Uechi-ryu (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 Pangai-noon (half-hard, half-soft) under Shu Shiwa (ja:周子和) in the Fujian (also romanized as Fukien) province of mainland China in the late 19th century and early 20th century. After studying 10 years under Shushiwa, 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.
After Kanbun's return to Okinawa, Mr. Gokenki, the Chinese tea merchant, and former friend and student, often visited Okinawa on business. He soon located his friend and teacher, and tried to persuade him to teach again. With the possibility that his recent connections with Chinese training might help to identify him as a draft-evader, Kanbun refused to teach.
In 1912, Gokenki set up a tea shop. Mr. Gokenki made no secret of his preference for Chinese-style training and its superiority over other Okinawan methods. He got into a brawl with another karate teacher from Naha, and defeated him. After this defeat, the reputation of several other teachers and systems were at stake to save face and challenged Gokenki, but none were able to beat him. Prospective students began to show up asking Gokenki for instruction. Gokenki made it known that his teacher in China was actually an Okinawan after all, and lived on the northern end of the island.
Martial artists would visit Kanbun in Izumi with a letter of introduction from Gokenki looking for instruction. Kanbun would reply to the prospective students that they must have mistaken him for someone else. These men in turn disclosed Gokenki's whereabouts and Kanbun then sometimes visited Gokenki at the Eiko Tea Store located in Naha. Gokenki highly praised Kanbun's consummate skills in Kung-Fu technique to his customers. Uechi was consequently known as a Chinese Kung-Fu expert to the martial artists in the Naha vicinity.
Finally, the townspeople with Mr. Gokenki confronted Kanbun, and Kanbun could not deny his identity any longer. Kanbun still denied showing anyone karate and offered no explanation. The question of draft-evasion never came up, and Kanbun was never indicted. He continued to farm his land as if he had never been away, and taught bo-staff technique at village gatherings and festivals but no karate.
Every year in Okinawa, the Motobu police department held a large celebration. It was customary for all the local schools to demonstrate their skills. Tricking Kanbun into attending this demonstration, the idea came up to have the mayor of Motobu announce that Kanbun Uechi would demonstrate by performing a Kata. They were anxious to see proof of his ability, and so saw to it that he was seated so near to the stage, that if he refused the mayor's request, he would lose face. The plot worked, for when the mayor asked Kanbun to demonstrate, the other teachers who were standing close by playfully pushed Kanbun onto the stage. With so many people watching there was no escape for Kanbun. There was applause, then silence. Kanbun was furious, but quiet. He hesitated for just a moment, then, with eyes glaring, he performed his favorite kata Seisan, fast and beautifully, with strength and power. Knowing he had been tricked, he jumped from the stage and stormed out of the building. The karate portion of the day's festivities had come to an unscheduled end—no one else wished to follow Kanbun's demonstration. The incident confirmed his standing as a highly respected instructor. Consequently, he was offered an immediate post at the teacher's training college by Itosu Anko (1813 - 1915), a great karate expert from the Shorin-Ryu system and a karate professor at the teacher's college in Okinawa. Kanbun politely refused.
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 dojo to the public. Eventually, in 1940, his Okinawan students renamed the system as "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 (shoken), spearhand (nukite), and the toe kick (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 3 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 added to the style by Kanei Uechi. Kanei Uechi designed all of the additional kata. 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:
- 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 ranks:
- 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)
Note: Kyu rank belt colors are not standardized. Each dojo can assign belt colors at the sensei's choosing. Many Okinawan styles still use gold bars only on black belts to denote various masters titles rather than ranks after 5th dan. Furthermore, more traditional dojo's, under Kanei's linage still use and prefer the older Uechi grades for the master titles. The current master ranks are now used by the various Uechi groups to meet a more universal grading style based on what Okinawan karate now use as a standard for all styles.
Additional training elements
Kanei Uechi, besides adding kata, also introduced a sequence of exercises to the Uechi-Ryū training regimen. The junbi undo are warm-up and stretching exercises based on Asian school training exercises. The "hojo undō" are standardized exercises that incorporate elements of all of the katas of the system.
The junbi undo exercises are:
- Ashi saki o ageru undo (heel pivot)
- Kakato o ageru undo (heel lift)
- Ashikubi o mawasu undo (foot and ankle twist)
- Hiza o mawasu undo (knee circular bend)
- Ashi o mae yoko shita ni nobasu undo (leg lift and turn)
- Ashi o mae uchi naname ni ageru undo (straight leg lift)
- Tai o mae ni taosu undo (waist scoop)
- Koshi no nenten (trunk stretch)
- Ude o mae yoko shita ni nobasu undo (double arm strike)
- Kubi o mawasu undo (neck rotation)
The hojo undo exercises are:
- Sokuto geri (Side kick)
- Shomen geri (Front kick)
- Mawashi tsuki (Hook Punch)
- Hajiki uke hiraken tsuki (Tiger paw blocks and strike)
- Seiken tsuki (Closed Fist Punch)
- Wauke shuto uraken shoken tsuki / Shuto Uchi - Ura Uchi - Shoken Tsuki (Chop, Back-fist, One-knuckle punch)
- Hiji tsuki (Elbow strikes)
- Tenshin zensoku geri (Turn-Block-Front Kick-Forward Leg)
- Tenshin kosoku geri (Turn-Block-Front Kick-Back Leg)
- Tenshin shoken tsuki (Turn-Block-One Knuckle Punch)
- Shomen hajiki (fingertip strikes)
- Koi no shippo uchi, tate uchi (wrist blocks in four directions)
- Koi no shippo uchi, yoko uchi (Fish-tail wrist blocks)
- Shin Kokyu (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. 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. 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 dojo to dojo.
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, involves the ritualized pounding of one's fists and forearms against the forearms of a partner. Kanbun Uechi learned this conditioning exercise in China. A similar Uechi-Ryū exercise involves exchanging leg kicks with a partner (ashi kotae).
Working with a makiwara is also a part of Uechi-Ryū training. Uechi-Ryū karateka also incorporate other traditional Okinawan physical conditioning exercises as part of their training, such as plunging hands into baskets full of rocks, or performing Sanchin kata leg movements while gripping nigiri-game (heavy stone jars).
Like many arts, Uechi-Ryū experienced organizational splits after its founder's death. Some of the senior practitioners of the original art split from the main organization and created other organizations or styles, including Shohei-Ryū and recreated versions of Pangai-noon. The rift came about through some teachers wanting to teach a varied form of Uechi (from slightly different kata to newer conditioning drills), and some wanting to teach the "classical" form as designed by Kanbun. The differences among the four remaining major groups are unnoticeable to the casual observer.
Major organizations of Uechi-Ryū
- Uechi-Ryū Karate-Do Association (Soke Shubukan) — headed by Kansho Uechi (Kanmei Uechi died.)
- Okinawa Uechi-Ryū Karate-Do Association (Okikukai Uechi-Ryū) — headed by Shintoku Takara
- The Okinawa Karate Do Association (Okikukai) — headed by senior students of Kanei Uechi in rotation: current head: Tsutomu Nakahodo
- Uechi-Ryū Karate-Do Shinkokai — headed by Takenobu Uehara 
- International Kenyukai Association (Kenyukai) — headed by Kiyohide Shinjō: Started as a fraternity in the Uechi-Ryū Association in 1981
- International Uechi-Ryū Karate Federation (IUKF) — headed by George Mattson
- International Uechi-Ryū Karate-Do Association (IUKA) (Kokusai Kyokai) — headed by James Thompson
- Uechi-Ryū Karate-Do KenSeiKai Tomigusuku Shubukan — headed by Yoshitsune Senaga
- Ryukokaku Karate and Kobudo Association — headed by Tsukasa Gushi. (Shinyu Gushi has died.)
- Konan Ryu - Founded by Itokazu Seiki, currently headed by Itokazu Seisho
- Okinawa KarateDo Uechi-Ryū Zankyokai (Zakimi Shubukan) — headed by Naomi Toyama. (Seiko Toyama has died.)
- World Association of Uechi-Ryū Karate-Do — headed by Yoshiharu Arakaki
- Ji Teki Jyuku Association — headed by Ken Nakamatsu 
- Uechi-Ryū Butokukai — headed by Buzz Durkin 
- Okikukai Karate Italia — headed by Fulvio Zilioli
- Uechi-Ryū Internationale Karate-do Association (UIKA) — Chairman Robert Campbell, and President Jay Salhanick
- Okikukai Brasil — headed by Ramiro da Silva Leone
- 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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