By John Ingram
When Isshinryu founder Tatsuo Shimabuku died on May 30, 1975, the style splintered into many different factions. Following tradition, the style was handed down to Master Shimabuku's eldest son, Kichiro Shimabuku. However, many people felt that he was not the most qualified to take over the style. There also were four American Marines, all of whom were promoted to eighth dan by Tatsuo Shimabuku and therefore were the senior Americans in the style. They were Steve Armstrong, Harold Long, Don Nagle and Harold Mitchum.
The first three men quickly opened schools, started teaching and made names for themselves. They were always in the forefront and in the public eye. Mitchum, on the other hand, was a career Marine and by nature a very laid-back man who preferred a secluded lifestyle to one that brought attention to himself. Besides an article in Black Belt Magazine in 1978, not much has been done on this great karate pioneer.
Time on Okinawa
Harold Mitchum was born in South Carolina on December 17, 1933. He joined the Marines on July 23, 1953. He was first stationed on Okinawa in March, 1958. He checked all of the local karate schools out and chose Isshinryu because he considered it to be more practical and because the dojo was closest to the base where he was stationed.
Being stationed in Okinawa on different assignments during his 20 years of duty, he spent more time directly under Master Shimabuku than any other American: 7½ years in total. In comparison, other Marines typically spent one tour of duty, which was usually one year, on Okinawa and by the time they found the dojo, they only studied about ten months.
Some people claim to have studied eight, ten or 12 hours a day while on Okinawa. When I asked Sensei Mitchum about this, he just laughed and said that being in the Marines wasn't a vacation. These people had jobs.
Harold Mitchum is the only American who can lay claim to actually running a second dojo for Master Shimabuku. Angi Uezu, Master Shimabuku's son-in-law, lived in an apartment adjoining the dojo and Mitchum said he doesn't believe Uezu had even started karate at that time. Mitchum was appointed the first President of the American Okinawan Karate Association and was the first American ever promoted to eighth dan by the Master. His certificate is numbered #1 and dated 5 November 1964.
Master Shimabuku later promoted Nagle, Armstrong and Long to eighth dan, but he never promoted an American to ninth. Therefore Harold Mitchum is the senior American student.
Sensei Mitchum was promoted to ninth dan on June 5, 1988 by the late Masufumi Suzuki, who was at that time and until his passing the head of the All Japan Budo Federation and the Seibukan Academy in Kyoto, Japan. Mr. Suzuki knew Master Shimabuku quite well and stated that he had heard Master Shimabuku speak very highly of Mitchum. Suzuki, in private conversation with Sensei Mitchum and Dennis Fink, stated that since Master Shimabuku's death, Isshinryu had died. What he implied by this was that the style no longer had any strong Okinawan leadership.
Mitchum often talks about Master Shimabuku's #1 Okinawan student, Kinjo Chinsaku, who studied under Shimabuku but remained in one of Isshinryu's parent styles, Shorin ryu. Mitchum studied Shorin ryu for about nine months under Chinsaku. Mitchum says he had the best side kick he had ever seen. Joe Lewis also credits his legendary side kick to Chinsaku.
Mitchum said Chinsaku often performed Tokumine bo kata in demonstrations they did and demonstrated more power than anyone he had ever seen — before or since.
On the occasions that Shimabuku visited the States (the most notable in 1966 when he was filmed doing kata at Armstrong's dojo), Mitchum could not be in attendance due to military obligations. The last time he was in Okinawa was in 1971.
Back in the States
Upon retiring from the military, Sensei Mitchum settled down in Albany, Georgia and opened a dojo there. His three sons, James Tatsuo, Leon and Steve, became proficient karateka and helped in running his dojo.
I first met Sensei Mitchum at his Albany dojo in 1981 when I traveled up from Florida with my first instructor, Jim Canter, and a classmate, Oscar Wheeler. Sensei Mitchum is a very quiet, non-intimidating person.
He knew we had come to him seeking promotion and not knowledge. Like a lot of young karateka we thought we knew it all anyway. I guess in the martial arts world full of egos, I interpreted his humbleness as a lack of knowledge. Boy was I wrong! He felt we were worthy of promotion, so he promoted my instructor who in turn promoted Oscar and me.
Shortly after this, my instructor retired to pursue other interests and I was left with the school which was only a handful of students at the time. I then embarked on a tournament frenzy, competing and training students to compete on state and national levels. We were very successful and I became a Top 10 point fighter in the old Karate Illustrated ratings and also won the Florida State and national titles. My wife, Cindy Ingram was 1989 NASKA Rookie of the Year. My students won black belt divisions at NASKA's largest tournaments, the U.S. Open, Battle of Atlanta and Diamond Nationals. We also competed in kata competition and this is where we became sidetracked and really lost sight of our style in an effort to please the judges.
By 1986 I had students who needed promoting, so I had to pursue a promotion myself in order to promote them. I thought, "No problem. I'll just go to Sensei Mitchum and get promoted." I had gotten word of a group from Canada who were going to Cartersville, Georgia to meet and work out with Mitchum, so I figured it would be a good time to just meet them in Georgia and come back with a promotion.
Well, it was a whole different story from the first time. Now I didn't have a sensei and due to lack of guidance, had deviated drastically from the correct kata. The experience this time was incredible! This time Sensei Mitchum worked with us and I could tell this man really knew what true karate was. I had been to testings and promotions by other associations and I got the feeling that the upper rank's goal was to let you know that they knew more than you, and instead of trying to prove that through demonstrating their own ability, they did so by setting the students up and humiliating them.
Well, Sensei Mitchum was the most gentle and kind person I had ever met. He gained my respect by getting up and showing us the way he had learned from Master Shimabuku on Okinawa. It was obvious by his powerful performance and the ease with which he applied the bunkai that he was a true master and possessed a deep understanding of the kata.
When I asked him why there are so many variations of the kata even among people who trained during the same time period, he said that many people came back to the U.S. after such a short time that they either forgot and did the kata the best that they could remember, or more often simply didn't understand the kata. Many people learned no bunkai because in the old way of teaching bunkai was taught only if you asked — and many people never asked! Therefore if they didn't understand they would just change the move to something they could understand.
Well, when I left Cartersville, I had a whole new outlook on my style, and my goal was to learn everything I could from this man. I was promoted with the understanding I would work on the kata and take my new knowledge back to my school. Sensei Mitchum informed me he would be in Florida in a couple of months to check my progress. When he came to Florida, he checked my top student who happened to also be my wife, Cindy. He then promoted her and worked with some of my other top students on kata bunkai.
My relationship with Sensei Mitchum has made me a believer in traditional karate. I have traveled to the largest tournaments in the U.S. and have seen the top forms competitors in the nation. But when I see this humble man who is over 60 years old do kata, I see true kata perfection — kata the way it was meant to be. His kicks and punches are the most powerful I have ever seen and maybe those who don't believe in the one punch kill (and I didn't until I saw Sensei Mitchum) have never seen a true karate master in action. When he demonstrates bunkai, it is very practical and really does work. The problem is that to become proficient at kata moves takes years of hard work and you truly don't reach your full potential until the day you die. If you ever see this man and want a demonstration, don't hold your breath because he does karate not to impress people but because it is a part of him. The people he teaches are few in number and that's the way he wants it.
Sensei Mitchum is the current Director of the United Isshinryu Karate Association (UIKA). He prefers to keep the association a small and close-knit group consisting of only sincere practitioners whose goal is to learn things the way Sensei Mitchum learned them. The association is run similarly to a dojo: with loyalty, patience and harmony within the association being a must.