Bodhidharma was a Buddhist monk who lived in the 6th century and is said to be the patriarch of all martial arts. However, few fighting arts have a deep and fascinating history as that of Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do. From Shaolin temple and Chinese boxing origins, to the style of Naha-te, its further development into Okinawan Goju-ryu and the formation of the International Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do Federation, the history of our art spans hundreds of years. Passed from Master to student, the art was trained and the history was transmitted orally.
In the late 20th century Sensei Morio Higaonna documented this information into the now famous Goju-ryu text book: The History of Karate. All the history documented below comes directly from The History of Karate and Sensei Higaonna’s lifelong research into the subject…
Kanryo Higaonna was born on March 10th, 1853 in Nishimura, Okinawa. He was one of eight siblings and his family were of a lower economic class. Kanryo Higaonna’s father was a sailor and he made his living shipping and trading items between the Ryukyu chain of islands and further afield to China. Upon his return he would always tell stories of the marvels of China and their martial arts. At the age of 10, Kanryo Higaonna began assisting his father with his work on the boats. In 1867 when Kanryo Higaonna was 14, his father was killed in a fight, the reason for which still remains unknown. This was a terrible blow to the family, especially to a young Kanryo Higaonna and his focus quickly turned from grief to revenge. He made the decision to travel to China to learn the deadly fighting arts and return to extract revenge on his father’s killer.
He arrived in the port of Fuzhou in Southern China and once there sought out other Okinawan’s living in the area. He questioned them about great martial arts masters living in Fuzhou. Introductions were organised and Kanryo Higaonna was introduced to his eventual teacher; a man named Ryu Ryu Ko. Ryu Ryu Ko accepted the young teenager and made him swear an oath to follow his philosophies, principles and to promise never to misuse the martial arts he would learn.
Kanryo Higaonna would arrive to Ryu Ryu Ko’s house every morning. He would assist his teacher in his work as a bamboo craftsman, cutting and carting bamboo and making all manner of things out of it. Ryu Ryu Ko lived in a two story dwelling. The top floor was his house, the bottom his workshop and all training took place outside in the garden. Through many hours of hard training and through his dedicated assistance with his teacher’s work, Kanryo Higaonna eventually became a ‘live in’ student. He took up residence inside his teacher’s home and dedicated every waking moment to his master. He endured much hardship through the often brutal training and quickly developed an unbelievable level of power, strength and speed. He also learned about herbal medicines and studied the use of weapons.
After 14 years of loyal study, Ryu Ryu Ko had grown older and told Kanryo Higaonna it was time for him to return to his homeland of Okinawa. In 1891 the two parted ways as Kanryo Higaonna followed the wishes of his master and they were never to see each other again. Kanryo Higaonna left China an accomplished martial artist and with 9 of the current Goju-ryu kata. Upon returning to Okinawa, his father’s killer heard of the great martial arts skills Kanryo Higaonna now possessed. The killer begged him for forgiveness and remembering the oath he had made to his master, he very graciously forgave the man.
Kanryo Higaonna continued his training in Okinawa, firstly on his own and then eventually began teaching students in his home. He called his martial art Naha-te after the capital city of Okinawa where he was based and following the example of the other main Okinawan styles of the time: Shuri-te and Tomari-te. He also eventually took a position as a karate instructor at the Naha commercial high school in 1905.
Chojun Miyagi was born on April 25th, 1888. He was born into a wealthy family, but as a youth was at times unruly. At the age of 11 he was taken to Ryuko Aragaki (the grandfather of Goju-ryu Master Shuichi Aragaki, IOGKF Technical Advisor), who was 24 at the time, to learn karate from him in hopes to instil discipline in the mischievous boy. Chojun Miyagi immediately developed a love for karate and became a very serious student. Aragaki recognised this and decided that he needed to study under a strict teacher, whose karate was second to none, to unlock Chojun Miyagi’s full potential.
In 1902 at the age of 14 he was taken and introduced to Kanryo Higaonna and was accepted as a student. Kanryo Sensei was 49 years old at this point and known by the nick name ‘Ashi no Higaonna’ (meaning ”Legs” Higaonna) because of his exceptionally strong legs. Although warned of the severity of the training, Chojun Miyagi’s expectations were far exceeded when he began his training in Naha-te. The training he received was intense and very brutal and he trained extra outside of his classes to strengthen his body to aid in his fast improvement. Kanryo Sensei observed this and eventually Chojun Sensei became the student he chose to learn the entire art of Naha-te. At the time, students only learned Sanchin and one other kata. Training took place at the Kanryo Sensei’s home each evening and after the usual two hour session, Kanryo Sensei would keep Chojun Miyagi behind for personal one on one instruction in the entire system.
In 1910 World War I swept across the globe and Chojun Miyagi was called upon for mandatory military service. He became a soldier at the age of 20 and was discharged at the age of 22. He rushed back home to Okinawa upon hearing that his teacher’s health had deteriorated. Chojun Miyagi desperately wanted to learn the rest of the Naha-te style from his teacher and also care for him in his later years. Everyday Chojun Miyagi would bring Kanryo Sensei to his own home to care for and learn from him. He became the only student to learn all the Naha-te kata from Kanryo Sensei, who passed away three years later in 1915. Many Okinawans referred to Kanryo Higaonna by the title of Bushi, meaning a distinguished master of the martial arts. Also in 1915, Chojun Miyagi fulfilled the final wish his teacher had for him and made the trip to Fuzhou in China. He travelled by boat on the same route Kanryo Sensei had many years before him. He explored and researched the area, visiting the house of Ryu Ryu Ko and demonstrating the kata he had learned to an old man who was a student of Ryu Ryu Ko. During his two month stay, Chojun Miyagi recorded much information about Ryu Ryu Ko.
Upon his return to Okinawa he was now 29 years old and he took his teacher’s place and began teaching Naha-te. He worked to further develop the fighting system he had inherited. Chojun Sensei had learned the kata Rokkishu in China and his further development of this resulted in the creation of Tensho Kata. He also researched and created warm up exercises for the body. Furthermore Chojun Miyagi revised Sanchin Kata to be performed in a straight line, moving both forward and backwards, instead of turning around. He taught out of both his home, the now famous Garden Dojo, and also at a space he rented at the Naha Commercial High School.
The local police force became concerned about Chojun Miyagi’s reputation and warned him of the consequences of misusing karate. Chojun Miyagi explained the true nature of his teachings, and in doing so he was hired to teach at the Okinawan Police academy. In 1926 Chojun Miyagi founded the Karate Kenkyu Club, bringing together the top Masters of the main styles of karate to unite under the common goal of spreading true karate to future generations. The Masters in this club were Chojun Miyagi, Chomo Hanashiro, Choyu Motobu and Kenwa Mabuni.
In 1930 an invitation was received to perform a demonstration in Tokyo at the celebration of Crown Prince Hirohito’s succession to the throne. Chojun Miyagi couldn’t attend, but instead sent his top student, Jin’an Shinzato, in his place. After Shinzato’s demonstration, he was asked by someone who viewed his performance what the name of his style was. Shinzato wasn’t sure how to answer, as Naha-te was more of an informal name. He related this story to Chojun Miyagi who thought long and hard about this and on what to name his karate style. Within the famous martial arts text, the Bubishi, is a poem called the Kenpo Haku (the eight poems of the fist) and Chojun Sensei was quite fond of it:
The third poem, ‘Ho Go Ju donto’, is where Chojun Miyagi took the name ‘Go Ju’. He then added ‘Ryu’ to the name to formally name the style Goju-ryu (literally meaning Hard and Soft Style) in 1930. Chojun Miyagi began promoting Goju-ryu Karate even more heavily. In 1934 he spent almost a full year teaching Goju-ryu Karate in Hawaii. He also performed demonstrations on the Japanese mainland to popularize karate. In 1940 he created and added two new kata to the Goju-ryu system, Gekisai Dai Ichi and Gekisai Dai Ni. He wanted karate to be more accessible to people of all ages and wanted a basic kata to make training more popular – Chojun Miyagi’s Gekisai Kata’s succeeded in doing this.
His promotional work to spread Goju-ryu was so successful that the Japanese Butokukai recognised his style as an official martial art and he as its official master. Chojun Sensei’s legendary Goju-ryu grip also earned him the nickname ‘Nukitui Magushiku’ for his ability to tear raw meat apart with his bare hands and he became quite famous for this in Okinawa.
World War II then cast its shadow over the world and towards the end of the war, the Battle of Okinawa took place and along with it the slaughter of thousands of Okinawans. Chojun Miyagi and most of his family were lucky to escape to the north of the island, however many of his students were not. Jin’an Shinzato’s death in particular was a great loss to Chojun Miyagi and suddenly the future of his karate was uncertain. Once the war was over he returned to Naha to find that a majority of the city had been destroyed and that his historical records on Ryu Ryu Ko had been wiped out and lost forever. It was a desperate time for the survival of Goju-ryu and Okinawa.
Anichi Miyagi was born on February 9th, 1931. He lost both of his parents during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II, when he was only 14 years of age – he was the only one left to provide for his two younger brothers. Anichi Miyagi had heard of the legendary Chojun Miyagi Sensei through a friend. The two decided to go to the home of Chojun Sensei to ask for permission to study karate under him. Chojun Sensei had lost a majority of his students during the World War II. He knew times where changing and that he was growing older. On February 1st, 1948 Chojun Sensei accepted Anichi Miyagi and four of his friends as students and their training began first inside his house and eventually outside in the now famous Garden Dojo.
The four young men were put through Chojun Sensei’s grueling warm up exercises, basic training and supplementary practices. There was no room for error in the movements and Chojun Sensei was strict on all of them. The training was so intense that after one year only Anichi Miyagi remained out of the small group. Chojun Miyagi Sensei was getting older and began to contemplate how his style was going to survive. He still instructed in the same manner of his teacher, only teaching Sanchin and one suitable kata to each student. He knew for Goju-ryu Karate to survive, he would need to pass on the entire system to someone. Anichi Miyagi was only 16 years old when he began his karate practice. He dedicated himself to his master’s teachings and became like a son to Chojun Miyagi Sensei.
Chojun Sensei tested Anichi’s character by having him perform chores around the house, such as weeding the garden and cleaning the yard for training. His attitude was observed and Chojun Sensei decided that the young Anichi Miyagi was the one to inherit Goju-ryu from him. During this period of one on one instruction at the Garden Dojo, Ryuko Aragaki (Chojun Miyagi’s first teacher) visited unexpectedly one day. He asked Chojun Sensei to accept his grandson, Shuichi Aragaki, as a student. Even though he was not planning on taking any more students at this crucial point in his life, Chojun Sensei couldn’t turn down his first Sensei and accepted Shuichi Aragaki as a student.
Anichi Miyagi and Shuichi Aragaki began training together under Chojun Miyagi Sensei at the Garden Dojo. Later other students began training at the Garden Dojo also, including Tsunetaka Shimabukuro and Anichi Miyagi’s youngest brother. Despite this, it was only Anichi Miyagi who learned all the Goju-ryu Kata, applications and the remainder of the system directly from Chojun Miyagi Sensei and he also had much of the early history of Goju-ryu passed onto him orally, by his teacher.
By mid 1953 Chojun Sensei’s health was deteriorating rapidly. Life was extremely hard following the war; however Chojun Sensei made a point of still instructing Anichi Miyagi every evening. In October of that year, Chojun Miyagi Sensei passed away. Anichi Miyagi heard this from a friend who had heard the news over the radio and rushed to Chojun Sensei’s Tsuboya home, where a large grieving crowd had gathered. He entered the house to pay his last respects to Chojun Miyagi Sensei, who now also had received the title of ‘Bushi’ from many people. Anichi Miyagi was the last person ever taught by Chojun Miyagi Bushi. The treasure of Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate had now forever been placed into the hands of Anichi Miyagi for safe keeping.
Morio Higaonna was born on December 25th, 1938. At the age of 14 he began his martial arts training with his father who was a Shorin-ryu Karate practitioner. By the age of 15 he joined Naha Commercial High School Karate Club and became friends with Tsunetaka Shimabukuro, who was a student of Chojun Miyagi Sensei for two years. Shimabukuro taught Morio Higaonna Sanchin, Gekisai, Saifa and Seiyunchin Kata’s. Shimabukuro encouraged him to go and see the Garden Dojo and undertake the training of Goju-ryu Karate. The necessary introductions were made and in April 1955 at the age of 16, Morio Higaonna officially entered the Garden Dojo of Chojun Miyagi. In the period since Chojun Miyagi Sensei’s death, training had resumed at the Garden Dojo. Eiichi Miyazato was elected the dojo head, Koshin Iha was in charge of collecting fees and Anichi Miyagi Sensei was the class instructor. Koshin Iha quickly pointed out to Morio Higaonna that Anichi Sensei was the most knowledgeable and that he should go and learn from him.
Morio Higaonna was devoted to trying to win the respect and teachings of Anichi Miyagi Sensei and he trained at the dojo six days per week and on Sunday’s would train on his own at this home. This is when he really began to develop his now famous passion and energy for karate. Anichi Sensei recognised the dedication in Morio Higaonna and would on occasion ask him to accompany him to Chojun Sensei’s house on a Sunday to do chores for the founder’s family and tend to the dojo. Anichi Sensei had an overwhelming effect on Morio Higaonna, a dedication which continues to this day.
In 1957 Morio Higaonna took a job at a local bank, but resigned shortly afterwards, as the busy work schedule was interfering with his karate training with Anichi Sensei. Later the same year it was decided that a more permanent dojo was needed away from Chojun Sensei’s home. The Jundokan Dojo was built and all classes moved to that location. Anichi Miyagi Sensei and Morio Higaonna transported all the equipment from the Garden Dojo to the new location and also dug the holes for the many makiwara in the side yard of the new premises. Anichi Miyagi continued to do the majority of the instruction during this time.
As Anichi Sensei gained a good job on an American oil tanker, his work took him overseas. Morio Higaonna decided it was time to broaden his own horizons and he moved to Tokyo to study at Takushoku University. As time went by Morio Higaonna was invited to teach Goju-ryu at a small dojo in the Yoyogi district of Tokyo. His reputation as an exceptional martial artist grew fast and many Japanese people and foreign visitors were seeking out his instruction. A famous martial arts historian who had visited dojo’s all over mainland Japan made the comment that there was no one in Japan like Morio Higaonna and that he was ‘the most dangerous man in Japan in a real fight’.
By 1979 Morio Higaonna had a worldwide following. With the blessing of Anichi Miyagi Sensei and other senior students and family members of Goju-ryu founder Chojun Miyagi Sensei, he formed the International Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do Federation (IOGKF) in 1979 in Poole, England. Morio Higaonna was appointed World Chief Instructor and both Anichi Miyagi Sensei and Shuichi Aragaki Sensei were part of the advisory team overseeing IOGKF. Morio Higaonna continued to travel the world, teaching large seminars everywhere he went. As the IOGKF grew larger and Goju-ryu Karate became more popular and spread across the world, the dream of Chojun Miyagi Sensei had been fulfilled.
International demand for the teachings of Morio Higaonna grew also and he was teaching in up to 15 countries per year. He moved to San Marcos in the United States of America and set up the then IOGKF Honbu Dojo in the same area in 1987. He remained in the United States until 1995, when a move back to Japan brought with it the opening of the Ryubukan Dojo in Tokyo. Two years later, in 1997, IOGKF International became a recognized part of the Nihon Kobudo Kyokai (Japan Traditional Martial arts association). This membership placed official recognition by association that Goju-ryu, as taught by IOGKF International, was a true traditional martial art.
Anichi Miyagi Sensei sadly passed away in September 2009. However before his death, he presented Morio Higaonna Sensei with his own personal Black Belt, his 10th Dan Certificate and another certificate recognising him as the heir to the Goju-ryu in the direct line to Chojun Miyagi Sensei. Shuichi Aragaki Sensei also signed this certificate. May 2013 saw further recognition of the Goju-ryu Masters life’s work, when Morio Higaonna Sensei received an award from the Okinawan government listing him as Intangible Cultural treasure. He’s efforts to share and spread Okinawan culture with the rest of the world had not gone unnoticed. Over the years Higaonna Sensei’s many research trips to China saw him build important relationships with Okinawa’s martial arts ancestors. He conducted research on such trips to capture the origins of Goju-ryu karate which in turn brought about the production of his numerous best-selling books, videos and DVD’s. Morio Higaonna Sensei has ensured that the history of karate will always be available for future generations and that its culture will continue to spread across the globe, making him extremely worthy of Okinawa’s highest honour.
Today, having set foot in over 70 countries and having provided Karate instruction to millions, Morio Higaonna Sensei resides in Okinawa, not far from the home of Goju-ryu founder Chojun Miyagi Bushi. Media crews from all the world including the BBC, History Channel, Russian Martial arts Channels, Japan NHK, and other documentary teams still regularly travel to Higaonna Dojo to try and capture the essence of Higaonna Sensei’s inspiring lifetimes work and to share it with the world. Every fourth year however, Higaonna Sensei hosts the World Budosai, a martial arts festival that brings the world to him. Over one thousand people attend each Budosai and experience the true roots of Goju-ryu karate from its highest master.
Tetsuji Nakamura was born on April 3rd, 1965 in Osaka, Japan. His first encounter with martial arts was at the age of 12 years old and by the time he was 15 he was practicing karate at a local club. He earned a 2nd Dan in judo through his training and when he arrived at Kagawa University for his studies he joined the karate club there also. During a university break, he told the club instructor that he was going to take a vacation with some friends to Okinawa. Delighted to hear this, the club instructor insisted that Tetsuji Nakamura call his own sensei while he was there to show his respect. Upon arriving in Okinawa, when Tetsuji Nakamura picked up the phone he had no idea he was about to call Shuichi Aragaki Sensei (student of Chojun Miyagi Sensei and an IOGKF advisor). Aragaki Sensei invited Tetsuji Nakamura to his house for dinner and relayed to him many stories about Chojun Miyagi Sensei and his own experiences in karate.
These stories stayed firmly in the mind of Tetsuji Nakamura once he returned to university on the mainland. He decided he needed to know more about this style of karate and returned to Okinawa to meet with Aragaki Sensei again, who insisted they train together. Aragaki Sensei’s power and precision scared the young Tetsuji Nakamura and upon graduating university with a degree in law and politics he decided he must once again return to Okinawa. He arrived at Aragaki Sensei’s house, where he was informed Aragaki Sensei did not have the time to instruct him. Instead Tetsuji Nakamura was taken to the Higaonna Karate Dojo in the Makishi district, near Tsuboya, in Naha. Here Aragaki Sensei showed him how to perform all the supplementary training of Goju-ryu and told him to do so every day. Tetsuji Nakamura obeyed and as days turned to weeks and weeks turned to months he began to wonder if Aragaki Sensei would ever return.
Six months later, Aragaki Sensei arrived at the dojo and determined that Tetsuji Nakamura’s loyalty and efforts were worthy of the best Goju-ryu instruction. In 1991 Tetsuji Nakamura won the IOGKF World Championships and Morio Higaonna Sensei saw the dedication and potential in the young man and asked Tetsuji Nakamura to accompany him back to San Marcos in America, where he was then based.
He quickly became Higaonna Sensei’s top student, training at home with him daily in his private garage dojo and then every afternoon and evening at the then IOGKF Honbu Dojo. He also became an assistant instructor at the dojo and an assistant administrator in the IOGKF Head office. Tetsuji Nakamura also featured in the famous Goju-ryu film ‘Power Training’ as Higaonna Sensei’s partner. When Higaonna Sensei decided to move back to Japan and set up a base in Tokyo, Tetsuji Nakamura followed him and remained in the capital with his sensei for three years.
He moved to Canada in 1997, married his wife Rania in 2000 and they had their first child in 2002, the same year he took over as Administrative Director for IOGKF International. His family moved back to Okinawa for another twelve month so he could undertake this new role. Tetsuji Nakamura moved back to Canada following this and established Shudokan, the current IOGKF International Honbu Dojo. In 2012 at the IOGKF World Budosai, Higaonna Sensei decided to retire from his role of World Chief Instructor in IOGKF to take Anichi Sensei’s old position as Supreme Master and appointed Tetsuji Nakamura as his successor in his former role.
Today IOGKF International has over 75,000 member in over 55 different countries. Tetsuji Nakamura Sensei, under the guidance of IOGKF founder, Master Morio Higaonna, leads the Federation and protects the cultural treasure that is Okinawan Goju-ryu Karate-do for future generations.
Anyone can learn the true art of Chojun Miyagi and those before him through the legacy handed down from Anichi Miyagi Sensei to Morio Higaonna Sensei and now to Tetsuji Nakamura Sensei. Okinawan Goju-ryu is alive today and stronger than ever thanks to the sacrifices, effort and commitment of these Masters. The goal of training remains the same as it did in the days of the founder, to develop people of strong character, morals and discipline to create a better society for all mankind.