top of page
Shinkichi Tatsuo Shimabukuro


Tatsuo Shimabuku was born in Gushikawa village, Okinawa, on September 19, 1908. He was the first of ten children born into a farming family. He began his study of karate at the age of 13 from his uncle, who lived nearby him in Chan Village. His uncle taught him to be a fortune teller and a little karate. This is tradition so he never sent him home. His uncle later sent him to study with Chotoku Kyan to further study karate because he thought Tatsuo's training was incomplete. His uncle only had a little knowledge of karate. His main concern was to pass on his knowledge of the ancient Chinese books teaching Tatsuo to be a sumuchi or fortune teller.


Eizo Shimabuku (b. 1925) was Tatsuo's younger brother, who also excelled in martial arts. Eizo studied under his elder brother, Tatsuo, and is said to have also studied under the same masters as Tatsuo, such as Chotoku Kyan, Choki Motobu, Chojun Miyagi, and Shinken Taira. While the older brother went on to create his own new style of karate, Eizo quickly moved up the ranks in Shōrin-ryū (Shōbayashi).


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. Kyan also taught at the Okinawa Prefectural Agricultural School. Within a short time, Shimabuku became one of Kyan's best students and learned the kata: Seisan, Naihanchi, Wansu, Chinto and Kusanku, along with the weapons kata Tokumine-no-kun and basic Sai. He also began his study of "Ki" (or "Chinkuchi; (チンクチ)" in the Okinawan dialect) for which Kyan was most well known. Shimabuku studied with Kyan until 1936. He always considered Kyan his first formal Sensei and was very loyal to him.

Shimabuku had always been fascinated by Naha-te karate (Goju Ryu) and sought out Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Goju Ryu. Miyagi's teacher had been Higaonna Kanryo (also called Higashionna) who brought from China a derivative of Kenpo (拳法) called 'kin gai'. Pangai Noon was the bearer of Uechi-ryu from China to Okinawa. Eventually this became Naha-te. From Miyagi, Tatsuo learned Seiunchin ("Seize-Control-Fight") kata and Sanchin ("Three-Fights/Conflicts") kata.


After studying with Miyagi, Shimabuku, in 1938, sought out another famous Shorin-Ryu instructor, 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.

Shimabuku opened his first dojo in 1946 after the war in the village of Konbu, near Tengan village.

Shimabuku continued to study and develop his skills in both Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu but he was not satisfied that either style held the completeness he was looking for. His interest in weapons (Kobudo) grew, and he sought out the most renowned weapons instructors, because he only knew the one bo (staff) kata, 'Tokumine no Kun' and basic sai techniques he had learned from Chotoku Kyan. He soon became a master in the Bo and Sai weapons. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, he continued his study of Kobudō with one of Moden Yabiku’s top students, Shinken Taira. This training took place in Shimabuku’s dojo in Agena. He learned Hama Higa no Tuifa, Shishi no Kun, Chatan Yara no Sai, and Urashi Bo. Shimabuku created Kyan Chotoku sai and Kusanku sai using sai techniques he learned from Chotoku Kyan. To honor Chotoku Kyan, he named his first sai after him.


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. As his experimentation continued, his adaptation of techniques and kata were not widely publicized. He consulted with several of the masters on Okinawa about his wish to develop a new style. Because he was highly respected as a karate master, he received their blessings. These would later be rescinded due to the many radical changes made in traditional Okinawan karate.


One night in 1955, Shimabuku fell asleep and dreamed of the goddess Isshinryu no Megami (Goddess of Isshinryu). Three Stars appeared, symbolizing the three styles Isshin-ryu derived from, Goju-Ryu, Shorin-Ryu, and Kobudo. The stars might also have represented the Physical, Mental, and Spiritual strength needed for Isshin-ryu. The gray evening sky symbolized serenity, and implied that karate was to be used only for self-defense.

The next morning when Shimabuku awoke, he felt that his dream had been a divine revelation. He met with his top student, Eiko Kaneshi, and told him of his dream and his desire to break away from Okinawan tradition and start a new style of karate. The day was January 15, 1956. Upon announcing his decision to start a new style, many of his Okinawan students left, including his brother Eizo.

The new system was not initially given a name; it went through two name changes before 'Isshin-ryū' was finally adopted. Nevertheless, the official start of Isshinryu karate is January 15, 1956. The emblem of Isshinryu no Megami was drawn from Shimabuku’s description by Shosu Nakamine, Eiko Kaneshi’s uncle and was chosen to be the symbol for Isshin-ryū karate.


During his career, Shimabuku changed his name to “Tatsuo,” meaning “Dragon Man.” Whenever asked about this change, Shimabuku would reply that “Tatsuo” was his professional karate name. He also was given the nickname, “Sun nu su”, by the mayor of Kyan (Chan) Village. Sun nu su was a name of a dance that was created by Shimabuku's grandfather.


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. The karate that the Marines brought back to dojos in the United States was a blend of what Shimabuku considered the best of the karate systems.


The first of the Marines to bring Isshin-ryū karate to the United States were Don Nagle and Harold Long. Nagle opened his dojo outside Camp Lejeune, North Carolina in late 1957. 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 made two trips to the United States to visit his top students in 1964 and 1966. Shimabuku was well known to not enjoy traveling far from home, and further visits representing him were conducted by his students, mainly Uezu Angi, who was his son-in-law. Shimabuku continued teaching at his dojo in Agena until his retirement in early 1972. He passed his legacy over to his son, Kichiro Shimabuku. Shimabuku died from a stroke at his home in the village of Agena on May 30, 1975 at the age of 66.


bottom of page