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The following article discusses Goju-Ryu history from the times of Ryu Ryu Ko and Higashionna Kanryo Sensei to the latter half of this century. The main focus of the article is on the life and times of Miyagi Chojun Sensei and his development of the Goju-Ryu Karate-Do system. This article originally appeared in the Journal of Asian Martial Arts (Vol. 3, No. 3, 1994) and appears here in a slightly edited form.


the karate of chojun miyagi by john porta and jack mccabe

In the early part of this century, a style of karate was developed on Okinawa that made it possible for many people to learn the benefits of a traditional self defense system. Eventually becoming known as Goju-Ryu (the hard/soft style), the art combined traditional Okinawan techniques with both internal and external Chinese principles. The soft, internal Chinese styles concentrate on circular movements and the development of qi (vital energy), while external, hard principles rely upon physical strength. The combination of these principles makes Goju-Ryu a close range, infighting system that concentrates on efficiency of movement as well as personal development.

Master Chojun Miyagi, the founder of Okinawan Goju-Ryu karate do, saw the martial arts as being more than just effective methods of self defense, and the system that he developed reflected this belief. Through the influence of Master Miyagi, Goju-Ryu karate became an educational subject that could be taught in schools, and the creation of new katas (forms) made the art more understandable to the public. Miyagi thus became one of the pioneers that brought karate out of its exclusively Okinawan enclave of relatively few practitioners to worldwide acceptance.

Devoting his life to the promotion of the martial arts, Miyagi reportedly made more than ten trips to China, made more than seven to the Japanese mainland, and also visited Hawaii and Korea. It has been said that he spent millions of dollars traveling to promote karate and helping friends with their debts. Since Miyagi was prone to seasickness, he seldom traveled alone and often was not fully recovered from his ailment when giving a demonstration or lecture.

Very pleasant in nature, Miyagi was called "Bushi Miyagusuku" ("Gentleman Warrior Miyagi") on Okinawa. Possessed of tremendous physical strength, he was known far and wide for his extraordinary gripping power and performance of kata that displayed his great devotion to martial arts training. However, Miyagi's gentle manner was his strongest asset. Despite stories that may contain more fable than fact, Miyagi never fought, keeping a promise to his teacher that he would not use the martial arts to hurt another human being.


Born Matsu Miyagi on April 25, 1888, at Higashi Machi, Hana, the son of Chosho Miyagi came to inherit the fortune of one of the wealthiest families on Okinawa ("Miyagi" is the Japanese derivative of the Okinawan name "Miyagusuku"). Involved with the importing of pharmaceuticals, the family owned two trading ships, which were used to supply the government and private merchants. Miyagi was adopted at the age of five by an uncle after the death of the main successor to the family, and his first name was changed to Chojun, as he became heir to the family fortune. Being born into great wealth allowed Miyagi in later years to devote all his time to study and traveling to promote the martial arts.

At the age of eleven, the strongly built youth began training under karate master Aragaki Ryuko. This early instruction consisted mainly of exercises designed to develop the body, using Okinawan implements such as the chishi (stone lever weight), nigiri-game (clay gripping jars), and makiwara (punching post). From this strong foundation, Miyagi later carried over the principles of strength development to his own teachings, and he always encouraged his students to engage in supplementary weight training. As a physical culture enthusiast, Miyagi developed scientific methods of exercising that reflect his early training, which stressed the importance of a sound body.

In 1901, Miyagi was introduced to Kanryo Higashionna (1853-1916), a master of Naha-Te, who had studied in China before returning to Okinawa, where he became very well known as a teacher of the martial arts. Miyagi studied under Higashionna for fifteen years and became the successor to the art form that eventually evolved into form Goju-Ryu karate.

kanryo higashionnaMaster Higashionna became interested in Chinese boxing while working for an import/export company, a job which enabled him to travel back and forth from Okinawa to China. An 1868 trip to Fuzhou in Fujian Province in southern China resulted in his studying under martial artist Ryu Ryu Ko, a master of Shaolin Kempo of the Southern School. When he eventually returned to Okinawa, Higashionna established a style of self-defense known as Naha-Te, which was a combination of Chinese Kempo and Okinawan techniques. With his home in Nishi Machi serving as a dojo, Higashionna's fame as a teacher spread, and he became the martial arts instructor for the royal family. In 1905, Higashionna taught the physical and philosophical values of his art at a public high school in Naha.

A modest, quiet man, Master Higashionna stood only five foot one inch tall, but was very strongly built. He was called "Kensei" ("Sacred Fists") on Okinawa and was known for his extremely fast footwork and low kicking techniques. However, Higashionna believed that the integral purpose of the martial arts was to help society, not to hurt people. This philosophy was passed on to his students, especially to Miyagi, on whom the lesson was never lost.

Chojun Miyagi left Dai Ichi Junior High School in Naha in the ninth grade to study Naha-Te exclusively and became the only student of Higashionna to learn all the katas of the system. Under Higashionna's instruction, a student would usually concentrate on only one kata over the years and become highly proficient in the particular movements; however, Miyagi was able to learn all aspects of Naha-Te. The training was extremely harsh, with a concentration on the Sanchin ("Three Battles") kata, which is a breathing form that involves dynamic tension. Miyagi was one of the few who remained a student of Higashionna, despite the rigors of a demanding schedule.

chojun miyagiAfter marrying at the age of nineteen, Miyagi entered the army in 1908 and served the Fifth Division of Kumamoto for three years. In 1915, he made his first trip to China, going to Fuzhou to study Chugoku Kempo, accompanied by his friend Gokenki (1886-1940), who adopted the Japanese name "Yoshikawa" and taught a southern Shaolin form of White Crane in his tea shop in Naha. It is possible that Gokenki's influence on the young Miyagi may be seen in the katas that were developed for Goju-Ryu, since they contain movements similar to those of White Crane. This Chinese system is also known as Pai-Hao Quan or, in the Japanese translation, as Hakutsuru-Ken and was developed by Fang Chi Liang, a woman who lived in Tan Yong Chun in Fujian Province.

Miyagi's relationship with his teacher was a close one, as his wealth allowed him to house Higashionna and pay for instruction. Since he remained in the constant company of Higashionna, Miyagi was able to learn all the Naha-Te kata under the master's close scrutiny. Saddened by the death of Higashionna in October of 1916, Miyagi took care of all funeral arrange meets, then went back to China in search of the dojo of Ryu Ryu Ko but was unsuccessful in the attempt. When Miyagi returned to Okinawa in 1917, he became instructor at the Okinawa Ken Police Training Center, Naha City Commercial School, Okinawa Normal School, and the Prefectural Health Center.


The influences of Chinese styles combined with Naha-Te principles eventually formed the Goju-Ryu system of karate. Having studied hard, external styles along with the soft, internal systems of Yi Quan , Pakua Chang, and Taijiquan, Chojun Miyagi used his extensive knowledge of the martial arts to develop Goju-Ryu. Adding closed fists to the Sanchin forms, Miyagi also created the Tensho ("Turning Palm") kata to emphasize softness in movement. Like his teacher, Higashionna, Miyagi strictly believed in the benefits of the Sanchin Kata but included the softer White Crane influenced techniques in his instruction. However, Sanchin always made up the heart of Miyagi's art. Designed to train and build the body through breathing tech piques, the physical strength developed through the practice of Sanchin remains a characteristic that distinguishes traditional Okinawan Goju-Ryu from other, less physical styles.

chojun miyagi and students
Chojun Miyagi with a group of high school students.
Note the different types of equipment that were used for
strength training, which was always a major part
of Miyagi's instruction.

To describe his system, Miyagi compared it to a willow tree standing against the wind, remaining stable because of its strong roots, while the branches flow and give with the force. The twelve katas originally taught by Miyagi, which have their foundations in China, still form the basis for Goju-Ryu today, though the names may differ in translation from Chinese to Japanese to English. Along with the aforementioned Sanchin and Tensho, the other kata include Gekisai-Ichi and Gekisai-Ni ("Attack and Smash I&II"), Saifa ("Smash and Break"), Seienchin ("To Grab and Pull In Battle"), Sanseiru ("Thirty six Hands"), Seipai ("Eighteen Hands"), Shisochin ("Four Directions Battle"), Seisan ("Thirteen Hands"), Kururunfa ("To Destroy with Ancient Mantis Techniques"), and Suparinpei ("108 Hands") forms.

The movements contained within Goju-Ryu kata are intended for self-defense and not for sport. Short, circular blocks, powerful holds and locks, efficient punching maneuvers, and kicking techniques targeted to the lower body characterize the art that Miyagi so carefully developed. These techniques are not flashy or acrobatic, which makes Goju-Ryu an excellent style for defending oneself in a street situation.

As a teacher, Miyagi was very strict and placed a great emphasis on basics. His dojo was actually a courtyard surrounded by a stone wall and illuminated by oil lamps, where kata were taught step by step and a student did not progress to the next movement until thoroughly learning the previous one. Miyagi would not accept payment for his instruction and did not promote his students, since there was no ranking system.

Among those who studied under Miyagi and later carried on his original teachings were Seiko Higa, Meitoku Yagi, Seikichi Toguchi, and Eiichi Miyazato. Another student, Jitsuei Yogi, was the teacher of Gogen Yamaguchi, who went on to gain fame in his own right with the development of Japanese Goju-Ryu karate. On occasion, Yamaguchi also sought advice and training instruction from Meitoku Yagi throughout the years. Higa, who had trained under Higashionna since the age of thirteen, assisted Miyagi when Miyagi became successor to the Naha-Te system and was the only person ever authorized by Miyagi to teach Goju-Ryu karate.

Like Higashionna, Miyagi believed in teaching the Sanchin kata for an extended period of time, then instructing a student in another form according to that student's physical build and personal preferences. For example, Yagi learned Suparinpei, Toguchi was taught Seipai, and Miyazato studied Kururunfa as a second kata. Unlike the Goju-Ryu testing system of today, Miyagi picked the second kata to be taught to a student and did not follow any predetermined regimen. The organizational ranking system of Miyagi's art was developed after his death in 1953.

While Miyagi was sought out for his instruction by many potential students, not many stayed due to the extremely demanding procedures that made up the original Goju-Ryu training regimen. Demanding as much from his students as he did from himself, Miyagi taught in an intense manner that belied his gentle nature. Stories abound concerning the necessity of hanging ropes above toilet facilities, because students would be so tired from the hard training that they could not arise from a squatting position if they did not have something to hang onto. Also, it was said that Miyagi's students were always recognizable in public bath houses due to the red marks that were left as a result of Sanchin kata testing.


Exemplified by his public demonstrations and performances in front of royalty, it seems that Miyagi's primary goal was to make more people aware of the benefits of studying a martial art. In 1921, Miyagi impressed Crown Prince Hirohito with a demonstration of Naha-Te that was part of a ceremony marking the prince's stopover in Okinawa's Nakagusuku Bay while on tour. Four years later, Miyagi was equally impressive in performing for Prince Chichibu. As he became more famous, Miyagi was able to meet people who could help him realize his desire to open up the Okinawan arts to the public.

In 1922, judo founder Jigoro Kano gave a lecture on Okinawa that greatly influenced Miyagi. Several years later, Kano returned to the largest island in the Ryukyu archipelago and saw Miyagi demonstrate his unique skills in the name of Okinawan martial arts. That demonstration became legendary in Okinawan martial art circles. It is said that Miyagi remained uninjured while being struck with a bo (long staff) and displayed his tremendous gripping strength by tearing the bark off a tree with his fingers and ripping pieces off a large slab of meat with his bare hands. The performance was not forgotten by Kano, who would use his influence to allow Miyagi to take part in Japanese martial arts demonstrations.

Miyagi's first trip to Japan took place in 1928, when he lectured and demonstrated at Kansai, Kyoto, and Ritsumeikan universities. Returning to Okinawa in 1929, he became instructor at the Prefectural Police Dojo and later at Naha Courthouse, Prefectural Physical Culture Association, and the Prefectural Teachers' Training College. It was around this time that it became necessary to name the system that was growing in popularity through out Okinawa and Japan.

As to the naming of Miyagi's system, it has been recorded that his senior student, Jinan Shinzato (1900-1945), was demonstrating in Japan when he was asked the name of his style of self defense. Unable to accurately reply, he returned to Okinawa and consulted Miyagi, who came up with the title "Goju-Ryu," taken from a line in the Bubishi (called Wu Bei Zhi in Chinese), a record of the eight precepts of Chinese Kempo. In this way, Miyagi became the first Okinawan karate master not to name a system after the area in which it was practiced (such as Naha-Te, Shuri-Te, and Tomari-Te).

Miyagi performed for the Dai Nippon Butokukai (Greater Japan Martial Arts Association, the official governing body for Japanese martial arts) in 1930, and at the Sainei Budo Temple in 1932. His influence then led to the official recognition of karate as a martial art of Japan with the formation of the Dai Nippon Butokukai Okinawa Branch, to which he was appointed representative. Miyagi received a commendation from the Japan Ministry of Education for outstanding service in the physical culture field in 1934, the same year he published a paper on karate and made a trip to Hawaii to promote the art.

Miyagi called for martial arts unity and expressed the opinion that karate instruction should be made available to the rest of the world during a lecture in Japan's Sakaisuji Meiji Syoten Hall in January of 1936. The Goju-Ryu founder also stated his belief that karate could not grow with solely classical kata and that new kata should be developed to help the public learn the martial art. The Gekisai Ichi and Gekisai Ni kata were created with this intention around 1940. Miyagi originally planned to develop a series of Gekisai forms, but World War II interrupted training and instruction on Okinawa and the other kata were never developed.

Miyagi received a medal for excellence in the martial arts from the Japanese Ministry of Education in 1936 and also became the first person in karate to be granted the kyoshi (assistant professor) degree from the Dai Nippon Butokukai. In October of the same year, he attended a conference that adopted "karate" as official name of the martial art of Okinawa. A trip to Shanghai for further study of the Chinese arts took place, with Miyagi staying for over two months.

Further promotion of karate took place in 1937, as Prince Moriwasa Nashimoto, commissioner of the Dai Nippon Butokukai, authorized Miyagi and several judo headmasters to create the Dai Nippon Butokukai Karate Jukkyoshi (Greater Japan Martial Arts Karate Teachers' Association). This organization would regulate karate throughout Japan. At the time, karate fell under the same classification as judo; therefore, in order to gain independence, Miyagi and a group of Okinawan karate masters established the Okinawan Karate Do Preservation Society. Those founding the association included Choshin Chibana, Chomo Hanashiro, Choki Motobu, Shinpan Shiroma, and Kentsu Yabu.


Master Miyagi taught in Japan for the last time in 1943, when he lectured in Kyoto at Ritsumeikan University. Shortly thereafter, karate instruction was interrupted by the war that was raging in the Pacific. Jinan Shinzato, Miyagi's senior student, was killed during the early fighting of the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, and Miyagi's third son, Jun, also died in this most bloody conflict.

Karate spread throughout Japan and Okinawa in the wake of the devastation created by World War II, and Miyagi resumed teaching in 1946, using the backyard of his home in Tsuboya Cho as his dojo. Though plagued by ill health in the form of high blood pressure and a heart condition, Miyagi continued to promote his art and was appointed as an official of the Okinawan Minsei Taiiku Ken (Okinawan Democratic Athletic Association) and as director of the Okinawan Civil Association of Physical Education. He also taught at the Okinawan police academy at the time.

According to Seikichi Toguchi, who studied under both Miyagi and Seiko Higa, it was in 1952 or 1953 that Miyagi was made president of the ( Goju-Ryu Shinko-Kai , an organization that was established for the purpose of promoting the art. At this time, Miyagi's students approached him and asked if he would grant promotions, feeling that karate lagged behind the Japanese martial arts of judo and kendo because there was no formalized ranking system. However, Miyagi still refused to grant promotions to any of his students. As a person of great humility, Miyagi believed himself unworthy of granting black belts and that a true black belt degree should only be awarded by a member of the emperor's family or a sanctioning body such as the Butokukai.

Master Miyagi died of a heart attack on October 8, 1953, at the age of sixty five. Since his death was so sudden, there was no official successor to Goju-Ryu named. Seiko Higa, who was always considered as more of an assistant to Miyagi than a student, was accepted as the master's successor by all the senior students and continued to teach Goju-Ryu until his death in 1966.


After the death of Miyagi, his senior students formed an association known as the All Okinawan Goju-Kai, which was a reorganization of the Goju-Ryu Shinko-Kai, and a promotional ranking system for the art was established. Yagi, Toguchi, and Miyazato assumed the hachi-dan (eighth degree) black belt ranking, and various schools of Goju-Ryu were opened, with Yagi teaching at his Meibukan school, Toguchi at Shoreikan, and Miyazato at Jundokan. Yagi, as Miyagi's senior student after the death of Jinan Shinzato, came to inherit the master's gi (uniform) and black belt from the Miyagi family in 1963. Eventually, all three senior students of Miyagi, as heads of their respective Goju-Ryu organizations, were elevated to the rank of tenth degree black belt.

As the only person Miyagi ever authorized to teach Goju-Ryu, Seiko Higa had opened up a dojo in Shioizumi Village, Naha, in 1931, and moved the school to Matsushita Village also in Naha two years later. Higa was awarded the renshi (teaching) grade from the Dai Nippon Butokokai upon his return from the South Pacific island of Saipan, where he taught Goju-Ryu from 1937 to 1939. In 1956, Higa became the first vice president of the All-Okinawan Karate-Do Renmei, an organization that represented the major Okinawan karate styles. Choshin Chibana was the founding president of this group, which was renamed the All Okinawan Karate-Do Federation in 1967 and remains the largest karate organization on Okinawa today.

Higa received the hanshi grade by mutual consent of all members of the All Okinawan Karate Do Renmei in 1958 and built the Shodokan dojo. Formerly an elementary school teacher, Higa was serving as a policeman in Itoman City when he formed the International Karate and Kobudo Federation, also in 1958. This organization was established for the purpose of researching Goju-Ryu and unifying the katas. After World War II, Higa opened a dojo in Itoman and taught at Itoman High School.

As one of the more popular systems of karate today, Goju-Ryu has now become accepted around the world. But with this increased popularity comes the problem of authenticity, since there are numerous organizations and individuals, especially in the United States, that operate under the Goju-Ryu name that actually have little or no connection with the lineage of Chojun Miyagi. Though claiming otherwise, such systems may teach in a manner that is a far cry from the original instruction of Miyagi, sacrificing through a lack of traditional knowledge the basics and integral components of the art that were so carefully developed by the founder and followed by his successors.

It is the task of today's Goju-Ryu schools to maintain the principles set forth by Masters Higashionna and Miyagi so many years ago and by their successors such as Master Masanobu Shinjo. The art that was born on the island of Okinawa has now spread worldwide, seemingly in keeping with the wishes of the founder, who always believed that karate should be made available to the public. As such, Goju-Ryu is first and foremost a means of personal development that builds the confidence to enable someone to become an outstanding citizen. In developing the concepts of Goju-Ryu to a high degree, Master Miyagi served society by making life better for anyone who has the opportunity to train in his system.




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