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Examining Yasutsune Itosu

Part 1: The Man And His Lineage

by Tom Ross

Editor's Note: This is the first of two articles on Itosu. The first examines the man and his lineage, while the second article focuses on Itosu's famous "Ten Precepts," which he wrote to the draw attention of the Ministry of Education as well as the Ministry of War to the budding art of karate as it was developing on Okinawa.

Shishu, Anko (Yasutsune Itosu) (1831-1915) is one of the most influential early 20th century karate pioneers. For those knowledgeable in karate history, his name to you is legend.

It was Itosu who first started teaching karate to the public and was one of the teachers of Gichen Funakoshi (who many know as the father of Japanese karate), as well as many other founders of the karate we know today. He was the creator of the Pinan Kata series, and he modified of many other kata practiced throughout karate today.

But what is history behind this man? What is his heritage, and what truth is there to the many legends about this man?

Itosu was born in the Gibo section of Shuri (the capital city), Okinawa, in 1831 and died on January 26, 1915. His first name was Anko (the Kanji for which may be alternately read in Japanese as Yasutsune and his last name Shishu read as Itosu). He is probably most commonly known by the name Anko Itosu. He was born to a prominent family and was well educated in the classics of Chinese literature.

Descriptions of him vary, and there are no known photos. He was short by modern standards, but in Okinawa at the time his approximately five feet of height was average. Some sources describe him as stocky, barrel chested and very strong. He also had immense discipline.

After taking and passing civil service exams, he became a clerk for the Ryukyu government. At least one sourse he was a secretary to the last King of the Ryukyus (the island chain of which Okinawa was the capital), Sho Tai (the monarchy was ended in 1879 when the islands offically became part of Japan).

It was through the assistance of his good friend Anko Azato (1) that he rose to a position of prominence in Ryukyu governmental administration. This was a bond of friendship that existed throughout their lives, and they are often described together by Gichin Funakoshi, who studied under both of these masters. By all accounts he was built strongly, and there are many tales of his incredible punching ability.

The early training of this martial legend is shrouded in mystery. Many martial historians refer to Itosu as having been a disciple of the Great Sokon "Bushi" Matsumura. He was most influential martial artist of his time who helped bring karate into the modern era as exponent of Shuri-te (meaning Shuri hands or art). It was Matsumura who was a student of Tode Sakagawa (1733-1815) who in turn studied under Kusanku -- after which the famous kata is named (Konku).

Was Itosu the link to this heritage, an interpreter of Matsumura's karate? Upon closer examination this appears to be incorrect, or at least overstated.

The question then becomes how do we ascertain the truth when so much of martial history is based on oral accounts and opinions? While we may never know the truth for sure, we should look to accounts of those who actually trained under Itosu for significant periods of time.

One such account comes from Choki Motobu (one of Okinawa's greatest early twentieth century karate masters) who spent eight to nine years under Itosu. In his 1932 book, "Watashi no Tode Jutsu," Motobu is quoted as saying: "Sensei Itosu was a pupil of Sensei Matsumura, but he was disliked by his teacher for he was very slow (speed of movement). There (in the dojo) for although Itosu sensei was diligent in his practice his teacher did not care about him so he (Itsou) left and went to sensei Nagahama."

According Motobu, while Sensei Nagahama was quite well known and very diligent, his method or idea of teaching was entirely different from master Matsumura. Nagahama stressed just building of the body. Apparently Itosu adjusted well and trained hard for Motobu reports that Nagahama referred to Itosu as his disciple and "right hand man." It must have been a shock when Nagahama told Itosu on his deathbead (as reported by Motobu), that he had actually only taught him (Itosu) strength building and had never once given thought to actual combat. In other words his method lacked the idea of liberty in motion and alertness in action, and therefore he wanted him to go back to master Matsumura.

Itosu had learned much from Nagahama. It is likely that through his instruction many of the seeds were planted for using tode (an early name for karate) as a method of physical and mental strengthening. These seeds combined with Itosu's unique perspective and experience came to fruition in the Okinawan school system as a method of developing the youth of Okinawa.

Itosu likely realized, as Nagahama suggested, that he needed further training in combative principles. It would have been highly unlikely for Itosu to return to the Matsumura, however, since he had previously left him. The question then becomes,"Where did Itosu go next?"

If we look at the words of Gichin Funakoshi (the great karate pioneer who is often referred to as the "Father of Japanese Karate.") who is regarded as a top student of both Anko Azato and Anko Itosu, we find that Anko Itosu became a disciple of GUSUKUMA OF TOMARI! (also sometimes known as Shiroma).

On page 18 of his text (reprinted as "Tote Jitsu" in 1925) Funakoshi states, "It is confirmed through written documents and collections that .....(2) ASATO followed MATSUMURA and ITOSU followed GUSUKUMA, according to what has been told through generations." In his later text, "Karate-do Kyohan" (page 8, 1973 edition), Funakoshi says again that "It is stated that ...... (3) masters AZATO and ITOSU were Students of MATSUMURA and GUSUKUMA respectively. Masters Azato and Itosu were the teachers who instructed this writer and to whom the writer is greatly indebted"

Thus through the combined weight of the statements made by two direct long term students of Anko Itosu (Motobu and Funakoshi), we can logically come to the conclusion that Anko Shishu (Anko Itosu) began his training under Matsumura, left to become a disciple of Nagahama of Naha (a seaport city near Shuri, the capital), and upon Nagahama's death became a disciple of GUSUKUMA of TOMARI.

This would explain the inclusion of the Tomari (a seaport village near the capital Shuri) (4) kata Rohai and Wanshu within the Itosu curriculum. Sokon Matumura was not known to have taught or passed on these forms.

To explain the presence of these kata in the Itosu curriculum, other historians have theorized that Itosu, as student of Matumura, must have therefore trained briefly, side by side, with Kosako Matumora of Tomari sometime after 1873. But, the more logical explanation is to assume that Motobu and Funakoshi are correct in stating that Itosu had studied with Gusukuma. He was a Tomari instructor, and both katas are recorgnized as Tomari kata.

Itosu continued to teach Wanshu as well as Rohai, which developed into three versions based on the original Tumaidi (Tomari te) prototype.

Then there is the kata Seisan. It was a kata taught by Soken Matsumura. If Itosu's primary karate teacher had been Matsumura, surely he would also have taught this kata. But he did not. An explanation for the absence of Seisan can be found in the existing Tomari te (Tumaidi) traditions. For example, the continuing Tomari traditions as were passed down through the Oyadomari brothers of Tomari (5), as well as those of the Matsumora ha Tumaidi (Tomari te) as passed down to Tokashiki Iken (6), also lack the kata Seisan, as does the tode passed on by Itosu. Seisan was not a Tomari kata. (7)

In any event all the forms Itosu apparently borrowed from the Tomari curriculum appear to have been heavily altered when compared to the existing Tomari traditions. Given the existing Tumaidi forms, one can see that Itosu utilized the sum of the knowledge given to him and further altered it to reflect his experience and objectives.

It is also interesting to contrast Itosu's kata and how they are performed as compared to the kata of Tomari (Tumaidi) as practiced today. (8) When one compares the kata of Tumaidi (9) with those traced to Anko Itosu, one is struck by the greater use of open hand techniques and the more upright stances in the Tomari tradition. The kata themselves are performed with a much more relaxed and lighter feel. There is also greater emphasis placed upon the use of koshi (hip area) -- the lower back/hips/pelvic girdle move in more of a figure eight pattern and on multiple planes as opposed to rotating around a horizontal axis as is found in the Itosu heritage.

In his book "Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles And Secret Techniques," Mark Bishop contrasted the karate of Azato (Matsumura heritage mixed with a swordsmanship perspective) and Itosu:

"While Azato believed the hands and feet should be like bladed weapons and that one should avoid all contact of an opponent's strike, Itosu held the idea that the body did not have to be so mobile and should be able to take the hardest of blows. Chosin Chibana (a long time student of Itosu) once said that Itosu indeed have a very powerful punch, but Matsumura had once said to Itosu: 'With your strong punch you can knock anything down, but you can't so much as touch me.'"

Itosu's Legacy

It is through the efforts of this "Father of Modern Okinawan Karate" that many basic exercises and forms were simplified and organized into a curriculum suitable for the mass instruction of students. In addition to placing importance on basics, Itosu took the Channan forms he had previously devised (or had been taught him, according to historians), altered them slightly and renamed them Pinan, which he thought would be more appealing to students. This is evidenced in such journals as "Karate No Kenkyu" by Nakasone Genwa 1934 and "Kobo Kenpo Karate-do Nyumon" by Mabuni Kenwa and Nakasone Genwa 1938. Let it never be said that Itosu lacked enthusiasm, for he didn't stop at the Pinans. He went on to supplement Naifanchi by the creation of a Nidan and Sandan (Kinjo 1991, Murakami 1991) and possibly Kusanku Sho and Passai Sho (Iwai 1992) as well!

Even though questions persists about Itosu's lineage, there is no doubt about the profound and universal impact he had on the development of karate in Okinawa.

It was Itosu who brought Karate from the shadows into the light of public study. (4) In 1901 he began instructing karate at the Shuri Jinjo Primary school (Iwai 1992, Okinawa Pref. 1994) and taught at the Dai Ichi middle school and the Okinawa prefectural Men's Normal School in 1905 (Bishop 1999, Okinawa Pref. 1994, 1995).

It is perhaps one of the greatest testaments to the skill of this karateka that he developed such a group of superb students, who in turn promoted his art. The karate that descended from Itosu represents one of the great Okinawan karate heritages known as Shorin-Ryu. His students comprise a virtual "who's who" of the founding fathers of modern karate. They include: Kentsu Yabu, Chomo Hanashiro, Jiro Shiroma, Chojo Oshiro, Shigeru Nakamura Anbun Tokuda, Moden Yabiku, Kenwa Mabuni, Gichin Funakoshi, Chosin Chibana, Moden Yabiku, and Choki Motobu (who contrary to popular stories spent some eight years of training under Itosu).

In October of 1908 Itosu realized it was time for Karate to reach beyond the shores of Okinawa to the heart of Japan itself. It was to this end that he wrote his famous letter of Ten Precepts (Tode Jukun) to draw the attention of both the Ministry of Education as well as the Ministry of War. After demonstrations were held for several naval vessels, the most important of which was the 1912 visit of Admiral Dewa, karate emerged as an attractive vehicle for developing young fighting men for the imperialistic Japanese government of the period.

On January 26, 1915 a great light in the martial world was extinguished when Anko Itosu drew his last breath at the age of eighty five. It is a shame that he did not live to see the art he so vigorously propagated achieve its world wide popularity, and to see his crusade vigorously pursued on the mainland by his student Gichen Funakoshi.


I would like to thank Christopher Caile for his many suggestions for this article and his editing efforts.

Itosu Drawing: The Itosu drawing was contributed by Kyoshi Frank Hargrove from his book, The 100 Year History of Shorin-Ryu Karate. Since there are no known photos of Itosu, the drawing was a composite done in Okinawa based on available descriptions.


(1) Ankoh Azato was a scholar-warrior who came from a well-known Okinwan family of wealth. Socially he held an honorable rank equivalent to that of a lower Daimyo in Japanese society. Since childhood he excelled in both the martial arts (archery, Jigenryu swordsmanship and karate under Soken Matsumura) and in literary studies, including Chinese studies. As a politician he became Minister of State and was one of the best known political figures of his time. As a karateka he was known for his awesome strength, but also for his intuition -- the ability to sense an attack and destroy it before it fully developed.

(2) Also Funakoshi said: Sakiyama, Gushi and Nagahama of Naha trained under Buken (Shorei ryu). Matsumura of Shuri (the Okinawan capital city) and Maesato of Kume (a town near Shuri populated by Chinese, many whom where translators, teachers of Chinese classics as well as martial arts) trained under Tomoyori (Shoalin ryu) Shimabuku of Uemondono, Hikashi of Kyunenboya, Seneha, Kuwae and others trained under Kojo (Shorei ryu), and that Shiroma (also read GUSUKUMA) of Tomari (a small port city near Shuri the capital) , Kaneshiro, Matsumora, Yamasato and others trained under Taika, who originated from the Fukushu-an-nan (a province in China. However, Oyakata-Tomigusu of shuri followed SAKIYAMA.

(3) Funakoshi also said, "The teacher of Gusukuma, Kanagusuku, Matsumora, Oyatomari, Yamada, Nakazato, Yamazato and Toguchi, all of Tomari, was a southern Chinese man who drifted ashore at Okinawa." Furthermore it was stated, "In more recent times Master Tomigusuku received his training from Sakiyama.

(4) Historians often group Okinawan karate traditions of this time around the town in which they were practiced -- Shuri the capital, and Naha and Tomari which were both seaports. Tomari traditions, with a few notable exceptions, have either been lost or partly absorbed into the curriculums practiced by the descendants of the Shuri and Naha traditions.

(5) The curriculum of the Oyadomari Brothers was provided by Mark Bishop's interview of Seikichi Hokama (Student of Kotsu and Konin Oyadomari) contained on page 73 of his book "Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles And Secret Techniques (1991)."

(6) The curriculum Matsumora ha Tumaidi can be assessed by what is taught by Toakashiki Iken, student of Seiyu Nakasone who was in turn the top student of Kodatsu Iha, disciple of Kosaku Matsumora, from an interview with Richard Florence on February 12, 1997 for the Bugeisha Magazine article, "Tokashiki Iken and the Gohakukai".

(7) Then there is the question of the katas Jion, Jiin and Jitte in the Itosu curriculum. Since they are not found in the curriculum of Tomarai traditions, Itosu could have learned them from either Gusukuma or Nagahama, either of which would have created them. It is perhaps a question for which we may never know the answer for sure but which begs further scrutiny.

(8) Karate had for centuries been taught in secret in Okinawa.

(9) As taught by the students of Tokashki Iken, who was a student of Seiyu Nakasone, who in turn studied under Kodatsu Iha, a top student of Kosaku Matsumora.


"Chanan: The Lost Kata of Itosu" (article), by Joe Swift
"Unante: The Secrets of Karate" (book), by John Sells
"Tales of Okinawa's Great Masters" (book) by Shoshin Nagamine
"Karate no Kenkyu" (book), by Nakasone Genwa
"Kobo Kenpo Karatedo Nyumon" (book), by Mabuni Kenwa and Nakasone Genwa
"Okinawan Karate Teachers, Styles and Secret Techniques" (book), by Mark Bishop

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About The Author:

Tom Ross is a retired NYC Correction Officer who specialized in the Handling of Security Risk group prisoners. A Yudansha under Ashihara karate (current affiliation) and in Shorinjiryu Kenzenkai Karatedo (an Offshoot of the Shorinjiryu Kenkokan founded by Masayoshi Hisataka), he also spent six years studying Jujutsu (classical, modern and Brazilian). Possessing an avid interest in the history of martial arts and traditions he currently serves as the Research Coordinator for as well as moderating its Martial Arts Talk forum. He additionally serves as the moderator of the Sabaki List (which is dedicated to various martial artists and full contact stylists) and is a member of the International Hoplology Society.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Anko Itosu, Yasutsune Itosu, Sokon Matsumura, Bushi Matsumura, Shurite, karate, Choki Motobu, Funakoshi, karate history, Shuri

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