Founder of Shito Ryu
By Damian Chambers
Everyone knows the founder of A rare 1930s photo showing Mabuni sensei seated and Funakoshi sensei standing.
Shotokan karate is Gichen Funakoshi
(1868-1957) but Kenwa Mabuni
(1893-1952) is often not given credit
for the many contributions he made to resistance was due the fact that a ple-
teen kata to Japan with him. In addition
modern karate and the Shotokan style. beian art such as karate was perceived to
to his kata syllabus, he formalized tech-
In fact, Mabuni sensei brought many of be less effective than the martial arts of
niques and nomenclature and added a
Okinawa’s unique kata to Japan that the samurai, i.e. jujitsu and kenjutsu.
spiritual essence to the art. However,
were later added to the Shotokan sys- Realize too that in Japan, Okinawa was
Funakoshi would send his senior
tem. There is no question that he made thought of as the “country” and
instructors to Mabuni Sensei and he
a substantial contribution to the Okinawan farmers and fishermen were
would teach them kata that were not
thought of as little more than hillbillies.
included in Funakoshi’s syllabus. These
Karate Comes to Japan
However, eventually karate caught on at
kata were rohai (meikyo), wankan,
In 1917, Gichin Funakoshi traveled various Japanese universities and began
chinte, unsu, sochin, nijushiho
to Kyoto, Japan and demonstrated the to spread all over Japan and karate grew
(niseishi), gojushiho, jiin and bassai sho.
art of Okinawan Karate at the in popularity. Eventually, Funakoshi
They would then take these kata and
Butokuden for the Dai Nippon Sensei’s group became known as the
Butokukai, The Greater Japan Martial Shotokan style of karate and the Japan
Mabuni began training in karate as
Virtues Association. This was the first Karate Association (JKA) was formed.
a young boy in Okinawa. He was the
time karate had been demonstrated in
Funakoshi began learning karate as
seventeenth generation descendant of
Japan. This was done in order to stimu- a boy from Master Yasutsune Azato
the famous Okinawan samurai family
late interest in the art in mainland (1827-1915) one of Okinawa’s leading
named Onigusikuni. Mabuni was very
Japan. In 1922, he made a second trip, karate masters at the time. Azato had
proud of his samurai heritage. He began
this time to Tokyo, at the request of been a student of the great Bushi or war-
studying Shuri-Te at age thirteen from
Japanese officials and formally intro- rior Matsumura of whom many legends
Itosu. He first learned the naihanchi
duced karate to the Japanese mainland. are told in Okinawa. Azato encouraged
kata from Itosu. Itosu was over seventy
Therefore, he is credited as being the Funakoshi to study under other karate
years old at the time. Mabuni was weak
father of Japanese karate.
masters and learn all he could. On
as a boy but Itosu encouraged him to
Karate was not accepted at first in Azato’s introduction Funakoshi trained
keep training. Mabuni trained very hard
Japan. Funakoshi Sensei and others with Anko Itosu (1830-1915) and oth-
and learned “twenty three swift fists” or
spent a decade promoting the art before ers of the Shuri-Te style and Kanryo
kata from Itosu. Mabuni ultimately
it became popular. Perhaps this initial Higashionna of the Naha-Te style.
became very adept at karate. An inter-
Funakoshi originally brought fif-
esting story handed down is that when
FIGHTING SPIRIT OF MARTIAL ARTS 20
Kenwa Mabuni: The Founder of Shotokan?
various universities and police depart-
ments. He taught at Kansai University,
Doshisha University and Kansai
Gakuin University. He established a
dojo in Osaka called the Japan Karatedo
Kai that attracted a large following in
that area of Japan.
When Funakoshi introduced karate
to mainland Japan in 1922 he taught
the following kata: pinan 1-5, naihanchi
1-3, passai, wanshu, chinto, seisan,
jutte, jion, and kusanku. These kata
became the basis of Shotokan and
Japanese karate. Later, the following
kata were added to the Shotokan sys-
tem: rohai (meikyo), wankan, chinte,
unsu, sochin, nijushiho and gojushiho,
jiin and bassai sho. Although in the lit-
erature of the Shotokan system they
Kenwa Mabuni (L) meets with Gichen Funakoshi at Osaka Station 1948.
never say where these kata came from!
In 1927 and 1928 Mabuni taught these
Itosu died; Mabuni was so grief stricken called his system of karate Shito Ryu.
kata to the senior members of the
that he stayed by Itosu’s grave for one Around this time it was thought that it
Shotokan group [it wasn’t called
year. He practiced the kata that Itosu was necessary to name each style in
Shotokan until 1936] in Tokyo when
had taught him every day at the order to differentiate one master’s teach-
Funakoshi, Konishi and Mabuni were
gravesite. Mabuni did this to show his ings from another’s. The word Shito is a
training altogether and sharing ideas.
devotion to his master.
combination of two characters. The first
Around this time there was an impetus
Mabuni also studied kempo from a character (shi) represents ito from
to organize an All Japan generic style of
Chinese man named Gokenki who was Itosu's name and the second character
karate under one organizational banner.
living in Okinawa. Gokenki was a tea (to) represents higa from Higashionna’s
Kanken Toyama who had organized the
merchant from Fukien Province, name. He spent a great deal of time
All Japan Karate Do Federation fostered
China. Mabuni learned a form of studying and teaching in Okinawa
this. However, the establishment and
Shaolin white crane (hakutsuru) from before he came to Japan. Mabuni
formalization of this group failed.
Gokenki. This form is preserved in the taught the Okinawan police depart-
Typically, as is often the case with
Shito ryu style today and is known as ments.
Japanese karate organizations, each
hakucho. Gokenki also taught Mabuni
Initially, Mabuni made several trips
group went their separate ways deciding
the kata nipai (nipaipo) and paipuren. to Japan from Okinawa. Then he spent
that they would each maintain their
Mabuni then studied Naha-Te with about a year in the Tokyo area. At this
own unique stylistic and organizational
Kanryo Higashionna and Arakaki time he taught the senior members of
integrity, no doubt motivated by an elit-
Seisho. He perfected the sanchin kata Funakoshi’s group including Nakayama
ist attitude within their respective
under Higashionna and Arakaki taught and Obata the advanced Shito Ryu
him unshu, sochin, and niseishi kata. forms. This was during 1927 and 1928.
Mabuni’s kata repertoire of his
All these kata were eventually brought He also taught Yasuhiro Konishi and
Shito Ryu style combined Shuri-Te,
into the Shotokan system as taught by helped him establish his style known as
Tomari-Te and Naha-Te lineage kata
Mabuni. Mabuni later combined the Ryobukai. Then in 1929, Mabuni
into a set that used kata from all three
teachings of Itosu and Higashionna and moved to Osaka and began teaching at
sources. Mabuni taught an amazing
FIGHTING SPIRIT OF MARTIAL ARTS
Kenwa Mabuni: The Founder of Shotokan?
number of kata. All in all there were (Yoshitaka) were to make their own
over sixty kata in his seito or orthodox changes to karate. They lengthened the
Shito Ryu style. Some authorities say stances, added the sidekick, and made
this is too many kata and is more than changes in certain kata movements.
necessary to be an accomplished fighter Funakoshi changed the names of the
and teacher of a combative martial dis- kata. He modified the original kata of
cipline. However, Mabuni saw himself the Okinawan art to adapt it to the
as a preserver of these forms. He was Japanese culture. One way he did this
certainly one of the most prolific kata was by changing the older Okinawan
practitioners of all time. He gave a names of the kata to names with a clear-
glimpse of his kata system in his book er meaning to the Japanese. He also
that he published in the 1930s. changed the meaning of karate from
However, Funakoshi on the other hand Chinese hand to empty hand in 1936.
felt that only fifteen kata were enough The change served to disassociate the art
to provide an overall training methodol- from its Chinese origins and influence.
ogy and were a sufficient number to Japan was at war with China by 1937
comprise as a complete training regime. and this change was politically neces-
This is exemplified by Funakoshi’s book sary.
Karate Do Kyohan that contained the
Although Funakoshi and Mabuni
orthodox kata of the system that includ- had some of the same teachers, Mabuni
ed only fifteen as opposed to sixty plus also had teachers that Funakoshi did
kata in Mabuni’s system. Although, not. They were different ages and stud-
Funakoshi along with his son Gigo ied under the same masters but because Kenwa Mabuni (1893-1957) the founder of
Shito Ryu Karate and contributor to Shotokan.
of age differences they
studied at different times.
This accounts for the dif-
under the auspices of the All Japan
ference in knowledge level
Karate Do Federation. In addition,
of kata and bunkai. Some
some members of Funakoshi’s group
critics of Shotokan say the
ostracized Mabuni. However,
level of understanding of
Funakoshi himself never showed any
bunkai or practical appli-
disrespect or ill will towards Mabuni.
cation in the Shotokan
Ultimately, Mabuni was not given the
style was lacking. In other
recognition he deserved as a substantial
words, they had no deep or
contributor to the development of the
advanced understanding of
Shotokan system of karate. Certainly
the practical techniques
the literature of the JKA (S) does not
and meaning of the kata
mention him. Although not the
movements beyond a cur-
founder of Shotokan karate as the title
of this article intimates, he was the
Some authorities say
founder of the highly technical and
Mabuni moved to Osaka
comprehensive style of Shito Ryu
in 1929 out of respect for
Karate. Finally, Mabuni sensei was a
Funakoshi. Since the affili-
conduit and preserver of many of
ation of Funakoshi’s and
Okinawa’s unique karate kata that today
Mabuni’s karate groups
form the basis of Shotokan’s advanced
[and others] didn’t work
repertoire of kata.
FIGHTING SPIRIT OF MARTIAL ARTS 22