Grosse Pointe Karate Club
Karate and Isshinryu History
By Master Bohan

Home Photos Articles Links Classes Student Info KIAI

Web Site Administrator's Introduction

We believe that the following history of Okinawa, karate, and Isshin-ryu karate was written by Master Don Bohan. The essay lists neither an author nor a date, but has been passed from karate-ka to karate-ka in a packet of essays authored by Master Bohan. The formatting and style of this essay is consistent with the others in the packet. The only inconsistency is that this essay quotes Master Bohan. The essay is presented here in its original, and unedited form.


Since the 1950's, the practice of karate and other Oriental martial arts has become more widespread than at any other time in history. In America, as in numerous other western countries, many thousands of karate enthusiasts have undertaken a discipline that, only a few decades ago, had been largely restricted to servicemen in Asia who had access to the dojos in Okinawa and Japan. Most of the men who pioneered American karate are veterans of the Marine Corps who were stationed in Okinawa. Thus a sport and way of life that has been rapidly subsumed by American culture has close ties with an exclusively Asian tradition. This tradition extends back ultimately thousands of years in ancient India and China.

The history of the Okinawan way of unarmed combat, originally called Te (hand), is very poorly documented. Not only was the art kept in strict secrecy during the centuries when its perfection was attained, but any old documents that might have shed some light on its early stages might have been destroyed when the archives of the Ryukyuan kingdom burned in 1945. However, the rich oral history of karate, handed down from generation to generation, is highly informative. This "book of the people" has been the primary source for historians such as Richard Kim, whose book, "The Weaponless Warriors", portrays legendary karate masters in a manner as entertaining as the folklore from which the book was derived. This folk history is expanded and explained by the well-documented details of Okinawan social, political and military history. Indeed, the broader picture of Okinawan history provides the context in which the very development of karate may be understood.

Okinawa is the largest island of the Ryukyu island chain, an archipelago formed by an underwater mountain range that stretches from southern Japan to Taiwan. Okinawa rises in the center of the Ryukyus, facing the East China Sea to the west, and the Pacific Ocean to the east. With its advantageous location and good harbors, Okinawa gained an important position in the maritime trade of East and Southeast Asia. From the 10th century to the 12th century, numerous regional rulers enriched themselves with overseas trade, organized governments, built villages and strongholds, and engaged in strenuous commercial and military rivalry. During the 12th and 13th centuries, power was concentrated as the stronger rules demanded the allegiance of the weaker, and dynastic kingdoms were established. By the 14th century, Okinawa was divided into three kingdoms: Hokuzan in the north, Chuzan in the center, and Nanzan in the south. The most powerful of these was Chuzan, whose capital was Shuri.

In 1372, King Satto of Chuzan established a tributary relationship between Chuzan and the Ming Dynasty of China. In return for acknowledging China's dominance and authority, Chuzan gained valuable trade privileges, gifts and cultural exchange that greatly enhanced the abilities and self-esteem of the small kingdom. The Ming emperor sent the colony known as the Thirty-Six Families to his new tributary. This colony was established near Shuri and included Chinese diplomats, interpreters, scholars, artisans, shipwrights, navigators, soldiers, and priests, all of whom were to instruct and assist the Okinawans. Satto also sent the first of many Okinawan students and tribute missions to China in a process of exchange that would last for five centuries.

In 1406, a certain Hashi seized power in Chuzan, and made his father, Shisho, king, establishing the first Sho Dynasty. Hashi then conducted military campaigns against the northern and southern kingdoms until they both fell under control of Chuzan. When Hashi succeeded his father in 1422, he built the port at Naha and imposed a royal monopoly on Ryukyuan trade. During the next fifty years, Hashi and successive 1st and 2nd Sho Dynasty kings developed a far-flung and enormously profitable trade network, from Siam to Patani, Malacca, Sumatra, Java, Formosa, China, Korea, and Japan. Indeed, with the cooperation and support of China, the Ryukyuan kingdom came to predominate on these trade routes, providing the people with a new outlet for their energies, and providing the kings with unprecedented economic power.

By 1477, profits from trade has so strengthened the central authority of the Sho Dynasty against Ryukyuan territorial lords on Okinawa and outlying islands, that Kin Sho Shin was able to order the lords to leave their ancestral castles and take up residence in his capital at Shuri. Furthermore, Sho Shin issued an edict that banned the private possession of weapons. Thus the king disarmed not only the general populace, but the once autonomous regional rulers as well. The king's power was sufficient to enforce the weapons ban.

By the mid 1500's, the Sho kings ruled all four major Ryukyuan island groups, Amami, Okinawa, Miyako and Yaeyama. A social class system was established, a strong royal guard was maintained, and royal patronage was given to Buddhism. But the end of that century saw the decline of Ryukyuan trade. The Chinese curtailed their financial support. Pirate fleets from Japan and other nations ravaged ports and sea-going vessels. The Portuguese strove to dominate trade in Southeast Asia. All of this cut drastically into the profits forthcoming to the Ryukyuan Kings, who were nonetheless obliged to support domestic affairs as well as the expensive biyearly tributary missions to China, which required elaborate gifts for the emperor's family and officials, as well as months of room, board and entertainment for Ryukyuan officials, staff, seamen and servants.

At the turn of the 17th century, a new Shogun emerged from the political turmoil in Japan, and the Ryukyuan king, Sho Nei, was asked to send delegates to pay his respects. When Sho Nei declined, he unwittingly offered Japan a pretext for military action against Ryukyu. The Shogun granted permission to the Satsuma clan of southern Japan to chastise the Okinawans, ostensibly for their lack of respect, but also because the Ryukyu archipelago appeared to have increasing strategic importance. Satsuma sailed against Okinawa in February, 1609, with three thousand samurai in a fleet of over one hundred war-junks. The Okinawans had not fought a war since the days of Kin Hashi, two centuries before. Most of them had been disarmed, and what soldiers there were at Shuri were no match for the veteran samurai. After a brave defense, on April 5, Shuri Castle was taken; the city was looted. The king and more than one hundred of his officials were taken back to Kagoshima, the Satsuma capital in Japan.

Within the next three years, the norther Ryukyus were directly annexed to Satsuma territory. Okinawa and the southern islands were made a vassal state of Satsuma. King Sho Nei and his officials were made to swear oaths of allegiance to Japan which were binding on their decedents. Ryukyu retained its royal family and a facade of independence, including its tributary relationship with China. But the Satsuma clan strictly controlled all trade and much internal policy, disarmed the king's retainers while maintaining the weapons ban, and imposed a burdensome tax on one third of all Okinawan production. Japan would increasingly dominate Okinawa until modern times. Okinawa wound never again know independence or prosperity.


This history of Okinawa provides the broad context into which the history of karate is woven. Okinawans derived karate from techniques learned from the Chinese and other people with whom they had contact. They perfected the art after they were generally disarmed. For centuries, self-defense and the protection of property depended on weaponless techniques, or techniques utilizing common implements. "In Okinawa today," Reid has found, "most karate masters believe that the banning of weapons ... was an act of sublime wisdom, not one of oppression."

It is believed that a style of offensive fist fighting called Tode was practiced in Okinawa long before the island received much external influence. It is also possible that Chinese seafarers introduced some fighting techniques during the Sui, Tang, and Sung dynasties (500's - 1200's AD). Oral traditions cite the early 1300's as the period when a fighting art resembling karate began to be generally practiced. However, the most significant period of development began when the Chinese Ming Dynasty established diplomatic ties with Okinawa in 1372, and founded the colony called the Thirty-Six Families at Kume, near Shuri, in 1392. Among the many skills the Chinese brought to Okinawa were their style of calisthenics and boxing, called kempo, and the martial arts of the Shaolin Temple tradition, kung-fu.

By the time the Chinese settled in Okinawa, Kung-fu was a high developed art. In addition to providing a sophisticated system of defense, kung-fu trained the practitioner in total mental control and diaphramic breathing control, which has been imported to China from India, where many of the techniques used in kung-fu were already many centuries old.

During the century following the arrival of the Chinese, Okinawans developed the skills in a fighting style that combined kung-fu with te. To quote Master Donald Bohan, "The philosophy and superior defense of kung-fu, characterized by open hand technique, and the devastating superior offense of Okinawa-Te, characterized by the closed fist, were destined to become one. Evolution of the world's deadliest fighting art was nearing its peak!"

By the time Sho Shin disarmed the Ryukyuan kingdom and forced its nobility to live at Shuri (1477), local experts were available for training in the alternatives to fighting with weapons of war. The primary objective of such training was self-defense and protection of property, rather than insurrection or civil war. At this time, "it is believed that two movements were born in Okinawa. On the one hand, the nobles sought out, learned and developed the unarmed combat art of te. On the other hand, formers and fisherman began to develop weapons systems based upon the combative use of tools and agricultural implements."

Both groups of people had further incentive to increase their respective skills when the Japanese subjugated the Ryukyus in 1609, and reenforced the ban on lethal weapons. The defensive emphasis of te was sufficient for the nobility and royal family, who stood to gain the most from acceptance of Satsuma domination. Resistance would have invited violent reprisals from the well-armed samurai; and the nobles had learned the fate of Jana Teido Oyakata, who had been immediately beheaded upon his refusal to swear allegiance to Satsuma. Although Satsuma levied excessive taxation and completely controlled foreign trade, including that with China, the Okinawan nobility received pensions and enjoyed relative prosperity until the 1800's. The samurai were forbidden by law to harass the Okinawans. The Okinawans were forbidden by law to quarrel among themselves. And the Satsuma authorities were careful to maintain the illusion that the Ryukyuan kingdom was still autonomous, so that they could reap the benefits of Ryukyu's trade privileges with China. Consequently, although the Ryukyuan leaders occasionally petitioned Satsuma for the betterment of their situation, there is no documentary record of any concerted, high-level rebellious movement on Okinawa.

The peasantry, the farmers and fishermen, lived under completely different circumstances. They had not benefitted from the golden years of Ryukyuan trade, but had lived in continuous poverty. Under Japanese domination, the burden of the heavy taxation fell largely upon their backs. As time went on, their situation only worsened. They lacked the status and social privileges of the nobility. They might have been more likely to encounter hostility and aggression from the samurai. The suffered repeatedly from typhoons, famine, and diseases. Such hardship can put people at odds with one another, and would certainly have nurtured bitter resentment of the Japanese. The peasantry's lot in life during the three centuries following the Satsuma invasion was much more likely to motivate the development of offensive martial arts using flails, grindstone handles, sickles, horse tackle, staffs and paddles. The historical record would suggest that it was among the numbers of poor farmers and fishermen that incidents arose which became the basis for folklore that tells of bloody rivalries between groups of martial artists and violent resistance against the Japanese.

This folklore has been inflated to the point that some accounts claim that the entire island was violently oppressed, that all metal of any description was confiscated, that each village had one communal knife chained to a butcher block in the village square and guarded day and night by armed samurai, and that the Okinawans organized guerrilla tactics to expel their conquerors. Such tales must have some basis from incidents in some community during the early years of the Satsuma occupation. But they believe the actual nature of the domination and policies of the Japanese. In fact, the Satsuma authorities established new metal smithies in each district on the island in order to improve and increase the numbers of agricultural implements. After all, the Japanese wanted to increase Okinawan productivity in farming, fishing and craftsmanship so that their taxes of these products would increase. The Okinawans were spared excessive harassment in order to prevent the Chinese from discovering the Japanese presence on the island; because China still offered lucrative trade privileges to the supposedly autonomous Ryukyuan Kings, while, in fact, the Japanese secretly controlled both the trade and the distribution of its profits. The Okinawans had learned to adapt to foreign domination since the late fourteenth century. As McCune write, "This almost continuous domination by outside powers has given the people of the Ryukyu Islands a singular adaptability. Like the tall grasses along the shores that bend with the gentle breeze or with the violence of the typhoon winds, the adjust to new conditions and have cooperated with their conquerors, they have been able to maintain their own dignity and integrity."

Gichin Funakoshi, a Shorin-ryu master and the first published historian of karate, records that the Japanese were aware of karate's potential danger to security, and had therefore banned the practice of the art. It is impossible to determine how many clashes between samurai and karate-ka actually took place, but, in a sense, such a statistic is irrelevant because the intention of most of the Okinawans was to avoid trouble, while having their karate for protection in case of attack. Funakoshi himself suggests that the legends surrounding karate are imaginative and inaccurate. The main points, as he makes them are: the Satsuma authorities reinstated and enforced the weapons ban karate, eventually, was also banned, so it was developed and practiced in secret until about 1900; karate, like Okinawan society in general, followed principles of strict etiquette; "Karate begins and ends with courtesy."

The strict secrecy with which Okinawa-te was studied precludes any accurate and detailed account of its development. Instruction by Chinese and Okinawan experts was sought after, and techniques were passed on amount students, family and friends. Three styles emerged in the three main towns around Shuri: Naha-te, Shuri-te and Tomari-te. Out of these styles evolved the karate styles that are familiar today. Naha-te produced the styles of Shorei-ryu (Goju-ryu and Uechi-ryu). Shuri-te and Tomari-te were combined to form the styles of Shorin-ryu (Shobayashi, Kobayashi, Matsubayashi).

The oral history of te grows increasingly detail and colorful from the 1700's on, and is best rendered in English by Richard Kim in "The Weaponless Warriors". The fights and feats that he described illustrate the aims and results of training regimens undertaken on Okinawa. Kim focuses on the martial artists whose achievements have made them legendary; but he also indicates that te was practiced by increasingly large numbers of people throughout Okinawa. In fact, a late 19th century Japanese writer, in an article on Okinawan customs and society, states that the Okinawans, as a general rule, "are skilled in karate." British and American visitors to the island during the 1700's and 1800's invariably and repeatedly remarked on two striking features of the Okinawans: First, they were extremely gentle, polite and hospitable; second, they carried or displayed absolutely no offensive weapons of any kind. During the months that Commodore Perry's American expedition spent on Okinawa, there was only one recorded incident in which an islander displayed his proficiency in combat. One of the American sailors threatened a market vendor with a knife, and the vendor used his bo to disarm and repel the sailor. Perry did not even recognize the the vendor's action demonstrated Okinawa's alternative to using military weapons, which suggest that the absolute secrecy of karate was maintained until the late 1800's. Such secrecy made possible, in part, by the masters' chosen philosophy that one should avoid actual fighting if at all possible. While there is no doubt that the better fighters were capable of deflecting sword slashes with their forearms, shattering skulls with kicks, or delivering fatal punches through the lacquered armor of the samurai, they were taught to use these abilities as last resorts. The sort of bravado that Richard Kim describes in his story about Itosu Yasutsune and the rock called Ude-kake-shi was generally not advocated by the masters. And the historical record suggests that clashes with the samurai were carefully avoided.

By the late 1800's, the term, karate, came into use in Okinawa, with the translation of "T'ang hand" or "Chinese hand", which acknowledged the debt that the art owed to kung-fu and kempo. In 1905, Chomo Hanashiro replace the character for "T'ang" with a character that was pronounced the same (kara), but meant "empty" or "rendering oneself empty", a Zen concept. The expression, "empty hand", was popularized by Gichin Funakoshi, who emphasized the Zen Buddhist aspect, writing, "students of Karate-do aim not only towards perfecting their chosen art but also towards emptying heart and mind of all earthly desire and vanity". In 1936 "empty hand" was officially adopted by karate leaders.


With the 20th century, this history of karate emerges from obscurity. Not only was the secrecy relaxed by 1900, but also historians have been able to tap living memory, newspaper accounts, et cetera, in their effort to record the development of modern karate. In fact, the information available is so abundant and complex that an account of the history of modern karate is far beyond the scope of this essay. Rather, the focus will be narrowed to the training and career of Master Tatsuo Shimabuku, and his creation of Isshin-ryu karate.

While Isshin-ryu is a relatively new style, and while is has been fairly controversial since its establishment in 1954, it is important to realize that Isshin-ryu is very firmly rooted in traditional karate, and that, while Master Shimabuku was an innovator, he was also the most accomplished traditionalist of his day. Thus Master Shimabuku may be likened to other great and innovative artists, such as architect Frank Lloyd Wright or the painter, Picasso. While Wright introduced many new and bold concepts to the art of building, and in some ways revolutionized the practices of architecture, he was well trained in principles, techniques and materials that go back to the builders of ancient civilizations. And while Picasso's paintings reflect his radical departure from traditional depiction of images, he was able to paint as realistically as any landscape or portrait artist. No one lacking the formal training of these two figures could have possibly matched their innovative creativity. Similarly, Isshin-ryu could have been invented only by one who had absolutely mastered traditional karate. Tatsuo Shimabuku was and acknowledge expert in Goju-ryu and Shorin-ryu before he refined and tempered the techniques, and handed down a style that is as pure and effective as any practiced today.

Master Shimabuku was born on September 8, 1908, [Web site administrator note: In all other sources, Master Shimabuku's birthday is September 19, 1908] and began his study of karate as a boy with his uncle, who practiced Shuri-te. He continued his studies with three great Okinawan masters: Chotoku Kyan, Chojun Miyagi and Choki Motobu. These three are featured in "The Weaponless Warriors"; and Richard Kim's note and charts clearly show how they tie into the long tradition of karate.

Kyan was a student of Master Yasutsune Itosu, who taught Shuri-te, and of Master Matsumora, who taught Tomari-te. These two styles were combined to form Shorin-ryu (named after the Shaolin Temple tradition), and Kyan was one of Shorin-ryu's greatest practitioners. He was famous for his powerful kicks, and for his outstanding teaching ability. Kyan was a stern perfectionist, and young Tatsuo Shimabuku achieved the honor of being his best student.

Miyagi (1888-1953) was the best student of Naha-te grandmaster, Kanryo Higashionna (1845-1915). Higashionna had established Naha-te by combining te with Chinese kempo, which he had studied for years in China. Naha-te was distinguished by its integration of soft kempo and hard kempo. It emphasized the Sanchin stance, which Higashionna had developed to the point that he was immovable when he had assumed the stance and heated the floor with the powerful gripping of his toes. Miyagi studied with Higashionna for a number of years, then went to China himself to study kempo. He returned to Okinawa and formulated the style called Goju-ryu (hard/soft way). For accounts of his deeply respected personality and his lifelong devotion to and techniques in karate, consult the chapters on Miyagi by Richard Kim and Frank Van Lenten. Miyagi was known as an exacting sensei whose grueling workouts greatly strengthened the body and built up endurance. With Miyagi, Tatsuo Shimabuku went through training that was very influential to the ultimate development of Isshin-ryu; for example, the emphasis on breathing and tension, the low kicks, and the development of mind, body and spirit.

Motobu was a less formal instructor, but an accomplished master in Shorin-ryu, and an indomitable fighter. Coming from an ancient line of Okinawan nobles, he had an eccentric personality and an enormous physique. As Richard Kim states, he is remembered as a brawler as well as a master, but no doubt his instruction offered Tatsuo Shimabuku invaluable lessons on the practical application of the art of karate.

Under these three senseis, Tatsuo Shimabuku developed abilities that mutually complemented one another in making him a quintessential karate-ka; flexibility, coordination, power, speed, balance, ki, technical perfectionism, oneness with the art, heightened awareness, honor, humility, streetwise practicality. With additional training under weapons experts, Tatsuo Shimabuku became one of the most accomplished karate-ka of his day.

From the late 1920's to the 1940's, Master Shimabuku's prestige and authority in karate increased. Like most of the Okinawan population, Master Shimabuku was a poor farmer. He also worked in his village as a local tax collector. The first half of the 20th century was very difficult for Okinawans in his station in life. The Japanese rulers were unconcerned about extreme economic hardship on the island, and unresponsive to the Okinawan leaders' petitions for land and tax reform.

Karate was Master Shimabuku's way of life, but at that time the art would not earn a living for most of its experts. With the advent of World War II, and the forced conscription of thousands of Okinawan men, Master Shimabuku and is family sought refuge on another island. Shortly before the Japanese surrender, the Battle of Okinawa devastated the island, its economy and its inhabitants. The Japanese stubbornly resisted the Allied Forces from its headquarters in the ancient castle at Shuri. The Americans dropped tons of explosives on the island and waged bloody infantry tactics. Most of the ancient buildings, gardens, and over 100,000 civilians were killed (along with an additional 100,000 soldiers). After the Japanese were defeated, the Americans occupied Okinawa and began a massive effort of reconstruction. Having returned to Okinawa, Master Shimabuku resumed farming, until Okinawan civilians and, later, American servicemen began to seek him out for instruction in karate. In the early 1950's, Master Shimabuku decided to establish a formal dojo at his home in Chun Village, and became one of the first successfully professional senseis. Later, the school's success prompted Master Shimabuku to move his dojo to Agena, where large number of Americans could have access to his instruction.

Master Shimabuku had been experimenting with new approaches in karate for a long time. But with his energies focused on his art, Master Shimabuku's create spirit increasingly analyzed and synthesized all the kata, techniques and applications he had perfected. He continued the slow, methodical, thorough process of modifying Shorin-ryu and Goju-ryu into a style that he found more practical and effective. His experimentation was galvanized by his visionary dream of the Mizu-Gami. The vision unified his ideas and his purpose. On January 15, 1956, Master Shimabuku publicly proclaimed that he would teach a new style called Isshin-ryu, one heart or whole-hearted way.

Master Shimabuku always said that there was "no birthday" for Isshin-ryu. He had been adding to, and subtracting from the style for years before 1959. His aim has been to develop a system that would apply sudden, direct, powerful force, while eliminating unnecessary movement. His ideas and innovations in karate are preserved in, and handed down through, the eight empty-hand kata of Isshin-ryu: Seisan, Seiuchin, Naihanchi, Wansu, Chinto, Kusan Ku, Sunsu and Sanchin. Most of these katas were adapted from their ancient forms, while Sunsu (or Sunusu, "son of Su (the ancestral house of Shimabuku)" was create by Master Shimabuku and, therefore, embodies Isshin-ryu in its essence. These katas were chosen, and refined laboriously and assiduously so that they might exemplify Isshin-ryu, and aid in the instruction of students of Isshin-ryu. The are a legacy from Master Shimabuku that continues to be handed down from sensei to student.

For almost twenty years, Master Shimabuku taught Isshin-ryu to many Americans, as well as Okinawans. But his style was not readily accepted by the traditionalist karate-ka. Unfortunately, there is not completely reliable publication in print on the history of Isshin-ryu. Master Arsinio J. Advincula, who spent many years studying in Master Shimabuku's dojo and is credited with designing the Isshin-ryu patch, is considered one of the leading historians of the style. Some of Master Advincula's writings have appeared in various magazines, but his projected book has not been published yet. When it is published, his book promises to the particularly valuable for those interested in Isshin-ryu, because the existing accounts of this style are insufficient.

Master Tatsuo Shimabuku died May 30, 1975. Before his death, he was filmed performing Isshin-ryu kata on at least two occasions. While Isshin-ryu has suffered a decline in Okinawa, in America the style is thriving, owing largely to the dedication of Master Shimabuku's students, who have established their own dojo's all over the nation, and have endeavored to pass on Isshin-ryu in its prescribed form. We have seen what a unique and phenomenal creation Isshin-ryu karate is. Master Shimabuku never dwelt on the past, but lived squarely in the present. The future of Isshin-ryu is in the hands of the present. Today's Isshin-ryu karate-ka should strive to preserve such a singular creation in its original form, through cooperation, careful study, and a new area of tradition.

Home | Photos | Articles | Links | Classes | Student Info | KIAI
Copyright and Contact Information | Mobile |

Soke Shimabuku Grand Master Mitchum Grand Master Nagle Master Chapman Master Noxon Grand Master Adams Grand Master Schaefer