My Bunny’s Karate

My Bunny’s Karate

Shito-Ryu By Robert Hunt


Over the past 50 or so years, (That long? We are getting old.) fortune has provided me an opportunity know several karate styles “from the inside”. That is to say, I had the chance to get beat on by punches and kicks delivered in a variety of ways. I started in Shotokan, then Wado during the years I lived in Pennsylvania, beginning in 1964. Upon moving to Arizona in the mid-seventies, I started over in Shi-To with Fumio Demura and Dan Ivan who had a sort of hybrid style due to Mr. Ivan’s years in Shotokan and Mr. Demura’s in Shi-To Ryu. Because Goju is half of Shi-To, I was introduced to that. Not content with an introduction, I took some pains to dig deeper into Goju.

That leads to here…to one more conversation on style.

Of the styles into which I have delved, Shi-To Ryu has served me the highest purpose. Not “best”. Best is subjective. Just useful for my goal, which was to learn as much as I could about Okinawa and karate, in general.

Shi-Ryu has provided an overview of Okinawan karate, simply because a guy named Mabuni incorporated every excruciating detail from Okinawa he could amass. Therein, however, lies its Achilles heel – too much information makes depth of understanding elusive. But, we labor on.

At the turn of the 19th to 20th century, Mabuni Kenwa studied from the two principal teachers in Okinawa – Higashionna and Itosu – the forerunners of ninety percent of modern Japanese/Okinawan karate. Higashionna learned his art in China from the phantom Lu Lu Ko (maybe). Itosu, a one-time guard to the last Okinawan king, studied Shurite/Shorin-Ryu from the legendary Bushi Matsumura. Both eventually introduced their versions of karate to public schools, Itosu’s in a “watered down” version for kids. (For a good take on the Itosu-Matsumura story, read the first half of Bruce Clayton’s book, “Shotokan’s Secrets…”)

Mabuni (one seven-year-old budding historian in my kids’ class heard the name as “My Bunny”), a descendent of Okinawan Samurai or Bushi, was a frail child (weren’t they all?) sent to Itosu for toughening. Later, his friend Miyagi (of Goju fame) introduced him to Higashionna and he studied there through the last half-decade or so of Higashionna’s allotted time on earth.

He got Itosu’s Shorin karate down, but who knows how much Goju he absorbed in those few years? Mabuni’s version of Goju differs from Miyagi’s, even though they were friends and dojo mates. Trying to work out why katas like Seipai are done so differently in Shi-To Ryu than Goju Ryu has complicated my life, consumed my tedious conversation and kept me awake nights. If you know, please tell me. At my age, I can use the sleep.

To preserve his island’s one true heritage – karate – Mabuni blended the two methods he studied and dubbed it Shi-To Ryu after Itosu and Higashionna, using alternate pronunciations (Shi and To) of the first part of their names (Ito and Higa) to convey the idea of two styles in one. (I still maintain it could conceivably be pronounced “Ito-Higa Ryu”. And might suggest exactly that idea in a gathering. But someone else might say it would sound stupid and look at me as if I were a nincompoop. And they might even laugh a little. But I don’t care – sticks and stones…)

Shi-To Ryu incorporates the majority of existing Okinawan kata. In addition to Itosu’s work and Higashionna’s, Mabuni appended a few others, like Nipai from the Chinese martial artist Go Kenki. Apparently not content with a kata list longer than the genealogy of Chinese Emperors, Mabuni even fashioned a few katas himself, just to top off the jug.

The problem, in fact, is that he included so many katas that he seems to have left parts of some out. And who can master them all…or even remember them? I have lived to appreciate My Bunny’s ability to absorb and pass down 40 odd kata, without the support of an Iphone! (Not that I would resort to technology to steal kata. Heaven forbid!)

What Mabuni bequeathed the world is essentially a synopsis of 300 years of Okinawan martial arts. After that, details are up to you. And legion. I have spent decades filling gaps.

For example, (Sensei pronounces that phrase “fogidawmple”) a friend named Dan Carrington (now deceased) studied Shorin Ryu from the lineage of the Okinawans, Okuhara Buni and Kyan Chotoku. I learned kata versions from Dan that predate the modifications Itosu made and opened doors to understanding Okinawan kata that other styles do not offer.

I also studied Goju Ryu from seasoned teachers, including my long time friend, Lee Gray, and was exposed to Higashionna’s approach and the underpinnings of Goju material from a more original source. (I still haven’t figured out the Seipai thing, though, so don’t forget.)

The larger point is that karate is more than any single political structure can encompass, no matter how extensive. Mabuni did a good job, but, in truth, about a third of his syllabus is redundant and I rarely practice it, spending my waning years on the parts that are most instructive (and fun).

After My Bunny’s death in 1953 the style veered off in a half dozen directions driven by former students, including his two sons who interpret and pass on their father’s work differently, both claiming orthodoxy. So many modifications have been fostered on the system by students-cum-masters, that nowadays it would take a time machine to learn the true style My Bunny stitched together.

But I still have a few good years left. Maybe someone will invent one.