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Okinawan Shorin-ryu Karate-Do

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This article is reprinted from Black Belt Magazine
June 1983 edition.  Written by Diane Gould.

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First Fix Their Hearts: Philosophy of Okinawa's Eizo Shimabuku

Okinawa was barren and devastated; her people starving and depressed.  To add insult to defeat, young men were taken prisoner by the Americans and pressed into hard labor.  In one particular Tengan warehouse, when work for the day was completed, the prisoners were subjected to a thorough inspection and search by the soldiers, who were sometimes unduly rough.

One young prisoner, a slight yet spirited man of 22, stood silently.  A friend of his, standing at his side and knowing the young man's karate ability, used every means to tempt him to challenge the soldiers.  For those who love karate, however, the young man felt, it is not permitted to challenge others.  One had to compel oneself to be patient and accept the reality of having lost the war. 

Encouraged by his friend, though, as an experiment, on day the young man allowed a massive GI to hit hi in the arms and stomach.  He had only intended to test his physical ability to withstand blows, but the young man found in spite of himself that the soldier greatly exited his fighting spirit.

The test of his skill came later.  During a noon break, a boxing mach was set up ( by the soldiers' squad leader) with hundreds of spectators. Private Brown, a formidable 250-pounder, challenged the young man.  The match began; the two fighters stood silent as the American glared at his opponent, his own age but half his weight.

The silence was broken by Brown's first swing.  The young man leaped backwards and then to the right.  No one could really see the technique, but Brown was skillfully kicked at a target pressure point on the inside of the leg.  More swift moves followed.  Within a minute and 20 seconds, Brown could not continue; he was defeated.  Finally struggling to his feet, the American knew he had been soundly beaten, yet he expressed praise for his smaller, more skillful opponent.  Later the two became close friends.  And, in fact, the match led to the small Okinawan's being commissioned to teach the U.S. Marines his martial arts skills.

Eizo Shimabuku recalls these events from his early youth with pensiveness.  He has come a long way since then.  In the nearly 40 years since his scrap in that dusty Okinawan warehouse, Shimabuku has progressed to become one of the leading figures in the martial arts world.  Now grandmaster of the Okinawan Shobayashi  Shorin-ryu system and head of the All-Japan Shorin-ryu Karate-do International League, he heads a martial arts system which is fundamental and ancient: a vital, living root of worldwide karate.  In this profile Shimabuku's philosophy and training are revealed.  Being tough is not the goal, he insists.  You must first fix the students' hearts, then teach them self-defense.

When first meeting Eizo Shimabuku, one is not intimidated.  Humble and unassuming, standing in the midst of karate's modern leaders, he emits a certain subtle charisma, drawing one closer to learn more of his history and style.

He is a gentle man, but don't come to the conclusion that he is not adept in karate.  Shimabuku comes closer to the ever-talked-about yen and yang than anyone you'll likely meet.   Nearing 60, he has the physique of a man 30 years old and uncanny strength, witnessed most recently this year during a seminar and demonstration tour of the United States.  One  of the few remaining descendants of a pure karate lineage, having studied under legendary figures in the art, he is an authority on great masters of old.  His own standing mirrors these ancestors; Shimabuku was the youngest man ever to receive tenth dan, promoted by the late Kanken Toyama, once head of the All Japan Karate-Do League.  Toyama appointed only six men to this level during his lifetime.

Had it not been for his small size, Shimabuku might never have studied karate.  Youngest in a family of tem children growing up in the small Okinawan city of Gushikawa, as a schoolboy he was pushed around by feared bullies.  He remembers listening at an early age to his uncle, Shinko Ganiko, a student of Yasutsune (known more widely as Anko) Itosu, the genesis figure in Shorin-ryu, tell stories of great old karate masters, and the concepts of kokoro (feeling of the heart) and bushido (warrior spirit).  These lessons convinced him to take up karate. 

It was not long before the small Shimabuku looked quite a bit bigger to bullies.  He never became a tyrant himself--the much more important qualities an aspects of karate taught by his uncles and great teachers were cast forever in his mind.  The paramount rule: always be a gentleman.

Before taking up Shorin-ryu, Shimabuku studied with several greats, beginning with Chojun Miyagi,  Miyagi was the founding master of the goju system, and the one responsible for changing the name from Naha-te to Goju-ryu.  Shimabuku retained two of this system's kata, seiunchin and sanchin, incorporating them into the Shobayashi Shorin-ryu system because he believed them to be excellent forms to promote proper breathing and build strength and spirit.  Shimabuku himself today is an ultimate example of what kata practice can do for one physically.

As time passed, he was also to study with Choki Motobu and with his brother Tatsuo Shimabuku, 20 years his senior, who combined Shorin-ryu and Goju-ryu into the now famous Isshin-ryu system.

Eizo Shimabuku was always searching for knowledge, and when finally meeting and studying with Master Chotoku Kyan, he excelled at great speed.  Kyan, with whom he credits his own knowledge and ability, was to Shimabuku the greatest of all karate teachers.  Kyan made the art of leaping his specialty; as a demonstration during a lesson of jumping or leaping, he once jumped backwards from a small boat up onto the top of the handrail of a bridge above, where his students were assembled - a height of about nine feet - and then came into a posture ready for attack.  Shimabuku heard about this feat, rumored through all of  Okinawa, and it was what first brought him to Kyan.

Throughout his life, Shimabuku has always sought further training to hone his art.  Painfully aware of the differences beginning to emerge between the Shorin-ryu styles on Okinawa, in the early 1960's he went to Choshin Chinbana, then the oldest living descendant  in karate lineage to Yasutsune Itosu, to correct any form differences.  He already practices a highly traditional style of Shorin-ryu, but wanted it to be absolutely correct.  In training, Shimabuku removed his red belt, put on a white belt, and accepted correction with pleasure from Chibana.  One must remember the lesson of this incredible deed of humility on Shimabuku's part, especially considering the importance and magnitude of his position; but this was something he felt very strongly about doing,  Even in Okinawa, the birthplace of karate, the art is not shielded from human error and change.

He tries not to be a flashy karateka, doesn't feel the need to show off, even while demonstrating, for he believes the art is very personal thing.  Shimabuku makes a great effort so his audience may learn, rather than going for the dazzle effect; nevertheless, he greatly impresses the on-looker with his tremendous knowledge and ability.  This helps to further his philosophy that within every technique 100 more techniques are waiting to be discovered.

The secret to finding then, he says, is in the discipline it takes to do kata the say way, over and over, not changing them in any way, because they are put together . . . "perfectly".  One must simply have the discipline to practice correctly and many rewards will be received: you will find the many techniques, and variations thereof, you are searching for and will also gain patience from your self-discipline.  The self-defense aspect of karate is to him distinctly secondary. 

Shimabuku emphasizes not to get bored with you practice, although this may occasionally be hard to do.  He stresses to overcome this through self- discipline, forcing yourself to keep practicing, without changing on your own.  Then, accept correction from a source who is in a position of having more accurate knowledge; you will get much more out of the kata than you could possibly imagine.

"Kata is most important!" states Shimabuku.  He is very concerned that kata, the backbone of Shorin-ryu, remain intact, virtually unchanged.  Thus, when he comes to the U.S., he is not simply manufacturing a need for his visits; he is here to instruct and correct.  One is reminded of Shimabuku's own request for instruction from Chibana, years ago.  To throw away kata, or to change from the age-old originals, for Eizo Shimabuku, is more than just breaking from tradition.  It means to change history, to change that which is fact, or truth.  He sees this happening to karate and wants to do what he can to preserve the art in its purest form.

To insure that Shorin-ryu does not deviate from its historical roots, on must be fully aware of the origins of the art.  Eizo Shimabuku is well-versed in the lore of his karate (see accompanying story) and wrote a book in the early 1960s, containing many interesting takes of the great karate masters of old.  Of the many styles of karate, Shorin-ryu and Goju-ryu were the two original forms to be systemized early in this century.  Shorin-ryu, the external system, focused on speed and agility while Goju-ryu, the internal system, concentrated on the strength and stability.  From these two systems, all styles of modern karate were born. 

However, the roots of Shorin-ryu are much deeper, and trace directly back to the Shaolin monastery in China, during the era of Boddhidarma in the sixth century B.C. Shaolin, which becomes Shorin in Japanese, was relocated many times due to constant attacks by thieves seeking its riches and fine art.  The final location of the temple was in Fukchu, China, where it was nestled in a small pine forest.  Shobayashi is, in fact, Shimabuku's style of Shorin-ryu.  Shobayashi-ryu translates as "small forest style," giving reference to the last temple location.

The Chinese martial art that was developed there was seen Okinawa as early as 1372, when the two countries began to engage in cultural exchange.  However, Kusanku, the 18th century Chinese military official, is credited with more widely exposing te art, which had come to be called Chuan-fa (fist way).  In 1761, Kusanku was sent to Okinawa, where he performed a demonstration of the art which consisted of jumps, punches, kicks and blocks--but no kata.

Years later Tode Sakugawa, who studied under Kusanku, Kung Syang from China, and Peichin Takahara--a famous warrior of the Okinawan fighting art of tode (tang hand)---blended chuan fa with tode.  Together they bore the name of Okinawa-te (Okinawa hand), or te 'hand), then ultimately karate (empty hand).  Sakugawa was asked by Sofuku Matsumura to teach the art of karate to his son Sokon, who is now credited with having made the single most significant contribution to karate development by formulating naihanchin, passai and kusanku kata.  These kata have much more meaning than most karateka first see, and they are taught in their historically correct form within the Shorin-ryu system.

There is not any conceivable movement, or fighting technique, he argues, that cannot be found in the kata or the principles behind them.  They were not movements haphazardly thrown together.  True, one important purpose of kata is to preserve forever the very well-planned techniques, but they are much more than that.

Shimabuku and other true Shorin-ryu and other true Shorin-ryu practitioners feel the kata were put together in such a way as to lead the student into a meditative state.   Through years of constant and diligent practice, this state becomes deeper and the student becomes one with his kata.  With time, all the technical and spiritual aspects for which the student has been searching will be unveiled.  Shimabuku ads: "Pretty soon you'll get old, you won't be able to fight any more, but if you still have kata, you always can do karate."

Weapons are an important part of Shimabuku's Shorin-ryu system.  He took his kobujutsu (weapon art) training, a specialized art form in Okinawa, with Shinken Taira, a highly regarded weapons expert on the island.  He is an expert with all the Okinawan weapons and teaches them in unison, together with the many aspects of the system.  In fact, Shimabuku refuses to teach weapons separately, because knowledge of karate is needed to handle the weapon successfully.

Shimabuku's student  Jerry Gould, U.S. chief instructor and international representative for Shimabuku's association, adds: "The weapons are only an extension of the hand; if you do not have mastery of the basic principles of karate, you can only do a series of non-meaningful movements that even you do not understand yourself."

As Shimabuku's chief instructor, Gould travels with him part of the time and feels the visits to the States are of the utmost importance.  "Bringing Shimabuku to the U.S. assures us that we are not changing the art," says Gould.  "He sees to this and is quite emphatic about it.  Shorin-ryu was the earliest form of karate to be systemized and Eizo Shimabuku is a very important part of its preservation."

This cautious aspect is carried forward to kendo, where Shimabuku holds a fourth degree.  He and his brother, Tatsuo, were the ones responsible for introducing the use of kendo gear into karate training, so as to allow the use of full contact.  This concept is still used in his dojo in Okinawa, as well as in his students' dojo in America.  So far he has resisted the use of marshmallow-type safety equipment, feeling it inhibits proper technique and control.

Shimabuku has furthered the historical  chain of is martial art by instructing many renowned American students, including Joe Lewis, America's first national tournament and full-contact champion.  Lewis trained while a Marine stationed in Okinawa.  Shimabuku was pleased when the world heavyweight karate champion used to train until very late at night, perfecting his famous flying side kick, except that Lewis burned too much of the expensive electricity.  Other notables include: world middleweight full-contact champion Bill Wallace, a second generation pupil; Shimabuku eldest son Eiko, heir to his father's position; and U.S. chief instructor Jerry Gould.  Naturally, even this listing is incomplete.

But now, having returned to Okinawa from his latest U.S. visit, Eizo Shimabuku may add yet another page to Shorin-ryu history.  He sits as a chair-person of the AAU (American Athletic Union) in meetings preparing for karate's entrance into the Olympics.  Perhaps he will leave his mark there as he has done in the hearts of his American students.