One Person's Opinion #2

Personal Thoughts & Opinions On Isshin-ryu

Keep Isshin-ryu as Sensei Taught It -One Single Sailor Who Trained At The Agena Dojo
Isshin Ryu: A Woman's Perspective - IR Sensei Sheila Reimer Abbotsford B.C
Not To Grab - But Is It karate? - Isshin ryu hand and foot kata grabbing techniques
A First Generation Student Speaks Out - Rank and secrets by Sensei Sherman Harrill

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Keep Isshin-ryu as Sensei Taught It

___ By Vernon Miller
One Single Sailor Who Trained At The Agena Dojo

I asked Mr. Miller for some background information and then followed up with a request for him to do his story as a first generation Isshin-ryu student on Okinawa. The following is the reply I received:

I was living in Sumner, Washington, and retired from the Kent Police Department and moved to Murray, Kentucky in 1992, (too many people moving into Washington.) I am presently still in law enforcement but considering hanging it up this summer.

I used to backpack around Mt. Rainier and the Enchantment Lakes. Since I moved here I have been doing almost nothing physical, and I started feeling guilty and, obviously, very much out of shape.

So I bought another gi, my gi that Master Shimabuku got for me fit a 165 lb body and my green belt had nothing left to hang down when I tied it. I know I sound fat, but I am 6'3" and 235 lbs, (not too bad). I think that was close to the size of Sensei Armstrong when I last visited him.

I started working on Seisan and had to bring it up on my computer to refresh my memory, I think I got it back now. Next comes working on Sanchin, Chinto looks more difficult to bring back but I'll work on it.

The nearest Isshin-ryu school is in Horse Cave, Kentucky, near Bowling Green, about 130 miles from where I live. I plan to go there soon and spend a day visiting and working out. I have been advised there will be a Isshin-ryu Seminar somewhere in Tennessee in June of this year. Numerous Isshin-ryu students and instructors will be there. I plan on going to see if I can visit some 1st generation students of Master Shimabuku and reminisce—maybe learn some bo.

While in the Navy I made three WestPac cruises and was homeported in Okinawa each time. I started lessons at the Agena Dojo, although when I saw a picture marked "Kin Dojo" on a website it looked identical to the Agena Dojo where I studied, (must be mislabeled).

The Only Sailor Being the only sailor working out with Marines and natives was quite an experience, I couldn't let them show me up, so I just stuck in there and outlasted a few of the Marines but not the natives. It was nice being able to go work out any day I wanted to and I knew Sensei would be there to instruct me almost any time of the day and it only cost me $5.00 a month.

Although Sensei couldn't speak English too well he always seemed to get his message across. I am grateful I had the opportunity to study under him. I also had some great American instructors while there, Mr. Blond, L. King, and Mr. Bartasevis. I never got to know them personally because after workout I always went back to my ship. I did get to go with Sensei and others to a demonstration at one of the military bases and watch Sensei do a Sai Kata under the spotlights in his silk gi and chrome sais—sure was impressive.

I think a story from a First Generation Isshin-ryu student would be very interesting but, in my opinion it would have to be written by someone with much more experience in Okinawa that I had, such as Mr. Blond, Mr. King, or Mr. Bartasevis or others. I was one single sailor who visited the Agena Dojo every day I could when my ship was in White Beach. This was sporadic and occurred over approximately 6 actual months during two cruises in the Western Pacific during the years of 1962, 1963, and 1964.

Grab a Gi and Go I did not have any social contact with the students or Sensei, only just working out at the Dojo and attending the one demonstration. Mr. Blond led the class more than the others with Sensei watching and guiding. Sensei was always there, I thought he lived there, but I was informed by Mr. Blond last week (1-19-04) that Sensei lived in Taragawa—village 3 as we called it.

While my shipmates were going out and getting drunk and doing other things unmentionable I would grab my gi and catch a cab and head to Agena. The cab driver would always look at the gi and say "Karate?" and then I would notice the huge two knuckles on both of his hands and his big smile. Most of the cab drivers had black belts in numerous different styles in Karate. There wasn't much else to do on Okinawa.

I always felt a little funny walking into the dojo in my sailor suit amongst the Marines but they did not seem to care. I remember spending all day on a Saturday going over basics and Katas when a young Marine white belt came in and was having some difficulty with Seisan and I helped him with it. Later when it was time for me to leave I put my sailor suit on—Boy! what a surprised look he had on his face.

We have it made here in the states. We have our air conditioned and heated dojos, hardwood or mats on the floors. The Agena dojo, for a while, did not have a roof and had a concrete floor, no tile, just concrete, (got real slick when we worked out). And of course no heat, air conditioning, nor fan, and man! Okinawa can get really hot and humid.

I remember one night I had just finished an exhausting work out, Mr. Blond leading, and I had my uniform on and walked around the dojo, down the alley to the main highway and stopped at a little store and bought an orange soda from mama-san. Imagine this, a 6'3" sailor standing next to a 4' plus little Okinawan lady, with me turning up a soda bottle and downing the contents without stopping and then asking for another and downed it without stopping or taking a breath. That little lady was small but her eyes sure got big—I was real thirsty.

Bloody Knuckles Sensei had two by fours embedded in the concrete floor with Tatami matting at the top. I would hit them until my knuckles bled. We would do push ups on our two leading knuckles, (better not touch on the others) on the concrete floor. Oh the dumb things a 19 year old will do, my right had gave me pain for years after that.

I just obtained the video of Sensei at Mr. Armstrong's Dojo in Tacoma and thought I had recalled Seisan pretty well until I saw Sensei doing a few things differently from what I was doing. Knowing he was Sensei and I was nobody, I figured that he was right and I was wrong so I tried doing it his way and then remembered that his way was the correct way. Wow! after having had to do Seisan over and over at Agena I did not think I would ever forget it—but I did—along with Chinto and Sanchin.

When I do Seisan now it takes me back almost 40 years in my mind to Okinawa. It feels so natural and right—Ah, the musings of a cotton top trying to re-capture his past. This is something only a karate-ka would understand.

I sincerely wish all of you and your students the best and ask you to keep Isshin-ryu as Sensei taught it. ____Respectfully, Vern Miller

I personally want to thank Mr. Miller. The only thing I disagree with was his statement that any story should come from someone who spent more time there. I found his personal story not only interesting, but a bit of history only he can tell. And a bit of history I would like to experience, but will never be able to do so. I know many of you feel the same. We can, however, follow Mr. Miller's wish to "Keep Isshin-ryu as Sensei Taught It." ________Michael E. Odell

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______________ Sensei Sheila Reimer

It can be said that the last true male dominated stronghold has to be the Martial Arts, however with an influx of females into the Arts in recent years this picture has been changing. Some may argue for the worse but I believe that women in Martial Arts generally and Isshin Ryu specifically, can bring about a greater sense of balance or harmony. Lets examine what benefits women can reap from Isshin Ryu training, the differences between genders in training and sparring and whether or not a gender bias exists in Isshin Ryu.

When one thinks about the benefits for women who are training in IR, the most obvious benefit would be self defense. But can all the Isshin Ryu training in the world make difference if a woman were to be attacked? Would a female Black Belt be successful in fending off her attacker? What about a female blue or yellow belt? The answer is not a simple yes or no, as there would be many variables that influence the situation. For instance, the woman's personality (passive or aggressive), her size and strength, if she knows her attacker, or if a weapon is involved. As you can see from these few questions there are many, many variables that will dictate a certain response to a situation. One of greatest things that Isshin Ryu gives you is the ability to recognize a dangerous situation, thereby avoiding what I call the "deer in the headlights" syndrome. Being able to respond rather than react.

I believe a woman who is training in Isshin Ryu (or any other Martial Art) on a regular basis is certainly likely to respond in a much better way than if she had not taken any training at all. That is not to say a female Black Belt can ward off any attacker, as there are cases where a female Black Belt has succumbed to her attacker. Isshin Ryu translates to Whole Heart Way and this is the fundamental factor that will determine the outcome. If a technique is executed wholeheartedly it will work. Simply said if a female Isshin Ryu practitioner is attacked all she needs to do is use her Isshin Ryu training wholeheartedly to survive.

Is There A Training Difference?

In my experience I don't see many differences between genders while training, however I do see large differences in sparring. While training, a woman can physically do most things that our male counterparts can do: the workout, the basics, drills and kata. Due to our physical differences however (mainly body mass and strength) slight adaptations may have to be made. Usually the adaptations are without much consequence and should be viewed as no different from a male who has made an adaptation due to a physical restriction. In most cases Women make no adaptations whatsoever and train equally, sometimes harder then men.

Is too much emphasis placed on sparring? Does sparring get out of hand to the level where points are not acknowledged between the karateka, and the sparring match turns into nothing but an outright brawl? All karateka male and female need to assess themselves and see what importance they truly place on sparring, drills, kata and self defense techniques. Do they see their own ability and others based on sparring or karate?

Sparring is entirely different than karate, as sparring should not be confused as karate, it isn't - it's sport. Sparring is a vessel through which one can learn timing, combinations, how to take a hit and most importantly the mental conditioning that takes to see your opponents vulnerable targets. Scoring a point during a sparring match can in no way be used as a way to measure a persons ability (male or female), because if one were to truly use what they have learned in Isshin Ryu and execute a finishing technique it would be at the dire expense of the opponent. Latterly, this also can mean that there is no room for improvement either.

Is There a Gender Bias Within Isshin-ryu?

For example, would you call separate kata categories for male and female Black Belt at an Isshin Ryu tournament a bias? How can there be that great of differences between the genders that would warrant different categories? Is a kata not a kata when performed by a female? Are the techniques practiced within the kata changed when a female is performing the kata? No. There is no difference in the kata when performed correctly and with heart by both male and females. My sense of the subject is that for the most part there is not a huge bias within the system itself. However, I believe that there are still a few males that are wanting to embrace the idea that Isshin Ryu is unsuitable for women or hold the opinion that women are inadequate as Martial Artists rather than tear down any existing biases and help their fellow female practitioners of the Art as they would male practitioners.

Overall, Isshin Ryu is a great way for women of all ages to learn a Martial Art. The benefits far outweigh any disadvantages that may exist. One just needs to be a wary student and choose a good Sensei and a good dojo, one that will fulfill all of your needs as a student, encourage and support you; your strengths and your weaknesses. Don't be afraid, leave no question unasked. You go girl!

You may contact Sensei Sheila Reimer at E mail:

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Not to Grab
But Is It Karate?

________ By Michael E. Odell ©

In early 1969 when I started Isshinryu, it was common at a tournament to see an individual walking around—or in the dojo—with a ripped gi or a sleeve torn off.

Although nowadays tournaments abound, I only attend one or two tournaments a year, usually Isshinryu events. And when I do, I find a disquieting occurrence when it comes to today's sport-tournament sparring. There is the no-grab rule, no shots to the head rule, no kicks to the groin rule, and no take down rule. These are techniques important to the Isshinryu practitioner, or any traditional karate-ka.

I started Isshinryu at the age of 32 years. When it came to sparring or actual combat, being older and slower, I felt my best chance was to grab and take a person off balance. Then just keep kicking and punching until they quit. There is the danger if one is not totally committed to their technique, that the grabber may become the grabbed. If this happens, then one quickly understands that old Buck Owen's song, "I got a tiger by the tail."

All our Isshinryu hand-foot Kata have grabbing techniques—in my opinion. Some believe once you grab you have given up one of your weapons—your holding or controlling hand. Perhaps, depending on the circumstances. If your opponent is off balance, however, you have greatly decreased the potency of all of his or her weapons.

Grabbing and controlling is an important part of some martial arts and the all-in-all of others. We have the push-pull of small circle jujitsu. In judo it is the coordination of kikite or pulling hand and the tsurite or lifting hand, and their eight directions of kuzushi—forcing your opponent into an unbalanced controllable position. Likewise is the importance of the hold, control, and strike techniques of the Pangai Noon/Uechi Ryu Karate practitioner. And let us not forget the grabbing, pinching, and twisting techniques of the traditional Goju practitioner.

As I said, all our Isshinryu hand-foot Kata have grabbing techniques—at least in my opinion they do. The number will vary with each individual's bunkai or combat interpretation. I am just sharing from my experience and thoughts. And in this or any discussion one is free to agree or disagree as one chooses. So, please use or adapt what you find useful and disregard the rest. For me, I find techniques from our Isshin ryu Katas to be uncomplicated and effective fighting tools, when done for self-defense or combat, and not for sport. If not, why practice them?

Now, I have only included, what to me, are the more obvious grabbing techniques. It has been said: "The returning hand should have something." If you incorporate this ‘thought' into your kata, you will begin to see numerous other self-defense techniques.

has—and please remember when I say "has" it is my opinion—five grabs, holds, or controls. I may use the term grab to also suggest holding and/or controlling.

In Seisan, after the first 180-degree turn, we have three, what Armstrong Sensei liked to call "chicken head" blocks. After each block, a grab or control pull to hip or off to side to unbalance opponent. This technique allows for numerous follow ups and interpretations.

The last two come at the end. We have the left-hand circular block, grab, pull, and kick to groin. And at the end, we catch a kick to the groin, grasping and twisting the opponent's kicking foot. Or catch a head butt to groin and twisting the opponent's head.

Seiuchin starts with three chicken-head blocks, each followed by a grab and pull. The fourth technique, we reach with our left hand behind opponent's neck, pulling them into a right hand raising elbow strike under the chin. We also have, according to your interpretation, three to six groin or belt grabs.

Nainhanchin or at least our Isshinryu version has the two chicken-head or open blocks (some styles this is a reverse ridge hand strike) each followed with a grab behind the neck with same blocking hand, and a pull into an elbow strike.

Wansu has a groin grab or palm heel strike and grab to lower abdomen followed by 180 degree turn and another groin grab or palm heel strike and grab to lower abdomen. Two, overhead palm block and grab and groin grab, followed by a turn and throw or dump. Near kata's end, we perform a left-hand circular block and grab, as we pull and step in and deliver an elbow strike.

Please keep in mind I may use the term grab interchangeably with, hold or holds and control or controls.

Chinto near beginning we have a right-hand groin or belt grab followed by left hand back fist. This will be followed by one to three—I do three—double grabs and pulls to hip out of Chinto stance. At end of kata we have a left-hand circular block—for me this is followed by a grab and a right arm inside forearm smash to opponents elbow.

KuSanKu for some will have three blocks and grab or guide while going into Chinto stance, with opposing hand delivering a shuto. Others may not interpret it this way but with just the shuto. We do know we have two grabs as we go down on our knee pulling in and delivering an elbow strike. And a standing grab and or pull in with an elbow smash.

Sunsu opens with three punches followed by two open hand strikes to lower rib area, followed by a double grab and twist. There is the180 degree turn, then into a Chinto type stance as we use a two-hand wrist or hand grab, and twist—followed by a toe rip. We do a palm strike and groin or belt grab, pulling the opponent in, followed by an elbow strike, using the tip of the elbow. Then turning 180 degrees we repeat the technique from the other side.

There is the right hand up block and grab, spinning 180 degrees and elbow strike. Then, sliding left foot forward with right-hand blocking and grabbing the sleeve or hand striking to the head. The left hand grabs the groin, spinning 180 degrees, the opponent is dumped or thrown to the ground.

As we near the end of the kata we have the double grab under opponent's elbows followed by a push or heel kick. Then there is a double palm strike, one hand grabbing the groin or belt, the other palm striking and/or grabbing opponent's face. Then turning 180 degrees we repeat the technique from the other side.

Sanchin may depend on your interpretation at the time you are doing the kata. For me it varies. After the five punches, we have double grabs and pull downs to the chest—while tightening the lats—followed by double open hand rib strikes. Then at close we have the two double palm strikes. This is where I may vary it from time to time, ending each palm strike with a claw-like grasp and isometric squeeze.

Three steps to a stronger grasp:
As I first said, in my opinion, all Isshin ryu hand-foot Kata have grabbing techniques. If this is so, a strong grasp is important to the self-defense centered Isshin ryu practitioner. That may not be a problem for the professional carpenter or stone mason. For the rest of us, however, we may need to supplement our training to increase our grasping ability.

First, making a tight Isshin ryu fist is a good isometric exercise for strengthening you grip. Next, to strengthen your fingers, pinch grip different weight barbell or dumbbell plates. Then, do down blocks and side blocks. These exercises will not only increase finger and grip strength, but help your overall karate training, as will the third method.

The third method is a regular part of training for the traditional Pangai Noon/Uechi Ryu and Goju practitioner—the English term is gripping jars. These are jars with necks made for gripping, and originally filled with sand to add weight as ones gripping strength increased.

You can make your own gripping jars by converting two dumbbells. On the bottom end put one or two plates. You may wish to start with 10-15 pounds. On the top end, the gripping end, put one small plate, say 1½ pounds. Then alternate the top plate with one a little bigger, say 2½ pounds. The increased size will greatly test your gripping ability.

Now, holding both gripping bells to your side, back straight, shoulders pulled down, step through your different katas, or move from stance to stance. My favorite is walking through Sanchin.

Now, this type of training may not be for everyone, but if you are training Isshin ryu as a martial art, an effective self-defense system, then developing a stronger grip will help you in your progress.

Your thoughts and comments always invited always appreciated.
Michael E. Odell - Blaine, Washington - E-mail:

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A First Generation Student Speaks Out

Rank and secrets by Sensei Sherman Harrill - Agena Dojo 1959-1960

"I reached a point where I could no longer read the things being said about Sensei Shimabuku, his teachings, or how he promoted his students. The idea that these people felt they knew the way it was to be done, yet never trained under him whizzed me off. I felt it was time the record be set straight."

All I can do is speak of my own experiences as how things happened to me when I trained in the Agena Dojo in 1959-1960

Sensei Shimabuku promoted me to green belt after about 6 months with no testing. He just came up to me and said Harryu you catchy green belt. No big deal I then went and bought one. After another six months the same thing was done when he told me to catchy Black Belt.

Upon leaving Okinawa Sensei sat John DeSantis and I down and asked if we were going to teach Isshin Ryu when we went back to the states. At that time I had great hopes of doing just that. Sensei at that time did not promote me to the rank (there is a big difference between a promotion and entrusting) of Roku-Dan, he entrusted it to me. He said after 15 years plus training that it could be used. There was no contract just a handshake and my work. That was good enough at that time.

Things do not always turn out the way we plan, for I didn't open a dojo for a long time. After I did and 22 years later I assumed the rank as I felt that I had done as Sensei had asked of me. Now the big question most people want to know, what was my rank when I left Okinawa. I hope that I might have been a half way decent Sho-Dan but that would depend on what standards were used. One thing you will find out is that I will be able to hit someone just as hard with a white obi on as with a black one.

If there were any secrets I sure in the hell didn't know any of them. I was neither one of Sensei's favorite or better students. I was just one of many young Marines that passed through the Agena Dojo. Almost everything I was shown was very basic, block, punch and kick. This along with a lot of guts or sometimes no common sense made for some very strong fighters out of the Dojo. There was two things that made a big difference in my personal training after leaving; One was having the code broken down by an Okinawan. The second was working on the Kumite that Sensei taught. Kumite was not sparring but what people now know as bunkai.

42 Years Later:
I have seen a lot of comments made by people about Shimabuku, Sensei. Some have been very good, others question his reasons for the way he developed Isshin Ryu and promoted his students. Sensei was just another person and that means that he made some mistakes but NO ONE knows what his plan was except Tatsuo Shimabuku.

I have no problem with anyone who brings new ideas and knowledge into the system as long as you don't break one rule: Don't try to fix something that is not broken. There is nothing wrong with the way our basics or katas as taught by Shimabuku, Sensei. I suggest that if you do not like the way he did things or how he set up the system then look for another style and leave Isshin Ryu alone. Tatsuo Shimabuku trained and proud of it. ___ Sherman Harrill, Sensei

Sensei Sherman Harrill Passed Away 10:00 A.M. Monday November 4, 2002
A first generation student of Tatsuo Shimabuku and a personal friend to many of us.

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Isshin-ryu Northwest Okinawa Karate Association ®
"Do not initiate first strike. But strike first"
___ Michael E.Odell