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Isshin-Ryu Karate

Isshin-ryu karate was developed in the mid 20th century by Okinawan karate and kobudo master, Shimabuku Tatsuo. In creating Isshin-ryu, he combined and modified two Okinawan karate styles that he had mastered earlier in the late 1920's and 1930's: Shorin-ryu (under Master Kyan Chotoku) and Goju-ryu (under Master Miyagi Chojin). He further honed his fighting skills under the tutelage of Shorin-ryu master, Motobu Choki, and made a study of classical weapons (bo, sai, tonfa) under kobudo master, Taira Shinken. Isshin-ryu karate is not just a set of methods selected from different karate styles, but a truely innovative system developed by Master Shimabuku.

Isshin-ryu means 'one heart school'. The phrase, 'Isshin-ryu karate-do' (as depicted by the kanji in the banner to the left), means 'one heart school empty hand way'. In Chinese, the characters for 'yi' and 'xin' translate seperately, as 'one' and 'heart', respectively. The term 'xin' can also convey a sense of 'mind', as in the emotional mind. The combined characters, 'yixin' (isshin), mean 'wholehearted', as in the idea of taking a focused aim and going all-out.

Master Shimabuku taught Isshin-ryu karate to many US marines who were stationed in Okinawa during the years after World War II and up through the Vietnam era. The style was brought back to the United States, initially the 1950's, and well into the 1960's, where it became a very popular style. The art has spread worldwide, and there are now many lineages that have prospered subsequently. Many of the senior teachers had studied directly with Master Shimabuku. Many have studied more recently with Tatsuo's son, Master Kichiro Shimabuku, who is the President of the Isshin-Ryu World Karate Association (IWKA), and also with Tatsuo's famous son-in-law, Uezu Angi, the Founder and now President Emeritus of the Okinawan Isshin-Ryu Karate [and Kobudo] Association (OIKA, aka OIKKA).

Isshin-ryu karate is considered a 'hard-soft' style that is influenced predominantly by the Shuri-te/Tomari-te teachings of Master Kyan Chotoku. However, it is also famous for several adaptations (and re-adaptations) made by Master Shimabuku himself. Instead of the classical twist punch, he used the vertical fist for punching, as seen in many Chinese martial arts. He also used the outer forearm in classical 'blocking' movements to better protect the arm itself, and to further facilitate use of these movements in striking. Isshin-ryu is a medium to close-range fighting system that emphasizes higher stances, and rapid mobility in the shifting of stances and in turning. It uses quick, low snap kicks in every direction.

Such methods perhaps give Isshin-ryu a unique look compared to some other karate styles, but they also lend to a very natural feel when translating the movements into various fighting skills. At advanced levels of application, many Isshin-ryu techniques and movements translate readily into grabs, locks, chokes, off-balancing methods, throws, and combinations. These methods receive much attention in our karate classes and seminars.

In Isshin-ryu, the basic stances, blocks, punches, strikes, and kicks are practiced separately and repetitively as upper body and lower body basics. There are 8 empty hand kata, modified to integrate Shorin-ryu and Goju-ryu principles, along with those unique features set forth by Master Shimabuku. Sets of two-person drills are often used, which may vary from school-to-school. These develop flow and fluency of self-defense techniques in the basics set and kata.

The main kobudo kata are for the bo (a 6 foot quarter staff; 3 kata), and for the sai (a trident truncheon; 2 kata), and for bo versus bo, and bo versus sai (as 2-person kata). Isshin-ryu has 1 tonfa kata (tuifa). Some schools include ancillary weapons kata as well in order to further augment kobudo skills with these and other weapons (e.g., nunchaku and kama). Manipulations and movements of hand-held weapons often translate into some interesting empty hand applications. This idea is very common among Asian martial arts. Such methods have been extracted from Isshin-ryu kobudo methods for presentation at our seminars.

Benefits of Isshin-Ryu Karate: The signature practice of upper and lower body basics in Isshin-ryu engrains proper technique for fast and effective self-defense, and incorporates that power into the performance and understanding of kata. While there is some extension of kata performance and sparring practice into modern-day tournament competition, emphasis at our seminars remains focused on traditional principles and methods of self-defense.

There are 10 belt grades at the kyu level, or mudansha. Master Shimabuku Tatsuo used 3 kyu belts: 4 grades as white belt; 3 grades as green belt; and 3 grades as brown belt. In some Isshinryu schools, the lower kyu grades are sometimes sub-divided into various other colors. The black belt, or yudansha, consists of various dan levels; i.e., shodan (1st degree), nidan (2nd), sandan (3rd), yondan (4th), and godan (5th). Higher dans are sometimes awarded the red-and white belt. Other titles are also awarded in some cases with certain Dan ranks, such as Instructor, Renshi-Go, Kiyoshi-Go, and Hanshi-Go.


The photograph of Master Shimabuku at his dojo on Okinawa (ca. 1965) is courtesy of the Penn State Karate Club.


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Isshin-Ryu Karate Lineage