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History of Shito-ryu Karate do

Kenwa Mabuni - founder of Shito-ryu

Karate has been taught outside of Japan for over 50 years, and was exported to the rest of the world along both stylistic and organizational lines. By now, the names of most karate styles have become familiar to martial artists everywhere. Of all the traditional karate systems Shotokan, Goju-ryu, Wado-ryu, Shorin-ryu, Kyokushin, Isshin-ryu, and Shito-ryu among them Shito-ryu remains the most obscure to many. Several of its leading practitioners, such as the charismatic Fumio Demura and the prolific TeruoHayashi, do have widespread fame, yet Shito-ryu remains little understood outside its own schools. Shito-ryu had been most often described as a combination of Shotokan and Goju-ryu. It is also generally known that its teachers utilize formal exercises (kata) from many Okinawan sources. Unfortunately, such explanations fail to adequately describe just what Shito-ryu really is. In truth, Shito-ryu (along with Goju-ryu, Wado-ryu and Shotokan) is one of the four major karate systems of Japan proper (the Japanese islands excluding Okinawa). It was founded by Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952), who, like most of karate’s old masters, was descended from Okinawa’s so-called warrior (bushi) class or aristocracy. Members of his family served Okinawan lords for hundreds of years. Mabuni started karate training at the age of 13 under Anko Itosu (1830-1915), the man who organized early karate in the Okinawan school system.Itosu was a student of one of Okinawa’s most famous karate masters, Sokon Matsumura (1792-1887), the forefather of Shorin-ryu. Itosutook a strong liking to his young pupil and Mabuni learned some 23 kata before the elder man died. Itosu’s death so grieved Mabuni that he built a shrine in front of the master’s grave and stayed close by for a year, practicing his kata daily.


Itosu was not Mabuni’s only teacher, however. While still in his teens, Mabuni was introduced by his friend, Chojun Miyagi(the founder of Goju-ryu karate) to Kanryo Higashionna (1853-1915). From Higashionna, Mabuni learned Naha-te, a Chinese-influenced karate style. Mabuni also trained under the reclusive Arakaki Kamadeunchu (1840-1918), who taught a style similar to Higashionna’s. Arakaki also taught Tsuyoshi Chitose, the founder of Chito-Ryu, Gichin Funakoshi of Shotokan, and Kanken Toyama of the Shudokan school. Arakaki, who was an acknowledged bo (staff) expert, taught Mabuni the unshu, sochin, niseishi, arakaki-sai and arakaki-bo forms. During the 1920’s the insatiable Mabuni participated in a karate club operated by Miyagi and Choyu Motobu, with help from Chomo Hanashiro and Juhatsu Kiyoda.Choyu Motobu was a master of Shuri-te (the antecedent of Shorin-ryu) and gotende, the secret grappling art of the Okinawan royal court.Hanashiro was also a Shuri-te expert, while Kiyoda came from the same Naha-te background as Miyagi. Known as the Ryukyu TodeKenkyu-kai (Okinawa Karate Research Club), this dojo (training hall) was one of history’s gems. Experts from diverse backgrounds trained and taught there, and it was there that Mabuni learned some Fukien white crane kung fu from the legendary Woo Yin Gue, a Chinese tea merchant living on Okinawa.


By this time, Mabuni had become a highly respected police officer and made several trips to Japan after Funakoshi introduced karate there in 1922. Mabuni spent many of his early traveling years with Koyu Konishi, a friend and sometimes student who later founded Shindo-Jinen-ryu karate. In 1925 Mabuni and Konishi visited Japan’s Wakayama prefecture where Kanbum Uechi, the founder of Uechi-ryu, was teaching. It was after training with Uechi that Mabuni devised a kata called shinpa. But Mabuni actually spent most of his time in Osaka, where he taught at various dojo, including the Seishinkai, the school of Kosei Kokuba. Choki Motobu also taught at Kokuba’s dojo. It was Kokuba who later formed Motobu-ha (Motobu faction) Shito-ryu. In 1929, Mabuni moved permanently to Osaka. Shortly thereafter, the Japanese martial arts sanctioning body, the Butokukai, pressured all karate schools to register by style name. At first, Mabuni called his style hanko-ryu (half-hard style), but by the early 1930’s Shito-ryu was the official name. It was coined from alternative renderings of the names of Mabuni’s two foremost teachers, Itosu and Higashionna. Not everyone agreed with separating Okinawan karate into factions through the use of style names. In fact, shudokan headmaster Toyama questioned Mabuni and others about their use of what he called “funny-sounding names.” Mabuni countered that giving the style a name would not only satisfy the Butokukai, but would give people something they could identify with and feel a part of.

Among Mabuni’s earliest students was Kanei Uechi (not to be confused with Kambum Uechi’s son of the same name), who by 1935 was also teaching in Osaka. In 1950, Uechi returned to Okinawa and established the Shito-ryu Kempo Karate-do Kai. On Okinawa, Uechi is considered the true successor to Mabuni’s art, but internationally, Mabuni’s eldest son, also named Kanei, is acknowledged as the head of shito-ryu and runs the Shito-kai. Younger brother Kenzo Mabuni (1927-2005) also acknowledged as the head of Shito-ryu was asked by his mother Kamae Mabuni to take over the style. Kenzo Mabuni was unsure and could not decide at the time what to do. So he went into seclusion in the city of Nagoya to train diligently and contemplate the great responsibility of carrying on the karate of his father. At the end of what became a two year retreat - most of it spent living in a utility-less dwelling, though he did spend some time training with RyushoSakagami and Ken’ichi Watanabe, Kenzo Mabuni decided to accept this great responsibility and hence became the inheritor of his father’s lineage. Kenzo Mabuni lived in the original family home in Osaka, where it is still headquarters for his organization the Nippon Karate-Do Kai.

Kanei Mabuni and his younger brother Kenzo head the karate programs at several universities, a task inherited from their father. Still other early students of Mabuni have their own distinct organizations and followings. Ryusho Sakagami, a contemporary of Kanei Mabuni, established the Itosu-kai just after Mabuni’s death. Sakagami’s son, Sadaaki, now oversees the Itosu-kai from the Yokohama area. In 1948,Chojiro Tani organized the Shuko-kai, where he taught Tani-ha Shito-ryu. Ever innovative, the Shuko-kai, under the present leadership of Shigeru Kimura in the United States, appears somewhat different in technique from the other Shito-ryu groups.

Since the 1970s, several other Shito-ryu factions have formed. Most prominent Hayashi-ha Shito-ryu under Teruo Hayashi. Hayashi was aprotégé of Kosei Kokuba and also trained directly under Mabuni. Hayashi became president of the Seishin-kai sometime after Kokuba’s death. For awhile, he co-led that organization along with Motobu-ryu style-head Shogo Kuniba. Together they integrated the Tomari-bassaikata into their systems. The assertive Hayashi even studied in Okinawa under Kenko Nakaima, head of the longtime secret family art ofRyuei-ryu. Ryuei-ryu is derived from the same Chinese teacher who taught Kanryo Higashionna, a man named Liu Liu Kung. Another, younger member of the Motobu-ha group, Chuzo Kotaka, established Kotaka-ha Shito-ryu in Hawaii, revising all the kata and devising many new ones which he taught to his American students. And in Europe, a Tani-ha Shito-ryu student named Yoshiano Nambu broke off on his own, first founding the Sanku-kai and later the Nambudo. But possibly the world’s most famous Shito-ryu exponent is Fumio Demura, a former sparring champion who has taught Itosu-kai Shito-ryu in southern California since 1965.


Technically, the karate of most Shito-ryu factions looks pretty much the same. Not surprisingly, there are minor differences in the katabetween the various groups, mostly due to the proclivities of their founders. Regardless, all Shito-ryu looks a lot like Shorin-ryu in application. A long, linear style, even its Goju-ryu-type kata (those derived from Higashionna) are performed in a lighter, more angular and rangy fashion than they are in schools derived from Naha-te alone. Shito-ryu is much like Shotokan in that it relies heavily on the reverse punch and front kick. The style also seems to place a strong emphasis on sparring. In so doing, Shito-ryu stresses speed, and fighting is generally initiated from a higher, more upright stance than Shotokan employs. On the other hand, because the style has so many kata, a great deal of time is spent perfecting any one of its 40 to 60 forms.

Kenwa Mabuni was the first Karate teacher to introduce Bunkai Kumite, and Hokei Kumite, and was also the first to use protective equipment (gloves, body protector, head guards etc.) in Kumite.

Shito-ryu has never forsaken its Okinawan roots when it comes to kobujutsu (weapons arts). While Mabuni trained under weapons experts such as Arakaki, many of today’s Shito-ryu teachers learned most of their kobujutsu from Shinken Taira, the man responsible for popularizing kobujutsu during a time when interest in this peculiarly Okinawan art was at its lowest. It seems that Shito-ryu schools were the most receptive to Taira’s art. Both the younger and elder Sakagami, Demura, Hayashi, Kuniba and Kanei Mabuni all trained with Taira at one time or another.

Today, Shito-ryu karatedo can be found thriving in most every corner of the world...a testimony to Master Mabuni and the timeless, beautiful, and lethal art that he perfected.

Mabuni's gravesite in Osaka, Japan

Master Kenwa Mabuni passed away on May 23, 1952.

The Legacy of Master Mabuni and Shito-ryu

Master Mabuni formulated the motto “Kunshi no Ken” for Shito Ryu Karate. It means to concentrate on cultivating oneself to become a well-rounded, respectful individual. The person who is able to accomplish this as well as to exercise good manners in all situations with self-discipline and respect, who is able to assume accountability for ones actions, and to keep ones integrity as to set an example for others, is considered a Shito-ryu practitioner. This motto can be followed by all Karate Practitioners.


Master Mabuni created Shitō-ryū as a combination style, which attempts to unite the diverse roots of karate. On one hand, Shitō-ryū has the physical strength and long powerful stances of Shuri-te derived styles, such as Shorin-ryū and Shotokan , on the other hand Shitō-ryūhas circular and eight-directional movements, breathing power, hard and soft characteristics of Naha-te and Tomari-te styles, such as Gōjū-ryū . Shitō-ryū is extremely fast, but still can be artistic and powerful. In addition, Shitō-ryū formalizes and emphasizes the five rules of defense, developed by Kenwa Mabuni, and known as Uke no go gensoku, Uke no go genri or Uke no go ho :

(rakka, "falling petals"). The art of blocking with such force and precision as to completely destroy the opponent's attacking motion. Examples of rakka are the most well-known blocks, such as gedan-barai or soto-uke.

(ryūsui, "running water"). The art of flowing around the attacker's motion, and through it, soft blocking. Examples are nagashi-uke and osae-uke.

(kusshin, "elasticity"). This is the art of bouncing back, storing energy while recoiling from the opponent's attack, changing or lowering stance only to immediately unwind and counterattack. Classic examples are stance transitions zenkutsu to kōkutsu and moto-dachi to nekoashi-dachi.

(ten'i, "transposition"). Ten'i is the utilization of all eight directions of movement, most importantly stepping away from the line of attack.

(hangeki, "counterattack"). A hangeki defense is an attack which at the same time deflects the opponent's attack before it can reach the defender. Examples of this are various kinds of tsuki-uke, including yama-tsuki.

Modern Shitō-ryū styles also place a strong emphasis on sparring. Shitō-ryū stresses speed, and fighting is generally initiated from a higher, more upright stance than Shotokan employs. On the other hand, because the style has so many kata, a great deal of time is spent perfecting any one of its 40 to 60 forms.


Accolades for Kenwa Mabuni

  • Hironori Ohtsuka - founder of Wado-ryu - aged twenty-nine, already a Menkyo Kaiden in Shindo Yoshin Ryu Jujutsu had become involved in Okinawan karate after a meeting with Okinawan master Gichin Funakoshi. Very quickly Ohtsuka is able to absorb the techniques and katas taught to him by Funakoshi, but he still feels that he is not getting the answers he needs. He then approaches Kenwa Mabuni, Okinawan master of Shito Ryu karate, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of kata taught to him by his first teachers, Itosu from the Shorin line and Higashionna from the Naha-Te line. After meeting Mabuni he realizes that the kata and techniques taught to him by Funakoshi fall short of the full depth of knowledge available and he had to basically relearn his katas.

  • DID YOU KNOW?  Kenwa Mabuni also practiced Shin-den Fudo-ryu Jiujitsu and taught this style of jiujitsu to Chojiro Tani (founder of the Shukokai Shito-ryu). However, it would seem that Mabuni kept this aspect of his personal martial practice separate from his karate style.

  • Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan) on Master Mabuni... ”If you want to know about Kata, ask Mabuni Kenwa“ and he called him “an outstanding Budô teacher“ and “the richest source of Karate-Jitsu technique and information in this era“.

  • Choki Motobu - a reknowned kumite expert - on Master Mabuni... ”For technique, there is none better than Mabuni Kenwa“.

  • Hironori Ohtsuka (founder of Wado-ryu) on Master Mabuni...”Mabuni could have easily been a rich man several times over had he ever wanted to cash in on his popularity. He was liked by everyone, perhaps envied by some, but hated by no one.”


Mabuni Kenzo

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.
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).

Famous Shito-Ryu Karateka

Fumio Demura
Famous Shito-ryu practitioner and one of the persons most responsible for the popularizing
of Shito-ryu across North America. Demura Sensei is the author of many karate books and
videos and is perhaps most famous for being Mr. Miyagi's (Pat Morita) karate double in
the "Karate Kid" movies. 

steven seagal

Steven Seagal (actor)
while best known for his mastery of the art of Aikido,
Seagal studied Shito-ryu karate from Sensei Fumio Demura in the 1970's.
The strikes and kicks seen in his movies are derived from his Shito-ryu skills.

Seth Petruzelli

Seth Petruzelli
Famous UFC fighter best known for his 14 second knock-out of the previously
undefeated Kimbo Slice. Seth is currently a sandan in Shito-ryu.

  kozo kuniba

Kozo Kuniba
Son of Shogo Kuniba, and current Soke of the Kuniba Kai

The many Kai's of Shito-ryu

bruce lee


karate naples

shito ryu

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