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Okinawan Karate

Okinawan Karate and Goju-Ryu in America


Goju-Ryu translates as hard and soft, strong and gentle, or block soft and hit hard system. The translations can prove difficult to put into practice.  Since language is a major factor to shape thinking and therefore movement, the words “hard and soft” can lead to confusion.  Goju-Ryu may be viewed as being both strong and gentle as seen in the jungle cats, which move gently, but with strong force simultaneously.  One ultimate goal of Goju-Ryu training is to achieve a balance of strength and gentleness, thus creating a harmony within the practitioner in all aspects of life.  This is the “way” of Goju-Ryu karate




Development of Okinawan Karate


Based on man’s instinct of self-preservation, different fighting arts were developed in most cultures, especially in central Asia. The principles of the Asian martial arts are believed to have spread from Turkey to India, where they were further developed to refined arts ("kalaripayt").

The history of Karate as we know it today can be traced back to India, perhaps two thousand years before the Christian era. India was the birthplace of a barehanded martial art called, in Sanskrit, Vajramushti. Evidence seems to indicate that the Kshatriya, which was the Warrior Class of that time, and which can be compared to the Japanese Samurai and the medieval Knights of Europe, commonly practiced it.

It is said that the third child of King Sugandha of southern India was a member of the Kshatriya of Warrior Caste. However, after a few years a strong spirit led him to a small but dynamic Buddhist province south of Madres. He received his religious training from the Dhyna of Master Prajnatara. Under the master’s guidance, the boy grew into a very wise man and advanced in the way of the Dhyana or Buddhist practice, and was given the name Bodhidharma.

After his master's death, Bodhidharma traveled to China, where he taught. His life was centered on the Shaolin Temple and monastery located in Hunan Province. Tradition states that upon seeing the emaciated condition of the monks, Bodhidharma instructed them in physical exercise, to condition their bodies as well as their minds. The exercise was called, “Eighteen hands of Lo-Han”. This exercise also included breathing; he knew that this physical activity was a means of body hygiene. Eventually the monks began to study the animals and form exercises that resembled their ways of fighting, and later it was known as Chuan-Fa, “The Art of the Fist”. It is important to note that the motive of the practice was art, physical conditioning, and finally, self-defense.

During the Sui Period (589-618), bandits began to raid the monastery for the purpose of food and anything of value.

At this time the monks, in order to protect their lives and their beloved monastery, utilized their Chuan-Fa art and defeated the bandits. The reputation of the Shaolin Fighting monks spread, and many came to study the art along with Buddhism. Today there are hundreds of styles, and of course the philosophy has changed somewhat, depending on the personality of the headmaster of the styles. In 1609 the art was brought to Okinawa where it underwent many changes and became later known as Karate-do.

During the 14th century kempo (Chaun-Fa) is introduced into Okinawa. It wins popularity and is trained as an art of self-defense, under the name of 'tote' (= Chinese hand). At Okinawa the native fighting art 'te' was practiced long before the introduction of kempo. It is believed that 'te' was combined with 'kempo' by the Okinawans and developed to the martial art karate.

When Japan invades Okinawa 1609 the ban of carrying weapons (first pronounced by King Sho Shin in 1477) continues, but the Japanese also bans the practice of martial arts. Consequently, the Okinawans must continue with martial arts in secrecy.

During the next three centuries the martial art develops into its own character and is called 'Okinawa Te'. It is split into three main styles:

Shuri-te influenced by the hard techniques of kempo and characterized by an offensive attitude.

Naha-te influenced by the softer techniques of kempo including breath control and 'ki'. It was characterized by a more defensive attitude with grappling, throws and locking techniques.

Tomari-te influenced by both the hard and soft techniques of kempo. In the ending of the 19th century Shuri-te and Tomari-te were subsumed under the name Shorin ryu, which during the years has developed into several slightly different styles. Naha-te becomes known under the name Goju ryu (the hard and soft style) and has basically remained the same, however many organizations exist.



Grandmaster Kanryo Higaonna was born on March 10, 1853, in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa. Kanryo, worked as a merchant sailing between the small islands of Okinawa trading everyday goods. From a young age Kanryo Higaonna helped his father in this work and through the hard physical labor that was involved he developed a strong body.

Kanryo Higaonna was still in his teens when his father died suddenly. Kanryo decided he wanted to study the martial arts and he set his heart on traveling to Fuzhou, China for this purpose. He arrived in Fuzhou in 1869, at the age of 16. Once in Fuzhou he studied the Chinese martial arts under the great Master Ryu Ryu Ko. He soon became "Uchi Deshi" (private disciple) and he remained in China under the severe instruction of his teacher for approximately 13 years. In addition to studying empty handed martial arts he also become accomplished in weapons techniques and Chinese herbal medicine. Master Ryu Ryu Ko esteemed his pupil highly and sanctioned Kanryo's mastery of these arts - an honor which is accorded extremely rarely. Such was Kanryo's skill in the martial arts that his fame became widespread throughout Fuzhou and the surrounding area.

The severity of the training he underwent in China is beyond comprehension.

In the year 1881, after 13 years of diligent study with his teacher he returned to Okinawa and Naha where his martial arts became known as Naha-te (these arts were also referred to as "Tode" meaning martial arts from China). Kanryo Higaonna taught these martial arts to the people of Okinawa and at the same time continued his own research and practice. In order to teach the youth of Okinawa he developed a teaching method, which was specifically, designed to develop the mind and body; to improve both physical and spiritual well-being.

The first occasion on which the previously secretive art of Naha-te was "opened" to society in general, occurred in October 1905, when Kanryo Higaonna began teaching at the high school.

When teaching, Kanryo Higaonna was an extremely hard taskmaster. However in his everyday life he was a quiet and humble man and one who was renowned for his virtuous character. He was a man who had no need or desire for worldly things. He led a simple life, which was completely devoted to the study and practice of the martial arts. His great and distinguished work was in bringing the Chinese martial art forms from China to Okinawa, and they’re spreading these arts among the people of Okinawa.

Kanryo Higaonna is now bestowed with the title, "Kensei (sacred fists) Higaonna Kanryo", a title that is eminently fitting. His name is synonymous with Okinawan martial arts and Naha-Te, and his spirit is destined to live on forever as a great and valued treasure within Okinawan culture.

Kanryo Higaonna's whole life was devoted to karate. He passed away in December 1915 at the age of 63.

Miyagi Chojun

Grandmaster Chojun Miyagi was born on April 25, 1888 to an aristocratic family. They were in the import/export business, and owned two ships, which made regular trips to Mainland China, placing them among the wealthiest families in the area.

He began training in karate under Kanryo Higaonna at the age of 14, in 1902. Like his teacher before him, because of his great natural talent and fierce determination, he progressed very rapidly. The training was severe beyond belief at times but he practiced ever harder with an enthusiasm unmatched by any of the other students. Chojun Miyagi became "uchi deshi" (private disciple) of Kanryo Higaonna. He studied with his teacher for 14 years before his teacher’s death in 1915. That same year (1915) he journeyed to Fuzhou, China, the city where his teacher had studied the martial arts, to further his research. This was one of three trips he made to China during his lifetime.

On his return to Okinawa he began to teach the martial arts at his home in Naha. Later, he also taught at the Okinawan Prefecture Police Training Center, at the Okinawan Master's Training College, and at the Naha Commercial High School (where his teacher had once taught).


Chojun Miyagi worked hard to spread karate throughout Okinawa and mainland Japan, and to earn Naha-te a status equal to that of the highly respected Japanese martial arts of Judo and Kendo. To achieve this he traveled frequently to mainland Japan where he was invited to teach karate at Kyoto University and Ritsumei Kan University. In 1933 karate was registered at the Butokukai, the center for all martial arts in Japan. This was a milestone for karate as it meant that it was recognized on a level with the highly respected martial arts of Japan.

Chojun Miyagi dedicated his whole life to karate. He was responsible for structuring Naha-te (which he later named "Goju-Ryu") into a systematized discipline, which could be taught to society in general. This teaching system, which he formulated, enabled karate to be taught in schools for the benefit of the young, and to reach vast numbers of people throughout the world. However, his private teaching at his home remained strictly in adherence to the principles of his teacher, Kanryo Higaonna, and his teacher before him, Ryu Ryu Ko.

Chojun Miyagi died on October 8th, 1953, of either a heart attack (the most popular explanation) or a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 65.


The Name Goju ryu

The naming of Goju-Ryu came about more by accident than design. In 1930, one of Chojun Miyagi's top students, Jin'an Shinzato, while in Tokyo attending a Martial Arts convention was asked by numerous martial arts masters as to what school of martial arts he practiced. As Naha-te had no formal name he could not answer this question. Feeling his art would be looked down upon and given amateur status, he quickly picked Hankry-ryu, which means the Way of Half Hard. On his return to Okinawa he reported this incident to Chojun Miyagi. He liked Shinzato’s idea and took it one step further. After much consideration, Chojun Miyagi decided on the name Goju-Ryu (hard and soft school) as a name for his style. This name he took from a line in the Bubishi (a classical Chinese text on martial arts and other subjects). This line, which appears in a poem describing the eight precepts of the martial arts, reads "Ho Goju Donto" (the way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness). The whole poem reads as follows:

1. The mind is one with heaven and earth.

2. The circulatory rhythm of the body is similar to the cycle of the sun and the moon.

3. The way of inhaling and exhaling is hardness and softness.

4. Act in accordance with time and change.

5. Techniques will occur in the absence of conscious thought.

6. The feet must advance and retreat, separate and meet.

7. The eyes do not miss even the slightest change.

8. The ears listen well in all directions.

The Succession of Goju-Ryu

Jin'an Shinzato, an exceptional talent and the one whom Chojun Miyagi had chosen for his successor to the Goju School in Okinawa, was tragically killed during the Second World War. Later, after the war, Chojun Miyagi chose Meitoku Yagi Sensei to succeed him in Okinawa and Gogen Yamaguchi to succeed him in Japan under the Goju-Kai school, to pass on Goju-Ryu to the next generation.

Chojun Miyagi passed away October 8th, 1953, leaving a great legacy behind. He predicted that during the twentieth century karate would spread throughout the world. Today we can see that this prediction has been realized; karate is not only practiced in Japan, but it can be found throughout the countries of the world. Karate can no longer be referred to as a solely Okinawan or Japanese martial art, but it has become an art with no boundaries, an art for all nations and all peoples of the world.










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