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 (1889-1952), 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 (1927-2005) also acknowledged 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
lived in the original family home in Osaka, where
it is still headquarters for his organization the Nippon
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
Since the 1970s, several other
Shito-ryu factions have formed. Most prominent
Hayashi-ha Shito-ryu under Teruo Hayashi. Hayashi was a protege 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.