Tatsuo Shimabuku

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Tatsuo Shimabuku
Born Shinkichi Shimabuku
(1908-09-19)September 19, 1908
Gushikawa village, Okinawa
Died May 30, 1975(1975-05-30) (aged 66)
Style Karate
Gōjū-ryū, Shōrin-ryū, Isshin-ryū
Teacher(s) His uncle at first, then in chronological order: Chōtoku Kyan, Chōjun Miyagi, Chōki Motobu, Taira Shinken
Rank Master, Founder of Isshin-ryū
Notable students Don Nagle, Arsenio Advincula, Angi Uezu

Shinkichi 'Tatsuo Shimabukuro (島袋 龍夫; September 19, 1906 – May 30, 1975.[1]) was the founder of Isshin-ryū ("One Heart Style") style of karate.[2]

From childhood until World War II[edit]


Tatsuo Shimabuku was born in Gushikawa village, Okinawa, on September 19, 1908. He was the first of ten children born into a farming family. He began his study of karate at the age of 13 from his uncle, who lived 12 miles away from him in Chan Village. His uncle initially sent him back home, but after seeing how dedicated his nephew was he took him on as a pupil. His uncle later sent him to study with Chotoku Kyan to further study karate because he thought Tatsuo's training was incomplete.

Eizo Shimabuku (b. 1925) was Tatsuo's younger brother, who also excelled in martial arts. Eizo studied under his elder brother, Tatsuo, and is said to have also studied under the same masters as Tatsuo, such as Chotoku Kyan, Choki Motobu, Chojun Miyagi, and Shinken Taira. While the older brother went on to create his own new style of karate, Eizo quickly moved up the ranks in Shōrin-ryū (Shōbayashi).

Learning years[edit]

By the time Shimabuku was a teenager, he had attained the physical level of a person six years his senior. His karate training, and work on the family farm, gave him physical strength. He excelled in athletic events on the island. By the time he was 17, he was consistently winning in two of his favorite events, the javelin throw and the high jump.

Around the age of 23, he began to study Shuri-te karate (Shorin-ryu) under Chotoku Kyan in the village of Kadena. He began his training with Kyan in 1932, at Kyan's home. Kyan also taught at the Okinawa Prefectural Agricultural School. Within a short time, Shimabuku became one of Kyan's best students and learned the kata: Seisan, Naihanchi, Wansu, Chinto and Kusanku, along with the weapons kata Tokumine-no-kun and basic Sai. He also began his study of "Ki" (or "Chinkuchi; (チンクチ)" in the Okinawan dialect) for which Kyan was most well known. Shimabuku studied with Kyan until 1936. He always considered Kyan his first formal Sensei and was very loyal to him.

Shimabuku had always been fascinated by Naha-te karate (Goju Ryu) and sought out Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju Ryu. Miyagi's teacher had been Higaonna Kanryo (also called Higashionna) who brought from China a derivative of Kenpo (拳法) called 'kin gai'. Pangai Noon was the bearer of Uechi-ryu from China to Okinawa. Eventually this became Naha-te. From Miyagi, Tatsuo learned Seiunchin ("Seize-Control-Fight") kata and Sanchin ("Three-Fights/Conflicts") kata.

After studying with Miyagi, Shimabuku, in 1938, sought out another famous Shorin-Ryu instructor, Choki Motobu, who was probably the most colorful of all of Shimabuku's instructors. Motobu had had many teachers for short periods of time, including some notable ones such as Anko Itosu (Shuri-te) and Kosaku Matsumora (Tomari-te). Motobu was known for often getting into street fights in his youth to promote the effectiveness of karate. Shimabuku studied with Motobu for approximately one year.

Shimabuku opened his first dojo in 1946 after the war in the village of Konbu, near Tengan village.

From World War II until death[edit]

Turning point[edit]

Coming from a farming family, Shimabuku had always been poor, but he was very innovative and opportunistic. He had a natural talent for adapting things. As a young man in Chun (チャン) Village, he discovered a way to bind tiles to the roofs of homes without using mud, which had been the traditional way. Before World War II, he saw an opportunity and started a small business. Purchasing several horses and carts, he won a contract to help construct a Japanese airfield in Kadena. He was doing quite well until the Allied invasion of Okinawa. During one of the bombing raids by the Allied Forces, his business was destroyed.

Practicing years[edit]

Shimabuku continued to study and develop his skills in both Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu but he was not satisfied that either style held the completeness he was looking for. His interest in weapons (Kobudo) grew, and he sought out the most renowned weapons instructors, because he only knew the one bo (staff) kata, 'Tokumine no Kun' and basic sai techniques he had learned from Chotoku Kyan. He soon became a master in the Bo and Sai weapons. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he continued his study of Kobudō with one of Moden Yabiku’s top students, Shinken Taira. This training took place in Shimabuku’s dojo in Agena. He learned Hama Higa no Tuifa, Shishi no Kun, Chatan Yara no Sai, and Urashi Bo. Shimabuku created Kyan Chotoku sai and Kusanku sai using sai techniques he learned from Chotoku Kyan. To honor Chotoku Kyan, he named his first sai after him.

Creative years[edit]

During the late 1940s Shimabuku began experimenting with different techniques and kata from the Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu systems as well as Kobudo. He called the style he was teaching Chan-migwha-te, after Chotoku Kyan's nickname Chan-migwa (チャンミーグヮー). The nickname “Chan-migwa”, meant “small-eyed-Chan." "Chan (チャン)", in the Okinawa dialect “Uchinaguchi”, is “Kyan (喜屋武)." In Uchinaguchi “mi (ミー)” means “eye." The suffix “Gwa (グヮー)” or “Guwa (グヮー)” mean's “small.” So Chan-migwa means “Small eye Chan (Kyan)”. He renamed his Chan migwa-te style "Isshin-ryū" on January 15, 1956.[3][4]

By the early 1950s Shimabuku was refining his karate teaching, combining what he felt was the best of the Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu styles, the weapons forms he had studied, and his own techniques. As his experimentation continued, his adaptation of techniques and kata were not widely publicized. He consulted with several of the masters on Okinawa about his wish to develop a new style. Because he was highly respected as a karate master, he received their blessings. These would later be rescinded due to the many radical changes made in traditional Okinawan karate.

One night in 1955, Shimabuku fell asleep and dreamed of the goddess Isshinryu no Megami (Goddess of Isshinryu). Three Stars appeared, symbolizing the three styles Isshin-ryu derived from, Goju-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu, and Kobudo. The stars might also have represented the Physical, Mental, and Spiritual strength needed for Isshin-ryu. The gray evening sky symbolized serenity, and implied that karate was to be used only for self-defense.

The next morning when Shimabuku awoke, he felt that his dream had been a divine revelation. He met with his top student, Eiko Kaneshi, and told him of his dream and his desire to break away from Okinawan tradition and start a new style of karate. The day was January 15, 1956. Upon announcing his decision to start a new style, many of his Okinawan students left, including his brother Eizo.

The new system was not initially given a name; it went through two name changes before 'Isshin-ryū' was finally adopted. Nevertheless, the official start of Isshinryu karate is January 15, 1956. The emblem of Isshinryu no Megami was drawn from Shimabuku’s description by Shosu Nakamine, Eiko Kaneshi’s uncle and was chosen to be the symbol for Isshin-ryū karate.

During his career, Shimabuku changed his name to “Tatsuo,” meaning “Dragon Man.” Whenever asked about this change, Shimabuku would reply that “Tatsuo” was his professional karate name. He also was given the nickname, “Sun nu su”, by the mayor of Kyan (Chan) Village. Sun nu su was a name of a dance that was created by Shimabuku's grandfather.

Teaching years[edit]

In 1955, the Third Marine Division of the U.S. Marine Corps was stationed on Okinawa, and the Marine Corps chose Shimabuku to provide instruction to Marines on the island. As a result of his instruction, Isshin-ryū was spread throughout the United States by returning Marines. The karate that the Marines brought back to dojos in the United States was a blend of what Shimabuku considered the best of the karate systems.

The first of the Marines to bring Isshin-ryū karate to the United States were Don Nagle and Harold Long. Nagle opened his dojo outside Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in late 1957, while Harold Long’s first dojo was in his backyard at Twenty-Nine Palms, California in late 1958. Upon their discharge from service, Nagle moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, and opened the first Isshin-ryū dojo in the Northeast. Harold Long returned home to Knoxville, Tennessee, and opened his first dojo at the Marine Reserve Training Center.

Returning later were Harold Mitchum, Edward Brown, Sherman Harill, Steve Armstrong, Ed Johnson, Walter Van Gilson, Clarence Ewing, George Breed, Jim Advincula, Bill Gardo, and Harry Smith and others. George Breed began teaching Isshin-ryū Karate in Atlanta, Georgia in 1961, and then, in Gainesville, Florida from 1966-1969. He remained independent of the Association. The Okinawan-American Karate Association was formed, with Harold Mitchum as the association’s first president. A year later, the name of the association would be changed to the American-Okinawan Karate Association.

Shimabuku made only two trips to the United States to visit his many military students. The first, was to Pittsburgh PA in 1964 for about 3 months, sponsored by James Morabeto and William Duessel. During his 1966 trip, he visited Steve Armstrong in Tacoma, Washington, Harold Long in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Donald Nagle in New Jersey. All three men were promoted to the rank of Hachi-Dan (Eighth Degree). Each of these men became a driving force in the promotion and spread of Isshin-ryū karate in the United States. Shimabuku was known to not enjoy traveling far from home Any further visits representing him were conducted by his students, Uezu Angi, who was his son-in-law.

Shimabuku was paid $5.00USD for every black belt certificate that he issued, he advanced many students to high dan rankings, for money, saying "you must practice". He had no idea what would happen with the Karate boom. He later rescinded the ranks but to no avail.

** Note: Harold Mitchum was promoted to 8 Dan, and Steve Armstrong was promoted to 7 Dan. Mitchum started Isshin-ryu in March 1958, and Armstrong in June 1959 at the Honbu dojo Agena, Okinawa. Kaneshi, Shigema and Kaneshiro did not know this about Mitchum and Armstrong, but they did know Shimabuku was promoting Americans to high ranks. We must remember, non of these Americans ever wore these ranks or announced them on Okinawa. We all knew we had to wait a number of years. While Harold Mitchum and Steve Armstrong can be seen wearing Red-and-white striped belts with Shimabuku Tatsuo, they never did at any event on Okinawa.

Another important event took place during this trip. While visiting the dojo of Steve Armstrong (1966), Shimabuku was filmed performing all 14 Isshin-ryu kata as well as some basic exercise and self-defense techniques. Copies of this film were circulated among the top instructors. It is believed that Shimabuku did not want to be filmed, and that the recording does not represent a true expression of the various kata.

Shimabuku continued teaching at his dojo in Agena until his retirement in early 1972. He passed his legacy over to his son, Kichiro Shimabuku. There was much controversy over this decision, as Shimabuku had originally intended to pass on the system to his number one Okinawan student, Kaneshi Eiko.

When Kichiro learned of this decision, he was outraged and demanded that his father stay with Okinawan tradition and pass the system over to him. Shimabuku relented and granted his son's wish, but their relationship never recovered.


Shimabuku died from a stroke at his home in the village of Agena on May 30, 1975 at the age of 66.

Modifications from traditional forms[edit]

Some of his modifications to karate are:

  • The Sunsu kata: a kata exclusive to Isshin-ryu, Sunsu consists mostly of techniques from other kata that Tatsuo found useful and important.
  • Reversing the Naihanchi kata, going left first, rather than right.


Some call him a non-traditionalist, but he had a foot in both worlds. Some kata were modified for use with shoes but his students still trained barefoot when outdoors. Often techniques were taught differently on different days. Once Shimabuku was sitting drinking awamori with some students. He asked them while pointing toward some bottles "which bottle is best"? Some picked the larger bottles, some the smaller. Tatsuo said that the shape of the bottle was not important. He indicated all bottles were good, that there was no "best bottle" and that all bottles served a purpose.

In 1980, Shimabuku was the first person inducted into the Isshin-ryū Hall of Fame.


  1. ^ "Dragon Man: Tatsuo Shimabuku". Msisshinryu.com. Retrieved 2015-10-27. 
  2. ^ Hokama, Tetsuhiro (2005). 100 Masters of Okinawan Karate. Okinawa: Ozata Print. pp. 63–64. 
  3. ^ "Birth of Isshinryu". Isshinkai. Retrieved 2015-10-27. 
  4. ^ "2008 Commemorative". Olemiss.edu. Retrieved 2015-10-27.