ISSHINRYU KARATE HISTORY
MASTER TATSUO SHIMABUKU
Master Tatsuo Shimabuku, founder of the Isshinryu Karate System, was born September 9, 1908 in the village of Kiyan on the island of Okinawa. While his mother worked hard raising a family, his father owned and operated a prosperous meat store in the village. As a young boy, Shimabuku's involvement in the martial arts came out of necessity. His older brother was a bully who constantly hit and harassed him. When Shimabuku finally couldn't take it anymore, he approached his father regarding his brother's abusive behavior. Shimabuku was stunned by his father's response. Instead of coming to his aid and reprimanding his brother's behavior, he told him to go to Naha and learn karate so that he could defend himself.
It was the best advice he could have received because he became determined to show everyone that he would never be in a defenseless situation again. At the age of 15, Shimabuku traveled by foot some 15 miles to Naha and sought out the Dojo of Motobu Choki. Motobu Sensei was a legend in his own time, known for his awesome size, great strength and fighting ability. When Shimabuku arrived at his dojo, Motobu took one look at the skinny young man and told him to practice running instead of karate, so that he could flee from his attackers. Although dejected, Shimabuku would not give up, appearing at the dojo every day and peering over the wall to watch the students and try and mimic their movements. Finally, Motobu invited Shimabuku inside and asked him why he wanted to learn karate. After explaining his situation at home, Motobu finally accepted him as a student, though he did require Shimabuku to clean the dojo for one month prior to beginning formal lessons as a test of patience, sincerity and perseverance. Satisfied with Shimabuku's humble character, Motobu taught him hand and foot techniques, sparring and makiwara training exercises.
Shimabuku also studied under Master Chotoku Kiyan, who he had heard about through a friend. Another renowned teacher, Kiyan taught at Kadena village where Shimabuku walked 10 miles daily to and from the dojo. Impressed with young Shimabuku's talent, Kiyan immediately accepted him as a student. Shorinryu, a style known for it's graceful, quick and powerful movements, greatly impressed Shimabuku. Shimabuku learned the following kata's, which he later refined and incorporated into Isshinryu: Seisan, Naihanchi, Wansu, Chinto, Kusanku.
When Shimabuku began to study Shorinryu, his brother made the mistake of trying to beat him up again. It was the last time his brother ever spoke aggressively to him or touched him again. After teaching his brother a lesson he never forgot, Shimabuku realized the destructive power of Karate and that it should only be taught as a defensive art to be used as a last resort. Shimabuku studied Shorinryu under Master Kiyan and was ranked as his number one student during that time period. At that time, there were no belt ranks, only titles such as number one student, number two student, etc. Being ranked number one would easily equal a high Dan ranking.
Having achieved great proficiency in Shorinryu, Shimabuku's love of karate and thirst for knowledge led him to seek out famed Okinawan Gojuryu Master Chojun Miyagi. Gojuryu is s system of hard Okinawan karate with soft early Chinese forms. Gojuryu is noted for it's dramatic breathing methods. The hard and soft breathing teaches one to tighten the body to withstand an attackers blow. Miyagi Sensei taught Shimabuku two kata's, which he later refined and modified into Isshinryu: Seiunchin and Sanchin.
With his mastery of Shorinryu and Gojuryu complete, Shimabuku next sought out the kobudo Weapons Master, Taira Shinken. At the time, he was the world's greatest expert in the bo and sai.
Master Shimabuku believed strongly in the learning of weapons, feeling a karate system without weaponry was incomplete. He saw the continuation of weapons training as a way of preserving an important part of Okinawan culture and the Samurai fighting spirit. He also felt weapons offered the practitioner a new challenge once he mastered empty hand karate techniques. Ancient weapons are also effective self-defense instruments that can be used during any time period no matter how sophisticated our culture becomes. Master Shimabuku had a great personal love of weaponry and practiced perfecting the bo and sai every day of his life.
From Master Shinken, Shimabuku learned the following weapons kata's, and like the hand and foot katas of Shorinryu and Gojuryu, later refined and modified them into his Isshinryu system. They are Tokumine-no-kun, Urashi-kun, Shishi-no-kun-no-dai and Chatanyara-no-sai.
Just prior to WWII, Master Shimabuku was recognized throughout the Ryu-Kyu Islands as one of the leading practitioners of Shorinryu and Gojuryu karate. He won fame and recognition at a large martial arts festival in Fatima village, where he impressed everyone with his flawless kata performances. He also shocked the spectators with his ability to drive nails through pieces of wood with the knife-edge of his hand. Besides teaching karate to a small select group of students, Shimabuku was also a businessman, owning a small concrete manufacturing company. With the arrival of war to the islands, his company was completely destroyed and he went bankrupt. Seeing his homeland crumble, Shimabuku fled to Miyazaki, Japan, where he worked as a farmer and trained religiously in his beloved karate. It was during this exile that he first had thought about developing his own system of karate.
Upon his return to Okinawa after the war, he again took up farming and practiced karate privately for his own spiritual and physical exercise. In the early fifties, he began to again teach a small select group of people in the courtyard of his home in Agena village. Teaching every day now, he began to see what he felt were flaws in the systems he had learned. The three major areas he felt needed modification were in the blocking, punching and fist techniques. He noticed that when students practiced hard partner blocking techniques, they often bruised or broke their wrist because of the hard contact being made to the bone with the old traditional blocks. He felt that by keeping the wrist straight and blocking with the muscle of the forearm, injuries would be eliminated, and they were.
The second important change was the punching technique. With his great insight and innovative nature, Shimabuku noticed that turning the fist at the last moment when punching had many limitations. Turning of the fist only allows for one point of focus, which is at the very end of the punch. What happens if your attacker moves in on you before you complete the wrist turn? The turning motion also slows the punch and the locking out of the elbow can cause injuries. When the elbow is locked, it can easily be broken with a direct blocking technique. Locking the elbow also leaves your arm easy prey for Judo or Jiu-jitsu practitioners throwing or performing arm locking techniques. Master Shimabuku also noticed that even though he was teaching the traditional "cork-screw" punch, students were not using it when sparring. Instead, they instinctively punched straight without turning for quickness and greater power. Shimabuku's reasoning upon witnessing this numerous times was why do we train one way, but use another in combat? So, for the purpose of greater speed and power, Master Shimabuku implemented the straight vertical punch into his system. Also the Isshinryu straight punch strikes with 98% extension instead of full elbow lockout as with the traditional punch, which helps protect the elbow from being damaged.
Thirdly, to coincide with the vertical punch Master Shimabuku developed the unique vertical fist, which has become the trademark of the Isshinryu system. Unlike other styles of karate that keep the thumb down around the fingers, Isshinryu placed the thumb on top of the fingers. Master Shimabuku found that the thumb on top of the fingers raised cords on the upper wrist making the wrist stronger and more stable during contact with the Makiwara, in combat or when breaking. The thumb on top also helps prevent the thumb from catching on the uniform during execution of the technique. The Isshinryu fist also enables the bones of the hand to line up perfectly straight when striking to avoid damage on impact.
Like most things that are new, the martial arts community met Master Shimabuku's innovations with mixed feelings in the beginning. Those with insight praised his developments while some die-hard traditionalists saw him as a rebel upsetting the tradition of ancient ways. Regardless of what was said, Master Shimabuku never swayed from his beliefs and he was rewarded by Isshinryu's growth and popularity as one of the world's leading karate styles.
As you can see now, Isshinryu is made up of what Master Shimabuku felt to be the best elements of Shorinryu, Gojuryu and Kobudo. The only kata in Isshinryu not derived from these systems is Sunsu, which the master himself developed, and is the last empty hand kata a student learns before testing for black belt.
In 1953, when Master Shimabuku was about to formally present his system to the world, one of his top students suggested the name Isshinryu meaning "one heart way." Master Shimabuku embraced the idea because he felt the name Isshinryu stood for all he thought karate should be. The one heart signifies ones character. In other words, Shimabuku felt a person's heart or character was more important than his or her physical abilities. Shimabuku always said a karate man is first a gentleman who shows respect and courtesy to everyone, not intimidation and fear because of his karate skills. Master Shimabuku saw Isshinryu, as a positive character building art and all Isshinryu practitioners must keep in mind that they represent not only their school but also their teacher. To Master Shimabuku, karate has four purposes:
1. To strengthen the mind and body
2. To instill self-discipline
3. To instill self-confidence
4. To gain a means of self-defense, the knowledge of which should never be misused.
Master Shimabuku traveled to the United States in 1964 and 1966 to promote Isshinryu karate, but never enjoyed the rigors of traveling or leaving his beloved homeland. In 1967, Master Shimabuku sent Master Angi Uezu to the Unites States as his personal representative to carry on his teachings through seminars and lectures. Master Shimabuku died May 30, 1975 at the age of 68, a tremendous loss to Isshinryu.
MASTER ANGI UEZU
Angi Uezu was born January 3, 1935, in Chiyaranka City on the island of Saipan. His first involvement with martial arts came in junior high school where the schools curriculum included Gojuryu. He didn't like Karate because he was very much against fighting of any sort. He thought, why train in Karate and get beat-up everyday learning to defend yourself when the likelihood of getting into a fight was so remote?
In 1956, he met Yukiko Shimabuku, the third daughter of Master Tatsuo Shimabuku, the well-known karate master. After a short courtship and Yukiko's prodding to get married, Master Uezu went to the Kyan dojo to ask Master Shimabuku for his daughters hand in marriage. Master Uezu tells the story of his first meeting with the Master. "As I approached Master Shimabuku's house I could hear some very loud pounding. I walked up to the fence gate and saw Master Shimabuku punching the makiwara. He wasn't smiling and was very intense. I thought he was getting ready for me."
He said, "I stopped at the gate and saw the master hitting the makiwara, I turned and ran, I was very scared, I thought he was mad at me and was going to hurt me." Later his mother took him over to Master Shimabuku's and found out that the Master was pleased to have me as his son-in-law and agreed to the marriage. In 1957 after Master Uezu and Yukiko married he moved into the Master's house, but he didn't start training in karate. Instead he was working many hours at one of the military bases to make money for his new family. Master Uezu recalls that Master Shimabuku was always after him to start training. Master Uezu said he always told Master Shimabuku he didn't like karate and stayed busy working late hours at his job so he'd have an excuse not to train.
It was around this time that a good friend of his who was training asked him to teach him the kata Tokumine-no-kun. Master Uezu told his friend that he didn't know the kata because he wasn't training with Master Shimabuku. His friend said to him, "You live with Master Shimabuku and don't train in karate? Master Shimabuku is your father-in-law, you must respect him. You have to help him teach in the dojo".
That evening Master Uezu thought about what his friend had said and realized he was right. Master Shimabuku had given him his daughter, a house and had helped him in many ways, it was his duty to respect and help the Master. The next day Master Uezu and Yukiko's older sister's husband started training. Master Uezu said he found that he really enjoyed karate and the rigorous training and easily remembered all of the basic exercises.
Due to his loyalty and dedication, he soon became one of Master Shimabuku's top students. During the early sixties as his skills improved he became one of the top competitors on Okinawa winning many competitions and became highly regarded as an outstanding martial artist on Okinawa. He was an excellent counter fighter with an array of techniques that he worked until he considered them perfect for all types of fighting.
Later, Master Shimabuku sent him to teach at many of his outlying military dojos because of Master Uezu's English skills and teaching ability. Master Uezu taught many Marines at Camps Hansen, Courtney and Foster. In 1967, as a Yon-Dan, he took over as Master Shimabuku's representative to go to the United States and conduct training and seminars, a yearly tradition he has kept for the past 30 years.
After Master Shimabuku's death in 1975, Master Uezu assumed responsibility to keep Isshinryu alive, both on Okinawa and around the world. He has always felt that he must teach good Isshinryu out of respect and duty to Master Shimabuku. Master Uezu has gone to the states for extended periods of time to teach and spread the word about Isshinryu wherever and whenever he was asked.
Master Uezu follows Master Shimabuku's beliefs that one must be a gentleman or lady at all times and never worry about the negative influences that can harm oneself. Master Uezu believes that karate is a tool that helps people reach their goals by training them to be strong mentally and physically. Isshinryu means "The One Heart Way", as Master Shimabuku truly believed karate should be used for bettering oneself. In 1987 Master Uezu started the Okinawan Isshinryu Karate Kobudo Association (O.I.K.K.A.) to keep Isshinryu alive on Okinawa and support his many followers around the world.
Master Uezu's persistence and dedication to Master Shimabuku and Isshinryu paid the ultimate dividend by becoming the only Isshinryu association now recognized by the Prefectural government and asked by it to perform at all major karate demonstrations. The crowning achievement of his efforts to promote Isshinryu came when his association was asked to perform at 1995 World Okinawan Karate Championships on Okinawa.
Today he resides quietly in Gushikawa City with his wife Yukiko and his son. Though he is retired, he's never far away from the dojo. Master Uezu says, "My wife won't let me teach at home and is always telling me to rest. I am a karate man and this is my life, I can't rest, I have a duty to Master Shimabuku to spread his art of Isshinryu".
Being the ultimate Bushido man he still practices karate everyday. He walks 5 miles, and tells anyone who will listen the benefits of karate. He has been a true inspiration to all serious practitioners and an amazing example of the benefits of the study of Isshinryu Karate.