Abbreviated History of Okinawa Goju Ryu Karate-do

Chinese origin

Okinawa Goju-ryu Karate-do has its origins in various South Chinese self-defense arts. Okinawa – formerly an independent kingdom until 1879 – had a good relationship with China from the early Middle Ages (1349) for more than 500 years and, in addition to lively trade, ambassadors, diplomats, students and craftsmen were also exchanged. China was also known for its effective self-defense skills. Okinawa had its own style which was simply called Te (Hand). Several Okinawans wanted to go to China to learn more about Chinese styles. So is the young Kanryo Higaonna.

Kanryo Higaonna (1853 – 1915)

Kanryo Higaonna was born on 1853 in the Okinawan city of Naha. His father owned three sailing ships and young Kanryo had to help since he was 10 years old. At the age of fourteen, his father was killed in combat. Kanryo wanted to avenge his father and looked for opportunities to go to China. On the recommendation of a businessman friend, Kanryo Higaonna obtained a student visa and in the fall of 1867, at the age of fifteen, was able to travel to the Okinawan enclave in the city of Fuzhou, capital of Fujien province (Okinawans and Chinese count the gestation period of 9 months in the age).

At that time it was very difficult to get lessons in a martial art because people preferred to keep it secret. Eventually he was introduced to Ryu Ryu Ko and he decided to hire him. Ryu Ryu Ko was originally a nobleman and personal bodyguard to an important man in Fujien province. This was disowned after a civil war and to avoid revenge Ryo Ryo Ko went underground. He grew his hair long and worked as a construction worker. Later he made furniture and various utensils from bamboo and during that period Kanryo became his collaborator. It was only after a long time, after Kanryo’s character had been assessed and Ryu Ryu Ko had gained confidence in him, that he was taught. After years of basic training in which confidence grew, their relationship became more like father and son and Kanryo went to live in his teacher’s house. From that time on, Kanryo was taught very intensively.

De eerste naamgeving: Naha-te

In 1881, Kanryo Higaonna returned to his hometown of Naha in Okinawa. Many Okinawans who had returned earlier had told of Kanryo’s knowledge and skills. For example, the police occasionally asked for his assistance in apprehending dangerous criminals. His father’s killer had also heard of his return, he expressed his regret and asked for forgiveness. Kanryo Higaonna replied that the man had nothing to fear: taking revenge is not the right way.

At first, Kanryo Higaonna refused to teach. It wasn’t until some years later, after he got married, that he started teaching. This first happened at his home. In September 1905 he began teaching at the new Naha Commercial High School. There was no official name for the style, so it was called Naha-Te (Naha hand). There were two other styles on Okinawa, both also named after the city where this style was practiced: Shuri-Te and Tomari-Te.

Chojun Miyagi (1888 – 1953)

Chojun Miyagi came from a wealthy noble Okinawan family and to prepare him for his future duties as head of the family he was taken at the age of 11 to master Ryuko Aragaki who was skilled in Tomari-Te. At the age of 14, he referred him to Kanryo Higaonna sensei. Here Miyagi trained 6 days a week and after a few years he was the best student. But only after Kanryo Higaonna was convinced of Chojun Miyagi’s good character did he decide to teach him the essence of the style. After the regular training, which lasted about two hours, the other students went home and Chojun Miyagi was taught individually.

In the meantime, Japan was preparing for military expansion and the Okinawans also had to fulfill military service. Chojun Miyagi was summoned to Japan in 1910. The Japanese discriminated against the Okinawans, but soon learned that Chojun Miyagi was an exceptional man not to be trifled with. After basic training Chojun Miyagi opted for the medical service where he gained a lot of knowledge about the functioning of the human body. He was now a respected NCO and the Japanese wanted him to stay. Chojun Miyagi, however, had received word that his teacher was living in great poverty and so returned to Okinawa in November 1912. For the next three years, Chojun Miyagi was taught daily by Kanryo Higaonna until the latter passed away in his sleep in October 1915 at the age of 62. Shortly before, Kanryo Higaonna had indicated that he had appointed Chojun Miyagi as his successor.

Soon after the death of his teacher, Chojun Miyagi went to China to research Ryu Ryu Ko. He found his grave and some former students and made many notes, including about the history. Later, Chojun Miyagi would return to China for research in the 1920s and 1936. Unfortunately, all his notes would be lost during a bombing raid on Okinawa in World War II.

Chojun Miyagi gained more and more prestige and so in 1922 he was asked to teach at the police academy. Later he was invited to give lectures and demonstrations at various Japanese universities in Osaka and Kyoto. He was also invited to Hawaii where he taught for almost a year. When he was handed a thick envelope with the phrase “one stroke please” [a request to get a dan degree] during a dinner in Kyoto, he naturally refused and went back to Okinawa. These people obviously did not understand the character Do 道 which means way of life. As Chojun Miyagi later predicted, the greed for money, power and prestige would later cause much unrest in modern karate.

Goju-ryu officialy registered as style

shime door Chojun MiyagiIn May 1930, a martial arts demonstration was given in honor of Crown Prince Hirohito who had become heir to the throne. Chojun Miyagi was also invited and he sent his top student Jin’an Shinzato. After the demonstration, questions were asked about the name of the style: Naha-te. After returning to Okinawa, he told Chojun Miyagi about this.

< Shime by Chojun Miyagi

Chojun Miyagi realized that it was important for his style to have its own identity with a good formal name, otherwise it could never be registered. In an important book on Chinese martial arts (the Bubishi) there are eight important sentences. The third reads: Ho Go Ju Don To which means “the way of inhaling and exhaling is hard and soft”. And because the style includes both hard and soft techniques with emphasis on proper breathing, Goju Ryu is a perfect choice.

Goju-ryu is the first karate style to be officially registered in 1933 with Japan’s prestigious Dai Nippon Butokukai, Japan’s regulating budo institute. However, Chojun Miyagi did not do this for advertising. He did not want to commercialize Karate and he always kept a nice billboard that he had once received indoors.

Jin’an Shinzato (1901 – 1945)

Jin’an Shinzato started karate in 1922 in the dojo of Chojun Miyagi. He was small (1.57 m) but very motivated and trained six days a week as was usual at the time. Through Miyagi’s intercession, he got a job with the police where he quickly gained prestige. He also became a talented judoka. When he was on duty, criminals avoided the area. Not because he was aggressive, but because there was no point in running. It was widely known that this very talented karateka would succeed Chojun Miyagi to further propagate the Goju-ryu. Unfortunately, he was called up for military service and died during a bombing raid on Okinawa in 1945.

The period after World War II

After the end of World War II in Asia, Miyagi decided to stop teaching karate for the time being. Several family members, including two of his children, his top student Shinzato, and other students had died in the war. Okinawa was completely in ruins and the population was in great poverty and famine. It was no time to teach. The people of Naha respected Chojun Miyagi very much and asked if he would run for an important temporary committee. Although he was not interested in politics, he decided to do so to help rebuild the island. He won the election overwhelmingly and did a good job until the commission was disbanded. In 1947 he again became a karate instructor at the Naha police academy.

In 1948, he took only four students, including An’ichi Miyagi (no relation). He referred other interested parties to other schools. Of these four, three could not cope with the heavy training and after a year only An’ichi Miyagi remained. In 1951, Miyagi’s first teacher Ryuko Aragaki came to visit with a request to teach his grandson Shuichi. Chojun Myiagi could not refuse and accepted him, letting An’ichi teach. For a year they were the only two students in the garden behind his house, later known as “the garden-dojo”. It was not until 1952 that he decided to take on several apprentices. After the regular class, An’ichi Miyagi had to stay in detention where he received private lessons and learned the essence of Goju-ryu.

Unfortunately, Miyagi developed a heart disease. Yet he continued to teach, even though he had to stop several times to rest during the walk to the police academy. But when he demonstrated a technique, it seemed as if nothing was wrong. He still possessed phenomenal speed and strength. Miyagi persevered until he couldn’t anymore and then only taught in the garden dojo, sitting in a chair. He continued to teach An’ichi Miyagi privately after the others had already gone home. Miyagi Chojun died on October 8, 1953.

An’ichi Miyagi (1931 – 2009)

An’ichi Miyagi lost both parents in World War II and therefore had to take care of his two younger brothers at the age of 14. The administration of Okinawa was in American hands after the war, and An’ichi had found work at one of the bases. Two years later he and three friends asked Chojun Miyagi to come and train and they started on February 1, 1948 in the garden dojo. Chojun Miyagi had changed his teaching method. In the past, in addition to the kata Sanchin, people learned 1 or 2 other katas that best suited the person. The entire system was only passed on to 1 or 2 top students. For example, Chojun Miyagi had decided that Jin’an Shinzato and his third son Jun Miyagi would be his successors. But in the war both had perished and the goju-ryu was almost completely lost. Chojun Miyagi had come to the conclusion that the goju-ryu should be preserved and passed on as an inviolable cultural heritage of Okinawa. To this end, he systematized the lesson structure as we know it today. After a year, only An’ichi Miyagi remained. Chojun Miyagi once said, “Of the three boys, you are the smallest and you were the weakest. I thought you’d give up the first one, but you’re doing very well on the contrary.” By now, Chojun Miyagi was like a father to An’ichi and had decided to teach An’ichi the details and essence of goju-ryu. He taught at the police academy three days a week, but taught daily to An’ichi who had given up his job at the US base to do so. For two years, An’ichi was the only student, and Chojun Miyagi told him, “I didn’t even teach Jin’an Shinzato in such detail. You must train hard and persevere: appreciate this treasure that I give you”. addition to the daily training, they had long conversations in which Chojun Miyagi covered theory, history and many other aspects such as proper nutrition.He predicted a great technological development and that it is important, however, that moral education also receives attention through the training of the human mind.He thought karate was the most suitable for this.

The death of Chojun Miyagi came as a great shock to An’ichi and the other students. Only after a period of mourning was it decided to continue training and teaching. Because of his advanced age, Ei’ichi Miyazato, a policeman who mainly practiced judo, became head of the dojo. Koshin Iha became treasurer and An’ichi Miyagi taught karate. Shortly after, in 1955, Morio Higaonna started karate training. Both the treasurer and the widow of Chojun Miyagi said, “Learn from An’ichi Miyagi, he is the most knowledgeable.” In 1957, Ei’ichi Miyazato built a larger dojo called Jundokan, but he rarely taught. The karate lessons were taught daily by An’ichi Miyagi. In 1959, An’ichi Miyagi decided to leave the Jundokan because Ei’ichi Miyazato wanted to make changes to certain kata. Still having to support his family, An’ichi Miyagi decided to work on an American oil tanker. Morio Higaonna took over part of the classes until he too decided to leave the Jundokan. Since then, An’ichi Miyagi has only taught Morio Higaonna and finally decided to appoint him as his successor.

An’ichi Miyagi’s health has deteriorated rapidly in recent years, he probably suffered from a form of dementia and unfortunately some have taken advantage of this. Because of his very modest attitude and enormous loyalty to his teacher Miyagi Chojun sensei, An’ichi Miyagi is also called the “hidden man” of Okinawan Goju-ryu karate-do. An’ichi Miyagi passed away in April 2009.

Morio Higaonna (1938)

Morio Higaonna (not related to Kanryo Higaonna) received his first karate lessons at the age of 14 from his father who was a Shorin-ryu stylist. A year later, he started training with a friend who had been taught by Chojun Miyagi for two years. In April 1955, when he was 16 years old, he was allowed to train in the garden dojo. The lessons were taught by An’ichi Miyagi, there were about 10 students. He practiced a lot with Saburo Higa, a very strong karateka. After graduating from high school, he started working at a bank in 1957. But because this got in the way of his karate training, he gave up his job after a year. He trained 6 days a week in the dojo and on Sundays at home.

A year after An’ichi Miyagi left the Jundokan, Morio Higaonna was accepted into Economics at Tokyo’s Takushoku University and left for Japan in 1960.

De Yoyogi dojo

After arriving in Tokyo, Morio Higaonna also looked for an opportunity to train. Fortunately, an Okinawan acquaintance taught judo in the Yoyogi dojo and was allowed to come and train there. After a few days the owner came to have a look and was so impressed that he asked Morio Higaonna to start a karate class. Although the salary was ridiculously low, Morio Higaonna accepted this opportunity and started teaching. He also did all kinds of other odd jobs such as washing cars and working on construction to pay for his studies. He also earned money selling American goods that his mother sent from Okinawa.
His lessons attracted more and more students and the classes became overcrowded, so that he started teaching more and more days, eventually 6 days a week. Twice a year he had vacations and went back to Okinawa to train with An’ichi Miyagi. Many highly qualified Western teachers, including George Andrews from Great Britain and Bakkies Laubscher from South Africa, started their training in Goju-ryu Karate-do at the Yoyogi dojo during this period.
In 1981, the BBC made the famous documentary “The Way of the Warrior”. In the Western world, where karate had largely become a competitive sport, this caused a shock wave. The traditional karate of Morio Higaonna, who was now eighth dan, made many realize what they had been missing. The influx to the Yoyogi dojo was huge, but Morio Higaonna decided to return to Okinawa a short time later.

International organisation: the IOGKF

Morio Higaonna was invited by many followers to teach and so he came to various countries. After a few years, a circle of karatekas arose who realized that in order to preserve the traditional goju-ryu, their own international organization had to be established. With the permission of An’ichi Miyagi and many other important Okinawan Goju-ryu teachers, the International Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do Federation (IOGKF) was founded in 1979. The main objective of the IOGKF is to preserve the traditional Goju-Ryu as taught by Miyagi Chojun sensei as an Okinawan cultural heritage and to pass it on in its most original form to future generations of karateka.
When An’ichi Miyagi went to Tokyo for a few years in 1985, Morio Higaonna followed him. He hoped to reach more students in Tokyo, but the cost of living was astronomically high. In 1987 Morio Higaonna, who had married an American student in 1980, decided to move to California with his family. He wanted to be able to reach more people with the IOGKF and that was easier through the good American aviation network. In addition, living costs were much cheaper.
After the IOGKF had grown into a worldwide organization with tens of thousands of students, Morio Higaonna decided in 2000 that he had to return to his birthplace: Okinawa. He still teaches there.