Isshinryu History


Master Shimabuku was the founder of Isshinryu Karate. He was born in 1908 to a large farming family. He began studying Shuri-te, one of the main Okinawan Karate Styles, under his uncle at the age of 8. In 1920 he began studying under Gajoko Chioyu, a master of Kobayashiryu and then met Master Kiyan, the founder of Kobayashiryu. Master Shimabuku then began to study Gojoryu under its founder; Chojun Miyagi. He then returned to Kobayashiryu and studied under Master Motobu. After this he trained with Masters Shinken and Moden to learn Kobudo (weapons). 

In the 1950s thousands of American servicemen were living on Okinawa, and they wanted to learn martial arts. Tatsuo Shimabuku had returned to farming to feed his family, but he never gave up on his karate training. Soon, American troops with American money came looking for the master. By some accounts he begins to teach Americans in the late 1940s, other books mention the 1950s. Regardless, it is accepted that by 1955 the US Marines sought out Tatsuo Shimabuku to train them in martial arts and he becomes one of the first professional karate teachers on Okinawa, setting up his dojo in Chun Village. Tatsuo Shimabuku’s connection with the US Marines is how Isshinryu is spread to the United States and around the world. Some of his first black belts under Master Shimabuku were US Marines who brought Isshinryu back with them to the United States and opened dojos and started associations related to Isshinryu to keep Master Shimabuku’s style alive. 

After 32 years of training and teaching Shorin-ryu and Gojo-ryu Master Shimabuku developed his own system; Isshinryu, which was quickly accepted as a master style by the Okinawan masters and was officially recognized on January 15, 1954. He opened the first Isshinryu dojo in Chun Village and the second in Agena in 1956. In 1964 Master Shimabuku contracted with the US Military to teach Isshinryu on the base. The Marines brought Isshinryu to the United States where it grew. In 1964 Master Shimabuku traveled to Pittsburgh to give seminars and in 1966 he made his second and final trip to the United States to give more seminars. Master Shimabuku died May 30th, 1975.

Developing Isshinryu as a style

Master Shimabuku developed Isshinryu as the "One Heart Method." He combined techniques from Shorin-ryu, the soft style, and Gojo-ryu, the hard style. There are 15 hand basics, 10 kicks, 8 empty hand Kata (Forms), 3 Bo Kata, 2 Sai Kata, and a Tonfa Kata which make up the core base of Isshinryu. Dojos today stick to these core movements but may also have other drills, training forms, and exercises to help teach students. These vary by region and school. 

Since Isshinryu is a combination of two other styles of karate, variations of its katas can be found in other styles. Seiuchin and Sanchin are derived from Gojoryu, the hard style and Seisan, Naihanchi, Wansu, Chinto and Kusanku are derived from Shorinryu, the soft style. Sunsu is the combination of techniques from all of these kata and is translated to mean "strong man" and is the 1 true Isshinryu kata. 

Bringing Isshinryu to the United States

History, the origin of one's style or system should be, important to all karate practitioners. It helps to legitimize the style, connect the past and the present, and add validity to not just the physical aspects being taught in the dojo, but also the soft skills such as confidence, respect, and understanding. This is why when speaking with a martial artist or going to a dojo it is important to ask about lineage. Who were the sensei's teachers? Who were those teacher's teachers, and so on. In the United States four men are credited with bringing Isshinryu over after their time serving as Marines in Okinawa. Harold Long, Don Nagle, Harold Mitchum and Steve Armstrong are often credited as the four Marines who helped promote Isshinryu in the United States. The regions they settled in, either the North East, the South, the Midwest, or out west is where dojos and teachers today still exist and can trace their lineage back to these men. A fifth important name is Arcenio Advincula who married Master Shimabuku's daughter and helped develop the Isshinryu Mizugami patch which is on all Isshinryu practitioners uniforms [Gi]. There are also many other Isshinryu masters who can lay claim to being first generation students of Master Shimabuku. But, Long, Nagle, Mitchum and Armstrong started dojos, developed reputations, and have generations of students who can trace their lineage back to them. 

Steve Armstrong - Born in Texas in 1931 he was a boxer. When he enlisted in the Marines he went to Japan and saw some karate-ka practicing. Having grown up fighting, he went in to challenge them, not realizing karate was about self-defnese, not just hitting someone else because you could. He achieved a black belt by 1949, but when he returned to Japan after a leave from the military, he picked up his martial arts studies again but was forced to begin anew as a white belt. He again earned a black belt in this new style, but shortly after that he left for Korea to fight in the Korean War. After this tour of Duty he served in the Honor Guard for President Truman and attended the University of Texas. He then reenlisted and was stationed on Okinawa. Armstrong insists this is where he learned what it truly meant to study karate and be a karate ka. Under Master Shimabuku he started over again. Master Armstrong became Master Shimabuku's number 2 [American] student second only to Harold Mitchum. When he returned to the United States, Armstrong started a dojo in Tacoma, Washington. He was inducted into the IHOF in 1985.

Harold Long - Master Harold Long was born in Tennessee in 1930. In 1949 he joined the military and was called up for service in 1950. When the Korean War broke out, he was sent to Korea. He fought in the battle of Chosin Reservoir against the Chinese Army. This battle saw 12,000 Marines and a handful of army men trapped in the mountains of Korea, surrounded and at risk of freezing to death. Master Long was one of the survivors, later to be referred to as the “Eternal Band of Brothers.” In the mid 1950s Master Long was stationed on Okinawa, when he asked who the best karate teacher was, he was told Tatsuo Shimabuku. After visiting Master SHimabuku’s dojo in Chun village three times, Master Long was accepted as a student. Master Long trained with Master Shimabuku for 19 months, sometimes 8 hours a day. When Master Long was first stationed back in the United States he opened a dojo in his backyard in California. When he was discharged from the military in 1959 Master Long moved back to Tennessee and opened a dojo at the Marine Reserve Training Center. In 1963 he attended the “systems head” meeting of the first World Karate Tournament which would dictate the rules for kata and kumite for all tournaments, regardless of style. In attendance at this meeting were notable practitioners such as Don Nagle, Jun Rehe, and Robert Trias. Master Long also served as Vice President of United States Karate Association and in 1974 traveled to Okinawa and received permission from Master Shimabuku to start a new Isshinryu karate association in the United States. In 1975 he founded the IIKA (International Isshinryu Karate Association) and in 1980 founded the IHOF (Isshinryu Hall of Fame). He was inducted into the IHOF in 1981.

Harold Mitchum - Born in South Carolina in 1933 he studied with Master Shimabuku for over seven years and served in the US Marines for over 20 years. He had tours of duty in the US, Okinawa, Korea, and Vietnam. He was appointed the first president of the American Okinawan Karate Association in 1961 by Master Shimabuku. After retiring from the Marines in 1973 he opened a dojo. He was promoted to master level by Master Shimabuku and ran a second school on Okinawa. In 1975 he helped start the United Isshin-Ryu Karate Association [UIKA] now known as the WUIKA with the hope of standardizing kata and promotion requirements. He was inducted into the IHOF in 1982. 

Don Nagle - He was born in 1938 in New Jersey. He studied Gojo-Ryu when he was in High School, so when he later encountered Isshinryu, some of the techniques were familiar to him. Master Nagle joined the US Marines and by 1955 was stationed on Okinawa where he quickly heard about and sought out Master Shimabuku. Master Nagle quickly became one of Master shimabuku's students. He was a natural fighter who understood economy of movement, a major aspect of the Isshinryu style. As a white belt he won the Okinawan Championship and was awarded a 5th degree black belt. Back in the United States, Master Nagle formed a partnership  with Ernie Cates, a Judo Master and they opened a dojo together which would have many students who have gone on to become masters themselves. He was inducted into the IHOF in 1983. 

Today dojos across the country can trace their lineage to these four marines or a handful of other Marines who were part of the first Generation of students who studied with Master Shimabuku on Okinawa. Not only did they study Karate for themselves, they also taught it, and passed on a legacy which reaches across the globe, keeping Master Shimabuku's legacy alive.