Legends of Karate: Mabuni Kenwa and his Shitô-Ryû (pt. 4)

Mabuni’s influence on JKA Shôtôkan-ryû

Another quite important aspect, often overlooked, is Mabuni’s strong influence on Funakoshi Gichin and the development of the Shôtôkan-style.

Funakoshi and Mabuni already knew each other from their time in the ‘Karate Kenkyûkai’ on Okinawa and always kept in close contact. Back in Okinawa Funakoshi had two main teachers: The minister of state Asato Ankô (1827-1906) and Mabuni’s later teacher Itosu Ankô. Although Funakoshi considered Asato as his most important teacher, Itosu taught him, by his own account “the Heian, Tekki and other Kata“.

But especially in view of the five Pinan (Heian) Kata, this direct line of transformation in between Itosu and Funakoshi is not as definite as it might appear on the first view. There are some hints indicating that Funakoshi did not learn the Pinan directly from Itosu, but rather from his student Mabuni. We know that Funakoshi started his Karate-training during primary school (in between 8 and 10 years of age) and that he studied for the next ten years (up to 1888, Meiji 21) with Asato and Itosu.

Most likely Itosu had developed the Pinan-forms by himself, on basis of Passai, Kôshokun, Useishi, Chintô and Chintê, and published them for the first time in spring of 1904 (Meiji 37), quite some time after Funakoshi had trained with him. Gima Makoto (1896-1989), a direct student of both Itosu, Yabu Kentsu (1866-1937) and Funakoshi states that Funakoshi just learned the Pinan right before his departure to Tôkyô (1922, Taishô 11).

Opposing this is a statement by Nagamine Shôshin (1907-1997), the founder of Matsubayashi-ryû, that Funakoshi had already taught them to Okinawan school children in 1916 (Taishô 5). The renowned Japanese Karate historian Dr. Fujiwara Ryôzo however says explicitly that Funakoshi learned the Pinan from Mabuni Kenwa in 1919 (Taishô 8).

On basis of the available facts, the transfer of the Pinan/Heian-forms can’t be clearly traced back to one of those two lines of transmission (directly vs. indirectly via Mabuni).

Against a direct transmission speaks the fact that just Funakoshi’s own statement dates a performance of the Pinan by Funakoshi before Itosu’s death (1915, Taishô 4). For a direct transmission on the other hand, speaks the huge period of time of over one decade (1904-1915) in between Itosu’s first publication of the Pinan and his passing. In view of that you also have to consider that Okinawa’s Karate-scene was rather clear and manageable in those days. In the humble opinion of the author that a hybrid of those theories, for instance a brief instruction by Itosu and a later adjustment and deepening by Mabuni, appears most likely.

A similar conclusion can be drawn from the statement that in 1928 (Shôwa 3) Mabuni corrected the Pinan-forms Ôtsuka had been taught by Funakoshi.

After his relocation to the Japanese mainland, Funakoshi Gichin himself considered 15 traditional Kata to be enough for the propagation of his idea of Karate. He explains those ‘big 15’ both in his first publications ’Ryûkyû Kenpô Karate’ (1922, Taishô 11) and ’Rentan Goshin Karate-jutsu’ (1925, Taishô 14), as well as in the two editions of his ’Mastertext’ (Karate-Do Kyôhan) from 1935 (Shôwa 10) and 1958 (Shôwa 33).

In his work ‘Karate-Dô Nyumon’ (Introduction to the Empty Hand) from 1943 (Shôwa 18) Funakoshi however writes that furthermore the forms Ten no Kata, Chi no Kata, Hito no Kata, Rôhai (Meikyô), Sôchin (Hakkô), Unsû (Hatsûn/Kiun), Shôtô, Chintê (Shôin), Gojûshihô/Usêshi (Hotaku) and Jiin (Shôkyo), have been “studied and investigated” in his Dôjô (Shôtôkan). While Shôtô, Ten, Chi and Hito no Kata are Funakoshi’s self-creations, we do not exactly know via what line of transmission Kata like Rôhai, Unsû, Chintê, Sôchin, Gojûshihô and Jiin come from.

Funakoshi’s students Nakayama Masatoshi (1913-1987), Nishiyama Hidetaka (1928-2008) and Obata Isao (1904-1976) founded the ‘Nihon Karate Kyôkai’ (JKA, Japan Karate Association) in May 1949 (Shôwa 24) and with that, no doubt, laid the headstone of the worldwide spread of both their ‘Shôtôkan’-concept and of Karate in general.

Shortly after the foundation, they added next to the aforementioned Kata, the forms Passai (Bassai) Shô, Kôshokun (Kanku) Shô, Gojûshihô Shô, Niseishi (Nijûshihô) and Wankan (Hito) to their curriculum. Similar to Rôhai, Unsû, Chintê, Sôchin, Gojûshihô and Jiin, we do not know from which teacher(s) these derived.

No official publication of the JKA (Japan Karate Association) or their derivatives makes any precise statements about how these additional ten Kata got into the style. It is quite apparent, that (at least by the name) they are all Kata that Mabuni was also teaching in his Shitô-Ryû at this time.

In view of Mabuni’s immense reputation, it is also no surprise to see that there was a lot of exchange between Mabuni and Funakoshi’s school. Mabuni’s son Kenei e.g. reports that Funakoshi himself should have send his third son Gigô (1906-1945) back from Japan to Okinawa in order to learn Kata from Mabuni. Right after Mabuni’s arrival in Tôkyô in 1928 (Shôwa 3), he evidently taught several of Funakoshi’s top-students, like Obata Isao and Konishi Yasuhiro. Even Funakoshi himself should have joined his students in training-sessions with Mabuni, especially as he advised them to study new Kata.

Funakoshi (left) and Mabuni (center), with students.

Mabuni’s son Kenzo remembers that in 1945 (Shôwa 20), Funakoshi Gichin sent his students Nakayama Masatoshi and Obata Isao to Ôsaka in order to train with Mabuni.

Short time after that, Funakoshi should have introduced Shôtôkan versions of the Unsû, Nijûshihô, and Gojûshihô Kata. This is probably the same visit Nakayama Masatoshi talk about, when he says: “Master Funakoshi never stopped to study other forms of Karate. When we visited master Mabuni, he told me to learn the Gojûshihô- and Nijûshihô-Kata, so that we could address them more intensively later on. Right after that, Mabuni Kenwa taught me these Kata.”.

Another senior student of Funakoshi and founder of Wado-Ryu, Ôtsuka Hironori, remembers that many of Funakoshi’s Kata came directly from Mabuni or were at least corrected by him.

When you compare the Shôtôkan- and the Shitô-versions of Kata like Unsû, Gojûshihô Dai/Shô, Jiin, Kôshokun Shô, Bassai Sho, Chintê and Niseishi it is quite striking that they basically just vary in view of some Shôtôkan-specific adjustments. [Jesse’s note: Like kiba-dachi instead of shikô-dachi, kôkutsu-dachi instead of nekoashi-dachi, yoko-geri instead of mae-geri, tate-shutô-uke instead of kake-shutô-uke etc. Or the constant execution of manji-uke in kôkutsu-dachi instead of zenkutsu/sôkutsu/nekoashi-dachi and so on.]. A close relationship is thus quite evident, which suggests a strong influence by Mabuni.

In consideration of these facts, we can say without doubt that the JKA Shôtôkan has been heavily influenced by the founder of Shitô-ryû, Mabuni. At least half out of the 26 Kata in Shôtôkan came directly from Mabuni or have been corrected by him.

Mabuni Kenwa was thus much more important for the development and shape of the style of Shôtôkan, than it is today usually assumed or acknowledged by their representatives.

Mabuni Kenwa was without doubt an outstanding Karateka. His research and work still highly affects the world’s Karate scene. Next to his two sons and successors Kenei and Kenzo, Mabuni Kenwa had a huge amount of important students. Over the years, most of them founded their own styles and organisations. Mabuni’s Shitô-ryu is today one of the biggest Karate styles, with Dôjô and branches all over the world.

Mabuni Kenwa died at the 23rd of May 1952 (Shôwa 27) at the age of 62 years.

“Those people who are truly thinking of the future of Karate
should not keep a closed mind and limit themselves
to learning only an empty shell,
but should strive to study the complete art.”

– Mabuni Kenwa


The author would like to thank Mr. George Kohler (Melissa, Texas) and especially Mr. Mark Tankosich, MA (Hiroshima University of Economics) for their kind and patient help in the allocation and interpretation of some of the Japanese sources. Furthermore the author would like to thank Mr. Craig Roberts, BC (Sydney, Australia) for his help with proof-reading and copy-editing.


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© Matthias Golinski, Bochum, Germany, 2008


  • Daniel
    Amen. Why don't we abolish styles? I could study whatever I want without feeling "ryu-less" :) In the end isn't "Shito-ryu" just a way to say "Let's keep all the katas and ideas and ways to generate power (etc. etc.) and let's work on what suits us more"?
    • Diego Romero
      +1! different styles allow differing levels of specialization though, and are simply the massive formal spreading of individual masters' teachings instead of every student having to figure out his own stuff. to each his own. that said, shito-ryu is possibly the best karate style to use as a base for cross-training, as it's extremely versatile, however you need a good memory and the time and motivation to train your ass off. also, big bibligraphy is big
  • Wild Triathlon
    Good that we can remember the history of Karate.
  • Hello! Very interesting name by the forum www.karatebyjesse.com Yes, thanks Success doesn't come to you...you go to it. Cheerio !
  • Greg Story
    Nakayama gave an interview where he confirms he was sent to Mabuni by Funakoshi to learn kata.. Can't locate the source at this moment but I quoted this fact in an article I published decades ago on Shitoryu.
  • Rey Milano
    Do you know something about Hito no Kata? Have you seeit or practice it? Can you publícate something about it?

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