Shito-Ryu is a blend of the two major fountainheads of modern karate: Naha-te and Shuri-te. It is the oldest official blend of the two in a recognized style, though many teachers of the past studied from a variety of methods. The name of the style is in honor of the Masters who most influenced its founder, Kenwa Mabuni.
Satunuku "Tode" Sakugawa
One of the first great masters of Okinawa was Tode Sakugawa. Tode Sakugawa was born in Shuri in 1733 and died in 1815. At the age of 17, Tode Sakugawa began his martial arts training under an Okinawan monk named Peichin Takahara. At age 23, Sakugawa was advised by Takahara to go and train under Kusanku, a Chinese master in Kung Fu. For the next six years, Sakugawa learned all that he could. Sakugawa learned valuable lessons from karate and became a great master. Tode Sakugawa was an important factor in the development of TE on the Okinawan Islands. Tode Sakugawa was credited with forming several Bo katas which are still practiced today. In addition, Sakugawa also created Dojo Kun which has become a tradition with many styles, including our Shito-Ryu Karate-Do Genbu-Kai!
Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura
Sokon (Title of honor) Bushi (Warrior) Matsurmuras' (1797-1889) first teacher was seventy eight years old and a past student of both the great Takahara Pechin (Pechin is a title of status) (1683-1760) and Kusanku (Chinese official). His name was "Tode" (Chinese hand way) Sakugawa (1733-1815). Matsumura was the last of many students of Sakugawa but became the most famous. Many years later "Bushi" Matsumura studied with a Chinese trader named Chinto. It is believed Bushi Matsumura created the kata Chinto after his teacher from the movements he had taught him. The Royal family of Sho acquired "Bushi" Matsumura for their service. There he became Chief Tode Instructor and a bodyguard of the King. Some time later around 1830 he traveled to China to study Shaolin Gong-fu (Kempo or Fist method). Most secret of what Bushi Matsumura learned was the White Crane method. This system he taught only to his son, Nabi Matsumura (1860-1930). As part as an envoy of the King he had the opportunity to travel into the Chinese province of Fukien. It is believed while there he studied under Ason and Iwah, both military attaches. The title "Bushi" was given to him by King Sho for his great accomplishments. Many times Bushi Matsumura had to prove his ability against foe, though never was he defeated.
Tode was the system of Te practiced among the upper class. The art of Te (hand) as it was known in Okinawa had three names. Each representing the township it was taught in. They were Tomari-te, Naha-te and Shuri-te. Bushi Matsumura being in the township of Shuri taught Shuri-te. After many years the name Shuri-te was replaced with Shorin-Ryu. Bushi Matsumura retired and moved to Sakiyama village in Shuri. He had many students, among them were Yasutsune Azato, Yasutsune Itosu, Choshin Chibana, Choki Motobu, and Chotoku Kyan. It would be his son who would pass on his purest teachings known as Shorin-Ryu. Later this system was passed onto Nabe Matsumura's nephew, Sokon Kohan (1889-1920).
Yasutsune "Ankoh" Itosu
Yasutsune Itosu was born in the city of Shuri, Okinawa. At the age of 16 he started to train in Karate with Master Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura. He was a very close friend of Matsumura's uchi deshi (private student), Yasutsune (Ankoh) Azato and was furthermore a student of Shimpan Gusukuma and Yasuri, Iwahs' uchi deshi. He is famous for being instrumental in the introduction of Karate in the public school system curricula. To help the teaching process he developed the Pinan kata, basing it on the advanced kata like: Kushanku, Passai, Chinto and Jion. Itosu is recognized for the high technical levels that he attained. Gichin Funakoshi remarked on his physical strength, his incredible ability to withstand blows, and his tremendous grip. Master Funakoshi recounts that neither Master Itosu nor Azato ever bragged about their "heroic" achievements in karate and they would explain that those "crazy things" were to be blamed on their youth. Itosu was a master that had several important students, many of which went on to create a series of differing Karate styles (even though it was never his intention to have this happen). One of his most famous students was Gichin Funakoshi, someone that always remembered him throughout his life as a great example of what a great master should be and tried to transmit the teachings he received from him.
Grandmaster Kanryo Higaonna (Higashionna was the original Okinawan pronunciation) was born on March 10, 1853, in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa. His father, Kanyo, worked as a merchant sailing between the small islands of Okinawa, trading everyday goods. From a young age Kanryo Higaonna helped his father in this work. This was strong physical labor, that helped Higaonna develop a strong body. Kanryo Higaonna was still in his teens when his father died suddenly. Higaonna began his martial arts training in 1867 in Monk Fist Boxing from Aragaki Seisho. In 1870, at the age of 16, he traveled with his instructor to Fuzhou, China. Once in Fuzhou, he studied the Chinese martial arts under the great Master RuRuKo (Xie Zhonhxiang in Chinese). RuRuKo was the founder of Whooping Crane gongfu and was a student of Pan Yuba who was in turn the student of Lin Shixian, a master of White Crane gongfu. Higaonna also received instruction from numerous other gongfu masters including Wai Xinxian. Hiagaonna remained in China for approximately 13 years. In addition to studying the empty hand way and the weapon arts, he also became accomplished in herbology and Chinese medicine. Chojun Miyagi (founder of Goju-Ryu and successor to Higaonna) said of Higaonna, "My sensei possessed incredible strength; the severity of the training he underwent in China is beyond comprehension.... Kanryo Sensei's speed and power were truly superhuman; his hands and feet moved faster than lightning". Words cannot express his real ability. We can only say that his skill was incredible, but even this fails to do him justice.
In the year 1881, he returned to Okinawa where his martial arts would become known as Naha-te though he always referred to it as Chuanfa. Kanryo Higaonna taught these martial arts to the people of Okinawa and at the same time continued his own research and practice. In order to teach the youth of Okinawa he developed a teaching method that was specifically designed to develop the mind and body; to improve both physical well-being. The first occasion on which the previously secretive art of Naha-te "opened" to society in general, occurred in October 1905, when Higaonna began teaching at the Naha Commercial High School. When teaching, Higaonna was an extremely hard task master. However, in his everyday life he was a quiet and humble man and one who was renowned for his virtuous character. He was a person who had no need or desire for worldly things. He lead a simple life that was devoted to the study and practice of martial arts.
There are many stories that relate tales of Kanryo Higaonnas' life and training. The power of his legs was legendary and he was often referred to as "Ashi no Higaonna", ("legs Higaonna") in Okinawa. His virtuous character was widely known and respected, and because of his popularity the people of Naha bestowed him with the name Obushi Higaonna Tanmei. This name reflected the affection and respect they had for this great man and supreme martial artist. Kanryo Higaonnas' unparalleled skill in the martial arts aside, his great and distinguished work was in bringing the Chinese martial arts from China to Okinawa, and from there spreading these arts among the people of Okinawa. Kanryo Higaonna is now bestowed with the title "Kensei (sacred fists) Kanryo Higaonna" a title which is eminently fitting. His name is synonymous with Okinawan martial arts and Naha-te, and his spirit is destined to live on forever as a great and valued treasure within Okinawan culture. Kanryo Higaonnas' whole life was devoted to karate. He passed away in December 1915 at the age of 63.
Of all the traditional karate systems Shotokan, Goju-Ryu, Wado-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu, Kyokushin, 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 Teruo 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 Karates' old masters, was descended from Okinawas' 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 Ankoh Itosu (1830-1915), the man who organized early karate in the Okinawan school system. Itosu was a student of one of Okinawas' 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. Itosus' death so grieved Mabuni that he built a shrine in front of the masters grave and stayed close by for a year, practicing his kata daily.
Itosu was not Mabunis' 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 Higashionnas'. Arakaki also taught Tsuyoshi Chitose (the founder of Chiti-Ryu), Gichin Funakoshi of Shotokan, and Kanken Toyama of the Shotokan school. Arakaki, who was an acknowledged Bo (staff) expert, taught Mabuni the Unshu, Sochin, Niseishi, Arakaki-Sai and Arakaki-Bo forms. During the 1920s 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 historys 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 Japans' 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 dojos, including the Seishinkai (the school of Kosei Kokuba). Choki Motobu also taught at Kokubas' 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 Mabunis' two foremost teachers, Itosu and Higashionna. Not everyone agreed with separating Okinawan karate into factions through the use of style names. In fact, Shotokan 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 Mabunis' earliest students was Kanei Uechi (not to be confused with Kambum Uechis' 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 Mabunis art, but internationally, Mabunis' eldest son, also named Kanei, is acknowledged as the head of Shito-Ryu and runs the Shito-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 Mabunis' death. Sakagamis' 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 protegee of Kosei Kokuba and also trained directly under Mabuni. Hayashi became president of the Seishin-kai sometime after Kokubas' 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 Kotuku-ha Shito-Ryu in Hawaii, revising all the kata and devising many new ones which he taught to his American students. In Europe, a Tani-Hashito-Ryu student named Yoshiano Nambu broke off on his own, first founding the Sanku-Kai and later the Nambudo. But possibly the worlds' 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 Tairas' art. Both the younger and elder Sakagami, Demura, Hayashi, Kuniba and Kanei Mabuni all trained with Taira at one time or another.
One of Japan's finest "Bukoka", Ryusho Sakagami, passed away on the evening of December 28th 1993. He was born in Kawanishi City. Hyogo Prefecture, Japan in 1915. He began to study Kendo at the age of eight. At fourteen years of age, he keen interest led him to Tamagusuku, an Okinawan Karate-do instructor living in a neighboring village. At age 20, he moved to Tokyo and entered the prestigious Kokushikan University with the intention of becoming a Kendo teacher. He received training from Moden Yabiku, an Okinawan Karate-do and Kobujutso expert, who was living in Tokyo. Sakagami met and was taught by such legendary Senseis as Shinpan Shiroma, Chomo Hanashiro, and Choshin Chibana. On their advice, he continued his study in Osaka with Mabuni Kenwa, an Okinawan Karate-do. In May of 1937, he became a Deshi (disciple) under Mabuni Sensei. After graduating from the university, the now Sakagami Sensei returned to Osaka, where he taught Kendo and assisted Mabuni Sensei with the instruction of Karate-do at Kansei, Doshisha, and Toyo Universities. In March of 1990, Sakagami Sensei opened his new Karate-do dojo in his hometown.
Although Mabuni Sensei established Shito-Ryu Karate-do, he was also the second generation head of this teacher, Anko Itosus' (Yasutsune) style. At the Mabuni family home, on January 2, 1952, Mabuni Sensei recommended the Sakagami Sensei succeed him as the third generation head of Itosu-Ha Seito (Itosus' orthodox style). Mabuni Sensei handed down the lineage of his newly formed system to his elder son, Kenei Mabuni, and the inheritance of Itosu Senseis' school to Ryusho Sakagami. In late 1953, a year and a half after Mabuni Sensei's death, Sakagami Sensei decided to spread his teacher's style to eastern Japan. Initially teaching Karate-do, Kobudo, and Kendo in Tokyo, he later settled in Yokohama.
Sakagami Sensei had a deeply rooted fascination for all Budo, coupled with a proficiency that was unparalleled. He also possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of lineages, histories, kata (forms), techniques, training methods, etc. of most Japanese Budo. Aside from his impeccable skill and vast knowledge of martial arts, Sakagami Sensei was a noted Budo historian and author. He received the achievement award given by the Nippon Budo Kyogi Kai (The Japan Budo Society) in 1982. During Training, Sakagami Sensei was a perfectionist, and a strict and demanding teacher. Conversely, outside of practice he was an extremely affable and humorous person. Setting this example, he produced Budoka who have distinguished themselves in their respective arts.
One of the most widely known of Sakagami Sensei's students is Shihan Fumio Demura, the head of Shito-Ryu Karate-Do Genbu-Kai International.
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