Chotoku Kyan was born in Shuri and was the son of a steward to the Ryukyuan king. Kyan was noted for being small in stature and having poor eyesight – this led to his early nickname “Chan Migwa” (which translates to squinty-eyed Chan).
Kyan began training at the age of 8 in Shuri-te under Sokon Matsumura. It is also noted that Kyan’s father also taught him tegumi (Okinawan grappling) during this time. When Kyan was 20 years old, he then trained with Kosaku Matsumura in Tomari-te and also studied with Kokan Oyadomari. It was through Oyadomari that Kyan learned the kata Passai (also known as Bassai). By the age of 30, Kyan quickly became one of Okinawa’s famous karate masters having mastered both Shuri-Te and Tomari-Te. He was often challenged and was never defeated and was known for his strong kicking abilities.
Kyan’s contemporaries included masters such as Chojun Miyagi (founder of Goju-Ryu) and Kenwa Mabuni (founder of Shito-Ryu) and along with many other masters, Kyan was a participant in the 1936 meeting where the term “Karate” was standardized.
By combining Shuri-Te and Tomari-te, Kyan is credited as the founder of the Shobayashi branch of Shorin-Ryu – one of the three major branches of Shorin-Ryu. Kyan had many students, many of them forming their own branches of Shobayashi Shorin-Ryu and continuing to teach the style in its unaltered form. Some of his notable students include Tatsuo Shimabukuro (founder of Isshin-Ryu), Shoshin Nagamine (founder of Matsubayashi Ryu – another major branch of Shorin-Ryu) and Joen Nakazato (founder of Shorinji-Ryu). Eizo Shimabukuro, also a student of Kyan, is the current successor of Shobayashi Shorin-Ryu and is the only living master who has studied directly with Kyan. Another one of Kyan’s students, Zenryo Shimabukuro formed a sub-branch of Shobayashi called Sukunaihayashi Seibukan which is still being passed on by Shimabukuro’s son, Zenpo. Although these sub-branches are separate entities, they still preserve and teach the katas and techniques as Kyan did.
From Kyan, many of the Tomari-Te versions of katas are still being practiced today – Kusanku (Chatanyara version), Chinto (which is stylistically different from Itosu Chinto or Shotokan’s Gankaku), Wankan, Useishi (Tomari version of Gojushiho), Rohai and Seisan (which is a different kata practiced in Goju-Ryu).
Kyan survived the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 but died from fatigue and malnutrition in September of that year.
Kyan said in summary “In the course of everyday training, it is necessary to strengthen your body, to practice punches and kicks, to learn how to move our limbs in a supple fashion, and how to move about freely, while understanding the principles of training well. By training for a long time in this manner, you will acquire subtle principles of application and know how to move suitable in every situation, which might arise. However, if you only train the physical technique without enlightening you spirit, which is fundamental, you will be unable to use the art. You must become clear-sighted in life and seek to develop modesty, a calm spirit, alertness, and bravery at the same times as you train in the physical techniques.”
Check out this video of the Tomari-te version of Chinto passed down by Chotoku Kyan, his students and current practictioners of his lineage.