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A Brief History of Shito Ryu Karate

Kenwa Mabuni

Karate is a method of fighting using blocks, punches, hand strikes and kicks to disable or defeat an attacker. Karate originated in the Ryukyu islands south of Kyushu (one of the four main islands of Japan). Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu islands and since early times has been a center for trading and commerce. Traders from mainland China, Korea, the Phillipines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan etc., often stopped at Okinawa to barter or sell goods and take on supplies. Thus, as with any trading center, the ideas of several cultures were exchanged. China, in particular, had a profound influence on the culture and social customs of Okinawa. Therefore, as the indigenious population developed a set of martial arts for self defense and police activities, they naturally had a strong Chinese flavor and incorporated may Chinese unarmed techniques. In fact, the original kanji or characters for Karate meant "Chinese Hand".

The true origins of Karate probably will never be fully determined because of a lack of written documentation. However, starting in the 1700's, some Karate experts do appear in various records. The exploits of individuals such as Sakugawa and later Marumura were noted and the unarmed fighting prowess of such men has taken on almost legendary proportions. For a more thorough discussion of these early experts and the history of early Karate, the reader is refered to John Sells' excellent book Unante: The Secrets of Karate (available from The Martial Source ).

Shito Ryu Karate was founded by Kenwa Mabuni (November 14, 1889 - May 23, 1952). When he was 13 years old, Mabuni Sensei began training with Anko Itosu,Kenwa Mabuni a noted Karate master in the Shuri area of Okinawa. Itosu Sensei was not only highly skilled in Budo but also a great innovator in teaching the martial arts. Around 1905, Itosu Sensei introduced Karate into the Okinawan public school system. Among other accomplishments, Itosu Sensei created the Pinan (Heian) kata which are still practiced today as introductory or intermediate forms in many schools. Itosu Sensei had an important effect on Karate in the 20th Century. Evidence of this can be found in the number of ryuha or Karate styles that trace their lineage back to him. This includes notables such as Gichin Funakoshi, who was responsible for starting Shotokan Karate, Chomo Hanashiro, Kentsu Yabe, Choshin Chibana and others.

About 1909, through an introduction by his friend Chojun Miyagi, Mabuni Sensei started to also train with Kanryo Higaonna (sometimes known as Higashionna). Higaonna Sensei was a expert form the Naha region of Okinawa. Through Higaonna Sensei, Mabuni Sensei learned kata such as Saiha, Sanchin, Seienchin, Seipai and others. Miyagi Sensei went on to found the Goju Ryu style of Karate.

In 1915, both Itosu Sensei and Higaonna Sensei passed away within a short time of one another. Mabuni Sensei continued his training. Ultimately, he and Miyagi Sensei joined with other students of Karate to start a research group aimed at practicing and spreading Karate. During this time Mabuni Sensei also trained in and taught various forms of Okinanwan weaponry or Ryukyu Kobudo.

In 1929, Mabuni Kenwa Sensei moved his entire family to Osaka. There he established a small dojo and began teaching his unique art. Hanko Ryu or Half-Hard Style. In the 1930's, the Dai Nippon Butoku Kai (the Japanese martial arts sanctioning organization) began to demand the different groups applying for membership, be more specific in the description of their Karate systems, and pressured them to name their systems. Originally, Mabuni Kenwa Sensei thought to name his system Hanko Ryu or "half-hard" style. However, ultimately Mabuni Sensei decided on the name SHI TO which was formed by taking the first characters (kanji) from the names of his two primary teachers, Itosu and Higa(shi)onna. Thus, the name Shito Ryu has no literal meaning but rather honors the two main teachers in Mabuni Kenwa Sensei's life. In the same context, the kata syllabus of Shito Ryu is still listed as having two lineages, Itosu Ke and Higaonna.

Mabuni Kenwa Sensei worked tirelessly to teach Karate throughout Japan. His efforts brought him into contact with other people who were essential to the growth of Karate in Japan. The impact that Mabuni Kenwa had on the development of Japanese Karate was tremendous. Many groups trace an element of their lineage back to him. Mabuni Kenwa died on May 23rd, 1952.

Kenzo Mabuni

The second Soke or headmaster of Shito Ryu was Mabuni Kenzo. Mabuni Kenzo Sensei was born on May 30, 1927 in Shuri City, Okinawa. He passed away June 26, 2005 in Osaka, Japan. He began training with his father when he was 13 years old. Thus, he trained in Shito Ryu Karate Do for over 65 years. Because of his teachings and devotion to his students, Mabuni Kenzo Sensei was considered by many of us to be our father in Karate.

Kenzo Mabuni in Gary McGuinness' dojo


Miwako Mabuni

The third Soke or headmaster of Shito Ryu is Miwako Kenzo. She is the elder of Mabuni Kenzo's two daughters. She assumed the position of Tsukasa Soke after her father's death and with the full approval and support of the shihan kai (Head Council of Teachers).

Tsukasa Mabuni



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