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MASTER KENWA MABUNI

Shito-Ryu, along with Goju-Ryu, Wado-Ryu and Shotokan, is one of the four major karate systems of Japan (the Japanese islands excluding Okinawa). It was founded by Mabuni Kenwa (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 Master Ankoh 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.

Master Kenwa Mabuni

Kenwa Mabuni

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 Master Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1915). From Higaonna, 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 Higaonna’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.

Master Mabuni with Yasuhiro Konishi (left)

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 Higaonna.

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.

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