Isshin-Ryu Karate


Isshin-Ryu is a style of Okinawan karate founded by Shimabuku Tatsuo and named by him on 15 January 1956. Isshin-Ryū karate is largely a synthesis of Shorin-ryū karate, Gojū-ryū karate, and Kobudo. The name means, literally, “one heart method.” As of 1989 there are 336 branches of Isshin-ryū throughout the world, most of which are concentrated in the United States. After the death of Shimabuku in 1975, many variations of Isshin-ryū were formed.

Megami, ('the Goddess') the symbol of Isshin-ry designed by A. J. Advincula with the permission of Shimabuku.

Megami, (“the Goddess”) the symbol of Isshin-ryū designed by A. J. Advincula with the permission of Shimabuku.

Mizugami, the Japanese water goddess, the symbol of some Isshin-ryū dojo.

Mizugami, the Japanese water goddess, the symbol of some Isshin-ryū dojo.


The system is summed up in its kata, or formal practice methods, and the specific techniques used to punch (vertical fist) and kick (snapping kicks). In many of the various forms of the system, fourteen kata (eight empty-hand, three bo, two sai and one tuifa kata) are agreed upon as composing Isshin-ryu. These Kata include original developments of the Master, and inherited kata from the parent styles.

Empty-Hand Kata


Tatsuo Shimabuku learned this kata from his primary instructor, Chotoku Kyan. Previous to Kyan’s instruction, the Seisan form was a staple of local traditions.

Meaning “13,” the kata has an embusen, or floor-pattern, which, when each section of the form is seen as an individual line, creates the numerical kanji for “13.”

This kata is the first introduced to students, after the First and Second Charts of basics have been learned. This is in contrast to other Shorin systems, where this kata is learned after other fundamental kata.

This kata is present in Goju Ryu.


This kata was brought into Isshinryu from Shimabuku’s studies with the Goju Ryu founder, Miyagi Chojun. It is theorized by researchers that this kata is an original composed by Miyagi, based on his experiences in Fuzhou, China.

The kata focuses on the stance “shiko-dachi,” a low horse stance. The kata is broken into segments, each utilizing a specific breathing and muscle-tensing method. The kata has no obvious kicks, but one section contains hints of a rising knee strike. This kata is often studied for its grappling bunkai.

This kata is present in Goju Ryu.


This kata comes to Isshin Ryu from studies with both Chotoku Kyan and Motobu Choki (a cousin of Kyan). It is also considered one of the staples of Ryukyu Ti, and is prevalent in most forms of Karate. The Isshin Ryu version is influenced heavily by the kumite of Motobu, with the exception of the turned-in toes (Motobu preferred the horse-riding stance with the toes in a neutral position).

The kata is also noted for its use of the “Nami Gaeshi,” the returning wave kick. The kick has many different potentials for application, including the sweeping or redirecting of a low kick, a kick or knee to the inside of an opponent’s thigh, knee, tibia and ankle. It also has the movement training potential for the basics of the sequential summation of movement.


Also coming from Kyan, this kata has several iterations on the island of Ryukyu. Popular history has the kata coming from a Chinese political visitor who, during his duties, taught his fighting method in the open.

Isshin Ryu’s version of this form is unique for its inclusion of two side kicks – techniques seen in the system previously only in the Chart Two exercises. Current research hints at this change being made by Shimabuku himself.

For technical content, the form tends to focus on the slipping and in-close evasion and redirection of attack. it also contains a unique movement often described as a fireman’s carry throw, or dump. Because of this, many schools nickname this kata “the dumping form.” Also, Wansu is one of two kata in Isshin Ryu which use the “zenkutsu dachi,” a long, angled seisan-type stance.


As with most of the kata in Isshin Ryu, this form comes from the teaching of Kyan.

The kata differs from others in that its embusen is a line placed on a 45 degree angle. The footwork is indicative of a slipping, deflecting, and a whipping, relaxed body motion. Some karate instructors consider the previously learned forms of the system, Naihanchi and Wansu, to be preparatory and basic training forms, culminating in the kata Chinto.


Of the eight weaponless kata in Isshin Ryu, five come from the teaching of Chotoku Kyan. Kusanku is one of these.

Kusanku is often cited as a “night-fighting” kata, or a form which teaches fighting at night. Modern research considers this tradition as doubtful. In reality, the kata is set up in such a manner as to allow continual study of application potential from basic standing grappling and close striking in the beginning, to more aggressive and proactive techniques near the end.

Kusanku is the second of two kata which contain the “zenkutsu dachi” in Isshin Ryu.


This kata was designed by the founder of Isshin Ryu, Shimabuku Tatsuo. It incorporates several movements from other kata in the Isshin Ryu syllabus, as well as from kata from other instructors, in addition to techniques and concepts Shimabuku favored. It was used as a dojo kata and as a personal project of the founder, prior to the founding of Isshin Ryu in 1956.

The Dai Nippon Butoku Kai has recognized Sunsu as a kata of Okinawa. This represents an acceptance of Isshin Ryu as a modern Ryukyuan martial art.


Coming from Miyagi Chojun, this kata has its origins in the Goju Ryu system. Previous to the instruction of Miyagi, the kata was practiced with open hands, turns, and natural breathing methods. With the founding of Goju Ryu, this form was practiced with closed fists (a more traditional method on Okinawa), no turns, and a controlled, almost hard inhalation and exhalation.

Touted primarily for its physical training aspects, Sanchin also contains many applicable martial techniques.

Shimabuku also thought very highly of the form, saying once, “Sanchin is for health. Without health, how can one have karate?”

Bō Kata

Tokumine no Kun

This cudgel form comes to the Isshin Ryu system from Shimabuku’s time with Kyan. Kyan is to have learned the form either from Tokumine himself, or from Tokumine’s landlord after the aforementioned had passed on.

Urashi no Kun

The form Urashi no Kun was taught to Shimabuku by his kobudo instructor, Shinken Taira. Taira is the founder of the Ryukyu Kobudo Study Group and Preservation Society, the goal of which being the preservation of as many of Okinawa’s weapons forms as possible.

Shishi no Kun

Shimabuku learned this form from Shinken Taira who learned it from from Jinsei Kamiya.

The kata itself uses the bo in a horizontal manner, different from other cudgel traditions.

Sai kata

Kusanku Sai

This form is a product of Shimabuku’s own research into the art of kobudo, the coverall for Okinawa’s weapons studies.

The kata was built as an introduction to Sai practice, with the weapon movements replacing the empty-hand applications.

When Shimabuku initially taught the form, he maintained the kicks from the empty-hand version. However, after some time spent studying kobudo, he made the decision to remove them.

Chatan Yara no Sai

Chatan Yara is taught as the second Sai kata in the Isshin Ryu system, coming from Shimabuku’s instruction with Taira Shinken.

The form focuses on the development of the “sequential summation of movement,” which is the scientific term for full-body whipping motion. This is exemplified by the emphasis on whipping strikes, which make up a vas majority of the offensive movements in the form.

Kyan No Sai

This form comes either from Shimabuku’s studies of Sai methodology with Kyan, his primary karate instructor, or was possibly a form taught in its entirety. Shimabuku was teaching this kata in 1951 but by 1958 he had dropped in favor of Kusanku.

Tonfa kata

Hama Higa no Tuifa

This form is from Shimabuku’s studies with Shinken Taira. It is the only tonfa kata in the Isshinryu system. Shimabuku always referred to the weapon as tuifa.

The kata bares many similarities to the Uechi Ryu empty-hand form “Seisan,” and actually contains an entire section from the form, albeit performed with weapons in-hand. It also has several postures seen in other kobudo kata, the most notable posture being “Crane on a Rock.” Whether this is from the encyclopediac kobudo of Taira, or was a part of Hama Higa to begin with is not historically verifiable.

Some Isshin-Ryu schools teach the kata in an order different from the above. However, Shimabuku Tatsuo taught the kata in the above order.

Other Curriculum

Upper Body Basics

Developed by Tatsuo Shimabuku and one of his Okinawan students Kaneshi Eiko, the first chart of basic techniques is unique to the Isshin Ryu system.

Though the technical content and number of techniques varies by lineage, the first Chart One was simply a collection of 15 upper-body dominant techniques Shimabuku felt were necessary for proper development.

Lower Body Basics

Developed at the same time as the first chart, the second set of techniques are the basic kicking techniques of the Isshin Ryu system. As with the first chart, the number of techniques, as well as actual technical content, vary by lineage. The initial chart contained eight kicking techniques.


Kotekitai is the Okinawan term for body conditioning, or “iron body training.” It is not unique to Isshin Ryu, and there is no set partner or implement pattern.


As with the Kotekitai, the makiwara is a rather universal tool in Okinawan training circles. (Usually) made from an immovable punching post constructed of wood or some firm material, wrapped in straw or another, softer padding.

The Makiwara is used primarily in the development of the striking surfaces utilized in karate. Unlike a hanging bag, timing, cadence, and footwork are rarely utilized with this implement, instead using it almost solely as a resistance training aide.

Striking of the makiwara tends to develop the muscles around the joints, strengthening them for the sometimes awkward or unorthodox strikes found in the various types of Ryukyuan arts. The most common strikes used are straight punches using various hand formations, and single, two, and three finger strikes.


Kumite is the practice of free-sparring, that is, sparring in a non-set pattern.

Shimabuku instituted free-sparring using full Kendo armor to allow for full-contact training while minimizing the risk of injury.

Current equipment makes free-sparring much easier and safer, allow for a more involved and effective karate training method.


Tatsuo Shimabuku

Shimabuku Tatsuo (島袋龍夫, Shimabuku Tatsuo?) (1908-1975) was born September 19, 1908 in Chan village, Okinawa. Shimabuku began training under his uncle on his mother’s side Ganiku (in Japanese, Ganeku.) Ganeku later sent Shimabuku to study karate from Chotoku Kyan. He was around age 23 or 24 at the time. Chotoku Kyan would be his most influential instructor (and after whom he initially named his style Chan migwa Te). He also studied karate with Chojun Miyagi in Naha for several years beginning in 1936 and from Choki Motobu around 1938 (also in Naha).

Shimabuku opened his first dojo in Konbo village and began teaching in 1946. On January 15, 1956, he held a meeting and announced that he was naming his new style of karate Isshin-ryu. Shimabuku’s number one student, Eiko Kaneshi, was at the meeting and he asked Shimabuku, “Why such a funny name?” Tatsuo replied, “Because all things begin with one.”

At the age of 51 (1959) Shimabuku began studying Okinawan Kobudo, the art of old traditional Okinawan weapons. The kobudo weapons included were the sai, bo, and tonfa, under Shinken Taira. He incorporated the kobudo that he had learned from Kyan and Taira into the Isshin-ryu system.


Isshinryu No Megami (一心流の女神, Isshinryu No Megami?), or for short, Megami (女神, Megami? goddess) is the symbol of Isshin-ryu. It is represented on the Isshin-ryu crest and is often displayed on the front wall of the dojo next to a picture of Tatsuo Shimabuku. As an emblem for Isshin-ryū Tatsuo Shimabuku chose a half-sea-snake half-woman deity named Mitsugami, whom he had seen in a vision. She represents the strength of the snake and the quiet character of a woman, thus expressing the essence of the style.

Originally the Isshin-ryu emblem was called Isshin-ryu No Megami, which means ‘Goddess of Isshinryu.’ Some Isshin-ryu karateka call it Mizu Gami (水神), or ‘Water Goddess.’ Eiko Kaneshi, Tatsuo’s right-hand-man who was a Shinto priest, was asked if it was Mizu Gami. He said it has nothing to do with water. Isshin-ryu no Megami, or Megami for short, is correct. This is collaborated by Marien Jumelet who asked Shinsho Shimabuku and Kensho Tokumura what was the correct name. The Goddess is the Goddess of Isshin-ryu karate and not the Goddess of water.

The Isshin-ryu patch is rich with cross-linked symbolism where certain features could and do have more than three intended meanings behind them. Between factions exist variations of the patch, the portrait of the Isshin-ryu no Megami, and the symbols contained therein.


Isshin-Ryu employs a vertical punch with the fingers tucked in and the thumb on top of the fist. Advantages vary with opinion, but it is usually taught that the thumb placement increases the stability of the wrist when punching, and that a vertical punch strikes with the same force at any range instead of at maximum extension as with a corkscrew style punch. Another advantage is that when punching, the thumb will not get caught on an object as opposed to having the thumb sticking up or out.

In Isshin-ryū it is believed that the vertical punch is faster than the cork-screw punch: three vertical hand punches can be generated in the time of two cork-screw punches.

Isshin-Ryu arm blocks are performed with the muscle at the intended contact point as opposed to other styles that block with the bone. By using the two bones to block instead of one, it thus creates a stronger block that when used with force, becomes a strike.

Isshin-Ryu kicks are primarily a “snapping” motion, as opposed to placing primary emphasis on thrusting and follow-through


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