SHITO-RYU HISTORY

by John Sells

 

    Karate has been taught outside of Japan for almost 40 years, and was exported to

the rest of the world along both stylistic and organizational lines. By now, the names

of most karate styles have become familiar to martial artists everywhere.

 

   Of all the traditional karate systems Shotokan, Goju-ryu, Wado-ryu, Shorin-ryu,

Kyokushin, Isshin-ryu, and Shito-ryu among them Shito-ryu remains the most

obscure. Several of its leading practitioners, such as the charismatic Fumio Demura

and the prolific Touro Hayashi, do have widespread fame, yet Shito-ryu remains

little understood outside its own schools. Shito-ryu had been most often described as

a combination of Shotokan and Goju-ryu. It is also generally known that its

teachers utilize formal exercises (kata) from many Okinawan sources.

Unfortunately, such explanations fail to adequately describe just what Shito-ryu

really is.

 

   In truth, Shito-ryu, along with Goju-ryu, Wado-ryu and Shotokan, is one of the

four major karate systems of Japan proper (the Japanese islands excluding

Okinawa). It was founded by Kenwa Mabuni (1899-1952), who, like most of

karate’s old masters, was descended from Okinawa’s so-called warrior (bushi) class

or aristocracy. Members of his family served Okinawan lords for hundreds of years.

Mabuni started karate training at the age of 13 under Anko Itosu (1830-1915), the

man who organized early karate in the Okinawan school system. Itosu was a student

of one of Okinawa’s most famous karate masters, Sokon Matsumura (1792-1887),

the forefather of Shorin-ryu. Itosu took a strong liking to his young pupil and

Mabuni learned some 23 kata before the elder man died. Itosu’s death so grieved

Mabuni that he built a shrine in front of the master’s grave and stayed close by for a

year, practicing his kata daily.

 

    Itosu was not Mabuni’s only teacher, however. While still in his teens, Mabuni

was introduced by his friend, Chojun Miyagi (the founder of Goju-ryu karate) to

Kanryo Higashionna (1853-1915). From Higashionna, Mabuni learned Naha-te, a

Chinese-influenced karate style. Mabuni also trained under the reclusive Arakaki

Kamadeunchu (1840-1918), who taught a style similar to Higashionna’s. Arakaki

also taught Tsuyoshi Chitose, the founder of Chito-ryu, Gichin Funakoshi of

Shotokan, and Kanken Toyama of the Shudokan school. Arakaki, who was an

acknowledged bo (staff) expert, taught Mabuni the unshu, sochin, niseishi,

arakaki-sai and arakaki-bo forms. During the 1920’s the insatiable Mabuni

participated in a karate club operated by Miyagi and Choyu Motobu, with help

from Chomo Hanashiro and Juhatsu Kiyoda. Choyu Motobu was a master of

Shuri-te (the antecedent of Shorin-ryu) and gotende, the secret grappling art of the

Okinawan royal court. Hanashiro was also a Shuri-te expert, while Kiyoda came

from the same Naha-te background as Miyagi. Known as the Ryukyu Tode

Kenkyu-kai (Okinawa Karate Research Club), this dojo (training hall) was one of

history’s gems. Experts from diverse backgrounds trained and taught there, and it

was there that Mabuni learned some Fukien white crane kung fu from the legendary

Woo Yin Gue, a Chinese tea merchant living on Okinawa.

 

   By this time, Mabuni had become a highly respected police officer and made

several trips to Japan after Funakoshi introduced karate there in 1922. Mabuni

spent many of his early traveling years with Koyu Konishi, a friend and sometimes

student who later founded Shindo-Jinen-ryu karate. In 1925 Mabuni and Konishi

visited Japan’s Wakayama prefecture where Kanbum Uechi, the founder of

Uechi-ryu, was teaching. It was after training with Uechi that Mabuni devised a

kata called shinpa. But Mabuni actually spent most of his time in Osaka, where he

taught at various dojo, including the Seishinkai, the school of Kosei Kokuba.

Choki Motobu also taught at Kokuba’s dojo. It was Kokuba who later formed

Motobu-ha (Motobu faction) Shito-ryu. In 1929, Mabuni moved permanently to

Osaka. Shortly thereafter, the Japanese martial arts sanctioning body, the

Butokukai, pressured all karate schools to register by style name. At first, Mabuni

called his style hanko-ryu (half-hard style), but by the early 1930’s Shito-ryu was

the official name. It was coined from alternative renderings of the names of

Mabuni’s two foremost teachers, Itosu and Higashionna. Not everyone agreed with

separating Okinawan karate into factions through the use of style names. In fact,

shudokan headmaster Toyama questioned Mabuni and others about their use of

what he called “funny-sounding names.” Mabuni countered that giving the style a

name would not only satisfy the Butokukai, but would give people something they

could identify with and feel a part of.

 

   Among Mabuni’s earliest students was Kanei Uechi (not to be confused with

Kambum Uechi’s son of the same name), who by 1935 was also teaching in Osaka.

In 1950, Uechi returned to Okinawa and established the Shito-ryu Kempo

Karate-do Kai. On Okinawa, Uechi is considered the true successor to Mabuni’s

art, but internationally, Mabuni’s eldest son, also named Kanei, is acknowledged as

the head of shito-ryu and runs the Shito-kai. Younger brother Kenzo Mabuni also

aknowledged as the head of Shito-ryu was asked by his mother Kamae Mabuni to

take over the style. Kenzo Mabuni was unsure and could not decide at the time what

to do. So he went into seclusion in the city of Nagoya to train diligently and

contemplate the great responsibility of carrying on the karate of his father. At the

end of what became a two year retreat - most of it spent living in a utility-less

dwelling, though he did spend some time training with Ryusho Sakagami and

Ken’ichi Watanabe, Kenzo Mabuni decided to accept this great responsibility and

hence became the inheritor of his father’s lineage. Kenzo Mabuni lives in the

original family home in Osaka, where he headquarters his organization the Nippon

Karate-Do Kai.

 

 Kanei Mabuni and his younger brother Kenzo head the karate programs at several

universities, a task inherited from their father. Still other early students of Mabuni

have their own distinct organizations and followings. Ryusho Sakagami, a

contemporary of Kanei Mabuni, established the Itosu-kai just after Mabuni’s death.

Sakagami’s son, Sadaaki, now oversees the Itosu-kai from the Yokohama area. In

1948, Chojiro Tani organized the Shuko-kai, where he taught Tani-ha Shito-ryu.

Ever innovative, the Shuko-kai, under the present leadership of Shigeru Kimura in

the United States, appears somewhat different in technique from the other Shito-ryu

groups.

 

    Since the 1970s, several other Shito-ryu factions have formed. Most prominent

Hayashi-ha Shito-ryu under Teruo Hayashi. Hayashi was a protégé of Kosei

Kokuba and also trained directly under Mabuni. Hayashi became president of the

Seishin-kai sometime after Kokuba’s death. For awhile, he co-led that organization

along with Motobu-ryu style-head Shogo Kuniba. Together they integrated the

Tomari-bassai kata into their systems. The assertive Hayashi even studied in

Okinawa under Kenko Nakaima, head of the longtime secret family art of

Ryuei-ryu. Ryuei-ryu is derived from the same Chinese teacher who taught Kanryo

Higashionna, a man named Liu Liu Kung. Another, younger member of the

Motobu-ha group, Chuzo Kotaka, established Kotaka-ha Shito-ryu in Hawaii,

revising all the kata and devising many new ones which he taught to his American

students. And in Europe, a Tani-ha Shito-ryu student named Yoshiano Nambu

broke off on his own, first founding the Sanku-kai and later the Nambudo. But

possibly the world’s most famous Shito-ryu exponent is Fumio Demura, a former

sparring champion who has taught Itosu-kai Shito-ryu in southern California since

1965.

 

   Technically, the karate of most Shito-ryu factions looks pretty much the same. Not

surprisingly, there are minor differences in the kata between the various groups,

mostly due to the proclivities of their founders. Regardless, all Shito-ryu looks a lot

like Shorin-ryu in application. A long, linear style, even its Goju-ryu-type kata

(those derived from Higashionna) are performed in a lighter, more angular and

rangy fashion than they are in schools derived from Naha-te alone. Shito-ryu is

much like Shotokan in that it relies heavily on the reverse punch and front kick. The

style also seems to place a strong emphasis on sparring. In so doing, Shito-ryu

stresses speed, and fighting is generally initiated from a higher, more upright stance

than Shotokan employs. On the other hand, because the style has so many kata, a

great deal of time is spent perfecting any one of its 40 to 60 forms.

 

   Shito-ryu has never forsaken its Okinawan roots when it comes to kobujutsu

(weapons arts). While Mabuni trained under weapons experts such as Arakaki,

many of today’s Shito-ryu teachers learned most of their kobujutsu from Shinken

Taira, the man responsible for popularizing kobujutsu during a time when interest

in this peculiarly Okinawan art was at its lowest. It seems that Shito-ryu schools

were the most receptive to Taira’s art. Both the younger and elder Sakagami,

Demura, Hayashi, Kuniba and Kanei Mabuni all trained with Taira at one time or

another.