Three Golden Stars of Isshinryu Karate:

Chotokyu Kyan, Chojun Miyagi, and Choki Motobu

On the Isshinryu patch are three golden stars rising above a dragon in a calm, gray sky. There are several different interpretations of the meaning of these stars. One common interpretation is that the stars stand for “mind, body, and spirit.” A second one is that the stars represent Goju-ryu (the father), Shorin-ryu (the mother), and Isshinryu (the child). But according to another interpretation, these stars symbolize Tatsuo Shimabuku’s three chief karate instructors: Chotokyu Kyan, Chojun Miyagi, and Choki Motobu.

The First Golden Star: Chotokyu Kyan

If this interpretation is accurate, then the first star represents Chotokyu Kyan, who was Shimabuku’s first chief instructor. Kyan’s birthplace was Shuri, Okinawa’s Gibo Village on the southern end of the island. Born to wealthy parents in December of 1870, he was small and weak because he was born prematurely. But he was also a child of privilege because of his father’s position with King Sho Tai’s government. Chofu Kyan was a scholar as well as a warrior. He served as steward to the king and the keeper of the royal seal. He could afford to hire the best karate instructors for his third son, Chotokyu. Chofu hoped that karate would strengthen his small, weak son. Under the watchful eye of his demanding grandfather, Chotokyu began studying karate at the early age of five (Long).

At age twelve, Chotokyu’s life would change drastically when King Sho Tai was deposed and Okinawa became a Prefecture of Japan. The king was relocated to Tokyo, and the Kyan family accompanied him. In Tokyo, Chotokyu Kyan was exposed to and studied Japanese and Chinese culture (Fenton).

By the age of twenty, Kyan had returned to Okinawa and continued his karate training. Sensai Sokon Matsummura taught Kyan Seisan and Gojushiho Katas. Only after practicing for two years, did Kyan consider himself proficient in Seisan Kata, the kata that was later to become the first kata in the Isshinryu system.

In 1896 Kyan studied with Shorin-ryu Master of Tomari, Kosaku Matsummora. With Matsummora, Kyan studied Chinto Kata which would also in the future be incorporated into Isshinryu Karate. Continuing his studies with karate masters, Kyan learned Passai Kata from Oyadomari Kodan and learned Wansu from Tomari Master Pechin Maeda. Perhaps his most influential teacher was Yasutsune Itosu who lived on Yaeyama Island. Finally, he learned bo from Tokumine, who was considered the best bo man on Okinawa (Long).

In the 1920s and 1930s Kyan had his own dojo in the village of Kadena and taught a few select students, including Tatsuo Shimabuku, who later founded Isshinryu Karate. Kyan instructed Shimabuku in Seisan, Seiuchin, Wansu, Chinto, and Kusanku Katas and provided the first lessons in bo and sai. Shimabuku became his favorite and best student (Evseeff). One of the stories that comes out of Kyan’s dojo is, that during a karate demonstration, he put on wooden geta shoes and jumped and kicked a ceiling beam and split his wooden shoe in half (Modell). This is a remarkable feat, considering that Kyan was only 4’ 11” tall.  He continued to teach in the Yomitan Village, to which, he moved and built a house. There, he taught karate in his yard, at the Kadena Police Academy, and at the College of Agriculture and Forestry (“Isshin Ryu Karate History and Traditions”). Despite his efforts to make a living farming and teaching karate, unfortunately, Kyan lived in poverty most of his life.

Beginning in March of 1945, the Battle of Okinawa raged for over three months. During this time, most of Okinawa was destroyed and 150,000 people were killed. Okinawa lost about a third of its population (“Introduction into the History of Isshin-ryu Karatedo”). Luckily, Kyan survived the devastation, but he perished soon after the end of the battle during a time when food was very scarce on Okinawa. Although there are several accounts of the cause of his death, the most noble one follows. At the age of 75, Kyan died of starvation because he gave what food he had to the neighborhood children (Long).

There are also many tales of his questionable moral character, and he was considered by some to be the black sheep of karate. He was the founder of Shobayashi Shorin-ryu Karate, and he also plays a great role in the creation of Isshinryu Karate; he taught Tatsuo Shimabuku many of the katas used in the Isshinryu system today. Chotokyu Kyan should be remembered by all Isshinryu karate-ka because he began to lay the foundation of what was to become Isshinryu Karate.

The Second Golden Star: Chojun Miyagi

If Chotokyu Kyan is represented by the first star on the Isshinryu patch, then surely, Chojun Miyagi is the second golden star. Tatsuo Shimibuku studied with Miyagi Chojun for several years. Miyagi taught Tatsuo Shimabuku Gojuryu Karate, and the Gojuryu influence can be seen in Isshinryu’s second and eighth empty hand katas.

Miyagi was born in Naha, Okinawa. Like Kyan, Miyagi was born to the upper class. His birth name was Miyagusuku Matsu; he was given the name Miyagi Chojun by his uncle who adopted him after his father’s death (Fenton).

At twelve years old, Miyagi began his karate training with Naha-Te Master Ryuko Aragaki, and two years later he became Higaonna Kanryo’s student. Eventally, Miyagi became Higaonna Kanryo’s top student and remained in training with him for thirteen years until Higaonna’s death in 1917 (Facebook).

In 1915 and then again in 1917, Miyagi made trips to China to study with several great Chinese masters. On his return to Okinawa, he combined aspects of the Chinese martial arts with much that he had learned from his Okinawin sensei to create his own style, which he named Gojuryu, translated as soft and hard style (Grandmaster). Some credit the origin of this name to a line from the Bubishi, a Chinese book on the martial arts. The line reads, “Ho Goju Donto,” which means “the way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness” (Grandmaster). This is later echoed in one of the “Eight Principles of the Code of Isshinryu Karate,” “the manner of drinking and spitting is either hard or soft” (Long).

In 1919 Miyagi opened his own dojo and created two versions of his own kata, Gerkisai Ichi and Ni which are more fundamental than Sanchin. There are many tall tales of his extreme training methods. One story is that Miyagi left his students in a dark, scary graveyard late at night to teach them to focus in a challenging environment (Modell). Another story is that Miyagi performed Sanchin Kata, which he had been perfecting for thirteen years, standing on a beach in the middle of a raging typhoon (Modell). Shimabuku studied with Miyagi from 1945 until Miyagi’s death in 1953. Shimabuku learned Seiuchin and Sanchin katas from Miyagi. It was during these nine years that Shimabuku began experimenting with the techniques that would evolve into the techniques of Isshinryu Karate.

After several years of failing health, Miyagi died at home of a heart attack. Unfortunately, Jinan Shinzato, the heir apparent to lead Goju-ryu Karate died during the Battle of Okinawa. (Facebook). Miyagi did not name a successor.

Chojun Miyagi fits the stereotype of what a true karate master should be. He was a man of honor who was loved by his students, and he dedicated his life to spreading his art, Goju-ryu Karate. More than 60 years after his death, he is remembered today in popular culture since he served as the model for Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid movies (Wikipedia).

The Third and Last Golden Star of Isshinryu Karate: Choki Motobu

Choki Motobu is represented by the third and last golden star on the Isshinryu patch. Although Shimabuku studied kobudo with Yaby Ku Mo Den and Tiara Shinkin, Motobu is considered Shimabuku’s last chief instructor.

Choki Motobu was born in Shuri’s Akahira Village in February of 1871. Like Kyan and Miyagi, he was born to the upper class; his father Motobu Chomo Udon was a high- ranking lord (Fenton). Because Choki Motobu was the third son, he was not entitled to the education and martial arts training afforded the firstborn son. His unprivileged up-bringing made him a young man with a quick temper.

Since his father would not pay for martial arts training, Choki Motobu developed a regimen of self-training, strength training with huge rocks and toughness training with the Makiwara board (Noble).  Some say he would hit the makiwara board a thousand times daily. “His ambition was to be the strongest man in Okinawa” (Noble). Besides being, indeed, very strong, he was also very agile. This trait as well as his ability to move through the trees, earned him the nickname, Motobu-saru (monkey) (Noble).

Another unconventional aspect of his training regimen was nightly visits to bars where he honed his fighting skills by challenging strong men to street fights. Understandably, this activity did not enhance his image within the martial arts community. Motobu created his own kumite techniques and drills to develop them. Although Motobu was known for his unconventional methods, he did study with several well-known martial arts masters.

He originally studied with Shuri-te Master Ankoh and then with Tomari-te Master Kusaku Matsummora and Master Sakuma, and he also studied in Japan (Noble). Although he studied with several masters, who supposedly taught him katas, it was said that he only knew one kata, Nahachi. Since his focus was on kumite, he taught only Nahachi because he felt that this kata was the best for teaching fighting techniques (Noble).

He did have a few select students. Shimabuku, the founder of Isshinryu Karate is perhaps the most famous. Shimabuku studied with Motobu for only one year while Miyagi was traveling away from Okinawa. Motobu’s greatest contribution to Shimabuku’s training was refining his fighting skills. With Motobu’s help, Shimabuku became one of the top Okinawan fighters of his day (Evseeff). Motobu also passed on to Shimabuku his training techniques using the Makiwara board and his three versions of Nahachi Kata. “Master Motobu claimed to have practiced his three versions five hundred times daily” (Noble).

There are many tall tales of Motobu’s size, strength and fighting prowess.  Some have reported that Motobu was seven feet tall and a man of tremendous strength (Noble). Another story is that Motobu was entered into a match against a Russian boxing champion. In the early rounds, Motobu employed evasive maneuvers and then quickly stepped in to dispatch his opponent with one punch to the temple. Thus Motobu became the only karate master to defeat a heavy weight champion. What makes this story even more remarkable was that Motobu was fifty-two years old at the time (“Motobu Choki”). Another account claims he was ninety-six when he knocked out the Russian (Evseeff).

Some time after this victory, Motobu promoted himself to 11th Dan and declared he was the greatest fighter in the world (Modell). You would have thought this would have met with disfavor from the other Okinawan masters, but they either pretty much ignored him or thought he was mentally unbalanced.

In his lifetime, Motobu was never a disciple of any one particular master; he preferred to follow his own path. His self-created training methods did develop him into a great fighter and his instruction helped Shimabuku become one of the best fighters on Okinawa. On September 2, 1944, at the age of 73, Motobu passed away. Although in his lifetime Motobu did, indeed, “march to the beat of a different drummer” (Thoreau), he is important to the development of Isshinryu Karate because he taught Shimabuku many of the kumite techniques that he would later teach his own Isshinryu students.