by Art Smiley
Kyan, Okinawa 1956
(l-r) Art Smiley, Tatsuo Shimabukuro & Sgt. Brynor
My first introduction to him was through Don Nagle. I saw Don Nagle
working out in a crossit at Ten Gen. Ten Gen was Camp Courtney on
Okinawa. This is in 1956. Don Nagle was my first introduction to
karate. At first it was comical watching him go through his katas,
but then it was also fascinating so I asked and he explained, I
watched, again I asked and he explained. I Went to the dojo as his
guest. The Dojo was in Kyan. Kyan was a little village about a
quarter of a mile at the other side of Terigawa and about a half
mile into the boondox, the rice patties.
From Ten Gen we would take a chotomoti
car, which was a converted three wheel motorcycle that will hold six
people on the back. We would take that into Agena. From Agena we
would take a bus about a mile the other side of Agena and then we
would walk about half a mile into the rice patties. Kyan consisted
of probably about 20 houses. I think everybody there was related,
I'm not sure. They didn't have sidewalks, they just had a little
trail. It was kind of a rough trail because it was dirt over coral
and a lot of places the coral was just sticking out.
When you would approach Shimabuku's
house there were two steps up, there was a cinderblock or stone
wall, around it was coral. There would be a couple steps up then you
would go around a wall which is used to block the view from the
sidewalk, from the path. The wall was also made of coral and it had
a thin coating of like plaster or concrete over it, yeah concrete,
concrete stucco over it. When you would go up the stairs and around
that little wall you would see the yard. On the far side of the yard
was the house. On the right was a wall going back into the wall of
the house. On the left would be a couple of sheds, I guess they were
The house consisted of three rooms.
Their doors were sliding doors, sliding partitions. In the house
itself was a big room which was divided into half, which was two of
the rooms. They had mat floors, woven mat floors, I guess over wood.
They slept in the back area, the front area would be considered
living room or family room or whatever. That's also where we worked
out when we were not in the yard. And then the other room, well you
couldn't very well call it a room. It was like a little kitchen with
a coal area for fixing food. They didn't have a stove or anything,
they just would build a fire and they had a little metal grill that
they would put the pots on. For water there was a well in the front
yard. It was a circular shaft that went down, it was probably built
about 4 feet, the walls were built about 4 feet off the ground and
it also had something where you could through a bucket down and
crank it back up again. That was their water supply.
When we worked out, we worked out in
the yard. The yard was not a smooth yard, it was concrete, no I'm
sorry it was dirt over coral. And a lot of places the coral was
sticking up, but it was kind of smooth coral, it wasn't sharp coral.
He had a couple of hitting boards. Hitting boards and kicking
boards. They were constructed where when you would hit it it would
fly back and then come back and hit you so each time you struck it
you would get double results. Instead of just hitting it plain,
quick, it'll go bang bang. When I first started there it was with
Don Nagle, there was one other American and there were 3 or 4
Okinawan Reucin( sp?) Police, security, they were taking lessons
We worked in his front yard,
occasionally we would go in to the house and do katas there. That's
where he taught us. He used to sit up on the front steps, I think it
was 2 steps up from the yard into the house.
Occasionally, well sometimes during
the training, we would take a break and mamasan would heat up some
water in a little tea kettle, a battered old copper tea kettle. She
would throw in a handful of tea leaves, no she would bring the hot
water out, papasan would throw in a handful of leaves and let it
seep for a while, then he would pour, then they would add more hot
water and more hot water and more hot water. They would use the same
tea leaves probably about a half a dozen times.
Finally there was nothing more than
just faintly colored water. They used kind of a green tea. For
sweetener they would use cane, it was made from sugar cane. It was a
brown sugar, but it really wasn't a sugar. What they would do is
pour the sugar into a pan, they would let it cool and harden and
they would break it up so the sugar was pretty much like a rock
sugar, that's all you can call it. It was real, real sweet.
Sometimes we just sucked on that and then we would sip the tea and
just keep the sugar in our mouth and just keep sipping on the tea.
More on the hitting boards: the
hitting boards were something where you had a place for you to stand
and then the vertical board. The vertical board the area you would
hit would not be the plain wood it would be an area that was wrapped
in rope. It was kind of a rough rope like hemp. He had those for
hitting, those for kicking, and he also had them for chopping too,
using, conditioning, the edge of the hand.
Shimabuku would show us something and
then he would just practice and practice and practice. It was a
very, very slow progression in the training system. For the first
several months all we really did was learn how to make a fist and
how to throw a punch, how to breathe and how to stand. There were a
lot of people who started taking the lessons and dropped it out of
shear boredom. They wanted to learn quick so they could go out and
kick ass. They wanted a quick fix. The way Tatsuo taught there was
no quick fix.
A little background on him. As much as
I know during the 2nd World War he was teaching the Japanese
Imperial Marines karate in the Philippines. I don't know how many
American deaths could be indirectly attributed to him.
Kyan was a farming community. As I
said it was in the middle of the boondox. There were rice patties
around, there were fields. I'm pretty sure his home, they had their
own little family plot, I never saw the plot, but I saw mamasan and
one of the girls harvesting the beans. When they would they used
everything pertaining to the bean; they would use the leaves, the
stem, even the root system, as well as the beans themselves. I
remember times where she'd be sitting on the ground in the front
yard sorting or sifting or doing something with the beans and we'd
just all be practicing around her.
I think the average annual income for
the goose(sp.?) on Okinawa was like $25.00. So what Shimabuku was
making with his lessons, he was considered very, very wealthy. We
paid I think 500 yen, 600 yen a month for lessons which is like
about $5.00. We put him pretty much in high cotton. When I first
started playing karate, let's see what was I doing then. I was
cooking and I would bring things out of the mess hall wrapped in my
gi to the dojo and I would give it to Shimabuku and the family.
Little things like a roast chicken, coffee, granulated sugar, ha,
ha, ha. They did appreciate that very, very much. As the said the
average annual income on Okinawa is like $25 a year.
When I started taking lessons from
Shimabuku I think there were like about 4 or 5 Americans that had
studied prior to me, as I said I was introduced to him by Don Nagle.
They had apparently checked out my record, they made sure that I was
not a hot head or troublemaker before allowing me to take the
lessons. Many people began the lessons, very, very few people
The wall at the entrance to
Shimabuku's house in Kyan, the entrance to the yard. Like I told
before, it was a coral wall covered over with some kind a stucco. I
remember one time seeing Shimabuku just pounding the wall with his
fist, looked like just out of shear boredom or just working out, but
as he was doing it he was chipping off pieces of it. After a while
the wall got pretty ratty. And he replaced it with the money that he
was getting from lessons. He replaced the wall and he also put down
a very, very fine, a thin coat of concrete over the coral, the coral
and dirt yard in front of his home. So far from what I remember of
Shimabuku and the house.
MORE REMEMBRANCES OF SHIMABUKU
He had two sons, one was older, one
was younger, of course. One time the younger one was replacing the
soles on his daddy's shoes. He did it with a hammer, a nail and some
heavy twine and he would make a hole, he would force the twine
through with something like a needle and then he would tie it off.
They were very ingenious. One time
there was this, in his house, they did have electricity, which meant
they were doing good. But the only thing they had was a single light
bulb hanging from a cord in the front room. That was the extent of
their electricity. They didn't have any electrical appliances that I
One time we were working out in the
evening, at night. There was a swarm of some flying insects, and
literally swarmed and almost forced us out of the house. They were
attracted to the light. His son got a can of water and held it under
the light and in just literally a matter of seconds, all the
insects, all the flying insects flew into the bowl of water, the pan
of water, so we were able to go outside and work out. With
Shimabuku's daughter, seems to me that he had two of them.
COMMUNIST PEP RALLIES
Every once in a while on Okinawa they
would have these communists pep rallies. Communists agitators would
go in and they would have rally. Of course when they did it would
confine the troops to the bases to avoid any trouble, any problems.
This was not good for the townspeople, like the people who worked in
the bars, the bar owners, the prostitutes, and even Shimabuku,
because it interfered with business. If there was a communist pep
rally around and the troops wouldn't come, they couldn't get any
One time Shimabuku decided that he
didn't want a communist pep rally in his area. These pep rallies
would last a couple of days, so I remember one time he got dressed,
one of the few times I'd seen him dressed. He put on a pair of
khakis, a white shirt, and his gadas, and he packed up his seis. He
wrapped them up in, I want to say cloth, yeah some kind of cloth,
like burlap. And he went to the communist pep rally, taking along
Harry Smith and Brynor. They broke up the rally. He liked to put
Smith and Brynor in situations to see what they would do. They were
into fighting the swabbys. Me, I'm a lover not a fighter.
When you see him dressed, he was a
short man, very, very thin man. When he dressed he dressed in very
baggy clothing, but when he moved, when he was hitting, when he was
punching, when he was kicking, it was very, very difficult just to
follow it with your eyes, he was extremely super quick. He threw a
series of punches and it was just a blur. You know I had very quick
responses back then but it was just very difficult to follow
POSTSCRIPT ON KYAN
Just a postscript about the village of
Kyan. It was a little farming community, isolated in the boondox. It
was surrounded by rice patties, with a just a little path going
through the rice patties. I don't think you could of driven a
vehicle down that path. I don't remember it being that wide. It
might have been. But usually it was just a foot path.
A family would maybe have a pig or
maybe a couple of pigs and they would keep them in the family
compound which would be in the front area of the house. And they
would have chickens as it was a farm community.
The area between Kyan and the main
road was where the traffic was. You could drive a vehicle on that.
It was just a one-lane dirt road raised up over the patties.
A RESTAURANT IN AGENA
Generally after training some of us
would go to a little restaurant in Agena. It was not military
approved. Downstairs was a series of log tables and benches. Benches
with no backs. But then upstairs would be living rooms with low
tables and cushions. You step up into the room, of course you had to
leave your shoes at the door. They had sliding glass doors, they had
geishas who would take your order. We would generally order, well, I
would order ammi rice. Ammi rice was fried rice wrapped in a
scrambled egg and had little bits of meat in it.
I found out the reason the restaurant
was not approved, military approved, it was because they were using
dog and cat meat. It was tough but it was tasty.
The Isshin Ryu style of karate was
created by Tatsuo Shimabuku. He took the stance from one form of
karate and he modified it, he lowered the guard from I guess from
boxing, from sparring and incorporated that, he just created the
form. Apparently he went to the Japanese Karate Institute and
demonstrated to them. They accepted it, they approved, and where the
name came from I do not know.
One of the differences between Isshin
Ryu and Shorin Ryu and Guju Ryu was the way the punches were thrown.
Rather than starting with a fist at your waist, knuckles down and
then twist as punch down, his was just up against the body and the
punches would go out like a piston without the twist. He felt as
though without the twist it would gain speed. It would not drag. To
watch him punch his arm it was like watching a piston in action,
very, very rapid piston.
As for his new dojo, the one in Agena,
he was very, very proud of it, this is his expansion program. It was
a couple blocks off the main road. It was big enough where he could
have plenty of students, after all that was the name of the game for
him, making money. I wouldn't call him greedy, but in Agena he had a
larger yard so he could have more students. In his home he could
only have about 4 to 6 people and then it started getting a little
cramped, and this is working outdoors. I do not remember any
rivalry. There were different dojo's around, different karate
dojo's, but there were no rivalries. Everybody pretty much just
practiced their own thing.
TATSUO's TECHNIQUE AND EXHIBITIONS
His technique, let's see what can I
say about his technique? Well, it was his own, he developed it and
he used to exhibit it quite a bit at different exhibitions. There
are some photos of an exhibition in Tairagawa. It was, I think, a
day of sports at the local high school in their sports field. He had
some of the students demonstrate their katas and then he would go
through it. After that he would have the students spar. When he set
a match up this was wearing Kendo equipment. He wanted us to wear
Kendo equipment so we could follow through with our punches and all,
rather than learning to pull them. We wore everything from, but,
even in the Kendo equipment, you get hit up side the head you could
The progression through the ranks,
through the different belts, he would determine the rate of
advancement. What he did was very, very slow. Very tedious, very
methodical and he wanted to make sure that you had things down pat
before he advanced you to the next step, the next level.
When he thought it was time for me to
go for my black belt, he matched me up with two other students, who
were also going for their dan at the same time. Fighting them at the
same time. I remember I did very well against both of them. The
object was not to get in the middle of them but always have one of
them between you and the other opponent.
Then he brought in a black belt from
Naha, the capital of Okinawa. I fought him and I beat him. Then they
brought in a representative from the Japanese Karate Corp., and I
don't remember if I fought him or if he watched. I think he was an
observer. And they deemed it, I was qualified and they presented me
with my 1st degree black belt.
I achieved my 6th degree black belt
before I left Okinawa. On my papers, my silks, Tatsuo gave me the
rank of 6th degree black belt because he figured if I kept up my
training as religiously I had that within 10 years I would be. I
kept it up for a while. But other things took preference.