Legends are born of many notions, and when properly fed, tend to grow over time. Who among us could have ever imagined that, at roughly five feet tall and one hundred and twenty pounds, such a legend would grow as to encompass generations and to capture the essence of martial arts throughout the world?
As with the evolution of an unarmed self defense system on Okinawa, there is on-going debate as to much of Tatsuo Shimabuku’s history. Our emphasis, therefore, will be to provide a “glimpse” into the man with as much accuracy as research sources will permit. If, however, we have erred, we do so as we attempt to reconcile conflicting historical information. While his date and place of birth may be items for debate, what is certain is that Tatsuo Shimabuku (pronounced Tat-su-o Shim-uh-boo-coo) died in Agena village on the island of Okinawa on May 30, 1975. Married to Uto, Tatsuo was the father of four children: Matsuko, their first daughter and eldest child; Yukiko, a daughter; Kichiro, their third child (but first son) and Shinsho, their second son (there may have possibly been a fifth child who did not survive.)
Later to be known as the “Father of Isshin-Ryu,” Tatsuo Shimabuku would open his first public dojo in Agena village in 1956 and a second dojo at Kin-Son village near a US Military Base in 1960. Tatsuo Shimabuku was one of ten children born into a farming family on Okinawa. Poor but hard working and creative, he and his family enjoyed a good life on the island.
Tatsuo (Shinkichi was his given Japanese name) was believed to have been born on September 19, 1908 in Chan (pronounced Chun) village on the island of Okinawa. (Some accounts place his birth on September 19, 1906, while others suggest September 9, 1908. Additional accounts place his birth place as Kyan village on Okinawa.)
Because he was one of ten children, the opportunity for sibling conflict was inevitable. As fortune would have it, Tatsuo was frequently the subject of attacks by his older brother. After discussing the situation with his father, Tatsuo was allowed to approach his uncle for martial arts lessons. At this point, the future founder of Isshin-Ryu was only about eight years old. As one legend tells, Tatsuo’s uncle lived in the village of Shuri, where Tatsuo walked to and from every day. His uncle taught Shuri-Te (an early version of Shorin-Ryu), and was reluctant, at first, to teach the “would-be” martial artist. To test Tatsuo’s determination, his uncle had him perform menial chores around the house and dojo such as sweeping, carrying water and other similar duties. Upon proving his resolve to his uncle’s satisfaction, Tatsuo was accepted as a student, thus beginning a legacy that neither could foresee at the time.
Tatsuo studied long and hard with his uncle getting a solid foundation while building his strength and mental fortitude. Some accounts say that Tatsuo’s uncle recognized the young man’s potential and introduced him to his next teacher, while others suggest that Tatsuo had learned all he could from his uncle and made his own way to his next instructor. In either event, Tatsuo met Master Chotoku Kyan, a renowned Shuri-Te (Shorin-Ryu) instructor living in the village of Kadena. At his point, Tatsuo was now in his early to mid twenties.
While attending the Okinawa Prefectural Agricultural School, Tatsuo began his studies with Master Kyan around 1929. Studying under Master Kyan, Tatsuo learned Seisan, Naihanchin, Wansu, Chinto, Kusanku and Tokumine-no-kun-no-dai Katas. (Of special interest is the fact that Tatsuo also began his study of “Ki” under Master Kyan.)
Even though Tatsuo studied with Master Kyan until Kyan’s death in 1945, Tatsuo received permission in the early 1930’s to seek out another well respected Shorin-Ryu Master, Choki Motobu. A formidable man, Motobu was widely celebrated for his fighting skills. After beginning his studies with Motobu, it wasn’t long before Tatsuo had developed a similar reputation. Always inquisitive, Tatsuo had an interest in learning Naha-Te (Gojuryu.) To do so, he sought out Master Chojun Miyagi and studied with him until Miyagi’s death in 1953. From Miyagi, Tatsuo learned Seiuchin and Sanchin Katas. Although Tatsuo had studied both Shorin-Ryu and Gojuryu for years, it wasn’t until a martial arts festival on Okinawa sometime in the 1930’s that he achieved widespread recognition. His Kata demonstrations, from both styles, so impressed on-lookers that by 1940 he was known throughout the Ryukyu Islands as a formidable practitioner of Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu, and was one of the first men to completely master both the Shorin-Ryu and Gojuryu system.
Now viewed as a true martial arts Master, Tatsuo was still not satisfied that he possessed all the skills and knowledge necessary to defend himself or to have a “complete” martial arts system. What was lacking, he concluded, was weapons (Kubodo) training. To further his skills, he began studying weapons in the late 1950’s into the early 1960’s with Shinken Taira. All best accounts place the weapon’s training phase at Tatsuo Shimabuku’s dojo in Agena.
Hard working and innovative, Tatsuo Shimabuku was a farmer and a business man with an eye for opportunity. As World War II approached, he had a small construction business helping the Japanese build airfields on Okinawa, at least until the Allied Forces invaded the island and a bombing raid destroyed his business. The only thing that saved Tatsuo from conscription in the Japanese army was his reputation as a martial arts Master, along with his willingness to teach what he knew to Japanese soldiers.
After the war, he returned to farming and teaching martial arts to select students. Once America had established a presence on Okinawa, the US Military came looking for him because they, too, had become familiar with his reputation as a gifted Master, and wanted him to teach martial arts to American servicemen stationed on the island. So, sometime in the middle 1950’s, that’s exactly what Tatsuo Shimabuku did.
From this simple request, well…the rest, they say, “Is history.”