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My memories

by Art Smiley

Kyan, Okinawa 1956
(l-r) Art Smiley, Tatsuo Shimabukuro & Sgt. Brynor


   My first introduction to him was through Don Nagle. I saw Don Nagle working out in a crossit at Ten Gen. Ten Gen was Camp Courtney on Okinawa. This is in 1956. Don Nagle was my first introduction to karate. At first it was comical watching him go through his katas, but then it was also fascinating so I asked and he explained, I watched, again I asked and he explained. I Went to the dojo as his guest. The Dojo was in Kyan. Kyan was a little village about a quarter of a mile at the other side of Terigawa and about a half mile into the boondox, the rice patties.

   From Ten Gen we would take a chotomoti car, which was a converted three wheel motorcycle that will hold six people on the back. We would take that into Agena. From Agena we would take a bus about a mile the other side of Agena and then we would walk about half a mile into the rice patties. Kyan consisted of probably about 20 houses. I think everybody there was related, I'm not sure. They didn't have sidewalks, they just had a little trail. It was kind of a rough trail because it was dirt over coral and a lot of places the coral was just sticking out.


   When you would approach Shimabuku's house there were two steps up, there was a cinderblock or stone wall, around it was coral. There would be a couple steps up then you would go around a wall which is used to block the view from the sidewalk, from the path. The wall was also made of coral and it had a thin coating of like plaster or concrete over it, yeah concrete, concrete stucco over it. When you would go up the stairs and around that little wall you would see the yard. On the far side of the yard was the house. On the right was a wall going back into the wall of the house. On the left would be a couple of sheds, I guess they were storage sheds.


   The house consisted of three rooms. Their doors were sliding doors, sliding partitions. In the house itself was a big room which was divided into half, which was two of the rooms. They had mat floors, woven mat floors, I guess over wood. They slept in the back area, the front area would be considered living room or family room or whatever. That's also where we worked out when we were not in the yard. And then the other room, well you couldn't very well call it a room. It was like a little kitchen with a coal area for fixing food. They didn't have a stove or anything, they just would build a fire and they had a little metal grill that they would put the pots on. For water there was a well in the front yard. It was a circular shaft that went down, it was probably built about 4 feet, the walls were built about 4 feet off the ground and it also had something where you could through a bucket down and crank it back up again. That was their water supply.



   When we worked out, we worked out in the yard. The yard was not a smooth yard, it was concrete, no I'm sorry it was dirt over coral. And a lot of places the coral was sticking up, but it was kind of smooth coral, it wasn't sharp coral. He had a couple of hitting boards. Hitting boards and kicking boards. They were constructed where when you would hit it it would fly back and then come back and hit you so each time you struck it you would get double results. Instead of just hitting it plain, quick, it'll go bang bang. When I first started there it was with Don Nagle, there was one other American and there were 3 or 4 Okinawan Reucin( sp?) Police, security, they were taking lessons from him.


   We worked in his front yard, occasionally we would go in to the house and do katas there. That's where he taught us. He used to sit up on the front steps, I think it was 2 steps up from the yard into the house.

   Occasionally, well sometimes during the training, we would take a break and mamasan would heat up some water in a little tea kettle, a battered old copper tea kettle. She would throw in a handful of tea leaves, no she would bring the hot water out, papasan would throw in a handful of leaves and let it seep for a while, then he would pour, then they would add more hot water and more hot water and more hot water. They would use the same tea leaves probably about a half a dozen times.

   Finally there was nothing more than just faintly colored water. They used kind of a green tea. For sweetener they would use cane, it was made from sugar cane. It was a brown sugar, but it really wasn't a sugar. What they would do is pour the sugar into a pan, they would let it cool and harden and they would break it up so the sugar was pretty much like a rock sugar, that's all you can call it. It was real, real sweet. Sometimes we just sucked on that and then we would sip the tea and just keep the sugar in our mouth and just keep sipping on the tea.


   More on the hitting boards: the hitting boards were something where you had a place for you to stand and then the vertical board. The vertical board the area you would hit would not be the plain wood it would be an area that was wrapped in rope. It was kind of a rough rope like hemp. He had those for hitting, those for kicking, and he also had them for chopping too, using, conditioning, the edge of the hand.

   Shimabuku would show us something and then he would just practice and practice and practice. It was a very, very slow progression in the training system. For the first several months all we really did was learn how to make a fist and how to throw a punch, how to breathe and how to stand. There were a lot of people who started taking the lessons and dropped it out of shear boredom. They wanted to learn quick so they could go out and kick ass. They wanted a quick fix. The way Tatsuo taught there was no quick fix.



   A little background on him. As much as I know during the 2nd World War he was teaching the Japanese Imperial Marines karate in the Philippines. I don't know how many American deaths could be indirectly attributed to him.

   Kyan was a farming community. As I said it was in the middle of the boondox. There were rice patties around, there were fields. I'm pretty sure his home, they had their own little family plot, I never saw the plot, but I saw mamasan and one of the girls harvesting the beans. When they would they used everything pertaining to the bean; they would use the leaves, the stem, even the root system, as well as the beans themselves. I remember times where she'd be sitting on the ground in the front yard sorting or sifting or doing something with the beans and we'd just all be practicing around her.

   I think the average annual income for the goose(sp.?) on Okinawa was like $25.00. So what Shimabuku was making with his lessons, he was considered very, very wealthy. We paid I think 500 yen, 600 yen a month for lessons which is like about $5.00. We put him pretty much in high cotton. When I first started playing karate, let's see what was I doing then. I was cooking and I would bring things out of the mess hall wrapped in my gi to the dojo and I would give it to Shimabuku and the family. Little things like a roast chicken, coffee, granulated sugar, ha, ha, ha. They did appreciate that very, very much. As the said the average annual income on Okinawa is like $25 a year.



   When I started taking lessons from Shimabuku I think there were like about 4 or 5 Americans that had studied prior to me, as I said I was introduced to him by Don Nagle. They had apparently checked out my record, they made sure that I was not a hot head or troublemaker before allowing me to take the lessons. Many people began the lessons, very, very few people started.


   The wall at the entrance to Shimabuku's house in Kyan, the entrance to the yard. Like I told before, it was a coral wall covered over with some kind a stucco. I remember one time seeing Shimabuku just pounding the wall with his fist, looked like just out of shear boredom or just working out, but as he was doing it he was chipping off pieces of it. After a while the wall got pretty ratty. And he replaced it with the money that he was getting from lessons. He replaced the wall and he also put down a very, very fine, a thin coat of concrete over the coral, the coral and dirt yard in front of his home. So far from what I remember of Shimabuku and the house.



   He had two sons, one was older, one was younger, of course. One time the younger one was replacing the soles on his daddy's shoes. He did it with a hammer, a nail and some heavy twine and he would make a hole, he would force the twine through with something like a needle and then he would tie it off.

   They were very ingenious. One time there was this, in his house, they did have electricity, which meant they were doing good. But the only thing they had was a single light bulb hanging from a cord in the front room. That was the extent of their electricity. They didn't have any electrical appliances that I remember.

   One time we were working out in the evening, at night. There was a swarm of some flying insects, and literally swarmed and almost forced us out of the house. They were attracted to the light. His son got a can of water and held it under the light and in just literally a matter of seconds, all the insects, all the flying insects flew into the bowl of water, the pan of water, so we were able to go outside and work out. With Shimabuku's daughter, seems to me that he had two of them.



   Every once in a while on Okinawa they would have these communists pep rallies. Communists agitators would go in and they would have rally. Of course when they did it would confine the troops to the bases to avoid any trouble, any problems. This was not good for the townspeople, like the people who worked in the bars, the bar owners, the prostitutes, and even Shimabuku, because it interfered with business. If there was a communist pep rally around and the troops wouldn't come, they couldn't get any income.


   One time Shimabuku decided that he didn't want a communist pep rally in his area. These pep rallies would last a couple of days, so I remember one time he got dressed, one of the few times I'd seen him dressed. He put on a pair of khakis, a white shirt, and his gadas, and he packed up his seis. He wrapped them up in, I want to say cloth, yeah some kind of cloth, like burlap. And he went to the communist pep rally, taking along Harry Smith and Brynor. They broke up the rally. He liked to put Smith and Brynor in situations to see what they would do. They were into fighting the swabbys. Me, I'm a lover not a fighter.



   When you see him dressed, he was a short man, very, very thin man. When he dressed he dressed in very baggy clothing, but when he moved, when he was hitting, when he was punching, when he was kicking, it was very, very difficult just to follow it with your eyes, he was extremely super quick. He threw a series of punches and it was just a blur. You know I had very quick responses back then but it was just very difficult to follow visually.



   Just a postscript about the village of Kyan. It was a little farming community, isolated in the boondox. It was surrounded by rice patties, with a just a little path going through the rice patties. I don't think you could of driven a vehicle down that path. I don't remember it being that wide. It might have been. But usually it was just a foot path.

   A family would maybe have a pig or maybe a couple of pigs and they would keep them in the family compound which would be in the front area of the house. And they would have chickens as it was a farm community.


   The area between Kyan and the main road was where the traffic was. You could drive a vehicle on that. It was just a one-lane dirt road raised up over the patties.



   Generally after training some of us would go to a little restaurant in Agena. It was not military approved. Downstairs was a series of log tables and benches. Benches with no backs. But then upstairs would be living rooms with low tables and cushions. You step up into the room, of course you had to leave your shoes at the door. They had sliding glass doors, they had geishas who would take your order. We would generally order, well, I would order ammi rice. Ammi rice was fried rice wrapped in a scrambled egg and had little bits of meat in it.

   I found out the reason the restaurant was not approved, military approved, it was because they were using dog and cat meat. It was tough but it was tasty.



   The Isshin Ryu style of karate was created by Tatsuo Shimabuku. He took the stance from one form of karate and he modified it, he lowered the guard from I guess from boxing, from sparring and incorporated that, he just created the form. Apparently he went to the Japanese Karate Institute and demonstrated to them. They accepted it, they approved, and where the name came from I do not know.


   One of the differences between Isshin Ryu and Shorin Ryu and Guju Ryu was the way the punches were thrown. Rather than starting with a fist at your waist, knuckles down and then twist as punch down, his was just up against the body and the punches would go out like a piston without the twist. He felt as though without the twist it would gain speed. It would not drag. To watch him punch his arm it was like watching a piston in action, very, very rapid piston.


   As for his new dojo, the one in Agena, he was very, very proud of it, this is his expansion program. It was a couple blocks off the main road. It was big enough where he could have plenty of students, after all that was the name of the game for him, making money. I wouldn't call him greedy, but in Agena he had a larger yard so he could have more students. In his home he could only have about 4 to 6 people and then it started getting a little cramped, and this is working outdoors. I do not remember any rivalry. There were different dojo's around, different karate dojo's, but there were no rivalries. Everybody pretty much just practiced their own thing.



   His technique, let's see what can I say about his technique? Well, it was his own, he developed it and he used to exhibit it quite a bit at different exhibitions. There are some photos of an exhibition in Tairagawa. It was, I think, a day of sports at the local high school in their sports field. He had some of the students demonstrate their katas and then he would go through it. After that he would have the students spar. When he set a match up this was wearing Kendo equipment. He wanted us to wear Kendo equipment so we could follow through with our punches and all, rather than learning to pull them. We wore everything from, but, even in the Kendo equipment, you get hit up side the head you could feel it.



   The progression through the ranks, through the different belts, he would determine the rate of advancement. What he did was very, very slow. Very tedious, very methodical and he wanted to make sure that you had things down pat before he advanced you to the next step, the next level.

   When he thought it was time for me to go for my black belt, he matched me up with two other students, who were also going for their dan at the same time. Fighting them at the same time. I remember I did very well against both of them. The object was not to get in the middle of them but always have one of them between you and the other opponent.

   Then he brought in a black belt from Naha, the capital of Okinawa. I fought him and I beat him. Then they brought in a representative from the Japanese Karate Corp., and I don't remember if I fought him or if he watched. I think he was an observer. And they deemed it, I was qualified and they presented me with my 1st degree black belt.

   I achieved my 6th degree black belt before I left Okinawa. On my papers, my silks, Tatsuo gave me the rank of 6th degree black belt because he figured if I kept up my training as religiously I had that within 10 years I would be. I kept it up for a while. But other things took preference.

~Art Smiley




Copyright 2005 Harry G. Smith