To investigate the history of the Goju school one has to establish that its origin derives from Chinese Kempo, and from the ancient style developed in Okinawa, denominated “Tode,” which was systematically developed by the arrival of Chinese immigrants to the island. An example of this is the massive migration that took place in the XIV century, with 36 Chinese families migrating to the island, and the monks who continuously arrived on the island for a variety of reasons. Typical of the Okinawan idiosyncrasy the Okinawan “Tode” had gone through considerable changes. It is Master Kanryo Higaona whom is attributed with the merits of such an initiative, creating a new style, the “Okinawa-te”.
Kanryo Higaonna was born on the 10 March 1853 in the city of Naha, Okinawa. He belongs to a family with an honourable lineage that at the time had become impoverished. He would make his 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.
Master Chojun Miyagi was born in Naha city, Okinawa, on 25 April 1888 in an aristocratic family. His family was in the import/export business and owned two ships, which made regular trips to mainland China, placing them amongst the wealthiest families in the area.
He began his training at eleven years of age in Sensei Ryuko Aragaki’s Dojo. At the age of fourteen he was introduced to Master Kanryo Higaonna, whom following tradition, imposed on him to help with the chores of the Dojo.
The training in Master Higaonna´s Dojo was severe due to the emphasis put on the strengthening exercises and the Sanchin kata. It has been said that Master Miyagi practiced only Sanchin kata for two years. After this period he was allowed to learn the other katas.
During this time Master Higaonna advised the young Miyagi to travel to Foochow to learn Chinese boxing from the original source. In 1905, backed up by his good economical family fortune, he journeyed to Foochow and remained there for a period of two years.
During his stay in Foochow, Miyagi tried to locate Master Ryu-Ryu-Ko’s dojo unsuccessfully. Some would say that Master Ryu-Ryu-Ko had left the city without a trace. Nonetheless, he studied Kempo with other Masters and came to learn very effective-breathing methods based on the Zen doctrine. When he decided to return to Okinawa, he left with a wealth of knowledge and his physical strength was notoriously superior to the islander’s level.
Once back in Okinawa (1907), many islanders were seeking and soliciting Master Miyagi´s teaching. Miyagi accepted about a dozen of them, and commenced teaching in the yard at his house. Amongst his senior students were the likes of Jinan Shinzato, Seiko Higa, Teruo Chinen, Eiichi Miyazato, Meitoku yagi and Seikichi Toguchi.
Later on Master Miyagi created the Tensho kata (1917) based on the ancient Chinese form of Hakutsuru (the White Crane), taught to him by a Chinese friend called Gokenki; and the Sanchin kata structure was maintained.
In 1921, Master Miyagi was chosen by the masters of Okinawa (North) to demonstrate the Naha-te in an exhibition given in honour of the prince Hirohito (whom subsequently became the Emperor of Japan). The demonstration deeply impresses the Prince, and he recommends him to meet the other Prince of the Chichibu crown, in 1925.
All these events led Master Miyagi to reflect and visualise the future of the Okinawan martial arts. Therefore, in 1926, he decided to jointly establish a research club for Karate with Chomo Hanashiro (Shuri-te), Kenwa Mabuni (Shito-Ryu) and others. For three years thereafter the studies were dedicated to the basics, to kata training, and the philosophy of the martial arts.
In 1929 Master Yamaguchi invited Master Miyagi to Japan, where he stayed for a period of two months. Sensei Yamaguchi had previously trained in the Shorin-Ryu style, and as result of the invitation he appointed Sensei Yamaguchi as his representative in Japan. It has been said that Master Miyagi went to Japan no more than three times, to give Sensei Yamaguchi instructions, and this was highly criticised by Master Miyagi’s disciples in Okinawa.
In the same period Master Miyagi received an invitation from the Yokoku Shimpu Press to teach in Hawaii for a period of one year. It has been stated that this was the foremost contribution from Master Miyagi in promoting Karate outside of Okinawa. Thereafter many instructors would represent him outside of Japan.
On his return to Okinawa Master Miyagi was nominated as leader of the Butokai-Kai association in Okinawa. A recommendation from the Ministry of Education was awarded to perform the duties of physical education.
It has also been said that when Jigoro Kano (the founder of Judo) visited Okinawa in 1927, he was so astonished with Master Miyagi’s demonstration that he extended an invitation in 1930 and 1932 to Japan, to demonstrate his style at a few Butokai tournaments. Master Miyagi was unable to attend due to ill health. In his place, he sent Jinan Shinzato with some of his students to represent him. In one of these tournaments, Shinzato was asked by reporters for the name of the style he had demonstrated. In the first instance, Shinzato did not know what to answer. Up to this time, Okinawan styles were classified according to the geographical zone in which they had been developed, and his style was denominated by Naha-te. Nevertheless he answered that his style was called “semi-hard” and “semi- soft” and this is how the first initiative to name the style was born. On his return to Okinawa, Shinzato immediately related the incident to Miyagi.
After listening to the incident Master Miyagi meditated for a brief moment and he added:
“Goju-don-tosu (hard-soft, Inhale-exhale).”
This phrase was extracted from the ancient book denominated by Kempo Haku or Bubishi. Nevertheless, Master Miyagi gave his Karate style a new name; “Goju-ryu”. In 1933, his style was officially recognised by the Butokai (Japanese Association of Martial Virtues).
Master Miyagi taught Karate in Okinawa in the following institutions; at the Police Department, at schools, and in the Health Institute.
In 1936 Master Miyagi decided to travel back to China, this time to Shanghai. In Shanghai he trained in the style of “the Monk’s Fist” with the famous monk Miao Xing, and with other masters associated with him.
On his return to Okinawa in 1940, Master Miyagi created the Gekisai Dai Ichi and Gekisai Dai Ni katas with the intent of teaching them to beginners and the younger generation as they were simpler than the other Goju-ryu katas.
In regards to the Goju-ryu katas, Sensei Seiichi Akamine (our master, may he rest in peace), a direct student of Kanki Izumigawa, mentioned many times that Kanryo Higoanna had brought other katas from China, that Chojun Miyagi did not consider them when he assumed the responsibility of Master Higaonna’s school, because of personal judgement. After the death of Master Higaonna, Chojun Miyagi decided to make changes in the katas, for example: to once and for all close the hands in Sanchin kata Master Miyagi would teach it this way when instructing young students, but would maintain the open hand techniques with the more prominent students. He modified the structure of Sanchin kata by eliminating the turns, instead stepping back on the third or fifth step. (Originally Master Higaonna structure of Sanchin kata consisted of two turns either on the third or fifth step. In this way the original katas of Master Kanryo Higaonna were being modified by Master Miyagi, to establish a Karate style that would suit his way of thinking and his personality. Nonetheless all those who witnessed Master Miyagi execution of katas seem to coincide on the same various aspects, those being:
- That it was almost impossible to imitate him.
- That the tremendous power exerted by his movements would frighten onlookers and students alike.
- That the power he transmitted when locking his hips into the Sanchin position was intimidating.
- That he would execute movements utilising all his muscular structure/force starting at his feet in an ascendant form through each muscle of his body, reaching the arm that was blocking, or the hand striking with such power that it appeared to rip away the ethereal energy that surrounded him.
In conclusion Master Miyagi was surprising and admirable, and there was no doubt to all those who witnessed him in action, that he was the authentic inheritor of Master Kanryo Higaonna’s legacy.
At the end of the war, Master Miyagi succumbed to a deep state of depression due to three of his sons being killed, and his native land being under military law of the United States. Despite all this he decided to teach Karate at the Police Department in Ryukyu and opened a Dojo in his house based in Tsuboya, Naha.
Master Miyagi passed away on the 8 October 1953, at the age of 65, due to a cerebral hemorrhage.
By Sensei Roberto Fernandez de la Reguera Silva (Translated by Christian Tapia)