Around the time he was formalizing Isshinryu, Shimabuku Tatsuo Osensei dreamt of a scene which encapsulated many of the principles of his emerging style.
In the dream, a man approached Shimabuku-osensei. Osensei waved his open left hand in a gesture of peace. At the same time, Osensei kept his right hand closed into a fist in case this mysterious man was less benign than he appeared.
As the man went away, he left Osensei surrounded by a wall of flame. Osensei remained calm and some water extinguished the flames. It is unclear whether Mizu-gami, the Shinto water goddess, or Osensei himself doused the blaze.
After Osensei described the vivid dream to his students, its elements were incorporated into the emblem representing Isshinryu. It has come to be known as Mizu-gami or Megami.
As with any symbol, interpretations of Isshinryu's Mizu-gami abound. We list a few possibilities below.
She is half woman, half serpent, representing both calm in the face of danger and fighting spirit. As Shimabuku-osensei did in his dream, she holds her left hand open and right hand closed, exhibiting peace and strength at once.
The water's turbulence can signify the perils and challenges life puts to us, as well as our own internal struggles.
Yet water is also a symbol of purity and goodness, and it was water that overcame the fire in Osensei's dream.
The most obvious interpretation of the dragon is as a reference to Shimabuku Tatsuo Osensei himself, since the word tatsu means "dragon."
A karateka's progress through the ranks may be seen starting at the base with the serpent in the choppy waters and rising to the placid sky as the dragon.
Dragons are also traditionally considered good luck. Hopefully this is a sign that Isshinryu will continue to spread and flourish.
Placed at the top of the symbol, the stars are usually associated with honored people or concepts.
They may represent the great masters Kiyan-osensei, Miyagi-osensei and Motobu-osensei watching from above.
They may represent Shorinryu, Gojuryu and Kobudo, or perhaps Shorinryu, Gojuryu and Isshinryu.
They may represent the ideals of physical, mental, and spiritual perfection.
They may represent the hard, soft, and middle approaches, all utilized within the Isshinryu system.
They may represent the superlatives: good, better, best.
The orange color of the border is thought to signify the wall of flames.
The oval-like shape brings to mind Isshinryu's signature vertical fist.
Lacking a beginning or an end, the border serves as a reminder that no karateka knows everything there is to the art. Going along it, one eventually returns to where one started.
The sky's soft, grey color evokes a sense of quiet evening or night, when dreams come.
Its calmness carries the message that karate is to be used for defensive purposes only.
The muted sky juxtaposed against the dense, churning water is reminiscent of the symbolism of the open and closed hands, the coexistence of ferocity and tranquility. Note that the goddess finds herself in both environments.
Being above the turbulence, and home to both the dragon and stars, the open air also emphasizes the central importance of mu-shin to karate. In a state of mu-shin, literally translated as "no mind," the mind and body work together so seamlessly that a person responds to an unpredictable situation adeptly, naturally, and without hesitation, in much the same way as we move through Earth's atmosphere without consciously accounting for it. Mu-shin is the instinct grown from the difficult work of repetition in training.