Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.

The following article (the first of three parts) originally appeared in Fighting Arts International, Issue No. 50, Volume 9, No. 2, 1988 (pages 24 - 28) and is reprinted here with the permission of the author, Graham Noble. The article has not been updated or edited. Photographs have been omitted. Copyright Graham Noble. All rights reserved.

See parts 2 and 3 of the article.

The History of Japanese Karate

Masters of The Shorin-ryu

by Graham Noble
with Ian McLaren and Prof. N. Karasawa

Part One:


Shorin-ryu is the most traditional of karate styles and one of the most important historically. Yet because it has not been promoted as strongly as other styles its practice has been pretty much limited to Okinawa. (Although there are quite a few dojos in the U.S.A.). This makes the study of its history difficult since most of the research material is available only in Japanese.

Over the years I had collected a fair amount of this material but there was always a problem - translations. During the past year, however, Professor N. Karasawa and Ian McLaren have been working on this and I am now able to put together this article because of their heroic efforts. The translations took many hours of hard, slogging work, often with material which, because of its archaic and technical nature, was extremely difficult. Anyway, we now have for the first time in English, full translations of the writings of Masters Matsumura, Itosu and Chibana, and much new information on other Okinawan karate masters such as Chotoku Kyan. My function has been to organise the scattered materials and add a personal gloss where necessary.

The study of karate history was neglected for generations. In the last couple of decades however some fine work has been done by Okinawan and Japanese karateka and we have made full use of the following writers' works: Shoshin Nagamine ("Okinawa-no Karate-do", 1975. Valuable historical material was omitted from the English edition of this work, "The Essence of Okinawan Karate-Do"); Hoshu Ikeda ("Karate-do Shogui", 1977); Katsumi Murakami, ("Karate-do to Ryukyu-Kobudo", 1973); Tetsuhiro Hokama ("Okinawa Karate-do-no-Ayumi", 1984) and Hiroyasu Tamae (a chapter he contributed to "Karate-do", Sozo Co., 1977). Also useful were Gichin Funakoshi's "Ryukyu Kempo Karate" (1922) and the magazines "Kindai Karate" and "Karate-do Monthly".


Modern-day Okinawan karate has three major styles: Shorin-ryu, Goju-ryu and Uechi-ryu. Of the three, Shorin-ryu has the longest history and may in fact be considered the traditional style of Okinawan karate.

The name "Shorin" refers to the Shaolin style of Chinese boxing, though the relationship between the two forms is only tenuous. The first recorded usage of "Shorin-style" was in Ankoh Itosu's "10 Teachings" of 1908. Itosu distinguished between two forms of Tode (karate): Shorin-style and Shorei-style. Itosu was not specific in describing these two forms but Gichin Funakoshi used the terms later to classify his kata into two groups, (confusedly, I think).

Shorin-ryu was used in these cases as a general classification of kata. The first person to use Shorin-ryu specifically as the name of his style was Choshin Chibana, around 1933. After the war other schools which traced their lineage back to the old Shuri- and Tomari-te used the name Shorin-ryu too.

Shorin-ryu has also been the most important style historically. At the start of the century most of Okinawan karate was in the form of Shorin-related forms and when karate was introduced to Japan it was mainly by masters of these styles. The original forms of Taekwon-do, back in the late 1940s and early 1950s, were in turn based on these Japanese styles. I think there must have been something within the system which led to its world-wide spread, albeit in modified forms. Shorin-ryu has natural stances and breathing, and basic techniques which are easily assimilable and lend themselves to the development of kumite (sparring).

This is not a technical treatment of the style, although practitioners of major Japanese systems such as Shotokan, Shito- ryu and Wado-ryu will be familiar (in their versions) with the Shorin-ryu kata: Pinan (Heian), Naihanchi (Tekki), Kushanku (Kanku), Passai (Bassai), and so on. Of course, differences have arisen over the years and compared to Shotokan for example, the Shorin-ryu stances are higher and the kata are not performed in such an openly forceful way.

This is not a general history of the style either; but an idea of the development of Shorin-ryu might be gained from a look at the lives of its experts. The early history of Okinawan karate is obscure and will probably never be elucidated. Although its antecedents may go back to the 18th century the first solid figure in Shorin-ryu's history is Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura.

Master Sokon Matsumura

There is a school of thought which likes to trace all modern Shorin-ryu back to Matsumura, but I think this is pushing things a little too far. Matsumura was not the only expert in "te" in the early 19th century, and of the thirty or so kata practiced in Shorin and Shorin-related styles, only a few can be traced back to him. Nevertheless, Matsumura was the most famous bushi of the time and his influence on karate development was profound.

Until this century scarcely any records were kept on karate's development and this makes any biography of Matsumura difficult. He was born in Yamagawa, Shuri in ... well, here you can take your pick. His date of birth has been given by various writers as 1796, 1798, 1800, 1806 or 1809. The last date, given by Shoshin Nagamine in his book "Okinawa-no Karate-do" is probably the correct one. As Nagamine explains: "In Japan, when a man reaches the age of 88, a special ceremony is held to celebrate this lucky and special age. We know from records which still exist that a woman took her child to Matsumura Sensei for a "lucky embrace" on the occasion of the celebration of his 88th birthday. This was in 1896 so we can say that he was born in 1809. He lived for some years beyond his 88th birthday but we have no accurate date for his death." There is a tradition that Matsumura lived to 92 years of age so that would just take him into this century.

Similarly, uncertainty surrounds his teachers. Gichin Funakoshi stated that he studied with the Chinese attache Iwah, but Nagamine writes that we have no information on who his teachers were. Instruction must have been available from Okinawan teachers and since he was closely associated with the Royal Palace it is quite possible that he learned something from Chinese officials during their tour of duty there. In an official capacity he visited China (twice), and Satsuma in Japan. It is said that he visited Satsuma in 1832 and may have stayed there as long as two years. If so this could have been a strong formative influence on his development as a bushi. Some writers have stated that he studied Jigen-ryu, the fencing style of the Satsuma clan, under Yashichiro Ijuin. However, Hoshu Ikeda could find no trace of Matsumura's name in the records of Jigen-ryu.

Sokon Matsumura was of noble birth (Shizoku). He passed the examinations to become an official of the old Ryukyuan Government and he was skilled in literature. He was best known however as a bodyguard to three kings of Ryukyu: Shoko, Shoiku and Shotai. He first became the bodyguard of Shoko, the 17th king of the Ryukyu Dynasty, when the latter retired to a palace in Minatogawa. That was in 1827 so Matsumura would have been quite young when he was first selected for this responsibility.

We do not have a clear idea of what Matsumura's "te" looked like - the art has changed considerably since his time. We cannot even be sure what kata he practised. He taught several students however and something of his karate must have been passed down to us.

Matsumura was normally known as Bushi (warrior) Matsumura, and he sometimes called himself Bucho. He once put down some notes for one of his students Ryosei Kuwae. Fortunately these have been handed down by the Kuwae family and published in several Japanese karate books. Because of their archaic style they are difficult to understand, but Ian McLaren and Prof. Karasawa were eventually able to come up with the following translation:

The Precepts of Master Matsumura

You must first resolve to study if you wish to understand the truth of martial arts. This resolve is very important.

Fundamentally, the arts and the martial arts are the same. Each has three fundamental elements.

As far as Art is concerned they are Shisho-no-Gaku, Kunko-no-Gaku and Jussha-no-Gaku.

Shisho-no-Gaku is the art of creative writing and reading - in a word, literature.

Kunko-no-Gaku means to study the past and gain an understanding of ethics by relating past events to our way of life.

Both Shisho-no-Gaku and Kunko-no-Gaku are incomplete until supplemented by Jussha-no-Gaku, (the study of the moral aspects of the teaching of Confucius).

Have a tranquil heart and you can prevail over a village, a country, or the world. The study of Jussha-no-Gaku is the supreme study over both Shisho-no-Gaku and Kunko-no-Gaku. These then are the three elements necessary for the study of the Arts.

If we consider Budo, there are also three precepts. They are Gukushi-no-Bugei, Meimoko-no-Bugei and Budo-no-Bugei.

Gukushi-no-Bugei is nothing more than a technical knowledge of Bugei. Like a woman, it is just superficial and has no depth.

Meimoko-no-Bugei refers to a person who has physical understanding of Bugei. He can be a powerful and violent person who can easily defeat other men. He has no self-control and is dangerous and can even harm his own family.

Budo-no-Bugei is what I admire. With this you can let the enemy destroy himself - just wait with a calm heart and the enemy will defeat himself.

People who practice Budo-no-Bugei are loyal to their friends, their parents and their country. They will do nothing that is unnatural and contrary to nature.

We have "seven virtues of Bu". They are:

  1. Bu prohibits violence.
  2. Bu keeps discipline in soldiers.
  3. Bu keeps control among the population.
  4. Bu spreads virtue.
  5. Bu gives a peaceful heart.
  6. Bu helps keep peace between people.
  7. Bu makes people or a nation prosperous.

Our forefathers handed these seven virtues down to us.

Just as Jussha-no-Gaku is supreme in the arts, so Budo-no-Bugei is supreme in the martial arts.

"Mon-Bu" (Art and Martial Arts) have the same common elements. We do not need Gukushi-no-Bugei or Meimoko-no-Bugei - this is the most important thing.

I leave these words to my wise and beloved deshi Kuwae.

- Bucho Matsumura

Sokon Matsumura's deshi (pupils)

Matsumura's fame attracted young men who wanted to learn martial arts and he had quite a few students, such as Ishimine, Kiyuna, Kuwae, Tawada, Azato and Itosu. In a historical sense Itosu was the most important. The others did not found their own styles and little is known of their lives or special qualities.

Chosin Chibana used to tell a story about Ishimine. Ishimine was about 4 or 5 years older than Ankoh Itosu. He was thin and might only have weighed around 120lbs., but he had very strong and sharp kicking technique.

Anyway, one day a big 200lb. man named Tamanaha, wanting to test Ishimine, picked a fight with him. He attacked with a powerful tsuki (punch) but Ishimine blocked the attack and countered with a kick to Tamanaha's side. He collapsed, was revived by Ishimine, but died three days later. So said Chosin Chibana.

Tawada was an expert in the use of the sai and we still have his kata 'Tawada-no-sai'. Kuwae, a tall man with strong kicks, was the last follower of Matsumura. Kiyuna was a big, strong man with powerful striking techniques. He developed his power by striking trees, and practiced 'Passai' and 'Kushanku' kata. Taro Shimabuku, who studied with him as a schoolboy said that "Tanme Kiyuna's atemi (striking) was so strong and done in such a way that a small man like I could never follow." He is probably the Master Kiyuna referred to by Gichin Funakoshi ("Karate-do. My Way of Life") as being able to strip bark from trees.

Ankoh Azato was the first teacher of Gichin Funakoshi and so we know a little more about him. According to Funakoshi, Azato was not only a master of te, but expert in horsemanship, Japanese fencing (Ken-jutsu), archery, and a brilliant scholar to boot. In appearance he was tall and broad-shouldered, with sharp features. He was an astute judge of other martial artists and kept notes on the other masters of Okinawan te. It was Azato who told Funakoshi that a karateka should regard his arms and legs as swords.

Funakoshi also wrote that Azato, unarmed, once defeated the best swordsman in Okinawa Yorin Kanna, "an enormous, muscular man with great bulging arms and shoulders". Funakoshi's story is that Kanna attacked the unarmed Azato with a sword (a katana presumably) but Azato evaded the attack and brought Kanna to his knees. But I doubt it happened just like that; personally I wouldn't give much for any karateka's chances against a swordsman armed with a sharp katana (the longest of the Japanese swords).

Gichin Funakoshi also referred to an occasion when someone asked Azato about ippon-ken (one-knuckle fist). He told the questioner to try and attack him. As he did Azato blocked the blow and countered with an ippon-ken thrust with a speed that astonished Funakoshi. Fortunately for the questioner, Azato stopped the blow just short of contact.

Maybe Ankoh Azato liked ippon-ken because it figures in another story about him. At one time the young men of his village liked to try to test their fighting ability by jumping out and attacking passers-by at night. Azato was so concerned about this that one night he put on ordinary walking clothes and walked along the street. Sure enough, he was suddenly attacked as he walked along. He immediately struck the attacker on the forehead with ippon-ken. The man reeled back, then ran away.

On the following morning Azato assembled all the young men of the village, but one was missing. They found him at home, with a large swelling on his forehead. He was surprised to find out the man he attacked was Azato - and he never attempted anything like it again.

Maybe we could use a few Ankoh Azatos today. . .

Master Ankoh Itosu

"We have to thank Sensei Itosu for the development of karate not only to mainland Japan but also to the rest of the world", wrote Katsumi Murakami. Of course Itosu, who died in 1915, was not personally responsible for this development, but so much of modern karate can be traced back to him. When karate fully emerged from the shadows he was its most important teacher and the impulse for karate's spread in the first three or four decades of this century came primarily from his students. Kentsu Yabu, Chomo Hanashiro, Anbun Tokuda, Chodo Oshiro (Ogusuku), and Shinpan Gusukuma taught throughout Okinawa. Of the four primary styles of Japanese karate, three can be traced back to Itosu: Shotokan and Shito-ryu were founded by his students Funakoshi and Mabuni, and Wado-ryu was originally an off-shoot of Funakoshi's teaching.

Ankoh (Yasutsune) Itosu was born in Yamagawa-muri, Shuri, in 1832. He came from a fairly high-ranking family and was trained in both Chinese and Japanese literature. He was a fine calligrapher and became a secretary at the Royal Palace.

He is always referred to as a student of Sokon Matsumura but Gichin Funakoshi throws a slight spanner in the works here in his first book "Ryukyu Kempo Karate". Funakoshi states that Itosu was a student of Gusukuma: "It is a historical fact that Okinawans learned from Chinese teachers ... Matsumura in Shuri and Miyazato in Kume were taught Shorin style by Iwah ... Gusukuma in Tomari and Matsumura, Yamazato, Nakazato and others studied with some Chinese experts who were shipwrecked in Okinawa ... Tomigusuku of Akata in Shuri preserved the line of Sakiyama and Azato kept the line of Matsumura, while Itosu kept the line of Gusukuma". "Ryukyu Kempo Karate" was the first published book on the subject of karate (in 1922) and Funakoshi's short section on its origins the first attempt to give a history of the art. So he is the nearest in time to the old experts and his opinions are worthy of consideration.

Whatever. I think it is likely that Itosu, who had an intense interest in the art, studied te with several experts, Matsumura and Gusukuma being the main two.

In time Ankoh Itosu became an outstanding expert in te and his teacher Matsumura told him that he was the strongest practitioner of the art in Okinawa. He was quite short but strongly built and very powerful. "He was certainly strong enough to kill an enemy with one blow," writes Katsumi Murakami. Gichin Funakoshi thought that Itosu had a body like iron.

Itosu originally taught karate in secret to several students. By the early years of this century however, there was a new openness in teaching the art, and when karate was adopted as part of the curriculum of the Okinawan Middle School, and Teachers School, Itosu himself was invited to teach. This was probably in 1909. He was 79 years old, and although some of the instruction was taken over by his assistants Kentsu Yabu and Chomo Hanashiro, he himself taught there till the early years of the Taisho era, (1912-1926). "Master Itosu was over 70 years old and we called him 'Honourable Itosu'," remembered one of the students. "He was short but stoutly built and had a warm and sincere personality." He died, aged 84, in 1916.

It seems that the 'Pinan', the fundamental kata of most modern karate styles were developed by Itosu for use in the Okinawan educational system. There is a school of thought which says that many of the harmful ("killing" etc.) techniques of the old karate were omitted from these kata to make them suitable for teaching schoolchildren. I don't know about that, but the possibility of using karate as a means of physical education may have brought about a change of direction in Itosu's teaching. In an article in the Japanese "Karate-do Monthly" magazine, Okinawan-born karate expert Hiroshi Kinjo wrote:

"... It was in 1908 that Itosu Sensei formulated modern karate. In short, that fact that Itosu Sensei established a modern form of karate-do points to the co-existence at that time of old karate and modern karate. I should add kempo (i.e. Chinese-based styles - G. Noble) so that there were three styles of karate co- existing. Sensei Itosu taught at the Okinawa prefecture school for teachers and it was modern karate he taught there, not the old style. Except for a few experts who realised he was teaching the modern form, most of the people thought he was teaching the old style, and this misunderstanding exists even today. This is a serious misunderstanding."

"... When Itosu Sensei established modern karate, there were no ryu. He established a collective form of karate so that it was a matter of course that there should be no ryu established."

This is something that needs further research. It does seem true though that Itosu was trying to develop a "collective" style of karate, whilst keeping the distinctive nature of Shuri-te. And this aspect of his karate was underway long before 1908, when, after all, he was 76 years old and not about to go through a major restructuring of his style. I think that for many years he had been collecting, restructuring and standardising kata, something for which clearly he had a gift. He left around twenty- five kata to his followers, and at a time when a well-known expert might know only three kata, that was a lot. We do not know where all these kata came from. Quite evidently he reformulated many of them and often grouped them together in sets, such as 'Naihanchi' and 'Rohai' (3 kata each), 'Passai' (dai and sho) and 'Kushanku' (dai, sho and shihokushanku). Some kata, such as the 'Pinan', seem to be all his own. Ryusho Sakagami thinks that 'Jion', 'Jiin' and 'Jitte' may be reformulations of Tomari kata, now lost. Chosin Chibana said that Itosu originally learned 'Naihanchi' from a Chinese living in Tomari, and evidence that Itosu restructured 'Naihanchi' is given in an anecdote told by Kenwa Mabuni:

"One of my servants Morihiro Matayoshi once taught me kiba-dachi-no kata. It was different from the kata I learned from Itosu Sensei, so one day I showed him the kata that Matayoshi had taught me. He said that was the original form of the kata; he had studied and improved it following his own research."

We are fortunate to have Master Itosu's notes, discovered after his death. They were originally published in Genwa Nakasone's book "Karate-do Taikan". The reference in paragraph 2 is, of course, to the quote attributed to the Duke of Wellington following the Battle of Waterloo ("This victory was won on the playing fields of Eton') - and isn't it surprising to find it in notes written eighty years ago by a karate expert on the obscure little island of Okinawa?

Itosu's Ten Teachings

Karate does not derive from Buddhism or Confucianism. In olden times two styles, called Shorin style and Shorei style, came from China. We consider that both have distinct advantages and should not be altered or combined - they should be left as they are. I leave the following precepts:

  1. The aim of karate is not only to train the body. If you train at karate eventually you will gain the spirit to be able to sacrifice yourself for your ruler or nation. Never fight over insignificant matters; do not fight ruffians or villains. Avoid such people as often as possible.

  2. Training in karate will make your muscles powerful and your body strong. As a result you will develop a courageous spirit. If you train at karate from childhood you will find that you are able to make a great contribution to society, even as a soldier. For example, the Duke of Wellington said after his victory over Napoleon the First, "Our victory was because we exercised and played disciplined games when we were at school.

  3. You cannot master karate easily, or in a short time. The process is like a herd of cows grazing across a field. No matter how slow the herd moves it will eventually reach the end. Even if it moves slowly it could cover 100 miles. If you train one or two hours every day, your body will change after 3 or 4 years - you will get to the core of karate.

  4. The most important point in karate is "Ken-soku" (fist-foot), so use the makiwara to develop these weapons. Keep your shoulders down, expand your chest and develop your power. Root your stance to the ground. What you have to do is 100 to 200 zuki every day.

  5. In the upright stance of karate you must keep your back straight and your shoulders down while keeping your legs strong and then focus your attention on the tanden.

  6. There are many movements in karate. When you train you must try to understand the aim of the movement and its application. You have to take into account all possible meanings and applications of the move. Each move can have many applications.

  7. When you train in karate you must study in advance whether the application of each move is more useful for training or defence.

  8. When you train in karate you should train as though you were in the battlefield fighting the enemy. You should keep your shoulders down and fix yourself in the stance. When you block or thrust you should picture the enemy. In so doing you will gradually master how to fight in a real battle.

  9. Your training must be according to your bodily strength. If your training is too great for your condition, it is not good for you. Your face will turn red, as will your eyes, and you will damage yourself.

  10. People who train at karate usually enjoy a long life. This is because the training strengthens muscles, improves the digestive organs, and strengthens the blood circulation system. I think that from now on karate should be introduced to the curriculum of the Elementary Schools and in doing so we could produce men capable of defeating ten enemies single-handed.

If you keep these precepts at the Elementary Schools then in 10 years karate will have prevailed, not only in Okinawa, but all Japan. Karate would also be able to contribute to military society.

Ankoh Itosu. 41st year of Meiji.


Copyright Graham Noble. All rights reserved.

Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.