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Zen Breathing Methods in Isshinryu, somewhere lost in time


In 1956 a young American named Harry Smith joined the Marine Corps and was introduced to martial arts as part of training. At the end of this year he was transferred to Okinawa, Japan. He became befriended with Art Smiley, nowadays a world renowned photographer, who talked him in to study with a karate master he was studying with himself. This master was Tatsuo Shimabukuro who taught some students in his backyard of his house in a small village called Kiyan. At that time he had a few local Okinawan students and not more than about ten American students, most of them Marines from Camp Courtney. This was in December 1956 and the karate style of Isshinryu had just been officially founded in January of this same year.



Tatsuo Shimabukuro (1908-1975)


Shimabukuro himself started his karate instructions at age 15 with his uncle who later introduced him to Chotoku Kiyan. Shorin-ryu master Kiyan was his primary and most influential instructor. Shimabukuro continued his training with Naha Te (Shorei-ryu) master Chojun Miyagi (who in the 1930’s founded his own style named Goju Ryu). When Miyagi left to teach in mainland Japan, Shimabukuro trained again with Kiyan. In 1936 and 1937 the senior and most important Okinawa karate masters came together and discussed the future of karate. Tatsuo’s teachers Kiyan and Miyagi took part in both of these meetings and another famous master Choki Motobu participated in the 1936 meeting. Tatsuo who continued his training with Kiyan was introduced to Motobu, who was Kiyan’s cousin, and trained for some time with Choki Motobu before Motobu left to mainland Japan again.


Tatsuo Shimabukuro instructed Japanese marines during World War 2. In 1945 his most important master Chotoku Kiyan died of starvation. After the war, in 1946, he trained for a brief time again with master Chojun Miyagi. In 1947, at age 39, Shimabukuro started giving lessons to some local students, among these Okinawan students was Eiko Kaneshi, who later became his right hand man.


US Marine Corps


In 1955 the 3rd US Marine Division was stationed at Camp Courtney, originally called Camp Tengan. At this time the first American students started training karate with master Tatsuo Shimabukuro. Early 1956 Don Nagle became the first student of note. Late 1956 Nagle introduced Art Smiley to the master who himself introduced his new friend Harry Smith. These three man were part of the first class of American Isshinryu students.


Original Isshinryu


In 1956 Isshinryu, which can be translated as 'One Heart/ One Mind School', was taught different than the way hundreds of American students were taught in the following years. Changes started when Shimabukuro moved to a new dojo in Agena at the end of 1957. Agena was closer to Camp Courtney and the new built dojo made it possible to master Shimabukuro to accept more students. It was no coincidence that the Marine Corps Special Services gave a contract to him in 1958 to teach the Marines. With this contract master Shimabukuro became one of the first martial arts teachers who could live as a professional teacher. Also at that time the karate curriculum was changed to a program which could be learned by American military personnel during their standard tour of duty of about one year overseas at Okinawa.

Isshinryu Class of 1956
Kiyan, Okinawa (Japan)

standing 4th from left: Art Smiley & 5th from left: Don Nagle
seating at chair: Tatsuo Shimabukuro & to his right his eldest son Kichiro
(not at this photo: Harry Smith, who took the picture)


Harry Smith


Not only the marine Harry Smith was fortunate to start at the original Kiyan dojo, he also managed to change his duties to night shifts with the help of Corporal Hall, who was an Isshinryu student himself. That way he had the unique opportunity to train with the master at daytime, when Shimabukuro was at his best. Shimabukuro never bothered to learn the English language. He was a master of Mondo and could picture his messages in the mind of his students. Smith was trained hand to hand by the master. Smith was also taught the old arts of fighting with weapons: Bo (long staff) and Sai (three forked dungeon). The effectiveness of punching and kicking was practiced in full armor Kendo equipment.

Kiyan early 1957: Harry Smith & Art Smiley full contact fighting in Kendo equipment




Sanchin was taught first as basic kata to study the way of moving, muscle tension, and most important: proper breathing methods. Followed by Seisan, using thirteen breaths, Seiunchin, four breaths, and Naihanchi: only one breath. A student then can perform Sanchin kata effectively, using ten moves in ten breaths. In the new Agena dojo at one time, somewhere between the end of 1957 and the start of 1958, new students were taught a new curriculum and Sanchin was not taught anymore as the first kata. Also proper Zazen breathing methods were lost in instruction.




Group instruction, most of the time by senior students, and the relative short time of instruction during one tour of duty, caused these changes. Harry Smith was not only taught the old curriculum and hand to hand instruction by master Shimabukuro, but also trained longer than most of his fellow marines as he was one of the last who received permission for a six month extension. Shimabukuro liked drinking and took Smith with him to bars. This was not common to every student and Smith was tested by Shimabukuro to watch his behavior when someone started to pick up a fight. He passed the test at several occasions. Shimabukuro followed with this way of street practice in the footsteps of two of his own teachers: Chotoku Kiyan and Choki Motobu, who both were noted for their habit of going to bars and picking up fights. Showing good fighting spirit in street combat was rewarded with more and deeper private instruction.

Harry Smith and Tatsuo Shimabukuro, new Agena dojo 1957




May 1958 Tatsuo Shimabukuro awarded Harry Smith with 6th dan diploma’s presented to him on four silks. Two were in kanji and two in English translation. The 6th dan diploma stated that this rank was rewarded to him because of his fighting skills. The other diploma is nowadays known as the “Code of Isshinryu”.


Returning home to the USA Harry Smith started studying this Code, also known as the “Kenpo Gokui” (translation of the Japanese writing on silk, meaning 'secrets of the fist') or the eight precepts, and noticed a connection: eight precepts of boxing, eight empty hand kata and eight steps in the eightfold path of Buddhism. He was convinced that this was no coincidence and examined the relationship of these three items. In this process he unlocked the structural pattern behind Shimabukuro’s Isshinryu curriculum.

two of total four silks presented to both Harry Smith & Art Smiley, May 1958


Zen breathing


Isshinryu was designed to teach a simple but deadly method of combating an enemy very quickly and effectively. Shimabukuro built his method based on his own teachings of his masters Kiyan, Miyagi and Motobu. Masters Miyagi and Motobu taught Zen breathing methods to master Shimabukuro. From master Miyagi he learned the very important Isshinryu kata Sanchin and he copied from him the Kenpo Gokui. Shimabukuro incorporated the Zen breathing methods and mind control into the Isshinryu system by the systematic use of proper breathing techniques to create a path to a plateau where a student, in effect, hypnotizes himself.


Proper breathing and hypoxia


The kata are designed to create a state of oxygen narcosis where a chemical change is produced in the blood stream. Tatsuo Shimabukuro in teaching this plan would repel from a tree or telephone pole upside down. And in doing so this would force the blood to rush to his head creating a state of hypoxia, that condition which starves the tissues of oxygen. This is the exact state that our bodies are subjected to when practicing proper breathing methods. In this state our minds become open to suggestion. When Seisan is completed using thirteen breaths, Seiunchin using four breaths, and Naihanchi in only one, a student then can perform Sanchin effectively, using the ten moves, ten breaths to allow the mind to open to suggestion. Anyone who has experienced almost drowning can tell about this state of hypoxia. Feeling totally calm and everything seems to be in slow motion. Using proper breathing in a fight has the same effect: you can see the moves of your adversary as in slow motion.

Tatsuo Shimabukuro going upside down from a pole, Agena 1957


Vietnam and Phoenix Program


Phung Haung Dong Tien, better know as Phoenix Program, had a training program called Operation Red Dragon: a program instituted by a government agency to train men and force them to extreme actions. This training was held at Naha, Okinawa between 1964 and 1972. Underwater training to build up the tolerance for lack of breath is easily understood if you also understand the reasoning for the use of proper breathing methods used in the first four kata of Isshinryu; Zen breathing methods. In 1966 Smith met his master again as part of this special training. Tatsuo Shimabukuro, along with the assistance of Eiko Kaneshi, instructed selected man in the northern part of Okinawa.


Learning kata is the easiest part of karate, being able to function in stressful conditions is the proof of the training, and night training created such atmosphere, living in Quonset Huts, day became night, and men became hunters. Learning how to use pressure points and nerve endings to control unwilling bodies, how to make a person do exactly what you want him to do, even die, is contained in Isshinryu.


Tatsuo Shimabukuro was selected by US government because of his knowledge and teaching capabilities. The incorporation of Zen breathing methods, mind control and the knowledge how to use pressure points makes Isshinryu a deadly fighting art.



It is more than fifty years ago when Harry Smith started his training in Isshinryu karate with Tatsuo Shimabukuro. Isshinryu karate has now spread all over the world. In the US there are estimate over two hundred thousand Isshinryu karateka. Unfortunately not many of them were taught Zen breathing methods as part of this karate style. Karate has become a weak and useless art. Flash and glitz have replaced function and application. Even Isshinryu, an art based on the practical, has been reduced to politics and prettiness. This makes a man like Harry Smith enormously important. He not only learned Isshinryu in the beginning, and so, provides a significant historic link to the art's roots. But more than that, he learned Isshinryu in its original context. He learned the Isshinryu that Shimabukuro intended, the art of “one punch kill” (Ikken Hisatsu), and he has taught Isshinryu that way ever since. Shihan Harry Smith is now seventy years old and is still teaching and giving Zen breathing seminars.



More info can be found at: www.shimabuku.com


October 2007

Henk Goslinga


Resource: private conversations with Harry Smith and Art Smiley in 2006/07

Warning: All photos used in this essay are copyrighted by law and belong to Harry Smith, except the picture of Tatsuo Shimabukuro performing Sanchin kata; courtesy and copyright Dick Keith

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