The Essence of Shorin Ryu

by George W. Alexander


Okinawa, Japan is the birthplace of karate and Shorin Ryu karate is the oldest and most traditional form of this Okinawan martial art. The fighting strategy of Shorin Ryu Karate is predicated on pure self-defense. However, the true essence of the Shorin Ryu style is embodied in its kata or forms. The kata are a living record of the history of the art. Since kumite or practice sparring wasn’t done in ancient times the only safe way to practice was the repetition of kata. The traditional kata of Shorin Ryu are a set of formal solo exercises which are composed of prearranged movements of attack and defense against imaginary opponents.  Kata are used as the primary training method in Karate.  Since the techniques of kata were developed from actual fighting, kata are the classical reenactment of former battles.  More importantly, kata serve as a dictionary of fighting techniques, which have been tested in combat. The self-defense and fighting applications of the Shorin Ryu kata are based on both long range and close-in fighting techniques.  The style still contains grappling, joint locking and throwing as well as kyusho jutsu (vital point striking), as opposed to merely punching and kicking. This makes it a complete martial art. The style has not been watered down or lost its original link to combative reality. Many modern tournament oriented systems have lost this link and their original combative approach.


“Bushi” Sokon Matsumura (1797-1889) is considered the founder of Shorin Ryu karate even though Anko Itosu (1830-1915), his student, actually devised the name Shorin Ryu, which is the Japanese pronunciation of Shaolin style. Matsumura was given the title Bushi meaning warrior by the Okinawan King in recognition of his abilities and accomplishments in the martial arts.  In fact, Matsumura fought many times but was never defeated.  His martial arts endeavors, specifically the organization of the Okinawan Shorin Ryu system, have been the progenitor of many contemporary karate styles, Shotokan Ryu and Shito Ryu, for example.  Ultimately all modern styles of karate that evolved from the Shuri-Te lineage can be traced back to the teachings of Bushi Matsumura.  This includes Taekwon Do (Korean Karate). Anko Itosu (1830-1915), a student of Bushi Matsumura was famous for quickly closing with his opponents and polishing them off with rapid-fire kicks and punches. Itosu sensei was responsible for bringing karate into the modern age when he gave the first public demonstrations of the art in Okinawa in 1900. Later, around 1922, the art was brought to mainland Japan by Okinawan masters and it then spread worldwide.




Kata is at the heart of Shorin Ryu Karate. Kata are the formal solo exercises that define Shorin Ryu Karate. Kata have sometimes been referred to as shadow boxing but they are much more than this. Kata are the primary training methodology used in karate. More importantly, kata serve as a dictionary of fighting techniques, which have been tested in combat.

An important aspect of training in kata is bunkaiBunkai, sometimes referred to as oyo, is the interpretation of the practical application of kata movements. In addition to the techniques contained in kata such as, punching, kicking and blocking, the bunkai of kata contain a grappling art known astorite or tuite, literally meaning twisting hands. The tuite applications of Shorin Ryu kata incorporate both throwing and joint-locking techniques.

Another aspect of training in kata is the use of kiai. A shout or kiai is used to release spiritual energy (ki). A kiai is used in conjunction with a powerful technique to harmonize or maximize one’s strength while executing the technique. A kiai point in the kata signifies delivering the coup de graceor the final blow to the enemy. Most kata contain one or two kiai points.


To understand Shorin Ryu karate kata as a training methodology it is necessary to go back to the point in Okinawan martial arts history where these kata developed. Kata was the principal means of instruction. Knowledge was transmitted from generation to generation in this way. In the past, before karate’s veil of secrecy was lifted, martial arts training had to be conducted with the utmost secrecy. No written records were kept. Therefore, a kata or pattern of movement was the perfect way to remember and practice individual techniques. The head of a family or village elder usually carried out instruction. In most cases, the teaching would be based on an established family tradition of martial skills indicative of a particular village. Usually, the village elder would come from a long line of experts. Kata were literally inherited from one’s ancestors.


Most of the kata we have today in the Shorin Ryu karate system come to us from Bushi “Warrior” Matsumura. (1797-1889). He is credited with organizing and passing on the following kata: Pinan I & II, Naihanchi I & II, Passai Dai (Matsumura no Passai), Seisan, Useishi (Gojushiho) and Hakutsuru. Since then, the kata have been modified and evolved into the sophisticated traditional forms of Shorin Ryu karate used today. The Kihon, Pinan and Naihanchi are the basic forms of the system. The Kihons are a set of very elementary forms. The Pinans are a set of five kata with many self-defense applications. The Naihanchi kata are taught as a set of three kata. The Naihanchi forms although appearing to be rather fundamental contain some very effective sparring and self-defense applications. The implicit application of Naihanchi kata is fighting with one’s back to a wall. Passai Sho, Passai Dai and Seisan represent the intermediate kata of Shorin Karate. The name Passai means to have the strength to penetrate a fortress, i.e. breakdown an opponent’s defenses. Seisan is a very old kata and traces its origins back to China. It features open hand techniques and a defense against groin kicks. Passai Dai and Seisan kata have a high degree of sophistication with regard to pure self-defense and human psychology in that they both have movements in which blocking the opponent’s second punch is implied.


The advanced forms of Shorin Ryu include Chinto, Gojushiho and Kusanku. The Chinto kata and its quick movements are best suited to a small man. It features balance maneuvers, one-legged stances, evasion tactics, a throwing technique and the double flying front kick. The evasion maneuver, in the past known only as a secret technique, is contained within the Chinto kata. This technique is referred to as the “diamond step” or the invisible valley in kung fu. Gojushiho on the other hand shows its unique Chinese origin with its many circular hand techniques and the use of the tiger and crane forms of Shaolin Kenpo. Gojushiho means fifty-four steps and is referred to in the Bubishi as a black tiger and white crane form. The Kusanku kata is often referred to as the highest and most advanced form within Shorin Ryu’s repertoire of kata. The kata is named after a Chinese military envoy that visited Okinawa in 1756. It contains unique defenses, evasive twisting and counterattack techniques and the double flying front kick. It also has a form of evasion whereby one blends with the opponent’s attack and then spins away to escape.


Shorin Ryu – The Fighting Art


Shorin Ryu karate’s fighting strategy uses fast and hard retaliatory kicks and punches to subdue an opponent and to end a confrontation quickly. Shorin Ryu’s fighting system is considered an extension of the kata. In addition, the style emphasizes strong blocking movements coupled withtaisabaki (body shifting) allowing one to shift away from an opponent’s attack and be in a position to counterattack. The effectiveness of Shorin Ryu karate is a function of the simplicity of the techniques and movement inherent in the style.


Furthermore, Shorin Ryu Karate‘s fighting strategies of  Sen No Sen (offensive strategy) and Go No Sen (defensive strategy) were first expounded in the classic work of Sun Tzu, The Art of War. The Sun Tzu classic covers strategy and tactics for warring armies. It is the earliest known work dealing with the art of war and is considered to be unsurpassed in its depth of understanding of the subject. It also suggests that if you know yourself and you know your enemy you will win one hundred percent of the time. The Bubishi Martial Art Spirit, karate’s mystical sourcebook, cites the Sun Tzu principles of strategy as they relate to individual combat and Shorin Ryu karate.


Certain elements of fighting tactics long used in Okinawa as part of Shorin Ryu’s tactics include the proper use of distance, speed and timing. Using distance (maai) correctly means engaging an opponent so as to be at a distance at which you must advance one step to attack, or retreat one step to defend.  Paradoxically, as in taisabaki, it means to have the opponent away from you and yet to be close to him.


The advantages of speed are obvious.  Without the ability to strike quickly, the best attack and counterattack simply will not work.   Timing refers to attacking or defending at the precise moment in order for the techniques applied to be most effective.  Attacking at the wrong moment allows your opponent to seize the advantage by finding a weakness in your defense. Blocking too late allows your opponent to penetrate your defense.


Another element of fighting tactics implicit in Shorin Ryu karate training methods is power. The development of knockdown power is critical in actual combat.  An old Okinawan expression wasIkken Hissatsu, meaning to kill with one blow.   This refers to developing enough destructive power to kill by using one punch or one kick.  The effectiveness of these measures was accomplished by understanding kime or focus and “impact conditioning”. Kime is the ability to make a muscular contraction at the end of the execution of a kick or punch.  This creates the snap of the gi.  In addition, Matsumura sensei was often quoted as saying “Torque [hip rotation] plus speed equals true power”. Impact conditioning refers to striking the makiwara (striking post) repeatedly in order to develop destructive power. This was necessary in order to make the one punch kill tactic an effective measure of Shorin Ryu karate.


The most classical technique of karate is the counterattack. In the counterattack, the defender must be able to move his body quickly to avoid an attack.  This principle of Shorin Ryu is called taisabakior body shifting.  This tactical element teaches how to angle away from an opponent so that the opponent can be hit but the defender still remains out of range.   The constant repetition of basics and kata are necessary to develop the skill of footwork, timing and distance needed to perfecttaisabaki.


Bushi Matsumura (1797-1889) proposed the idea that a warrior who follows the way of the martial arts waits for the enemy to defeat himself. He says this is what he admires most. He says “You must deal with your own mind well and wait for others to fall apart mentally. Win the battle by remaining calm and steal the mind of your opponent.“ “Wait for the opponent to commit himself and make a mistake – then counterattack.” Anko Itosu (1830-1915) is quoted as saying, “During practice you should imagine you are on the battlefield. When blocking and striking make the eyes glare, drop the shoulders and harden the body. Now block the enemy’s punch and strike! Always practice with this spirit, so that when on the real battlefield you will be naturally prepared.”


The Shorin Ryu style of Okinawa is a combat oriented martial art that uses kata as its primary training methodology. Further, the true essence of this art is preserved by the practice of its traditional kata. The proven techniques contained in the kata and fighting strategies have shown that Shorin Ryu karate is an effective self-defense method that has been tested in combat and has survived to the present day.  This effective karate style with its fast and hard techniques and traditional kata has been handed down to us from another time. Fortunately, the masters of a bygone era have passed onto the modern practitioners of the art “The Essence of Shorin Ryu Karate”.



George W. Alexander, Hanshi 10th Dan , has been featured in a new videotape entitled The Essence of Shorin Ryu Karate that contains many aspects of self-defense, kumite and kata applications. He also has a video called The Secrets of the Bubishi that details the secrets of the death touch. Finally, he has recently completed Sun Tzu The Art of War and Go Rin no Sho The book of Five Rings on videotape. These are two masterworks on strategy. He is also the author ofOkinawa Island of Karate. George Alexander, Hanshi 10th Dan can be contacted the ISKKF Honbu Dojo or Yamazato Videos/Publications at Rt. 2 Box 46C Hwy 315, Reliance, TN 37369 Tel. (423) 338-4972, Fax. (423) 338-5651 website

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