Isshin Ryu Karate: All the essentials!

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If you’re looking for a martial art that blends the best of Okinawan karate and sword fighting, then Isshin Ryu karate is the way to go. Chief Grand Master Tatsuo Shimabuku founded Isshin Ryu in 1956, and its roots lie in Okinawa, Japan.

Karate is a martial art that originated in Japan. It has many branches, and one of the branches is Isshin Ryu karate, a style of Okinawan karate. This style focuses on Isshin Ryu karate self-defense techniques that are easy to learn but difficult to master. 

It also incorporates breathing exercises and meditation practices into its training regimen. It requires no special gear or training facilities; all you need is your body, some space, and knowledge of a few basic moves.

The Origins of Isshin Ryu Karate 

Tatsuo Shimabuku developed Isshin Ryu martial arts with its roots in Isshin Ryu karate. He studied both Shorin Ryu and Goju Ryu styles, as well as kobudō (classical Okinawan weaponry). He felt that self-defense and personal growth should be practical and effective.

Isshin Ryu karate means “The One Heart Way” method. The foundation of this martial art is that a person’s heart and body are like heaven and earth. In this martial art, you learn to use your body to connect with the world around you. It’s based on the principle that every movement affects what comes next. If you make a good move now, then it will affect your future actions positively.

Masters have taken it to new heights and passed it down to students. Here are some of the most important:

US marine Harold G. Long: He was one of the first Americans to learn Isshin Ryu karate from Shimabuku. He later spread it by teaching sessions and tournaments.

US marine Donald Hugh Nagle: He is an Isshin Ryu master who was a student of Shimabuku. He had a long career as an instructor and tournament competitor.

US marine Steve Armstrong: He became a U.S. Marine and served in Japan, Korea, and Okinawa, where he met the founder of Isshin Ryu Karate.

How Effective is Isshin Ryu Karate?

This karate style works so well because it focuses on how humans naturally move and react in certain situations. It teaches us how to take advantage of these situations in fighting. For example:

  • As an empty-handed art, Isshin Ryu utilizes a series of punches and kicks. 
  • Isshin Ryu consists of circular blocking techniques that use the opponents’ force and momentum against them. 
  • Isshin Ryu is well-known for its disarmament techniques, allowing the practitioner to take away an opponent’s weapon.

Features of Isshin Ryu Karate

It teaches practitioners to use their whole body as a weapon. Here are some individual techniques of Isshin Ryu karate that differ from other types of karate. [2]


It’s a system of self-defense that leverages your strengths and weaknesses against your opponent. Don’t try to overpower them physically but rather use their force against them.

Shot Stances 

Shot stances are defensive stances where you place one foot in front of the other while bending your knees. This method allows you to quickly move into position when an opponent gets close enough to deliver punches or kicks.

Thumb on Fist 

In this technique, you place the thumb on top of the fist in a lock-like formation. It locks the wrist and tightens the fist.


Isshin Ryu Karate uses vertical punches. It helps to increase the speed and power. The purpose is to target the muscles rather than the bones.

The Blocks 

The secret to Isshin Ryu karate lies in using the muscular part of your forearm instead of your wrist or hand. This way, you can deliver a powerful blow without damaging any bones.

Circular Movements

Isshin Ryu karate relies on circular movements to deflect the force of an opponent’s strike rather than using straight blocks.

Empty Hand Katas

Isshin Ryu is a traditional karate style that emphasizes balance, breathing, and mindfulness.


“Seisan” is the first kata in the Isshin Ryu curriculum. It’s a vertical fist style and features tension and breathing techniques that are a hallmark of the Goju-Ryū style.


Seiuchin is a form that uses only hand techniques and strikes, such as the back fist and elbow. Instead of kicks, you learn to use your legs as a strong base from which you pivot when striking your opponent.


This kata begins with a technique on the right side, and you practice it in a linear motion. You’ll need to practice it side-to-side rather than front-to-back and repeat the set until you’ve gone through all the steps.


This kata, also known as “the dumping form,” teaches you to throw your opponent off balance using a longer front stance and two sidekicks. It also involves slipping and doing close evasion techniques and using your hips.


Chinto is an easy kata that teaches beginners to perform stances, blocks, strikes, and kicks. The emphasis is on footwork and body movement. Footwork is slipping (sliding forward), deflecting (stepping aside), whipping (turning), and a relaxed body motion.


The night kata teaches you to fight at night and develop the ability to use basic standing grappling and close striking at the beginning of the kata. It also contains the zenkutsu-dachi, a stance you can use for offensive and defensive purposes.


This kata incorporates moves from other Isshin-Ryu katas, so students should be familiar with them. Students can also use the Sunsu kata as a dojo kata to practice their combative moves in a more realistic setting.


In Sanchin, which means “three battles,” you learn to strike with open hands, turn naturally and breathe deeply. The kata develops your muscles and bones to strike effectively with balance and stability.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Black Belt in Isshin Ryu Karate?

If you’re diligent and have a sense of discipline, you could attain the next level of Isshin Ryu Karate in four months. It takes three to six years to earn a black belt in Isshin Ryu Karate. The rankings are as follows:

Rank: Ku-Kyu

Color: White 

Time: Starting point

Requirements: The beginner level is the starting point for all 10th-grade students, regardless of their experience or age.

Rank: Ku-Kyu

Color: White with a green stripe

Time: One month

Requirements:  Students must master the 15 upper body basics, learn the first four kicks of Seisan Kata and perform them to achieve this rank.

Rank: Hachi-Kyu

Color: Yellow

Time: At least two months (the average is three)

Requirements: The test will include 15 upper body basics, four basic kicks, basics of rolls and falls, five minutes of free sparring, and you must take a history test.

Rank: Shichi-Kyu

Color: Orange

Time: At least two months after achieving the yellow belt

Requirements: Students have to perform Seiuchin kata, learn to execute nine basic kicks, study the history of Isshin Ryu, and spar with an instructor for seven to 10 minutes.

Rank: Rok-Kyo

Color: Blue

Time: At least two months after achieving the orange belt

Requirements: Students have to complete Naihanchi kata, an intense history examination, and a longer Kumite session.

Rank: Go-Kyo

Color: Green

Time: At least four months after achieving the blue belt

Requirements: Students have to perform the Wansu Kata, an intense history examination, a longer Kumite session, 15 upper body basics, teach these same katas to others, and lead the instruction of Seisan Kata.

Rank: Yon-Kyo

Color: Purple

Time: At least six months after obtaining green belt

Requirements: Students have to complete Chinto Kata, Tokumine No Kun, do longer Kumite sessions, learn more intense history, and feel comfortable leading small groups in various activities, including kata and sparring. 

Rank: San-Kyo

Color: Brown

Time: At least six months after achieving the green belt

Requirements: Students have to complete Kusanku Kata, a more intense history test, feel comfortable leading the entire class in basic exercises and teach almost anything to any low-ranking student.

Rank: Ni-Kyo

Color: Brown with one black stripe

Time: At least three months after achieving the brown belt

Requirements: Students have to complete Kusanku Sai and Sanchin Kata, be able to teach almost anything to any low-ranking student and feel comfortable leading the class for extended periods with little or no supervision from a black belt.

Rank: Ik-Kyo

Color: Brown with two black stripes

Time: At least three months after achieving Ni-Kyo

Requirements: The promotion doesn’t require a formal test. You should be able to lead a class from start to finish with little or no supervision from a black belt. General instructions should come easily for you, and you should feel comfortable teaching almost anything to anyone.

Rank: Sho-dan

Color: Black

Time:  At least three months after achieving Ik-Kyo, and must be 15 years of age; students will get a Junior Black Belt if they are under 15

Requirements: There are many requirements for promotion to black belt, including:

  • Eight open hand katas 
  • Three weapons forms, rolls, and falls 
  • An extremely intensive history examination
  • A long Kumite session (a sparring match)
  • Know how to do Bunkai for your katas (explain why you should make each move) 
  • Lead a class in the chief instructor’s absence


Isshin Ryu karate is a traditional martial art that combines Shorin-ryū karate, Gojū-ryū karate, and kobudō weaponry. It’s an all-inclusive approach to self-defense in which you can use kata (forms) as a form of conditioning (like the road to martial perfection).

Click on one of the links below to learn more about different styles of Karate:

What is Goshin Jutsu Karate?

What is Soryu Karate?

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