (hand) to develop To-te (Tang hand or China hand), the Okinawan precursor of modern Karate-Do. At this time, Okinawan students were also traveling to China to learn Kempo.

     In 1477, King Shoshin of Okinawa banned the possession of weapons by the warrior class, and forced the nobility to reside near the royal castle. At this time, To-te and Ryukyu Kobudo (weaponry) commenced to be taught in secret, in response to the weapon and Kempo prohibition.

     In 1609, Samurai of the Satsuma Clan invaded Okinawa and continued the previous ban on the use of weapons. As their lives literally depended upon the utmost of secrecy, early Kempo (To-te) practioners practiced at night, away from prying eyes. This tradition of secrecy, no doubt, was in part responsible for the sparse availability of written information, with the martial art of To-te being preserved almost entirely through oral traditions. In retrospect, most modern Okinawan Karate-Do masters realize that this banning of weapons was a very wise decision, without which Karate-Do might not have developed.

     In time, three distinct styles of To-te were formulated after their respective villages (ie. Shuri-te, Tomari-te, and Naha-te)

     In 1683, a Chinese envoy named Wanshu (Wang Ji), a master of Kempo, taught villagers in Tomari a kata named after him. In 1755, Sakugawa Tode (karate) (1733-1815) traveled to China to learn the art of Chinese Kempo. The following year, a Kempo master named Kushanku (Guan Kui) and several of his students visited Ryukyu (Okinawa), and taught the Okinawans a kata named after him. Sakugawa Tode (karate) subsequently became a student of Kushanku, and has been credited with the impetus for the development of modern Karate-Do. his most famous student was Matsumura Sokon (Bushi) (1792-1887), master of Shuri-te, who taught members of the royal family. At the same time in Tomari resided Matsumora Kosaku, a master of Tomari-te. It is believed that Tomari-te was derived from Shuri-te. In 1875, Higaonna (Higashionna in Japanese) Kanryo (1853-1915) traveled to Fukien Province in China to learn Kempo from Ryu Ryuko. On his return to Okinawa, Higaonna Sensei taught a Kempo style called Naha-te. Shuri-te and Tomari-te later gave rise to several styles of Shorin-Ryu, while from Naha-te the style of Goju-Ryu was developed. In the latter 1800's, another Okinawan named Uechi Kanbun also traveled to Fukien Province to study Kempo, later returning to Okinawa and introducing another style of Naha-te called Ueichi Ryu.

The 1936 Meeting of Masters:

In October of 1936, a meeting was held of the leading Okinawan masters. The martial arts participants included Hanashiro Chomo (1869-1945, shihandai of Itosu), Kyan Chotoku (1870-1945, student of Sokon Matsumura, among others), Motobu "the Monkey" Choki (1871-1944, student of Kosaku Matsumora), Miyagi Chojun (1888-1953, student of Higaonna Kanryo), Kiyoda Juhatsu (1886-1967, senior student of Higaonna Kanryo), Chibana Chosin (1885-1969, student of Itosu and founder of Kobayashi-Ryu), and Shinpan Shiroma (also called Gusukuma Shiroma, 1890-1954).


Commemorating the establishment of the basic kata of karate-do.

Commemorating the establishment of the basic kata of karate-do (1937)
(Front, from right) Chojun Miyagi, Chomo Hanashiro, Kentsu Yabu, Chotoku Kyan (Back, from right) Genwa Nakasone, Choshin Chibana, Choryo Maeshiro, Shinpan Shiroma

It was at this meeting that the term "Karate" (Empty Hand) was formally adopted in favor of the old "Tote" (China Hand). The masters observed that the new "Karate" was becoming very popular on the Japanese mainland. Okinawans such as Funakoshi Gichin (1868-1957, a student of Itosu and Azato Anko, and founder of Shotokan), Motobu Choki (1871-1944), and Mabuni Kenwa (founder of Shito-Ryu), among others, had moved to the mainland and successfully begun to spread the art. Funakoshi was quite an innovator, adopting Judo's kyu and dan system, and "modernizing" many of the kata. He had also changed the traditional names of the kata, many of which were Chinese in origin, in favor of Japanese versions. Okinawa's unique cultural art was at risk of becoming "Japanese."

The Okinawan Masters knew that something had to be done. They realized that the status quo in Okinawa had changed relatively little since the turn of the century. The art was broken into distinct "Te" systems. Generally, the Naha-Te practitioners trained among themselves practicing their own kata, as did the practitioners of Shuri-Te and Tomari-Te. The Pinan kata, while widely taught and practiced, were distinctly of Shuri-Te origin. It was time to attempt to bring the systems closer together and make Karate more accessible to the youth of Okinawa. One of the participants, Fukushima Kitsuma, a prominent military officer, recommended the creation of ten kinds of Japanese kata with Japanese names. Miyagi stressed the need to preserve the classical kata, but suggested that a national kata could be created.

The 1937 Okinawan Prefectural Karate-Do Promotional Society:

The following year, the Okinawan Prefectural Karate-Do Promotional Society was founded by several leading instructors, including Kentsu Yabu, Hanashiro Chomo, Kyan Chotoku, Chibana Chosin, Miyagi Chojun, Gusukuma Shinpan, Kyoda Juhatsu (student of Higaonna Kanryo), Chitose Tsuyoshi, and Nakasone Genwa. The photograph above, taken at the formation of this society is often attributed to the meeting of masters which took place the year before. The members of the society followed up on some of the proposals made at that earlier meeting and formulated up to twelve new kihon (basic) kata.

Later that year, Kentsu Yabu, the most senior disciple of Itosu passed away. Within a few years, almost all of the senior masters would pass away as well from old age, the war or both. Motobu died in 1944. Hanashiro, Kyan, Tokuda Anbun, Shinzato Jinan, and Matayoshi Shinko all died in 1945.

*Charles C. Goodin, Hawaii Karate Seinenkai


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