The Genesis of Shito-ryu Karate and History of its founder, Mabuni Kenwa
by Michael Doucet
There are four original major karate styles in Japan proper, Shito-ryu, Shotokan, Gojo ryu, and Wado ryu. These four styles have their origins in Okinawa and developed from the 3 major forms of weaponless self-defense styles in Okinawa, Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te, named after the geographic areas in Okinawa where they were practiced. Shuri-te and Tomari-te had similarities in their styles and techniques. Shorin-ryu and Shotokan were derived primarily from Shuri-te. Wado-ryu evolved from Shotokan. Shito-ryu developed as a combination of both Naha-te and Shuri-te.
Calligraphy: The kanji for Shito-ryu (web sample by Mayuko Sumida).
Although the beginnings of karate are not clear, it is thought to have originated from a Chinese boxing system introduced in Shaolin Temple by Bodhidharma, the supposed founder of Zen in the early 6th century. These techniques developed and spread to other temples in China. Okinawa being geographically close to China conducted trade with China. Along with goods, culture and ideas were also traded. Okinawa, the largest island in the Ryukus, was historically a system of fiefs and small kingdoms with infighting and no real unity. In 1477 a leader arose in Okinawa by the name of Sho Shin. He enacted several social changes that helped to unify Okinawa and create the environment that promoted the development of karate on the island. First, he made it mandatory all feudal lords called anji or Bushi were to reside in his capital, Shuri. This separated the anji from their fiefs and bases of power. With the anji now in Shuri City, a system of magistrates was developed to oversee the towns and villages. The anji, however, still retained ownership of their lands even though they lived in Shuri City. In 1507 2 Shin abolished the private ownership of weapons and the use of arms, thus preventing the anji and their retainers from mounting armed acts of aggression. Thus the techniques of hand-tohand combat began to develop among these warrior lords or Bushi. After gaining control of Okinawa, he was than able to gain control of the remaining Ryukyu Islands. During this time, Okinawa was a vassal state of China and as a result, trade flourished between China and Okinawa.
In 1609 the Japanese invaded and conquered Okinawa and the Ryukyus. The Bushi class, which was concentrated in Shuri, was dispersed and resettled throughout the island. Whatever martial art skills these Bushi possessed were then spread throughout the island. The Japanese also confiscated all weapons in Okinawa and in 1699 abolished the importation of all arms and the making of weapons including ceremonial swords. As a result of Japanese control, the Okinawans became a more passive society. As these changes overtook the Ryukyus, the development of martial arts or Okinawa-te as personal defense was given a sudden impetus. Historically the way the techniques of karate were passed from teacher to student was through kata, a set pattern of blocks, punches, kicks and stances. All training centered around the katas. This is similar to the dissemination of history of a people by oral stories, traditions and dance.
The forms we see today are a culmination of a long process of development and in some cases interjection of certain masters to catalogue techniques they found to be successful. As a result, over the years regional differences developed. In the early 1800s unofficial branches began to emerge and were named after the geographic area in which they developed; Shuri-te, Naha-te and Tomari-te.
Today in modern karate, the katas are still the center of the curriculum. They are abbreviated representations of self-defense scenarios condensed for archiving and passing down through generations. Through kata we truly stand on the shoulders of past masters of karate.
Master Mabuni Kenwa, the founder of Shito-Ryu, [1819-1957] was a descendant of Okinawa’s Bushi class. He began studying karate at age 13 under master Itosu Anko [1830-1915; see article on Itosu], a Shurite master. He trained under Itosu for 13 years, learning about 23 katas from Master Itosu. Itosu Anko was a disciple of the Great Sokon “Bushi” Matsumura, the most influential Shuri-te martial artist of his time. He also trained under Nagahama Sensei, a master of Naha-te and after Nagahama’s death, he trained under Gusukuma Sensei of Tomari. Itosu was known for his great strength and understood that karate could be used as a method of physical and mental training. Itosu was instrumental in introducing karate into the schools of Okinawa. He developed the Pinan katas and refined the katas he learned from his masters. The Shuri-te he taught was a linear style with a strong hip rotation, natural breathing, narrow high stances and the corkscrew
punch. His style of karate eventually developed into Shorin-ryu. After about 3 years of training under Itosu, Mabuni was introduced to Higaonna Kanryo [1853-1915; see article on Higaonna] by his friend Miyagi Chojun who later became the founder of Goju-ryu. Higionna was amaster of Naha-te. Mabuni would train under Master Itosu in the afternoons and Higionna in the evenings.
Higaonna Kanryo began his martial arts training at about age 14 in Monk Fist Boxing from Aragaki Seisho. He traveled to Fuzhou, China and studied the Chinese martial arts Whooping Crane gongfu and White Crane gongfu. He was thought to have brought Seienchin to Okinawa. Back in Okinawa he began teaching his style of martial arts known as Naha-te. He was also instrumental in bringing his style of karate into the schools around Naha. Higaonna was well known for his speed and the strength of his legs. He was often referred to as Ashi no Higaonna [legs Higaonna]. Naha-te with its strong Chinese influence has more circular, supple movements for blocking and controlling. Higaonna also stressed strong stances based on a strong core. At one time he challenged 4 of his students to move him from his stance. They were not able to move him.
Mabuni studied both styles very diligently. His insatiable appetite for knowledge caused him to seek out other noted masters. He became a highly respected instructor of both Naha-te and Shuri-te. He is renowned as one of the most knowledgeable martial artists Okinawa ever produced. Funakoshi sensei, the founder of Shotokan stated, “ He [Mabuni] is an outstanding budo teacher. He is the richest source of karate-jutsu technique and information in his era.” (1934 Kobu Jizai Goshin-jutsu text). In the 1920’s Mabuni participated in a karate club operated by his friend Miyagi Chojun and Motobu Choyu. The club was known as Ryuku Tode Ken Kyu [Okinawa Research Club].
Martial arts experts from diverse backgrounds trained and taught there. Here Mabuni not only taught but also learned some Fukien white crane kung fu from Woo Yin Gue, a Chinese tea merchant living in Okinawa. Mabuni Kenwa also taught at the Okinawa Police School, the
Okinawa School of Fishing and in his own garden. He traveled to Japan on several occasions to demonstrate and teach karate. In 1929 Mabuni Kenwa moved his family to Osaka, Japan where he started his dojo, teaching his style of karate a combination of both Shuri-te and Naha-te. In 1930 the Japanese martial arts sanctioning body, the Butoku-kai pressured all karate schools to register by style name. At first Mabuni called his style hanko-ryu (half hard style) but in the early 1930s Shito Ryu became the official name. It honors both of Mabuni’s masters, Itosu and Higaonna. “Shi” is the first character in Itosu’s name and “To” is the first character in the name Higaonna. Mabuni has preserved the original Shuri-te techniques, fast linear movements as well as the original Naha-te techniques, circular supple opened handed movements by including the katas of both Itosu and Higaonna in his curriculum. Mabuni also added katas he developed to his curriculum. As a result Shito-ryu unlike other karate-do styles has many more katas in its curriculum and is truly a composite of Shuri-te and Naha-te.
Mabuni Kenwa believed kata, which combines both defense and attack techniques, to be the core of Karate-do. With this being said, it is important to understand the meaning of each movement in the kata to perform the kata correctly. Mabuni was the first to introduce the concept of Bunkai kumite, which demonstrates the purpose and shows the use of the techniques in the kata. Bunkai is an essential component of kata development. Not only the knowledge of what the moves of the kata are designed to do regarding self defense and combat, but also the practice of bunkai with a partner to develop the speed and power of the moves. The ultimate result of this bunkai
kumite training is the ability to apply these techniques in free kumite and self-defense.
According to Mabuni, the karate-ka that ignores kata and practices kumite will never progress in karate-do and will never understand its meaning. The reverse is also true, without kumite, the meaning of kata and the performance of kata will suffer. This can be thought of as the composite curriculum of Karate-do.