Karate originated as a martial art thousands of years ago and was brought to Japan from Okinawa, China and Taiwan. There was no fixed system until approximately 1907, when Yastune Itosu of Shuri and Kaneryo Higaonna of Naha (both of whom are regarded today as two of the most influential teachers of Okinawan karate) gained a good following for both of their own special styles.
Many famous karateka, or bushi as they are known in Okinawa, experimented and developed their skills in such provinces as Shuri, Naha and Tomari. Unlike Judo and Kendo, Karate was a secret and unknown to the general public.
Kenwa Mabuni who studied under both Higaonna and Itosu devised Shito-Ryu in 1928.
Born in 1893, Kenwa Mabuni was the 17th generation son of a samurai (Onigusuki). Mabuni was keenly aware of the accomplishments of his ancestors and wanting to overcome poor health, began Karate training intensively at the age of 13. He also studied weaponry techniques of the Nunchaku, Bo, Sai, Tonfa and Kama from Master Aragaki.
Shito-Ryu is noted for the number of kata it has in its syllabus. This came about through Kenwa Mabuni’s studies of other styles. He not only became expert in those of the Shuri (Shorin) School, but also in those of the Naha (Shorei) school, making a total of more than seventy. Receiving instruction in Shorin-Ryu from Master Ankoh Itosu, and blending these styles meant that he not only learnt the 11 training patterns of the Naha school, but also forty or so from the Shuri School. Training with Tomarite Master Aragaku added another 45 training forms, making Kenwa Mabuni the most knowledgeable of the Okinawa masters. He travelled to China with Chojun Miyagi and studied Southern Shaolin Wushu, which added even more training forms to his repertoire. From all of this the bases for the kata were developed for use as Shito-Ryu training patterns.
Kenwa Mabuni was the second student of Master Kaneryo Higaonna. He was a policeman and had access to the fighting arts and was devoted to studying Nahate, instructing the secrets of his art to the Okinawa police, constabulary and self defence forces, also making frequent visits to Japan prior to 1920 to instruct the art. In 1929 Kenwa Mabuni made a permanent move to Osaka to teach at universities and police departments. When Shito-Ryu was founded it was known as Hanko-Ryu, which meant “Half-heart school”, but Kenwa Mabuni changed it to Shito-Ryu, (using their initials) he made it a play on the names of his two Okinawa masters.
During his lifetime, Shito-Ryu was a unified and strong body, but after his death in May 1957, at the age of 64, many of his students left to found their own variations of Shito-Ryu.
His better-known students Kuniba (developed Kuniba Shito-Ryu), Sakagami (developed Itosu-kai) and Tani (developed Shukokai) were among some of these, but Kenwa Mabuni’s system remains one of the four major styles in Japan.
Although the style is Okinawa in origin, it embraced the Japanese principles and became interested in competition. Stances are medium height, having neither the length of Shotokan nor the shortness of Wado-Ryu, but like Wado-Ryu the movements of Shito-Ryu are concise and powerful, avoiding large sweeping techniques, which can be seen and easily avoided.