Master Shimabuku
Up The Dragon Man Of Isshin-Ryu


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"All things in the universe will change."

-Shimabuku, Tatsuo Sensei-

  It is almost impossible to speak of Isshin-Ryu without speaking great detail of Tatsuo Shimabuku.  By the same token, it is almost impossible to speak of Tatsuo Shimabuku without speaking in great detail of Isshin-Ryu.  Most people will agree that the two are one in the same.


While Isshin-Ryu is a relatively new style, and while it 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.   Tatsuo Shimabuku was recognized as being proficient in both 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 Sept. 19, 1908, in Chun Village.  His family was a farming family.  He was given the name Chinkichi Shimabuku; later he changed the name to Tatsuo Shimabuku.  At an early age (some say around 13) he began to study karate from his uncle Irshu Matsumora (Kamasu Chan), who practiced Shuri-Te.  His uncle taught him to be a fortune teller and a little karate.   His uncle later sent him to study with Chotoku Kyan to further study karate because he thought Tatsuo's training was incomplete.  His uncle only had a little knowledge of karate.  His main concern was to pass on his knowledge of the ancient Chinese books teaching  Tatsuo to be a sumuchi or fortune teller.


    Tatsuo Shimabuku was a humorous man and maintained a casual tone in the dojo.  Tatsuo Shimabuku was an educated and agile athlete.   His control over his body made him a model of the explosive, fluid strength and power of karate.  He was well respected as a knowledgeable person and as founder of the original All Okinawan Karate Association.


     Young Shimabuku grew into a strong lad with a strong desire to learn and achieve.  Young Shimabuku was gifted with precocious physical talent.  His physique was highly developed at age 12.  He was champion high school athlete and possessed a perceptive and inventive mind.  As a gymnast, he excelled on the horizontal bar.  At social and sporting events, he was known to hang from a crossbar by his heels and , at times, to climb tall poles and come down the other side upside down!


     At demonstrations, Tatsuo Shimabuku enjoyed "show" karate and doing things that were funny.  Breaking from a bear hug, he would point up to the sky while secretly grabbing the attacker's groin with his other hand.  He liked to break boards when they were hanging only by a string.  He would throw a board in the air, then break it with a back hand strike.


     He would occasionally extinguish cigarettes on the thick callous of his right hand, which he had built up from striking the end of a 2X4 for 20-30 minutes every day.  AJ. Advincula, Shimabuku's long-term student, neighbor and friend, twice saw Shimabuku drive 16 penny nails into wood with his knife hand.  Once when the callous bled, he drove the nail home with the heel of his foot.


     Master Shimabuku continued his studies with three great Okinawan masters:  Chotoku Kiyan, Chojun Miyagi and Choki Motobu.


     Tatsuo Shimabuku was recognized as being proficient in both Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryo.  Master Shimabuku was never a dan in either style because, thee was no such thing at the time. In those days there was no formal ranking system as such, one was judged as a black belt or a master based on one's actions as viewed by one's fellow karate-ka.


     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.


     From Shinken Taira he learned the bo katas urashi kun, shishi no kun and the sai kata chatan yara no sai and the tuifa kata hamahiga no tuifa.  From Chotoku Kyan, Tatsuo learned the sai kata "Kyan no sai" and the bo kata "tokumine no kun."


     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 the 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 his 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 monuments of the ancient Ruykyuan kingdom were destroyed, 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 numbers 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 creative spirit increasingly analyzed and synthesized all the kata, techniques and applications he had perfected.  He continued the slow, methodical 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 Megami.  This vision unified his ideas and purposes.  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 was to develop a system that would apply sudden, direct 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, Kusanku, Sunsu and Sanchin.   Most of these kata were adapted from their ancient forms, while Sunsu was created by Master Shimabuku and, therefore, embodies Isshin-Ryu in its essence.  These kata were chosen, and refined laboriously and assiduously so that they might exemplify Isshin-Ryu, and aid in the instruction of students of Isshin-Ryu.  They are the legacy left by Master Shimabuku that continue to be handed down today from Sensei to student.


    The Isshin-Ryu system encompasses the following weapons kata: Tokomeni No Kun, Urashi No Bo, Shi Shi No Kun, Kyan No Sai, Chatanyara No Sai, Hamahiga No Tuifa (Hamahiga No Tonfa;  Tuifa is commonly pronounced Tonfa in the United States).


    Most Isshin-Ryu schools incorporate the kata; Bo-Bo Kumite and Bo-Sai Kumite, I Pattern Sai, and I pattern Tuifa into the weapon curriculum as well.


    The name Isshin-Ryu, is composed of three characters.  The first, "i" or "ichi" means one.  The second "shin", can be translated as mind, heart or spirit.  The third character "ryu", means school.  Isshin-Ryu then is devoted to developing unity of mind, heart, and spirit.


    Master Tatsuo Shimabuku (Shimabuku cans also be written as Shimabukuro. The addition of the "ro" ending is simply a more formal way of writing the same name)  died May 30,  1975.  Before his death, he was filmed performing the Isshin-Ryu kata on at least two occasions.  In the 1950's Master Shimabuku started teaching servicemen who were stationed in Okinawa.  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 dojos all over the nation and have endeavored to pass on Isshin-Ryu in its prescribed form.