Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
May 6, 2016

The Journey… Part One

The origin of martial arts is truly lost in time as it likely is as old as humankind.  It therefore predates any of the currently understandable recorded languages. Thus, what we can discern with any certainty is from the written records that have survived and from oral history and these accounts have their political biases.  Specifically with regard to Isshin-ryu, many seem to trace the origins of this martial art to Sakugawa in 18th century Okinawa, but, in order to better understand Isshin-ryu, I feel the story goes back further.

From what is available currently, I have pieced together a timeline that I feel will provide a more comprehensive insight into the basis and development of Isshin-ryu.  Respectfully, this timeline differs from many of the histories I have found maintained by many Isshin-ryu dojos.  Thus, safe to say, this is just one possible interpretation of the history of Isshin-ryu. This first part will take us from the 6th century up through much of the 17th century.

Shaolin Kung Fu – the origin of modern institutionalized martial arts

Although legend has it that the Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor of the Xia Dynasty, introduced the earliest martial arts in 2698 BCE (Before Christian Era), the earliest written accounts of Chinese martial arts do not appear until the 5th century BCE.  But, it is the Shaolin style of martial arts that is credited with being the first institutionalized system for the training and development of martial artists.

527 (Christian Era) – The “Blue-eyed Barbarian” Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, brings Chan Buddhism to China and during his travels encounters the monks at the Buddhist temple in the Shao Forest (Shaolin).  Reportedly concerned about the lack of health of the Shaolin monks,Bodhidharma developed two systems which he recorded in two separate manuscripts:

Yijin Jing – this is a manuscript on how to build qi to an abundant level and use it to improve health and strengthen the body.  Copies of this manuscript survive to the modern day.  These teachings are at the foundation of Shaolin Kung Fu but could therefore also be considered at the foundation of all martial arts that followed from that tradition.

Xisui Jing – this manuscript reportedly instructed one on how to use qi to cleanse bone marrow, strengthen the immune system, and energize the mind. Bodhidharma claimed to have lived over 150 years and one would imagine that was due to the techniques he described in the Xisui Jing. Unfortunately, that manuscript reportedly is not currently obtainable in modern times.

621 – The Battle of Hulao.  Thirteen Shaolin monks assist Qin king Li Shi-Ming in his warfare and in return the monks are awarded 600 acres of land and permitted and encouraged to train people in Shaolin martial arts. The Tang Dynasty supports the Shaolin Temple and its legal right to own and conduct a martial arts training organization for almost 300 years (until the year 907).

960 – 1278 – the Shaolin monks become less centralized and begin traveling around
Southeast Asia. They spend this time focused on gathering martial arts knowledge from Asia and recording what they find in the Shaolin Temple.

Shaolin Kung Fu arrives in Okinawa

1324 – Japanese Buddhist monk, Da Zhi, studied with the Shaolin for twelve years
before returning to Japan to spread Shaolin Chan Buddhist teachings which likely also included Shaolin Kung Fu.  Da Zhi’s route to return to Japan would very likely take him through Okinawa to get to the Japanese main islands and it is possible he would’ve demonstrated Kung Fu to the Okinawans.

Shortly after the time when Da Zhi would’ve likely travelled through Okinawa, the many small and scattered domains across Okinawa unified into three tribal federations that came to be known as the Three Kingdoms: Hokuzan, Chuzan, and Nanzan.

1347 – Shao Yuan, another Japanese monk, who had studied with the Shaolin monks for twelve years, returns to Japan to share what he learned at the temple, likely including Shaolin wushu. Like Da Zhi before him, Shao Yuan would likely return to Japan through the Three Kingdoms.

Ryukyu Kobudo (Okinawan weapons-based martial arts) could have had its origin prior to the 14th century. But, while popular history has it that Master Sakugawa founded Okinawa martial arts in the 1700s, given the timing of the missionary work of both Da Zhi and Shao Yuan, the name given to Ryukyu martial arts, “to-de” (pronounced “toe-day” meaning “Chinese hand”), and the history of Okinawa between 1324 and 1609, I feel the evidence strongly supports the start of Ryukyu martial arts as being between 1324 and 1347.

Development of To-de and the establishment of the Ryukyu Kingdom

The three kingdoms of Ryukyu eventually went to war and in 1416 the kingdom of Chuzan (“Central Mountain”) conquered Hokuzan.  And, in 1429, Chuzan defeated Nanzan and the First Sho Dynasty of the Ryukyu Kingdom was established. The Ryukyu Kingdom was shortly thereafter officially recognized by the Chinese Ming dynasty as the official government of Okinawa.

1470 – Kanamaru overthrows the First Sho Dynasty and establishes the Second
Sho Dynasty and takes on the honorary surname to rename himself, Sho En. He ruled for about seven years and died at 60. He was succeeded by his brother, Sho Sen’i, but the high priestess, daughter of Sho En, received a divine message that Sho Sen’i should abdicate the throne to Sho En’s son.  Thus, Sho Shin came to rule.

1477 – Ryukyu king Sho Shin, to strengthen central control over the kingdom and
prevent further insurrection, bans To-de as well as Ryukyu kobudo. Ryukyu families go from open training in To-de to secretly continuing training. To-de in the three islands of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Shuri, Tomari, and Naha, over time, will drift from each other and and take on their own distinct natures, that will come to be known as Shuri-te, Tomari-te, and Naha-te respectively.

Shuri-te would develop over time into several systems that include Shorin-ryu , Shorinjiryu, Shito-ryu, Motobu-ryu, and Shotokan. Tomari-te would develop, among other systems, into Motobu-ryu and Shorinji-ryu. Naha-te would develop, among other
systems, into Goju-ryu, Uechi-ryu, and Ryuei-ryu. While there is some overlap between
these three systems, Isshin-ryu has in its roots elements of Shorin-ryu, Shorinji-ryu, and Goju-ryu.

1609 – The Japanese Shimazu family was given permission by the Japanese shogunate to invade the Ryukyu kingdom.  The Shimazu defeat the forces of the Ryukyu Kingdom with reportedly little effort. Ryukyu ceased at that point being an independent kingdom and became a vassal state of Japan (and remained a Chinese tributary state until 1874). The ban on To-de and Ryukyu kobudo that King Sho Shin had established over 125 years earlier was maintained by the Japanese.

In summary, Isshin-ryu can reasonably trace its origins to at least the 14th century as Shaolin teachings started to spread to Japan and a martial art known as “Chinese Hand” came into being.  At the least, there is ample evidence to indicate that the Okinawans were developing martial arts in the three major areas of Okinawa in the 15th century as they were actively banned at that time.  Furthermore, the Imperial Japanese would declare that they would maintain that ban when they took over in the early 17th century.  Next week, we will look at the developments in Okinawan Te as it moved from the 17th century and into modern times.