The Complete Tatsuo Shimabuku
by Victor Smith
Bushi no Te Isshinryu
On January 15, 1956, Tatsuo Shimabuku founded Isshinryu Karate. Shortly
after that time, Tatsuo Shimabuku began teaching his karate to the U.S.
Marines stationed on Okinawa. While the income he received from the
Marine Corps was a financial windfall to him, his efforts caused the
Isshinryu system to be spread across the United States and the world
in the 50's and 60's. This was one of the pioneering efforts spreading
karate to a larger world.
Tatsuo Shimabuku began his own studies in Okinawa about 1916 at the
age of eight, and they continued with such noted Okinawan instructors
as Chotoku Kyan (one of the major instructors of Shorin-ryu), Chojun
Miyagi (the founder of Goju Ryu karate), Chokoi Motobu (another major
Okinawan instructor in the Shorin tradition) and Taira Shinken (a major
instructor of kobudo - Okinawan Weapons).
The Isshinryu system, as created by Tatsuo Shimabuku , drew on all
of these sources. Unfortunately the story of the experiences Shimabuku
Sensei gained with his instructors has not been saved.
As I've pursued a long-term interest in all of Okinawan Karate, my
review of historical information about these men slowly revealed a view
of those earlier years. From this research I've created four studies
on Tatsuo Shimabuku's instructors.
I believe this creates a fuller history of those instructors and their
likely contributions to Shimabuku. This history of several of Okinawa's
major instructors in the 1900's also highlights some of the trends,
which developed in Okinawa. I believe all contemporary martial artists
need to consider the transmission of these arts from those days. Their
impact reverberates with us still.
Part One: The Kyan Influence
For some time as I read much written about Isshinryu and Tatsuo Shimabuku,
I haven't felt we've been looking at the entire man. Instead it seems
as if Shimabuku Tatsuo sprang forth and gave us Isshinryu. His instructors
are mentioned but I don't feel we've looked closely enough at the impact
of the environment which fostered the founder of Isshinryu.
Let me draw an analogy. Each martial artist does represent himself,
his capabilities, the work he's done, and his own intentions. At the
same time you can view the group of students of an instructor and find
a commonalty, too. Many times I've seen an instructor at a tournament
who has a distinctive style to his technique, and later through the
day, see his students perform and immediately identify their instructor
from the commonalty they share.
Every instructor is and always has been a product of his own instructor(s),
his contemporaries and his environment. Recently I've been trying to
understand the environment surrounding Tatsuo Shimabuku.
believe the most important place to start is his relationship with Chotoku
Kyan. It was with Kyan that Tatsuo Shimabuku spent the most time. A
great deal of the Kata of Isshinryu originated with his training with
Kyan, and in the late 1940's to early 1950's, he called his system Chan
Migwha Te - using the nickname that had been given to Kyan Sensei. As
a starting point I refer to John Sells text "Unante - - The Secrets
of Karate." On page 184, we begin to get a vision of the background
"One old karateka who can be credited with preserving some of
the kata of Tomari was Chotoku Kyan. This student of so many great masters
disseminated in his time the tomari-chonto, wansu and several versions
of the tomari passai. Kyan introduced ananku kata into Okinawan Karate.
He also taught seisan, gojushiho and seisan as learned from Matsumura,
as well as Yara's kusanku kata. Of course each form has Kyan's own innovative
stamp. This brings to light the fact that most of the old masters taught
kata differently at different times in their lives. They also sometimes
taught dissimilar versions to different students. Because of this factor
we now have a plethora of variations of all the above kata. While this
"kata customization" is often associated with Kyan, the same
could be said of Matsumura himself and certainly too, of Kyan's contemporary,
Remember what a small place Okinawa was. Without doubt Kyan's students
saw their instructor's forms were differing from others who had trained
under Kyan's instructors. So issues about Tatsuo Shimabuku changing
the nature of his kata and technique at different times was most likely
the a continuation of Karate training as he and the others in Okinawa
experienced with Kyan.
Of course this was noted in Okinawa. The great karate master and founder
of goju ryu karate, Chojun Miyagi(McCarthy "Ancient Okinawan Martial
Arts-2," page 67 on The 1936 Meeting of the Okinawan Karate Masters),
is quoted as saying, "Shorin-ryu's fundamental training [kihon]
and open-handed techniques [kaishu] are not taught in any clearly defined
way. However the Shorei-ryu's kaishu and kihon are taught according
to a clearly established method. My teacher taught us according to the
While I can interpret his words as a commentary on the Shorin teaching
methods, it's also interesting to see 'sniping' from 1936 too. We have
no lock on the flame wars today!
I find it interesting that this was the template against which Tatuso
Shimabuku was taught. Whether those changes occurred while he was training
with Kyan Sensei, or he whether he observed them as he saw others on
occasion who trained with Kyan Sensei, the fact of the existence of
change could not have been ignored.
Just the other day I was reviewing tapes from a number of Kyan derivative
forms. Whether Bunei Okuhira, or Zempo Shimabukuro (son of Shimabuku
Zenryo) or Shoshin Nagamine, there is a great deal of similarity between
them as well as many differences. Bunei Okuhira and Shoshin Nagamine
were direct students of Kyan, as was Tatsuo Shimabuku Sensei. Zenryo
Shimabuku was also a direct student of Kyan.
I note the more advanced their forms (such as Chinto, Kusanku and Gojushiho),
the greater the similarity to my eye. This is something I've noticed
between various Isshinryu groups, on occasion. The differences between
Seisan and Seiuchin kata are greater than the differences between Chinto
and Kusanku. I've always thought this was because the instructor spends
more time teaching the beginning forms and less time on the advanced
forms. If changes creep in, it would be logical to assume they would
occur on those taught most frequently.
This is not a scientific move by move comparison, but an impression/opinion
observation to my eye.
Returning to John Sells "Unante" we find some information
regarding Kyan Sensei's course content on page 189:
"To explore kata even further however, Chotoku Kyan, a contemporary
of Funakoshi and Mabuni should be compared. It was around 1930 that
Kyan published a series of forms under the heading "Seven Original
Kata of the Ancient Style." The forms listed therein were:
Consider how much of this became the Isshinryu curriculum,
directly or indirectly.
Wanshu (Wansu), Kusanku, Chinto and Niafanchi from Isshinryu most likely
originated here. I would note Wanshu (Wansu) is the most heavily modified
of the Kyan forms with knee strikes, side kicks and front kicks not
found in the other kata.
It is reported at one time Shimabuku Sensei taught Passai amd Ueishi
(Gojushiho), and portions of those forms are included in his SunNuSu
The kata ananku isn't included in the Isshinryu curriculum, but as
I teach one version of same (Ezio Shimabuku's ). I suspect it was because
most of the techniques in the form are found in the other Isshinryu
Another aspect to consider is the development by Kyan of the vertical
punch. Nagamine's book 'Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters by Shoshin
Nagamine,' on page 89 has a nice section on the life of Kyan.
"Because of his tiny size, Sensei spent considerable time and
effort developing his jodan-tsuki (rising punch). Never having altered
this technique, Kyan's jodan-tsuki represented his own interpretation
of using the strike in a practical way for a person of his size. It
can be said that his unique jodan-tsuki exists in no other ryuha and
must therefore illustrate his own understanding of karate-do."
Accompanying photographs show a traditional turning punch striking a
makiwara and a vertical punch striking a makiwara. The latter was described
as "Kyan's original punch."
I would believe it likely Tatsuo Shimabuku may have used his instructor's
teachings as the source of his choice of the vertical fist.
The final observation I would like to make on the teaching of Chotoku
Kyan is what his students did with his instruction. John Sells in 'Unante'
lists the following individuals as his students:
At least 7 of them became instructors in their own right
and developed their own systems.
While Chotoku Kyan taught his art, he apparently did not try to establish
a single system. That seems right to me, as I'm unaware of any real
effort to do this in those earlier days. I believe this is an important
aspect affecting the development of all Okinawan karate.
And while there is a great deal of similarity between these instructors'
forms and techniques, there are also a great many differences at the
micro level, if not the macro level.
I recall correctly Patrick McCarthy has written on the fact that the
concept of organization was imported to Okinawa by the Japanese. Without
doubt, their penchant for organization created the first large international
karate organizations. Thus the teaching template Shimabuku Sensei observed
most likely was that of instructing your students so that they would
go out on their own. There does not seem to be a regulating mechanism
to pass along changes or control the 'correct form' of the system. Does
not the same situation seem to reside in the changing system of Shimabuku
I believe reflection on these aspects of the karate of Kyan shows
they may well have influenced the decisions to the developing art of
Isshinryu of Tatsuo Shimabuku. There are many parallels between Kyan's
choices to those made by Shimabuku Sensei.
Unante - The Secrets of Karate by John Sells Pub. W.M.Hawley
Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters by Shoshin Nagamine Pub Tuttle
Ancient Okinawan Martial Arts - Koryu Uchinadi 2 by Patrick
McCarthy Pub Tuttle 1999