Uechi-ryū (上地流 Uechi-ryū?) is a traditional style of Okinawan karate. Uechi-ryū means "Style of Uechi" or "School of Uechi". Originally called Pangai-noon, which translates to English as "half-hard, half-soft", the style was renamed Uechi-ryū after the founder of the style, Kanbun Uechi, an Okinawan who went to Fuzhou in Fujian Province, China to study martial arts and Chinese medicine when he was 19 years old.
Kanbun Uechi studied a style of Southern Chinese kung fu Pangai-noon (traditional Chinese characters: 半硬軟) meaning "half-hard, half-soft" in the Fujian province of China, in the late 19th century and early 20th century under a teacher and Chinese medicine hawker known in Japanese as Shū Shiwa (Chinese: Zhou Zihe 周子和 1869-1945) . Shū Shiwa/Zhou Zihe's life is not well documented. Some have suspected he had connection with the secret societies which worked for the overthrow of the Qing dynasty and the restoration of Ming dynasty.
The exact provenance of the romanization "Pangai-noon" is not clear, and it may be from the lesser-known Min Chinese language. It is not a Japanese, Okinawan nor Mandarin Chinese pronunciation of the original characters. The standard Japanese pronunciation of the three characters is han kō nan (はんこうなん), while the standard Mandarin pronunciation is bàn yìng ruǎn. The Cantonese language pronunciation is bun ngaang yun. In modern times, the katakana version of pangainoon (パンガイヌーン) has been used in Japanese writing rather than the kanji (半硬軟).
After studying 10 years under Shū Shiwa/Zhou Zihe, Kanbun Uechi opened his own school in Nanjing. Three years later, Kanbun Uechi returned to Okinawa, determined never to teach again because one of his Chinese students had killed a neighbor with an open-hand technique in a dispute over land irrigation.
Kanbun Uechi then left for Japan to find employment. While he was working as a janitor he was persuaded by a co-worker, Ryuyu Tomoyose, to teach again after having been first convinced to show Tomoyose ways of defending himself against different attacks. When his confidence as a teacher was restored, Uechi, with the help of Ryuyu Tomoyose, moved to Wakayama City, Wakayama Prefecture, where, in 1925, he established the Institute of Pangainun-ryū Todi-jutsu (パンガイヌーン流唐手術), and opened a dōjō to the public. Eventually, in 1940, his Okinawan students renamed the system "Uechi-Ryū Karate-jutsu" (上地流空手術) in his honor.
Kanbun Uechi's son, Kanei Uechi, taught the style at the Futenma City Dojo, Okinawa, and was considered the first Okinawan to sanction teaching foreigners. One of Kanbun's students, Ryuko Tomoyose, taught a young American serviceman named George Mattson who authored several books on the subject and is largely responsible for popularizing the style in America. Uechi-Ryū emphasizes toughness of body with quick blows and kicks. Some of the more distinctive weapons of Uechi practitioners are the one-knuckle punch shōken zuki (小拳突き shōken zuki?), spearhand nukite (貫手突き nukite?), and the front kick shōmen geri (正面蹴り shōmen geri?) delivered with the first toe (sokusen geri). On account of this emphasis on simplicity, stability, and a combination of linear and circular movements, proponents claim the style is more practical for self-defense than most other martial arts.
In contrast to the more linear styles of karate based on Okinawan Shuri-te or Tomari-te, Uechi-Ryū's connection with Chinese Nanpa Shorin-ken means the former shares a similar foundation with Naha-Te (and thus with Goju-Ryū) despite their separate development. Thus, Uechi-Ryū is also heavily influenced by the circular motions which belong to the kung fu from Fujian province. Uechi-Ryū is principally based on the movements of three animals: the Tiger, the Dragon, and the Crane.
There are eight empty-hand katas in Uechi-Ryū. Only Sanchin, Seisan, and Sanseirui come from Pangai-noon; the others were designed and added to the style by Kanei Uechi and other senior students of Kanbun. Many of the names of the newer kata were formed from the names of prominent figures in the art, e.g. Kanshiwa from Kanbun and Sushiwa. The current list of empty-hand kata is:
The Sanchin kata is deceptively simple in appearance. It teaches the foundation of the style, including stances and breathing. Kanbun Uechi is quoted as saying "All is in Sanchin." Though it is not difficult to learn the movements of Sanchin, to master the form is thought to take a lifetime.
Additionally, some organizations teach that each kata has a 'meaning' or moral; the more accurate meaning, however, is that each kata teaches a specific concept:
- Sanchin (三戦?): Literally translated as "three fights/conflicts". From the kanji for "three" and 戦う ("to fight/to struggle"?). Usually interpreted as three Modes/Conflicts: Mind, Body and Spirit). An alternate interpretation is "Three Challenges" being those of softness, timing, and power.
- Kanshiwa (完子和?): A combination of the first kanji in Kanbun's name, and the last two kanji (if written in Chinese order) of Shu Shiwa's [Japanese pronunciation] name.) This kata teaches the new student the concept of harnessing natural strength through the use of primarily tiger-style techniques. Also known as Kanshabu.
- Kanshu (完周?): A combination of the first kanji in Kanbun's name, and the kanji for Shu Shiwa's family name (Shu) [see previous note on pronunciation]. This kata is also known as Daini Seisan (第二十三?).) This kata teaches the concept of precision in timing through using crane techniques.
- Seichin (十戦?): Literally translated, it means "10 fights/conflicts") or a combination between two other katas: Seisan and Sanchin. An alternate meaning interprets the name phonetically and then it translates as "Spirit Challenge", implying that it teaches the concept of soft whip-like motion. This form uses whip-like dragon-style techniques.
- Seisan (十三?): Literally translated, it means "13". Usually interpreted as "Thirteen modes of attack and defense" or "13 positions to attack/defend from".) An alternate meaning is simply "13th Room Kata", being the form synthesized in the 13th room of Shaolin temple, using individual techniques taught in the previous training rooms. This kata combines the "Three Challenges" concept, and the student can go back and recognize and further develop those elements in the previous forms.
- Seirui (十六): Along the lines of the others, literally translated this means simply "16". This kata teaches the concept of stability since the four consecutive Dragon techniques in rotation call for a strong sense of balance.
- Kanchin (完戦?): A combination of Kanbun's first kanji and "fight". The first kanji of Kanbun, Kanei, and Kanmei are the same. Since this was created by Kanei Uechi from fighting techniques he favored from his father's training, the name is considered to mean "Kanei's Challenge", or "Kanei's Fight". This form teaches the practitioner the concept of making defensive movements at one stroke (called "ikkyoodo"—all at one stroke).
- Sanseirui (三十六): Means simply "36". Usually interpreted as "thirty-six modes of attack and defense" or "36 positions to attack/defend from."). It can also mean "36th Room Kata" as it is made from techniques taught individually in the previous 35 rooms (or previous 12 rooms in three rotations). Shu Shiwa was also known as "The 36th Room Priest" according to the 1977 Uechi-Ryū Kyohon (Techniques Book). This final kata combines all the previous concepts to pre-empt the attack.
These are the ten beginner or Kyū ranks, which in traditional practice count down from 10 to 1. The white, green, and brown belts are standard. Different schools in the same organization may have difference designations of the intermediate ranks, such as different colors and stripes, or simply only award those belts:
- 10º Jukyū (White Belt)
- 9º Kyukyū (White Belt w/1 Green Stripe; Yellow Belt)
- 8º Hachikyū (White Belt w/2 Green Stripes; Gold Belt)
- 7º Shichikyū (White Belt w/3 Green Stripes; Blue Belt)
- 6º Rokkyū (White Belt w/Solid Green Bar; Green Belt)
- 5º Gokyū (Green Belt w/no stripe; Green Belt w/1 Stripe)
- 4º Yonkyū (Green Belt w/1 Brown Stripe; Green Belt w/2 Stripes)
- 3º Sankyū (Brown Belt w/1 Black Stripe)
- 2º Nikyū (Brown Belt w/2 Black Stripes)
- 1º Ikkyū (Brown Belt w/3 Black Stripes)
These are the ten black belt or Dan grades:
- Shodan (1st degree | Regular Black belt)
- Nidan (2nd degree)
- Sandan (3rd degree)
- Yondan (4th degree)
- Godan (5th degree)
- Rokudan (6th degree) (Master's title: Renshi; Black belt w/1 Gold stripe)
- Nanadan (7th degree) (Master's title: Kyoshi; Black belt w/2 Gold stripes)
- Hachidan (8th degree) (Master's title: Kyoshi; Black belt w/3 Gold stripes)
- Kyūdan (9th degree) (Master's title: Hanshi; Black belt w/4 Gold stripes)
- Jūdan (10th degree) (Master's title: Hanshi-Sei; Black belt w/5 Gold stripes)
Originally, Okinawan styles use the gold bars on black belts to denote the various masters titles rather than ranks after fifth dan. Thus one gold stripe designated Renshi, two designated Kyoshi, and three designated Hanshi and Hanshi-Sei. In the early 2000s, different Okinawan styles started using the stripes to designate dan grades above godan. Others, including may Uechi organizations, have followed suit, while others have not.
Additional training elements
Kanei Uechi, besides adding kata, also introduced a sequence of exercises to the Uechi-Ryū training regimen. The junbi undō (準備運動 junbi undō?) are warm-up and stretching exercises based on Asian school training exercises. The hojo undō (補助運動 hojo undō?) are standardized exercises that incorporate elements of all of the katas of the system as well as additional techniques.
- Ashisaki o ageru undō (足先を上げる運動?) (heel pivot)
- Kakato o ageru undō (踵を上げる運動?) (heel lift)
- Ashikubi o mawasu undō (足首を廻わす運動?) (foot and ankle rotation)
- Hiza o mawasu undō (膝を廻わす運動?) (knee circular bend)
- Ashi o mae yoko shita ni nobasu undō (足を前横に伸ばす運動?) (leg lift and turn)
- Ashi o maeue uchi nanameue ni ageru undō (足を前上内斜め上に上げる運動?) (straight leg lift)
- Tai no kusshin undō (体の屈伸運動?) (waist scoop and twisting)
- Koshi no nenten undō (腰の捻転運動?) (trunk stretch)
- Ude o nobasu undō (腕の屈伸運動?) (double arm strikes)
- Kubi no nenten undō (首の捻転運動?) (neck rotation)
- Shōmen geri (正面蹴り?) (Front kick)
- Sokutō geri (足刀蹴り?) (Side kick)
- Seiken tsuki (正拳空き?) (Closed Fist Punch)
- Mawashi tsuki (廻し空き?) (Hook Punch)
- Hajiki uke hiraken tsuki (平拳受け平拳空き?) (Tiger paw blocks and strike)
- Shutō uchi Uraken uchi Shōken zuki (手刀打ち裏拳打ち小拳空き?) (Chop, Back-fist, One-knuckle punch)
- Hiji zuki (肘空き?) (Elbow strikes)
- Tenshin zensoku geri (転身前足蹴り?) (Turn-Block-Front Kick-Forward Leg)
- Tenshin kosoku geri (転身前後蹴り?) (Turn-Block-Front Kick-Back Leg)
- Tenshin shōken tsuki (転身小拳空き?) (Turn-Block-One Knuckle Punch)
- Hajiki (弾き?) (fingertip strikes)
- Koi no shippo uchi, tate uchi (鯉の尻尾打ち縦打ち?) (wrist blocks in four directions)
- Koi no shippo uchi, yoko uchi (鯉の尻尾打ち横打ち?) (Fish-tail wrist blocks)
- Shinkokyu (深呼吸?) (Deep breathing)
Kanei Uechi developed a set of pre-arranged sparring exercises for the pre-black colored belt ranks. These exercises are referred to as yakusoku kumite (約束組み手?). They involve two partners exchanging a formal sequence of blocks and strikes. There are five to eleven of these exercises, and each one involves three to six exchanges of single blocks and strikes. The kumite exercises involve blocks and strikes that are, for the most part, also found in Uechi-Ryū kata. Thus, like kata no bunkai, these exercises help students become familiar with the application of Uechi-Ryū techniques. Typically, the highest kyu ranks are expected to be able to move through these exercises with great strength and fluidity. Dan level students practice additional pre-arranged sparring exercises.
Applications of kata are also practiced in a pre-arranged format. These patterns are called kata no bunkai (型の分解?). Kanshiwa Bunkai and Seisan Bunkai date to Kanei Uechi. Other bunkai for other katas, such as Kanshu and Seichin, are also often practiced but may vary in format more from dōjō to dōjō.
Special forms of strength training and body conditioning are generally practiced in Uechi-Ryū drilling. A formal Uechi-Ryū forearm conditioning exercise, called kote kitae (小手鍛え?), or "forearm tempering," involves variations of striking a partner's forearms with ones fists and forearms. Kanbun Uechi learned this conditioning exercise in China. Similar exercises involve conditioning the legs ashi kitae (足鍛え?), or "leg tempering." Uechi-Ryū also trains with makiwara, as well as incorporates other traditional Okinawan physical conditioning exercises as part of their training, such as plunging hands into baskets full of rocks, or performing Sanchin kata stepping while gripping nigiri gamae (握りえ構え?) (heavy ceramic jars).
Like many arts, Uechi-Ryū experienced organizational splits after its founder's death.
Pangai-noon In 1978 a group of Uechi-ryū students headed by Seiki Itokazu and Takashi Kinjo objected to the addition of the intermediate kata to the original three along with other exercises and broke away from the ryū and formed a style they called Pangai-noon. By the early 1990s Itokazu and Kinjo had renamed this breakaway style to Konan Ryu. In the 2000s Kinjo and his students began using the style name Kobu Ryu, however one of Kinjo's students, Mikio Nishiuchi, has reverted to using the style name Pang Gai Noon Ryu. This name has also been used by later groups over the years who have practiced the additional kata and exercises. All extant organizations are either former Uechi-ryū organizations or schools that chose to use the old name, or current Uechi-ryū schools which wish to give homage to the old name.
Shōhei-Ryu After the death of the founder's son, Kanei Uechi, most of the senior practitioners of the original art split for political and personal reasons from his son Kanmei Uechi to form the Okinawa Uechi-Ryū Karate-Dō Association (沖縄上地流唐手道協会). Barred by Kanmei Uechi from using his family name, the Okinawan Karate Dō Association eventually decided to rename its system Shōhei-ryu (昭平流 Shōhei-ryū?) which combined the Late Emperor Hirohito's reign name Shōwa and his son Emperor Akihito's Heisei to mean "to shine brightly with fairness, equality, and peace." The Okinawan Karate Dō Association added a new two-man prearranged exercise yakusoku kumite (約束組み手 yakusoku kumite?) and an application or bunkai (分解 bunkai?) form for the third original kata: "Sanseirui bunkai." One teacher developed an additional kata which was deemed by the Okinawan Karate Dō Association to be a kata for his school. With the name "Uechi-ryū" passing out of copyright in Okinawa, an easing of political and personal disagreements, and a desire to promote the style in anticipation of the 2020 Summer Olympics, on September 18, 2016, the Okinawa Karate-Dō Association officially dropped "Shōhei-ryū" and returned to the name "Uechi-ryū."
Major organizations of Uechi-Ryū
Many consist of a main organization in Okinawa with branches in other countries. Listed strictly in alphabetical order:
- Jiteki Jyuku Association: headed by Ken Nakamatsu
- Kenyukai (拳優会; International Kenyukai Association): headed by Kiyohide Shinjō: Started as a fraternity in the Uechi-Ryū Association in 1981
- Konan Ryu: Founded by Itokazu Seiki, currently headed by Itokazu Seisho
- Okikukai (沖空会 沖縄空手道協会; The Okinawa Karate Dō Association): headed by senior students of Kanei Uechi in rotation: current head: Tsutomu Nakahodo
- Okinawa Karate-Dō Uechi-Ryū Zankyokai (Zakimi Shubukan 座喜味修武館): headed by Naomi Toyama
- Okinawa Uechi-Ryū Karate-Dō Association (沖縄上地流唐手道協会): headed by Shintoku Takara
- Uechi-Ryū Karate-Dō Association (Soke Shubukan): headed by Kansho Uechi
- Uechi-Ryū Karate-Dō KenSeiKai Tomigusuku Shubukan: headed by Yoshitsune Senaga
- Uechi-Ryū Karate-Dō Shinkokai (上地流空手道振興会): headed by Takenobu Uehara 
- International Uechi-Ryū Karate-Dō Association (IUKA) (Kokusai Kyokai): headed by James Thompson
- International Uechi-Ryū Karate Federation (IUKF): headed by George Mattson
- Okikukai Brasil: headed by Ramiro da Silva Leone
- Okikukai Karate Italia: headed by Fulvio Zilioli
- Ryukokaku Karate and Kobu Dō Association: headed by Tsukasa Gushi
- Uechi-Ryū Bushidō: headed by Bob Bethony 
- Uechi-Ryū Butokukai: headed by Buzz Durkin 
- Uechi-Ryū Internationale Karate-do Association (UIKA): Chairman Robert Campbell, and President Jay Salhanick
- Rymaruk, Ihor. Karate: A Master's Secrets of Uechi-Ryu. p. 19
- Official Karate Site of the Okinawan Prefecture Archived February 19, 2005, at the Wayback Machine.
- Uechi, Kanei: Seisetsu Okinawa Karate-do: Sono Rekishi to Giho [Skill and Theory of Okinawa Karate. Its History and Techniques]. Uechi-Ryu Karate-Do Kyokai, Ginowan, Okinawa, Japan 1977.
- Mattson, George E., The Way of Karate, Tuttle Publishing, 1963
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- Donald B. Joyner, Uechi Ryu Karate-Do Student Guide and Handbook: A Study Guide for Uechi Ryu Karate-Do, 1996.
- Donald B. Joyner, George Miller Joyner, The Art and History of Uechi Ryu Karate-Do: A Study Guide for Uechi Ryu Karate-Do, Joyner's Professional Karate: 1996.
- George E. Mattson, The Way of Karate, Charles E. Tuttle Company: 1963.
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- Ihor Rymaruk, Karate: A Master's Secrets of Uechi-ryu, Iron Arm International: 2004.