Kanryo Higaonna was born on the 10 March 1853 in the city of Naha, Okinawa. He belonged to a family with an honourable lineage that at the time had become impoverished. They would make their living transporting firewood from the Kerama Island. Due to the precarious condition in which the family lived, the young Kanryo commenced helping his father in the family business at the age of ten.
The young Kanryo demonstrated great interest for the martial arts, and even though he was of slight build, his agility and speed stood out. When he was 14 years of age his father lost his life in a fight. Perhaps due to this lamentable tragedy, the young Kanryo decided to take formal training in the Chinese Kempo, and started training with a peasant who had studied the art in Foochow, China. From then on, he pursued his dream, obsessed in one day, travelling to China to study Kempo. Finally in 1866 he convinced a friend of his father, owner of a ship, to give him a free ride across to China.
Consequently after residing for one year in an Okinawa colony at Foochow (China), the young Kanryo turned up before Sensei Ryu Ryu Ko (Liu Lugong). He was not allowed to train immediately as he would have wanted to, instead he had to submit to the ancient novices’ norms, such as; look after the garden, clean up the premises, attend to the master, plus other general chores. Once the young Kanryo demonstrated his capacity and willingness to learn, the master decided to accept him as a disciple.
A new phase in the life of the young Kanryo had commenced, helping his master in the cane furniture business during the day, and dedicating the nights to the boxing arts training. The training that the master imparted was severe, and the practice of Sanchin kata was on a daily basis. The training with heavy tools and equipment was also used to strengthen and condition the body. Legend has it that the young Kanryo only trained in the Sanchin kata for a period of six years, and only then Master Ryu Ryu Ko taught him the other katas, such as; Saifa, Seonchin, Shisochin, Sanseru, Seipai, Kururunfa, Seisan, and Superunpei. In addition, he trained in various traditional weapons and herbal medicine.
Master Higaonna remained in Foochow for a period of thirteen years. On his return to Okinawa he began to privately instruct the sons of his father’s friend, the ship owner, which took him on the journey to China. Once settled in his native land he returned to his old trade as a merchant. Nevertheless, his reputation as a master of Chinese Kempo was rapidly growing,
due to the many stories originating from the sailors arriving from China, recounting Kanryo’s feats during his time there. Because of these stories, many islanders started seeking his instructions, but due to the severity of his training, only a few persevered.
In 1905 Master Higaonna started teaching at the high school, and he was considered in conjunction with Master Ankoh Itosu, as the precursors and the driving force of Karate in Okinawa, one with the Naha-te and the other with the Shuri-te. From their teachings derived the majority of the styles created later in Okinawa.
Master Higaonna died on 23 December 1915 at the age of 62, but his legacy continued within his most notable followers, such as: Chojun Miyagi and Seiko Higa.