Okinawa Shorin Ryu

by Katsuya Miyahira

Modern Okinawan Karatedo is considered to be a very special Budo (Martial Way) that is based on the traditional methods of the Okinawan martial art called te. Our Karatedo has absorbed and has also discarded numerous methods of Chinese kenpo and other foreign methods of bujutsu in order to develop something that was really unique and suited to the culture of Okinawa. It is also obvious that modern day Okinawan Karatedo has been greatly influenced by the martial art methods used in mainland Japan.

In Okinawan history, we have had an economical and political relationships with mainland China for well over 200 years. It was during this period of time that the Okinawan people absorbed a great deal of Chinese culture and blended it with their own. It was also well known that whatever came from China (called tomono, meaning things of China or made in China) was considered the best and due to this fact the people of Okinawa studied deeply the martial arts of the Chinese people.

Those Okinawans who studied and eventually mastered these Chinese fighting arts developed in themselves a certain pride and were greatly honored by the various classes. These individuals would often hold special positions of respect and were pointed out as being the flower of Okinawan society.

In the ancient days of Okinawan karate, there were no ryu in its methods although there were three, active specialty groups. The group from the Shuri Castle area was often simply referred to as practitioners of Shuri-te. The practitioners in Tomari-mura (Tomari village) referred to their style as Tomari-te and the four towns that made up Naha named their style Naha-te. (So, in other words, rather then saying these individuals did not have a "ryu" it would be better to say that these practitioners did not actually name their respective "ryu" but called their respective styles based on where they lived.)

Mr. Shigeru Nakamura (the founder of present-day Okinawa Kenpo Karatedo), who has since passed away, once stated that "Okinawan kenpo was a good name for the whole "ryu" of Okinawa and much better than the simple name of "te.' In the end, no one agreed with Mr. Nakamura's idea of combining all the ryu under one name due to the fact that at that time some individuals were already identifying their respective ryu by this or that name. It was then too late and the idea was put aside.

It should also be noted that Gichin Funakoshi, who was instrumental in spreading Okinawan karate to mainland Japan, did not name his ryu and instead simply referred to it as Shotokan. Due to this fact, many of his students in order to identify with a ryu often referred to his style as Shotokan-ryu. His present-day followers now refer to Funakoshi's style as JKA or the Japan Karate Association (Nippon Karate Kyokai) with the end hope of establishing a Mecca for mainland karate styles. It should also be mentioned that they have not given themselves a ryu and still consider themselves as teaching simply Shotokan, and not Shotokan-ryu, as was the wish of their teacher.

A similar situation occurred for the practitioners of Okinawan style Goju-ryu, whose founder was Chojun Miyagi. His most senior student, Jinan Shinzato, was speechless when he was asked the name of his ryu at a major demonstration held by the Dai Nippon Butokukai in mainland Japan in the year Showa 5 (1930). Shinzato quickly thought and simply said "Goju-ryu" meaning the actual characteristics of the Naha-te style developed by Kanryo Higaonna. This story was told to me by Seko Higa [1] who was very close to Chojun Miyagi. Uechi-ryu was once referred to as the Pangai-nun Toshu Research Association in the city of Wakayama-ken in the year of Taisho 15 (1926). This was an effort to popularize this Chinese method of boxing to the people of mainland Japan. That name did not become popular in that area, therefore, it was finally changed from Pangai-nun Toshu Research Association to simply Uechi-ryu Karatedo in honor of the founder, Kanbun Uechi. Choshin Chibana named his ryu, Shorin-ryu (often mistakenly pronounced by the mainlanders as Kobayashi-ryu[3]), and brought great honor to that name. This name originated in the year 1933 and in actuality meant the essence of Shuri-te to Chibana.

There are many other ryu in Okinawa along with the above listed ones. They basically received their respective names from someone who founded the ryu or someone who the originators admired as a teacher. These other ryu can include the following: Matsubayashi-ryu, Shorinji-ryu, Matsumura Shorin-ryu, Motobu-ryu and Tozan-ryu.

It can be said that all of these above named ryu belong to Shuri-te and all share the same concepts or techniques. Kata, however, have been kept in the original style because each ryu did not want to compromise with any other ryu. It is said that it is very difficult to make a chart of the development of Okinawan karate due to the fact that there is much confusion in the relationships between a number of teachers and their respective students. The
island of Okinawa is small but all of its teachers have been open-minded in their relationships with their students who had received instruction and training from other teachers.

It is for this reason that Okinawans are often called "Island Spirited" (this means not having an open mind to the outsiders). But, I believe that people who practice karate are viewed very highly for this reason. A long time ago it was thought that karate teachers did not wish to learn a large number of kata but instead learned one or two kata very well. It was also said that they did not care to teach outsiders (meaning those not from their family or village). These teachers would often refer students to other teachers who had that particular knowledge that the student wanted to learn.

In my case, I was taught by Choki Motobu[4], even though I was a student of the Chibana dojo. My teacher introduced me to Motobu whose dojo was located in Bokushi-machi at that time. Motobu was known by his students as "Saru (monkey) of Motobu palace," and was considered something of an idol to his younger students. Motobu taught me kumite when he was already 67 years old.

According to the history of Chinese kenpo, the fistic arts were originated by a man named Kaja whose techniques stemmed from the five animals (the tiger, deer, bear, monkey and bird) and was taken from the Butokan-jutsu Seika written by Mr. Katsuaki Kin. Two schools were then developed: the soto-ka (the outside ryu) whose founder was a monk called Daruma-zenshi; and the uchi-ka (the inside ryu) whose founder was called Cho Sanki.

In general, soto-ka was called in Okinawa Shorin-ha and uchi-ka was called buto-ha. The techniques taught by Shorin-ha included control over breathing, strengthening of the body in order to move quickly and methods to develop flexibility. Buto-ha techniques involved strengthening of the body frame, having control in bodily movements so as not to be in conflict with nature, and being able to move quickly and silently. We can assume Shorin-ryu developed from shorin-ha. Since there are several kata that are very similar to buto-ha, we cannot be sure that Shuri-te developed from Shorin kenpo.

Oji of Sappu Seishi and Bukan of Zuiin had their own private instructors of the Chinese martial arts. Other famous teachers who taught the martial arts included the following:

Ason who taught Sakiyama, Gushi and Tomoyori; Iwa who taught Matsumura, Kojo and Maezato; Wai Shinzan, who taught Sugimura, Shimabukuro, Higa, Senaha, Sugushi, Nakahama, Shingaki and Higaonna. The techniques taught were thought to have originated with shorin-ha, but history is unclear on this point.

Several students learned from a Chinese master who arrived from Anan, Fukushu, and mainland China. These were: Shiroma of Tomari, Kinjo, Matsumora, Shinpaku, Yamada, Nakazato, and Toguchi. Yasutsune "Ankoh" Itosu learned from Shiroma. Based on his lessons taught by the Chinese instructor, Itosu developed the kata Naihanchin to what is the present form taught today. Itosu was also responsible for the development of the five kata of the Pinan series. The teachings of Kusanku appear in the Oshima Diary, which indicates and mentions a form of shorin-ryu. Kusanku was like a willow but was so strong that he could easily defeat big men. From the description given of him, Kusanku appeared to be trained in shorin-ha but, as stated before, history is again not clear on this point. We cannot say that Shuri-te developed directly from the teachings of Shorinji kenpo. I do believe that all ryu have developed from Shuri-te, regardless of which ryu it is.

The following is an explanation of the characteristics of shorin-ryu: Karatekata are made up of four elements, blocks, kicks, thrusting and methods of avoiding attacks. The purpose of training is to be able to control one's body and to be able to know what needs to be done in order to defend one's self. It would be considered simply gymnastics if a student only remembered the order of the kata.

The characteristics of Shorin-ryu would also include the following:

First, collect all the power into a single second, this is called focus. For this matter, it is similar to the thrust of kendo (budo of the stick). In his book, Heiho of Sonshi, Akiro Ando gives his opinion of budo: "Budo is comparing a strong man with the power of the waters of a great river (rapidness) and the untiring strength and speed of a great bird. One who fights often finds the road (to his future) winding and very difficult to conquer. This road is also short!"

This saying explains the idea of what focused power is. It also tells that it is the breathing that catches a bird or an animal at the right time. This idealistic technique of attack possesses endless power. The above statement that appeared in Sonshi, who was an ancient Chinese philosopher, explains the true core of Okinawa style shorin-ryu Karatedo.

A great martial artist and philosopher once said "bu (as in budo) values speed." Speed of any budo is considered to be of great importance. If the power of destruction is a mixture of speed and weight, one must practice until he can control weight through speed.

This is true, a small man can beat a big man in terms of his techniques, and as a matter of fact, there are several men who are small-framed, but became great men of Shuri-te. There was Choto Shinheki (Sho Chan), Chotoku Kyan, Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, Choshin Chibana and Anbun Tokuda.

Let me tell you a story of a small man winning against a big man. Kenbu Tamanaha lived in the city of Shuri about 150 years ago. He was very big and weighed about 300 pounds. Tamanaha was a very powerful individual and it was said that he had the power to destroy a bridge. Another man, Ishimine, who was considered small even for an Okinawan person. Ishimine trained in karate and was a student of Bushi Matsumura and everyone was aware of that fact.

One day, these two men met under the roof of a shrine as they were taking a break from their walk. Tamanaha recognized Ishimine and wanted to find out if he was as strong as people said he was. Tamanaha then pretended to be joking and asked Ishimine to carry his umbrella for him. When he saw that Ishimine would comply with his request, Tamanaha then asked Ishimine to carry his sandals (which was an insult because Ishimine was of a higher class than Tamanaha). Ishimine quickly picked up the pair of sandals but then threw them away which immediately started a fight between the two men. Due to his size, Tamanaha felt that he could easily destroy Ishimine with his favorite punching technique. Ishimine then used his strongest technique of ashi-waza [5] and attacked. Tamanaha was struck in the lower stomach and immediately passed out from the power of the strike.

Ishimine revived him and apologized for striking him. The next day, Ishimine visited Tamanaha at his home and once again apologized about the day before. Tamanaha did not get angry with him because it was his own fault. Tamanaha soon died because of the tremendous power of Ishimine's kick. This story was told to me by Choshin Chibana.

The way we breathe in shorin-ryu is considered natural and there is no other method that is taught. We cannot put out power when we breathe in, however there is much power right before our breath is released. In other words, a vacuum is created when we take in a breath, and is considered "fruitful" right before we release it.

Breathing is a repetition of these two. It is considered unskillful to show your breathing when you are fighting with another person. Even in fighting one must control one's breathing and appear to be breathing naturally. I have often seen karate students turning blue and white in the face due to nervousness and not breathing correctly. This is because the student has not had correct training.

I need to explain the relationship between breathing and the handling of power (or the flow of power). In shorin-ryu, the flow of power goes from the inside to the outside. If you follow these directions, you will never hurt your internal organs. With proper breathing, it becomes easier for you to control your power and you will feel less tired in your muscles. You will also increase your power through quickness because this technique relates to the speed of your body movements.

I believe this is excellent for one's health because there are many elderly people who were/are-practicing Shuri-te. For example, at the time of their death, Sokon Matsumura was 92 years of age, Ankoh Itosu was 85 years of age, Asayuki Chibana and Sakihara were both 82 years of age, Chinen, Kinjo and Kenjo were 82 years old, Kiyabu, 80 years of age, Gichin Funakoshi, 90 years old, and Choshin Chibana, 83 years of age.

Hohan Soken is well at the age of 85. He visited the United States for a month last year (1972). He has taught in many different places and is currently working on training youth.
Sport fighting techniques are not one of Shorin-ryu's strongest points but we have been working hard to make it better. We will, therefore, call it one of the basic Okinawan shorin-ryu characteristics.

O ur students practice the true fighting techniques with the makiwara along with their basic self-defense techniques. This is not only to learn to defend oneself but to attack the other at the same time as one protects himself. This should only be used as a method of self-defense because it can seriously injure others.

Sport has never been a part of shorin-ryu but it is now being developed. Karate is often described as "power that is one inch in front." This means that the concentration of power and the speed of the technique are both equally important.

I now would like to introduce the important people of Shuri-te. Due to the fact that Shuri-te has a long history, it seems as though only the most famous teachers belong to the Shuri-te line. This is due to the fact that, although there are many famous instructors from other systems, Shuri-te has the largest number because it is the oldest system.

Teachers include Tode Sakugawa, Choken Makabi, Kitani Yara, Hama Higa, Yusa Yamashiro, Sokon Matsumura, Bushi Ishimine, Yoshimase Kuwae, Yasutsune Itosu, Yasutsune Azato, Kiyuna Sakihara, Shinkazu Tawada, Gichin Funakoshi, Kentsu Yabu, Choki Motobu, Choyu Motobu, Chotoku Kyan, Chomo Hanashiro, Moden Yabiku, Choshin Chibana, Kenwa Mabuni, Kanken Toyama, Anbun Tokuda, Shinpan Gusukuma, and Chodo Oshiro.

I would also like to state that there are many Okinawan kata that have disappeared from today's modern styles. The most recognized and traditional kata of shorin-ryu today will include the following: The Naihanchin series, the Pinan series, the Patsai small and great, the Kusanku small and great, Chinto, S eisan, Gojushiho small and great, Jion, Jitte, Wanshu, Wankan, Rohai, Wanto and A nanku.

In ending my thoughts, I should not have to mention the advantages of practicing Karatedo for the sake of health both physically and mentally. I believe that there are many common ideas between Karatedo and other methods of budo or art forms. For this reason it can be said that we of Okinawan Karatedo ultimately search for the truth in our practice.

What I have written above was done in a very short period of time so I am surethat there are some things that could have been said in a better way. I apologize for such carelessness and I will be willing to answer all comments made concerning this article.

[1] Seko Higa (1898-1966) was originally a student of Kanryo Higaonna but took his lessons from Chojun Miyagi. During that period of time, Miyagi actually taught the classes while Higaonna supervised the teaching. It is generally believed that Miyagi named the style "Goju-ryu" but, according to Higa, it was Jinan Shinzato who actually coined the word, "goju-ryu."

[2] In order to escape Japanese military service, Kanbun Uechi (1877-1948) left Okinawa for China. While living in Fuchou, mainland China, he studied under a Chinese named Shu Shi Wa. He later moved to Wakayama, Japan, and opened a small dojo. He moved to Okinawa in 1946 and died two years later at the age of 71. His son, Kanei Uechi (1911-1991) assumed the role of headmaster and opened up a dojo in Futenma, Okinawa. Kanmei Uechi presently runs his late father's Uechi-ryu Shubukan Karate Dojo.

[3] Chibana often stated that those who knew nothing about Okinawan karate would call his style Kobayashi-ryu.