ARTICLES & COMMENTS
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
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
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
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
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.