Today, many people think of Okinawa simply as a province of Japan. However, Okinawa has only recently become part of Japan, and has a long and colorful history of its own. For centuries, Okinawa was a separate nation. Okinawa did not have good relations with Japan, but did have diplomatic and trade relations with China. This relationship created a considerable amount of economic and cultural trade between the two nations. Many Chinese traveled to Okinawa, and many Okinawans traveled to China. Ultimately, these Okinawan/Chinese relations would play a major role in the development and attributes of what would eventually become Goju Ryu karate.
Kanryo Higaonna was born in 1853 in Nishimura, Okinawa. Nishimura was a port city that saw many travelers from China and abroad. At an early age, Kanryo was exposed to many Chinese influences, including their martial arts. When Higaonna was fourteen, his father was killed in a fight. Eager for revenge against his father’s killer, young Kanryo sought travel to Fuzhou (pronounced “foo chow”), a city in southern China, to learn the Chinese martial arts. However, he kept his desires for revenge a secret from his family and friends, and traveled to Fuzhou under the guise of being a student.
Upon arrival in Fuzhou, Higaonna acclimated himself to the local culture, and began looking for a martial arts instructor. Back in those days, it was difficult to become accepted in any martial arts school because the instructors would only accept students of the highest moral character. The instructors took their martial arts very seriously, and went to great lengths to avoid teaching the deadly arts to the wrong people. In many cases, the instructor required the potential student to do chores and other menial labor so that the student’s true character could be seen. Training would begin only after the instructor was pleased with the student and his character. The instructor also made sure that the student understood the value of what was being taught, and that the student understood the training would be rigorous.
Kanryo eventually discovered a local instructor named Ryu Ryu Ko, who taught Kanryo the martial art that would eventually be named Goju Ryu karate. Every day Kanryo trained in kata and hoju undo (supplementary training. ) The training he endured was very tough, but Higaonna persevered and learned well. Ultimately, young Kanryo became well known in Fuzhou as a highly skilled martial artist. He was also trained in herbal medicine, especially for the treatment of injuries. He remained in Fuzhou for approximately fourteen years at which point Ryu Ryu Ko told him it was time for him to return to Okinawa. Toward the end of the fourteen years of training, Higaonna learned the entire system, including all katas, kakie, hoju undo, etc. Ryu Ryu Ko did this with the intention of having Kanryo pass it to further generations. In those days, students rarely learned all the katas of the system. They spent several years just learning Sanchin and perhaps one other kata.
It is believed he returned to Okinawa sometime around 1881. His local fame in Fuzhou had spread, eventually making it back to Okinawa before he actually returned. Upon his return, he received many requests to begin training students, which he refused for several years. He eventually changed his mind and began accepting students, but many quit due to the severity of his training. Since Kanryo Higaonna had settled in the port city of Naha, his style of martial arts became known as “Naha Te”.
Chojun Miyagi – the early years
Chojun Miyagi was born in 1888, and began training in Naha-Te at the age of fourteen with Kanryo Higaonna. Miyagi was a very disciplined person, but still found the training with Higaonna to be severe. However, he persevered and grew stronger. Chojun Miyagi was naturally athletic, strong, and well disciplined. As he trained in karate, he became very proficient and was well known locally as a talented martial artist.
Miyagi was drafted into the Japanese army in 1910. His physical fitness, toughness, fighting skills, and character would eventually earn him a great deal of respect from his Japanese superiors, despite the fact that Okinawans were openly discriminated against.
Upon his return from military service in 1912, Miyagi continued to study Naha-te with Kanryo Higaonna until his death in 1915. After Higaonna’s death, Miyagi continued to rigorously study and practice Naha-te. Since he had been entrusted with passing Naha-te down to future generations, he dedicated his life to it. He went to great effort to advance and promote the martial art, and was responsible for giving it a name – “Goju Ryu”, which was derived from a poem called The Haku. Goju means “hard and soft”, which accurately describes the style. He also made trips abroad, including travel to Japan, China, and even Hawaii. The trips to China were to research and document the history of Goju, while the trips to Japan and Hawaii were to promote Goju Ryu. At that time, karate was not well respected on the Japanese mainland, and it was primarily Miyagi’s efforts that helped it gain much needed credibility. Chojun Miyagi didn’t develop Goju Ryu, but he is often referred to as the founder, due to his efforts to preserve, develop, and promote it. Without his efforts, it is likely that Naha-te karate would have disappeared forever.
Meitoku Yagi was born on March 6, 1912 in Kome, Naha City, Okinawa. He was Chinese and his family can be traced back to 36 Chinese families who immigrated to Okinawa from China in 1392. A karate master and teacher, he learned Goju-ryu from its legendary founder Chojun Miyagi. Yagi was named a Living National Treasure (ningen kokuho) for his contributions to the martial arts by Emperor Hirohito on April 29, 1986.
Meitoku Yagi teacher, Chojun Miyagi, died in 1953, and Yagi then opened his own dojo in the Daido district of Naha. He called his school Goju-ryu Meibukan, which means house of the pure minded warrior. Meitoku Yagi used the first kanji in his given name, 明 (Mei), for the name and crest of his school. These have several meanings, including purity. Made up of the kanji for sun and the kanji for moon, reflecting the duality of nature inherent to Goju-ryu. The main headquarters for the Meibukan school are in the Kume district of Naha. Meitoku Yagi’s primary goal for his students was that they promote peace, be good people and contribute to society.
Meitoku Yagi began developing a series of kata, called Meibuken kata, in the 1970s and 1980s. The first kata in the series is Tenchi, which means “heaven and earth.” Originally two kata, Fukyu kata ichi and Fukyu kata ni, were put together so when two karateka performed each half, an attack in the first kata would correspond with a block in the second. The Meibuken kata are different from the kata in the Goju-ryu in many ways, reflecting Yagi Sensei’s Chinese roots and his time studying in China. For example, practitioners will use vertical closed hand chambers, and a different yoi position.
The other four Meibuken kata represent the four guardians of the cardinal directions in Chinese mythology. As with Ten no kata and Chi no kata, the other four kata also pair up to show the kata’s bunkai. Seiryu (East, Blue Dragon) and Byakko (West, White Tiger) go together, and Shujakku (South, Red Phoenix) and Genbu (North, Black Tortoise) go together. These are the English names used for the kata, Meitoku Yagi once said that he never specifically chose colors for the animals.
In 2000, Meitoku Yagi released an autobiography entitled The Life Drama of the Man, Meitoku.
Meitoku Yagi was still performing demonstrations of kata in 2002 when he was 91 years old.
Meitoku Yagi died on February 7, 2003. At the time of his death he was considered to be the most senior Karateka in the world.
Meitoku Yagi was an Advisor for the All Okinawa Karate-do Federation and Honorary Chairman for the Okinawa Karate-do Goju Kai. He was also an Honorary Chairman for the Goju Ryu Meibukai and an Elder Authority for the Okinawa Prefecture Karate-do Federation.
- March 6th, 45th Year of Meiji (1912): Born Kome, Naha City
- February 4, 2nd Year of Showa (1927): began training with Grandmaster Chojun Miyagi
- March, 7 Year of Showa (1932): graduated from Prefecture 2nd High School
- July, 9th year of Showa (1934): finished the tour of duty from the 23rd Company of the Capital Infantry
- August, 9th Year of Showa (1934): started working at water plant of Naha City
- June, 10th Year of Showa (1935): started working at the pharmacy of “San Hing Tong” Hospital
- December 13th, 11th Year of Showa (1936): started working at “Ming Chu” Mining in Taiwan; started training in Taiwan Kungfu.
- July, 13th Year of Showa (1938): started position in the Prefecture’s Police Department
- from October, 26th Year of Showa (1951): started positions as officer, superintendent and
- Director at the Ryukyu Custom Office
- 27th Year of Showa (1952): opened dojo
- 31st Year of Showa (1956): selected as Chairman of the newly established Okinawa Karate-do Goju Kai
- 47th Year of Showa (1972): retired from the Public Service
- 50th and 54th Year of Showa (1975 & 1979): Consultant of All Okinawa Karate-do Federation
- 54th and 57th Year of Showa (1979 & 1982): Chairman of All Okinawa Karate-do Federation
Advisory and Honorary Positions:
- Advisor and Honorary Chairman of Okinawa Karate-do Goju Kai
- Honorary Chairman of Goju Ryu Meibukai
- Honorary Chairman of Cheng Family Clan in Okinawa
- April, 61st Year of Showa (1986): Fourth Order of Merit from the Emperor Hirohito
- November, 4th Year of Heisei (1992): Invited to demonstrated Karate at the reopening of the Shuri Castle
- February, 5th Year of Heisei (1993) : recipient of the 1st Okinawan Karate-do award
- August, 9th Year of Heisei (1997): Recognized as Okinawa Prefecture’s Intangible Cultural Asset
Translated by Poon Chan February 14th 2000