Tatsuo Shimabuku was born on September 19, 1908, in Chan, Village, now Kyan Village. He began his early karate training with his uncle, Kamusu Chan. According to Shinsho Shimabuku, Tatsuo's second son, this was around the age of 8 to 10 years (written records were seldom kept in Okinawa.) He would have to walk approximately 12 miles to learn karate. At first, his uncle sent him home, but he constantly returned and showed his persistence and his uncle accepted him as his student.

 

He studied for a while at his uncle's dojo, each day after completing menial domestic chores. Having achieved a certain degree of skill in Shuri-te, he started his formal karate training (this was about at the age of 15 to 20). He started at Kadena Village under the famous Shuri-te and Tomari-te karate-ka, Shotoku Kyan (1871-1944). Here he learned Shiron-Ryu Karate, a style that is known for its graceful, quick, direct and lightning-type movements. As a farmer's son, he had to walk 8 miles a day to study under Kyan. Kyan (known as Small Eyed Kyan) was known for his speed and skill in technique. He was a complete martial artist. Being small, like Kyan, Shimabuku would rely on his speed to give him an edge over larger opponents. Shimabuku developed a very quick kick, which few, if any, could equal, even when he was in his late 50's. From Kyan, Shimabuku learned Seisan, Seiunchin, Naihanchi, Wansu (from Tomari-te), Chinto (Kyan's favorite kata) and Kusanku. Shimabuku became one of Kyan's best students.

 

In his early to mid-twenties, Master Shimabuku traveled to Naha to learn from chojun Miyagi (1888-1955). The founder of Goju Ryu, a hard karate style with soft Chinese forms, emphasizing dramatic breathing methods. From Miyagi, Shimabuku learned seiuchin and sanchin, the breathing kata. Miyagi was known from his feats of strength. It is said that he could rip bark off of trees and twist bamboo into shreds. Although Shimabuku was small, he developed a grip like Miyagi's by using physical strength taught to him by Miyagi and mental fortitude that he learned from Kyan. He went on to become one of Miyagi's leading students.

 

His third karate instructor was Choki Motobu, a Tomari-te Karate-ka. Shimabuku told the story of Motobu (who could not learn karate from his family because only the first son was taught the art to be passed down to the next first son), who would secretly watch Kosuku Matsumura of Tomari perform naihanchi kata. Motobu was known mainly for his fierce fighting ability, rather than his karate technique. He constantly practiced Nihanchin kata, which was a very long kata. (Today, Nihanchin as been broken down to three [3] separate Nihanchin katas because it was easier to teach three separate forms than one long form because the students would tire too easily.) Master Shimabuku would often say, "IT IS NOT THE NUMBER OF KATA A PERSON KNOWS, IT IS HOW WELL YOU KNOW A KATA THAT COUNTS." He got this concept from Motubu. Motobu was also known as Monkey Man, because of his size and strength. He could climb up a pole or tree head first, then come down the pole or tree, head first.

 

Having studied under three of the great martial artists of the era, at a large martial arts festival in the town of Fatima, Shimabuku blossomed and won recognition throughout Okinawa through a very fine performance of the katas. He shocked spectators with his ability to drive nails through pieces of wood with his bare hands.

 

With his mastery of Shorin-Ryu and Gojo-Ryu complete, Shimabuku sought out the Kobu-Jutsu (weapons techniques) weapons Master Taira Shinken (this was after 1958). At this time, Shinken was the world's greatest expert on the bo and sai. Even today, most weapons kata from Okinawa and Japan can be traced back to Shinken. Tatsuo also studied, at an earlier age, with Moden Yabiku. Moden Yabiku was Taira Shinken's instructor. The times and dates that he studies with Moden are vague, but his studies with Taira Shinken were in the mid-fifties to mid-sixties. Tatsuo Shimabuku believed strongly in weapon training, feeling that a system without weapons was incomplete. He learned the weapons kata and, like the hand and foot katas that he learned from Shorin-Ryu and Go-Ju Ryu, refined and modified the original katas to his Isshinryu System. The weapons katas are:

 

1) Tokimine-No-Kun (Tokumine was the person's name and No-Kun means of bo. He knew this weapons kata before studying with Shinken.)

2) Urashe Kun (Urashe was the name of the Village where the kata originated.)

3) Shi Shi No Kun-Dai (means instructor of the big, long (dai) bo because it is the longest Isshinryu bo form. Shimabuku first taught this kata in 1966. In most all styles of karate, the bo was handled strictly from the left side until Shimabuku broke tradition and brought the right side into play.

4) Kusanku-Sai (means night fighting with a sai). Shimabuku made this up before 1958.

5) Chatan-Yara No-Sai (named from Chatan village where it was developed by the Yara family.

6) Bo-Bo Kumite - Two bo fighting in a fixed sequence. (Made up by William Blond and Frank Van Lenten.)

7) Bo-Sai Kumite - Sai fighting a bo attacker. (Also made up by William Blond and Frank Van Lenten.)

8) Tui-Fa-Tonfa Kata - Tui Fa of Hamahiga.

 

During World War II, Shimabuku's reputation spread throughout Okinawan. His small business was destroyed by the war and he was like most Okinawans, bankrupted. He did his best to avoid conscription into the Japanese Army (he didn't feel Okinawans had to fight a Japanese war) and escaped to the countryside, working as a farmer. The Japanese were desperate for men and he was forced to flee.

 

As his reputation in karate spread, the Japanese began to search for him, because they wanted to study karate under him. They finally caught him and agreed to keep the secret of his whereabouts, if he would teach them karate. This is how Shimabuku survived the war.

 

After the war, he returned to farming and practicing karate. He was recognized throughout Okinawa as the island's leading practitioner of both Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu. We are now up to the 1950's - 1960's.