Shitō-Ryū

Mabuni Kamon

Shitō-Ryū is the second most popular style of karate worldwide.  It is also by far the most complete and comprehensive system of karate.  It was created by Mabuni Kenwa (1889-1952), a karate master who was one of only a handful to have been taught all three of the major branches of karate that existed in the late 19th century.  He combined all three of these styles into a single, multifaceted system.  The name "Shitō-ryū" (糸東流) was derived from the names of his two most influential teachers, Itosu Ankō and Higaonna Kanryō.  The is the "Ito" in Itosu and the is the "Higa" in Higaonna.  Ryū () is usually translated as "school" or "style", but literally means "flowing from".   So Shitō-ryū means "Itosu-Higaonna Style", or more poeticaly "the teachings that flow from Itosu and Higaonna".  To fully understand Shitō-ryū, it helps to know a little about those three systems that together comprise its curriculum, so we encourage you to read "The Origins of Shitō-Ryū" below. 

Pronunciation:  The "i" in Shitō is barely pronounced - more like a slight hesitation than a vowel - and the bar over the "o" (ō) indicates that it is sustained twice as long (like a half-note instead of a quarter-note in music), so Shitō is pronounced almost like the word "stow" with an "sh" instead of an "s".  In a similar way, "ryū" is pronounced as a single syllable; NOT as "rye you".

The Origins of Shitō-Ryū

Posted by Pellman Sensei on 01 September 2010

Karate at Shuri Castle 1937The most widely practiced of the late-19th century styles of karate was called Shuri-te ("karate from Shuri").  Shuri was the capital of Okinawa and the Ryūkyū Islands.   Shuri-te was a system of unarmed combat developed by the warriors and royal bodyguards who protected Shuri Castle and the royal family, so it was designed for situations in which the practitioner was either forbidden to have a weapon (such as inside the castle), or had been disarmed during battle.   Therefore, the majority of Shuri-te techniques are designed and intended to defend against an armed opponent who is attempting to invade a castle and/or assassinate its occupants.  And since Okinawa had been conquered by the Satsuma Han of Kyūshū in 1609 and controlled thereafter by a Japanese occupation force, the weapons Shuri-te was designed to defend against were the typical arms of the samurai, primarily swords, spears, jutte, and staves - often in cramped spaces.  For this reason, Shuri-te emphasises remaining out of range of these weapons until an opportunity is created to lunge quickly in with a single, devasting counter-attack.  During Mabuni Kenwa's youth, the premier teacher of Shuri-te was Itosu Ankō (1831-1915), who served as personal bodyguard to the last independant king of the Ryūkyū Islands.

Around the time of the first recorded masters of karate, one of the busiest seaports in the world was the Okinawan city of Naha.  For centuries, it was a major center of trade for the nations in the Far East, its harbour filled with ships and its docks cluttered with trade goods.  It was a primary target of opportunity for pirates and thieves, so contingents of highly skilled and experienced guards for the merchants and their wares arrived aboard the vessels docking in Naha.  And when their duties were complete, these guards frequented the taverns, restaurants, and brothels of Naha to relax and occasionally let off steam.   As a result, Naha-te ("karate from Naha") was a blend of Chinese, Japanese, Indo-Chinese, and native Okinawan fighting skills.  During Mabuni Kenwa's youth, the leading proponents of Naha-te were Aragaki Seishō (1840-1918) and his primary student,  Higaonna Kanryō (1853-1915).

The other significant Okinawan town of that time was Tomari.  Tomari was a beach town that served as a secondary port, exclusively for inter-island trade within the Ryūkyū kingdom.  It was also a fishing village and, because it attracted trade from other islands, it was a marketplace for many local farmers and tradesmen.  Since trade in Tomari was primarily between peasants, there were fewer highly-trained warriors roaming Tomari than in either Naha and Shuri, so Tomari-te ("karate from Tomari") tends to be cruder than Shuri-te, while including techniques found in both Shuri-te and Naha-te, and features techniques adapted to fighting in mud or wet sand.  The last to practice Tomari-te exclusively were Matsumora Kōsaku (1829-1898) and Oyadomari Kōkan (1827-1905), and the style effectively died with them at the dawn of the 20th century.  Fortunately, Kyan Chōtoku (1870-1945), and Motobu Chōki (1870-1944) learned several Tomari-te kata from them, which Mabuni Kenwa in turn learned from them and preserved as part of his Shitō-ryū system.

In 1902, a sickly 13-year-old boy named Mabuni Kenwa was introduced to Shuri-te master, Itosu Anko in hopes that rigourous training in karate would strengthen both his body and spirit.  It was an introduction of true historic significance!

The Founder:  Mabuni Kenwa

Posted by Pellman Sensei on 01 September 2010
Mabuni Kenwa

Mabuni Kenwa (摩文仁 賢和) was born in Shuri, Okinawa on 14 November 1889 to a family descended from Ufugushuku Kenyū (nicknamed "Oni" (Demon) Ufugushuku for his great size and strength), a 15th century Okinawan warrior and royal bodyguard of legendary deeds and honour.  Mabuni was apparently born with some sort of congenital weakness for which he was considered "sickly" or "feeble", so when he was 13, his parents arranged a formal introduction to the most famous karate sensei in Shuri, Itosu Ankō.   Thus, Mabuni became a pupil of Itosu Sensei at about the time Itosu was just beginning the first public instruction of karate in the Shuri public school system.   In 1908 Mabuni's best friend, Miyagi Chōjun, introduced him to Higaonna Kanryō.

For the next seven years, Mabuni trained diligently under both Itosu and Higaonna, learning both Shuri-te and Naha-te from their most renowned instructors.

In 1915 both Itosu Sensei and Higaonna Sensei died within months of each other.  In 1918, the last of the great 19th century karate-ka, Aragaki Seisho also died.  Recognising that in the absence of these legendary teachers, karate could easily splinter into competing, contentious factions, Mabuni Sensei founded the Karate Kenkyukai in 1918.  The Kenkyukai met regularly in Mabuni's garden ... (more information here)

The Legacy:  Mabuni Kenzō

Posted by Pellman Sensei on 10 September 2010
Mabuni Kenzo

Following the death of Mabuni Kenwa on 23 May 1952, a schism quickly developed over his successor as the family leader (sōke) of Shitō-ryū.  Traditionally, because Mabuni Kenwa had not specifically named a different person to succeed him, his eldest son, Mabuni Kenei would have been the presumed successor.  But, prior to his father's death, Mabuni Kenei had taken little interest in karate and may not even have been a black belt at the time.  Several of the style's senior students were considerably more qualified and refused to accept Mabuni Kenei's leadership.  Among them were Sakagami Ryusho and Kokuba Kosei, each of whom formed an independant Shitō-ryū organisation shortley after Mabuni Kenwa's death.

Mabuni Kenzō, (1927-2005) who had earned his shodan (first-level black belt) in 1943, was the more experienced, knowledgeable, and proficient of the two brothers, but as the younger son of Mabuni Kenwa was not considered by traditionalists to be eligible to succeed his father as sōke.  Complicating matters, 25-year-old Mabuni Kenzō was junior in rank to Iwata Manzō, who supported the succession of Mabuni Kenei.  However, Mabuni Kenwa's widow believed that Kenzō was the more qualified and devoted of her two sons to serve as successor to her late husband, so she asked Kenzo to accept the role.  Fully realising that to break with tradition would outrage many senior students and lead to the very thing that his father had devoted his life to preventing - the splintering of karate into numerous competing factions - he went into seclusion for two years to contemplate the ramifications of the decision he faced.  When he returned in 1954, he took charge of his father's dōjō in Ōsaka and assumed the mantle of leadership of Shitō-ryū as nidai-me Sōke (2nd family leader).  Naturally, Mabuni Kenei and many others disputed this and claimed the role and title of nidai-me Sōke for themselves.

As a result, several organisations were formed in the latter half of the 1950s all claiming to be the "true" proponents of Shitō-ryū:  the Shitō-Kai (Mabuni Kenei and Iwata Manzō), Itosu-Kai (Sakagami Ryushō), and the Seishin-Kai (Kokuba Kōsei), being among the most prominent of these.  Mabuni Kenzo spent the remainder of his life strictly adhering to his father's 1929 written syllabus and thus claimed that his Nippon Karate-dō Kai (later renamed the International Karate-dō Kai) was the only proponent of Seitō Shitō-ryū ("True/Pure Shitō-ryū").  Today, each of these organisation has in turn produced additional offshoots, so that there are now more than a dozen major organisations teaching variations of Shitō-ryū.  Nevertheless, only the International Karate-dō Kai still strictly follows Mabuni Kenwa's 1929 syllabus.

In 1993, Mabuni Kenzō made his first trip outside of Japan to promulgate Seitō Shitō-ryū, having been invited by his friend, Ozawa Osamu to demonstrate and teach at Ozawa's international karate tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA.  That trip would lead to another propitious meeting  ... (more information here)

21st Century:  Shimabukuro Masayuki

Posted by Pellman Sensei on 01 September 2010
Shimabukuro Masayuki Hidenobu

Shimabukuro Masayuki Hidenobu was born 27 March 1948 in Osaka, Japan.  He began his martial arts training in 1963 at the age of 15 with Sō Dōshin of Shorinji kempō.  In 1965 he became a direct student of Hayashi Teruō (1924-2004) in Hayashi-ha Shitō-ryū.  Hayashi Sensei had been a senior student of Kokuba Kōsei and had served as president of the Seishin-Kai from 1959 to 1970.  In 1970, Hayashi Sensei left the Seishin-Kai and founded Hayashi-ha ("Hayashi branch") Shitō-ryū.  In 1976, at the rank of yondan (4th level black belt), Shimabukuro moved to Southern California and began teaching Hayashi-ha Shitō-ryū there, mostly to law enforcement organisations.

In 1993, Shimabukuro Sensei took three of his students from San Diego County to compete at Ozawa Osamu's international tournament in Las Vegas, Nevada.  One of those students was Leonard Pellman, who was nidan in Hayashi-ha Shitō-ryū at the time.  While there, Shimabukuro Sensei asked Pellman, the most junior of the three students, to attend the training seminar led by Mabuni Kenzō.  That night, Shimabukuro Sensei questioned Pellman in depth about the seminar and Pellman's impression of Mabuni Sensei as a karate-ka and instructor.  The following year Pellman was again asked to attend the seminar taught by Mabuni Kenzō and was again questioned in detail about it.  In 1996, Shimabukuro Sensei began informal discussions with Mabuni Kenzo, and in 1998 formally affiliated with the International Karate-do Kai.  In 1999 he was promoted to nanadan (7th level black belt) in Seitō Shitō-ryū by Mabuni Kenzō.

The primary emphasis of Hayashi-ha karate was on tournament competition, and this had long been Shimabukuro Sensei's focus, as well.  But, a significant shift in his perspective occurred not long after affiliating with Mabuni Kenzō.  Thereafter, his approach to karate instruction was exclusively on its combat effectiveness.  From 2001 through 2005, Shimabukuro Sensei and Leonard Pellman collaborated long distance to write the book Katsujinken:  Living Karate and The Way to Self-Mastery, which reprented Shimabukuro Sensei's evolving understanding of karate through the end of the 20th century.  It combined what he had learned up to that point from both Hayashi Sensei and Mabuni Sensei.  On 24 September 2004, Hayashi Teruō died of lung cancer.  Then on 26 June 2005, Mabuni Kenzō also died.  So, just as Katsujinken was nearing publication, Shimabukuro Sensei suffered the loss of both of his instructors.

When the first printing of Katsujinken arrived, Shimabukuro held up a copy and told Pellman, "This book explains karate as it is now, Len-san.  So our next book will explain what karate should be for the 21st century and the next generation of karate-ka."  That book, ... (continue reading)

Our Dōjō-Chō:  Leonard J. Pellman

Posted by Pellman Sensei on 01 September 2010
Leonard Masanobu Pellman

Leonard J. Pellman was born in 1951 National City, California, a suburb of San Diego.  He endured years of bullying because of his shyness and choice of racially diverse friends.  In 1964 his parents took him with them to see the James Bond movie, Goldfinger, and as he watched the henchman Odd-Job make light work of 007 using karate, 12-year-old Pellman knew he had found the answer to his bullying problem and began pestering his parents to enroll him at a karate dōjō.  His father, Jack Pellman was a business associate of Okinawa-born Hawaiian businessman, Higa Yetsuō, whom he called for advice regarding karate.  Higa told him, "Karate is for killing.  Enroll your son in jūdō instead.  He can defeat bullies using jūdō without leaving their corpses on the playground."  So in early 1965, young Pellman found himself enrolled at the San Diego School of Judo & Jiujitsu, training with the legendary Al Holtman Sensei.

Pellman's bully problems ended in 1966 when he attempted to use ippon seionage to throw a bully who was throwing a punch at him.  Pellman executed the throw improperly and the landing nearly broke the bully's neck.  A bully in a neck brace for three months gave Pellman the reputation that he was not to be trifled with!  In 1968, Pellman was selected as one of six from a pool of more than 300 applicants to visit Japan as an exchange student.  And it was there that young Pellman had his first opportunity to train in karate.  His host family took him to a nearby Shōtōkan dōjō once every week or two, which served to confirm karate as the art he truly longed to learn.

But it wasn't until January 1971 that his wish was fulfilled, when he enrolled in the karate class at San Diego State University.  The class was actually the Korean style, Tang Soo Do (also known as Moo Duk Kwan Tae Kwon Do), and was taught by Chuck Norris' teacher, Lee Jong Hyun, but thanks to his brief exposure to Shōtōkan in Japan, he immediately recognised it as a derivative of Shōtōkan karate.  In February 1989, Pellman Sensei began teaching karate at the Skyline Wesleyan Church recreation centre in Lemon Grove, California.  Later that same year he was introduced to Shimabukuro Masayuki and began training in Hayashi-ha Shitō-ryū karate.  When Shimabukuro Sensei established the Jikishin-Kai International in 1991, the Skyline Karate Club was among the JKI's original member dojo.  In 1992, Pellman Sensei changed the name of the Skyline Karate Club to the Nippon Budō Seishin-Kan and relocated it to a strip mall in Rancho San Diego that served as the San Diego hombu dōjō for the JKI.  The name, Seishin-Kan was suggested by Shimabukuro Sensei in order to ... (full article here)

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