Isshin Ryu

Isshin-Ryu (一心流) is a style of Okinawan karate founded by Shimabuku Tatsuo and named by him on 15 January 1956. Isshin-RyÅ« karate is largely a synthesis of Shorin-ryu karate, Goju-ryu karate, and Kobudo. The name means, literally, “one heart method.” The style, while not very popular in Okinawa, spread to the United States via the Marines stationed on the island when they returned home, and has also spread to other countries. After the passing of Shimabuku, many variations of the system formed and exist to this day.

Isshinryu (one heart/one mind) introduced in 1954 by Tatsuo Shimabuku. Sensei Shimabuku Studied both the Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu systems; studied Kobayashi-Ryu under Chotoku Kiyan and later under Choki Motobu. Then He studied the Bo, Sai and Tonfa under Okinawa’s most noted instructors.

Isshinryu is a combination of the best of these styles and weapons techniques and epitomizes the powerful, lightning-fast techniques that enabled the weaponless Okinawans to endure the rein of the Chinese empire and to defeat the sword-wielding Samurai of Japan.

On September 19,1906 a baby boy was born in the village of Chun to a farming family. He was given the name Chinkichi Shimabuku. Young Shimabuku grew into a strong lad with a strong desire to learn and achieve. At an early age, he began to study karate from his uncle lrshu Matsumora (Kamasu Chan), in the village of Chun. He studied with his uncle for about ten years.

Around 1926, he began studying with Master Chotoku Kyan in the village of Katena. Shimabuku looked at Master Kyan as his first formal karate sensei, and developed and practiced the ki for which Kyan was known. Shimabuku had reached his full maturity of five feet two inches and about 120 pounds by this time in his life.

In the 1930s, Shimabuku studied with Choki Motobu as he continued to study with Sensei Kyan. With Motobu, he honed his skills in kumite (grappling).

Shimabuku was a farmer and karate teacher during the mid and late 1930s. During the occupation by the Japanese in the mid to late 30s, Shimabuku, being a businessman and an opportunist, invested all his money in horses and carts and was employed by the Japanese military to help build the air strips at Kadena, Okinawa. With the outbreak of World War II and the bombing and invasion of Okinawa by Allied Forces (U.S. Marines), Shimabuku’s little business was destroyed. During this time he moved north into the mountainous terrain to escape from the heavily occupied southern territory held by the Japanese. Here in the north central part of Okinawa, Shimabuku and his family waited out the battle of Okinawa.

During the occupation of Okinawa by the Japanese, and prior to the invasion by Allied Forces, Shimabuku taught karate to the officers of the Japanese military. There were some pictures taken of Shimabuku and his Japanese students during this time, but most known pictures were destroyed by Shimabuku during the invasion by Allied Forces to keep his activities secret.

When the war was over, Shimabuku did not change his life style much; he kept farming as this was the only way to have enough food for his family. As more and more U.S. personnel were stationed on the island, Shimabuku quit farming and began teaching them “Chan MigwhaAe” (forerunner to lsshinryu Karate). The U.S. Special Services let contracts (about 1956) to many karate instructors on the island to teach karate to U.S. servicemen during their time off. Tatsuo Shimabuku was one of these instructors. He received about $250 a month. During the ‘SOs this was a lot of money, especially to Okinawans who had struggled to exist during the war.

Shimabuku was recognized as being proficient in both Shorin-ryu and Goju-ryu. Master Shimabuku was never a dan in either style because there was no such thing at the time. In those days there was no formal ranking system, as such, one was judged as a black belt or a master based on one’s actions as viewed by one’s fellow karate-ka.

After Sensei Kyan’s death on September 20,1945, Shimabuku began studying with Master Chojun Miyagi where he furthered his ki and learned Goju-Ryu katas. He studied with Miyagi until Miyagi’s death on October 8, 1953. It was during this time that Shimabuku began experimenting with new techniques. He wanted to change the techniques to be quicker and faster. He used kendo protective equipment during kumite. This is when he started developing different ways to block and punch. Shimabuku went on to further his study of weapons with Tirara Shinkenin the 1950s and 1960s.

On January 14,1954, Tatsuo Shimabuku went to sleep and had a dream. In this dream he saw a vision of a goddess, half woman and half sea serpent. One of her hands was raised in a fist, and the other was lowered and open. A dragon was flying in the gray sky above.

When Master Shimabuku awoke the next morning, he believed that the dream was divinely inspired. It was on this day, January 15,1954, (refer to Master Tatsuo Shimabuku’s letter dated February 26,1959 included herein and signed by the late Master) that he decided to break away from Okinawan traditional styles. He was to name this new style of Karate – lsshinryu.

This dream goes back to Master Shimabuku’s teaching in Taoism and his changing his given name from Shinkichi to Tatsuo. Tatsuo means dragon in Japanese. But the most important thing in Tao teaching is that the dragon symbolizes supreme wisdom, power, control, and social influence. Now, going one step further, the “Flying Dragon” in Master Shimabuku’s dream always depicts rain, wind, clouds, and lightning.

Before this day, Master Shimabuku had been developing and refining his ideas. He called what he taught before lsshinryu, “Chan Migwha-Te.” This name was in honor of Master Kyan. Kyan’s nickname was “Migwha” meaning “small eyed chan” (Chan is the Okinawan pronunciation for Kyan) and “Te” means hand. So this school was the “small eyed Kyan’s Karate.”

After telling his senior students of his decision to break away from Okinawan traditional styles, many of his students left him. Master Shimabuku continued with his decision to formulate a new style that was radically different from other Okinawan karate styles and began looking for a name for his new system. In 1954, one of Master Shimabuku’s senior students, Eiko Kaneshi, suggested the new name. In the original kanji (characters), the name was “lsshindo”. In 1956, Master Shimabuku changed the kanji to read “lsshinryu”; as it is today.

On February 26,1959, Master Shimabuku held an exhibition party for the third anniversary of Karate lsshinryu modes as shown by the document written by Master Shimabuku in his own hand. During the early years of lsshinryu karate, 1956-57, Masters Harold Long and Don Nagle studied lsshinryu from Master Shimabuku. Thus, at this time in Grand Master Shimabuku’s life, lsshinryu and Shimabuku became one.

Master Shimabuku always had a number one Okinawan student and a number one American student. Eiko Kaneshi was the number one Okinawan student. Kinjo Kinsoku was his best Okinawan student, and Sensei Harold Mitchum became his number one and best American student, but before Mitchum became Shimabuku’s number one student, there was a Marine by the name of Sergeant Hall, an EA. All that Sensei Mitchum remembers of him was that “he sure hit hard.” After Hall left Okinawa, Sensei became the Master’s number one and he never had an equal. Hall is the man who took Mitchum to meet Master Shimabuku and on March 23,1958, Sensei Mitchum officially started studying lsshinryu Karate.

In 1959, Master Tatsuo Shimabuku’s classes had grown so large he opened another school down the street about two blocks from the main dojo in Agena village. (Agena is a suburb of Gushikawa City.) At the second dojo Master Shimabuku had Sensei Mitchum teach; Sensei Mitchum taught Americans and Okinawans alike. The Master had a small area at one end of this dojo where his daughter and son-in-law, Yukis and Angi Uezu lived. Angi Uezu did not start studying lsshinryu until the mid ’60s. Master Shimabuku opened another dojo across the street from the gates of Camp Hanser.

In the early ’60s, the Special Services cancelled the Martial Arts contracts with local instructors. Master Shimabuku did not understand why. So he asked Mitchum to go with him to find out why he lost the contract teaching karate to U.S. based personnel. It was explained to the Master and Mitchum by the Special Services officer that Special Services thought that they were paying too much for the services. They (Shimabuku and Mitchum) were told that Special Services were going to conduct a study to find out what an instructor in Japan was paid and adjust the contract pay according to the study. Master Shimabuku, along with other instructors, got their contracts renewed at about the same old rate.

In 1960, a meeting/party was held in Agena, Okinawa to establish an Association. Master Tatsuo Shimabuku, Kinjo Kinsoku, Eiko Kaneshi, Harold Mitchum, Steve Armstrong, an interpreter, and others were present. There were two main decisions that came from this meeting: 1) the Okinawan- American Karate Association was established, and 2) Harold Mitchum was installed as the President of the newly formed Association. The Association established dues to be paid every month and the membership roster of members was made up by Ralph J. Bove and Harold Mitchum (See list of membership in Association in 1960). The only names of Americans not listed are Harold Mitchum, Steve Armstrong, Ralph J. Bove, who were officers in the Association.

In 1961, the Association’s name was changed from Okinawan-American Karate Association to American-Okinawan Karate Association and a newsletter was sent out stating that all Dan grades awarded prior to June 10,1961, were invalid. All black belts went back to Sho-Dan Grade and Master Shimabuku reissued other ranks accordingly. Also a formal letter was issued by Grand Master Shimabuku appointing Mr. Harold M. Mitchum to the post of A.O.K.A. President.

About 1963 the main dojo had a roof put on using A.O.K.A. funds. Also, there were pictures in the local newspaper of Master Shimabuku donating money to a local charity.

In 1966 Master Tatsuo Shimabuku visited the United States. Mr. Steve Armstrong had Master Shimabuku flown to Tacoma, Washington, from Okinawa to visit with him. From there, he was flown to Knoxville, Tennessee to Mr. Harold Long’s dojo. From Tennessee, he flew to New Jersey to see Mr. Don Nagle and from there he returned to Mr. Steve Armstrong’s dojo in Tacoma, Washington. During this time all three were promoted to eighth Dans. Mr. Steve Armstrong filmed Master Shimabuku doing the 14 lsshinryu katas; 8 empty hand and 6 weapons katas.

Master Shimabuku turned over the running of the Association to Kichiro in the early 1970s. On May 30,1975, Master Tatsuo Shimabuku died. After cremation, the Master was buried in a beautiful Botanical Garden Cemetery close to Kadena Air Base, along side his oldest daughter. Master Tatsuo Shimabuku’s wife lives with the youngest son at this time.

Grand Master Tatsuo Shimabuku first intended to give the lsshinryu System to his number one student but to appease his angry son, on his deathbed Grand Master Shimabuku gave lsshinryu Karate on Okinawa to Kichiro. The Grand Master had given directions to his lsshinryu leaders in America to teach lsshinryu Karate and expand their organizations. These leaders were Harold Long, Steve Armstrong, Harold Mitchum and Don Nagle. Master Kichiro Shimabuku began the lsshinryu World Karate Association, with a branch in the United States. The American Okinawan Karate Association remained active with Master Armstrong at the helm.

Kata: The system is summed up in its kata, or formal practice methods, and the specific techniques used to punch (vertical fist) and kick (snapping kicks).

In many of the various forms of the system, fourteen kata (eight empty-hand, three bo, two sai and one tuifa kata) are agreed upon as composing Isshin-ryu.

These Kata include original developments of the Master, and inherited kata from the parent styles.

Empty-Hand Kata, Seisan: Tatsuo Shimabuku learned this kata from his primary instructor, Chotoku Kyan. Previous to Kyan’s instruction, the Seisan form was a staple of local traditions.

Meaning “13,” the kata has an embusen, or floor-pattern, which, when each section of the form is seen as an individual line, creates the numerical kanji for “13.”

This kata is the first introduced to students, after the First and Second Charts of basics has been learned. This is in contrast to other Shorin systems, where this kata is learned after other fundamental kata. This is a modern trend, though, and was not carried into Isshin Ryu, as it was modeled after the teachings of Chotoku Kyan. It should also be noted that this kata is also present in Goju Ryu.

Seiunchin: This kata was brought into Isshinryu from Shimabuku’s studies with the Goju Ryu founder, Miyagi Chojun. It is believed by researchers this kata is an original composed by Miyagi, based on his experiences in Fuzhou, China.

The kata focuses on the stance “shiko-dachi,” a low horse stance. The kata is broken into segments, each utilizing a specific breathing and muscle-tensing method. The kata has no obvious kicks, but one section contains hints of a rising knee strike. This kata is often studied for its grappling bunkai.

Naihanchi: This kata comes to Isshin Ryu from studies with both Chotoku Kyan and Motobu Choki (a cousin of Kyan). It is also considered one of the staples of Ryukyu Ti, and is prevalent in most forms of Karate. The Isshin Ryu version is influenced heavily by the kumite of Motobu, with the exception of the turned-in toes (Motobu preferred the horse-riding stance with the toes in a neutral position).

The kata is also noted for its use of the “Nami Gaeshi,” the returning wave kick. The kick has many different potentials for application, including the sweeping or redirecting of a low kick, a kick or knee to the inside of an opponent’s thigh, knee, tibia and ankle. It also has the movement training potential for the basics of the sequential summation of movement.

Wansu: Also coming from Kyan, this kata has several iterations on the island of Ryukyu. Popular history has the kata coming from a Chinese political visitor who, during his duties, taught his fighting method in the open.

Isshin Ryu’s version of this form is unique for its inclusion of two side kicks – techniques seen in the system previously only in the Chart Two exercises. Current research hints at this change being made by Shimabuku himself.

For technical content, the form tends to focus on the slipping and in-close evasion and redirection of attack. it also contains a unique movement often described as a fireman’s carry throw, or dump. Because of this, many schools nickname this kata “the dumping form.” Also, Wansu is one of two kata in Isshin Ryu which use the “zenkutsu dachi,” a long, angled seisan-type stance.

Chinto: As with most of the kata in Isshin Ryu, this form also came from the teaching of Kyan. Oral history purports this form as to having come from a stranded Chinese sailor named Chinto. The sailor was to have been living in a graveyard and stealing food from locals to live. When confronted by a famous martial artist of the time, “Bushi” Matsumura, the sailor easily evaded Matsumura’s techniques. Because of this encounter, the two trained for some time together, with Matsumura later formulating the kata Chinto based on his experiences.

The kata differs from others in that its embusen is a line placed on a 45 degree angle. The footwork is indicative of a slipping, deflecting, and a whipping, relaxed body motion. Some karate instructors consider the previously learned forms of the system, Naihanchi and Wansu, to be preparatory and basic training forms, culminating in the kata Chinto.

Kusanku: Of the eight weaponless kata in Isshin Ryu, five come from the teaching of Chotoku Kyan. Kusanku is one. The oral history of Kusanku has the forms origins in the teachings of a Chinese politician who, like the aforementioned Wansu, taught his boxing to the general, lay Ryukyuan public. However, considering the amount of time and dedication to Chinese court life which was needed to “climb the ladder,” and attain a rank of importance in that culture, it is doubtful that either character, if they did indeed work in Okinawa, either knew or taught a particular boxing method.

Kusanku is often cited as a “night-fighting” kata, or a form which teaches fighting at night. This, however, is considered as doubtful as its origin story. The lack of application study of this form tends to exacerbate the myth. In reality, the kata is set up in such a manner as to allow continual study of application potential from basic standing grappling and close striking in the beginning, to more aggressive and proactive techniques near the end. Kusanku is the second of two kata which contain the “zenkutsu dachi” in Isshin Ryu.

Sunsu: This kata was designed by the founder of Isshin Ryu, Shimabuku Tatsuo. It incorporates several movements from other kata in the Isshin Ryu syllabus, as well as from kata from other instructors, in addition to techniques and concepts Shimabuku favored. The kata is unique to the style, but actually predates it. It was used as a dojo kata, and a personal project of the founder, previous to the founding of Isshin Ryu proper in 1956.

Though not a widely practiced form, it has been recognized as a kata of Okinawa by the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai. Many consider this an acceptance of Isshin Ryu as a legitimate, modern iteration of Ryukyuan martial art.

Sanchin: Coming from Miyagi Chojun, this kata has its origins in the Goju Ryu system. Previous to the instruction of Miyagi, the kata was practiced with open hands, turns, and natural breathing methods. With the founding of Goju Ryu, this form was practiced with closed fists (a more traditional method on Okinawa), no turns, and a controlled, almost hard inhalation and exhalation.

Touted primarily for its physical training aspects, Sanchin also contains many applicable martial techniques.

Shimabuku also thought very highly of the form, saying once, “Sanchin is for health. Without health, how can one have karate?”

Kobudo Kata:
Tokumine no Kun:
This cudgel form comes to the Isshin Ryu system from Shimabuku’s time with Kyan. Kyan is to have learned the form either from Tokumine himself, or from Tokumine’s landlord after after the aforementioned had passed on.

Urashi no Kun: The form Urashi no Kun was taught to Shimabuku by his kobudo instructor, Shinken Taira. Taira is the founder of the Ryukyu Kobudo Study Group and Preservation Society, the goal of which being the preservation of as many of Okinawa’s weapons forms as possible.

Shishi no Kun: Shimabuku learned this form from Taira Shinken.

Sai (forked weapon) kata:
Kusanku Sai: This form is a product of Shimabuku’s own research into the art of kobudo, the coverall for Okinawa’s weapons studies.

The kata was built as an introduction to Sai practice, with the weapon movements replacing the empty-hand applications.

When Shimabuku initially taught the form, he maintained the kicks from the empty-hand version. However, after some time spent studying kobudo, he made the decision to remove them.

Chatan Yara no Sai: Chatan Yara is taught as the second Sai kata in the Isshin Ryu system, coming from Shimabuku’s instruction with Taira Shinken.

The form focuses on the development of the “sequential summation of movement,” which is the scientific term for full-body whipping motion. This is exemplified by the emphasis on whipping strikes, which make up a vas majority of the offensive movements in the form.

Kyan No Sai: This form comes either from Shimabuku’s studies of Sai methodology with Kyan, his primary karate instructor, or was possibly a form taught in its entirety. Shimabuku taught this kata initially, but later dropped as a solo kata. Some of the Marines to learn under Shimabuku, though, did learn the form, and it is included in their lineages.

Tuifa or Tonfa kata, Hama Higa no Tuifa: This form is another product of Shimabuku’s studies with Shinken Taira. It is the only tuifa kata in the Isshinryu system.

The kata bares many similarities to the Uechi Ryu empty-hand form “Seisan,” and actually contains an entire section from the form, albiet performed with weapons in-hand. It also has several postures seen in other kobudo kata, the most notable posture being “Crane on a Rock.” Whether this is from the encyclopediac kobudo of Taira, or was a part of Hama Higa to begin with is not historically verifiable.

Some Isshin-Ryu schools teach the kata in an order different from the above. However, Shimabuku Tatsuo taught the kata in the above order.

Tatsuo Shimabuku:
Shimabuku Tatsuo (島袋龍夫, Shimabuku Tatsuo?) (1908-1975) was born September 19, 1908 in Chan village, Okinawa. Master Shimabuku began training under his uncle on his mother’s side Ganiku (in Japanese, Ganeku.) Ganeku later sent Shimabuku to study karate from Chotoku Kyan who lived in Kadena. He was around age 23 or 24 at the time. Chotoku Kyan would be his most influential instructor (and after whom he initially named his style Chan migwa Te). He also studied karate with Chojun Miyagi in Naha for several years beginning in 1936 and from Choki Motobu around 1938 (also in Naha).

Master Shimabuku opened his first dojo in Konbo village and began teaching in 1946. On January 15, 1956, he held a meeting and announced that he was naming his new style of karate Isshin-ryu. Master Shimabuku’s number one student, Eiko Kaneshi, was at the meeting and he asked Shimabuku, “Why such a funny name?” Tatsuo replied, “Because all things begin with one.”

At the age of 51 (1959) Master Shimabuku began studying Okinawan Kobudo, the art of old traditional Okinawan weapons. The kobudo weapons included were the sai, bo, and tonfa, under Shinken Taira. He incorporated the kobudo that he had learned from Kyan and Taira into the Isshin-ryu system.

Megami: Isshinryu No Megami (一心流の女神, Isshinryu No Megami?), or for short, Megami (女神, Megami? goddess) is the symbol of Isshin-ryu. It is represented on the Isshin-ryu crest and is often displayed on the front wall of the dojo next to a picture of Tatsuo Shimabuku. The patch is based on a daydream Tatsuo Shimabuku had in 1955 while he was creating his karate style. This dream was the missing piece in the puzzle called Isshin-ryu. Originally the Isshin-ryu emblem was called Isshin-ryu No Megami, which means ‘Goddess of Isshinryu.’ Some Isshin-ryu karateka call it Mizu Gami (水神), or ‘Water Goddess.’ Master Eiko Kaneshi, Tatsuo’s right-hand-man who was a Shinto priest, was asked if it was Mizu Gami. He said it has nothing to do with water. Isshin-ryu no Megami, or Megami for short, is correct. This is collaborated by Marien Jumelet who asked Shinsho Shimabuku and Kensho Tokumura what was the correct name. The Goddess is the Goddess of Isshin-ryu karate and not the Goddess of water.

The Isshin-ryu patch is rich with cross-linked symbolism where certain features could and do have more than three intended meanings behind them. Between factions exist variations of the patch, the portrait of the Isshin-ryu no Megami, and the symbols contained therein.

Features: Isshin-Ryu employs a vertical punch with the fingers tucked in and the thumb on top of the fist. Advantages vary with opinion, but it is usually taught that the thumb placement increases the stability of the wrist when punching, and that a vertical punch strikes with the same force at any range instead of at maximum extension as with a corkscrew style punch. Another advantage is that when punching, the thumb will not get caught on an object as opposed to having the thumb sticking up or out.

Isshin-Ryu arm blocks are performed with the muscle at the intended contact point as opposed to other styles that block with the bone. By using the two bones to block instead of one, it thus creates a stronger block that when used with force, becomes a strike.

Isshin-Ryu kicks are primarily a “snapping” motion, as opposed to placing primary emphasis on thrusting and follow-through.