Shōrin and Shōrei – Lost in Translation

I would like to turn attention towards the terms pronounced in Japanese as Shōrin and Shōrei. In short: The whole story of Shōrin and Shōrei as the original schools of karate were possibly just a communication error.

To get started, you first should know that the Higa Seikō manuscript of the Bubishi is the oldest handwritten edition still extant. Within the twenty-nine articles verified for this edition, each of the two terms Shōrin-ji and Shōrei-ji appears only once.

Shōrin-ji 邵林寺 appears only in the “Four Incurable Diseases” (Article 18). The passage in question says:

“This practice and medical implications were handed down from the Shōrin-ji to this day. Kenpō and medical implications must be constantly studied and reviewed and proficiency in both must become skillful.”

Shōrei-ji 邵霊寺 appears only in “Shaolin Herbal Medicine and Injuries Diagram” (Article 25). The part in question translated to:

“This person carries remedies for the other person to heal. This tradition of Shōrei-ji ended (=does not exist anymore).”

In both these descriptions appears a Chinese character which could be read in Japanese as “ryū,” i.e., in sense of a martial art style in the form of so-and-so-ryū. However, there is no way to explain the semantics of these two expressions in this way. In the above given connection, Shōrin-ji and Shōrei-ji refer to temples or other institutions that taught medicine. It is said that the place called Shōrin also taught Kenpō (empty-handed martial arts), but no such thing was mentioned for the place called Shōrei-ji, which instead is said to have ended, meaning, at that time it already didn’t exist anmore.

However, martial artists naturally assumed that Shōrin and Shōrei must refer to the Northern and the Southern Shaolin temple. But the characters used in the Bubishi’s notation of Shōrin and Shōrei are very specific, are found nowhere else, and simply do not match the notation of “Shaolin.” In other words, the entries Shōrin and Shōrei neither referred to a martial art style in sense of a so-and-so-ryū, nor do they match with the notation of Shaolin. Also, the place called “Shōrei” simply never existed in China.

Next, in Itosu Ankō’s “10 Maxims of Karate” of 1908, he clearly stated that

“A long time ago the two schools called Shōrin-ryū and Shōrei-ryū were imported from China.”

The characters Itosu uses here are the same as in the above mentioned Bubishi, with the exception of the respective first characters. These still match 67% in writing and 100% in Japanese pronunciation. This discrepancy had been the reason for much cogitation ever since and in fact has never been solved. I want to circumvent another discussion about the characters used by Itosu and instead follow a working hypothesis pointed out by Matsuda Masashi:

“It seems they [Shōrin and Shōrei] have been confused since they sound very similar. Such misrepresentations are found in many other cases and are not uncommon.”

The important point here is a different one. Namely that Itosu unambiguously referred to both Shōrin and Shōrei as a ryū (a style, a school) in sense of martial arts styles.

It is more than questionable to believe that Itosu simply used his characters for Shōrin to phonetically resemble Shaolin, and Shōrei for some other place. The whereabouts of the original Itosu manuscript are unknown. Mabuni in 1934 only printed eleven articles from his Itosu copy. In addition, notwithstanding the existence of the Konishi Yasuhiro (A) mansucript, so far, no proof could be established that more than these eleven articles of Itosu were handed down. Mabuni 1934 uses Shōrin and Shorei in three articles (18, 20, and and 32), two of which are not part of the twenty-nine articles of the Miyagi lineage Bubishi (20 and 32). The Miyagi lineage Bubishi on the other hand uses Shōrin and Shorei in only two articles (18 and 25), one of which could hitherto not be verified for the Itosu Bubishi (25). Therefore, the only matching article of the Bubishi is the “Four Incurable Diseases” (Article 18). It might be no surprise that Mabuni uses the same notation as Itosu in 1908, i.e., Shōrin-ryū 昭林寺 and that Miyagi uses the slightly different notation as Shōrin-ryū 邵林寺. According to this sole evidence for comparison it must be assumed that Itosu referred to the same Shōrin-ryū – and therefore also the same Shōrei-ryū – as have been handed down with the Bubishi.

In other words, the characters for Shōrin and Shōrei as used by Itosu in 1908 originated in the Bubishi, while at the same time Itosu was the only one who explicitly used them both to refer to a style of martial arts. But this is contrary to the wording as found in the Bubishi, which stated that Shōrei already ended (does not exist anymore). Quite on the contrary, it seems to have been a misinterpretation of the classical Chinese text.

Although Itosu didn’t further elaborate on the meaning of Shōrin-ryū and Shōrei-ryū, Funakoshi Gichin mentioned Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū already in 1913, stating:

“As far as this is concerned, since ancient times it [karate] has been divided into two branches called Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū. The first is a school that places emphasis on the body [tai], and the latter one is that emphasizes the method [jutsu]. Waishinsan belongs to the former and Iwā belongs to the last. Waishinsan is a wild, fat-bodied warrior, and Iwā is a quick-witted, lively and accomplished man with a slim body. Naha draws from the Shōrei-ryū, and Shuri enters the Shōrin-ryū.”

But one year later, in 1914, Funakoshi states that

“The styles of karate are the two kinds of Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū. As regards the first […], the military officer Ason belonged to this genre. As regards the latter […], the military officer Waishinzan belonged to this genre.”

You see, in 1913, Funakoshi stated that Waishinzan was of Shōrei-ryū, and Iwā belongs to Shōrin-ryū. One year later, Funakoshi stated that Ason belonged to Shōrei-ryū, while Waishinzan belonged to Shōrin-ryū. In other words, already in his first notes on the matter he confused the “styles” with the related persons.

While it might be considered reasonable that Qing military officers had some knowledge of Shaolin martial arts, you should note that it was Itosu himself who clearly stated that “Karate did not develop from Buddhism or Confucianism.” The Northern and the Southern Shaolin temples were Buddhist temples. According to this, Itosu’s use of Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū would not have referred to the Shaolin. It is simply inconsistent.

On top of that, Funakoshi in this article used another previously variant of notation for the prefix shō, namely 照.

In his publications of 1922, 1925, and 1935, Funakoshi assigned a total of 15 kata to both the styles of Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū. Namely, in 1922 he assigned eight kata to Shōrei-ryū, and seven kata to Shōrin-ryū. 1925 two changes of assignment were made (Chintō and Jitte), and in 1935 two more changes (Wanshū and again Jitte). Funakoshi implemented this division of kata although he himself already in 1914 has pointed out that Chintō and Jitte were neither taught by Ason nor Waishinzan, but by a Vietnamese from Fuzhou who was washed ashore in Tomari.” Furthermore, he even assigned the five Pinan to Shōrin-ryū, and Naihanchi Nidan and Sandan to Shōrei-ryū, although these have been created only recently by Itosu Ankō, and not had been “handed down from China a long time ago.” The number of contradictions here is astonishing.

In 1934, Mabuni Kenwa attached the explanation “Shōrei-ji-ryū” to his chapter “Hand and Foot, Muscle and Bone Training Postures” As I have pointed out elsewhere, the persons depicted in this article very likely were either a Taoist priest and disciples, or even a Ryūkyūan teacher with disciples. As Mabuni copied this document from Itosu, and as Funakoshi noted that “the military officer Ason belonged to this genre” of Shōrei-ryū, and as further the twenty-nine verified articles of the Higa Seikō manuscript do not contain this specific article, it would mean that the theory of both Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū as martial arts styles were limited to the Itosu lineage.

According to the above, while the origin of the specific combination and characteristics of the terms Shōrin and Shōrei have been verified only in the Bubishi and in Itosu’s 1908 letter, and while only the Itosu lineage manuscripts of Mabuni Kenwa use these designations in sense of a style, no such interpretation can be derived from the comparative analysis of the Miyagi lineage Bubishi. The only thing that could be verified from the Itosu lineage Bubishi is the article marked as Shōrei-ryū, namely “Hand and Foot, Muscle and Bone Training Postures.” Again, this means that the theory of both Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū as martial arts styles were limited to the Itosu lineage and were probably related to exactly this article.

In any case, Shōrin and Shōrei became designations in the first attempt to classify various kinds of karate into styles as understood by the Japanese. The names Shōrin and Shōrei are found in the text of the Bubishi as well as in Itosu’s 1908 letter. It might even be that Itosu’s students subsequently added the specific meaning of Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū to it, by attributing it to Chinese military officers Ason and Waishinzan in Funakoshi’s case, and by adding these two designations to the articles of the Bubishi in Mabuni’s case. Again, no such relation can be found in any of the other lineages of the Bubishi editions.

That is, these are historical allusions, or even allusions to records that originated in the teachings of the two military officers Ason and Waishinzan which might have entered the specific Bubishi lineage of the Itosu collection. One such fragment might have been the article “Hand and Foot, Muscle and Bone Training Postures,” which was specified as Shōrei-ji-ryū by Itosu’s student Mabuni.

The otherwise nonexistent original notations of Shōrin as found in the Bubishi as well as in Itosu’s writings were maintained by Funakoshi until 1922. Since his 1925 publication he changed it to Shōrin-ryū (sukunai hayashi-ryū /shōbayashi-ryū), thus changing it to the correct Japanese rendition of “Shaolin style.” A few years later, with one brush stroke less and probably a similar reference in mind, Chibana Chōshin named his style Shōrin-ryū (kobayashi-ryū).

Besides this nomenclatural glitch as described above, all would be good. Except…

An eight-part article series from March 1915 was called “The Heroic Tales of Itosu – Master of Shōrei-ryū.” It therefore makes little sense to refer to a school coming largely from Itosu’s or similar traditions as Shōrin-ryū. But this might simply be due to Funakoshi, who hypothesized Shōrei-ryū as being more the style prevalent in Naha, and Shōrin-ryū to be more prevalent in Shuri:

“When we look at what pupils and the like of the middle schools do today in our Okinawa, then they often train in Shōrei-ryū in Naha and in Shuri they often train Shōrin-ryū.”

From the above quote we see that Funakoshi talks about middle school pupils doing karate. From this and the date of the article we can clearly see that he talks about the timeframe from about 1905 to 1914, that is the early time of what I refer to as “conscription-agers karate.” While it seems that Funakoshi fumbled to provide a somewhat logical explanation, and while he associated Shōrin-ryū with Shuri and Shōrei-ryū with Naha during the early days of school karate, his failed attempt of a categorization later led to the equation of Shōrin-ryū with Shuri-te, and of Shōrei-ryū with Naha-te.

In the Bubishi as both a creation and a creator of modern karate we find these ideas picked up and perpetuated in Mabuni’s 1934 publication. In fact, this fallacy was never cleared up and continued to this day. As an example, Mabuni Ken’ei (1918–), oldest son of Mabuni Kenwa and the 2nd Sōke of Shitō-ryū, published “Karate-dō Kyōhan” in 1968. In its appendix were published two articles from the Bubishi. These were referred to by Mabuni Ken’ei as:

  • 1. Shōrei-ji-ryū Kenpō no Kamae (The Postures of Shōrei-ji-ryū Kenpō),
  • 2. Shōrei-ji-ryū Kenpō no Kumite (The Fighting Applications of Shōrei-ji-ryū Kenpō).

Above number 1 are the consecutive numbers 1 through 26 from the article “Shaolin Hand and Foot, Muscle and Bone Training Postures (of the Shōrei-ji-ryū)” as found in his father’s 1934 book.

Above number 2 are the consecutive numbers 3 through 28 from the Self-Defense Diagrams of his father’s 1934 book. So Mabuni Ken’ei here added one more previously unassigned portion of the Bubishi to the category of Shōrei-ji-ryū, namely the two-person self-defense diagrams.

Isn’t it also interesting that Itosu within his newly created framework of karate ignored the myriad of other martial arts lineages and “styles” on the island? There are no Naha-te kata in his curriculum, no Ryū’ei-ryū, no Sai-, Tei-, or Mō-family martial arts and no kobudō. While borrowing and modifying fragments of regional empty-handed martial arts from Shuri, he created something completely new, most probably even the terms of Shōrin-ryū and Shōrei-ryū in the meaning of martial arts styles, claiming that “karate” is based on exactly these two, which ever since have remained phantoms, inventions, and euphemisms which at the same time refer to and blur their own historical allusion. Furthermore, by his selection and creation he explicitly established the idea of karate as a historically empty-handed martial art, which has been considered face value ever since and which has become the core understanding of karate. Already Funakoshi used a different kata framework than Itosu, deliberately changing orders and even names of kata, while at the same time still referring to Shōrin-ryū and Shōrei-ryū in Itosu’s sense as the source of karate.

At this point, a sketch of the lasting confusion resulting from the era of modern karate’s labor pains and their recoil on its technical interpretation become recognizable.


Kinjō 2011: 44.

Uechi 1977: 225. The original source referred to here is: Matsuda 1972.

Shōtō (Funakoshi Gichin): Karate wa Bugei no Kotsuzui nari (Karate is the Bone Marrow of Martial Arts). Ryūkyū Shinpō, January 9, 1913.

Shōtō (Funakoshi Gichin): Okinawa no Bugi (Part II). January 18, 1914. He repeated this in 1922 and 1925, saying “there are only the two schools of Shōrei-ryū and Shōrin-ryū,” see Funakoshi 1922/25: 5-6.

Shōtō (=Funakoshi Gichin): Okinawa no Bugi (Part II). January 18, 1914.

McCarthy, Article 32. “Shaolin Hand and Foot, Muscle and Bone Training Postures.”

Funakoshi 1922/25: 4. Funakoshi 1935: 10.

Nakayoshi Shinkō: Itosu Buyū-den – Shōrei-ryū no Meijin. Ryūkyū Shinpō, March 15–28,  1915. 仲吉真光:糸洲武勇傳 昭霊流の名人、(1)~(8)。琉球新報 1915。

Shōtō (=Funakoshi Gichin): Okinawa no Bugi (Part II). January 18, 1914.

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