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The Karate of Chotoku Kyan
Interview with the Seibukan's Zenpo Shimabukuro


Zenpo Shimabukuro sensei is an exceptional instructor with a pedigree that stretches back through his father, Zenryo, to his teacher, the legendary master of Shorin Ryu karate, Chotoku Kyan. This interview is his first appearance in Dragon Times, although we are sure that, as he is currently producing a video with Tsunami Productions, it will not be his last. We are indebted to Mr. Dan Smith of the Seibukan for his help with this interview.

Dragon Times: Please explain the relationship of your father to Chotoku Kyan sensei.

Zenpo Shimabukuro: My father studied with Kyan longer than any other student. He was a baker and he delivered the bakery goods daily to the area where Kyan sensei lived and received instruction from him at his home. My father only trained with Kyan sensei. He had no other teacher.

Dragon Times: When did he (your father) start training with Kyan sensei, and for how long did he train?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: My father began training with Kyan sensei in approximately 1930. My father and mother had moved to Chatan Son from Shuri at this time. He trained with Kyan sensei until the war began. The students Kyan had before my father's time such as Aragaki and Taro Shimabukuro had died before my father began training. The only other person to train for any length of time with Kyan sensei was Nakazato Joen sensei, who trained at the Kadena High School for six years before the war.

Dragon Times: At that time how did training differ from modern day training in Okinawa, for example, or modern day mainland Japan?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: My father delivered bakery goods daily and received instruction from Kyan sensei on a private basis. He learned the kata only which is much different from modern training in group classes. My father began using the modern approach in 1959 with classes being centered around kihon and kata. In the early days the student was expected to develop themselves physically and the teacher only gave instruction on the kata techniques.

Dragon Times: How does your karate differ from other Shorin based styles?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: There are three differences in Kyan's karate compared to the other Shorin Ryu styles on Okinawa. One, the shiko dachi is widely used. Kyan used a shorter version of a shiko dachi compared to Goju Ryu. He used this stance for mobility and generating hip twisting. Two, Kyan sensei did not use the full twist punch but a three quarter twisting punch. Three, Kyan sensei emphasized twisting on the ball of the foot with the hip twist. He also put great emphasis on large body movements moving into the opponent or jumping away and then jumping back in.

Dragon Times: Do the differences result directly from Kyan sensei's teaching, or from natural evolution over time?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: As I said earlier, my father only had one teacher and he said these were the things that Kyan said were the most important. Most of Shorin Ryu is all the same but these were Kyan sensei's techniques that the other Shorin Ryu styles do not use. He also did Chinto different in that he moved at forty-five degree angles. Were other Shorin Ryu styles move forward and back. Kyan sensei also had Seisan in his karate and the other Shorin Ryu styles from Itosu sensei did not keep Seisan.

Dragon Times: Presumably you are too young to have any personal memory of Kyan sensei!

Zenpo Shimabukuro: That is correct. I was born in 1943 and Kyan sensei died in 1945.

Dragon Times: I understand that Kyan sensei was a member of the Karate Kenkyukai in 1918 with Gichin Funakoshi and others, do you have any knowledge of this.

Zenpo Shimabukuro: I have heard about this group but I have no knowledge of what they did. This was before Kyan sensei moved to Kadena and I know he was living in the Shuri area at that time.

Dragon Times: I have the dates for Kyan sensei as 1870-1945, is this correct? I also understand that he was born in Gibo Village, Shuri, but moved to Kadena when he was young. Would you please confirm this.

Zenpo Shimabukuro: Yes, these are the dates that I have been told. Kyan sensei moved to Kadena because of the economic hardships that his family was going through but it was not when he was young. It was after he was married and had children in Shuri. The best guess is sometime after 1910 but before 1920.

Dragon Times: Hoshu Ikeda says that Kyan's ideas on training and actual fighting are recorded in Nisaburo Miki's book Kempo Gaisetsu published by The Karate Institute of Tokyo Imperial University, on January 10th, 1930. Do you know if this is correct?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: I have no knowledge of this information. I would like to see it if possible. Many people claimed to train with Kyan sensei but he had only a few students. I have never heard of this gentleman.

Dragon Times: Do you know of the incident in Taiwan with Shinzo Ishida, and are you aware of any photos taken at that time of either Kyan sensei of Ishida?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: I have heard the stories but my father did not tell me about this. I do not have any photos of Kyan sensei on Taiwan and do not know of any.

Dragon Times: At what age did you yourself start training?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: I began training at the age of nine. Most Okinawans did not start training until they were sixteen but since my father was the teacher I began early.

Dragon Times: How many teachers did you study with?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: I studied with my father of course and before he died in 1969 I began studying with his good friend Nakama Chozo sensei. I continued training with Nakama sensei until he died in 1974. I learned the kata Pinan, Naifanchi, Jion and Passai Gwa from Nakama sensei and he learned these kata from Chibana sensei. I visited and studied with many of the older teachers after my father's death but I only learned of history and theory of technique from them. They were happy to give me information because they were close friends of my father.

Dragon Times: What form did your training take?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: My father began teaching me and my cousin, Zenji, kata but then decided to make a set of kihon exercises to help develop us. He created the use of kihon renshu for new students before beginning the kata. We trained in kihon, kata, kumite, and physical training with weights and makiwara. My father put great emphasis on kata training and applications from the kata. I learned the kata Seisan, Ananku, Wansu, Passai, Gojushiho, Chinto, Kusanku and the kata Wanchin that my father created. I also learned the Tokumine no kun kata from my father. All of these kata were learned from Kyan sensei by my father except for the Wanchin kata.

Dragon Times: How many kata are there in your school, please name them and list the order in which you teach them?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: We teach the seven kata from Kyan sensei. I have also started teaching the Fukyu kata several years ago and I teach the kata I learned from Nakama sensei after a student has been with me for many years.

Dragon Times: How much emphasis do you place on body development, for example, makiwara training, hojo undo, weights, etc.?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: In the old days we did makiwara training and weight training everyday. We had classes six days a week and put a great emphasis on body training. Today we do not emphasis this type of training too much. Students only come to training a couple of days a week and they need to learn the techniques of karate while they are in training. I continue to train the old way as do most of my senior students but the newer students do not train this way.

Dragon Times: At what stage do you teach students bunkai?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: Bunkai, or ti chi ki, in Okinawa Hogen is very misunderstood today. Many people think this is a secret but we began teaching bunkai from the beginning of training. The bunkai or demonstration of what you are doing is continuously being demonstrated in my school. There are many ways to apply every technique and they students see this from the simplest movement at the beginning until they have gained experience to see the movements in a different view.

Dragon Times: How important do you feel a knowledge of bunkai is?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: To understand what you are doing with your body is very important but more important is the body training. We train the body to move without thinking. I believe you can think to much about bunkai. Train the body and the mind together. The mind will forget but if the body is trained properly it will not forget.

Dragon Times: Does your style include grappling, restraining, and throwing techniques?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: Yes, all Okinawan styles have these type of techniques but the emphasis is placed on striking. Once you have developed good evasion and striking skills throwing becomes easy. Also, if you form the techniques of Shorin Ryu properly it is very difficult to apply grappling techniques.

Dragon Times: I noticed that the versions of the kata you demonstrate appear ancient yet much more dynamic and powerful that "modern" kata. Can you explain this for us?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: Yes, Kyan sensei believed in having powerful movements. The older kata developed a powerful body so that you could use the movements in combat. I think today's kata is more gymnastic. The modern kata movements are beautiful and athletic but I doubt usefulness in combat.

Dragon Times: Does your school include weapons training (kobudo) and if so, what is the source?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: We only practice the bo. The Tokumine no kun kata that was given to my father from Kyan sensei. We do not stress the bo but we have kept it as part of our culture and it is also very good to help with the body development of our karate.

Dragon Times: What future would you like to see for your school?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: I would like to the cultural treasure of Okinawa spread throughout the world. I have been working very hard for the last ten years to spread our art through not only our International Okinawan Shorin Ryu Seibukan Association but through participation in the Okinawan Karate/ Kobudo Rengokai.

Dragon Times: How do you plan to achieve it?

Zenpo Shimabukuro: I will continue to travel and teach to as many foreign countries that I can and I will continue to work with the Rengokai along with my senior students.