Master Kenwa Mabuni was born in Shuri, Okinawa into the Onigusukini samurai family in 1889. To overcome poor health, Mabuni trained intensely in
Karate at the age of 13. He had the privilege of being mentored by two of the greatest masters of that time – Ankoh Itosu in Shuri-Te and Kanryo Higshiaonna in Naha-Te. Mabuni eventually combined the two styles to form Shito-Ryu.
Through Ankoh Itosu, Mabuni learned the famous Pinan katas, Naihanchi, Chinto, Gojushiho, Bassai and the Itosu version of Kusanku. While studying with Itosu, Mabuni’s contemporaries was like a who’s who list of Karate greatest masters – Gichin Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan), Chotoku Kyan (founder of Shobayashi Shorin-Ryu) and Chosin Chibana (founder of Kobayashi Shorin-Ryu) were some of the masters who shared the dojo floor with Mabuni.
During his years of studying karate, it was his close friend Chojun Miyagi (founder of Goju Ryu) who introduced him to Kanryo Higaonna. It was through Higashionna that Mabuni learned Naha-Te (now Goju-Ryu) kata such as Kururunfa, Suparinpei, Seiunchin, Sanchin and Tensho. By combining the soft and circular motions of Naha-Te with the more linear and direct moves of Shuri-Te, Mabuni created Shito-Ryu – named after his two teachers Higashionna (“Shi”) and Itosu (“ito”). Shito-Ryu is a style which shows the diverse roots of Karate. It is extremely fast but its intricate details in kata make it artistic and the various stances and use of hip rotation make it very powerful.
Cross-training in multiple styles nowadays is relatively the norm rather than the exception and Mabuni is credited as one of the first masters to train in various styles with many of Karate’s famous masters. Mabuni was always seeking knowledge in the arts and was an avid kata collector. In addition to Higashionna and Itosu, Mabuni also studied Fujian White Crane Fist with Chinese tea merchant Go Kenki. It is said that Go Kenki’s influence was responsible for the creation of the Shito-Ryu version of Nipaipo – one of several “trending” katas in Sport Karate. For a brief period of time, Mabuni also studied with Seisho Aragaki and various sources say that it was through Aragaki that Mabuni learned the kata Unshu (which eventually was incorporated into Shotokan as ‘Unsu’).
In an effort to make Karate more popular in mainland China, Mabuni made numerous trips to Tokyo n 1917 and 1928. During this time, most Karate was taught in secrecy but it was Mabuni’s opinion that it should be taught with honesty and integrity. Mabuni alongside masters who shared the same vision, he aligned himself with his dojo mate, Gichin Funakoshi and spread the art of Karate in the 1920′s. After Ankoh Itosu’s death in 1915, Mabuni taught other prominent Karate figures who were students of Itosu including Hironori Ohtsuka (founder of Wado-Ryu) and Yasuhiro Konishi (founder of Shindo Jinen-Ryu). In fact, Funakoshi himself did many of his fine-tuning in kata through Mabuni. With the support of one of his top students, Ryusho Sakagami (who is the instructor of American Karate pioneer Fumio Demura), Mabuni opened up many Shito-Ryu dojo in Osaka, Japan.
Mabuni, in modern times, would be like a “Wikipedia of Kata” and many sought his expertise in different kata, its theoretical applications (bunkai) and its history. Many of Karate’s founders and masters would consult Mabuni for any inquiries about kata and masters such as Funakoshi would send their students to Mabuni to learn new kata. Because of Mabuni’s comprehensive knowledge of kata, Shito-Ryu has the largest kata syllabus of all Karate styles with over 50 kata stemming from Shorin-Ryu and Goju-Ryu foundation. Mabuni also created three kata practiced only in Shito-Ryu – Juroku, Aoyagi and Shinpa.
Master Mabuni died in 1952 and was succeeded by his sons Kenei and Kenzo. The inheritance of Shito-Ryu is shrouded in controversy as there was a dispute between his two sons. Because of this, there are two main sects of Shito-Ryu – Seito Shito-Ryu (which is now headed by Kenzo Mabuni’s daughter after his death in 2005) and Shito-Kai (headed by Kenei Mabuni).
To this day, Mabuni’s Shito-Ryu is one of the widely practiced styles in the world along with Shotokan, Goju-Ryu and Wado-Ryu. Its immense popularity is due to the increased number of competitors performing Shito-Ryu katas in Sport Karate competition. Its intricate techniques make it very artistic in nature and captures the eyes of the audience and judges. Notable WKF World Champions include 2012 Champions Antonio Diaz and Rika Usami – both study Shito-Ryu under Sensei Yoshimi Inoue of Japan.