Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
May 20, 2016

The Journey… Part Three

Prior to the early 20th century, Okinawan martial arts had been forbidden from public practice for over 400 years. Okinawans trained in private and usually only within a given family.  As Japan strove to be a world power, they took note of how Okinawan workers, who were known to be practitioners of Te, were also healthier than other workers.  The Japanese took an interest in promoting Te and thus the ability of the Okinawans to openly explore and develop Te into the Okinawan martial arts systems we are familiar with today.  And, most important for Isshin-Ryu practitioners, it opened the door for the diverse training Master Shimabuku Tatsuo was able to enjoy.

It is noteworthy that while Japanese nationalism led to the return of the public practice of Okinawan martial arts, Japanese nationalism also led to the development of the word, “karate.” The Japanese directed the Okinawans to replace the kanji symbol that meant, “Chinese,” which can be pronounced as “toe” or “kara” with the kanji symbol that can also be pronounced as “kara” but instead of meaning “Chinese” it meant, “open.” Thus, the term for Okinawan martial arts shifted from “to-de” to “karate” and its interpretation shifted from “Chinese hand” to meaning “open hand” in 1936.

It is of further note the Japanese forbid the Okinawans from applying the “jutsu” suffix, common to Japanese martial arts, as this suffix was reserved for Japanese martial arts and not for the “peasant fighting ways” of Okinawans. Thus, Okinawan martial arts would not be called karatejutsu.  Since then, however, Okinawan martial artists have argued at times to use the “do” suffix to convey that karate is a way of life. While not forbidden, this usage was discouraged and never generally caught on.  Okinawan martial arts are still commonly referred to simply as “karate.”

For this final installment of the history of Isshin-ryu, we will examine the four most influential martial artists that Master Shimabuku trained with.  We shall start with his first and most influential teacher.

Kyan Chotoku

Kyan Chotoku (1870 – 1945) was primarily a Shuri-te practitioner and a major contributor to Shorin-ryu, but has also been credited as a master of Tomari-te. Master Kyan overcame significant physical challenges from childhood (known for being small in stature, suffering from asthma, frequently bed-ridden, and with poor eyesight) and became a renown martial artist. As an adult, he was well known for having and promoting a colorful lifestyle; he was noted for encouraging his students to visit brothels and engage in excessive alcohol consumption.  His first teachers were Matsumora Kosaku and Oyadomari Kokan but most notably he also trained with Master Matsumura Sokon.

Master Kyan was the first teacher of Master Shimabuku, from 1932 until 1936, when he was about 66-years-old, and taught him Seisan, Naihanchi, Wansu, Chinto, and Kusanku kata. He also taught Master Shimabuku Tokumine-no-kun and basic sai techniques. Master Kyan’s sai techniques inspired Master Shimabuku to create the sai kata, Kyan no sai (named in honor of his master) as well as Kusanku sai.

Master Shimabuku originally named his martial arts system after Master Kyan: Chan-migwa-te.  This was inspired by Master Kyan’s nickname, Chan Migwa, which means, “squinty-eyed Chan.”

Master Kyan died in 1945, around 75 years of age, due to fatigue and malnutrition following the Battle of Okinawa.

Miyagi Chojun

Miyagi Chojun (1888 – 1953) was the adopted son of a wealthy business man. He began his martial arts training, in Naha-te, at 9-years-old with Aragaki Ryuko and then Higaonna Kanryo. When he was 27, he travelled to China and studied Shaolin wushu (prior to the monastery being burned to the ground in 1928) as well as studying Baguazhang. In 1929, Master Miyagi merged his study of Chinese wushu with Naha-Te and created Goju-ryu (meaning, “hard soft style”). Interesting note, the original “The Karate Kid” film series was written by a Goju-ryu stylist and the character of Mister Miyagi was inspired by the real Master Miyagi.

Master Miyagi is the second teacher of Master Shimabuku, from 1936 to about 1938, when he was almost 50-years-old.  Master Miyagi and taught Master Shimabuku, among other things, Seiuchin and Sanchin kata. He also trained other students who went on to create their own systems such as Seigo Tada, founder of Seigokan.

Master Miyagi suffered his first heart attack in 1951 and died of a second heart attack in 1953 at 67-years-of-age.

Motobu Choki

Motobu Choki (1870 – 1944) was a Shorin-ryu stylist descended from Okinawa nobility.  Master Motobu was the third son of Motobu Palace. But, being the last of three sons, despite his intense interest in martial arts, he was not entitled to learn his family’s style of Te. Thus, he spent much of his youth training on his own.  During that time, however, he managed to train with some of the most prominent Te practitioners of the time, most notably his first teacher, Master Matsumura Sokon.

Master Motobu insisted on testing his fighting prowess in street fights in the red light district of his town; being of noble birth, neither teachers nor peace keepers had the authority to stop him. He reportedly highly favored Naihanchi kata as the “fundamental of karate” and practiced this kata almost to the exclusion of any other.

When he was about 47-years-old, in 1917 Master Motobu, was invited to Japan to demonstrate Okinawa martial arts along with Master Funakoshi Gichin, the founder of Shotokan.  Master Motobu’s insistence on the need for practical application and evaluation of techniques as well as often being at odds with Master Funakoshi as to how karate should be taught, did not win him favor in Japan. While Master Funakoshi would be invited back to Japan five years later and eventually invited by the Imperial court to remain in Japan and teach Shotokan karate to the Japanese people, Master Motobu was not.

In 1938, around the age of 68, Master Motobu was the third teacher of Master Shimabuku for about a year. As one would expect, Master Motobu emphasized with Master Shimabuku the “practical” application of martial arts outside the dojo.

Master Motobu died about five years later, in 1945, at the age of 74.

Taira Shinken

Taira Shinken (1897 – 1970) was an Okinawan kobudo master.  He was given up for adoption as a child and took his mother’s maiden name.  He had to work in the sulfur mines of Minamijima and suffered a permanently crippling leg injury when a mine shaft collapsed. He first studied Te with Master Funakoshi around 1922 but in 1929 he began his study of Okinawan kobudo under Yabiku Moden.

Master Taira created the nunchaku kata, Taira no Nunchaku as well as being credited with creating a kata using metal horse stirrups, Maezato no Tekko. He mastered over 40 traditional Okinawan weapons kata. To revitalize the vanishing art of Okinawa kobudo, he established the Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai in 1955.

When Master Taira was about 58, after he established the Ryukyu Kobudo Hozon Shinkokai, Master Shimabuku came to study Okinawan kobudo with him. Master Taira taught Master Shimabuku Hama Higa no Tulfa, Shishi no Kun, Chatan Yara no Sai, and Urashi Bo.

He died at age 73.

Through our examination of the lineage of Isshin-ryu, the men that trained and influence each other over time, can one should now better understand the underlying inspiration of the One Heart Way.