A highly respected Okinawan Karate master Zenryo Shimabukuro was the founder of Shorin-Ryu Seibukan Karate. An unassuming man, very little is known of him in the west.
Shimabukuro was a student of the pre-war Okinawan master, Chotoku Kyan. He was one of Kyan’s few students to teach his style of karate.
Zenryo Shimabukuro was born in Shuri, Okinawa on 14 November 1908. It is thought he learnt some Karate that had been introduced into the Okinawan school system.
At the age of 24, Shimabukuro moved to the district of Jagaru, in the town of Chatan, with his wife Tsuru. He worked as a baker and later worked as a tatami maker.
Chotoku Kyan was a contemporary of Gichin Funakoshi and was a phenomenal fighter. In some quarters he is considered to be the black sheep of Okinawa’s great masters. He was the son of a high-ranking official in the Okinawan Royal Court. He learnt his Karate from many of the top Okinawan masters, including the legendary Sokon Matsumura.
To prove the effectiveness of his Karate, Kyan would take his students to bars and brothels, looking for fights. He would use the fights to practice and refine his Karate techniques.
Shimabukuro used to deliver baked goods to the area where Kyan lived. He struck up a relationship with him. He would ask Kyan to train him but was turned down several times before being finally accepted. He trained with Kyan for over 10 years, becoming one of his most senior students.
On 7 December 1941, Japan mounted a surprise attack on the Pearl Harbor Naval base in Honolulu. This brought the United States into World War II on the side of the Allies.
Between 1 April to 22 June 1945, the battle of Okinawa took place between Japan and the United States. The battle was the bloodiest of the Pacific War. The three-month battle saw over 12,000 American deaths; over 100,000 Japanese deaths; and around 100,000 Okinawan civilian deaths.
Kyan was a casualty of the battle. He would give any food he had to children orphaned by the war. He eventually died due to starvation.
Shimabukuro also suffered during the war. Apart from losing the only teacher, he knew in Kyan, he also lost one of his daughters near the start of the war, and a son shortly after the war ended.
At the end of the war, Shimabukuro worked briefly for the US military before returning to his job as a baker.
Around 1947 Shimabukuro decided to teach the Karate he had learnt from Kyan to other people. Mainly teaching outside, he taught the eight kata he had learnt from Kyan. He also created his own kata called Wanchin, which he eventually added to his teaching syllabus. The kata contained many of the elements he had learned from Kyan. Over time his reputation as an instructor and for being one of Kyan’s most senior surviving students grew. He placed emphasis on hard sparring, which at this time was very unusual in traditional Okinawan training.
In 1952 Shimabukuro began teaching Karate to his nine-year-old son Zenpo and his nephew Zenji. They would train at the family home and sometimes at a nearby graveyard. By this time Shimabukuro was teaching Karate to some of the local children and also to some adults.
Shimabukuro was good friends with another Okinawan Karate master, Chosin Chibana. They would frequently give demonstrations together.
In 1956 the Okinawan Karate Federation was established. Chibana was named President. However, Shimabukuro was not invited to be a member of the Federation. Many in the Karate hierarchy did not like the emphasis he placed on sparring. His exclusion from the Federation did not sit well with Chibana, who withdrew from the Federation some years later.
By 1959 Shimabukuro began teaching Karate to non-Okinawan students. His first American student was William Fuller Jr who was stationed in Okinawa. Fuller arranged for him to teach some other students. This took some persuasion as at the time Karate was very rarely taught to non-Okinawans.
Shimabukuro was given a contract to teach Shorin Ryu Karate to American personnel at Fort Buckner. He was assisted by his 16-year-old son Zenpo.
In 1960 Shimabukuro joined the AJKF (All-Japan Karate-do Federation) and became President of the Okinawan regional headquarters. Another of Kyan’s students, Joen Nakazato, was named Vice-President.
The AJKF Okinawan branch promoted Shimabukuro to 10th Dan in 1962. However, the AJKF Okinawan branch eventually broke up because of internal politics and infighting.
Still mainly teaching his Karate classes outside, Shimabukuro borrowed some money to purchase some land in Chatan to build his dojo in 1962. Named the Seibukan, meaning the “Hall of the Holy Art“, the dojo was one of the biggest in Okinawa. Many of his students helped with the building of the dojo.
In September 1963 Shimabukuro sent his 19-year-old son, Zenpo, to Philadelphia to stay with Walter Dailey. Dailey had studied Seibukan in Okinawa and had established the first Seibukan dojo outside of Okinawa. Shimabukuro sent his son to help Dailey with teaching and organising Seibukan in the United States.
The Okinawan Karate-do United Association awarded Shimabukuro with his 10th Dan.
Shimabukuro’s son Zenpo, returned to Okinawa in 1966, to help him run his Seibukan dojo.
The Okinawa Karate-do United Organisation had been established by Shimabukuro, Joen Nakazato, Shigeru Nakamura, and Shinsuke Kaneshima. The organisation merged with the AOKF (All-Okinawa Karate-do Federation). Shoshin Nagamine was named President of the new organisation, with Shimabukuro being named one of three Vice-Presidents, alongside Kanei Uechi, and Yagi Meitoku.
The new AOKF became an umbrella organisation for the various Okinawan Shorin-Ryu, Goju-Ryu, and Uechi-Ryu styles. Shimabukuro was eventually awarded a 10th Dan by the AOKF.
On 14 October 1969 Zenryo Shimabukuro died in Mainland Japan, aged only 61.
Shimabukuro and 20 of the senior members of the AOKF have been invited to the mainland by Ryoichi Sasagawa for the 1st All Japan Karate Championships. He had performed a kata demonstration at the event.
Shimabukuro had remained in Japan after the Championships to visit his daughter who was living in Osaka. During the visit, he started complaining about stomach pains. His daughter took him to a local hospital, where it was found that he had a ruptured appendix. This eventually led to his death.
Shimabukuro’s remains were transported back to Okinawa. He was buried in the family tomb in Jagaru, near his dojo.
Zenryo Shimabukuro was succeeded by his son Zenpo as head of the Seibukan.
Standing only 5 ft 2 in, Zenryo Shimabukuro was a giant in the world of Okinawan Karate. Although not widely known in the west, his legacy and that of his teacher, Chotoku Kyan, has continued through his son Zenpo and several of his American students in the United States.