The Founder of Isshinryu

Tatsuo Shimabuku

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.”

Angi Uezu

Angi Uezu was born January 3, 1935, in Chiyaranka City on the island of Saipan. His father was 6th generation Okinawan of Samurai lineage from Shuri; his ancestors served under the King of Okinawa in the city of Gushikawa. In the 1930’s work on Okinawa was hard to find, so as a young man his father traveled to Saipan to find work in the sugar cane fields and start a better life. While in Saipan, his father found his first wife and the mother of Angi Uezu who was the third of four brothers.

During World War II, while still in Saipan, an air-raid attack nearly took the life of the young Uezu. While running across an open field, a bullet skimmed across the back of his head, leaving a mark that is still visible to this day.

Moving back to Okinawa, Angi’s first involvement with martial arts came in junior high school where the school’s curriculum included Goju-Ryu. He didn’t like Karate because he was very much against fighting of any sort. He thought why train in Karate and get beat-up everyday learning to defend yourself when the likelihood of getting in a fight was so remote.

In 1956, he met Yukiko Shimabuku, the third daughter of Master Tatsuo Shimabuku, the well known karate master. After a short courtship and Yukiko’s prodding to get married, Master Uezu went to the Kyan dojo to ask Master Shimabuku for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Master Uezu tells the story of his first meeting with the Master, “As I approached Master Shimabuku’s house I could hear some very loud pounding. I walked around the corner up to the fence gate and saw Master Shimabuku punching the makiwara; he wasn’t smiling and was very intense. I thought he was getting ready for me.”

He said, “I stopped at the gate and saw the master hitting the makiwara, I turned and ran, I was very scared, I thought he was mad at me and was going to hurt me.” Later his mother took him over to Master Shimabuku’s and found out that the Master was pleased to have me as his son-in-law and agreed to the marriage. In 1957 after Master Uezu and Yukiko married, he moved into the Master’s house, but he didn’t start karate, instead he was working many hours at one of the military bases to make money for his new family. Master Uezu recalls that Master Shimabuku was always after him to start training. Master Uezu said he always told Master Shimabuku he didn’t like karate and stayed busy working late hours at his job so he’d have an excuse not to train.
It was around this time a good friend of his, Taba Seichi, who was training, asked him to teach him the Bo kata, Tokumine no kun. Master Uezu told his friend that he didn’t know the kata because he wasn’t training with Master Shimabuku. His friend Taba said him, “You live with Master Shimabuku and don’t train in karate? Why don’t you train in karate? Master Shimabuku is your father-in-law; you must respect him. You have to help him teach in the dojo”.

That evening Master Uezu thought about what his friend had said and realized, he was right. Master Shimabuku had given him his daughter, a house and helped him in many ways, it was his duty to respect and help the Master. The next day Master Uezu and Yukiko’s older sister’s husband started training. Master Uezu said he found that he really enjoyed karate and the rigorous training and easily remembered all of the basic exercises.

Due to his loyalty and dedication, he soon became one of Master Shimabuku’s top students. During the early sixties, as his skills improved, he became one of the top competitors on Okinawa; winning many competitions. Uezu became highly regarded as an outstanding martial artist. He was an excellent counter fighter with an array of techniques that he worked until he considered them perfect for all types fighting.

Later, Master Shimabuku sent him to teach at many of his outlying military dojos because of Master Uezu’s English skills and teaching ability. Master Uezu taught many Marines at Camps Hansen, Courtney and Foster. In 1967, as a Yon-Dan, he took over as Master Shimabuku’s representative to go to the United States and conduct training and seminars, a yearly tradition he has kept for the past 30 years. The only time he interrupted his schedule was after his stroke in April 1994. After his recovery, he resumed his seminar circuit and having people come to Okinawa to train in 1996.

In May 1975, Master Shimabuku passed away at the age of 68 starting off a chain of events that almost destroyed Isshin-Ryu on Okinawa. This along with other internal conflicts began the downfall of the largest style of karate on Okinawa at the time. Many of Isshin-ryu’s top people went to other styles because of internal disagreements and beliefs leaving only seven senior students to include Master Uezu to carry on. This would begin the hardest test of his loyalty and dedication to his Master and Isshin-ryu for the next 21 years.
He recalled a time after the Master’s death when he was approached by three former friends and students of Isshin-ryu who came to his house to get him to switch to Shorin-ryu. The three begged him to join them, to which Master Uezu again replied “I have a duty to Master Shimabuku and must remain loyal to my family”. Master Uezu realized he had many people around the world that needed him to keep Isshin-ryu alive. He knew that he must teach good Isshin-ryu and respect Master Shimabuku because it was his duty. Master Uezu took to this challenge by going to the states for extended periods to teach and spread the word about Isshin-ryu wherever and whenever he was asked.

Master Uezu has said on many occasion, “I always look straight ahead and ignore the comments that could distract me from practicing good Isshin-ryu”. Through his efforts, he gathered a large following of supporters, many skeptics and critics who met him have found him to be a genuine and honest person who is always smiling and will talk to everyone no matter of their rank or status.

Master Uezu follows his Master’s beliefs in that one must be a gentleman or lady at all times and never worries about the negative influences that can harm oneself. Through all of this Master Uezu never struck out at his detractors, to do so would have taken a way from everything he believed in. If others didn’t like what he had to offer, that was okay, he respected them for their beliefs and willingness to follow their chosen path. He truly believes that you must remain focused and have a big heart to accept others for what they believe.

Master Uezu says Karate is the tool that helps reach people reach their goals by training them to be strong mentally and physically. Isshin-Ryu means “The One Heart Way”, as Master Shimabuku truly believed karate should be used for bettering oneself. In 1987, a disagreement between the remaining top Okinawan leaders of Isshin-Ryu almost put the final nail in the coffin on Okinawa. While the others went their own ways to different styles, Master Uezu started the Okinawan Isshin-Ryu Karate Kobudo Association (O.I.K.K.A.) to keep Isshin-Ryu alive on Okinawa and support his many followers around the world.

Master Uezu’s persistence and dedication to his master paid the ultimate dividend by becoming (at that time) the only Isshin-ryu association now recognized by the Prefectural government and asked by it to perform at all major karate demonstrations. In 1992, the government asked Uezu to put together a group of Isshin-Ryu Karate-ka to perform at the Shuri Castle Restoration Festival. All of the major styles of karate on Okinawa were represented at this time. The Isshin-Ryu contingent was the largest and was very well received. The crowning achievement of his efforts to promote Isshin-Ryu came when his association was asked to perform at 1995 World Okinawan Karate Championships held on Okinawa.

Following a stroke in 1994, Master Uezu finally retired and passed the torch on to Sensei Tsuyoshi Uechi in 1996. Uechi Sensei trained directly under Master Uezu for over 25 years, and acted as the President of the O.I.K.K.A until he resigned in 2002, and started the Isshin-ryu Okinawa Traditional Karate-Do Association (I.O.T.K.A). February 1, 2007, longtime student and American represenitive Christopher Chase was named by Master Uezu as the new president of the O.I.K.K.A. Master Chase lived and taught, Isshin-Ryu on Okinawa for 10 years, and currently holds this position.

Even in retirement Master Uezu is still constantly receiving letters from people wanting to join the O.I.K.K.A. and has never denied anyone admission to his association unless they were proven to be less than respectable.

Today he resides quietly in Iribaru, Uruma City (formerly Gushikawa City) in a retirement center. Even though retired, until recently, he wasn’t far away from the dojo. Being the ultimate Bushido Man, he still practices karate everyday in his mind. Physically, he does what he can as his health allows, and tells anyone who will listen the benefits of karate. This man will never rest, “One day I’ll die and there will be plenty of time to rest, right now I’m too busy”.