The Origin of Isshin-ryu, Part 1

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.

The Qi to Health and Beyond

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
April 29, 2016

The Qi to Health and Beyond

I presented this week at the 16th Annual Healthy Alternatives through Healing Arts (Ha-HA) Conference.  Some of the workshops offered at this year’s HA-HA conference included Qigong, Reiki, and Aikido.  A similar sound is common within all of these workshop titles. “Chee” or “key.”  And, as it turns out, this similar sound refers fairly consistently to the same concept, “life energy.”

Life energy, also known as ch’i in Chinese culture, is known as “gi” in Korean and “ki” in Japanese.  The concept of life energy, using a different sounding word or phrase, is also found in other cultures: the Indians call it, “prana” (pron. pray-nah). It is “ruah” (pron. ru-ahhh) in Hebrew culture. And, near and dear to my heart, it is called “The Force” in Western culture’s Star Wars mythos.  But, regardless of the culture, the importance of this concept in the various holistics alternatives presented at today’s conference was clear.  Connecting with and even manipulating life energy is an important holistic approach to physical and mental health.

While the phrase, life energy, may lead you to only consider what keeps your own heart beating, that your life energy is only regarding your physical health, like in the Star Wars mythos, life energy can be said to be “an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Students of life energy consider that it not only exists within our bodies but also as a field that extends into the world beneath our feet as well as in the heavens above our head.  And that it flows in and out of our bodies to and from the world around us.  Life energy is thought to available to be used to heal not only our own bodies or our own minds but also the minds and bodies of others.

Often seen as at odds with enthusiasts of life energy relevant holistic practices is the concept of the “placebo effect.”  The placebo effect is how Western medicine describes health benefits experienced while engaging in activities that are believed by Western medicine to be medically ineffectual. But, while adherents of Western medicine may believe that the so called placebo effect challenges the validity of holistic approaches, I say it validates them.  While Western medicine can find no explanation for why certain practices have a significant and observable positive effect on an individual’s health, the concept of life energy manipulation does provide use with an understanding of how t’ai chi ch’uan, reiki, qigong and other such practices should work as they do.  With this in mind, placebo effect literature suggests to me that we may all have an innate ability to engage in life energy manipulation but perhaps some people are perhaps instinctively better able to positively engage life energy than others.

And, if one considers the placebo effect to be part of the “yang” of life energy, there is also a “yin” called, the nocebo effect. The nocebo effect is the observation of health consequences when there is no medical reason an intervention should have a negative outcome.  If we accept that the placebo effect may be the result of an unconscious and instinctive positive manipulation of life energy, could it that the nocebo effect, the observation of health consequences when none should otherwise occur, be connected to an unconscious manipulation of one’s life energy based on the belief that the treatment should cause harm? The implication for incorporating the manipulation of life energy into one’s training and efforts for achieving and maintaining health should be clear. If one trains in life energy manipulation and then consciously applies, one could take control of the placebo effect to improve the health benefits of our healthy activities and reduce or even eliminate unwanted negative side effects.  A workout not only could result in greater benefits but also come without consequences.  There could be gain with no pain!

But, it doesn’t end there.  Considering the value that has been found in holistic alternatives and their manipulation of life energy for physical and mental health, one should be aware that this is only a fraction of what is believed to be possible. Since at least the creation of the Yijin Jing and Xisui Jing manuscripts in the 6th century BCE people have been studying and reporting on a broad range of life energy manipulation effects.  Practitioners within this field of study report that a person can be trained to manipulate life energy with regard not only to health but also with regard to thought, behavior, and even the space-time continuum.  And, that one could focus any specific life energy manipulation on not only one’s own mind and body but also on the minds and bodies of other people.  One could even focus life energy manipulation on the world around us.  While we might relegate their list of “powers” to fantasy or comic books, these practitioners list telepathy, astral projection, flight, telekinesis, aura reading, animal control, and laying on hands as only some of the powers that are believed possible through the manipulation of life energy.

Regardless of what you believe is possible, the genuine benefits of yoga and t’ai chi are scientifically supported and the occurrence of the so-called placebo effect is undisputed.  So what potentially yet remains to be “discovered” by Western science with regard to life energy manipulation and how one could apply it to one’s martial arts is nevertheless an exciting concept. Beyond the manipulation of life energy to achieve serenity of our minds and longevity of our bodies, what else might the future hold for the use of this qi?

It’s All in Your Imagination

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
April 22, 2016

It’s All In Your Imagination

Last week we considered the social-emotional aspect of training emphasizing that it is not only the physical component of martial arts that is important but also the spiritual component. This week, we shall consider an aspect of third and quite possibly most significant component of training: the mental component.  There are many aspects of the mental component of training; today we will touch on the aspect called imagination.

If you have trained at the Western New York Karate Center, I know you have heard Hanshi Ed or Hanshi Jim say “your instructor should be able to see your opponent” when you are training in kata.  I dare say that extends beyond the practice of kata to the practice of kihon as well. As one trains, one should be visualizing the opponent and the action the opponent is taking that one is initially responding to and then visualizing how the opponent would react to each action one takes in response.  One’s imagination of the opponent should be so strong that it can almost truly be seen by others watching you as you train.  Proper imagination of one’s opponents not only helps instructors better evaluate your progress in training, it will definitely improve the quality of your technique; taking wooden or robotic replication of action to a level of visceral and evocative performance.

The importance of imagination in training is not restricted to imagining an opponent.  One should also focus one’s imagination in training solely upon oneself.  As Sensei Jesse Enkamp ( relates in his “25 Scientific Karate Hacks,” mental visualization, or imagination, appears scientifically supported as a method for improving one’s performance overall. He cited a study reportedly conducted at the University of Chicago where visualization of free throws, without actually physically performing them, was as effective in improving free throws as physically practicing free throws for a month.  That is to say, if we can strongly, clearly imagine how we want to do a technique; we can significantly improve how we actually perform it.

If one has ever attempted to determine a bunkai for a portion of a kata or develop an ippon, often the biggest stumbling block when performing it is first imagining it.  If we cannot first imagine the bunkai or ippon as it is to be performed and the reasons for it, it is almost guaranteed that it will fail to feel realistic; that the bunkai or ippon will be without spirit. Certainly with repetition, one can still find the heart of the technique.  But, employing imagination as a part of this aspect of training will help you find that sense of spirit far faster than through physical repetition alone. 

Certainly the trick here is being confident it what we are imagining. Believing that one is visualizing the best way to perform a technique. I challenge the worrisome to consider that imagining how best to perform a technique, “correct” or not, will nevertheless enhance one’s progress in training far more than not using one’s imagination at all.

The Five People You’ll Meet On Their Way To Heaven

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
April 8, 2016

*The views expressed in this essay are the views of Shihan Bill and do not necessarily reflect the views of WNY Karate Center. WNY Karate does not necessarily endorse the techniques mentioned in the article, and people should use their best judgement when deciding what technique to apply in any given situation.

The Five People You’ll Meet on Their Way to Heaven

And why you will over-skill that encounter

As you work on self-defense techniques, ippons, even bunkai, consider who you are training to interact with, who your opponent, your attacker, might be.  There are five classes of people who you will engage with and I will list them here in the order of the highest probability to the lowest. Depending on where in the world you are and the kind of choices you make in life, these probabilities can vary from person to person; the order here is what is most typical for suburban America:

  1. Chemically Altered – this is someone who is either intoxicated on a disinhibiting substance like alcohol, a stimulant like cocaine, or a pain-numbing substance.
    STRENGTH – This person will not likely be fully aware of the physical damage they take in their attack or from your defensive actions and will continue their attack after taking damage that would stop most people.
    WEAKNESS – They are likely to be narrow in their awareness of the environment, have single-minded and simplistic attacks, and little to no sense of a need for defensive actions and will respond simply with standard reflexes.
    STRATEGY – Unlike any other opponent, their attack is completely impulsive and can sometimes be stopped simply by yelling, “stop!”  Your defensive actions need only stun or immobilize them long enough for them to hear you tell them to stop. Thus, joint locks or grappling techniques will be most useful.
  2. Agitated – this is someone who is significantly upset, often by jealousy related to an anticipated loss of a relationship but could also motivated by a sense that their life or livelihood is under significant threat.
    STRENGTH – This person has a single-minded sense of purpose that is motivated by a sense of self-preservation. They will not stop until they feel they have been defeated; that they are no longer capable of “defending” what is theirs.
    WEAKNESS – Attacks are likely to be fully committed, attempting to connect with a single “killing” blow.  While likely aware of a need for defense, they can overcommit to their attack at the expense of their defense.
    STRATEGY – Bait their attack and get them to fully commit in a manner that will best play in to your response strategy.  Strikes should be focused on damaging legs and arms to quickly lead the opponent to their sense that they are no longer able to attack. This person can then be reasoned with.
  3. Criminal – this is someone who is seeking to take what you have, usually your valuables. They are motivated by a sense of financial desperation and their ability to feed themselves or their family or to be able to continue to purchase addictive substances.
    STRENGTH – This person is committed to obtaining your valuables.  They often have a strategy to their attack with the encounter having occurred in an ambush site that they chose.  They also will have a sense of a need for defense that usually takes the form of a weapon such as a knife or a gun. Due to their sense of desperation, they will not likely withdraw from the encounter until they get your valuables and have often already committed to killing you if necessary. While often done individually, some Criminal opponents will employ a group strategy and will have accomplices to assist them in their attack.
    WEAKNESS – They are more concerned with defending themselves and if you appear to not pose a threat, they will not actively engage in attack.  Moreover, their sense of a need for a defense can be reduced or lulled by your taking a passive or cooperative posture.
    STRATEGY – Cooperate.  Valuables can be replaced.  If that does not appear sufficient, any weapon they have must be neutralized first and taken into your control; if they had employed a weapon in their attack and you take possession of it, that will likely lead them to feel defenseless and disengage from their attack.  If they are skilled in unarmed combat, you will likely then have to treat them as an Agitated opponent (see above). Be prepared to engage accomplices.
  4. Mentally ill – someone in this category will most typically suffer from a personality organization that compromises their ability to appreciate the needs or rights of others. Other people are seen not as living, feeling individuals with their own hopes for life, but simply a means to an end. If attacked by such a person, it is because you are viewed as “in the way” or “part of a plan/a necessary step.” This type of person is often referred to as a sociopath.
    A less encountered person in this category is someone suffering from schizophrenia or some other form of psychosis that is untreated and the person is floridly psychotic at the time of the attack; the person is actively hallucinating and/or truly paranoid. Such people resemble the Agitated opponent and they could also have characteristics of a Chemically Altered opponent, but the ability to reason is significantly compromised and strategies that would work for those categories of opponents, joint-locks, grappling, limb destruction, may be insufficient to stopping the attack.
    STRENGTH – This person is not viewing you as another person.  Thus, there is no remorse, no hesitation, no holding back. The attack will come with no social cues that would make you aware that you are the target of an attack and therefore will often come as a complete surprise. Due to the social disconnect, there will be ineffective or no response to attempts at communication and this category of opponent will be difficult to deter or distract from their intense sense of purpose and need to act in a manner that can likely result in your death.
    WEAKNESS – As they are not viewing you as a human being, they are not considering that you could respond in a deliberate and strategic manner. Thus, they are not prepared for a martial response to their actions and can therefore also be taken completely by surprise.
    STRATEGY – Plan to render this opponent unconscious and be resigned that your attempt to render this opponent unconscious may kill them. This opponent is not engaging in an impulsive attack.  While possibly agitated, there will be no reasoning with this opponent.  There are no valuables you can surrender that will satisfy them; they are going to act in a manner that will likely kill you. You will need to defend yourself to the point where you are certain the opponent is unconscious and then immobilized securely until help can arrive.
  5. Professional – this is an individual who has been trained in martial arts such as mercenaries and assassins. They are motivated by a sense of duty and responsibility to a chain of command. If you are attacked by such a person, you are viewed as either a threat to the success of their mission or you are the designated target for elimination.
    STRENGTH – This person feels empowered by an authority that makes their actions justified by a code of conduct and/or a contract. Attacking you is part of their job.  It will be done without hesitation and usually as part of a developed plan that often has contingency plans. The attack will often be executed with no social cues that would make you aware that you are the target of an attack and therefore will often come as a complete surprise. Due to the social contract the Professional has with someone else, there will be ineffective or no response to attempts at communication and this category of opponent will be difficult to deter or distract from their intense sense of purpose and need to act in a manner that can likely result in your death. While sometimes done individually, most Professional opponents will employ a group strategy and will have accomplices to assist them in their attack.
    WEAKNESS – Little to none. The Professional has often prepared for a variety of possibilities including a martial response to their actions.
    STRATEGY – Plan to kill this opponent. This opponent is not engaging in an impulsive attack.  While possibly agitated, there will be no reasoning with this opponent.  There are no valuables you can surrender that will satisfy them; they are going to act in a manner that will kill you. You will need to defend yourself to the point where you are certain the opponent is at least completely incapacitated if not actually dead.  NOTE: THIS IS A HIGHLY UNLIKELY ENCOUNTER!  But, if none of the other categories apply, this is what remains as the explanation for an attack and thus, to survive, you must assume that you have no other choice but to respond with lethal intent.

It should be said that it is also possible to meet someone who is in multiple categories such as a Professional Criminal or an Agitated Chemically Altered opponent. But, regardless of the category or combination of categories of an opponent and the most appropriate strategy for that particular opponent, what should become clear in this analysis is that there is no category of opponent where a strategy of a single punch or kick will be sufficient.  Actual attackers will continue to attack until they are subdued, rendered unconscious, or killed.
While there is no clear agreement as to what will subdue someone or render them unconscious, it should at least be clear from the above that it will take more than one strike.  As a guideline, for the highly trained martial artist, an individual could be subdued with two to three precise strikes, rendered unconscious with three to five precise strikes, and likely killed by five or more precise strikes.  But, for most practitioners, precision will be difficult to accomplish in an actual confrontation.  Thus, it is recommended that you add at least two more strikes, as a rough guideline, to ensure success: 4 – 5 for subdual and 5 – 7 to render the person unconscious.
If possible, one should try to take a moment in the course of the combination of strikes to see if one has already accomplished the desired effect before continuing to apply additional strikes.  Also one can likely increase the chance of success of a series of strikes by distributing the strikes across the opponent’s body: striking both above and below the waist as well as striking both the left and right side of the body.

Manipulating Tactical Advantage

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill Reynolds
March 31, 2016

Manipulating Tactical Advantage

Once one is engaged with one or multiple opponents, whether in self-defense or as part of a planned offensive action, a martial artist must strive to take control of the encounter or leave to chance as to whether he or she will become the victim rather than the victor.   Specifically, a martial artist must use the environment in the encounter to their advantage and arrange for each opponent to come within range of the most effective technique for that person, their position in the environment, and the exact moment within which the technique will be executed. While traditional training in the martial arts focuses upon technique and timing, not much training is dedicated to the position of the opponent in the environment relative to the martial artist.  This is mainly due to their being only one aspect of position that most martial artists will manage.

There  are three aspects to a position in the environment: range, elevation, and cover.  With regard to cover, we will usually wish to maximize our cover while minimizing the cover of our opponent. With regard to elevation, generally we will seek to have a higher elevation than our opponent.  But both cover and elevation play the most significant roles when dealing with opponents at long range. Given that most martial artists do not operate offensively at long range, we will focus on examining the manipulation of range.

There are four ranges we shall consider: long, medium, short, and close-quarters. Each has a defense, tools to use at that range, and strategies to consider. Note that a parry is used to minimize damage and provide the option of a pull and a block is to cause damage as part of a defense.


Defense: avoidance only; outside the ability to immediately parry or block.

Tools: Arrow, Throwing knife, Dart, Bullet

Strategies: Use projectile weapon OR, if without a projectile weapon, use cover if possible AND either move out of range or close to MEDIUM range


Defense: avoidance, parry, or block.

Tools: Spear, Staff, Sword, Club, Nunchaku, Foot

Strategies: Use handheld weapons or unarmed striking tech at range OR push to LONG range or advance into SHORT range


Defense: avoidance if possible, otherwise parry or block

Tools: Knife, Sai, Hand, elbow, knee, foot

Strategies: Use handheld weapons or unarmed striking tech at range OR push to MEDIUM or advance or pull into CLOSE-QUARTERS range


Defense: parry or block

Tools: Hand, forearm, elbow, head, knee, shin, foot

Strategies: Use unarmed striking tech, joint-locks, strangle-holds, or grappling at range OR push or escape to SHORT range

Ying and Yang versus Ying-yang

Western New York Karate Center
Shihan Bill
March 25, 2016

Yin and Yang versus Yin-yang

An illusory distinction of complementary forces

in what is actually an indivisible whole

When people think of the phrase, “yin and yang,” they think of distinct dualities such as light and dark or good and bad. Paired but distinct opposites. The use of the conjunction “and” in that phrase underscores the sense of there being two elements in a pair.  But the Taoist concept from which the phrase yin and yang is derived is better pronounced as “yin-yang.” That instead of distinct and possibly opposing forces, these dualities are complementary aspects of a whole.

This week, Hanshi directed our attention to the duality inherent in techniques. For example, where there is extension there is also retraction. But, like the concept of yin-yang, that these are not to be considered separate and distinct actions but instead complementary elements of a complete action. For example, a kick is not solely an extension of our leg to bring the foot to our target, a kick is an extension AND also a retraction of our leg. Not only do we apply force to a target with the impact associated with the extension of the leg, more important, the leg’s retraction also serves a function; beyond taking our foot out of range of counter-attack, the retraction can be used as a heel kick, a hook kick, a sweep, as just a few examples.

Within the wholeness of a punch, following the intended hand strike, there is also the possibility of an elbow strike when re-chambering. That within the wholeness of a block, following the interception of an intended blow, there is the potential for a grab and destabilizing pull in the re-chambering.  As you train, remind yourself that not only need no movement be wasted, but that no movement exists as a single element.