Shohei/Uechi Ryu History
Uechi-Ryu/Shohei-Ryu Karate was created by Kanbun Uechi, an Okinawan who studied and
taught in China, and brought The art of Pangainoon as it was called to Japan and Okinawa.
Kanbun Uechi was born on 5 May 1877, in Izumi, a small farming village on the northern part of
Okinawa. He was the eldest son of Satsuma samurai descendants Kantoku and Tsuru Uechi.
Through his youth, he mainly worked to learn to farm the land of his ancestors, and studied
some of the martial arts forms available at the time, becoming proficient with the bo staff, and
often leading demonstrations for local festivals. He never dreamed that he would be
responsible for the preservation of one of the most highly respected fighting forms known (the
system no longer exists in China), now the most popular on the island of Okinawa.
At the age of 19, Kanbun left Okinawa to travel to China. His reasons were twofold: To study
the fighting forms of China, and to avoid conscription into the Japanese army.
During the 18th and 19th centuries, most of the great Okinawan instructors of martial arts went
to China to study. Many of the beautiful, flowing styles taught today bear only a superficial
resemblance to the practical fighting forms of that age. The main difference was the attitude
involved in imparting and studying martial arts - at the time, one studied to survive! A
strongly-practiced technique could easily be responsible for saving one's life in that age of
road bandits, brigands, personal vengeance, and violent politics, so students took their
training much more seriously. It was not a "hobby"! And so China, being the birthplace of so
many great fighting systems, was the best place to go for intensive training.
The other reason was to avoid being drafted into the Japanese army. Since shortly after
Kanbun's birth, Okinawan youths were being forced into military service. This was one way
Japan attempted to ensure the subservience of the next generation of these troublesome,
headstrong people: Draft the youth into the army and indoctrinate them into Japanese political
thought, give them the little bit of power a soldier has, put a few of them in charge of a small
village now and again, and the job is done. It didn't work.
The Okinawan's were quite aware of the efforts by the Japanese to erase their culture and
subjugate them to Japanese laws and customs. They strongly opposed the presence of the
Japanese officials at every opportunity, and resented the enormous taxes levied by the
Japanese on the Okinawan people, which left most of the island in extreme poverty.
But most of all, the Okinawan's were fearful that the presence of a standing army on Okinawa
would invite invasion of the island by Japan's enemies. The Uechi family wanted no part of this.
Encouraged by his family elders, Kanbun Uechi quietly left Okinawa in March 1897 for China.
He made landfall on the portion of coastal China just west of the northern tip of Taiwan- the
city of Fuchou, in the Fukien province. In the early summer of 1897, he began his studies at
the Kugusuku Karate School with Matusuda Tokusaburo, with fellow Okinawan's from Izumi,
who had escaped to China for the same reasons. However, Kanbun had something of a
personality clash with one of the senior students, and soon left the school to study a form of
Chinese boxing called Pangainoon, under a master named Shusshabu.
It had been thought by later Uechi-Ryu practitioners for many years that "Shusshabu" was a
dialect variant of the name "Shushiwa", who was a teacher of Tiger Style Chinese boxing, one
of the "Five Fists of Fukien" (being the Dragon, Tiger, Leopard, Snake, and Crane styles).
After a research visit to Fuchou by Master Kanei Uechi and other members of the Uechi Karate
Association in 1984, it became apparent that Shusshabu and Shushiwa were different
individuals. Shusshabu was the last instructor of Pangainoon in China. Not much more is
known of him at this time.
It is interesting to note that the Chinese symbols for Pangainoon (or "Fwange-nun" in another
dialect), meaning "half-hard, half-soft", or "heaven-and-Earth" style, and the present Japanese
symbols for Uechi-Ryu Karate, mean the same. A Chinese pronouncing the Japanese symbols
for Uechi-Ryu would say "Shang-te Lui"; and would explain that this meant "hard-soft fist-way!"
It is possible that Kanbun saw the calligraphy for Shusshabu's system of fighting, and noting
the similarity of the ideograms to those of his own name (Uechi), used that as a reference to
seek him out.
Shusshabu proved to be a taskmaster of the highest degree. The young Okinawan became
discouraged, but persisted. He later told his son Kanei "all I did for three years was Sanchin."
Very few students survived this test of patience. When I first began my training I cleaned the
training floor and the toilet area, and occasionally tried to learn some of the movements by
watching the senior students. After awhile, they would see me going through some of the
movements by myself, and would give me a little help, but the master would offer no
assistance. Finally, after being thoroughly discouraged and resigned to the fact that I would
never learn karate, the master called me to him. "Stand here and do this motion," Shusshabu
said, indicating the opening movements for Sanchin and the double thrust. "I worked on
nothing else, but these thrusting motions for three months, but because I had nothing else to
work on, my thrust became very strong."
Kanbun told Kanei that mastery of Sanchin took at least ten years, but after three years, his
teacher taught him the Seisan Kata. During that time, Kanbun became very strong and fast,
his whole time in China being spent in study. This was due in part to the rigorous old-style
Chinese training methods for strengthening and conditioning, which used sand, gravel,
buckets of rice, gripping weights and holding/lifting with the fingers, etc.. But throughout all the
training, emphasis was placed on total mastery of Sanchin.
"All is in Sanchin" was a phrase used often by Kanbun when training his son Kanei. This
parallels the attitude of today's Okinawan Goju-Ryu teachers (Goju-Ryu bears close
resemblance to Uechi-Ryu) and is repeated by the teachers of White Crane Ch'uan-Fa who
say that, of all the katas and forms, Sanchin is the most important.
Kanbun studied under Shusshabu for ten years learning not only the physical art (which
included Chinese medicine) but also philosophy and the ancient Chinese classics. He became
fluent and literate in Chinese - quite a change from the unsophisticated, uneducated young
man who arrived ten years previously! To supplement his income he sold medicines outside
Buddhist temple gates.
In 1904, Kanbun received certification in Pangainoon from Shusshabu, and became an
assistant instructor at his master's school. In 1907, Kanbun obtained permission to open his
own school. With great difficulty, he finally opened a training hall in Nanching, a city about 250
miles southwest of Fuchou. Nanching was also well-known for its large number of famous
Kung-Fu fighters and teachers. A Chinese tea merchant and friend to Kanbun, Wu Hsien-Kuei
( in Japanese, Gokenki) warned Kanbun not to try to open a school in that district - others had
tried and failed. But Kanbun replied that he liked the area and looked forward to the challenge.
In time, despite a few run-ins with jealous locals, Kanbun's reputation grew, and he was
heading a successful school. Even Wu Hsien-Kuei, the very man who originally warned him
against trying to teach there, left his old style at Kingai (a Chinese forerunner of Goju-Ryu)
and became his student.
By 1909, Kanbun had been doing quite well as teacher and was very happy with his new life.
Then, one of his students fell into an argument with another man over a farming dispute. That
year had seen a severe drought in the area, and the disagreement concerned the irrigation of
the parched rice fields. Violence ensued. Kanbun's student instinctively called upon his
training, struck the other man a heavy blow, and killed him. It was well known that he was a
student of Pangainoon under Master Kanbun. While the young student was punished, Kanbun
Uechi was held responsible for having trained him. The city accused Kanbun of failing to teach
the proper spirit of kenpo (Chinese Boxing), and in that society, this accusation was a very
serious thing. Kanbun vowed never to teach again, closed his school, and returned to
Okinawa in early 1910. He had the distinction of being the only Okinawan ever to have been
accepted in China as a teacher of Pangainoon.
At the time of Kanbun's return to Okinawa, Japanese officials were arresting all Okinawans
accused of evading the draft, and sentencing them to prison terms. However, Kanbun had so
completely adapted to the life and culture of China that when he landed in Naha Port, the
examining officials were convinced he was a Chinese scholar. He wore Manchu clothing, spoke
Chinese, and wore his hair Chinese-style. Kanbun returned to Izumi without incident.
That year, Kanbun married and settled down to raise his family and farm his land. He tried to
forget his years of training in China, but his reputation was following not far behind.
Gokenki, the former student of Kingai, often traveled to Okinawa on business. He soon located
his friend and teacher, and tried to persuade him to teach again. With the ghost of past events
and the sudden downfall of his reputation in China still haunting him, the possibility that his
recent connections with Chinese training might help to identify him as a draft-evader, Kanbun
was alarmed at the thought that his now-happy and peaceful life may be destroyed and his
new family made to suffer, and so vehemently refused.
Gokenki was a rather outspoken fellow, it seems, and made no secret of his obvious
preference for Chinese-style training and it's superiority over many Okinawan methods. He
managed without much effort to get into a brawl with another Naha karate teacher, and
defeated him soundly. After that, it seems that the reputation of several teachers and systems
were at stake - to save face, other well-known karate teachers challenged Gokenki, but none
were able to best him. Then, of course many prospective students showed up at Gokenki's
door asking for instruction. Gokenki made it known that his teacher in China was actually an
Okinawan after all, and lived on the northern end of the island.
Soon, Kanbun's reputation grew, though nobody had ever seen him perform. When
approached by young men seeking instruction, he merely stated that they must have mistaken
him for someone else. Finally the townspeople got Kanbun and Gokenki together to clear up
the mystery, and Kanbun could no longer deny the stories. He still refused to discuss karate or
demonstrate a kata, and offered no explanation. Somehow, the question of draft-evasion
never came up, and Kanbun was never indicted. He continued to farm his land as if he had
never been away, and taught bo staff technique at village gatherings and festival - but no
Every year, the Motobu police department held a large celebration at which it was customary
for all the local karate schools to demonstrate their skills. The teachers got together before the
celebration to discuss the demos and plan the vents. The idea came up to have the mayor of
Motobu announce that Kanbun Uechi would demonstrate by performing a kata. They were
anxious to see proof of his ability, and so saw to it that he attended the celebration and seated
so near to the stage that if he refused the mayor's request, he would lose face. The plot was
successful, for when the mayor asked Kanbun to demonstrate, the other teachers pushed
Kanbun onto the stage where he was seen by all. He could not refuse!
There was applause, then silence. Kanbun was furious, but quiet. He hesitated for a moment -
just enough time for the other teachers to wonder if, after all, it was just a story. Then, with
eyes glaring, Kanbun performed the kata Seisan so fast and beautifully, with such strength
and power, that after he had finished, jumped down from the stage and proceeded home, the
karate portion of the day's festivities had come to an unscheduled end - no one else wished to
try to follow Kanbun's demonstration!
From that time on, Kanbun was respected throughout Okinawa as a true expert. He was asked
to teach his karate to public schools, and was even offered a position as a professor of karate
at the Teacher's College of Okinawa by Itosu Anki, the great Shorin teacher, who was also a
professor at the college. Kanbun politely refused all offers.
This was a time of great national pride in Okinawa, and the poverty-stricken people were ever
on the lookout for heroes and role-models to bolster the society's morale. But "famous"
Okinawans represented a threat to the Japanese rule of the island, and were subject to
harassment and "investigation" by the Japanese officials. Kanbun was concerned for his
family's welfare because of his years as a political exile, and would not give in to the pressure
to teach, which would only expose him to official scrutiny. There was so much pressure from
different sources, in fact, and income for family support so scarce, that Kanbun left Okinawa
for Japan in 1924 to search for stable employment.
Kanbun Uechi settled in a housing compound in the Wakiyama prefecture, near Osaka, Japan,
having found employment as a janitor in a cotton mill there. A fellow Okinawan who happened
to be his neighbor, Ryuyu Tomoyose, became a friend of the quiet newcomer, and they spent
some of their leisure hours together.
One night, after the two had become good friends, Ryuyu related a story about a fight he had
been involved in, having told Kanbun that his only form of entertainment was to scuffle with the
local Japanese youths his age (he was 24 at the time). One story has it that he told Kanbun he
lost that day's brawl, and sadly described his humiliating defeat. He lamented that he did not
know what he should have done. Despite some training he had, the attacker used techniques
for which Ryuyu was not prepared and with which he was unfamiliar. Perhaps, Ryuyu
surmised, the training he had was all a falsehood - merely fancy dancing.
Kanbun became excited. He had the story retold to him, and then explained detail what should
have been done. From time to time, Ryuyu would present a different fighting situation, and
Kanbun would become excitedly involved in explaining and describing the proper fighting
response. This continued for quite some time, and Ryuyu was soon able to tell that he was in
the presence of a real master of fighting.
Finally, realizing that he couldn't go on forever merely telling stories (and also anxious to get
on with some real training in earnest) Ryuyu confronted Kanbun with the fact that he knew of
his reputation as an expert, and implored him to give him lessons. At first, Kanbun refused but
karate and teaching were in his blood, and so he relented on the condition that Ryuyu tell no
one of his training.
After two years, Ryuyu convinced Kanbun to teach publicly once more, saying that the art
would die out if it were not passed on. Finally, after much convincing, Kanbun consented. He
taught mostly Okinawans, beginning with a very small school and a very limited enrollment -
only five students, the other four being carefully recruited by Ryuyu Tomoyose, Kanbun's right
hand man. They were Uezato Genmei, Uehara Saburo, Yamashiro Kata, and Matakishi
Yoshitada, all from Okinawa's northern region. Later, prospective students were screened by
one of these original five members who acted as guarantors for their nominee's behavior, and
students were forbidden to perform outside the dojo, which was located in the cotton mill's
company housing area. The school was named "Shataku Dojo". This was the first time
Pangainoon was taught outside of China.
In 1927, Kanbun's oldest son Kanei (then 16) joined his father at the Shakatu Dojo. In 1932,
Kanbun decided to move the school to a nearby hall in Tebira Cho (town or district of Tebira),
and established a full--fledged dojo. The system was called Pangainoon-Ryu, and the school
was called Pangainoon-Ryu Karate-Jutsu Kenkyu-jo (Pangainoon Style Karate Study Hall).
This school was later moved to a nearby location, and still operates today. Master Kanbun
also referred to the system as "Min-Chin Chu-Ryu", meaning "Speed-with-Glare Way", but only
as a description, not as a name.
Enrollment grew to several hundred, with forty-four senior members. Kanbun taught only three
forms, one conditioning exercise, and Chinese medicine. He was able to quit working at the
cotton mill, taught karate morning and evenings, and sometimes privately during the day. He
also opened a small miscellany shop where he probably sold medicines and Chinese curios,
but he concentrated mainly on karate training.
In 1913, Kanbun Uechi and his senior students formed the Shubukai (organization of Martial
Training), and developed the following by-laws to govern the school:
1. This association will be called "Shubukai"
2. The association headquarters shall be located at Uechi Kanbun's residence in Tebira-Cho
3. The association's goals are the following principles:
* We will embody the principles of filial piety and make efforts to be upright citizens.
* We will deepen our understanding of everyday life and pursue a hard working, humble and
* We emphasize physical exercise and bodily health.
* We will cultivate moral behavior and increase our appreciation of others.
* We will promote social spirit and contribute to public well-being.
* Our members will refrain from drunken violence and will not injure another person under
penalty of immediate expulsion.
* Twenty yen will be collected each month for dojo maintenance.
* There will be a yen registration fee.
In August of 1940, the students of the Pangainoon-Ryu Karate-Jutsu Kenkyu-jo renamed the
system "Uechi-Ryu," and awarded Kanbun (age 63) the title of Grandmaster.
Kanei Uechi studied for ten years, as did his father, then received certification in 1937 to open
his own dojo. He taught in Osaka for two years, marrying in 1939. In 1941, Kanei was
promoted to Godan, then decided to return to Okinawa in 1942 after his students were called
away to war. He settled down for a short time to look after his family in Nago.
Ryuko Tomoyose, son of Ryuyu, learned from his father that Kanei had come back to the old
family lands on Okinawa. He located Kanei and soon convinced him to teach. Kanei's first
students in Nago were his brothers and handful of neighborhood youths, and his dojo was the
In 1944, Kanei, his younger brother Kansei, and most of the students were called into the war
effort to defend Okinawa. The school in Nago closed. Kanei was able to return to Okinawa
after a short time, but his brother Kansei was captured by the Russian army in Manchuria, and
spent two years in a Siberian prison camp before returning to Okinawa in 1947.
Meanwhile, in October of 1946, Kanbun (now 69) placed his Tebira school in the hands of
Ryuyu Tomoyose (who later moved the school and continued to teach there until his death in
1970), and returned to Okinawa to reopen the school in Nago himself. This was Kanbun's last
voyage. He was still shy of publicity, and consented to demonstrate his art only two more times
after his return to Okinawa. Three days after his last public performance, in January 1948, he
fell ill with nephritis, a disease of the liver (some forms are also known as Bright's disease). He
fought his disease for the next eleven months, but finally succumbed on November 25, 1948
little more than one year after returning to his beloved Okinawa. He was buried in Nago near
some of the old Uechi family lands. Kanbun Uechi had finally come home. He was 71 years old.
Shortly after his father's death, Master Kanei Uechi moved his dojo to Ginowan, naming it
Uechi-Ryu Karate-Jutsu Kenkyu-Jo (Uechi-Ryu Karate Study Hall). Assisting him was the 20
year old son of Ryuyu Tomoyose, Ryuko.
In 1957, Master Kanei moved his dojo again a short distance to its present location in
Futenma, calling the school "Uechi-Ryu Karate Dojo". It was reconstructed in 1963, and
renamed "Soke Shubukan" (Style Headquarters). From here, the system spread throughout
In February 1967, the All-Japan Karate Federation awarded Master Uechi the degree of Judan
- 10th degree black belt, an official recognition as the master of Uechi-Ryu Karate-Do. In April
of that same year, the All-Okinawan Karate Federation awarded Master Kanei the same - in a
unanimous decision. Later, in 1975, Master Kanei was elected President of the association.
In April 1984, Master Kanei, then 73, his brother Kansei, Ryuko Tomoyose, and other
members of the Uechi-Ryu Karate Association visited Fuchou to trace the origins of the
system. It was then that they discovered Shushiwa and Shusshabu were different individuals.
Research is still being conducted to learn more of Shusshabu and the origins of Pangainoon.
As brought from China, Pangainoon consisted mainly of three katas and several arduous
training techniques, most of which many of the more sports oriented modern systems avoid.
The basic system transplanted by Grand Master Kanbun Uechi consisted of the katas
Sanchin, Seisan, and Sanseiryu. His body conditioning drill later gave rise to several muscle
and mind conditioning exercises which are in use at all Uechi-Ryu classes as standard
requirements to this day. Uechi-Ryu is now considered to be a "moving meditation" by its
Master Kanei Uechi, realizing that the long periods between katas and various training
exercises would discourage the average modern-day Okinawan (and later, the
material-minded, "fast-food" culture of the Americans) saw a need to fill gaps in the training
schedule. He then pieced together other fighting techniques taught to him by his father, and
created intermediate katas which today form a bridge in the long, difficult training regime which
makes up our system of Uechi-Ryu Karate.
The katas as they exist number only eight. It is universally recognized that the number of
movements is not nearly as important as depth of understanding of movements, and the
underlying philosophy of moral strength and justice. Throughout this entire defensive system,
one's first response to an aggressive situation is to detain the opponent or block his attack,
and diffuse his power through deflection or absorption. Never attack first, and avoid
confrontation altogether if possible. This is exactly what attracted the Okinawans in the days of
Grand Master Kanbun, and still today, to this esoteric system of Uechi-Ryu.
The intermediate katas of Uechi-Ryu, as created by Master Kanei Uechi and his colleagues,
are Kanshiwa, Kanshu, Seichin, Seiryu, and Kanchin. Master Kanei also created several
two-man prearranged sparring drills bankais for two of the katas.
In order, with the original Chinese katas and exercises in bold print and Master Kanei's
contributions to the system in regular print, the system consists of the following:
* Body Conditioning/Toughing
* Kanshiwa Bankai
* Kyu Kumite
* Seisan Bankai
* Dan Kumite
* Sanseiryu (also known as San Ju Roku or San Shin Lui in Chinese)
Of the eight katas, Sanchin is still considered to be the basis of the whole system - the "link" of
continuity between all the other katas and movements. If you have a question you must go
back to the basics, and check it against Sanchin - are the arms in the proper Sanchin
position? Are the hands placed properly? Isn't that block or strike merely a modification of the
basic Sanchin thrust? And so we come full circle, as was intended: as a tree depends on its
roots for strength and support, so does the entire system of Uechi-Ryu/ Shohei-Ryu rely on its
Sanchin kata for developing strength and balance in all other movements.
Sanchin is shared by several other systems as well, in varying forms; however, while
Uechi-Ryu considers Sanchin to be a true kata and the most important to the system, most
other systems use some form of Sanchin as merely an exercise for breathing practice, form, or
conditioning, and do not stress its development as much. There is no other system known
today which relies so heavily on the development of Sanchin as does Uechi-Ryu, save ,
perhaps, old style Chinese White Crane Kung-Fu.
The name "Sanchin" means "three conflicts."
The kata Kanshiwa was formed by Master Kanei Uechi from fighting moves his father Kanbun
used often. The name is a tribute to Kanbun Uechi, and Shushiwa (a combination of elements
from both names). It was originally known as Kashabu, later changed, and has not been
The kata Kanshu, originally named "Daini Seisan" (Second Seisan), was created by Mr. Seki
Itokazu. The kata name also contains elements from the names Kanbun and Shushiwa.
The kata Seichin was created by Mr. Saburo Uehara. The name is a combination of Sanchin
and Seisan. After considerable review and revision, both katas were accepted during the
1950s and 1960s by Master Kanei Uechi as intermediate katas, and included in the training
system as authentically representative of Uechi-Ryu Karate. The originators of these two katas
were close students and colleagues of Master Kanei Uechi, and were well-prepared to present
them as candidates for their now permanent positions as intermediate training katas.
Almost all Okinawan systems have some form of Seisan Kata, and it is interesting to note
similarities in then all. Which of them was actually the "first" or "oldest" is not truly known only
that the Uechi-Ryu Seisan Kata is still performed in its pure Chinese form, uninfluenced by
other systems or modifications. The name "Seisan" simply means "thirteen", referring to the
number of fighting situations covered by the kata.
The kata Seiryu was created by Master Kanei Uechi. The name means "sixteen."
Kanchin is Master Kanei Uechi's crowning addition to the system, and is his favorite kata. The
name is a combination of Kanbun and Sanchin, but another story refers to it as "Kanei Fight"..
None have surpassed his performance of this beautiful kata to this day. Master Kanei still
considers it to be a lesser kata, however, when compared to Sanseiryu.
Of the three original Pangainoon katas, Sanseiryu is the most complex and difficult - the name
means "thirty-six" - yet one can still find the basis for every move in Sanchin. There are no
katas similar to Sanseiryu to be found in any other system. There is no aspiration higher for a
student of Uechi-Ryu Karate than to master this, the most complex kata of the whole system.
Yet, when the movements are finally memorized and performed correctly, one finds that one
has returned to the first kata, the basis of the whole system, after all - Sanchin! When one has
realized this, he has come through the full circle of development, and back to his beginning -
as should be, for beginning to understand true mastery of any system. One must always return
to his roots, for strength, power, and answers.
Some instructors of Uechi-Ryu/Shohei Ryu add a little now and then to the training regime
when they come across techniques which they feel will benefit their students, but none forsake
the routine which are standard in old-style Uechi-Ryu dojos. Essentially, the system is still
taught as it was many years ago, thanks to the careful and persistent efforts of Master Kanei
Uechi and the followers of Uechi-Ryu/Shohei Ryu Karate Do.
Master Kanei Uechi died in March of 1991, at the age of 70.
Shohei-Ryu was formed as an offshoot of Uechi Ryu in 1992. The Okinawa Karatedo
Association (Okikukai) is the governing body for Shohei Ryu. The Okikukai chose the emblem
to represent the new organization to literally represents the old Okinawa of tradition and
history and the new Okinawa of the future. The circle within a circle is the official symbol of
Okinawa. The outer red ring represents the ocean, the inner white ring represents peace and
the central red sphere means development or progress. The symbol of the ancient Ryukyuan
Kingdom consisting of 3 yellow waves circle a white region. The emblem combines symbols to
represent the continuity of ancient Ryukyuan values with modern-day Okinawa. The concentric
circles symbolize the eternity of Heaven and Earth, self-completion, equality and peace. This
whirling vision of justice and peace, so central to the Okikukai philosophy, is also the confident
expression of the belief that the ancient Ryukyuan ethos continues and will continue to enliven
From the Okikukai website. www.okikukai.jp/English/index.htm