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History of Isshin-Ryu

Tatsuo Shimabuku


By Donald Bohan



Isshin-Ryu Karate-Do

May 17,1977


Tatsuo Shimabuku was born on September 9, 1908, in Kiyan Village on the Island of Okinawa. His father was a farmer and owned a butcher shop in the village, while his mother raised the family, a total of ten children.

Shimabuku's first name was Shinkichi, but his brothers gave him the nickname "Tatsuo" meaning dragon boy. Shimabuku was always physically small, (5'2', 130 lbs at maturity) so his brothers naturally picked on him. Each time they harassed him be would try to fight back, often with little success. Although he was frail, they teased him and said he had the determination of a dragon, so they called him Tatsuo or dragon boy.


Shimabuku finally got tired of the harassment and told his father about the situation. Instead of admonishing his sons, Shimabuku's father told him to go to Naha, the Okinawan Capitol, and learn karate so he could defend himself. At first Tatsuo felt dejected and helpless, but he soon became determined to show everyone that he would not always be defenseless.

Shimabuku's uncle, Irshu Matsumora, was an instructor of the Shuri-te style of karate, and lived in the Village of Shuri about 6 miles from the Shimabuku home. At the age of six, Tatsuo walked the 6 miles to request karate lessons from his uncle. When he first approached him, Matsumora spat on him and sent him away. The next day Shimabuku went back to try again, but this time his uncle threw a bucket of slop on him. Tatsuo was never one to give up so he went back every day to ask for lessons, walking the 12 mile round trip only to be turned away. This situation went on for almost 2 full years.


One day in 1916, a severe storm was brewing over the island. Through torrential rain, Tatsuo made his daily pilgrimage to his uncle's dojo. When he showed up at his uncle's school during the storm, Irshu thought he must surely be insane. Matsumora asked the young Shimabuku why he would risk his life in such weather just to study karate. Tatsuo began to describe his plight at home and when he finished his uncle said that yes; now he could learn karate. Shimabuku's apprenticeship in karate was somewhat unusual by today's standards. He was required to do menial jobs around the dojo and pick up whatever karate knowledge he could in his spare time. In this manner, Tatsuo Shimabuku studied Shuri-te karate for almost four years.


At the age of 12, Shimabuku met Gajoku Chioyu, another uncle and an instructor of the Shobayashi system of Shorin-Ryu karate. After some coaxing, he was allowed to formally train under Sensei (teacher) Chioyu. Through uncle Chioyu, Tatsuo met the famous Shorin-Ryu Master, Chotoku Kiyan, Master Kiyan, renowned throughout Okinawa, lived and taught in Kadena Village. Shimabuku walked 10 miles each day to and from Kadena to study Shorin-Ryu. He studied under Master
Kiyan for about 2 years and eventually became his leading student. Kiyan taught Shimabuku may of the katas that he later incorporated into his own system of karate. During this same period of time, Shimabuku readily accepted the nickname of Tatsuo. Realizing that although the name was originally given in jest, it described the aspirations he had developed toward karate; namely to develop the power of the legendary Okinawan Dragon.


After acquiring a proficiency in Shorin-Ryu, Shimabuku traveled to Naha to find the founder of Goju-Ryu Karate, Master Chojun Miyagi. Goju-Ryu is a "hard" style of Okinawan Karate using strong, powerful techniques and special breathing methods. Tatsuo studied Goju-Ryu under Master Miyagi until about 1925, when Miyagi moved to China, then Japan.


When Master Miyagi moved, Shimabuku was left without an instructor, so he sought the most famous fighter on the island, Choki Motobu. Motobu never propagated a school of his own, though he was a master of the Kobayashi branch of Shorin-Ryu Karate. He seldom taught people his art, but he did allow others to watch him as he trained. When Tatsuo arrived at Motabu's home and requested lessons, Motobu observed his small size and told him to practice running instead of karate. Shimabuku returned to Motobu'• home many times, watching the master and trying to imitate his movements. Motobu finally invited Tatsuo in and began to teach him the fundamentals of fighting, the Motobu way.


It was under the tutelage of Motobu that Shimabuku's accomplishments in karate became recognized. In 1930, at a large martial arts festival in Fatima Village, Tatsuo astonished the karate elders with a flawless rendition of Chinto Kata. In describing the incident, Shimabuku said, "I was supposed to sit at the head table with the masters, but I was just a farm boy and they resented my presence. I chose to let my actions speak for me, and afterward was accepted as a true martial artist. It teaches us not to judge others by the way they look, but by their abilities.'


After winning recognition at Fatima, Shimabuku next studied Kobudo (the way of weapons). Although karate is primarily an empty handed art, (karate literally means "empty hands,") Tatsuo felt that a martial arts system without weapons was incomplete.


Shimabuku studied the weapons systems of 2 Okinawan Masters: Taira Shinken and Yabiku Moden, between 1920 and 1960. From Master Shinken, he studied techniques of the Bo and Sai. From Master Moden he acquired knowledge of the Bo, Sai, and Tee-fa (also known as Tonfa).


When World War II struck the island of Okinawa, Tatsuo Shimabuku was at his peak. He was considered one of the island's leading practitioners of both Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu Karate. Despite his recognition in the martial arts, karate was not a moneymaking business and Shimabuku raised sugar cane to support his family. In addition to farming, he also owned his own business, a small concrete manufacturing firm.


At the onset of the war, his concrete plant was destroyed and Shimabuku went bankrupt. He was then forced to flee to escape conscription in the Japanese army. Most of the people who lived on Okinawa felt that the war was basically a Japanese conflict and wanted no part in it. Tatsuo left his home and family and escaped to the Okinawan countryside where he worked as a farmer and practiced his beloved karate. As the need for Japanese soldiers increased, pressure on the Okinawan people to join the war effort intensified.


When Japanese officials learned of Shimabuku and his karate ability, they began a thorough search of the island for him. Once again, Tatsuo was forced to flee, this time to Miyazaki Japan, where he continued to work as a farmer and practice karate. Shimabuku avoided contact with the Japanese military for nearly half the war. As conflict after conflict dragged on though, Tatsuo began to tire of the game of hide and seek. Through a series of messages,  Shimabuku contacted the Japanese military hierarchy and struck a bargain with them. He agreed to teach a select group of military officials karate if they would keep his identity a secret. In this way, Tatsuo Shimabuku survived the most far-reaching war of the century.


When the war was over, Shimabuku returned to Okinawa, only to find his homeland devastated. His business vas destroyed and American bombers had killed his father. He moved his wife and family to Chun Village and began farming the land. For the next several years, Shimabuku practiced karate only for his mental and physical exercise. Although he did not teach during this time, he gained the reputation of being one of the island's leading practitioners of both Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu Karate. At a festival in Kiyan Village in 1952, Shimabuku gave a karate demonstration, performing Sanchin Kata. The mayor of the village was so impressed by Master Shimabuku's power and stability, he named him Sunnu-Su, which means stone strong man. This name was taken from a stone in the ocean near Shiyoya City in Okinawa. According to legend, this stone was placed there to protect the city and cannot be moved. The mayor noted that Shimabuku had that same immovable power when performing Sanchin.


In the early 1950's Master Shimabuku began to teach a small group of students at his home in Chum Village. As he taught these people, he began to realize that there were serious problems with the systems he was teaching. Goju-Ryu was a strong powerful style, but it lacked speed. Shorin-Ryu was faster and more fluid, but it lacked power. Shimabuku felt that if the best of these styles were combined, a new and better system could be had. He also noticed that both styles used techniques that were not practical in combat, such as low, exaggerated stances, the twist punch, and high, fancy kicks. He began to experiment with new techniques, which would be practical in a real fighting situation. He eliminated wasted movement and used body armor to determine which techniques were most effective.


Shimabuku also felt that it was time for a standard system of karate, one that would combine the best elements of all styles. He saw differences and conflicts developing among the various styles and he hoped such a system would unify the karate world and influence the growth of karate as a whole. Out of respect, Shimabuku consulted with the aged masters of the island and the heads of leading karate schools. At first there was a general acceptance of Shimabuku's idea. They agreed that a unified system would greatly benefit the art of karate. Later though, they began to have second thoughts and many of the masters feared they would lose their status if all styles were consolidated. As time progressed, the idea met with substantial resistance.


Seeing that his concept of a unified system would not come to pass, Shimabuku reverted to his original idea of combining Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu. He reflected on the many things that his instructors had taught him during his long years of study. From Chotoku Kiyan, Shimabuku took five of the katas of the Shorin-Ryu system, refined them and eliminated their weak points. From Choki Motobu he adopted many free fighting techniques. From Chojun Miyagi's Goju-Ryu he took Seiuchin Kata as veil as Sanchin, the basis of Okinawan Karate. To these he added his own kata. Sunsu, and the weapons of Masters Shinken and Moden, and thus a new system was born.


In many ways, Shimabuku's new system was drastically different from any other style of Okinawan Karate. He incorporated a vertical straight punch, short natural stances, low kicks, and improved blocking techniques into his system. Initially, many of the Okinawan Masters resented Shimabuku's new style. They said he was breaking from tradition and called him a renegade. Eventually though, the new system was accepted, with some of the techniques even being adopted by other styles.


Shimabuku began teaching this synthesized form of karate in the field beside his home in Chum Village. While he had developed the basis of his system, he had not yet named the new style. One day Tatsuo had a dream about Mizu-Gami, the Water Goddess, which was to become the symbol of Isshin-Ryu. While relating this dream to the people he was teaching, one of his students, Mr. Eiko Kaneshi, spoke up and said, "Master, you teach us to perfect our character and unite our hearts and minds through the practice of karate. Because of this, you should call the system Isshin-Ryu, the one heart way." Shimabuku agreed, and adopted Isshin-Ryu as the name of his new system.


On January 15, 1954, a meeting of Okinawa Japan Karate Do Leaque was held, with the top Okinawan Karate Masters presiding over the meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to decide if a new karate system, founded by Tatsuo Shimabuku, should be admitted to the league. At the conclusion of the meeting, it was agreed that this new style, recognized as the Isshin-Ryu karate-do, was thereby sanctioned as a legitimate style of Okinawan karate and that Tatsuo Shimabuku, it's founder, was recognized as 10th Dan of Isshin-Ryu.


Master Shimabuku's first Isshin-Ryu Dojo was that field beside his home in Chum Village. In late 1956, he opened his first commercial dojo in the city of Agena. This consisted of an outer dojo and an inner dojo. Attached to the inner dojo was the master's house. Shimabuku set a precedent among Okinawan karate schools by accepting a select number of non-Asians as students. Most of these students were American servicemen stationed at the military bases on Okinawa. Some of those GI's after long periods of study, made it to black belt. The master selected 4 of these Americans, Harold Long, Harold Mitchum, Steve Armstrong, and Don Nagle to be the U.S. representatives of Isshin-Ryu Karate.


In 1960, Shimabuku opened a second school in Kim-Son Village, near Camp Hansen, A U.S. Marine base about 15 miles north of Agena. This school grew and 4 years later was moved directly onto the base. Many of the Marines that Master Shimabuku taught returned to America and began teaching Isshin-Ryu themselves. These schools helped to make Isshin-Ryu the popular style it has become today.


Master Shimabuku came to the United States for the first time in 1964, to see James Morobito. Shimabuku spent about 3 months in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area, teaching his Isshin-Ryu system. In 1966, Shimabuku traveled again to the U.S. He had learned that Isshin-Ryu was not being taught in America in the way he had intended. He visited several schools in the U.S., including Harry Acklin in Ohio, Harold Long in Tennessee, Don Nagle in New Jersey, and Steve Armstrong in Tacoma, Washington. While in Washington, Armstrong filmed Master Shimabuku while performing the katas and defense techniques. Upon reviewing the film, the master said, "Good, now Americans can learn good Isshin-Ryu Karate." Isshin-Ryu
Karate has since spread not only throughout America, but also through the world as well.


On May 30, 1975 at 10:45 P.M., Master Tatsuo Shimabuku passed away. He lived to see his dream, the style of Isshin-Ryu Karate grow from a renegade offshoot into a world-renowned system of martial arts.


 Copyright 2005 Wayland's Isshin-Ryu Karate-Do, LLC


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