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Meet the Founder of Uechi-Ryu Karate: Kanbun Uechi

The Okinawan master dedicated his life to studying martial arts.
by Karate Combat • 2019. May 06

Uechi-ryu: Traditional Okinawan karate

When discussing the real karate that came out of Okinawa and China, from Goju-Ryu to Matsubayashi-Ryu, the Uechi-Ryu school has to be part of the conversation. Uechi-Ryu, a fighting system associated with self-defense and heavily influenced by Chinese fighting systems, is one of the most popular styles of Okinawan karate practiced today. For the technicians among you, Uechi-Ryu emphasizes toughness of body, simplicity, and stability, employing upright stances, circular blocks, and open hand and low kicking techniques. And yesterday, as it happens, was the 142nd birthday of the school’s founder, Kanbun Uechi. Actually, Uechi’s school of fighting wasn’t even called Uechi-Ryu during his lifetime, but that’s not the only thing that has changed since way back when.

Once upon a time in Okinawa

Kanbun Uechi may have been born in one of the best places in the world to learn martial arts; improbably, that place was a tiny mountain village in the Motobu Peninsula of Okinawa. Although the rural community did more farming than anything else, empty-handed fighting arts were a big part of life for residents. Plus, Uechi came from a proud lineage of Samurai (by this point, however, the family made their living as farmers). Uechi learned the Kanbun staff arts, bojutsu from his father as well as a local karate master named Toyama. He developed a strong interest in studying karate (and an equally strong objection to serving in the Japanese army), leading him to take a ten-day journey across the East China Sea with a friend. 20-year-old Uechi was uneducated, unfamiliar with Chinese language or culture, and now living in Fuchow City in Fukien Province. The year was 1897.

Shu Shiwa: Taoist priest. Chinese boxing master. Mentor.

Although there are some variations on the story, Uechi reportedly used special herbal mixtures that he had learned from his family to alleviate the headache of a local Taoist priest. That priest also happened to be the 36th head of the Fu Chuan Shin Temple. His name was Shu Shiwa. Shu Shiwa is a somewhat mysterious figure, but we do know that he taught multiple fighting styles, including his family system of kung fu, which may have been created by an ancestral monk named Shuu Anan about 200 years prior. After curing Shu Shiwa’s headache, Uechi was accepted as an official disciple at the temple. His first two years of training focused on strengthening the body through hard work, including farming, and martial arts exercises. Body conditioning is still a crucial element of Uechi-Ryu.

Which Chinese martial arts did Uechi study? A gentleman never tells.

At 27 years old, Uechi received a certificate naming him a master of Chinese Pangainoon, meaning half-hard, half-soft, which refers to the rapid speed of the kata. Pangainoon is not its own fighting system; the term actually describes many different Chinese fighting styles. Like a magician, Uechi never told a soul the true name of the system he learned in China, but it was based mainly on the movements of the Tiger, Dragon, and Crane. He simply named it, “Pangainoon-Ryu Karate-Jutsu.” With a certificate in hand, Uechi became an assistant to Shu Shiwa. For the next three years, he continued his martial arts training, performed and taught Pangainoon, and studied Chinese literature and medicine. The herbal medicine training was almost as important as the martial arts, as a teacher was expected to heal his students when they were injured during training.

The kung fu ban

In early 1907, Uechi opened his own dojo 250 miles southwest of Fuchow City. He was 30 years old at the time. The dojo was open for three years before a tragic incident occurred that drove Uechi out of China. One of his students misapplied a technique during a dispute with a neighbor over land irrigation, resulting in the neighbor’s death. Uechi felt responsible and vowed never to teach kung fu again. Despite requests from his students and Shu Shiwa, Uechi closed his dojo and left China, seeking seclusion.

Out of China, into Japan.

Back home, Uechi married and settled into the farming life that he had left many years before. His son, Kanei was born in 1911, followed by other children. During this time, he refused to discuss his martial arts skills or his life in China. As word of his talents spread, Uechi received constant pressure to teach karate, but he did not give in. Due to the challenging economic climate, he eventually moved to the Japanese urban area of Kansai (Osaka and Kobe), securing employment at a textile mill. By this time, the art of fighting without weapons was becoming more widely known as karate, or “empty hand.” Finally, a co-worker convinced Uechi to teach him privately in the living quarters of the company compound, and after two years, Uechi agreed to teach about 30 other men. Just like that, the 15-year ban on teaching was over. However, Uechi put strict rules in place in this new “Shataku,” or workplace dojo. New students could only be recommended by one of the original members. All training was conducted secretly behind closed doors and shutters. All students were forbidden to display their martial arts outside the dojo. Yes, it was a little like Fight Club.

Kanei Uechi: the next generation

In 1927, Kanei Uechi joined his father in Japan and began to learn the art of Pangainoon-Ryu Karate-Jutsu. He became skilled enough in the ten years that followed to establish his own Osaka dojo in April 1937. By that time, Kanbun Uechi had moved his workplace dojo to a new location and even opened it up to the public. Student enrollment grew, and he quit his job at the textile factory. In 1940, he renamed the system, “Uechi Ryu Karate-Jutsu.” However, as the fallout from events on the world stage grew (read: WWII), Okinawa beckoned once again. Kanei returned home in 1942, followed by his father in 1946. Kanei is considered the first Okinawan to sanction teaching foreigners, which played a huge role in the spread of Uechi-Ryu. One of his students taught an American serviceman by the name of George Mattson, who became a leader in popularizing the style in America.

Uechi-Ryu Karate-Do: Kanbun Uechi’s legacy

In January 1948, Kanbun Uechi became ill with nephritis that he fought for 11 months. On November 25, he died on Ie-jema Island at 71 years old. After his death, the style was renamed Uechi-Ryu Karate-Do (Uechi’s Method of the Way of Karate). Kanei Uechi continued to refine, expand, and popularize his father’s system in the years that followed, using the rest of his life to teaching a modified version. Though he himself passed away in 1991, Kanei is considered a leader in the development and popularization of karate. After his death, Uechi-Ryu splintered into dozens of different organizations, all with slightly different variations of Uechi Kanbun’s original teachings. There are now more than 50 associations on Okinawa directly related to Uechi-Ryu. This shift mirrors the general trend in karate towards diversity, with a wide range of schools of thought and teachings cropping up. Each style is equally valid, and students can seek out the specific discipline that speaks to them. We certainly can’t call ourselves purists at Karate Combat; after all, our league rules and regulations are designed to develop centuries-old techniques into the combat sport of the future. But you can’t move forward without looking back and saluting the masters. So happy birthday, Kanbun Uechi, and long live Uechi-Ryu.