Founder of Shito-ryu Karate-do
Kenwa Mabuni, founder (ryuso) of Shito-Ryu Karate-Do, was born on November 14, 1889 in Shuri, Okinawa (Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu islands, which stretches to the south-west of mainland Japan). He was a 17th generation descendent of a lord of the old Ryukyu kingdom called Kenio Oshiro, and his family was given the noble title "Onioshiro".
Kenwa Mabuni was a physically weak child who, brought up with tales about the heroism and bravery of his ancestors, dreamed of being a strong person to continue the honorable name of his family.
At that time, a great teacher (sensei) Anko Itoshu lived in Shuri. At the age of 13 Kenwa Mabuni, through a common acquaintance, met sensei Itosu who accepted him as a student. For seven years, Kenwa Mabuni trained every day to become one of the best exponents of the art of Shuri-te.
In those days teachers did not possess nice dojo (training halls) as they do today, nor was Karate very popular. Training was conducted in homes or in open areas.
At the age of twenty, Kenwa Mabuni met Chojun Miyagi, who introduced him to his own teacher, Kenryo Higaonna, from Naha, a neighbouring town to Shuri. So Kenwa Mabuni also came to train in the style of Naha, Naha-te.
The two systems, Shuri-te (based on linear movements) and Naha-te (based on circular movements), constitute the base of the system Kenwa Mabuni later created. In the beginning he named this Hanko Ryu (half-hard style). Later he changed the name to Shito Ryu.
After graduating from school and completing his military service, Kenwa Mabuni became a policeman. He continued to develop his Budo (martial arts), including Judo Kempo, training harder than everyone else. As a policeman he had many experiences that helped him develop his Karate. Constant travelling gave him many chances to learn different kinds of Budo, studying techniques from great teachers, and learning the secrets of their art. He trained in Ryu-kyu Kobudo, with master Aragaki, Saijutsu with master Shinachi, Bojutsu with master Sueshi, and White Crane kata with master Gokenki (Wu Xian Gui).
Shito ryu Karate do, therefore combines a variety of Okinawan martial systems, including Shuri-te, Naha-te and Kobudo (weaponry).
In the early part of the 20th century, Kumite, in the modern sense, was not included in a student’s practice. Training in Kumite took place in open areas and at night. Because there were no lights in the streets the people training used lanterns to illuminate the area.
In 1910, Karate became a part of the curriculum in schools in Okinawa. This resulted in its official recognition.
In 1918, and at the age of 29, the year in which his oldest son, Kenei Mabuni, was born, Kenwa Mabuni established a Karate school at his house. The people who trained there included Gichin Funakoshi, Chojo Oshiro, and Chosin Chibana. He himself and Chojun Miyagi were the permanent instructors. In that same year he received the honor to demonstrate Karate Do at the Okinawa Middle School in the presence of Prince Kuni and Prince Kacho.
At that time, teachers concentrated on physical development (wrists, elbows and fingers, using Makiwara and sandbags) and the technical aspects of Karate through the practice of Kumite. The kata taught by each master tended to contain individual techniques which were distinctive of this style. Many of the kata we perform today are named after different teachers or the areas they trained, from which they came, such as "Matsumura no Passai", "Chatanyara no Kusanku" etc.
Kenwa Mabuni was strongly of the view that the student who ignored kata and practiced only Kumite would never make progress in Karate Do or be able to understand the art. This point of view made him unique and for this reason he was honored by the martial arts experts of his time with the name "Mabuni the technician", to confirm his position as the major expert in the field of kata.
In 1924, Kenwa Mabuni became the Karate Do instructor in two schools and received the honor to demonstrate the art for Prince Titibu while the next year, with other masters organized "Okinawan Karate-Do Club".
1927 was a very important year. Jigoro Kano, the head instructor of Kodokan (Judo) came to Okinawa, and Kenwa Mabuni, along with Chojun Miyagi, presented to him the techniques of Karate Do. Sensei Kano applauded them, and so characterized Karate as the ideal Budo for "free attack and free defence", declaring that it should be known all over Japan.
Spurred on by sensei Kano’s words, in 1928 Kenwa Mabuni moved with his family to Osaka, mainland Japan, and started to develop and promote Karate Do there. Due to the lack of a public Karate dojo, he was compelled to teach in Buddhist temples and in police departments, which made the period a difficult one.
At first, people’s reaction to Karate was not positive. Kata, in particular, were not accepted and frequently called "fist dance".
Kenwa Mabuni tried in every way possible to convince the public of the value of Karate, even breaking bricks, wooden boards and beer bottles, one of the performances especially popular at that time. At the same time, he had to face a number of problems with the police hierarchy, due to the injuries inflicted on criminals during their arrest, caused by Karate techniques which had been taught to policemen.
However, despite all adversities, sensei Mabuni never gave up. In order to raise the profile of Karate Do, he published a book entitled "The study of Seipai", as well as performing numerous demonstrations at public functions. He invented the Kata "Aoyagi", especially for women to attract them in Karate. At the same time, he maintained his own training and progress in Kobudo.
On March 1934, Kenwa Mabuni, established his personal dojo in Osaka. This was named "Yoshukan" (cultivation of superior skill and spirit ). Many masters of Karate visited the dojo to train with him. These included Motobu Choki, Konishi Yasuhiro, Moden Yabiku and Funakoshi Gichin.
On March 1939, Kenwa Mabuni officially registered the Karate style of Shito Ryu, with the "Dai Nippon Butoku Kai" organisation, which governed all the martial arts in Japan at the time and he was awarded the rank of a "Grandmaster of Karate" (Karate jutsu Renshi).
On July 1939, Kenwa Mabuni's enormous efforts for promoting Karate, finally succeeded, and as a result the organization called "Dai-Nihon Karate-Do Kai", was created. Subsequently this organization was renamed into "Nihon Karate-Do Kai" and became the predecessor of the modern Shito-Kai. Many of the participant members of the Dai-Nihon Karate-Do Kai, were direct students of Kenwa Mabuni. Today, they form the core of Shito-Kai in "Japanese Karate-Do Federation" and continue to transfer the martial art of Kenwa Mabuni to their students.
Sensei Kenwa Mabuni, having the intention of honoring his two main teachers, named his art Shito Ryu. This is a combination of the first characters of their names. "Shi" is the pronunciation of "Ito" (from master Itosu) and "To" is the pronunciation of "Higa" (from master Higaonna). "Ryu" means school.
Shito-ryu Karate-do maintains the most intimate connection with traditional Karate, since it preserves the elements of the two dominant Okinawan schools, Shuri-te and Naha-te. The system contains more Kata than any other style, and is one of the four styles recognized by the World Karate Federation.
Kenwa Mabuni was the first Karate teacher to introduce Bunkai Kumite, and Hokei Kumite, and was also the first to use protective equipment (gloves, body protector, head guards etc.) in Kumite.
Master Kenwa Mabuni passed away on May 23, 1952.
He was a man of high character. He was generous, very sociable and very popular among people, without selfishness and greed. He was not interested in material things at all. The only thing he felt a strong passion for was budo.