The History of Okinawan Goju-Ryu Karatedo
The Early Days: Kanryo Higaonna and Ryu Ryu Ko
by Gary Gabelhousee
The origins of Goju Ryu are shrouded in the chaos that inevitably follows war and racial conflict. The best estimates today are that Goju Ryu began to emerge as a separate style in the late 1800s under the direction of Kanryo Higaonna.
Kanryo Higaonna (1853-1915) was born in Okinawa. In the fall of 1867, Kanryo set sail for Fuzhou-Fujian, China. He was fifteen years old and was headed for the Ryukyu Kan, an Okinawan settlement that was a microcosm of Okinawan life. He took lodgings at a boarding house named Uchinayaru which was managed by Kanpu Tanmei. Tanmei learned that Kanryo was eager to study the Chinese martial arts and introduced him to the Chinese master Ryu Ryu Ko. There is still no consensus of opinion about Ryu Ryu Ko’s exact identity or about the exact martial arts style that he taught. It is widely believed that he came from a royal family, since during that time only the aristocratic classes studied the martial arts. Ryu Ryu Ko underwent his martial training in the mountains of Fujian Province.
Due to the internal strife that threatened the feudal system and therefore the Chinese aristocracy, many martial artists like Ryu Ryu Ko were forced to conceal their status in order to survive. Ryu Ryu Ko worked as a bricklayer and a builder. In later life he made his living by making a variety of everyday goods such as baskets, furniture and other items from cane. This was the profession he was following when Kanryo became his pupil.
In the area of the Ryukyu Kan where Kanryo disembarked, White Crane was the dominant martial arts style. The White Crane tradition of 17th century Fujian was strongly influenced by Monkey Fist and Tiger Boxing. That blend was probably what Ryu Ryu Ko taught Kanryo.
The original Ancestral (Zong He Quan) or Trembling (Zhan He Quan) Crane style was later split into separate branches including: Singing Crane, Sleeping Crane (Su He Quan), Flying Crane (Fei He Quan), Eating/Feeding Crane (Shi He Quan) and probably numerous sub-branches as well.
Kanryo live in China from 1867 to 1881. He became Ryu Ryu Ko’s uchi-deshi and received the inner teachings, learning the whole system, not simply what was taught to outsiders. During those years, Kanryo also studied weapons (kobudo) and traditional Chinese medicine.
It is not clear exactly when Kanryo began teaching the martial arts in Okinawa, but it is known that he did not begin teaching until a few years after his return from China. Initially, he taught martial arts in his home in Nishishin-machi. In September, 1905, he also taught at the Naha Kuritsu Shogyo Koto Gakko (Naha Commercial High School) in September 1905. The system that he taught eventually came to be called Naha-te, or Naha Hand.
Many of Kanryo’s students left their marks on martial arts. Kanryo’s favorite and most talented student was a man named Chojun Miyagi (1888-1953). Miyagi came from a wealthy family of shipping merchants who imported goods and medicines from China for the royal Okinawan family, government officials and business houses. When Chojun was eleven years old, his family sent him to Ryuko Aragaki (1875-1961) to begin the training he would need to assume his duties within the family.
Three years later, Aragaki sent the fourteen-year-old Miyagi to Kanryo. Here Miyagi, together with Juhatsu Kyoda (1887-1967), was tutored thoroughly in Higaonna’s Naha-te. Rather than return to the family business, Miyagi studied martial arts full time. Miyagi succeeded Kanryo as the leading practitioner of Naha-te, eventually formulating the teachings of Naha-te into a system that evolved into today’s Goju-Ryu karate-do.
Establishment of Gojy Ryu: Chojun Miyagi
Miyagi dedicated his whole life to the development of what was called toudijutsu (China hand art) or simply te on Okinawa, traveling extensively and training in a variety of styles with many masters. After Kanryo died, the well-off Miyagi traveled to Fuzhou, the mecca of South-Chinese fighting arts, to visit the birthplace of Kanryo’s Naha-te and to pay his respects to Ryu Ryu Ko’s grave.
For two months, Miyagi, together with Aisho Nakamoto (1881-1945) stayed in Fuzhou to train. They also visited the Julianshan Fujian Shaolin Temple. After his return to Okinawa, Miyagi became friends with two tea-merchants from Fuzhou: Wu Xianhui (Japanese: Go Kenki) and Tang Daiji (Japanese: To Daiki). Both Go Kenki and To Daiki were famous martial arts teachers. Go Kenki (1886-1940) came to Naha in 1912 to teach White Crane boxing and made friends with the Okinawan martial arts teachers, including Juhatsu Kiyoda, Miyagi and Kenwa Mabuni (1889-1952).
Together with Go Kenki, Miyagi left to visit Fuzhou again at the end of the 1920’s. Even before he met Go Kenki, who emigrated from Fuzhou to Naha in 1912, Miyagi had a good relationship with Tang Daiji (1887-1937), a Tiger Boxing teacher who also emigrated from Fuzhou to Naha. In February, 1936, in Shanghai, Go Kenki introduced Miyagi to the famous Monk Fist (Luohan Quan) master Miao Xing (1881-1939). Miyagi is said to have trained for some time diligently with Miao Xing and other Chinese masters associated with the Jingwu Athletic Association. He also visited the national martial arts championships.
In 1921, Crown Prince Hirohito visited Okinawa before traveling to Europe. During his visit, Shuri-te as well as Naha-te (by Chojun Miyagi) was demonstrated. Four years later, in 1925, Miyagi again performed before the royal family, demonstrating his art for prince Chichibu-Nomiya. In 1926, Miyagi founded the Okinawa Karate Kenkyu-Kai (Okinawa Karate Research Club) together with Chomo Hanashiro (Shuri-te), Choyu Motobu (Tomari-te) and Kenwa Mabuni. One year later, Miyagi demonstrated to Jigoro Kano, grappling, locking and throwing techniques and the correct use of breathing. Kano was very impressed by this toudijutsu and introduced Miyagi, accompanied by his friend Mabuni, to the martial arts communities in Japan.
At the end of the 1920’s and in the early 1930’s, Miyagi, together with his at-that-time senior student, Jinan Shinzato (1901-1945), gave seminars and demonstrations at Japanese universities, Budo-tournaments and at the crowning festivities of crown-prince Hirohito. On one occasion, when Shinzato was demonstrating the art, a spectator asked Shinzato the name of the style. Since the art was never really named by Miyagi—often referred to only as Bu or Te—Shinzato is said to have replied, “Hanko Ryu,” or Half-Hard Style.
In 1933, Miyagi resolved the confusion by registering toudi officially as Goju-Ryu (Hard/Soft Style) at the Japanese regulating Budo-institution, the prestigious Dai Nippon Butokukai, the All Japan Martial Arts Association. Miyagi based his naming of the art on one of the Fist Poems of the Bubishi. Later on, Miyagi was recognized by the Ministry of Physical Education as he received the highest honor of the Dai Nippon Butokukai and was appointed representative of the Butokukai department for Okinawa.
Goju-Ryu karate-do was the first and oldest karate tradition recognized by the Dai Nippon Butokukai. Miyagi continued to travel and train, expanding the reach of his influence. In May, 1934, Miyagi was invited to Hawaii where he taught and gave demonstrations until February, 1935. His teachings then were referred to as kempo karate. On October 25, 1936, the most senior Okinawa teachers (Chomo Hanashiro, Chotoku Kyan, Choki Motobu, Chosin Chibana, Juhatsu Kiyoda and Chojun Miyagi) assembled and changed the name toudijutsu to Karate-do.
Before World War II, Miyagi’s teaching method began with hojo undo, uke harai, ude tanren, yakusoku kumite, kakie and then sanchin kata. This was a student’s routine for the first three to five years and comprised eighty percent of Miyagi’s teachings. After this, students were taught one or two kaishugata or kata. The depth and applications varied according to the level of understanding and technical ability of the student.
Miyagi’s top student was Jinan Shinzato. Shinzato was a police detective by profession and also trained in judo. Shinzato was talented and it was generally known that he was to become Chojun Miyagi’s successor. World War II changed everything. Shinzato was killed. Miyagi lost two daughters and his third son. During the Battle of Okinawa, Miyagi tried to hide and preserve his notes, books and studies of the history and principles of Karate and martial arts. Unfortunately, all of his writings were destroyed.
During the bleak period directly after the war, survival became the first priority for Miyagi and his remaining senior students. There was no time to spare for training if their families were to survive the depredations of the war. Eventually, as some semblance of normality returned to the war-stricken area, Miyagi began to teach Goju Ryu in his garden dojo. His senior students returned and began working together again, but the years of separation had left their mark on the traditional relationship.
The senior students decided they would form a formal Goju Ryu organization that would give rank and be based on a belt system like Judo and Kendo were. When presented with this proposed organization, Miyagi was somewhat angered and refused, saying he was in no position to give anyone rank. Chojun Miyagi died of a heart attack on October 8, 1953. Up until that time he gave no rank—not even a Kyu rank.
Post World War II: Modern Goju Ryu
After Miyagi died, his senior students carried out their original proposal and formed the Karate-Do Goju Association. Meitoku Yagi served as the first Chairman and Seikichi Toguchi as Vice Chairman. In 1954, Toguchi opened up the first Shorei-kan dojo (House of Courtesy and Manners) in Koza City, Okinawa. The Shorei-Kan dojo was very close to the American military base and the Americans were fascinated by the martial arts. As the number of Westerners in his dojo increased, Toguchi devised teaching methods to overcome the language barrier. He built on Miyagi’s original vision of progressively more challenging kata, adding bunkai kumite and kiso kumite to help explain application of the kata. Many of the men and women who brought Okinawan karate to the United States studied with Seikichi Toguchi. In 1956, that number included a certain twenty-one year old, United States Marine: Private First Class John Roseberry.