Isshinryu Karate-Do at MIT

White Belt Packet

A brief synopsis of the martial arts

As far as we can tell, the ancestral origins of the martial arts we study started in India around the sixth century A.D. From there, it made its way to China. Most famous is Shaolin Temple, where the Buddhist monks started studying karate initially for physical exercise. Up until then, monks lived a rather sedentary life, which made it difficult for them to meditate. By being in better physical shape, their bodies were in better condition to allow them to meditate for hours. As a side benefit, they also learned to defend themselves from bandits, which is how the fanciful stories of Shaolin fighters come about.

From China, the martial arts made its way to Okinawa. As the martial arts spread, many variants were created, and these styles often were named after the master who created them or the village they came from. In Okinawa, both training in martial arts and carrying weapons were forbidden, so the arts were developed in secret, and often focused on using farming implements as weapons.

Around the 1900s, a man named Gichin Funakoshi popularized the martial arts in Japan; for this, Funakoshi is sometimes referred to as "the father of karate". During the post-WWII occupation of Okinawa, many US Marines studied karate, and as they returned home, they brought karate with them to the United States.

The martial arts can be broadly divided into a 2x2 matrix:

Striking Sweeping
External Karate, tae kwon do, kung fu aikido, judo
Internal tai chi, chi gung

The first division is external versus internal styles. External styles focus primarily on doing something to an opponent. Internal styles focus primarily on developing one's chi, or energy. But, at an advanced level, martial arts are one and the same: "same house, different doors", as Banks-sensei once put it. More on this later.

The second broad division is striking versus sweeping styles: do you punch, kick, and block your opponent's moves, or do you use their strength against them?

A brief history of Isshinryu

Isshinryu was created by Shimabuku Tatsuo circa WWII. Osensei Shimabuku's teachers were Kiyan Chotoku, Miyagi Chojun, and Motobu Choki, and from them, he studied shorin-ryu (also known as Shotokan) and gojo-ryu. Osensei Shimabuku wanted to blend these two styles into a new style that took the best from each and eliminated unnecessary movements. Thus isshinryu, or "one heart way", was created.

The current grandmaster is Osensei Shimabuku Kichiro, son of Osensei Shimabuku Tatsuo.

Isshinryu Karate-do at MIT is affiliated with the Isshinryu World Karate Association (IWKA). Every two years, the IWKA has a tournament (both kata and sparring) somewhere in the US, and usually a few club members travel to this. It's very much worth going once, if for no other reason that to attend the seminar that Osensei Shimabuku teaches and to have a chance to meet him.


Etiquette is a very tricky thing. On the one hand, if people don't follow it, then we run the risk of offending people. On the other hand, if (say) the senseis or upperbelts are zealots in enforcing etiquette, then we lose sight of the whole point of etiquette: to treat each other with respect and create a space where people can study effectively. So here are some things to be aware of and incorporate.

Etiquette, by its very nature, is a tricky thing to master. Asking questions is a good way to learn more, although careful observation is an excellent guide as well.


To return to the "same house, different doors" phrase, one objective (of many) of the martial arts is to reach a sense of harmony. If you are at peace with who you are, and you are calm in your situation, then you are living in harmony. Part of this living in harmony is a sense of mu-shin or "no mind".

Mu-shin is not thoughtlessness; rather, it's living -- living fully! -- in the moment. It's about being calm enough to feel vibrantly alive, to notice your surroundings, and to react without hesitation to them. This is how we practice sparring, but having the ability to find mu-shin is very useful in real life as well.

In sparring, we try to find mu-shin and be totally relaxed while sparring. If we are truly relaxed, when we perceive an opening, we will be able to immediately take advantage of it. If we are tense, we'd have to relax first before striking. You can experience this by trying to jump over a line: what happens first? You relax and flex at the knees. If you're tense, you can't jump.

Likewise, if we are relaxed, we can immediately respond to what our partner is doing and blocking or moving appropriately. Similar to the jumping exercise, you have probably experienced this: if you are relaxed, you can catch a tennis ball that someone throws to you. But if you are tense, then you may be slow in catching the ball.

But mu-shin also applies to real life. To use a real example (from Leung-sensei):

At work, where I am a software engineer, I had a big project assigned to me that was very underspecified, with a to-do date of 3 weeks. At first, I felt nearly total panic: I have no idea what's supposed to be done, and as far as I could tell, no one did, either. And it would have to be completed in three weeks? Madness!

Then my training kicked in. I let go of my anxiety of the future and instead focused on the moment. Right now, what did I need to do? Almost at once, my breathing returned to normal, my anxiety melted away, and I was calm. "Oh. I need a piece of paper and a pen. Here we go. These are all the people I need to talk to. And now, I'll go talk to the first person on this list." Then I calmly talked to each person and got their input.

I was firm in that I needed their input as quickly as possible, but because I was calm and not agitated, everyone I spoke to was also calm. In fact, all my co-workers wanted to help me: here I was with a big project, and since people like being helpful, they got a sense of satisfaction answering my questions.

Once I had talked to everyone, I realized that I needed vastly more time than 3 weeks to accomplish this project, and that I would need to ask my supervisor for more time the next day. Again, I was initially afraid: what would my boss say? Would he think I'm incompetent? What if he said to do it anyways?

I realized again that I had lost my state of mu-shin. Why assume my boss would be belligerent? Instead, I focused on my karate training and found my inner sense of calm. That meant I wasn't anxious on the way home (and thus didn't cause a car accident), and it meant that I slept well, which was quite important if I wanted to be coherent for my meeting with my boss the next morning.

In the morning, I was calm on the inside, which meant I was calm on the outside as well, even though I was describing that the project was a disaster. But the calmness affected by boss as well, and he agreed to take it back to the senior management and get the project re-defined.

That afternoon, I was told that the old schedule was gone and I should continue. I did, and a few weeks later, my boss specifically mentioned to me that he was very grateful in how I handled both getting the project defined and continuing to work on it in the face of such uncertainty.

Gis and patches

Gis come in different flavors -- kendo gis are very different from any other styles. Likewise, karate gis are slightly different from aikido gis. If you want a gi, ask the senseis, as they might be able to get it cheaper than you might be able to. (Then again, the web is a wonderful thing.) We resell gis at cost. (Some dojos resell gis at a markup to raise money, which we don't do.)

Gis come in usually two weights: light or heavy. Lightweight gis are nice in that they trap less heat. Heavy gis are neat in that they make a louder snap when you punch. It's usually a personal preference which kind of gi you like.

If you only get one gi, it should be in white, as that is the formal color. Black gis are more informal, but are fine -- some people prefer black gis to white gis. Please don't mix-and-match colors, as that is traditionally only a sensei's prerogative.

With every gi, you'll get a white belt, and we'll teach you how to knot it properly. One thing about belts: please treat them with respect. We ask that you don't allow them to touch the ground, for instance. It's like as if you got a letter of recommendation from your advisor: you wouldn't just chuck it onto the floor or write a to-do list on the back, but rather, you'd take care of it. We're not asking you to revere your belt (after all, it's just a piece of cloth), just as you probably wouldn't make a little shrine for the letter of recommendation.

If you want an Isshinryu patch, the senseis can probably get that for you, too. They tend to be just a few dollars. Some people like to sew them onto their gis or gym bags.

Mizu gami

The mizu gami is the woman you see on the isshinryu patch.

As with most emblems, this one is full of symbolism.

Her right hand is closed in a fist, signifying her ability to fight; her left hand is open, which shows her desire to avoid conflict. The Japanese lettering to the left of her head reads "isshinryu". The three stars at the top are symbolic of the three teachers who taught Tatsuo Shimabuku.

The dragon refers to Tatsuo Shimabuku; Tatsuo means "dragon boy".

Japanese terminology

Some people like to study Japanese language and/or culture as a way of expanding on their study of karate. This is a fine thing; in general, karate benefits greatly when you study other things to enhance your study of karate. Since the original purpose of karate is to better oneself, then studying other subjects naturally fits into this course of self-betterment.

Numbers are taken from Chinese:

  1. ichi
  2. ni
  3. san
  4. shi
  5. go
  6. roku
  7. shichi
  8. hachi
  9. ku
  10. ju

Counting higher than that is relatively straightforward. 11 is ju-ichi. 20 is ni-ju. 21 is ni-ju-ichi. Forty is a bit strange: instead of saying shi-ju, we use a Japanese word for four, yon, instead: yon-ju, yon-ju-ichi, yon-ju-ni. Similarly, sevenety is nana-ju.

Some Japanese words/phrases one hears (and very rough translations; it's very difficult to succintly describe the subtlety of the Japanese language):

kiotske attention
re bow
hajime begin, commence
yame end, stop
hantai reverse (direction)
onegai shimasu please teach me
domo arigato thank you
domo arigato gozaimashta thank you (more formal)
sensei teacher
osensei literally, "big teacher"; usually only used when referring to karate masters
kyu student rank
dan teacher rank (black belt)


A listing and brief description:

heiko dache Parallel stance, feet along the same line. Knees should be slightly bent.
seisan dache Parallel stance, one foot in front of the other.
shika dache, seiuchin dache "Horse-riding stance": a deep stance, with the feet angled out.
kiba dache Similar to the shika dache, except with the feet parallel.
zenkutsu dache Also similar to the shika dache, but with one foot forward and that knee bent, such that the lower leg is perpendicular to the floor. The back leg is straight but not locked. Body weight is distributed 50/50 between the feet.
kake dache "Knee-in-knee" stance: the front foot is turned out to the side, and the back leg's kneecap snugs inside the crook of the front knee. This stance is somewhat low. The back foot should be vertical on the ball of the foot; a common mistake is that the back foot is placed too close to the front foot.
neko ashi dache "Cat" stance: this stance is the reverse of the kake dache. The back foot is turned to the side, and the front foot placed in front. One foot's length (not 12 inches, but rather, the length of your foot) should separate your two feet, which usually requires lowering the body's center. The center of the front foot should be in a line that bisects the back front (i.e., said line goes through the arch of the back foot). The front foot is up on the ball of the foot. Weight is distributed 90/10 towards the back foot.
t stance As cat stance, but the front foot is flat on the ground.
musabi dache "Attention" stance: heels together, feet angled out.
honsuku dache This is a stance only used during a kata's opening formalities.


Depending on how you count them, there are 11 hand charts and 14 leg charts. A good exercise is to list them all:

Hand charts Leg charts
1. 1.
2. 2.
3. 3.
4. 4.
5. 5.
6. 6.
7. 7.
8. 8.
9. 9.
10. Elbow strikes 10.
11. Hammer fists 11.
14. Knee strikes

As a hint, a few have been filled in for you.

Fighting Techniques

Fighting techniques are simple combinations of techniques done from kumite dache that focus more on combat. By themselves, fighting techniques are not meant to be a cure-all for any tactical scenario: far from it. Rather, they are another way of training.

Students learn 3 fighting techniques each belt level until you know all 12 of them.


H-pattern is the first kata we teach. It is not actually an isshinryu kata, although probably every style has something like h-pattern (and many call it "h-pattern").

H-pattern teaches you how to learn a kata. It is a very simple kata to learn, and has many elements that you'll encounter in future katas: for instance, symmetry.

As you advance, h-pattern becomes a very useful kata as a testing ground for new concepts. A few years from now, you'll have performed h-pattern perhaps a thousand times, so it'll be very easy for the rest of your body to perform the kata while your mind focuses on something new (and perhaps strange) to do.

Yellow belt test

At some point, you'll be ready to test for yellow belt. For yellow belt only, there is a written test that you will need to pass before we schedule a separate promotion test. For all other kyu ranks, there are (non-graded) subjective essay questions in addition to the promotion test. To pass the written exam requires correctly answering all of the objective questions. In the event that you don't pass, you'll have a chance to re-take this test after being given a short amount of time to study up.

All of the questions for the objective part of the yellow belt test are taken from the first three sections of this document: A brief synopsis of the martial arts, A brief history of Isshinryu, and Etiquette.

Club history

Names of senseis get thrown around on occassion, so it's nice to have somewhere to lookup who's who.

Isshinryu Karate-do at MIT was founded by Sensei Matt Borthwick in 1998. Borthwick-sensei had previously studied with Sensei Pamela (Myo Shu) Wren and Sensei Deborah Pittak in Hudson, Ohio. We like to think of the Ohio dojo (Pittak's Isshinryu Karate) as our parent dojo. There are no formal connections between our dojo and the Hudson dojo per se, although we feel like one big family, given the sensei lineage. We tend to visit once a year or maybe once every other year.

Wren-sensei and Pittak-sensei are sisters.

Other names you'll hear from the Ohio dojo include the long list of senseis: Sensei Andy Turner, Sensei Jim Bobek, Sensei Raphael Ryan, Sensei Ruben Ryan, Sensei Beth Jordan, and Sensei Jody Schmucker. Raphael and Ruben are brothers. In addition, Sensei Paul Minkler also teaches aikido, iaido, and kendo at the Ohio dojo.

While an undergraduate student at Cornell, Sensei Borthwick founded Cornell University Isshinryu Karate Club. One of his students, Daniel Heath, started studying from Borthwick-sensei; Daniel later moved to California and continued studying from Wren-sensei, whereupon he reached black belt. Sensei Heath now has a dojo in Berkeley, California. His dojo is a favorite place to visit as people travel to the Bay Area. Other senseis at Berkeley Isshinryu include Sensei Justin Godey and Sensei Don Hoffman.

Sensei Greg Banks began studying Isshinryu in January, 1994, at the Ryu Kyo Dojo in Casper, Wyoming. It was there, under Rik Plass-sensei, that he attained the rank of Sho-dan. He reached the Ni-dan rank in the dojo of Joe Arvidson-sensei in Newburyport, Massachusetts, in 1999, and was promoted to San-dan in 2006. Banks-sensei has been a part of Isshinryu Karate-do at MIT since July, 2001.

Sensei Lisa McGill started her isshinryu training with Sensei Borthwick and was promoted to shodan here at MIT in 2002.

Matt and Lisa are now married and have opened a dojo in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Sensei David Leung began studying Isshinryu in September, 1999, with Isshinryu Karate-do at MIT, from Sensei Matthew Borthwick. Later, David also trained under Sensei Greg Banks and Sensei Lisa McGill as they joined Isshinryu Karate-do at MIT. David reached the Sho-dan rank in 2006.

Further reading

Sensei Borthwick has written much excellent material on a history of Osensei Tatsuo Shimabuku and the story of the Mizu gami.

The Kata of Okinawa isshinryu Karate-do (word doc), (c)2000 Joe Swift, Tokyo, Japan, from 8/15.

David Leung
October 2007
Etiquette section added February 2009