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The Original Isshin-Ryu Karate System

by Chris Thomas

Black Belt Magazine, January 1996

   All martial arts change over time. A look at Morihei Ueshiba's Aikido shows that in the thirties, Ueshiba taught a combat art more properly called Aiki-jitsu. The Aikido of today is based on a very different set of values and purposes. Some may argue that today's Aikido is less effective because its fighting techniques have been watered-down. Some may argue it is more effective because achieving harmony is a far more practical life-skill than fighting. Be that as it may, understanding and looking at the early version of the art helps us to have a greater understanding of the whole.


   Isshinryu karatedo came into existence in 1956, the creation of the late karate master Tatsuo Shimabukuro. Recently, Shimabukuro’s son-in-law, the well-known karate-ka Angi Uezu, announced the formation of a new Isshinryu organization. The purpose of this new association is, in Uezu's words, "to insure that Isshin-Ryu was taught the same way that I was taught by Master Tatsuo Shimabukuro, not just the way that he taught when he started Isshin-Ryu karate, but the ways that he taught, and the things that he learned through-out the whole time up and until he passed away."


   The implication of Uezu's comment is this: there is an early, "original," version of Isshinryu, which is different than the art that most people have learned. And if we are to truly understand Shimabukuro's system, we must understand its earliest incarnation.
To examine nascent Isshinryu, it is necessary to find someone who was there, someone who was an eyewitness of Shimabukuro, someone who has continued to teach and think the way he was taught. It is necessary to talk with Harry G. Smith. Harry Smith was an original student of Shimabukuro’s, and has trained in Isshinryu almost from the beginning of the style. He is largely responsible for many of Isshinryu's top practitioners, and though he is not profiled in the book "Who's Who in Isshin-Ryu Karate," his name appears numerous times as the teacher of many of the notables who are included. Smith was also the first karate instructor of Ryukyu kempo/pressure point expert George Dillman.


   Harry Smith joined the Marine Corp at age 17. After boot camp at Parris Island, he served as an Internal Affairs investigator, posing as a new recruit going through basic training in order to catch Drill Instructors who were abusing the troops and extorting money from them.
After his time on Parris Island, Smith was shipped overseas to Camp Courtney, Okinawa, where he worked as an electrician. During typhoons he would venture out and repair downed wires. During the calm season, his time was his own. It was there that he met a photographer named Art Smiley, who told him about something called karate.


   Just outside the gate of Camp Courtney, was the town of Ten Gen, a meeting place for friends off duty. In Ten Gen, Smith and Smiley would catch a taxi; they called a "jo dematti car." (The phrase "choto mate" means, "wait a minute" and was how a person hailed a cab.) This was a three-wheeled motorcycle, modified to carry six passengers in two bench seats facing each other. With the payment of about 10 cents, the driver, as crazed as any taxi driver in New York, would race down a long steep hill to the village of Agena. From Agena, the two would hop a bus to the village of Tairagawa. About 3/4 mile outside Tairagawa, Smith and Smiley would make their way on foot through rice paddies to Kyan village (now merged with the neighboring village, Chan Nakaname, and called Kinaka), and the home of Tatsuo Shimabukuro, the founder of Isshinryu karate-do.


   Kyan village consisted of about a dozen huts separated by fences marking property lines and providing some semblance of privacy. These fences were made of stone, branches, sticks, and tall weeds. The yard of Shimabukuro’s home was the dojo. The ground was bare, but rocky. And though the rocks were somewhat smoothed, it was still painful to step wrong on one.
As the town grew, the neighbors became something of a nuisance, watching the training and disrupting concentration, so, the American students helped build a cinder block wall around the yard. This wall was a sign of wealth. At the time, the average annual income of an Okinawan was about $25.00. Tatsuo charged 600 yen (about $4.50-$5.00) per month for karate instruction, and so, enjoyed a higher standard of living than his neighbors.
The wall had an opening, but no door, with a smaller wall inside which blocked the view of the yard from the entry. The wall blocked out the distractions of the neighbors, though Smith quips, "I think it was (really that) my Master didn't want the people to see him beating the crap out of us."


   While the Shimabukuro family was a farm family, Tatsuo did not himself farm. The family plot was used for growing beans (the whole bean plant, including the roots, was used, with nothing wasted). In the family compound there was also a sectioned off area where two or three pigs were kept.


   Shimabukuro was a small man, but a fierce fighter. "I never had the nerve to put a tape measure to my Master," says Smith. "But he was, ball park, 5 feet tall and around 115 pounds. But, what made him so feared and respected, even by the tough marines?”
There is a legend that during WW II, Shimabukuro was trying to dodge the draft, so he led the Japanese military in a game of cat and mouse throughout the island of Okinawa. Finally, when both Shimabukuro and the military had grown weary of the chase, they struck a bargain wherein he taught karate to a few officers in exchange for an exemption from military service. Smith, however, does not believe the tale.


   Smith believes that Shimabukuro was in the Philippines during WW II, teaching karate to the Japanese Royal Marines. He was functioning (to use contemporary terminology) as a "special forces defensive tactics instructor," training these Japanese soldiers to use karate to kill. Smith further believes that it was there that the techniques of Isshinryu were perfected -- on U.S. marines.


  In this setting, the art that Shimabukuro was teaching would require two outstanding qualities: 1. It would have to be a straightforward style, which was quickly and easily taught to soldiers; 2. It would have to be absolutely devastating. This is the cauldron in which Isshinryu’s simple, direct and linear approach was developed.
Because the style was focused on efficiency, the training in those early days on Okinawa was hard, monotonous, and very strenuous. There were no fancy tricks, no excuses and no short cuts. The key to Isshinryu’s effectiveness, according to Smith, is the reaction force of the blow. Every technique is delivered with a strong snapping motion, immediately retracting the fist.


   This means that Isshinryu techniques are not particularly effective on soft body surfaces because they lack penetration. Instead, they are intended to generate shocking force that will destroy hard body surfaces, causing serious, even lethal damage. For this reason, working with a heavy bag does not produce a more effective technique. The heavy bag only serves to strengthen one's own body against the natural reaction force of striking an object.
To develop this method, Shimabukuro had two makiwara (punching post) set up so that they faced each other. The karate-ka would punch the makiwara to the front, then immediately retract the hand and strike with his elbow to the makiwara in the rear. Standing between these posts and striking forward, then back, one quickly developed a rhythm, which trained the reaction power.


   There was also a strong emphasis on kumite in the early training. Kumite was practiced hard contact, using kendo armor. The headgear ("men") had holes cut out over the ears. Two overlapping sets of chest protectors ("do") were worn. This accomplished two things: first, the kendo armor was designed for Orientals, which is to say, it was too small to cover an American body. Two overlapping pieces, however, did provide adequate coverage. Second, because the two pieces overlapped, they did not restrict movement as much as a single, large piece would have. As the body moved and bent, the armor pieces could slide around and accommodate the action.
The final two pieces of kendo gear, the gloves ("kote") and the padded skirt ("tare," to protect the hips and lower abdomen, as well as the tops of the thighs) were also used. One additional piece of protective equipment was added, a groin cup ("kin-ate",) which is not part of the traditional kendo ensemble.


   Because the strength of Isshinryu was revealed in kumite, its kata appeared unimpressive.

   When Smith left Okinawa in late 1958, he paid $25.00 for a silk dan diploma, consisting of 4 silks measuring 12” x 16” dated and sealed. Shimabukuro also presented him with a set of 3 hand made sai. His diploma states that his rank of 6th degree (black belt) was for kumite. His master told him that the rank would only be good if he trained ten fingers, worth, (meaning) ten years, and then came back to Okinawa. Personally, Smith thinks the $25.00 outweighed the ten years, but he surprised him by showing up in Naha eight years later.


   Upon his return to the United States, Smith began teaching Isshinryu. He taught the art as he had been taught. And he continues to teach the same way today. This does put him at odds with some in the Isshinryu community, because his Isshinryu is not an art or a sport, but a fighting system, style full of the combative realities of the Philippine jungles of WW II.


   Tatsuo Shimabukuro founded the Isshinryu system in 1956, and it was different then, than it is now. Like the JKD community, the karate community might well argue about whether or not "original" Isshinryu is superior to the contemporary version. But, this is not the most important point to be made. The most important thing is that understanding "original" Isshinryu helps us understand where Isshinryu came from, and how (perhaps even why) it has changed.


~Chris Thomas



Copyright © 2005 Harry G. Smith