Higaonna Kanryo Sensei was born in the village of Naha on March 10, 1853. He belonged to the lower gentry and went by the name "Machu" as a small boy. From childhood Machu showed great interest in the fighting arts and was eager to learn as much as possible. Despite his small size for his age, Machu could move very quickly and his body was extremely limber.
At age fourteen Machu began to learn Chinese Kempo. His well developed and strong body enabled him to master Kempo rather quickly. After only a short period of time, Machu was able to achieve a level of expertise in both skill and technique comparable to that of his teacher. He became well known as a master martial artist in Naha at a young age. However, Machu was unsatisfied with his level of skill and longed to go to China and study the Chinese martial arts and culture. Unfortunately, his father had six children to look after and was unable to offer him financial assistance. But Higaonna Kanryo Sensei did not give up hope.
With some persistence and determination, Higaonna Sensei reached his goal. Through his instructor, he was introduced to and was able to convince the owner of a ship, in the port city of Naha, to grant him a passage to China. His dream to study in China, restricted to the well to do at that time, was finally fulfilled. At age sixteen he left Naha for the Chinese port of Foochow where he stayed at the Okinawan settlement called the Ryukyu-kan. It took almost a year for Higaonna Kanryu Sensei to be introduced to the master of Chinese Kempo, Master Ryu Ryuko.
Even after Higaonna Sensei was introduced, he was not immediately accepted as a disciple. The Chinese masters would take the time to study the personality and character of candidates before accepting any disciples. Thus, Higaonna Sensei was given tasks of tending the garden and cleaning the rooms of the master and did these tasks earnestly and enthusiastically over a long period of time. Impressed by his attitude, Master Ryu Ryuko finally accepted Higaonna Sensei as his personal disciple.
As a disciple, Higaonna Sensei would help his master at his trade as a bamboo craftsman by day and then train after dark. Training began with the practice of Sanchin, then lifting the Nigiri-game (heavy ceramic jars) by their rims to strengthen the student's grip while practicing Unsoku-ho (a pattern of stepping movements) to develop proper footing. Exercises continued using the Muchi-ishi (natural stone) and Makiwara (striking post) as well as an Uki (bamboo basket) where two persons would practice close fighting and choking techniques inside. These new tools and training techniques fascinated Higaonna Sensei and increased his interest in karate even more. The harsh training took its toll, however, and his legs, hands and shoulders were always swollen from over exertion. Nevertheless, it was this harsh training that enabled him to develop his muscles like forged steel. After several years of such training, he became his master's most skillful disciple.
Throughout the city of Foochow, the fame of Higaonna Kanryo Sensei as a great martial artist gradually spread. An episode involving a discussion between students of two dojos lead to a competition in order to demonstrate who was superior in skill. In order to choose a superior martial artist without anyone getting hurt, each master chose their best student to perform kata instead of free style fighting. Higaonna Sensei was chosen to represent his dojo. The students from the other dojo were struck with admiration as they watched Higaonna Sensei perform the Sanchin kata. Afterwards, the master of the other dojo admitted Master Ryu Ryuko's art was superior to his own and Higaonna Sensei's fame spread even further. Many martial artists tried to engage him in a fight to prove their bravery but Higaonna Sensei kept his promise to his master not to fight to show off his skill and declined these challenges.
Master Ryu Ryuko watched over Higaonna Sensei as if he were his own son. Higaonna Sensei stayed as a disciple for about thirteen years, living at his master's home and practicing daily in his yard. After this period of time, he left his master and the city of Foochow to return to Okinawa. Upon his return, Higaonna Sensei visited the owner of the ship, Udon Yoshimura, who had made his passage to China possible. Udon Yoshimura was very impressed by the modest yet dignified person Higaonna Sensei had grown up to be and asked him to teach his sons some of the skills he had learned in China. The second son, Yoshimura Chogi, took great interest in the martial arts and practiced eagerly.
Higaonna Sensei's fame spread rapidly throughout Naha, attracting the attention of the King of the Ryukyu Dynasty. Thus for many years, he taught the martial arts to the members of the royal family as well. However, many people in the town came to Higaonna Sensei and asked to be taken on as personal disciples. But due to the harshness of the training, only a few remained with him for long. Among his disciples, young Miyagi Chojun was one of the few that remained. Higaonna Sensei had opened his house in Nishimachi as a dojo and was teaching his art to his disciples without charging any tuition. In addition to his private instruction, Higaona Sensei began teaching at a public high school in Naha at the request of the principal in 1905. He inculcated the students with both the physical and spiritual value of his art.
During his thirteen years in China, Higoanna Sensei mastered many traditional martial arts, such as, the art of the straight sword. His technique in these various martial arts was truly art in motion. His hands and legs possessed extraordinary spring making his movements fast as lightening. People were surprised that one so small, five foot one inch, could have so much power and strength and referred to him as Kensei, meaning "sacred fists."
Gradually, the art of Higaonna Sensei became known as "Naha-dee (te)" meaning "Naha hand (technique)." He devoted his life along with his disciple Miyagi Chojun Sensei to the improvement and advancement of the art of Naha-te. Early in 1916, Higaonna Sensei fell ill. Miyagi Chojun Sensei looked after his master, nursing him devotedly. But Higaonna passed away in October 1916. Thus, the art of Naha-te was handed over from Higaonna Kanryo Sensei to his disciple Miyagi Chojun Sensei. Higaonna Kanryo Sensei is honored today as the founder of Okinawan karate.