Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.

The following article (the second of three parts) originally appeared in Fighting Arts International, Issue No. 51, Volume 9, No. 3, 1988 (pages 32 - 35) 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 1 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 Two:


Master Kentsu Yabu

Itosu was almost 80 years old when karate was introduced to the curriculum of the Normal School, and much of the teaching was carried out by his senior student Kentsu Yabu. Yabu is probably best known today as Itosu's assistant, yet he was an outstanding karate expert in his own right. During one of my talks with Master Mitsusuke Harada (Shotokai) he referred to the time he spent in Brazil and his discussions with Okinawan karateka in that country. I asked him which karate masters these Okinawans respected - Yabu perhaps? Yes, Harada replied, they looked back to Yabu as a great expert, and it was not just karateka who said this. Ordinary Okinawans without any experience of the art had heard of Yabu Sensei. According to Hiroyasu Tamae ("Karate-do," Sozo Co. 1977) when Shuri Castle was turned into a museum, Yabu's military uniform was put on display as one of the items.

Kentsu Yabu was commonly knows as "Gunso", or sergeant, a reference to his career in the Japanese Imperial Army. Apparently he went past the rank of sergeant to become a 2nd lieutenant, and the ability to make his way in the Japanese Army suggests a certain strength of character and aptitude for military life. The Okinawans had never been a military people and the older generation opposed all forms of military service. The conscription laws enforced throughout the rest of Japan in 1873 were not extended to Okinawa till 1898. Even then the proportion of islanders rejected for service because of illiteracy, shortness, and so on, was the highest of any Japanese prefecture. Those few who had served under the harsh discipline of Japanese army life were generally much tougher than the average Okinawan.

It is said that Yabu saw action on the Chinese battlefront during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894/5. He would have been 27 years old at the time, so that is quite possible. Unfortunately it may now be too late to dig out any details on this part of his life.

Mitsusuke Harada told me that he had talked to a Mr. Tamashiro an Okinawan who had been a lieutenant in the Japanese army in the same regiment as Yabu had served in as a matter of fact. Tamashiro said that in Yabu's time the Okinawans serving in the Army had been a lowly regarded minority. They would often be victimised and beaten. Kentsu Yabu would not stand for this and fought back. Incidents occurred which led to an official investigation. Yabu was cleared of all blame and became a hero to his fellow Okinawans.

According to Hiroyasu Tamae, when Yabu was a sergeant he was challenged to fight by another soldier. When the man attacked, Yabu struck him - killing him instantly. There was an enquiry and the investigating officer, who had heard of Okinawa's karate, asked Yabu if he had used that technique. Yabu replied that he had struck with the open palm, not the fist. If he had used his fist, he explained, the opponent's ribs would have been smashed. He was ordered to strike a nearby tree using his fist. The tree split where he had struck it, greatly surprising the investigating officer. The outcome of all this was that the cause of death was never made clear in the official report and Yabu's career was unaffected.

Tamae could not have had any personal knowledge of this story. It must have been circulating in the Okinawan karate world for some years and no doubt it grew in the telling. What the truth actually was, and whether Yabu ever did kill anyone using karate, would now be impossible to establish.

The reference to Yabu's palm strike is interesting though, because he was supposed to be an expert in open handed techniques. His favourite kata was 'Gojushiho' which contains a variety of open-hand waza: Shinken Gima recalled: "When I was a student in Okinawa my karate teacher was master Kentsu Yabu. Master Yabu showed us nukite (finger thrusts) techniques, in which he was an exceptional expert. But he told us, 'For you it is too difficult and dangerous to do as I do, so in place of nukite you are much better using the closed fist'."

Yabu, big and broad shouldered, was regarded throughout Okinawa as a powerful karateka and genuine expert. He once defeated Choki Motobu - "the feared Choki Motobu" as Shinken Gima called him - although again, the details are not clear. The American martial artist and author Dave Lowry has written that this was not in a karate contest but rather in a bout of tegumi - an Okinawan form of wrestling. In Lowry's account Yabu was able to pin Motobu after a contest lasting twenty minutes.

When he retired from the Army, Yabu Sensei became a teacher for the Cadet Force at the Okinawa School for Teachers. He taught karate to students for many years and his army experience in handling large bodies of men must have been useful in organising classes. For generations before this karate had been taught in secret and a master would have only a few students, sometimes only one. With the introduction of karate into the educational system a means had to be found of instructing larger classes, and in fact Harada Sensei suggested to me that the "militarisation" of karate teaching might be traced back to Gunso Yabu. "Militarisation" is not meant in a negative sense but rather refers to the training of large classes by repeating techniques to a count.

At any rate, Yabu's teaching was disciplined and testing. He stressed repetition and mastery of one kata before moving onto the next. Shinken Gima, who entered the school for teachers in 1911 remembered that, although he knew the order of several kata, he trained only in 'Nai-hanchi' during the five years he was there. Yabu told the students that they should do 10,000 kata per year, or almost 30 kata every day!

There should be photos of Kentsu Yabu in his prime, but so far I have not been able to trace any. He does appear in a well known group portrait taken in the 1930s, but his clothes hang loosely on his once powerful frame and he is only a shell of his former self. He was seriously ill, but here too his self-discipline and strength of character were evident.

"He retired from the teachers' school with tuberculosis," wrote Hiroyasu Tamae, "yet strangely I used to see him every morning at the same time. I say strangely because at that time tuberculosis was a virulent disease and 99% of the people who contracted it died. People who suffered from it were depressed not only physically but spiritually too. This did not happen with Yabu Sensei. Every morning he would get up and enjoy a walk. Sometimes he would have to stop to cough up blood and phlegm, and on such occasions he would shout "go to hell!" before turning back for home. I was very impressed by Yabu Sensei and how he fought this disease."

"His appearance was so lamentable at this time - he looked just like a corpse. It was so sad to see him like this, but looking back, maybe I shouldn't have felt that way. I think that in his silent walks taken the same time every morning, Yabu Sensei achieved Satori (enlightenment)."

Master Yabu died in 1937 at the age of 74.

Master Shimpan Gusukuma and others

Other students of Itosu..... Gichin Funakoshi, Kenwa Mabuni, Kanken Toyama, Choki Motobu (a sometime student)..... they taught karate in mainland Japan and their lives have been quite well recorded.

Chomo Hanashiro, Choto Yamagawa, Anbun Tokuda, Choda Oshiro, Shimpan Gusukuma and Chosin Chibana, remained in Okinawa..... apart from Chibana they did not form their own ryu (schools) and little information has been preserved on their lives and karate techniques.

Hanashiro was senior student (with Yabu) of Itosu. Like Itosu he served in the Japanese army as a sergeant. Later he became karate instructor at Shuri High School. In 1905 he wrote a set of notes on karate kumite (sparring) which are notable for two reasons. Firstly, because kumite was underdeveloped in the traditional karate of Okinawa, and secondly because Hanashiro used the characters "Empty Hand" for karate - the first recorded usage of these characters and thirty years before Gichin Funakoshi used them for his book "Karate-do Kyohan".

Chota Yamagawa, Chodo Oshiro and Anbun Tokuda I know little about. The only material I have on Shimpan Gusukama (1890-1954) is a short memoir by Hiroyasu Tamae in the book "Karate-do," (1977).

"Gusukuma Sensei used to work at the 1st Elementary School in Shuri Castle. He also gave instruction in karate as part of the gymnastic curriculum. He was more than an expert at 'Chinto' kata and was trained by Sensei Ankoh Itosu, one of the restorers of Shuri-te karate-do. He was an expert in kata-no-dozo (movements of the kata), and in this respect his training was especially painstaking."

"He used to use Shuri Castle as his dojo before the castle became a national treasure. At this time few experts had their own dojo; they would often use their own gardens at home. I trained at karate from an early age and had many instructors, but I consider Gusukuma Sensei's instruction to have been the most systematic. He used to tell us, 'Shuri-te must be systematic and efficient. It must not be wasteful, and it must not become "Inaka-te" - that is not true karate. We must strive to be true to our karate."

"Gusukuma Sensei and I worked as teachers, so we could understand each other very well. Both of us understood physiology and so he was able to answer all my questions with ease. We would also have long, friendly arguments over various points. I deeply appreciated him and I owe the fact that I am a karate expert to his wonderful character and friendship."

"After World War Two I met him in Naha and he told me that he had retired and no longer trained in karate. He said that he was supporting himself as a practitioner of moxa. He was old, with grey hair - and he seemed so lonely. I will never forget his looks at that time."

Master Chosin Chibana

Chosin Chibana was born June 1885 in Toribora-cho, Shuri. As a youth he endeavoured to train himself in te and then at 15 he went to Master Itosu, asking to become his student. "Sensei Itosu studied very hard at karate," Chibana told Katsumi Murakami. "He was not only a great karate expert but a scholar and excellent calligrapher, I visited Itosu Sensei when I was 15 years old and asked him to teach me te. Twice he refused; only at the third time of asking did he accept me..... He taught karate secretly at his home to a select band of 6 or 7 followers. They trained as Bu (as a martial art), not as sport, as they do now."

The fact that Itosu was still teaching secretly at this time (1900) shows that old habits die hard. Chibana himself kept his training secret for three years.

Chosin Chibana continued to study with Itosu until the latter's death in 1915. Late in life Chibana recalled that he had wished to leave his name in karate, and although small he had talent and perseverance. By the age of thirty he was recognised as a leading expert and, with Gichin Funakoshi, Chodo Oshiro, and others, he was part of the Karate Kenkyukai established in Shuri in 1918. At the age of 34 (1929) he opened his own dojo in Shuri, later opening another in Naha. In 1933 he named his style Shorin-ryu.

Katsumi Murakami wrote that Chibana risked his life many times during the battle of Okinawa, though unfortunately he gives no details. He returned to karate teaching soon after the war, and between 1956 and 1958 was karate instructor to the Shuri Police. In May 1956 he became the first president of the newly founded Okinawan Karate Association. In 1968, he was not only honoured by the Royal Palace, but awarded the first prize for contribution to sport given by the Okinawan Times. Chibana Sensei died of cancer of the upper jaw on the morning of October 26th, 1969, at the age of 84 years. According to Murakami after his death the surgeon said that he had the heart and organs of a man of fifty.

Chibana's death was really the end of an era. He had been a student of the great Itosu and a contemporary of Funakoshi, Mabuni, Miyagi, Motobu, Kyan and all the other experts of Okinawa karate's golden age. He tried to carry on the tradition of the old-time bushi and died a poor man. "Both Matsumura Sensei and Itosu Sensei were poor," he would say. "When I spoke of this to Itosu Sensei he told me that Bushi were poor because they should not concern themselves with the making of money."

Chosin Chibana was a student of Itosu for almost fifteen years, but he may have made minor modifications to the style later and I am not sure that his karate is an exact transmission of Itosu's karate. For example he preferred the Matsumura 'Passai' to the Itosu version of the kata. He had learned this form from Tawada Sensei and often told the story of how he demonstrated the kata before Itosu. Itosu told Chibana he had rarely seen a kata performed so well and that the kata should be preserved for future generations.

Chibana's stances were very high too, even by the standards of the Shorin school's generally, where the postures are never as low as in, say, modern Shotokan. Having seen photographs of Chibana performing kata in his seventies, I originally put his high stances down to his age. However, I now believe this is an integral part of his style. He may have chosen higher stances for their naturalness and mobility, although his own small size may also have had something to do with it.

Kenyu Chinen, who is now teaching in Paris, remembered seeing Chosin Chibana presiding over a grading examination in the early 1960's. The old master got up to demonstrate blocking technique, picking up a candidate at random and telling him to attack with mae geri (front kick). The candidate attacked and Chibana said "Not strong enough. It isn't necessary to block such an attack." He called for another attacker, with the same result. This happened several times until a muscular, (and nervous), karateka delivered a kick which, according to Chinen "would have knocked down a bull," Chibana blocked, watched the attacker fall back from the force of the block, and then returned to the examiners' table. He explained to all the candidates that they must always strike strongly - especially against the old experts "This old master's spirit was really very strong!" Chinen recalled.

The following words of Chosin Chibana are taken from "Karate-do To Ryukyu Kobudo" by Katsumi Murakami.

Master Chibana's advice

"When you train you have to devote yourself only to the way of karate - think of nothing else. Do not think of others, or what they may think. You must develop the ability to focus your mind, hands and feet strongly. You must not only learn body movements but also research and study the art."

"You should develop and improve yourself before you reach the age of fifty. Your body naturally begins to deteriorate after fifty years old so you must then adjust your training accordingly. If after fifty you still train every day then you may not decline so much. I myself have noticed a slight decline at fifty, but I don't think I declined much at all between fifty and sixty years of age. Of course, you cannot help deteriorating to a degree but if you continue training you will not age so rapidly, even between seventy and eighty years of age. Therefore, train continuously."

"In the old days we trained at karate as a martial art, but now they train at karate as a gymnastic sport. I think we must avoid treating karate as a sport - it must be a martial art! Your fingers and the tips of your toes must be like arrows, your arms must be like iron. You have to think that if you kick, you try to kick the enemy dead. If you punch, you must thrust to kill. If you strike, then you strike to kill the enemy. This is the spirit you need in training."

"The effort required is great, but you can strain the body by doing too much. So keep in mind your condition."

"Years ago I wished to leave my name in karate-do and I trained very hard. Now I think my name will remain a little in karate- do."

"Not only do we need physical training, we need to think for ourselves, studying and researching the kata and their applications."

"Its is vitally important to understand kata and train your body to develop the core of karate. You can achieve a 5 or 6 times increase in body power if you train hard. Naturally, if you do this you will be pleased with the result, so train very hard."

"Whether you become great depends on two factors only - effort and study. Your movements must be sharp - never be slow - and when you train at kata your eyes will get sharper and your blocking and striking will get stronger."

"Even when you reach the age of seventy or eighty you must continue your research with a positive attitude, always thinking 'not yet, not yet'."

-Chosin Chibana, November 1963.


Chibana's style (Kobayashi Shorin-ryu) is one of the two major streams of Shorin-ryu in modern day Okinawa. (There are other streams, often quite important historically, such as that which was headed by the late Hohan Soken. See Roger Sheldon's article in "Fighting Arts" No. 38).

It is carried on by his students Yuchiku Higa, Katsuya Miyahara, and Shugoro Nakazoto. The other major stream comprises the schools led by Joen Nakazato, Shoshin Nagamine, and Katsuhide Kochi. This style follows the teachings of Master Chotoku Kyan, who died just after the end of World War Two. Chosin Chibana recalled "Sensei Chotoku Kyan (nicknamed Chan-Mi-Gua) was born in Shuri, moved to Kadena in his youth and died after the last war at the age of 75. He was the same age as Gichin Funakoshi and 15 years older than I. He received his karate tuition from a sensei called Oyadomari who lived in Tomari. As we both used to give demonstrations together, I came to know him very well. He used to demonstrate 'Chinto', 'Passai,' and 'Kushanku' kata. He was a great man."

NEXT ISSUE: The Life and Times of Chotoku Kyan

Copyright Graham Noble. All rights reserved.


Hawaii Karate Seinenkai.