TU — Tsuyoshi Uechi, Chief Instructor of the Isshin Ryu Okinawa Dento Karate-Do Kyokai.
ZS — Zenpo Shimabukuro Chief Instructor Seibukan Shorin Ryu.
DS — Dan Smith, Chief Instructor Seibukan Shorin Ryu, USA.
KU — Kunio Uehara, interpreter.
CFA — Publisher David Chambers.
CFA: Would you please tell me something about your background in Isshin Ryu Karate?
TU: I joined honbu formally in 1975 and was a member until 1986. Then the Okinawa Isshin Ryu Karate Kobudo Kyokai was formed under Uezu Angi, and I was a member of that association until 2003. I established the Isshin Ryu Okinawa Kobu-do Kyokai in 2003, and in May, 2007 I changed the name to Isshin Ryu Okinawa Dento Karate-Do Kyokai.
CFA: Was this your first experience of karate.
TU: No. When I graduated from high school I moved to Kanagawa Prefecture in mainland Japan to work, and while I lived there I studied Shotokan. I came back to Okinawa in 1975 and became a student of Kichiro Shimabuku (son of Founder Tatsuo).
CFA: Why did you decide to study Isshin Ryu karate.
TU: Their dojo was close to my brother-in-lawís home, so I didnít need to take a bus.
CFA: Please tell me what training was like at that time.
TU: Like any other Okinawan dojo. We did arm-conditioning (kotekitai), Sanchin, other kata. A lot of the time I just trained at home.
CFA: How about weight training?
TU: Yes. We used weights to get strong.
CFA: Which kata did you study?
TU: Sesan, Sanchin, Seiyunchin, Naihanchi, Wanshu, Chinto, and so on.
CFA: How was training conducted at that time, in a class, or as individual tuition like a traditional dojo.
TU: Traditional style personal tuition
CFA: What sort of person was Shimabuku Sensei?
TU: When I started training Tatsuo Sensei was in hospital. When he was recovering he did very little in front of his students, but when they left he would hit the makiwara. He could even drive a nail into a 2x 4 with his hands.
CFA: At that time was the dojo private or open.
TU: Open. Students paid a small fee and joined.
CFA: How many students where there when you joined?
TU: My wife lived close by Tatsuo Senseiís home at that time, and said that there were a lot of Americans military personnel training there.
CFA: Where was the dojo
TU: In Agena, Gushikawa City.
CFA: So why did he attract so many American students?
TU: Because the dojo was near Camp Courtney. Shimabuku Sensei had a contract with the U.S. Military to teach karate at Camp Courtney and Camp Hansen. Tatsuo Sensei had a dojo just outside the gate of the U.S. Marine base.
Kunio Uehara (Interpreter): My Sensei is Eizo Shimabukuro, Tatsuo Senseiís brother, he also had a contract with the base to teach karate.
Dan Smith (Seibukan): Tatsuo Shimabukuro had a contract to teach marines for ten dollars a month eachóbig money in those days!
Zenpo Shimabukuro: So did we at that time. They called it special recreation services. We got a $100 dollar check every month, which really was a lot of money in those days.
CFA: Was the training for the Americans exactly the same as for Okinawans?
TU: I donít know because I learned from Tatsuo Senseiís son and didnít really train at the base with the Americans. But those Americans who trained at our honbu dojo trained the same as us, of course. However, they never trained for long! They were in the military so they were mainly interested in self-defence.
CFA: In America and elsewhere there are many people who claim to have high grades in Okinawan karate, including Isshin Ryu. Is this possible?
TU: Itís difficult to say. For many of the first Americans who trained here it was difficult to learn because, karate being born in Okinawa, it was designed to match the Okinawan build and temperament. Our hips are well-developed because we sit on tatami at home, this is good for Naihanchi, for example. As kids, growing up without running water, our first job every day was to carry heavy loads of water from the well to our homes which gave us stamina and strength in our legs. Many Okinawans were involved in subsistence farming and fishing after the war, so their children helped with the back-breaking labor. I suppose you could say that hard work is part of the Okinawan lifestyle, and the Okinawan lifestyle prepares you for karate training!
Additionally, the Americans were only here for a short time 12 months normallyó36 months at the very most. How much karate can you learn in such a short time compared with Okinawans who live here and train every day for many, many years. To make matters worse most (Okinawan) sensei spoke, at best, broken English, so misunderstandings were commonplace, and very few of the Americans ever came back (after their military service) to study more and improve their ability.
CFA: You have spent a great deal of time and effort to have Isshin-Ryu recognized as a discrete style? What do you say to the criticism that it is not really so?
TU: As you know, change is continuous in karate. Chojun Miyagi studied in China after he had learned karate from Kanryo Higaonna, Chojun Sensei, in systemizing Goju Ryu, added elements to what he had learned because he thought they were important.
Isshin Ryu has changed also. Therefore, I think it would be a good idea to get all the senior students of Tatsuo Shimabuku together so that they could carry out research into their own style and how it developed over the years. For example why Kichiro Shimabuku taught something a little differently from Angi Uezu.
CFA: So what you are saying is that different American groups may have learned slightly different forms of Isshin Ryu depending on when, and whom they learned from.
TU: Exactly, thatís why I have spent a great deal of time collecting all the known film footage of our styleís creator so that I can understand exactly what he had in mind as he developed our style.
CFA: Are there big differences, and if so, please give me an example.
TU: From the film footage you can see the chronological development of the style, and it changes somewhat as Tatsuo Sensei gets older. For example, in Kusanku, when he was young he included kicking techniques, but when he passed the age of around fifty, he no longer performs them.
CFA: So have you reached a conclusion as far as Isshin Ryu technique is concerned?
TU: Yes I have. I think that itís a combination of many technical elements including those of Kichiro Shimabuku, Angi Uezu, and others. However itís difficult to tell where one ends, and the other starts, so obviously we must view them all as part of our style.
For example, we all use o tsuki (lit. big punch, with the fist held vertical and the first knuckle being the point of impact) but as this varies slightly from teacher to teacher it should be viewed more as a concept than an example of a technique from which no deviation is permitted. Kata is the same. Many senior teachers of Isshin Ryu teach the kata a little differently, Wanshu is a good example. All are correct they just learned the kata at different stages of our stylesí development.
ZS: I found a good example of this in our style (Seibukan Shorin Ryu) when I was discussing Chinto with another Shorin Ryu (Kobayashi) instructor. In our Chinto we have a double jumping kick (nidan-geri) while they donít. We can speculate and say that this is because when Chosin Chibana Sensei (founder of Kobayashi Ryu) was learning karate, his teacher, Itosu Ankoh Sensei was already very old.
DS: We have to remember that at this time, nobody saw the need for standardized kata. Students were taught individually, and it was the results of kata training that mattered, not whether everyone slavishly followed their teachersí interpretation of it.
CFA: Where is Isshin-Ryu being taught at the moment.
TU: Mainly in Okinawa and the United States, but there are also small groups in Australia and Denmark.
CFA: How would you like to see it develop in future? Do you have any plans for its development yourself?
TU: I would like to go forward, but in a slow and measured way. I have my own dojo and I also teach at Camp Foster, but I donít want to build an organization that I cannot control.
ZS: Please let me explain about Uechi Sensei. As you can see he is a quiet and modest man, but of all the Isshin Ryu people I have seen, he is the best and strongest. If anyone comes to Okinawa to train he will welcome them, and I would suggest that American Isshin Ryu people get together and make the effort to train with him. In fact some of the original American students of Tatsuo Sensei have asked me to put them in contact with Uechi Sensei for exactly this purpose.
In the United States Uechi Sensei is supported by Kazuo Hovey, who was a student of Kichiro Sensei and Angi Uezu, and is a very good instructor.
DS: I believe a lot of American Isshin Ryu people, the second and third generation of students in the U.S., would like to come back and train in Okinawa but because there are so many very high dan grades now in the first generation of American Isshin Ryu instructors, they feel this would cause a problem. Why come to Okinawa to train with an 8th dan Okinawan master, when there are so many 9th and 10th dans in the United States. To make matters worse, these instructors, when they left the military never kept contact with their own instructors in Okinawa, so now even if they wanted to send their students here for training, they have no way of doing so.
I asked Classical Fighting Arts magazine to get involved with the Rengokai to help us bring people to Okinawa for training with the best instructors of all styles. This requires hard work, and a lot of networking, but we can do it if we really work together. Itís very important that students train with genuine Okinawan karate teachers, not Okinawans who tour the U.S handing out high dan grade certificates to anyone.
This is our immediate goal, to provide facilities for people overseas to train in Okinawa with Rengokai member instructors.
KU: I agree with Smith Senseiís advice completely, and he lives by it, having visited Okinawa at least 30 times to train since he lived here. All karate-ka, especially high grades, should visit Okinawa frequently to maintain their technique. Visit Okinawa to train, live life by our rhythm, breath the air of our island, eat the food, and you will get much more from your training than you can ever imagine!
We are grateful to Uechi Sensei for his time, to Dan Smith and Zenpo Shimabukuro Sensei for their assistance and to Uehara Sensei for his services as our interpreter.