4. Kenwa Mabuni and his kata

We have been sailing along in discussion of 54 or Gojushiho for a while. No one has asked any more questions about the 54 so I’ll take another question from Lee Carmean on a different theme. Lee’s next question is, “What kata were created by Mabuni himself? Do these kata reflect the basic principles of shito-ryu karate more clearly than others which have been revised for shito-ryu?”

First, I wish to give a bit of background about Kenwa Mabuni. Kenwa Mabuni was born in 1888 or 1889 in Shuri, Okinawa. He was the 17th generation (patrilineal) of Ogushiku Keiyu, a well-respected samurai of the 17th century. As such he was given early admission to the dojo of Anko Itosu in Shuri. There he studied for 15 years and developed into one of the top students in Itosu’s dojo. His first few years learning the basics invigorated his health and he proceeded to study with tremendous vigor. By 1905 he began severe training which included the learning of many little-known kata and long hours of reflection and mental discipline. Mabuni developed a tremendously inquisitive mind and absolutely positive attitude towards life. By 1915 he had proven his prowess in understanding of martial arts and created the kata Aoinagi just after having finished a mushashugyo. Unfortunately that same year Anko Itosu, Mabuni’s first karate sensei, died at the age of 78. Mabuni went into mourning over his lost sensei for the next year.

In 1916 Mabuni trained under Higashionna who was then 63 years old. The addition of the Naha-te to the Shuri-te he already knew led Mabuni to become one of the most knowledgeable martial artists in Okinawa. By the late 1920’s the Japanese, who were the military masters of the subordinate Okinawa, were screaming for karate masters to teach them the art of “empty hand.” Kenwa Mabuni went to Osaka in 1930 and began to teach a composite Shuri/Naha karate to the Japanese. What Mabuni had physically developed was an unusual body dynamic wherein the martial artist was completed enveloped in a cloud of commitment disregarding protection in order to develop the power of complete killing strikes. This self-abandon appealed to the Japanese do-or-die attitude and Mabuni was accepted without reservation as a martial arts master. In addition, he developed hip action to its maximum and centralization as a core issue in maintenance of balance, abilities which are vital to a small person fighting multiple larger opponents.

Having been trained in the menkyo-system, Kenwa Mabuni offered more to the Japanese than mere physical techniques and body dynamics. He had experienced the whole of Okinawa including having been one of Okinawa’s finest police officers. He had seen the derelict components of the port town of Naha where rowdy drunken sailors were commonplace. He had visited Tomari and trained with the great Arakaki in Tomari-te. He had been raised in Shuri and known the capital city with its historical monuments and the degeneration of those monuments since the Japanese takeover 50 years before. He had circled the island during a mushashugyo visiting with masters of many different villages. Now he was a well-qualified creator of kata (sozosha) and menkyo sensei.

What the Japanese were getting was more than a teacher of physical technique. They were embarking on a road of experience which could lead them well beyond physical fighting.

In 1935 Kenwa Mabuni was invited to introduce his style of karate to the Dai Nippon Butokukai. After his introduction his style of karate was accepted as one of the four major styles of karate in Japan. He then called his style Shi-To ryu after the two major instructors of his life. The Shi came from one way of saying his instructor’s name Itosu, which is Shi-su. The To came from his other major instructor Higashionna which can be said To-onna.

During his creative phase in karate (c 1912-1930) he developed many kata, some of which we practice in Aoinagi Karate. These include Aoinagi and Juroku. Kenwa Mabuni also created Myojo and Shinpa, but these kata are little known and even more rarely seen. Myojo was created for an all-girls school wanting to learn karate. The kata contained strikes which Mabuni felt were easily learned and could be applied by light-weight people (Mabuni was only 4 feet 10 inches tall himself and may have weighed 110 pounds [just a guess]). Shinpa, at least an exceedingly easy version of it, is taught in many schools and you may see it at a tournament sometimes. I personally cannot identify the Shinpa used in tournaments as a creation of Master Kenwa Mabuni. We use the kata but it is not a gyo kata. (In addition, Kenwa Mabuni created several other shugyo and higher kata.)

The second part of Lee’s question asks if the kata that Kenwa Mabuni reflect the style better than the adaptations of other styles to Shito-ryu. The answer is “No.” The basic body dynamics of Shito-ryu are incorporated into most of the kata which have been adapted to fit Shito-ryu.

Kenwa Mabuni was a small man physically. What he lacked in body size he made up for in spirit and determination. The essence of Shito-ryu is totality of commitment. The style is a way of learning to fight in a no-holds barred manner. But that issue is one more easily taught in the dojo. Look at the really good practitioners and you will see the body dynamics so typical of Shito-ryu…the hip action, pelvic thrust, control of axis, unification of body parts, low stances…etc. These are not the sole property of Shito-ryu, but without them we do not practice Shito-ryu.

Kata from both Naha-te and Shuri-te were easily adapted by Kenwa Mabuni to the strong kihon and body dynamics which he had discovered. These kata, as well as the kata he created himself, are tremendous lessons in martial arts dynamics.