At Belvidere Academy, our core style of karate is called Isshin-ryu (一心流,, pronounced "ish-shin-rue"), meaning "one heart way". Isshin-ryu is a Japanese style of karate that originated on the island of Okinawa and is actually a relatively new style. Founded by Tatsuo Shimabuku in 1956, it is a is largely a synthesis of Shorin-ryu karate, Goju-ryu karate, and kobudo. The system leverages kata, or prearranged fighting forms, to put the basic training techniques into practice. Combined with structured basic techniques and sparring, Isshin-ryu represents a well rounded effective fighting style bound in tradition.
The History of Isshin-ryu
Shinkichi Shimabuku (later taking the name "Tatsuo") was born in Gushikawa village, Okinawa, on September 19, 1908. He was the first of ten children born into a farming family. By the age of 12, he had a strong desire to study martial arts and would walk to the nearby village of Shuri to train under this uncle, Shinko Ganiku. He was an athletic individual, gaining strength from both this training and from working on the family farm.
Around the age of 23, he began to study Shuri-te karate (Shorin-ryu) under Chotoku Kyan in the village of Kadena. He began his training with Kyan in 1932, at Kyan's home. Within a short time, Shimabuku became one of Kyan's best students and learned several kata from the Shorin-ryu system, including Seisan, Naihanchi, Wansu, Chinto and Kusanku, along with the weapons kata Tokumine-no-kun and basic Sai. Shimabuku studied with Kyan until 1936, and always considered him to be his first formal Sensei.
Shimabuku next sought out Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju-ryu and learned the techniques famous for this style, including deep stances, and strong, thrusting techniques. From Miyagi, he also learned Seiunchin and Sanchin kata.
In 1938, Shimabuku trained under Choki Motobu, who was probably the most colorful of all of Shimabuku's instructors. Motobu had had many teachers for short periods of time, including some notable ones such as Anko Itosu (Shuri-te) and Kosaku Matsumora (Tomari-te). Motobu was known for often getting into street fights in his youth to promote the effectiveness of karate. Shimabuku studied with Motobu for approximately one year and learning strong fighting techniques.
In 1946, Shimabuku opened his first dojo inin the village of Konbu, near Tengan village. During the late 1940s Shimabuku began experimenting with different techniques and kata from the Shorin-ryu and Goju-ryu systems as well as Kobudo. By the early 1950s Shimabuku was refining his karate teaching, combining what he felt was the best of the Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu styles, the weapons forms he had studied, and his own techniques. Though new system was not initially given a name, it went through two name changes before 'Isshin-ryū' was finally adopted on January 15, 1956. Somewhere over the course of his career, Shimabuku changed his name to “Tatsuo,” meaning "Dragon Man", or sometimes "Dragon Boy".
In 1955, the Third Marine Division of the U.S. Marine Corps was stationed on Okinawa, and the Marine Corps chose Shimabuku to provide instruction to Marines on the island. As a result of his instruction, Isshin-ryū was spread throughout the United States by returning Marines, most notably Don Nagle and Harold Long.
Nagle opened his dojo outside Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in late 1957, while Harold Long’s first dojo was in his backyard at Twenty-Nine Palms, California in late 1958. Upon their discharge from service, Nagle moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, and opened the first Isshin-ryū dojo in the Northeast. Harold Long returned home to Knoxville, Tennessee, and opened his first dojo at the Marine Reserve Training Center.
Shimabuku continued teaching at his dojo in Agena until his retirement in early 1972. He passed his legacy over to his son, Kichiro Shimabuku. Tatsuo died from a stroke at his home in the village of Agena on May 30, 1975 at the age of 66.
Shimabuku was truly an innovator and challenged traditional thinking with verve. He believed that every style had valuable traits to offer, yet recognized deficiencies in practice and evolved his style to accommodate these areas. Some of the most telling traits of Isshin-ryu, when compared to other traditional Okinawan styles, include the vertical fist punch and the structure of blocking techniques. In Isshin-ryu, the vertical fist punch, oriented with the thumb on top, makes for a reinforced wrist and exposes the top two knuckles, which focuses more energy into a tighter striking area. The blocks of Isshin-ryu are positioned to block on muscle rather than bone, which was typical of most Okinawan styles.